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Coming Home — a winter walk / 25.02.13

Sunday, February 17, 2013

It was still mostly dark when I stepped outside into the new snow. My outer shell slid and crackled in the cold, and my nostrils freshened. This was no Thailand… and that was fine with me. Kallie and I were looking forward to some winter, since on our six-month bike trip we managed to avoid the snow and cold with our route and our timing.

We had started at the end of August up in Germany, where the days were partly sunny and 70’s—perfect for biking. We included myself and Kallie and two other couples. Our route took us south into Switzerland’s mountains, through Geneva into the rolling hills of southern France, along her coastal cliffs into Italy, and across the slow-rising elevations of northern Greece to Istanbul. A few nights along the way we woke up with frost on the tent, but when the sun rose we had warm and sunny fall days in which to enjoy the outdoors. This is how we spent the months from August to December. Since then we’d been in tropical heat, cycling under India’s coconut and banana trees, and enjoying some time on Thai beaches.

Now, back in west Michigan, it feels like a novelty to see the snow mounding over the parked cars outside. I walk down the street, each step a whining crunch, each step a mark of my passing. The whiteness in the early dawn makes the terrain indistinct, and before I know it I’m climbing a hill of snow. One, two, three, fou—suddenly my foot drops sharply three feet and I stagger to land back on the plowed road. The quick shock turns into amusement, and a little wisdom for the road ahead. It will be funny for someone else to follow my tracks in the daylight, and imagine the person walking blindly off a small cliff of snow pushed up by the plow. I will watch for these cliffs and step a little more cautiously.

A little way up the road I stop to listen and look around. The woods are heavy and silent, pine boughs weighed with a blanket of snow. When I turn, my jacket scrapes loudly and startles me—as though the noise came from something else nearby. I listen. There is a ringing that is growing in my ears, a high steady alarm that seems deafening until I breathe, or shift my weight and make “real” noise. Silence is loud too. I wonder what damage makes my ears ring like this. Is it road noise? Loud honks and engines in India? Perhaps the occasional blast of truck horn in Greece or Turkey that took a couple decibels off my capacity to hear what people speak in low tones.

I remember times on the tandem when I was filled with rage at the indiscriminant loudness of drivers who thought they must announce themselves above the din and roar of the Indian city by laying on the horn just a few feet from our heads. Kallie and I took to wearing earplugs for awhile, at least on the traffic side, and that helped considerably. I could turn over my other shoulder to speak to her, and she could speak toward my open ear. This way we only had to repeat ourselves once or twice.

How much noise do we live with without realizing it’s even there? Sometimes it requires standing in the silence of the woods to give us perspective.

I haven’t seen any drivers yet, and that’s fine by me. I enjoy the solitude of morning. No, I crave the solitude of morning, and find myself overly protective of it. If someone else appears I gauge whether I’ve arrived on the scene first, and offer a polite greeting, nervous until I am again alone. This time is my time with the world, and I want to let go of human-awareness. I want to be alone with this recreation.

It’s not that I dislike people, but I much prefer not finding their footprints in the new snow where I am walking. I like the feeling of exploration, and discovery. If someone has been there before I’m disappointed. Even on our cycle trip I was hesitant to look up information on a city or region, afraid that someone else’s suggestions would be too strong a frame for my own experience of wonder.

On one occasion we biked into the next town on our French map—Chateau Neuf du Pape. To us it was a bit of an annoying city to be as elevated as it was, since we had to cycle uphill to arrive, but we were looking for the next concentration of civilization and this was it. These towns offered food and water, two of our four concerns (the others being bathing and sleeping). As we biked in we remarked on the grape harvest that was happening in this town–there were trailers piled with grapes, grape pickers, and farming machinery everywhere. Occasionally we’d ride over a cluster of grapes that had bounced off the truck. Once in town, we also noticed that there were quite a few tourists about. One interested American approached us to ask about our trip, and in the course of our conversation we found out that we were in one of the premier wine villages in the world. While we were just biking into the next French town, other travelers were making this town their destination and fixing to buy some really good wine.

I enjoy that. I enjoy discovering cool stuff and happening on happening places. Or getting myself isolated in a woods somewhere, where the cool stuff is untouched snow hanging heavy on evergreen boughs, and the happening places are marked by the tracks of deer, fox, rabbits, squirrels, mice, and birds.

The road I was on brought me out to the main highway, and I followed this for a time, but found the walk uninspiring. I soon took a side road I hoped would connect through. Within 5 minutes I was facing a dead end… to cars. When you’re on foot you have more options. It didn’t take me too long to decide to go down the path. And, it didn’t take too long before the path ran out, and I was walking through the woods.

At first it makes you a bit anxious, when you contemplate leaving the path. You don’t know if you will find your way, you don’t know what challenges will present themselves, and you don’t know if you will put yourself or others into a state of worry. You might accidentally wander onto someone else’s property, and find them inhospitable. Or maybe there will be dogs…

But once you make the decision, it seems as thought the path opens before you. Yes, there are deadfalls to maneuver around, slopes to climb or descend, branches to duck–but there always seems to be a way pulling you forward, through the trees, and if you listen to your gut and weigh it with as much logic as you can afford, it will keep you heading in the right direction. At least that’s what I’ve found before, and that’s what I find today.

As I crunch human footprints in the snow, through the woods, I feel the exhileration of discovery, the pending satisfaction of overcoming challenges and finding my way. I cross deer trails and rabbit tracks, hear woodpeckers drumming their rapid beat, and stop to check the morning sun through the trees for my direction. At the top of a steep hill, I discover a dune meadow–a long open space tilting slightly down, surrounded by trees and untouched by tracks. I pause a moment, grateful for this secret place that I share with the wild world on this new day. Soon I come upon a beaten path and experience the relief of finding a way toward civilization again; a way that will bring me back to hot breakfast and waking family members.

Leaving the road and going into the woods is kind of like taking a large scale bicycle tour. The decision to do it is the hardest part. You wonder about the challenges, the balance of risks and rewards, and if it’s even possible. But once you leave the path of convention, put your job on hold (or quit), and go for it, the way opens before you. You discover beautiful people, unexpected provision and grace, and the world feels like it somehow is given also to you. Over the 4000 miles we covered by bike, we had plenty of opportunities to feel worried or uncertain (and occasion to make our parents feel the same!). We had to rely on our sense of direction and timing to choose the roads we would travel. We had to adjust to dead-ends, broken equipment, illnesses and injuries that changed our cycling patterns, and the different hopes and whims of six individuals trying to make a decision together. But mostly we were discovering the world for what it was to us, as we overcame the challenges of weather, landscape, culture, and language to find our own way across the continents.

Coming home is comfortable, and difficult. There are family members, friends, and good food waiting for us–as well as the unspeakable comforts of a hot shower and soft couch. But at the same time there is no way to really explain what you felt and experienced on the trip to those you love who lived at home during these months. Having left the noise of ‘normal’ life for awhile, it’s difficult to explain the re-entering. It’s a sort of solitude that rings with loneliness in its silence. That’s okay, because something about it also nurtures the soul. It’s a good perspective, a bit like listening in the woods on a still Sunday morning.

Soon the beaten path that I discovered comes out onto a neighborhood street, and that connects to another, and then I’m back to what I recognize. Once I’m on the familiar road again, I feel comfortable. I can relax into the last mile of my walk, knowing that I’ve done this before and I know the way.

Andrew and Kallie Honeymoon Phase / 01.02.13

Hey all,

Kallie and I are well into our final phase of this 6 month journey, the Honeymoon Phase in Thailand. We’ve spent a slow and relaxing week on the beach here about 3 hours south of Bangkok, near a town called Pran Buri. Our first few days we splurged for a 5-star hotel (check out the pics on Flickr), and after that have found something quite nice by our standards, and reasonably priced as well.

Most days we spend sleeping in, grabbing a coffee and some breakfast, and heading down to our new friend Colin’s kite boarding shack (Airstylers–highly recommended!). He’s given us a couple lessons, when the wind has been favorable. We spend the day reading, relaxing, and waiting for wind typically. Besides that we are free to wander around the beach, go swimming, explore the area on our rented moped, and sample some of the fruits and fares of Thailand. (We’ve found where they keep the Magnum ice cream bars at the local shop, and nearly bought them out…).

Even though we have left our bike in storage at the airport, and are therefore no longer cycling, we still hope to be able to post a few experiences and pictures from this phase of our adventure. We ask the readers’ patience in sorting out who of FBR is where and for what purpose at this point.

Here’s a cheat sheet:

Devin and Tori: back in USA since December
Lindsey: Uganda for Med school studies
Peter and Steve: Myanmar (Burma), still cycling
+ friend Patrick…
Andrew and Kallie: Thai beaches for another week or so

PILGRIM NOTES: Mission / 17.01.13

“Taste and see…” -Psalm 34:8

To the ancient Hebrews, creation was a table spread with many delights. We were honored guests, invited by the Creator to partake–to taste and see. Growing up, my family highly valued eating together. This may have owed in part to my father’s delight in watching his kids eat. “Et now! Et now!” he would say happily in his fake accent as he shoveled bacon onto our plates next to steaming stacks of buckwheat buttermilk pancakes, soaking up the butter melting into fresh maple syrup.

And the more we loved it, the more he loved it. He was positively tickled to see us enjoying something he created. Though he usually restrained himself, we could hear him asking behind every offering of food,
“Isn’t it good?!”
“Do you like it?!”
“Do you want some more?!”

Take that image and bring it to where we are today, on a hot afternoon in south India, resting under a shade tree.

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PILGRIM NOTES: Grace / 17.01.13

“…not because of anything we did, but because of his mercy…” -Titus 3:5

“I don’t think I can do another climb.” It was getting into late afternoon, the time our cycle group Fueled By Rice usually starts looking for campsites. But now it was just Kallie and I, biking along the east coast of Italy to meet up with the other four team members at a host’s house about twenty kilometers further. Twenty kilometers isn’t too bad, on the flat; but lately the mountains had been getting noticeably more mountainous and a 10 km climb on the switchbacks would probably be another hour and a half. Kallie was tired; so was I.

We had just descended to sea level and we had one more climb to go before we arrived at Miki’s house in Chiavari. Since we were in a town, we decided to check in with email and see if any plans had developed and to let the others know our intentions. Fortunately, the only WiFi we found was a gelato café, so we were obliged to indulge in ice cream while we were online. With some extra gelato power and an encouraging note from Tori saying, “Hot soup is waiting!” we decided to press on.

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Grigio Shery / 14.01.13

Grigio Shery spoke quite quickly, kind of like an upbeat car salesman who needs to keep the ball rolling. He had his MBA in marketing and was working in the sprawling city of Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s capitol, in business. Now however he was home to his coastal fishing village for a couple weeks for the Christmas holiday. We also happened to be in that same coastal village on our bicycles as we headed south toward the southern tip of India. Shery stopped by on his motorcycle as we were about to enter a small restaurant for dinner. We had already gone through the usual negotiations with the proprieter:

“Do you have food?” [gesture of putting five fingers to lips]
Head wobble Yes.
“What do you have?”
Head wobble.
“Do you have rice?”
“No rice. Paarotha, dhosa, chicken fry…” [fried dough, pancake material, fried chicken]
“Do you have Sambar?” [thick vegetable gravy broth]
“Mmb. Sambar.” Head wobble.
Turning to the others: “He has chicken, sambar, parotha, dhosa… waddyathink?”
We thought we’d stay.

It was at this point in our evening, as we were getting slowly settled around the one table in the small cozy but dingy food joint, that Shery approached. With an excellent English vocabulary and a lilt and bend that was still difficult for our American ears to catch, he began to find out about us and what we might be needing (he doing most of the talking). When he found out we’d stopped for dinner, he negotiated with cook to get us something to eat. Since we’d already done that, we were a bit fatigued with the interaction and “help”; that is, until he asked us where we were staying.

So far we’d scoped very few possible camp sites, and we really had no idea where we’d stay the night. Our plan was to eat some dinner, cruise to the edge of town where we’d find a faucet or a river to bathe in, and camp somewhere after the darkness fell, so as to attract less attention. When Shery found out we needed a place to stay, he offered to talk to the nuns for us. “I will ask the mother superior, and you can stay at St. Jude’s, if she says yes. There they have a room where you can wash, make yourselves comfortable, you can see the children as they are feeding children and taking care of them, so I think it will be no problem for you to stay there, and you can attend mass in the morning if you like, so I will just speak with the mother and we will see. Don’t worry! This is India, and we are a Christian people! We will take care of you!…”

We arranged that we’d meet him in an hour and a half over at the church to find out the low down on the nunnery, and we thanked him. After all, this promised to be not only a place to stay and wash up, but also a pretty cool window into south Indian coastal Christian culture. Earlier that day, as we were winding our way along the coast dodging pedestrians, rickshaws and buses loaded to the gills, we kept noticing that at every small town or village or turn in the road there seemed to be a huge cathedral style church. Sometimes they weren’t as huge, but all of them had that strange mix of ancient establishment meets garish makeup. Many had grottos to Mary outside, but in the absence of rocks they were made of what looked to be gray spray painted fiberglass material. It was strange because we expected to find more Hindus in India, but here we seemed to be in a Roman Catholic pocket (which we were). That also meant that at several of the restaurants we stopped at they only served fried chunks of chicken or beef–not the vegetable sauce you find at Hindu-run places.

When we found him later, he brought us to the nuns’ quarters and introduced us, where were given a room for the girls with attached bath, and the guys were promised we could sleep in a classroom as soon as the classes let out. We showered up and learned that daily mass was at 6:30 a.m., but the bells would ring at 5:00, 5:15, and 5:45. “No problem,” I remember thinking, “we can handle bells.” And the fact that they were to be rung at three separate times made me think that perhaps they wouldn’t be incessant, and therefore somewhat ignorable if we wanted to sleep past the first two.

At 4:55 I remember hearing some bells tolling faintly outside somewhere across the open sand lot. “Not so bad,” I thought to myself, and prepared to drift back into sleep for a bit. But that was not to be. Immediately following the bells, there was a loudspeaker crackling, and then the music started playing. Not quiet, contemplative music, but loud Indian music. It was in its own way beautiful, but seemed glaringly out of place in the cool 5 a.m. pre-dawn darkness.

After mass we joined Shery for a stroll through the houses to the coast, to see the fishing operation. “They catch sharks here,” he told us. “We are shark fishermen. The boats go out sometimes for a month at a time, taking everything with them–packing ice, water, clothes, supplies, rice, oil–you know, cooking things–everything. Most of the sharks go to the Chinese and the Japanese…for medicinal purposes.” He told us how at Christmas all the boats come in to the harbor and it’s a real party.

After that he invited us back to his house to meet his family and have some sweet milk tea (chai). His father had cancer. Shery said it was from smoking and drinking too much. “He is an uneducated man. Already he had [cancer], and taken chemo, and then the cancer went away. But he didn’t listen to the doctor when he told him, ‘If you touch this stuff again you will die.'” Shery told us how he, as the eldest, sat his father down and talked to him:

“You have given us everything. You have worked and now all your children are educated and we have this house–don’t make us miss you. Now we will provide, we are grown.”

“Now if anyone says anything to him, he will just listen. If someone says, ‘Don’t do it!’, he will listen. That is how it is with my father. I have become the father now to him, as the eldest son. That’s how it is in India.”

Shery had two brothers and three sisters. We found out one of his sisters is getting married on February 7, and that is cause for both celebration and some work. He said that for her dowry he must contribute 2.5 to 3 laks Rupees (1 lak = 100,000). This would amount to about $6000. The dowry consists of two treasures. One is the money, collected from the family of the bride to give to the groom. This money is not kept by the groom exclusively, but is distributed among his mother and sisters. The other treasure is the fine garments and jewelry. This is for the couple to keep exclusively.

Even for US standards, $6000 is a lot to contribute for a wedding, and it is difficult to earn this much money in India; especially when you are supporting a family. To make it back more quickly he wants to move abroad and work, then maybe settle somewhere else if he can arrange the visas. The dowry money didn’t worry him so much, because he was also an educated man, he said, and would fetch a nice dowry himself some day.

After he brought us back to the convent, and we had thanked the sisters with a small contribution to their work, we said our goodbyes. It was already past 10 a.m., and we were eager to get on the road. He left us with his flashing smile and a blessing. “Maybe I’ll come to America, and see you there.” Maybe he would.

The Birds / 14.01.13

8 Jan. 2013

Leaving Madurai wasn’t so bad. The traffic was thick as locusts for three kms, and then thinned nicely into a wide two-lane split highway, smoothly paved. Just as we were hitting our stride on this surface, I noticed some large birds circling up ahead. In fact, there were so many of them I thought there must be a garbage dump or something. “Hey Kal, check out those birds — there must be a dump or something… they look like hawks.” Several times in India I’d noticed hawks and crows congregating around garbage dumps, but this was a spiraling cloud of them–at least two hundred.

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India: Love/Hate / 04.01.13

Kallie told me that she has a love/hate relationship with India.  She remembers on her previous trip feeling the intensity of amazing overflow of sound and color, smells and tastes, and loving it.  She also remembers feeling sick, tired, hot, and overstimulated, and hating it.

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India: the last two weeks / 01.01.13


We arrived in Trivandrum at 3 a.m. on December 12. The airport was packed, but we managed to get all our luggage and find our way to Kovalam Beach area about 30 kms away. Our newest FBR member, Steve Black, was coming in the next day, and so we decided we’d hang out here for a week and all get adjusted a bit to India before taking off.

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India Morning / 15.12.12

I woke this morning as the sun came up, around 6:30, and decided to walk. The small path by our hotel led into the palm trees, and wound around the streets of the village just off the beach area. It was good to get a sense of this place beyond the tourist-focused hotels, shops, and restaurants. People were getting ready for the day; smoke was wafting around corners to sounds of splashing water. A man was gathering coconuts. I heard a noise and looked up. His partner was up the palm tree with a machete, chopping. His feet were bound together with a frond, and with this he pushed his body up the tree, 25 feet off the ground. Goats moved along the road, and cattle egrets pecked at bugs on the animals. The day was already feeling warm, and the smell of India was unmistakeable–thick and lush and inhabited.

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FBR part II / 11.12.12

Fueled By Rice has spent over a week in the city of Istanbul, enjoying mountains of baklava, heaps of kebabs, and oceans of tea. At this time however, this great crossroads of a city marks a transition for our group. Devin and Tori will be returning to the USA as Kallie, Lindsey, Peter, and I fly east to India. FBR India will gain one more friend, Steve, and proceed as five. FBR Devin and Tori will spend some time in New York and then return to Michigan. It has been a wonderful, trying, spectacular, laugh-filled, stressful, amazing, painful, and miraculous journey so far. I have been privileged to share the road with this team and learn from them, and this continuing on is with some sadness as well as anticipation.

Part One of our journey is closing, Part Two is opening. Thanks for journeying with us! Please stay posted for more pictures, stories, and reflections as they continue to bud and blossom…