Monday Morning Commute

Chonburi, Thailand. July 5, 2016.

This is a story I’ve been meaning to write for awhile:

The fried banana man was busy this morning. I wiped the sweat from my upper lip and tugged uncomfortably at my teacher’s uniform—symptoms of hot season in Thailand. Standing a polite distance away, I watched out of the corner of my eye as a bald monk in flip flops and orange robes murmured prayers to the banana man, both of their heads dipped under the shade of a dilapidated green umbrella shielding the banana stand. When they had finished, I approached and made my order.

The banana man grinned at me, two teeth showing in his upper gums. We couldn’t speak to each other—my Thai was not good enough, but we always greeted each other in this way and he always spoke to me in Thai. It was our routine, and I looked forward to seeing him each morning before I went off to teach in the local high school down the road.

I watched the bananas sizzling in the hot vat of oil, my mouth starting to water. The monk had decided to rest so he reclined against the railing of the bridge where the stand was always set up, settling himself on a bright red plastic lawn chair supplied by the banana man.

Bananas finally bagged up, I bowed goodbye.  “See you tomorrow!” I said in Thai and started up the sidewalk. Before I made it two steps, there was a rustling from the long grass beside the banana stand and the great head of a python appeared out of the ditch beside the bridge. Its six-foot body soon followed, lumpy and bulging in different spots from what I assumed was its last meal. I couldn’t help but wonder in that moment what exactly had been its last meal and if it found humans as tasty as I did fried bananas.

As stunned as I was to see a huge python blocking my commute to school, I had to feel bad for the poor guy, as he coiled back slightly, feeling his belly slide onto the warm surface of a human pedestrian sidewalk, right in the middle of Monday rush hour. We aren’t in the swamp ditch any more, I imagined him thinking.

banana man

The exact setting of this story, sans python. Photo Credit: Connie Read

People halted, suddenly unable to continue on without stepping into the never-ending stream of road traffic, into the swamp ditch that the snake had just appeared out of, or over the giant reptile now stretched fully across the path. None seemed like very good options, and I joined them in choosing the fourth option, which was to wait and see what happened.

The appearance of the snake had caused business at the banana stand to come to a stop and for the first time, I realized that the snake was also blocking the entrance to a small laundry shop. A little old man wearing a white tank top, shorts, and flip flops stepped spryly out of the doorway of the shop towards the snake armed with nothing but a long metal pole and a burlap bag.

One of my favorite things about Buddhist culture is that they do not believe in hurting or killing anything. I’m not sure if the presence of the monk nearby helped, but the intention of the old man became clear as he began to prod the snake in the face with the metal pole in an attempt to coerce it into the burlap sack. It also became quickly clear that while the snake didn’t particularly like the sidewalk, he was really offended at the idea of having his six-foot body dumped inside the sack and transported elsewhere.

To show his indignance as this new development, the snake began striking at the pole and hissing menacingly. While I felt a little sorry for the python, I also had great admiration for the brave old man who was now swinging the burlap sack at the snake’s head like a bullfighter, while gracefully dodging inches behind the striking mouth, his only shield the thin metal rod.

All thoughts of being late to work seemed inconsequential and I watched the scene with a mixture of fear and awe to see who would win this battle between giant serpent and man. The crowd shouted encouragement and let out hisses of breath when the snake struck, narrowly missing the man’s bare shins and feet. Finally, when I wondered if the snake would triumph, out of the laundry shop stepped another man. This one was younger, with stooping shoulders, a dragon tattooed across his shirtless chest, and a cigarette hanging from his lips.

He nonchalantly grabbed the pole and without taking the cigarette from his mouth took on the task of prodding the snake’s face into the bag which his grandfather was now wielding more deftly with two hands. The poor python was no match against the two of them and within seconds and a few more hissing strikes, his head was shoved into the bag and the grandson quickly lifted coil after coil of the writhing body until it disappeared inside.

I could tell that python disturbances at this location were probably a lot more normal for them than it had been for me because without any more pomp and circumstance, the smoking tattooed grandson sulked back into the shop and the grandfather hauled the live bag of snake towards the ditch where it had come from. Like some sort of stop-animation film, everyone resumed walking, the snake delay only a minor annoyance in their day.

Commuting to work is the most ordinary thing in the world, until it isn’t.  The appearance of the python, the brave grandson and grandfather, and my luck to have seen such a thing all made me grateful for the ability to realize that extraordinary adventures can come in seemingly mundane moments. Even though I no longer commute by the banana man on the bridge, I know there is adventure in the unlikeliest places. I can’t wait to see where I find it next.

Gaudi and Picasso: Finding that One Thing

Every Christmas my Dad gives the three of his children a reading challenge. Last year it was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. According to many, it is one of the best philosophical studies of the 20th century. According to me, it is also the most difficult to get into. So, needless to say, the three of us have all read at least the first chapter and are considering it more of a five year assignment rather than a one year.

Exasperated by the failure of the 2016 Christmas challenge, Dad decided to step it down a notch. As I suspect the reading challenges have been set up as a way for Dad to recommend life lessons without giving direct advice, this year’s book was one that was more palatable, but also teaching on one life lesson that Dad (and the author) thinks is essential to success and happiness. The book is called The One Thing by Gary Keller . The life lesson, as far as I understand it, is that people who choose their “one thing” in life and become an expert in that will see the most fulfillment and happiness from their life. 

In the days after Christmas and while traveling to Barcelona from Nebraska, I began to read the book. Unbeknownst to me, reading the book before going to Barcelona was like pre-reading for a biology dissection class. First you read about the anatomy, but it isn’t until you are actually dissecting that you feel that all of that reading can be applied to the real life situation. It turns out that going to Barcelona was the most perfect supplemental learning material my Dad could have asked for because in doing so, I ran straight into two of the most celebrated finders of that one thing, two men who were proof of the theory. The first is the Spanish painter, Pablo Picasso and the second, is the Catalonian architect, Antoni Gaudi. These two men’s lives and work came to life for me in Barcelona, and parallel to my Christmas challenge reading, gave me a perspective of their work and their passion which I can appreciate so much more.

Pablo Picasso

I’ve never loved Picasso. I’m more of a Van Gogh girl and visited the MOMA in New York over and over again just to make straight for the floor with Van Gogh and stare for long periods of time into the depths of his paintings. I’ve always found Picasso’s work ugly and uncomfortable, and would never linger for long at one of his paintings.

The Picasso museum in Barcelona not only brought the painter to life for me (by showing the things he loved like the guitar and bull fighting), but demonstrated to me that whether I liked his art or not, he had found and mastered his “one thing”. When Picasso was only 14 years old he was already producing paintings I would buy on the street if I saw them. Many painters would have stopped there and many have. They paint the same bridge or cityscape over and over because people liked what they paint and thus buy the paintings. Not Picasso though.

The first room is full of beautifully painted landscapes and extraordinary portraits of people demonstrating that he had mastered the technical aspects. But as you continue on through the exhibit, the portraits of people start to slant and break. The colors of reality are replaced with the blues that characterize so much of his work.  Work by work you watch a master become the only one in the arena.  You marvel as his paintings evolve from great, to totally original, to what they are known as now, which is simply, Picasso.

Image result for picasso pigeons

Pablo Picasso, 1957, The Pigeons

One room particularly stuck out to me. This is a room full of paintings from dates that follow each other in day-succession. August 6, August 7, August 8 and so on. These paintings are different depictions of the same scene, which was the view from his studio  as he painted one his most famous assignments, Las Meninas. I realized that these were paintings done on his “break” from Las Meninas, but they were still masterpieces in themselves! At this point he had become such a master of his “one thing” that it had become a part of his being– his work was not work, it was him being himself.

My last note on Picasso is that this exhibit truly moved me. I felt like I was given the opportunity to glimpse into a life that was the perfect example of finding a person’s “one thing”. In another word, the gallery is a living reminder of what human fulfillment looks like.   Pictures of Picasso as an older man are displayed at the end of the exhibit, surrounded by the things and people he loved. I will never see him the same again and I am grateful for what he taught me through the evolution of his life’s work and my own search for my “one thing”.

Antoni Gaudi

Gaudi, like Picasso, is a person that found his one thing and went for it. Gary Keller writes, “Believing in big frees you to ask different questions, follow different paths, and try new things. This opens the doors to possibilities that until now only lived inside you.”

Gaudi’s work is the epitome of “believing in big”. In 1900, his futuristic architecture is something that could only be dreamed up from a mind free from restrictions and limits. In 2018, his buildings in Guell Park look like something out of a sci-fi film or a movie created from graphic animation. In 1900, Gaudi had no such inspiration and drew almost entirely from the nature all around him. He incorporated the biological building structure into his man-made creations.

img_0151Walking into the Sagrada Familia actually took my breath away. The basilica, which was the capstone of Gaudi’s career and his most crowning achievement, is a testament to human’s limitless capacity for creation. Unfortunately, he died before the completion of the building, but I believe he must have died a man totally invested and possessed by the challenge of creating one of the most fantastic buildings in the entire world. Pictures do not quite capture the magnitude and beauty of what it feels like to be inside the Sagrada Familia. Huge stone pillars soar high above you and gather like treetops among the brightly lit ceiling designed specifically to let natural sunlight in. Everywhere you can find Gaudi’s inspiration from nature. Like Picasso, he went above and beyond mastering architecture, and became an architect in a class all his own.

I will stop gushing about Picasso and Gaudi now, as well as about finding the “one thing”, but I would highly recommend going to Barcelona and making the Sagrada Familia, Guell Park, and the Picasso Museum “must dos” on your trip. Maybe if you do, you could also check out the book, The One Thing, for your airplane reading. I know that I’m thinking a whole lot differently about life these days thanks to a few great men– Picasso, Gaudi, and my dad, of course.

Traveler tip: Book your tickets online and in advance! They are usually sold out on the day and are cheaper online. 

The best tapas in Barcelona

We saw it from down the darkened streets. The light from the window looked cozy and warm as if it had not only been generated by electricity, but by the people and energy pulsing from the six high top tables crammed inside. We swung the door open, but nobody really looked. They all leaned forward into their own parties, speaking energetically to each other in Catalonian. To our left was a glass bar where two big ham legs hung on silver hooks and a busy, but not hassled looking wait staff zoomed back and forth carrying tapas and refilling beer and vermouth. One of them, a small bearded man buzzed towards us for a moment, like a hummingbird, to listen to our request, “Cuatro personas“, said Olivia, the only one of us with passable Spanish, holding up four fingers just in case. He smiled, nodded, and buzzed away.

This place was a recommendation from a Catalonian friend, and like everywhere else in the world, the best places to go are always those found via the local word of mouth. She had told us that it did not have a webpage and that we would not be able to make reservations. We were on a search for the best tapas, and in a city where outstanding tapas are the norm, this place felt a little like magic.

After scanning the menu, and glancing surreptitiously at the tables of others, we made our selection. Catching the waiter’s eye, Olivia once again made the order for us, while he listened patiently, smiled, and pretended he did not speak any English. The four of us had been placed in the corner, so with my back to wall I looked around at this tiny, yet perfect tapas restaurant. Behind the bar, bottles of brightly colored alcohols lined the walls and to the left of the big wooden door we had come through was the window that had provided our first glance into the world where we were now too, a part of the scene. Above the window, was a long chalkboard covered in the names of all the Vermouth you could order. At our table we perched on high stools and were so tightly packed that I bumped elbows every so often with a mother behind me and found the suspicious glare of her toddler upon me if I turned my head to the left. Erin’s back was against a huge mirror that helped give the impression that the small restaurant was much more spacious than it really was. The two waiters continued to bring out plates of steaming, savory potatoes with hot sauce, thinly sliced meats, stacks of cheese, and fresh seafood. Olivia and I also chose to partake in the in-house brewed Vermouth, a Catalonian specialty. A glass of Vermouth here cost 1.50 euros and is served with an orange slice and a green olive.

There are several reasons why I love tapas. I love that tapas are meant to be shared. Tapas are smaller portions of food and you are meant to order several dishes even for just a couple of people. This makes for not only a dynamic eating experience, but physically, tapas in the center of the table create an atmosphere of camaraderie, as if the the conversation itself weaves and crosses within the patterns of traded plates. This means that tapas are a food meant to be slowly enjoyed over conversation and drinks. There is no problem with ordering another round if the table is still hungry, or just wants an excuse for the prolonged company of their friends. Also, there is no rush. In the United States, it is not uncommon to get the evil eye from a waiter for staying too long at the table after you have finished eating. Working as one myself for several different stints, I understand that this is American etiquette, but is also tied to our culture of tipping. More tables means more tips. In Barcelona, we never felt rushed through our meal. They left us to our experience and did not feel pressure to be at hand every moment. Although the food was in fact the most delicious tapas I had tasted yet, I felt that our night was more than the food we ate.

In that place, in the back corner, I felt like I was part of something. Our own table was alive because of the four of us. We held spirited conversations about the things we cared about the most. Each side of our table reflected a face and a mind with something to share. All of us listened intently to each of the others, and in our turn spoke passionately and convincingly on each point. Outside our table, I was sure each of the other tables was doing the same. I couldn’t hear or understand what they said, but I could feel the mini worlds of community colliding into one. Within the warm light and soothing smell of tapas, I felt myself living in a memory.


This is just one of the moments that we shared during our five days here. If you ever go to Barcelona, I’ll tell you the name of the restaurant. As promised, I am writing a blog a week. Because of travel, I missed last week’s blog. Tomorrow I am making up for it by writing about Gaudi and Picasso, two artists I feel I got to know quite well during our time in this beautiful city.

Wishing everyone a beautiful start to 2018.

Best of Peace Corps Senegal

I’ve had so much fun re-reading some of my old blog posts, which I have now compiled for you into the Best of Peace Corps Senegal blog. My nearly three years in this beautiful country is without a doubt one of the most transformative periods of my life. It provided me with invaluable insight, lessons that have set the foundation of my life, and taught me more than anything else, that the world is a very big place full of people so different, and yet so alike if we take the time to realize it.

It is very clear to see that I left the Peace Corps a more reflective, less naive, and more globally aware person. It would seem it really is true— life is a learning process and we will all probably look back at the younger versions of ourselves and laugh (and maybe sometimes grimace). I hope to continue laughing at the younger version of myself throughout every stage of life.

I’ve picked out 12 of my favorite blogs for you to peruse from my time in Senegal (2011-2014) to show you a little glimpse of one of my most wandered countries, a country forever in my heart, and one which will always feel a little bit like home.

A Wild Woman’s African Dream Come True, Nov. 23, 2011: The first impression in my new village.

The Bike Ride from Hell, Dec. 13, 2011: Hilarious now, terrifying then.

Chicken Victory, July. 18, 2012: A story of overcoming challenges and grabbing your life’s chicken.

A Closer Look at Life, July 31, 2012: Living in a Muslim country during Ramadan (first part of blog) and one of the hardest days I had while living in my village (second half of blog).

Rats, this is War! March 5, 2013. The title explains itself.

A Particularly Hot and Bothered Peace Corps Volunteer, April 10, 2013: An open letter to Banana Boat sunscreen, which reveals some of hot season’s greatest challenges.

The Road Home in Rainy Season, June 24, 2013: A peaceful post that takes me back down memory lane.

You are in my Heart, Sept. 15, 2013: Reflections on the two years in southern Senegal and saying goodbye to my village for the last time.

They Call Me Family, Oct. 9, 2013: Why I will always be so grateful I was placed with the Pulaars.

Wanna Feug Jaay? Mar. 24, 2014: One of the most unexpected reasons you HAVE to visit Senegal.