Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Silk Threads

We are aboard a DC-8 on the leg of our journey that takes us from Singapore to Japan. This flight runs twice a week from this location and is a luxurious way to travel. The back of the plane houses twenty-six first class seats and is walled off from the rest of the plane which serves as a cargo vessel. We are served  salmon, shrimp salad, fresh steamed vegetables, pasta with real cheese, bread and butter, and a glass of wine for lunch. For desert,  we are given the richest piece of chocolate cake. This was truly a first class ride.

As we head back I have hours to think of our journeys. I am forever grateful for the time we have had to be  together and the sacrifices made for this  kind of travel. To our family, we have missed you so very much and thank you for all your help and especially your communications to us so we never felt too far from home. Being away from you is the hardest part of our travels. For those of you who cover for us while we are gone, we owe a debt of gratitude we can never repay.

I find my self contemplating all that has transpired in these last few months.  I have been fascinated with something that I had thought about very early on in our trip. I am not sure if it had to do with the area we were in or the things we had seen but in the beginning of our travels I had dreamt about silkworms. I am not sure if the intensity of that dream had to do with God or the fact that we have been taking anti-malarial medications but it was an  exquisitely, beautiful dream. And, I don't usually say that about dreams that have worms in them. Some of the most beautiful silk in the  world is produced in the areas we visited and I was fascinated  how a worm could produce  a thread that would eventually contribute to something as beautiful as a piece of silk.

It seems that the silk worm has only one purpose in life.  That is to produce silk thread. Beautiful and strong thread.  I could watch for hours as the women would take these fibers of threads and faithfully intertwine them together and watch as the thread was transformed into beautiful silk. While a single thread has some strength and beauty in its own right, when combined with other fibers it transforms in to something  greater than itself.  I found many occasion to watch the women at the looms and never grew tired of watching this process.

It made me think of my life and the mere fiber that I am. On my own I am but a meager thread. But, with the many threads my life is interwoven with I have gotten to be a part of something beautiful and enduring and greater than it would have been if left on its own. You who read this are the foundations of that cloth. You are the beginnings and ends of the fabric that is my life. Other threads come in and fill the empty spaces. For me, when we travel we have the opportunity to incorporate the threads of other lives into this cloth. They add a dimension and a beauty  that we would not have found had we not been exactly where we were. They enhance the finished product in a way that is unforgettable and is of the greatest value to us. I love the beauty that they add and I am forever enriched because of their contributions.

I have  been blessed by a beautiful career serving and caring for others. And, while the venue for that has changed,  the depth of relationships and the way God has woven all those 'silken' threads together will not change and will always be a part of who I am. The touching of so many threads has deepened my life in many ways  and for the beauty of  that I am forever thankful.

I also realize that  I am a work in progress and so I open myself up for all that is yet to be. I am ready for the new  fibers that are sure to come my way. And while they may look a little different,  I know they will add just what is needed. I am trusting He who weaved and knitted me together in the womb of my mother...

We are home this morning and when I reflect upon the exquisite favor we have had during our travels, I thank God for His goodness to us. I am forever thankful for the way He has woven together all the threads of our lives and that we share together in the works of the Master.

We are happy to be home…see you soon!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Our Days in Malaysia

At the beginning of our sabbatical we met a man named Bud Bouchet in Hawaii who was traveling back to Thailand where he had lived for the last several years. He was retired from the military but had taken a civil servant job as an attaché and his last post was in Bangkok. He and his wife were going to move to Malaysia for their retirement years. We spent some time together in Japan and then again in Singapore. When we departed ways, he told us about the 'Jungle Train' through Malaysia. We have been captivated by this thought and his stories ever since.

This post is coming from seat 3B aboard the southbound train from KL Sentral, Malaysia to Woodland Station in Singapore. We are traveling in the first class section and it is charming. We have taken to reading the blogposts of a fellow train traveller and knew  exactly what we needed to do before boarding the train. We are set.

We have had a transitory visit here in Malaysia. We flew in from Lao and knew we would only spend about four days in this country. We looked forward to the train ride just so we could see the life on other side of the tracks. People come from all over the world to this area to eat and shop and to celebrate in some of the local customs. The Deepavali/Diwali festival begins this month. It is also known as the festival of the lights and many Hindu people celebrate this time with vacation and travel. For the many Hindu people in Malaysia it is a time of preparation and celebration. One of the most distinguishing symbols of the celebration is the beautiful and intricate art displays around the city. The symbol is the peacock and it is often depicted in a rice drawing. Here different colored grains of rice are meticulously laid  out in an intricate patterns. They are beautiful...

We have mastered the skill of public transportation and now look forward to the challenge of trying new forms of travel. We rode the monorail throughout the city for mere pennies and had an opportunity to see many things. The city is dense so we put on our walking shoes and just explored. In this way we could see and experience many different things. There is a Chinatown and Little India, a muslim area and the largest shopping complex I have ever seen. The Petronas Towers. This is the destination place of so many travelers we met while here in Kuala Lumpur. And, while I am not a shopper, I will have to say it was an exquisite architectural structure.

We tried the local food and it was delicious. We ate at an Indian restaurant where the owner took a liking to us and had us try every dish he was preparing. It was the best I have ever had and I wish I could make these things for you. We had had a little problem with the hotel we had originally booked for our stay while here in Kuala Lumpur and ended up staying in another place. But, when they heard that it was Tom's birthday, the hotel manager invited us over for dinner and gifted us with a delicious dinner and a most beautiful view of the cty. We felt so honored by this special treatment.

I sit in my window seat and within thirty minutes I am out of the city and deep into the jungle. Sometimes I can not even see the sky above me for the multitude of greenery. When there is a clearing I can see the water laden clouds and know that a storm will soon ensue. I am excited to be exactly where I am and look forward to the next several hours. I am excited to be homeward bound...

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Happy Fiftieth Anniversary of Your Twenty-first Birthday Tommy Stoeckel!

The one and only consolation that we have for not being  home to celebrate Tom's birthday (all the fall birthdays really) is that for the last few years we have been in some  exotic place celebrating this day in a most memorable fashion. This year was not any different.  This year we were in Lao and the physicians we have been working with arranged a beautiful party for Tom at one of the authentic Lao restaurants. We knew we were meeting that night for a 'banquet' we just didn't know it was to honor Tom.

We started the day with a leisurely breakfast and then walked down the street for a spa day.One might get confused when reading this, thinking that this day was my anniversary/birthday but I think Tom is hooked on these massages. He always avoided them in the past because he is so ticklish but he has definitely gotten over that.  The thought of spending a couple of hours on massages and pedicures is now as appealing to him as it has always been to me. It was a traditional Lao massage with a warm herbal oil added in. We put ourselves in the hands of two small women and they worked wonders on every part of our body for a couple of hours. It was like heaven. We grabbed a quick lunch…a tuna sandwich which we have not had for months and a cold beer at a sidewalk cafe. It was perfect.

We  slowly sauntered home and began to prepare for the evenings festivities.  We arrived at the Pamnak Lao Restaurant and there before us was a banquet of wonderful traditional Lao foods. The table was covered with the specialities from different regions of Lao and so we tried things we have never seen or heard before. I sat next to the Physician who represents the Communist party and oversees the work of the hospital and the distribution of the medical equipment we send. She was lovely and explained how to eat the food before me. For example, we each have a cylinder like basket that is is filled with hot, purple sticky rice. You get a piece of that, roll it in a ball,  and then dip it into your soup broth or the broth from one of the other meat dishes. It is delicious and we feel right at home eating with our hands as this is the way most countries that we have been in this year eat. We are quite skilled and for those of you who know about Tom's need for every eating utensil when he eats, he can now roll rice with the best of them! We wanted for nothing and every time our plates looked half way empty someone put something new for us to try. It was delicious.

The restaurant also had traditional musicians and dancers so we enjoyed a beautiful evening watching and listening to the customs of Lao antiquity. Suddenly, everything came to a stop and Tom was called forward while the musicians played Happy Birthday on their instruments. It is the tradition to ring in your new year by hitting a large metal disc, 'as if you were twenty one'  He did it and everyone enjoyed it. They brought out a beautiful birthday cake and two dozen red roses. It was a beautiful evening and Tom felt very honored and humbled and I was  happy for him.

Tomorrow we fly to Malaysia where we will spend a few days. We plan on taking the "Jungle Train" through this country and into Singapore. We have heard that it is a beautiful journey and we are excited to be on the train again. We  are eager to see the countryside this way.

 We will let you know...

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Bun Nam Festival

Today was the last day of the Bun Nam (River Festival) and it is held at the end of Buddhist lent. It is quite the talk of the town and we didn't want to miss it. Rowing teams from all over the country and region compete in the long tail boats races where 54 rowers with one oar each race along the Mekong River. It is a phenomenal thing to see. The riverbanks are lined with food stalls, carnival games, temporary discos, beer gardens, and a multitude of homemade shops. It is awesome. School and businesses close for a few days and everyone is out for the event.

We are finding, that while the Laotians are generally a quite group, they sure like to party. They will often set up stalls where they produce all kinds of food. Things I am not quite sure of and some things I wish I didn't recognize. Tables and chairs are set up along the street and music is playing and everyone is invited to everything. It is a blast. We spent the day at the races, came home to refresh and then went back out to enjoy the night time festivities.

We are back to meandering and enjoying the area after our time of work. Tomorrow we will do a little work at the Mother/Child hospital and then explore the countryside again.There is a small floating village we will visit on the Mekong. We have done the research on our train ride through Malaysia and found we are taking the 'Jungle Train' through the countryside. We are excited about that.

We look forward to the rest of our adventures and to seeing you again shortly...

Wonders of the World

When I woke up this morning, I found my thoughts were the same as they had been the night before. I have been thinking of the beautiful things we have been able to see and do and how something is defined as a 'Wonder of the World'. It is easy to compile a list that surpasses the original seven. In fact, the term eighth wonder of the world is often used to describe things in comparison to the Seven Wonders of the World, the widely-known list of seven remarkable constructions of classical antiquity. I have something to add to this list. Not a structure for sure but something that will take your breath away. And, while people from all one the world may never flock to see it, it is a beautiful thing none the less. It is the work of men and women committed to something greater than they are. I am thinking of our friends Boungham and his wife Kamla and the endless work they do to help better the lives of the people of Laos. From visiting and caring for the poor in the tribal hill villages to equipping and empowering physicians in hospitals and clinics throughout Laos these two are our heroes.

We have had the small opportunity to visit and work alongside some remarkable physicians this past week throughout Central Laos. Men and women who have dedicated their lives to a standard of excellence we should all strive for. We have seen the barest hospitals/clinics operating with old or make shift equipment and yet they are taking such good care of the people they serve. Women delivering their babies and placing them on the floor due to lack of space and bedding but leaving with healthy children. Being a physician or a nurse is not a lucrative position by any means. The hours are long and the work is hard and there is no prestige in the these titles. The average physician makes about $300.00 dollars a month and works a minimum of sixteen hours a day. What they do and how they do it is of great value to so many people.

So today, I stand in awe, in the beauty of a heart that serves so selflessly. Our friend says that some of these people are so downtrodden and poor that they can not even speak up for themselves.  So for those who labor endlessly to help and be the voice for those who are in need and can not speak for themselves my hats off to you.  I am reminded of the scripture in Hebrews 13:16...And do not forget to do good and share with others, for with such sacrifice God is pleased. I am humbled to be along side of you today...

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


I can tell the time is nearing for our return trip  home. We have been a little under the weather and I am missing being with you and  sitting in front of our fireplace. I also have found  myself singing the same song under my breath that I did right before we left. It's funny that it would be that song…I hadn't thought of it in years and now I think of it everyday. It was one my mothers favorite songs and for whatever reason it has been the song I sing in my moments of quiet. It is Glen Campbell's  "Gentle on my Mind". I know I have a version of songs that can be a little different than most peoples' but I like the version I have been playing in my mind.

It's just knowing that your door is always open

And your path is free to walk

That keeps you in the back roads

By the rivers of my memory

And for hours you are ever gentle on my mind...

Tears of joy may stain my face

And the summer sun might burn me till I'm blind

I pretend to told you to my breast and find

That your waiting from the back roads

By the rivers of my memory

Ever smiling ever gentle on my mind...

I have thought of my mother a lot during this trip. My mother would have been happy for me I am sure. She would have listened to my endless stories with utter fascination. While she was not a traveler herself, I think she harbored a secret fascination for it. She was a gentle woman, very brave, and  really quite a lovely person. She would always say someday she would do the things she had saved up on her list of things to do. She would be pleased and proud I think to know that I had lived a life of doing the things that were on my list. That I had not waited too long for those somedays and that I was courageous and brave in pursuing even the hard journeys in my life. She who knew my beginnings and she who saw me through to the other side of those journeys would be happy for me today. I know she would have worried about some of the places we have been but down deep she would have been excited for me. She was always one of my biggest fans.

There are so many things I learn when we travel. There is something about our sabbaticals that  are a time of great reflection for me and often inspires growth.  Something about being in all those railway stations, bus depots, airports, and  boat docks remind me that at any given moment we are at a pivotal point for  life altering changes. Sometime we choose the change; sometimes the change chooses us. We have been gone for several weeks and soon we will begin the process home. We have had the adventures of our lives. We have gone places that are identified as wonders of the world, seen things we had only read about before, and met people that we will cherish forever. We have had so much fun together and we have learned so many things. Mostly about ourselves. That change is alright. That often times we seek the comfort of what we know and that change gives us the courage to try and learn something new. In fact, we have embraced the unexpected and unknown while on our sabbatical. We are now ready to return.

And, while we know that change is coming we also have the familiar to come home too…you. You, who are the rivers of my memories who are always gentle on my mind are what I am longing for now. We are  never the same as when we left but what you mean to us has never changed. Thank you that your door is always open and your path is free to walk.

We start the process home at the end of this week. It may take awhile but we continue to pray for exquisite favor with our connections. We will fly to Malaysia and then take the train into Singapore. From there we begin the Space A adventure homeward bound. And so, I will pretend to hold you to my breast and find, that your waiting from the back roads, by the rivers of my memory, ever smiling ever gentle on my mind...

See you in a few weeks...

Monday, October 29, 2012

Vientiane, Lao

There is a gentleness to Lao that you feel the moment your feet hit the ground. It is a tonic to your heart and soul. It is an unassuming and quiet place where even going through customs is a  delight. We were met at the airport by our dear friend Boungkham and a delegation of Doctors and Nurses with beautiful bouquets of flowers. I am not sure what changes in the dynamics from country to country but it's a world of difference from any place we have been so far. I think that is part of the gift that is travel; that no two places are the same.

Vientiane means Sandalwood City. It's beautiful tree lined streets with its' peaceful demeanor conceals a history in which it has been occupied, looted, burnt to the ground  and eventually rebuilt by the Vietnamese, Burmese, Siamese, and the French. From my perspective, it is the French influence that remains the strongest today. It is truly beautiful here.

We are taking some time to rest. We have had the most adventuresome travels! From the bamboo rafts and elephants in Thailand to the Temples of Angkor and Battambang in Cambodia and then the craziness that is Saigon and Hanoi. The beauty of the quiet Hoi An and Halong Bay. It has been a whirlwind and we have been able to experience and see so much. We have had so much fun and have enjoyed our time together immensely. We have some work we are doing here in the Mother/Child Hospital but even that eases our heart and soul and does not feel like work at all.

We have decided that we will stay in this area until we move on to Malaysia. We have traveled out to the countryside and spent some time in the tribal villages. We attended church with our friend and experienced something truly beautiful in this communist country.

We will be a part of a big dinner and reception that the government and hospital are putting on that happens to be on Tom's birthday. We will fly to Kuala Lampur, Malaysia on Saturday.  We will start our travels home shortly thereafter…Singapore, Japan, Hawaii, and Travis…maybe. We will let you know!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Halong Bay

In Vietnamese, Ha Long means 'where the dragon decends into the sea'. The legend says that the Islands of Halong were created by a great dragon that lived in the neighboring mountains. As it ran towards the coastline, it's flailing tail gouged out the valleys and crevices, and as it plunged into the sea, the areas dug up by it's tail became filled with water leaving only pockets of high land visible. As we look out on the bay it is easy to see how this legend got it's credibility.

It is beautiful here. We are finding we need the quite and easy days of being on the emerald waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. We are staying on a junk which an ancient Chinese style sailing ship. They range in a variety of shapes and sizes and are really quite nice. Ours is beautiful and only carries twenty passengers and the crew. It sails amidst the karsts and grottos and we are in awe of the beauty here.

There are a variety of activities and excursions but we find that the quiet and easy rocking of our ship as she sails the waterways is really all we need. There is kayaking into the grottos and caves in this area and the water is warm for swimming. But we are content to await the sunset to watch as the emerald ocean turns a deep red. We are in awe of God's goodness to us as we enjoy the beauty here. We are enjoying the rest.

 We head to Laos at the end of the week and are ready to see what lies ahead. Here we will connect with one of our MMI partners and see first hand the work that is being done in Laos. We are excited to be with our friend Bounkham and see this country from his perspective. We will let you know...

Mountain of the Fragrant Traces

There is constant  flurry of activity that is Hanoi. It is vibrant and alive and it stimulates you to your very core. It is constant. After a few days exploring this lively area we decided to take an  outing that would get us out of the city and give us an opportunity to see some of the countryside. As I looked through my book on the area I quickly glanced at a place called the Perfume Pagoda. Being a one fragrance woman I quickly overlooked it. Then I went back and took  another look. It has nothing to do with perfume at all.  It seems there is a complex of temples and shrines built into the karst cliffs of the Huong Tich Mountains. It derived its name from the fragrant blossoms of the flowering trees that were inherent to this area. We decided to give it a try because there is a scenic river trip from My Duc to the base of the mountain that we had heard was stunning.

In no time we had left the hustle and bustle of the city and were on the back roads to My Duc. It took a couple of hours before we reached the river. The boats are rowed by women who paddled for about an hour and half as we got lost in the beauty and serenity of the area. On the banks of the river we could see the women fishing with baskets, nets, or with fishing poles. Rice and vegetables were being cultivated from the neighboring gardens. It was suddenly a very different life and we enjoyed the reprieve.

The main pagoda is deep in a cave and quite an arduous trek to get to the core of it. It was cool and beautiful and we enjoyed the fresh air. This is a holy place for the Buddhist and it is interesting to learn of their customs. They leave numerous offerings for the dead believing that while the dead are gone from their bodies they are not gone in spirit so they may enjoy some of their favorite foods, drinks and even cigarettes daily. At each shrine, offerings are heaped high for their dead ancestors. Tom asked what happens to the offerings at the end of the day and was told that the hungry and poor could have them and new offerings would be brought the next day. There are also shrines for specific requests. One of the most popular is the the shrine for fertility. You can even specifically ask for a son or daughter by rubbing the water that drips into the cave on your hair. Seven drops of water  for a boy and nine drops for a girl. We found it very interesting...

We spent the entire day here just enjoying the quite of this countryside. It was beautiful just to watch the sunset on the rice fields.  And yes…it did smell lovely. We head to Halong Bay tomorrow for some time of rest. Will let you know how that goes.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Thanh Long (City of the Soaring Dragon)

We arrived in Hanoi early this morning. This is where the exotic chic of old Asia blends seamlessly with dynamic face of new Asia. Where medieval and modern are two sides of the same street. It is a blend of French style and crazy Asian pace. We have chosen to stay in the Old Quarter which has been the hub of commerce for nearly a millennium.  A mass of motorbikes swarm the small streets of this area and it is still the heartbeat of Hanoi. Merchants display their wares on the sidewalk along side the vast array of motorbikes that are parked within a  hairs-width from each other. We see women carrying their goods over their shoulders or being pushed along on bicycles.Every inch is filled with someone trying to sell something. This is the happening place.

The city center spreads out from the edges of the Hoan Kiem Lake which is just to the North of the Old Quarters. The Temple of Literature was dedicated to Confucius in 1070 and is still a most beautiful place to visit. We amble up and down the narrow streets getting immersed in all that is before us. We stop for a cup of lotus tea where the proprietor tells us that it takes hundred of flowers to produce 50g of tea. They still hand process it here. Each street has a specialty so if you are looking for tea you go the tea street. If fresh rice noodles are what you need you go to the street that sells noodles and try to make a selection. The spice markets stopped us dead in our tracks as the most savory smells came from these shops. We were mesmerized as we walked from street to street. We take a pedi-cab  through the city at night just to see things from a different perspective.

We want to spend a few days exploring this area and then head out to the countryside. We have booked a junk on Halong Bay where we will spend a few days sailing amidst the limestone karsts. We are still getting acclimated so we will see how the days unfold. We will let you know.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Rolling Down the Highway

Today Tom and I traveled down a portion of the original Ho Chi Minh trail on the back of a Honda 150cc motorcycle. I just couldn't help it but I found myself singing the words to "Born to Be Wild" the whole way. We elected to have two young men sit in the drivers seat for this ride. They were very experienced drivers and well acquainted with the area so all we had to do was hold on and enjoy ourselves.

We got up early in the morning to beat the heat and anyone else who might have the same idea that we did. It was lovely to feel the cool breeze and the serenity  of the the rural countryside.  The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a complex web of different jungle paths that enabled communist troops to travel from North Vietnam to areas close to Saigon during the Vietnam war. Now, there is a  Ho Chi Minh Highway that runs along the coastline connecting North Vietnam to South Vietnam.

We also stopped at the Champas historical site, My Son. The My Sơn temple complex is regarded as one of the foremost Hindu temple complexes in Southeast Asia and is the most noteworthy heritage site  in Vietnam. It is often compared with other historical temple complexes in Southeast Asia such as Angkor Wat of Cambodia and Ayutthaya of Thailand.  In1999, My Son was recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. It's name translates to "Beautiful Mountain".

We ate lunch at a home/roadside kitchen with our friends. They were delightful and kind to us and we enjoyed being with them more than I could ever say. It added an element of excitement and adventure to our trip and we are forever thankful we had this time with them.

Hoi An is stunning at night and we made it home in time to enjoy the night life. The waterfront area lights up with colorful silk lanterns and children selling paper candles on the road side. It is alive and beautiful and no picture accurately depicts the beauty and excitement here.  We walk through the night life and then headed home after a long day.

Tomorrow we may ride our bikes over to the beach.  We head to Hanoi the beginning of next week so we want to get in as much of this area as possible…we will miss this lovely place.