The End Is Not the End

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“What is you favorite thing about living in America?”

“Swim.”

How many of you would seriously count swimming as the favorite thing about your country? No, that has to come straight from the mouth of someone who’d never had the luxury before moving here. From someone who is grateful just to be in America and to have more freedom and comfort than they had before. From a Karenni Burmese refugee I met at my home church a week ago.

Since coming back from Thailand, I -see- more Asian cultures here and notice their influence. What’s more, I understand them better. I’ve become more familiar with Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Burmese, Khmer, Persian, Malaysian, and Thai cultures since spending time in Asia. And it makes me realize that my adventure is not over just because I flew back to America. In fact, it was just the beginning. It opened my eyes to people I took for granted before.

The group of Burmese students I’ve gotten to know in Austin meet once a week to eat, sing, and study the Word. They have been in the US for three years (or less). They came from camps in both Thailand and Malaysia and are from a variety of tribes: Karen, Karenni, and Kachin. Their English is good and they are learning more every day.

The problem is, Americans don’t stop for them. They go largely unnoticed at church and school because people don’t understand their roots or their culture or their language. Isn’t it much easier to ignore them and move on if we feel uncomfortable making the effort? But I can testify that the foreign friendships I’ve made have by far been the most rewarding. (My best friend is Venezuelan and it’s awesome.) This is because they value the friendships they make like precious jewels; the joy that it brings them is tangible, I swear.

And it doesn’t do me any good to come home from the earth-shaking, mind-blowing adventure only to go back to school in West Texas with college drama and everyone just striving to date and blah blah blah because it’s not important! It’s trivial stuff. There are opportunities around you if you stop to see them. If I pull myself out of a closed-minded routine, I would have way more opportunity to be useful, build friendships, and actually love what I’m doing for once. Like I did in Thailand. Because it isn’t over. The end is not the end. And there’s still so much I can do here.

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“Some Nights (in Thailand)” – RGAT

Because Renee had a song stuck in her head and a little too much down time while playing goalie in soccer (sung to the tune of “Some Nights” by FUN):

“Some nights I go eat food right off the street
Some nights I want to throw up
Some nights I wake up having diarrhea
Some nights my poop won’t come out

But I still wake up
And walk to Seven
But I’m still not sure what a wai is for
What is a wai for
What is a wai for
Most nights I get bit by mosquitoes – oh oh woah oh, etc.

“This is Thailand,” we all say
When our shoes go MIA
We don’t have air con in the day
Sleeping out under the stars
Don’t want to get in a car
These bug bites might leave scars
So we eat our feelings in Magnum bars

It’s alright
I bathed out in a stream tonight
Lay on my mat wondering why, why, wai?
Eheh eh eh I’m a bit de-hy mhm mhm

Most nights I don’t know…
Oh krap kun
Oh krap kun
Oh krap kun

My heart is breaking for my country and the place that I call home
Where everyone knows how to drive
Man, you won’t believe the misunderstandings that can come from some terrible Thai

Oh some nights I purchase far too many Thai pants
Most days I wear them around
Some nights I wish it would never end
Cause I fell in love with Thailand

The Queer Qualities of “Quelf”

(After a week of absolute busyness, I finally had a free day to sit down and write a post. Sorry for the wait. Thanks for bearing with me.)

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Let me preface this post by saying that if you have never before played the game “Quelf,” you should get on that. I was first introduced to the game in my high school theatre department, if that tells you anything. It is crazy, wild, and fun.

But don’t let that deter you if you are shy. My brother (in the above picture) is a textbook introvert and was hesitant to play, but once he got started, he enjoyed it immensely. He had to use his engineering skills to create a snorkel in between his turns. To his surprise, the game catered to his interest as well.

If you are unfamiliar with the rules, I regret to say I cannot explain them to you. They are very random and vary based on which category you are playing in at the time. There are charade-like cards, trivia cards, cards with challenges (like dares) on them, all-play cards, and cards that create ongoing rules for the players to follow. I’m not going to delude myself into thinking everyone who reads this will understand the game, so suffice to say: it is random, it is unpredictable, and I usually die laughing.

Quelf has many qualities:

1) It engages everyone. From the actor to the engineer, no one is left out.

2) It stretches your limits, and your comfort zone. Some of the requirements of the game are absolutely absurd and ridiculous, but calls everyone to just be goofy.

3) It makes you think. As with many games, part of the fun is the challenge. Quelf is challenging on so many different levels.

4) It is unpredictable. You never know how silly or how imaginative you will need to be. You must be flexible to go with what the game requires.

But what more fun way to put yourself out on the line! To practice flexibility and preparedness. To work on being yourself without putting up “appearances.” It is like a rehearsal for life. (Because all my blog posts have to have some sort of life lesson, right?) Sometimes, life throws curve balls. Sometimes, we have to be bold and unreserved. Sometimes, we have to work to involve everyone and make sure no one feels left out. Sometimes, we face worse challenges than a truth or dare.

Most likely, no one who plays Quelf thinks of the game like this. But if someone is too embarrassed to do one of the requirements of the game, how will they be able to step out when it really counts? Call it practice, call it a warm-up, the game Quelf is a good exercise for reality.

No Worse than a Paper Cut – RGAT

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Design to completion of my first tattoo.

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Final product. Copyright Renee Rhodes. July 7, 2013.

So I have ink permanently drawn on my skin. In the shape of a raven. Done with a bamboo stick. In Thailand.

Suffice to say, I’m feeling pretty cool.

Per the suggestion of my good friend, I designed the tattoo six months ago and deliberated for all that time. I placed it as the background on my phone so I could see it daily. After six months, I was still determined to get it. Preferably abroad.

After a while of researching, machine versus bamboo, I decided I wanted bamboo. I’d heard mixed reviews: “it hurts much worse than machine,” or “it hurts much less!” Frankly, I didn’t know. But if I were to get a tattoo in Thailand, may as well go full on traditional and get the bamboo, right?

So I did. And it was worth it for the experience alone. I didn’t think it hurt at all. Less than a paper cut. I mean, paper cuts are from the devil and this was easy in comparison. I have never had a machine tattoo and can’t say much about it. It probably depends a lot on where you get it on your body. (I’m also told I have a high pain tolerance, so I don’t know if my word is best.)

Anyway, it comes with my highest recommendations. I loved the artist (“The Master”) and I am so happy with how it turned out. Plus, it was cool to get a more natural tattoo. It makes it feel so artistic. It’s not perfect and that’s one of the reasons it’s beautiful.

Mainly, the tattoo is for me. No one else really needs to know why I got it. But since plenty of people will ask, I’m posting a brief summary here.

Birds symbolize a lot for me: freedom, imagination, creativity, the ability to soar beyond limits. A raven is even more symbolic. To me, as seen in my post “Being Raven”, it symbolizes doing the right thing in the face of adversity. And yes, my tattoo design is partially inspired by my favorite superhero because I’m a goofball. Don’t judge me.

This new design on my shoulder is a reminder of several things:

• I have the freedom to take my stories anywhere so long as I am willing to stretch my imagination.

• I never need to be held back by the expectations and desires of others.

• Even when it’s hard, I need to strive to do the right thing. That is what will ultimately be rewarding for myself and those around me.

• I need to be strong, even when the world crashes down around me and conspires against me.

• I can do great things if I only try.

Supposedly, the bamboo heals faster. I’ve certainly noticed less pain than my dad’s (who got a machine tattoo at the same time I got mine). Supposedly, there is less chance of infection. Which was good since I spent the next three days in villages in Mae Hong Son. Supposedly there is less pain (or more pain). Really, it was no worse than a paper cut. And, even if it had been, it would have been totally worth it for a permanent symbol that is meaningful and special to me.

Ain’t Money Funny – RGAT

20130702-143049.jpg (above: me sitting in a window frame overlooking the courtyard of Angkor Wat temple, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever set eyes on)

Shortly after our arrival in Cambodia, frustrations sky-rocketed. Getting through immigration was frantic enough (considering it was rainy, muddy, and we had to haul our luggage all over the place – this situation was only worsened by the sprained foot I sported from my Bangkok disaster day), but the more frustrating things all boiled down to money.

Instead of taking us directly from Poipet to our destination in Siem Reap, our rented vans wanted to take us to their home office so that we could change vehicles and (in short) pay them twice. All we wanted to do was get to out guesthouse hotel which wasn’t even that far away. Convenience wasn’t the issue, money was. Because of communication differences and rather extreme stubbornness from both parties, we waited a long time before finally moving on to our temporary residence.

However, upon arrival at the hotel, we discovered that three of our nine reserved rooms had been given away earlier that day. For – guess what – monetary reasons! The owners of the guesthouse didn’t think ahead to losing the business of foreigners staying for four nights. Instead, they took one-night guests, thinking they would just get the money then. Basically, they set themselves up for less profit. Instead of practicality, they were focused on immediacy.

All of this raises questions about the importance of money. I can’t live well without it, that’s for sure. It is a part of day to day life. Wake up in the morning. Check the stock market. Attend expensive classes at a university. Buy lunch. Pay off your new car (since you wrecked your first one). Buy groceries. Buy a mango sweet tea at Sonic Happy Hour because who can argue with a dollar drink? I dish it out regularly, and I consider myself fairly frugal. I celebrate every time I get a paycheck and can have a more extravagant meal than Ramen. (The life of a college student is so hard, you know.)

The government, our society, businesses, and individuals all rely on the strength of the economy and the circulation of money. None of this is a bad thing. Money is a tool to build a functioning society. It helps regulate the trade of goods and services between members of a community. People like to be compensated for their efforts. Imagine the chaos without it.

No, no. Money is, in itself, a good thing. The problem arises when money becomes an idol. When the simple need turns to devouring greed. Dramatic as it may seem, huge consequences can result from the love of money. We, thankfully, did not encounter huge consequences. We just split up to stay at different hotels in the vicinity. And the people of Cambodia would not recognize or call their desire for money “greed,” since their basic needs aren’t always fulfilled. They take the money where they can get it so they can keep food on their tables and a roof over their heads and maybe have enough left over to buy a toy for the baby. Mostly, it’s the treatment of money in wealthier countries that is brought into perspective by the experiences we had in Cambodia.

We should not take for granted what we have. Moreover, we should not forsake the more valuable things (like a unified family, a loyal friendship, etc.) in pursuit of money. Most of us (and I can’t speak for the followers I don’t personally know) live comfortable lives. Money should simply be a part of life, not the cause of so much frustration. There are worthier goals than money, richer treasures than gold, and wealth alone brings no joy.

(below: Siem Reap graffiti and Cambodian humor: “Angkor What?”)

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A Bad Day in Bangkok – RGAT

20130624-074857.jpg When I think of Bangkok, I can’t help but quote my favorite musical “Chess.” The song is catchy and fun and paints the picture of a beautiful city, despite it’s shortcomings. I don’t know if it molded my expectations at all, but only one line from the song really stuck true to my experience.

“One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble.”

I traveled to Bangkok for the first time a week ago. Not gonna lie, it was pretty vicious. It was fast-paced, crowded, hot, and all I wanted to do was go back to Chiang Mai. It was like New York in ways, but terrifying because the culture was altogether unfamiliar.

Per the title, I had a really bad day in Bangkok. And calling it simply humbling does not begin to describe it.

But to those who read this blog or know my character, you know I’m not one to post something negative!

The day began fine. We got of the train, tired and a bit sick, but all in one piece. Then everything started piling up until, by noon, everyone was at each other’s throats.

First, I was surrounded by scary street people with circus-like make-up on. I’m also pretty sure half of them were lady-boys. They dumped corn all over me, insisting I pay them for feeding the birds. The rest of my group didn’t realize they’d left me behind and I really just wanted to cry. They tried to take all my baht and I barely got away.

Secondly, the rooming plans for Cambodia didn’t work out like I wanted it to. It was disheartening. *Spoiler-alert,* it worked out fine, just not like I’d originally hoped.

Thirdly, I didn’t have near enough baht to get into the Grand Palace because none of us had been certain of the plans to begin with. Instead, I had to wait outside for over an hour while the people who had enough money toured the temple.

Fourthly, my Pad Thai at lunch had mini-shrimp all over it. Which I totally would have enjoyed if shellfish didn’t make me incredibly sick. I nibbled on noodles and walked away unsatisfied.

Last complaint, I promise. When I finished shopping, I got locked out of the church we stayed in. Of course, I was alone. And it was pouring rain. Peachy.

Wow! Look at all those complaints! Now that I’ve officially shared my sorrows with you all, I’ll get on to the positive parts of this post.

Everything is an experience. Though not every experience is a good one, all of them are for good. You may not feel like getting several hundred baht peeled off your person is for good, right? But the birds got to eat something. And the lady-boys may have enough money now to eat dinner. Why did they try to get into street scams anyway? Do they have much baht to begin with? I honestly don’t know their lives.

It isn’t always easy to see how the bad experiences influence good consequences. But without the positive outlook, the negative experiences will become overwhelming! People don’t like being consumed by the negative. I mean, Debbie Downer isn’t exactly the favorite friend of the bunch. Either the bad things that happen to me will help someone else positively, or the bad things that happen to me will help me grow, change, and learn more about myself. That in itself is a good result!

This isn’t even about just looking for a silver lining. It’s about trusting that every “experience” you undergo – good or bad – is an experience that will bring about good. Let every experience humble you. Let every experience grow you. Even when you can’t see it, believe it. Or else, every day would be a bad day, wouldn’t it?

Unable to Leave — RGAT

20130628-223652.jpg I would be lying if I said that my trip to Thailand wasn’t – in part – an attempt to escape West Texas. It wasn’t the whole reason. And it wasn’t an escape like the kind I talked about in my post “Escape to Atlantis“. I just needed a reprieve from the dull, rolling plains and the reminders of heartbreak. What better cure for emotional and mental stagnation than an adventure full of inspiration?

So when I think of being unable to leave the States, it’s difficult to grasp. This trip has been so rewarding. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was so easy for me to do! Hop on a plane, fly around the world, pass through customs, and voila! But my best friend (Venezuelan) can’t leave the States. And the girls I met in Mae Hong Son (the Karenni girls from left above, Ida, Dima, Mimi, Mithi, and Symmetweh) can’t leave the border of the forests that surrounds them.

It’s been over a week since I left their peaceful, humble village in the mountains and I miss them so much. I could go back to visit them, of course. But they can’t visit me. They are refugees who crossed the Thai border from Burma and now live in the mountains. They are wonderful young adults who stayed up with me every night to laugh and swap stories. Then they showed us city-folk how to bathe in a stream. They demonstrated using rocks to exfoliate and teased us when we tried to rub our faces with them. And most heartbreaking of all, they cried when we left.

20130628-224757.jpg These girls hardly dare to dream beyond the surrounding trees. It almost makes me feel guilty for daily pursuing a dream to write. My feet ache to move, so I travel. My fingers itch to type, so I write. For the girls, they settle on a future within the camp. They have so many dreams and wishes, but so little hope that they will come to fruition.

Since this was more of an open-ended thought with no real conclusion, I will end with a few words of encouragement:

To those who wish to roam, don’t take your leave for granted.
To those still stuck at home, don’t forsake your dreams.