Friday, December 9, 2011

I knew that it could happen, that I could fall in love in Uganda

“You are going to be my friend,” the young girl making my breakfast omelet told me with a big grin on her face.

Every day for two weeks, I stopped by the restaurant/shop that Shami’s parents own as I finished my morning run. Often, I would buy a rolex, the Ugandan version of a breakfast burrito: two eggs cooked with onions and tomato, wrapped in a chapatti (a fried tortilla).

Since coming home from boarding school in Kampala at the end of November, Shami would run out of the shop when she saw me coming to cook my rolex on her hot stone oven and talk to me about her studies, the day ahead, life. On days when there were no eggs available or I wasn’t hungry, I’d stop by just to say hello, buy a slice of bread or a water.

As time drew near for me to depart from Pader for the holidays, I told Shami I’d spend a whole day with her. At eleven years old--old enough to have responsibilities like fetching water and overseeing the shop--Shami needed special permission from her mother to spend the day out.

With her mother’s approval, our date was set.

Shami came by my house early in the morning to tell me the plan for the day: first, we would go to the photo booth in town and have several photos taken; then, she would take me to the mosque; and finally, we would return to her family’s restaurant for a lunch prepared by her mother.

“Don’t forget to wear your long blue dress!” She told me. “It will look perfect with the headscarf I will bring you!”

On our way to the photo booth, Shami spoke excitedly, asking all about my life. She asked if I am the only girl in my family, and explained that she is now; her older sister died of disease. When I explained that I too am the only girl, she responded with delight: “That’s it! We shall be sisters! You will be my older sister in America and we will be sisters forever!”

Little by litte, Shami was stealing my heart.

Shami walked proudly into the photo booth with her muzungu friend and told the shop owner with authority that we would take three photos with the Japanese garden background. We posed like models, then like sisters.

Our giddiness on the walk to the mosque made it feel like we’d skipped the whole way. Shami continued in her cheery manner and told me of her dreams: “Some day, I will be a doctor.”

“You are a very smart girl,” I told her. “You will do it. I know you will!”

“I want to help my family out of poverty, and I want to help other people too. I study very hard in school and have been number one or number two in my class every semester for the past two years!” Shami told me with pride.

My heart beat a little faster.

“Do you like to read?” I asked, hopeful.

“I love to read! I love to read about everything: history and science and even stories. I love to study science, and even though I’m not the best in mathematics, I like to do the work. I am a very hard worker. My parents like it when I am home because I work so hard in the shop, and I am like that in school as well.”

We entered the mosque and sat behind the curtain separating the women from the men. With each warm breeze, the curtain moved just enough for me to catch a glimpse of the imam and men sitting on the mats in front of us.

After prayers, I told Shami I wanted to take her shopping. I had noticed she wore the same worn school uniform most days, and I wanted her to have a new one for the coming school year and a change of clothes for Christmas.

Shami was delighted. When we arrived back to her home, her mom had prepared a huge lunch for us: pasted and non-pasted greens (boiled greens with and without peanut butter), sweet potatoes, beans, peanut butter, and water.

“Mama, mama! My sister has agreed to help me with my math!” Shami told her mother in their native Luganda. “And she wants me to go to University, all the way in America! She says if I keep working hard, I will go to Harvard some day, a university where they pay the school fees if you are poor!”

I looked at my little sister and I believed it. I believed she would become a doctor some day and that she would go to Harvard.

Shami standing behind her mother and three of her brothers

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

4 Chickens and a Dream

The journey to Nighty’s village began around 9am with the solicitation of drivers and fierce negotiation led by Nighty. After finally settling on a price, four adults and three children piled into a 1980s Honda Civic that appeared to be driven right out of a salvage yard.

While Nighty insisted that her village is close to Pader, the journey took over three hours. Several times, we exited the vehicle to push the mighty Civic over bumps or to pull it out of the ditches of the poorly maintained dirt road.

When we arrived at the part of the journey where we took the small car off-roading, I knew we must be close. Nighty pointed out a gathering of a few dozen huts which she explained were the remnants of an IDP camp, largely abandoned now as people have returned to their homes.

Nighty’s family lives on an isolated plot located several miles from the main road and center of Abilo Nino village. Her father, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and a slew of children live together in several bandas, subsisting off the land and selling what little crop they can to afford items like clothing and sugar.

Upon arrival, I greeted each family member in traditional Acholi style, spent a short while helping to grind jeenut paste (peanut butter), and then followed Nighty around the compound as she proudly showed off the grounds, well-tended crops, and simple bandas.

The place was beautiful, isolated and peaceful. With fields of sunflowers, high stalks of maize, goats and chickens, it seemed like an idyllic place to raise children.

“You think this is a peaceful place now, but not long ago, this very plot was taken over by the LRA,” Nighty’s uncle explained. “They used our home to cook for the militiamen, and those of us who survived the raids were driven to the camps.”

After a thorough tour of the compound, Nighty’s aged mother invited me into the women's banda. Inside, she set a woven mat upon the dirt floor and swept the ground before placing the meal she had prepared for her first ever muzungu guest: sweet potatoes, pasted malikwang and boyo (greens mixed with peanut and sunflower seed butter). The long journey left me quite hungry, and I was delighted by the vegetarian meal.

Outside, the men gathered in a circle of plastic chairs, awaiting my return. When the father of the family finally spoke, calling everyone to order, the lone English-speaking uncle translated.

“It is such a great honor to host our muzungu friend,” the father began. By three in the afternoon, when the father began his speech, the compound was teeming with nearly fifty people. Word spread quickly about the fair-skinned visitor and every clan member hurried to the compound to witness the event.

As part of a formal ceremony, each elder took a turn giving an oration. All expressed great appreciation for my visit, and then presented a unified dream, a desperate request to help their family.

“You see us before you, living very poorly, some of us with nothing to wear. We do not want your pity, your clothing, or medicine, all we want is education for our children,” one man spoke. “We will give you a plot of land, build you a home upon it, and provide you whatever you need, but our children will be nothing without an education.”

“I will marry you and care for you myself,” one of Nighty’s brothers generously offered.

Each elder echoed the same sentiment, first thanking me profusely for visiting, and then asking me to do anything I could to help their family plan for financing their children’s educations.

Nighty later explained that of her entire family, only one uncle had received an education and the rest remained illiterate. The youngest generation, mostly under six years, have little hope of going to school without a miracle. It was clear that the elders dreamed I would be part of that miracle.

After listening to each speech, I was invited to give my own. I had been moved by their appeals and wanted to communicate deep gratitude for their welcome, but I knew that I could not marry Nighty’s brother, build my home within their compound, or--most regrettably--cover the costs of educating each child on my own. It is one of the greatest disappointments of my time here, wanting to do so much, yet feeling helpless when asked to provide the assistance requested of me.

Before leaving the village, I was informed that the five homesteads had prepared gifts. Nighty took my camera as each head of household shook my hand with a wide grin and presented me with a live chicken, four in total. I am quite sure I have never held a chicken in my life, and my facial expression betrayed me as my mind wandered to thoughts about what a vegetarian would do with four chickens and how I would get them home. [The men tied the chickens’ feet and placed them in the trunk of the car for me. I squirmed every time I heard them squeal on the ride home.]

From a family with very little, I was treated with great honor. Despite my inability to make grand promises, I was embraced upon my departure and invited to visit anytime.

On the ride home, I played American music for Nighty, allowing my own mind to wander to ways I could help her family and others like hers. In time, my thoughts were interrupted as Nighty began to share with me for the first time her own war story.

As I have begun to gain the community’s trust, I have heard many stories of the war, each one equally moving. Nighty’s was no exception: the story of a young girl who ran away from the war, making it all the way to southern Uganda where she found work as a domestic servant and fish factory worker. She returned home to find that everything had changed: several family members had been killed, their homes burned, and the plot overtaken by rebels.

This is the story of the friend who gave me a soda and invited me into her hut on one of my first nights in Pader. Despite not having a clear solution for her family’s struggles, I will never forget them, their warm welcome, four chickens, or dream for their children.

Nighty's immediate family members gather for a portrait.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks

Even though I'm not in America, I still want to give thanks, because thanksgiving is my favorite part of Thanksgiving (it used to be turkey, but I gave that up long ago!).

There is so much I could be thankful for this year as I celebrate the holiday in a land of little, far away from my home of plenty. And yet, it's not running water, or toilets, showers, or good food that I am most grateful for; it's love.

Living in a post-conflict zone makes clear that love and kindness, even between kin, are not givens. I am full of gratitude for all of the people in my life--family and friends--who show me love through kindness, respect, and care.

Through our love for each other, we create peace on earth.

I wish you a very happy, peaceful, and love-filled Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Amnesty for Rapists

Imagine the situation: by 1999, the war in Northern Uganda had been raging for over ten years. One of the primary tactics of the rebel forces was to abduct children and forcibly recruit them into their armies which mutilated, raped, and pillaged their own people.

In 2000, the government of Uganda decided to grant amnesty to all members of the LRA who disarmed. This move was considered part of the peace process, a step towards rebuilding the North and reintegrating former combatants, many of whom joined the rebel movement against their own will.

This weekend, I treated myself to a musical at the National Theater in Kampala, Uganda. The play, called Mama Obama’s Restaurant (Ugandans are second only to Kenyans in their love of President Obama), told the story of the aftermath of the war in the North from the perspective of a restaurant waitress who had been repeatedly raped by LRA militants. On stage, she suffers an emotional breakdown as she must serve her former assailants dinner. They mock her in the process, asking what she has done with the baby she conceived at 15, and the play ends with the young woman crippled on the floor, writhing from the distress caused by her memories.

The title, Mama Obama’s Restaurant, is a metaphor for the growing pains of democracy, something the playwright likened to the struggles President Obama’s mother must have faced as a single mother.

Like so many wars, the war in Uganda is typically told from the perspective of men. Who were the heroes? Who displayed courage? Who worked for justice?

But in all wars, the stories of women and children must also be told.

What happens when we grant blanket amnesty to all of the rapists, the mutilators, the murderers? Do victims deserve some kind of justice, or can war be written off in the books of history as a kind of sunk cost, where anything can be forgiven for the sake of peace?

Our Women

Our women became the men they wished to marry.
Out in the land of desperation where the promise had been so bright,
Where the sun rose every day without ceasing, and our skin glistened a dark, luminous color in the sun,
There where Idi forced men to do things unspeakable, there where women saw untold horrors!
And there was great weeping in that land.

Twenty seven guns later

In that land, the men no longer are.
They left a long time ago…
Gone, like the cat to see the king.
They cower, talk in hushed tones in bars, and go home late.
So they never look into their sons’ eyes, and tell them of the value of an honest day’s work.
In that land they all worry about the gum -chewing Englishman, the Frenchman who loves young boys.
The men are all gone from this land.

Twenty seven guns and ten years later

The women looked at their land; saw no men and they were sad.
They searched and looked but the men were hard to find.
Embattled times. When terror brought a nation to its knees, a nation would send out a call for heroes.
But the men were hard to find. And it seemed like a nation might plunge into the abyss.
It seemed that all would be lost.

Twenty seven guns and twenty years later

And the darkness spread further in the land. But not for long because
When our motherland called for heroes, these women stood up to be counted.
Mothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, aunties. They all stood up.
When our motherland called for heroes, they were the fathers of the motherland.
When our motherland called for heroes, these women became the men they wished to marry.

To find the men, they would go. They would groom their sons. They would make them men.

And they raised a generation of Sons and Lovers.
They raised daughters who worked and provided.
Daughters who counseled and handled business.
Who worked and earned and saved.
Women who went to university, and beat the men.
And who dated liberally and occasionally popped the question.
Who took the sick child to hospital, and paid the house bills.
And bought the meat in the house. They took on all these roles and more.

Our women became the men they wished they had married.

By Colin Asiimwe

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Still So Far to Go

“Have you heard the story of Angelina of Aboke?” Francesca, a woman who works at the Uganda Fund, asked me. I nodded that I had, having just completed the book Aboke Girls a few days before.

“Well, do you know what happened once Angelina’s daughter returned? It was such a shame, so, so sad.”

Angelina was the mother of one of 139 girls who were abducted in a one night LRA raid of a prestigious Catholic girl’s school in Aboke, Northern Uganda. Angelina became a leader of the movement to return the girls from LRA captivity, speaking out for peace and forgiveness from the capital city of Kampala to the White House. For her courage and dedication to peace building, Angelina received several awards, including the UN Prize in Human Rights.

Angelina’s daughter, Charlotte, had been forced to marry one of the highest officers of the LRA. “He was an evil, evil man,” Francesca told me, shaking her head with pity. “He was known for being so bad. Angelina knew this from the intelligence reports, and even that her daughter had become mother to two of his children while in the bush.

“Still, she preached the gospel of forgiveness, encouraging families to accept their abducted children back in the home.

“But when her own daughter finally returned, after more than seven years in captivity, it was too much for her to bear. She looked at those little children and she just hated them, really hated them. She hated them so much because of what that evil man had done, that she could no longer accept her daughter in her home.

“And she had been the leader of the reconciliation movement, the preacher of forgiveness.”

I looked away, saddened by the news of the heroine I admired.

After a long pause, Francesca continued, “In time, Angelina received counseling and was able to accept the children back. But my point is, even for the woman who was most strongly advocating for reconciliation, the process was difficult. There is still so far to go, so far to go in healing Uganda.”

From the girls at PGA, I have learned that many families, influenced by cultural mores and traditions, could not bear the idea of accepting illegitimate children or their child mothers. In some of the worst cases—usually girls forced to marry highly ranked rebel commanders—they were disowned by their clan, blamed as complicit in the LRA’s violence. As a result, these girls face the challenge of starting completely anew, some uniting resources to buy their own plot of land to start a new clan altogether.

“But there is so much hope,” Alice interjected, not wanting to leave the conversation on a sour note. “The girls they are confident…when people mock them for being mothers, they respond that they will perform even better. I’ll give you an example. When the Academy first opened, our girls would play against other schools, and they would be taunted, with the other team shouting ‘mothers, mothers, mothers.’ At first this really demoralized them, but they found the courage to continue playing through the chants, and eventually won game after game, securing the championship title from the District. Now, no one dares mock them as ‘mothers,’ and the girls know that despite the challenges they’ve faced, they can do as well or better than their peers. They have so much commitment and so much hope.”

“They Told Me It Was Impossible”

“When we began taking in the girls, the ones with the little children, they all told me I was crazy.” The lamp created soft yellow shadows upon Alice’s face as she spoke from across the darkness. “They told me it was impossible; that the girls who got pregnant were a lost cause. ‘How could you possibly have a girl with a baby in class?’ They asked, but look at us now, five years out, and our girls are owning businesses, working as nursing assistants, tailors, and even teachers.”

Alice is the Founder and Director of the Christian Counseling Fellowship (CCF) which runs the Pader Girls Academy (PGA), a school that caters to young women who—largely for reasons related to the war—are unable to attend mainstream school. Most of PGA’s 315 girls were abducted by the LRA and became child mothers as a result of forced marriages. Others became mothers at as young as 12 years old because of the notoriously rampant sexual assault which occurred in the IDP camps of Northern Uganda.

I met Alice on my very first day in Pader. When I arrived, it was mid-morning, and a crowd gathered in the town’s soccer field for an Independence Day celebration. Out of curiosity, I went to see the festivities, choosing the last remaining seat which was serendipitously next to Alice.

Alice is an anomaly in Acholiland. At six feet tall, other Ugandans tease her about being “American height,” though her perfectly spoken Lwo, refinement, and taste in bright African dress testify to her Northern Ugandan ancestry. In a society with few female leaders in the public sphere, Alice assails gender norms: she is outspoken, works outside the home as Director of two successful organizations, and remains unwed without biological children despite being in her mid-30s.

Locals call her “Auntie” as a sign of reverence, testament to her importance in the community and exceptional gifts, being both intelligent and compassionate. She interprets her firmly rooted Christian faith as requiring Christ-like love for the meek, and her natural genius has allowed her to accomplish amazing feats without advanced educational training.

I now live in Alice’s compound which offers an open invitation to anyone in need. Among the regular residents is an HIV-positive child, a deaf teenager, an abandoned woman with children, and a constant stream of guests from nearby villages coming to enjoy a free meal and loving company.

The founding of CCF was itself an extraordinary endeavor, requiring courage in a hostile environment. The very idea of educating unwed, child mothers went against Acholi culture and customs. “You will encourage promiscuity!” people criticized. “These girls should be at home with their children, made responsible for what they have done!”

“You know, Jesus never judged,” Alice told me one night as we discussed the motivation behind PGA. “Take the story of Levi where Jesus dined with the sinners, or that of the prostitute where he said ‘He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone.’”

Indeed, the girls of PGA need compassionate support, and they have found it in Alice, the teachers at PGA, and the staff of CCF.

In the weeks since I first learned of PGA and the women’s empowerment work of CCF, I’ve become increasingly inspired to support Alice’s work, to become a part of the lives of the women at PGA and the children impacted by CCF’s programs. As part of PGA’s Peace Club, I am working with the young women to create a foundation of personal peace, to serve their community, and create love and joy for themselves and others. At CCF, I am working to document the organization’s work in child protection, HIV/AIDS, and women’s issues in the region. As part of this, I will be leading a media campaign next year that draws attention to the plight of women in the region and the projects that encourage change and foster hope.

The preacher at PGA's church asked all those in need of prayer to come to the front.

Students of the Pader Girls Academy

PGA Peace Club girls acting out school bullying.

Alice with Mary, a Director at the MacArthur Foundation who chose to provide seed funding for PGA.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Make me an instrument of peace

For many years, I have hung the Prayer of St. Francis in a place where I can see it when I wake to remind myself that each day can begin with the intention of promoting kindness.

When I arrived in Pader, I knew little about the village outside of what history books and human rights reports shared about the brutal violence which occurred in the region: the dismemberment of bodies, the killing, the abduction of children. I came with no set plan of action, but with an open mind and a willingness to give of my time and skills.

After my first two weeks teaching at FRO’s rehabilitation center, I approached community leaders with an explanation of my prior experience in peace building work and asked about their perceptions of what is most needed to promote sustainable peace and development in Pader. Their answer was unanimous: work to educate our most vulnerable children.

In the days following, I tirelessly labored over (and might I admit, stressed about) a plan to educate 1500 primary school children identified by a coalition of international NGOs as the most vulnerable and war-affected. All of these children are fully or partially orphaned, many were abducted by the LRA, and most care for themselves and siblings. None could access education without the support of donors to cover the expense of school fees, uniforms, school materials, and a basic living allowance.

I learned that it costs $30/year to cover all of the expenses associated with a child’s school attendance in Uganda, less than I spend in one night of dinner and a movie back home. For less than $8,000 more/year, the entire program supporting 1500 children in 56 Northern Ugandan primary schools could be administered and have all operational costs covered.

After agreeing to find funding to support this program, I was greeted with another request: help bring peace education to schools in Northern Uganda. I jubilantly accepted this challenge after seeing how happily the Kids for Peace Peace Pledge was received. Over the next few months, I will work to support peace education beginning with the most local primary schools and eventually reaching several more remote schools in areas that once served as battlegrounds for the terror waged by the LRA.

The enormity of the challenges I am facing here are at times overwhelming. While I’m constantly hearing about new “causes” to support here and realizing that one person can only do so much, I know that even so, all people can begin the day with the intention of doing the most they can to foster peace and spread hope.

The Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

The Faces of Youth

Here in Pader, I spend part of my time teaching at a vocational school operated by Friends of Orphans (FRO) for vulnerable youth. To be admitted to the center, a young person must be a formerly abducted youth (a child soldier or child bride of the LRA), a war orphan, disabled, an AIDS orphan, and/or a child-headed household. Many of my students qualify in more than one way, with the majority once belonging by will or force to the Lord’s Resistance Army.

I cannot picture a single soldier amongst the boys who are kind, courteous, and quick to help me in the classroom. The girls, many of whom leave at lunchtime to feed their children, seem like any other teenage girls, except more responsible and wise to the value and privilege of obtaining an education after having it denied to them for much of their lives.

The classroom can be a distracting place. Several times a day, chickens chase each other across the cement floors, squawking loudly; the wet season’s rains cause a deafening cacophony of sound as water tumults the metal roof, impeding instruction; and intermittent power means I often must teach in dim light, using my lively imagination to come up with adapted lesson plans.

I teach Computers, English and Debate to the vocational school students, and am shocked by some of the stories that surface in our storytelling practice. During free writing exercises, I provide students with simple prompts, like “Tell me about your weekend,” which often result in responses that leave me heart-wrenched for days to come.

One timid teenage girl shared that over the weekend, she was faced with deciding how best to support her 12-year old sister who was raped by a man in the village. My job as an English teacher—to correct the grammar of the stories shared in my class—suddenly seemed trivial as my humanity compelled me to inquire about the steps taken to ensure the health, counseling, and legal support of this young girl.

In the smiling faces of the students, I can tell how deeply they appreciate their educations, the security within the gates of the FRO rehabilitation center, and the healing they are able to experience here. In the furrows of their brows and serious, aged eyes, I am reminded of the cruelty these brave youth faced during wartime and continue to face as they struggle to survive in Pader.

Monday, October 24, 2011

“Same, Same, but Different:” Women, Men, and Rural Life

One of my favorite nights in Pader so far, Nighty invited me over for a soda. I am not normally a soda drinker, but with few sugary items available, I jumped at the chance to try a pineapple flavored Novida.

When I arrived, I was hurried into Nighty’s thatched-roof hut, away from the drinking men surrounding who always love my visits. Inside, Nighty had carefully swept her dirt floor and cleared her belongings to make room for three plastic chairs and a worn wooden stool. Her other guests awaited my arrival: her vivacious and opinionated 24 year-old sister named Alice, and her sister’s friend, Sange.

We spent the evening chatting and joking like childhood friends. Outside, Nighty’s customers drank and listened to spirited African music, and every now and then, the women and I would suspend our conversation to teach one another how we would dance to the beat. They laughed and laughed at my attempts at mimicking the tidal movement of their gyrating hips as they demonstrated the traditional dance of the region.

Of course, in a room of young women, the subject of conversation eventually turned to men. Did I have a man? What is dating like in the United States? Do I plan to meet the family of the man I have most recently dated?

I quickly learned that in Northern Uganda, a woman may be courted for as short as a few days or as long as a year before she introduces her suitor to her family for approval and marriage. I explained that I once dated a man for two and a half years, but decided not to marry him, and that I could reasonably date many men in my life for long periods of time before deciding I wanted to marry.

“Why do you think it will take such a long time?” Alice asked. “Western men are supposed to make very good husbands. Me, I am waiting for a Western man. White men know that an African woman will be very obedient and make a good wife, so they like us too.” The others all agreed, they were waiting for Western men to come to the village and ask for their hand in marriage, and even Nighty—the one with children among us—said that she would take up a Western man if she had the chance.

“Why do you like Western men so much?” I asked, amused by their interest in those I am quick to dismiss. I was expecting an answer involving money or looks, the superficial qualities that girls in the U.S. fawn over, but was surprised by their response. “One of the main causes of death for a woman here is beating. Sometimes, a woman is beaten badly, but there is no money for the hospital, so she dies at home. We have heard that Western men do not beat their wives. Also, we are told that they are not players and they do not drink as much.”

Humbled by their response, I agreed that it is not culturally acceptable for a man in America to hit a woman, but I shared that even some men in America do, that others can be “players,” and still others drink too much.

Sipping our pineapple bubbly, we allowed the conversation to return to lighter things, to dancing, travels, and what life is like back home.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Nighty, the businesswoman

“Miss, how are you? Where are you going?” a woman’s voice hollered in
accented English from afar. While men ask me this all day long, I was
surprised to hear a woman speaking to me.

Nighty is robust and young, with hair cut close to her head and a joyous presence. Her beaming smile and inviting voice drew me to the
side of her homestead, where she waited by her mud wall to talk to me.

After shaking her hand and introducing myself, Nighty proudly
proclaimed that she is a businesswoman. When I asked about her
business, I had a hard time following: something about transforming
liquids, placing things to dry, making mush. With the confusion
apparent on my face, Nighty welcomed me into her mud hut so that I
could see for myself.

Nighty’s small, circular hut serves as the sleeping place for herself,
her husband, and her three small children. Under the only bed, millet
is drying, and big vats of liquid in varying stages of murkiness take
up most of the rest of the ground space. The strong aroma solved the
mystery: Nighty makes alcohol, and the corral she built in front of
her hut—full of drunken men at 2pm—serves as a testament to her
business’s success.

Nighty says she is so happy to have a foreign friend now. She met one
woman from Canada some years back, and loves to admire the beauty of
foreigners. I told her that I think she is beautiful too, which she
responded to by inviting me to visit her during the evenings.

During my first evening visit, I brought her citrus fruit and beans,
which delighted her nearly as much as my headlamp pleased her
five-year old daughter. With my invitation to join for dinner and her
promise to help me practice Luo, Nighty and I are forming a bond that
I hope lasts for the duration of my stay in Pader.

Welcome to Pader

After a brief stay in Kampala, I began the long journey to Pader,
Northern Uganda. During the ten hour bus ride, I saw the land around
me transform from the semi-tropical and relatively prosperous south to
the increasingly dry, desolate, and poor north. At one point, an
Acholi mother with two young children sat beside me. Her oldest
daughter, roughly 3 years old, laughed and laughed every time she
looked at me. Occasionally, she’d reach out to touch my skin and then
let out a big belly laugh with her sparsely toothed, orange slice
smile, a sweet, innocent reaction to the unknown. Later in the day, I
encountered a younger boy, less than two years old, who looked at me
with a horror-struck countenance and then broke out into tears. I
preferred the little girl’s response.

Pader is one of the most remote regions of Uganda, and was hard hit by
twenty years of Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) warfare which ended with
a peace agreement in 2008. During its heyday, the LRA abducted an
estimated 60,000 children who were forced to become soldiers and child
brides, and 1.5 million Northern Ugandans were herded into internally
displaced people (IDP) camps, living in notoriously abysmal conditions
for over a decade.

Today, Pader is a graveyard of NGOs, with locals telling ghost stories
of foreign humanitarians who passed through, leaving few remains of
the tens of millions of aid dollars spent here. While NGO buildings
and jeeps sprinkle the town and countryside, the liveliness of these
organizations departed and left in its wake a slew of empty
guesthouses and restaurants.

Food is scarce in this dusty and dry district, so World Food Programme
trucks pass by often, with Food for the Hungry, Mercy Corps, and
several others having some presence here. While many habitations
advertise restaurant services, most are seldom open, and those that
are offer only a small fraction of what is on their menu.

With the coming dry season, the availability of food and water will
become even rarer, introducing me to paucity like I have never before

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Buddhist Tour of Southeast Asia

This summary of my Southeast Asia tour originally appeared on the Global Basecamps Blog. Global Basecamps is a specialty travel company focused on sustainability. I appreciate their commitment to eco-friendly travel, and I appreciate their co-founder who is on the board of Kids for Peace! Thank you to Global Basecamps for posting my blog entries and for generously contributing to my travel experience.

After four years of hard work completing my undergraduate degrees, I decided to treat myself to a trip I had dreamed about since my youth. Southeast Asia enticed me with images of orange clad monks, golden Buddha statues, and seemingly endless rice paddies. With the highest proportion of practicing Buddhists on the planet, I went to experience peace: to meditate in temples, contemplate beauty from the peaks of Laotian mountains, learn and connect.

One month of travel took me to the magnificent temples of Siem Reap, Cambodia, rural villages of Northern Laos, and tranquil beaches of Koh Samui, Thailand. As part of my personal mandate to experience the fullness of life, I sought not only experiences that foster peace and joy, but those that could teach me about human suffering—the key component of the Four Nobel Truths that form the basis of religious practice and culture for much of the region. I designed a trip that would go beyond touring the temples and art I admired and delve into the depths of the human experience, embracing too the suffering true of our existence.

In Siem Reap, Cambodia, I admired some of the most beautiful artistic expressions created by humankind. With monsoonal rains drumming against the forests’ canopies, I explored the temples of Angkor in surreal solitude, dancing to the natural rhythms of the forest and admiring the awe-inspiring reliefs and architecture that idealize the harmony of Buddhism and illustrative lives of Hindu deities.

I left the magnificent temples to visit the Cambodian Landmine Museum and Rescue Center where children who have lost limbs receive an education and care. I learned about how millions of undetonated devices left from the Vietnam War continue to jeopardize the security of rural Cambodians and Lao. In the faces of these smiling children, I saw the cruelty of war firsthand, the injustice that affects civilians long after fighting ceases.

Along with gorgeous temples and bustling markets, I visited the killing fields and prisons of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia where I learned about some of the most heinous acts one human could do to another. I asked questions of victims of forced migration and heard stories of starvation and struggle for survival.

In the villages of northern Laos, I trekked through beautiful rice paddies, participated in a Buddhist festival to honor the departed, gave alms, and enjoyed the slow pace of rural life. On one trek, I explored the dim caves of Muang Ngoi where villagers lived for twelve years while their country fought a civil war and Americans relentlessly bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I listened to adults who were born in the caves and who lost family members to disease when it was too unsafe to seek outside medical attention.

Along with some dark moments, my trip was blessed with periods of unparalleled bliss. One day, I bicycled 70km in the sunshine through the countryside of Luang Prabang, Laos to swim in pools at the base of massive waterfalls. I took a day-long cooking course in Chiang Mai, Thailand that introduced me to the epicurean concepts behind my love of Thai food. I was treated to a divine Thai massage at one of the most internationally praised spas in Koh Samui, Thailand, and swam with tropical fish during a daylong snorkeling excursion off of the deserted Koh Tao Island. Many days of morning meditation in inspiring Buddhist temples left me with a feeling of harmonious emptiness and a constant smile that I carried with me throughout my days.

From my willingness to explore suffering and bear witness to the affects of violence, I was able to connect with those I met and deepen my understanding of the human experience. Through tears and smiles, laughter and joy, I glimpsed the expanse of life: the struggles that no one deserves but some must endure as well as the pleasures small and large that help sustain us. In an extraordinary trip that took me out of the comforts of the Middle Path, I experienced the extremes of beauty, happiness, and suffering in Southeast Asia, learning more about life in one month than in many of my years past.

Pursuing Pleasure in Thailand

On one of the last days of my Southeast Asia tour, I picked up a copy of Eat, Pray, Love from a used bookstore and realized that Elizabeth and I were on the same trip. Sure there are some notable differences: the autobiography’s author had suffered a horrible divorce prompting her to visit three I’s—Italy, India, and Indonesia—with the goals of pursuing pleasure, devotion and balance. I had no such explicit goal at the outset of my trip, but here I was, lying on a sun-kissed beach in Koh Samui, Thailand, reading my book, sipping a Mai Tai, and…pursuing pleasure.

Compared to my recent travels, Thailand was as a beacon of fun, frivolity, and pampering.

Italy called to Elizabeth with its rich pastas and full-bodied wines, and Thailand’s famous peppers and spices beckoned my epicurean sensibilities. A proper visit to Thailand includes a good amount of eating, as every local tropical fruit, each variety of curry, and the many takes on the fried noodle must be sampled. I wanted to perfect the art of eating these delights and also to take a skill home as a souvenir, so a friend and I enrolled in a day-long Thai cooking course.

At Baan Thai, we learned how to make homemade coconut milk, to mash our own spices for curry with a mortar and pestle, and to time the dropping of spring rolls into hot oil perfectly so as to ensure a crisp exterior and delicate finish. Even better, we developed the skill of eating for seven hours straight as each of our five courses needed tasting. And by tasting, I mean to say that we ate them in full—sometimes with a Chang beer—and always with a chili-filled smile of self satisfaction and flavor-induced delight.

A thorough visit to Thailand also includes a sampling of Thai spa culture. The famous Thai massage (which at times feels more like a Thai boxing match in which the organizers forgot to give the massage recipient a pair of gloves) is certainly a beating worth taking at $5-$10 per hour. Thai are experts in making the body feel and look fresh, with beauty salons and massage parlors as plentiful in Bangkok as temples in Laos.

Without a doubt, a highlight of my visit was an amazing stay in Koh Samui at Zazen Boutique Resort, a gift from my friends at Global Basecamps. The resorts of Koh Samui had come highly recommended, but my traveling buddy and I had no idea what service would greet us as we entered our honeymoon suite beach bungalow. The rose pedals on the bed and in the tub meant we began our stay with a big belly laugh, and the weekend of beach lounging, five star dining, speed boat rides, Thai dancing, and snorkeling kept the smiles permanently painted on our faces.

Thailand may be a land dedicated to what looks and feels good, but that didn’t keep me from visiting temples and experiencing some hearty, pleasure-avoiding meditation.

The glistening gold of Thai temples pierces the eye like a blinding, alkali-filled jewelry box. While the exterior shouts so loudly that the Buddhist message is at times unheard, the silence within and the gentle smells of incense could transport the practitioner to the interior of a temple anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

After visiting many of the impressive temples of Bangkok, my temple tour of Southeast Asia was officially complete. I left the memories of physical struggle behind with my Lao woven hat, said goodbye for now to Thai Basil and sent my last postcards off to friends and family back home. In one month, I had pursued pleasure in Thailand, learning throughout Southeast Asia, and meaningful connection with everyone I met.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Religious Life in Laos

The cocks crowed hours too early outside my sleepy bungalow in Muang Ngoi Neua, Laos. By four-thirty in the morning, the small town of around 200 was abuzz with the clatter of food preparations and the drone of battery-operated Lao radio. While most days begin around dawn for almsgiving to the village’s monks, today was a special day in which everyone in the town participated wearing their finest sarongs and festive wear in order to give food, gifts, and money in memory of their deceased family members and ancestors.

Saan, my guide, had invited me to participate with his family. He—like me—had lost siblings, and woke at four to prepare meals to bring to the temple to fuel his brother’s and sister’s journey in the spirit world.

With my body fully covered and a scarf tied across my chest in the style of a Lao Buddha image, I stumbled from bed and found my place in the line of people that had formed to wait for the monks. From the temple at the edge of the village came the soothing sound of chants and gongs, leaving the crowd in excited anticipation for the procession. My offering plate overflowed with the banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice and cookies Saan had shared with me to give to the monks.

Laos is one of the only places in the world where Buddhist morning alms-giving persists as a daily ritual practiced by the majority of townspeople. The contemporary significance of Theravada Buddhism is quite remarkable considering Communist beliefs about religion. Just beyond Loas’s borders, Cambodian and Chinese Buddhists witnessed the destruction of temples and the systematic suppression of religious tradition, making modern Buddhism a shell of what it once was. Laos is an anomaly among Communist nations, with a strong religious culture that continues to govern the largest to most subtle daily decisions.

Temples continue to be found on every corner in Lao cities, like Starbucks in America. The temple structures—decorated in bright gold paint, bits of mosaic glass, and murals—demand a sense of awe, mimicking experientially the concept of achieving nirvana. While I’m not particularly keen on the ostentation, I did find peace meditating with monks inside the temples and particularly liked the artistry of the glass mosaic tiles.

Monks were some of the friendliest people I encountered in Laos. All Lao males are expected to become monks at some point, and families take great pride in their sons donning orange robes. Some choose monkhood for a couple of years while they attend school, and others devote their entire lives to the tradition. Several who studied English spoke with me about their daily routines which involve a great amount of study and personal discipline. While not all Buddhists refrain from meat-eating, monks and nuns do; they keep short sleep schedules; eat only two meals a day at 6am and noon; and remain dedicated to critical reasoning and investigation through many hours of daily study.

Next on my tour of temples and culture is Thailand! I expect Thailand to be the easiest place I have traveled so far in terms of navigation, and look forward to sampling delectable food, spirited dance, and sensational scenery.

Journeying to Far-away Lands

One of my hopes in Laos was to leave behind streets, tuk-tuks, and voices, and find a place where life is quiet. I had heard about treks to tribal villages out of Muang Ngoi Neua, a small town only accessible by boat, and decided to make my way to the storied place with no automobiles or flushing toilets, and only limited electricity.

Muang Ngoi was first discovered for tourism by a French woman boating up the Mekong in 1988. At the time, her search for a hut to sleep in was met by adversarial faces, with every townsperson shutting their doors as she approached.

Their lack of welcome came from equal parts fear and anger. For nearly twelve years, the people of Muang Ngoi had been forced to live in small caves carved into the local mountains as wars destroyed their tiny village. The worst bombing came from 1968-1969 during the U.S. “Secret War,” when the Ho Chi Minh Trail that ran through Laos was attacked mercilessly by B-52 bombers. Per capita, Laos is the most bombed country in the world, with more bombs dropped in the countryside during the Vietnam War than fell in World War II. As is the case in Cambodia (see post below), approximately one-third of these bombs did not detonate, continuing to contaminate the countryside with dangerous unexploded ordinances.

My guide in Muang Ngoi told me that his brothers and sisters were born in those caves. During a trek through the hills, he showed me the exact cool and damp space on the cave’s floor where his aunt, my host, was born.

Today, resentment has faded as the people of Muang Ngoi and nearby tribal villages understand the economic benefits of tourism. They now have several simple guesthouses and family-run restaurants that welcome travelers from the very countries that made them retreat into caves some forty years ago.

Just outside of Muang Ngoi, several small villages can be found where residents speak tribal languages, practice varying forms of animist religion, and make specialized handicrafts that are sold in a communal market in Muang Ngoi every ten days. I visited several of these villages during a day-long trek with my guide, Saan. I saw how men work a full day to weave two baskets that could sell for 20,000 kip each (about $2), while others labored to make simple knives that would sell for about the same amount. I witnessed how American and Russian-made bombs had been repurposed for their metal and were used to support huts, create drainage, and sharpen tools.

Life really is quiet in these villages—except for the roosters, chickens, and children. Along the banks of the creeks and river, puppies, chicks, ducklings, and infants all crawled along dirt paths. Fertility was in the air, from the rice paddy homes of buffalos to the village huts. There was something romantic about life in Muang Ngoi, which I decided came from sounds alone: the buzz of the generators for the few hours of electricity that came at night; the chirping of insects in the forest along the river; the sound of the river, the creeks, and the waterfalls.

My stay in Muang Ngoi was brief, but made rich by the reception of villagers, especially my guide Saan and his family. Saan welcomed me to his home for a buffalo barbeque and drinks (I ate vegetables and passed on the Lao Lao fermented rice wine), traditional rice soup for breakfast, and a glimpse at religious culture in the village. Saan had been a monk as an adolescent, and taught me the ins-and-outs of paying respects during a Theravada Buddhist festival.


Throughout Laos, posters advertise experiences that promise “Shangri-Lao,” day to week-long escapes to an exotic paradise.

While landlocked Laos lacks the beaches famous in Thailand, its verdant mountains barely inhabited by humans in the North and thousands of flatlands covered in rice paddies throughout the country still warrant its title as a Shangri-la. Even the two most populated cities, Vientiane and Luang Prabang, span only a few downtown blocks, with the vast majority of Lao’s seven million people living in remote rural village communities.

My original itinerary had me spending several days visiting temples and sights of cultural importance in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, but after one afternoon in Vientiane, I realized that the sights I had planned to see over several days’ time could be visited in only a few hours.

Emancipated from my schedule, I set out to experience the essence of each town.

In the French Colonial capital, Vientiane, I spent every afternoon by the banks of the Mekong River. Resting by a fountain or tree, I would watch as couples and families enjoyed the park by day, hundreds participated in wildly popular group aerobics classes at sunset, and the dark of night brought lively markets and teens patrolling the boardwalk. With drinks from local caf├ęs and fruit stands, I read books and enjoyed the slow pace and relative ease of life in the small capital city.

The bus ride to Luang Prabang was the kind of adventure that comes free with the price of admission. A journey that I was told would take 8 hours ended up requiring nearly a day, with several landslides blocking the road, multiple bus breakdowns, and many miles by foot with my bags. I saw the slow journey as an unexpected gift because it meant I could spend more time appreciating the mountain scenery of Laos in areas that are not normally stops on the tourist trail.

The city of Luang Prabang, once the capital of the Kingdom of Laos, is the definition of quaint. Intermixed with the lingering influences of French Colonial architecture and eateries, traditional Buddhist temples and cultural sites make the town a sleepy getaway for travelers.

My favorite temple in Luang Prabang was the UNESCO-protected Wat Xieng Thong. Built in 1560 as a temple for the King, the small but ornate temple complex houses an extraordinary royal funerary urn as well as some spectacular glass mosaics done in rich jewel hues that glisten in the sun radiating colors as rich as a tropical coral reef.

While the most physically challenging, my best experience in Luang Prabang Province was a 70km bike ride through the hilly countryside. While a number of waterfalls were my official destination, by far, the joy came from the ride itself. Fighting exhaustion from the 90+ degree heat, I communed with local villagers who quite literally cheered me on as I went about my way. I imagine it is a bit of a site to see a foreigner riding through the hills during the summertime, and I appreciated all of the high fives from the kids and the smiles from the adults I passed by. I was most delighted by a stop to buy a hat. The saleswoman handed me a traditional rice-pickers hat which she had made herself. When I put it on, we both laughed and laughed. This picture was the first she had ever taken with a camera, and captures the moment of our giggling and language-less sharing.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Accessing the Divine through Art and Architecture: A Visit to Angkor Wat

Traveling during monsoon season in Southeast Asia is not for the faint of heart, but for those with a sturdy plastic poncho, ribbed-soled sandals, and a good attitude, it can mean lighter crowds and an exceptional experience on a rainy day in the forest.

When I arrived to Siem Reap, my guest house operator looked at me like I had two heads when I said I was ready to go to the temples despite the rain. All of the other guests appeared cozy inside watching a movie, but I was determined to explore.

My first visit was to Ta Prohm, the jungle temple that served as a setting in scenes of Tomb Raider. With rain pouring down and several-inch deep pools of water gathered in every courtyard, the temple was a ghost town. As I admired the high and low-relief stone sculptures, I danced in jubilation to the natural rhythms of rain falling in the forest, birds chirping, and monkeys howling. This was all I imagined Angkor would be!

The next morning, I set my alarm to 4am in order to make it to the main temple of Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. My dedication to the cause made me among the first to arrive, with an excellent spot for viewing. In the dark of the late morning, Buddhist monks could be heard chanting mantras in the distant temple. As the sun rose, silence fell upon the reflection pool for several moments before the buzz of tourists returned.

The quality of art and architecture within the Angkor complexes is exquisite, representing some of the finest humankind has made. Many of the temples were constructed around a central mandala design, with several including reflecting pools nearby that extend the images of the architecture to two planes resulting in incredible visual appeal.

During my days of wandering in and out of various surrounding temples, I was inspired by the images of Hindu and Buddhist deities that lined the halls. There was something so powerful about the religious messages shared by Indians traveling in Cambodia that the local people decided to convert and construct these monumental structures. The entire society became based around temple life, complete with festivals, religious ceremonies, and royal celebrations aimed at creating a connection with the divine.

Today, the temples of Siem Reap support the livelihoods of thousands of Cambodians who survive off of the tourist industry. Despite the heat and humidity, every person I encountered was equally inspired and pleased with their decision to visit Angkor. Like those who came before me, my pilgrimage was a moment to connect with the divine, a childhood dream come true.

Killing for Equality

In the “People’s Republic of Cambridge,” the writings of Marx are upheld as a sort of blueprint for idealist scholars. Several of my Harvard peers call themselves Marxists, inspired by a vision of equality and universalism.

For the people of Cambodia, the word “Marxism” brings back memories of one of the country’s darkest times. To explore the history of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and the genocide that ensued under the party’s leadership, I headed to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

In its four years of national rule from 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge is believed to have caused the deaths of 2 million of Cambodia’s 7.5 million civilians, making it the deadliest regime of the twentieth century. To force egalitarianism upon its populace, party leaders ordered the exodus of all urban dwellers to the rural countryside where a policy of self-sufficiency required people to produce their own rice, clothing, and medicines. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of deaths that resulted from starvation and lack of access to modern medicines, the party’s policies of torture and execution aimed at suspected capitalists depleted Cambodia of some of its most educated, famous, and prosperous members of society.

The Tuol Sleng Prison Museum is located near the center of the capital city of Phnom Penh. Once a high school, the Khmer Rouge converted the campus into a systematized torture facility and prison. During its four years of operation, an estimated 20,000 prisoners met their demise behind prison walls, with only seven known survivors.

The exterior of each of the school buildings remains covered in barbed electric wire, meant to prevent prisoners from committing suicide. The tiny cells constructed within the former classrooms appear insufficiently small to fit a resting body, sized more appropriately as coffins than prison rooms.

As each prisoner entered the facility, they were photographed and ordered to provide a full life biography. Today, the prison rooms are filled with the haunting photographic portraits of the thousands held captive and tortured within the facilities.

Just fifteen minutes outside of the city center, I visited Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, the location of the largest known mass graves in Cambodia. Here, at least 20,000 people were executed and murdered, many of them family members of those detained in Tuol Sleng prison, representing a small fraction of the estimated 1,300,000 buried in mass graves throughout Cambodia. Today, the bones of the bodies excavated at Choeung Ek are kept on display in a memorial stupa in the center of the killing fields. The land surrounding has been largely untouched since the excavations began. Grass now covers the shoveled pits where skeletal remains were removed; trees, once used to bash in the heads of infants, stand swaying in the wind; and local fishers now use the property to catch evening supper. The calm in this former place of mass violence is eerie with birds chirping and insects humming where once, the screams of thousands were heard.

It was amazing for me to learn that the Khmer Rouge party remained strong until the early 1990s, not officially dissolving until 1999, when I was ten years old. Today, the Khmer Rouge Case Trials continue, a slow effort overseen by the UN to bring justice to the Cambodian people.

I left the killing fields in silent prayer, sending peace to the spirits of Choeung Ek and praying for an end to senseless violence everywhere.

Bombs and bonds

I made a friend in Japan who I bonded with over a discussion about bombs. Rika and I chose to spend the day together in Hiroshima, and neither of us held back as we asked questions and provided answers about the war and the atomic attack. We realized that both of our understandings of the atomic bomb were deeply rooted in the patriotic telling of history provided by our textbooks and educators which gave a single perspective in an infinite sea of war stories.

In Cambodia, I entered another former enemy’s territory. I knew little about the Vietnam War outside of what movies, popular culture, and brief mentions in history books have taught me.

In Cambodia, I learned about the War from child survivors of landmine explosions.

The Cambodian countryside appears much as I imagine it did forty years ago, with yaks still serving as a major form of transport and labor, children playing naked in water pools, and families working from dawn until dusk in the rice paddies before returning to their thatched roof huts. This tranquil setting is where the vast majority of Cambodia’s 40,000 amputees lost their limbs and where most of the estimated 4-6 million remaining undetonated devices reside.

During the War, Vietnamese used territory within Laos and Cambodia to supply troops in Vietnam. Known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, this supply line became a main target for near-continual American bombing that resulted in the loss of an estimated 600,000 Cambodian civilian lives. Hundreds of thousands of these bombs did not detonate and still litter the countryside, making rural Cambodia one of the most dangerous places in the world to live over thirty years later.

The number of undetonated ordinances increased following the end of the Vietnam War with the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Landmines were seen as a key part of their strategy, debilitating but not killing their victims, as the economic cost of an amputee to an enemy is greater than that of a casualty.

At the Cambodia Land Mine Museum and Rescue Center, children who have lost limbs receive an education and disability care. There, in the countryside of Siem Reap, I heard the stories of children as young as five who had been picking rice or walking to school when a bomb exploded nearby. These children, forever disabled, knew nothing of the difference between communism and democracy. The stories they wished to share were not about politics or war strategies, but about the long-term impact of bombs.

As I left the museum and the smiling faces of the limbless children, I felt deep appreciation for what a blessing it is that people have openly shared with me stories from the other side, those told by child soldiers, limbless civilians, and A-bomb survivors. The stories of war continue long after the signing of peace agreements and can be heard in the voices echoing in the countryside many years later.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Birthday Wish from the Top of Mt. Fuji

Each year, I think long and hard about how I will celebrate my brother’s birthday on his behalf. I usually try to do something that challenges me physically and mentally and helps deepen my appreciation for the world surrounding me. This year, I chose to climb Mt. Fuji overnight to watch the sunrise over Japan from the summit.

Climbing Mt. Fuji at night is a kind of pilgrimage that Japanese have taken for over a thousand years. The first known person to make it to the top was a Shinto priest, completing the 12,388 ft ascent in 663. Through the years, a mountain cult developed where worshipers climbed the mountain braving weather year-round, sometimes risking their lives to pay respect to the volcano.

Even in the summertime, the summit of Mt. Fuji plummets well below freezing after nightfall. Icicles glisten from rocky crevices and leftover snow from the previous winter lingers in the crater’s hollows.

Traveling with only a small backpack and prepared for the summer monsoons of Southeast Asia, I had little in the way of cold weather climbing gear. With the sweatshirt, jacket, hat and gloves I borrowed, I struggled to the top, knowing I would make it, but resenting the stinging wind that whipped my face.

After many hours of climbing and fighting exhaustion, I made it to the top with a couple of hours to wait before sunrise. I huddled close to new friends, and patiently waited for the moment that I hoped would astound me with beauty.

At around 5am on August 30, I appreciated the glory of life. The sun slowly peeked through the clouds on a day that all of the guides said was unusually clear. I spent a few hours at the summit, relishing in the moment and remembering my brother’s spirit. I know that this was a moment he would have been very proud of, and I am honored to live fully and appreciate life for both of us.