Sunday, November 13, 2011

Giving Thanks

Six months ago, I vowed to appreciate the simple things. Things like truly living each day. Eating out and visiting Starbucks sparingly, and truly appreciating the abundance of green trees, waterfalls and snowy mountains in our corner of the world. Yesterday, I had coffee with a friend who just returned from teaching English in Honduras. Chatting with her was a good reminder of what it felt like to return home from months of exploring. I was reminded of the unanticipated challenge of holding onto the many aspects of life we learned to appreciate while abroad, while simultaneously conforming back into American culture out of necessity.

Last week, I was annoyed that we accidentally bought single-ply toilet paper. I had forgotten what it was like to live for two months in a place without toilet paper or running water. I recently discovered Pinterest and wasted way too much time online, I had forgotten how valuable 15 minutes on the internet could be when you are paying by the minute. I actually had the nerve to think that there was nothing worth watching on Netflix streaming, when last year I had been so grateful to watch (and rewatch) the same episode of The Office on my tiny i-pod screen. Somewhere along the way, I'd forgotten to be grateful for the roof over my head, safe drinking water, and reliable transportation. The past year has been the most exciting, challenging, rewarding and life-changing year of my life, and I decided to take some time to reflect on some things I learned along the way. After all, what better time to remember what we are thankful for?

One morning last year when we were still finding our feet in the backpacker world, Mike and I woke up in the back of our trusty old station-wagon H.O.W.E. (Home on Wheels: Explorer) in the woods of New Zealand to the sound of rain and buzzing mosquitos, and we were both really hungry. I wasn't in the best mood because I had been up late reading a Stieg Larson novel and hadn't slept well (I don't recommend reading graphic mysteries while living in a car in an unfamiliar place). The thought of another 3 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a carrot to get through the day just was not all that comforting. After brainstorming a bit to come up with ways to make our meal more exciting, we realized that our little car had come equipped with a tiny gas stove and a pan, and came to the brilliant conclusion to toast our breakfast pbj. This was a game-changer, and what once sounded dull was new. These are the kind of small memories I'm trying to preserve as our life at home becomes more and more routine, and we forget about appreciating little luxuries like toasters.

Last February, while woofing in Wilderland on the Coromandal peninsula in New Zealand, we temporarily adapted to a self-sufficient vegan lifestyle. This was easier for me than it was for Mike. Twice I caught him red-handed shoveling peanut butter from a jar into his mouth to supplement his zuchinni-soup lunch. One night, we retired to our little car-home around 6 pm after a long day of harvesting potatoes, and layed in bed dreaming about the foods we missed back home. We invented a little game where we would think of a category and take turns naming our favorite food. For example, "Favorite summer-time meal?" Mine was barbecued salmon, buttered corn on the cob, and caeser salad at the cabin. Mike's was a big juicy steak with Kettle chips and a beer. While on the topic of beer, we began dreaming of micro-brews such as Boundary Bay's Cabin Fever, which pairs nicely in cold weather with a lamb-burger loaded with feta. At this point, Mike's eyes actually began to water.

"Favorite holiday food?" Turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy. Roasted lamb at 3 AM after Pascha service. And since we're dreaming: sweet potatoes, cranberries, green bean casserole, Aunt Lizzie's sweet and gooey corn bread, The Murphy's hot spiced apple cider (so hot you can hardly hold the cup), Mom's dinner rolls, Dad's prime rib topped with a dollop of horseradish, Dawn's meatloaf, Aunt Elaine's mac-n-cheese, and my old favorite, the Zeller's holiday themed jell-o jigglers. Top it all off with a handful of peanut m-n-m's from Grandma and Grandpa Deck's candy dish, some Cossin sister's fudge and caramel corn, and some Bailey's on the rocks with Tim. Woah. Needless to say, we went to sleep with mouths watering that night. I guess in some ways it is natural to adapt back into our home-culture. But this year, I'm hoping I can remember the things we learned to appreciate and harness the feeling of thankfulness we so often overlook.

On our road-trip in a hippie van through the Australian outback, we ran into a nice couple who was just finishing up a similar adventure. They smiled and offered us a bag of supplies (condiments, paper-towels, and bug-spray). A guy in a hostel in the Blue Mountains left us a few spoonfuls of peanut sauce that transformed our bag of veggies into a lavish meal. These generous donations made a significant difference in our trip. And now, I can't help but wonder how I went from being genuinely thrilled by a kind stranger's donation of an almost empty bottle of BBQ sauce to needing to have 6 different kinds of salad dressing in the fridge at all times.

In Thailand, we gained a new appreciation for the excessive selection of food we have here in the states. Don't get me wrong, Thailand was also where I enjoyed some of the best meals of my life, all for under $3 from street vendors. Just thinking about panang curry, som tam (green papaya salad), phad see ew, or a peeled pomelo makes me want to save up for a plane ticket back to Bangkok. However, we usually tried to limit ourselves to one meal out a day and attempted to do some grocery shopping to sustain ourselves. In some towns, this meant stocking up at 7-11. At home, I cringe at the thought of eating a meal from a gas station, but in Thailand, 7-11 is about as western and convenient as it gets. We learned by trial and error and made our best guesses about reading packaging in Thai. We learned that Thai tuna in a can also contains some sort of cream, peas, onions, and too much sugar. We ate a lot of rice cakes. Bananas were a daily staple.

In Cambodia we learned that our tolerance for spicy foods was not as high as we thought. 4 stars at On Rice in Bellingham is the low end of the spice spectrum in SE Asia. There is no such thing as a star system over there, but we noticed that it was common for cooks to tone down the spices for white people. I learned to calm it down more by mixing in rice with a ratio of 4 parts rice to 1 part stir-fry/curry/beef loklak. I also learned how picky we Americans are when it comes to eating meat (if you are squirmish, skip the next paragraph).

One night we ate at a tiny family owned cafe in Phnom Penh, I ordered the special (mostly because I had no idea what anything was). I should have taken the cue from the server's look that clearly said, "are you sure?" but I didn't. While we waited for our food, the family demonstrated the most welcoming hospitality. A man sang Khmer karaoke to us (which is beautiful, if you've never heard it, check it out on youtube). They even brought over their adorable baby and asked us to kiss him. And then we got our plates... the display was bright and colorful, there was a carrot carved in the shape of a flower. I took one bite and instantly began to sweat. My eyes watered and Mike tried not to laugh. I stirred the dish to try to figure out what it was and discovered that it was very clearly chicken. In Cambodia, when you order chicken, you receive the feet, feathers, and even the eyes. I made my best attempt at eating the vegetables and rice, our server returned to refill my water glass several times and graciously pretended not to notice that I was attempting to hide the chicken's beak with a pile of rice. I never realized how spoiled we Americans are in our meat-eating. When I order fish at home, my mind visualizes a nice symmetrical salmon fillet with all of the bones removed. When I ordered fish in Cambodia, I received just that. A whole entire fish staring up at me, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed with kroeng (spices) and coconut milk. Once I got over cutting around the parts I wanted to avoid, I found that this fish was some of the most delicious I had ever tasted.

It was also in Phnom Penh (which is the closest city to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields) that my idea of what it means to live in poverty was challenged. We found an organization online that provided food to homeless people who were living on the street, and decided to volunteer with them. We eventually found our way to their soup kitchen in a dark alley. In this kitchen, we met the most generous man, Chan. We were relieved to find out that Chan spoke some English (he had taught himself by watching American television, such as the Simpsons). Chan welcomed us and introduced us to his lovely wife, and "Mama" who was cooking a huge pot of soup on the stove. We learned that Chan lived with his family in a small village about 30 miles away, and came into town every morning to buy food and cook a nutritious meal to feed some of the cities poorest homeless people. He taught Mike and I how to tie the soup in plastic bags, which we brought out to the street with a jug of drinking water. We learned that for many, this was the only food they ate. We sat on the curb with the bags of soup and gradually learned horrible stories of corruption, violence, and fear. A women knelt on the street weeping in front of us and telling us her story, which Chan later translated as "She lost her fingers in a landmine, she is going to bring this bag of soup to share with her children who are hiding on the streets, her husband is violent. She is very sick and she wants you to know how thankful she is for providing this meal." We spent our time here in silence taking it all in. We found out that most of the true homeless people were afraid to come get soup because if the police saw them, they would be taken away to a government shelter. In these shelters, starvation, murder, and rape are common.

Near Chan's home, there is a village of homeless people on Phnom Baset mountain who work and live in a rock quarry. In this quarry, people of all ages spend every hour of every day chipping away at a mountain with small hammers in sweltering heat. In one week, the entire village working together can fill one truck with stone, which is then sold for about $10 USD. This is their alternative to being taken away by the government. I've never felt so appreciative of the fact that I was born into a country that's government has it's citizen's best interests in mind. This story is not to say that American homeless people have it easy, or that our government is flawless, or to say that everyone should be as giving and selfless as Chan. It is simply to be thankful that regardless of our country's current economic concerns, our personal political beliefs, or the challenges we face, American people have a lot to be thankful for. As our resources become tighter, I'm making a strong effort to push away the thoughts of what we don't have, and place more emphasis on appreciating and being thankful for the many things we do have.

I am thankful for safety, freedom, and peace. When I watch the news, it does not always seem like we live in a peaceful place. After meeting other backpackers with firsthand stories from living through conflicts in the middle-east, and after visiting the horrifying S21 prison and Killing Fields, and solemnly walking through the War Remnants museum in Saigon, the struggles I have known seem small. I know that it is all relative and I understand that every person on earth knows what it is like to suffer. But right now, the world I know is safe and I can believe whatever I choose without the fear of being persecuted. We have no way of knowing if Mt. Rainier will erupt or if we will have an earthquake or if Mayan legend is correct and December 2012 will be the end of the world. But right now, my life is peaceful and I am free, and for that I am thankful.

I am grateful that I live in a country where it is possible to earn enough money in my 20's to afford to travel internationally. In many countries, it is impossible to earn enough to buy a plane ticket in a lifetime. I'm also grateful that I grew up in a place of opportunity. Since returning home, Mike and I have both decided to explore new occupations. Within a few months of being home, I am working full time at an elementary school and he is well on his way to becoming a firefighter. While we are both working hard and far from wealthy by American standards, we are enjoying our jobs and grateful to have an income that allows us to live comfortably.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for health. My own and those around me. This is the first year that I've ever known what it feels like to not be certain about my own health, and while it was frightening, it has helped me grow and learn to appreciate the things I love about my life. And of course, I am most thankful for my family and friends, and for the tiny little addition that we will get to meet this November. Welcome to world, baby Johnston. It's a pretty good place to be :)