part iv: faces of happyland

Happyland is a volunteer run school in the Prey Sandek Village about 50 miles south of Phnom Penh. The school offers english classes and a safe place to for the children of this rural region to come and play. For a portion of my travels I had the opportunity to spend time living and volunteering at Happyland, teaching english and getting the chance to step outside of the touristy, backpacker filled areas and really appreciate the culture of Cambodia for all it has to offer. 

It was so special for me to spend part of my travels at Happyland. A place where the kids come as they please and can just escape. While spending time here it was hard to ignore that many children come from families where domestic violence and alcoholism are common, when beer costs less than food it's unfortunately not a surprise. Not to mention that many of these families are still deeply affected by the genocide, almost everyone knows someone who was close to them killed during the Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. After so much horror and acts of evil it has been hard for Cambodia to rebuild their country and re-claim it's once progressive identity. There is still so much devastation and corruption. Many women and children are victims of sex trafficking; KTVs: karaoke clubs that are fronts for brothels, can easily be found, sometimes two or three within a short distance of one another, all with their bright pink and red lights outside to welcome customers in.  The government and police are still very corrupt and if one has enough money they can easily be paid off. The darkness cannot be easily ignored. 

However, the people of Cambodia are working diligently rebuild their country with hope, grace and peace. Happyland is a place that shows such hope. This is a place where kids can come be with friends, escape for a moment whatever is troubling them, regain and reveal in their innocence all while being offered education; something that had once been completely stripped from the country during the Khmer Rouge. Still to this day acess to education can be limited. Happyland offers the kids living in the Prey Sandek region the opportunity to come study English at no cost. 

While at Happyland the kids are truly happy and excited by the simplest things, like being brought to the nearby high school to play a game of basketball on the court. They are also excited to share with you parts of their life; sharing their food, introducing you to new fruits and really share with you things you may otherwise not have the opportunity to experience had you just stayed in the tourist hub. A couple of the students invited me to get up with them at 3:30am and join them in going to the nearby Buddhist pagoda to celebrate Pchum Ben, a 15-day religious holiday where Cambodians honor their deceased ancestors and bring them an offering of food. I decided to leave my camera at home the morning I went to the pagoda, it was more important for me to fully immerse myself and be present, taking the opportunity to learn and experience something new. 

The students of Happyland are so eager and willing to teach their culture to those that come to teach them. It is truly a place of learning for all and a place where happiness is abundant. During my time spent there I felt so welcome and home, happy to appreciate life and the willingness to learn what we can all teach eachother. I hope one day to return to Happyland and have the opportunity to spend much more time there with the wonderful community, living and growing with eachother. 

part iii: soaking in the sacred wisdom of centuries past

After spending a few days in the busyness of Bangkok I was so excited to move on to the second half of my trip and spend time exploring all the beauty Cambodia has to offer. It only seemed appropriate my first stop be in Siem Reap and explore the sacred Temples of Angkor. Wandering the Angkorian ruins, built throughout the 9th to 15th century, I was overcome by moments of peace, beauty and awe, as well as, moments of anxiety.

At times it was hard to be in a place that is so sacred and be surrounded by loud tourists with their ridiculous selfie-sticks. Tourists have begun to overrun the place; buses full of Chinese tourists come in daily and fill the most iconic temples, with very little respect for the land the temples are on or the other people around them. Crowds of people yelling and pushing in front of others to get a photo to later post on social media. It was in these moments of chaos that it was hard to fully appreciate where I was. It made me sad to think that we have gotten so far away from being able to simply appreciate where we are in the moment to get that "perfect photo" to post on instagram in order to receive as many likes as possible. There were many times I put my camera away just to allow myself to fully be in the present and take in the wonders of these gorgeous and intricate temples that were once the center of the Khmer Kingdom and the sacred sites of hindu and buddhist art and architecture. 

It was in the moments when I stepped away from the crowds and found a secluded spot to sit I was able to take it all in, amazed by the different carvings in the stones, the symmetry and construction of the buildings that are surrounded by the jungle. I can never fully describe how awe-inspiring it was to walk through so much history and touch stones that hold traditions and hope of peace. Angkor allowed for moments of deep introspection and to appreciate all the beauty the world can offer when we allow ourselves to just be. 

part ii: always in motion // finding moments of quiet

Life doesn't slow down when traveling; not even when you think you are just relaxing on the beautiful white sand beaches of Thailand. It felt like I was just leaving Chiang Mai to go to the islands, the next thing I knew I was in Cambodia and realized I hadn't posted any of my recent travels. Below are selects from the last three weeks in Thailand. To watching the beautiful sunsets from the beach in Koh Tao, returning to the chaos of Bangkok, a city that is always in motion,  traveling outside the city to Ayutthya and walking thru the ruins of the former Kingdom of Siam. It's always nice to find moments of quiet even in the midst of all the busyness. Thailand has been good for me but I am glad to have left the chaos of Bangkok and take a minute to slow down in Siem Reap, walking through the sacred grounds of Angkor Wat. More pictures to come soon. 

part i: moments of healing & gentleness

There has been a stillness during my time of travel; the anxieties of being in suspense are beginning to be washed away. Kismet moments and feelings of gentleness have been restored walking through the old cities, passing and entering temples. As I enter these places and take in my surroundings I feel a healing spirit brush pass my face, offering a cool breeze from the humidity and heat. Thailand has provided a newfound softness in my heart and I am constantly moved by the simplicity and privilege to live in the midst of these awe-inspiring moments that heal. 

Stillness and The Jungle

The greenbelt under I-5, known to many as the Jungle, has been receiving widespread attention by the media and city officials after the January shooting that killed two people and injured others who call the Jungle their home. On Friday, March 11th, The Women's Housing, Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL), held a cleansing ritual at the location this senseless act of gun violence took place. The ritual honored and remembered James Quoc Tran and Jeannie L. Zapata who were murdered on Tuesday, January 26th, 2016 and emphasized the importance of not letting people who die homeless go unidentified. 

Most of the people who call the Jungle their home were not present during the cleansing ritual, fearful of the media's presence and negative light the media has portrayed on the Jungle, all of which is a reflection of much larger systemic issues that further dehumanize people experiencing homelessness.  However, two women who live in the Jungle, Michelle and Kyra, participated and were vulnerable enough to be present during the ceremony. Their courageous presence left me feeling humbled and grateful.

Kyra expressed that most of the people living outside are just normal people who have hit hard times. Kyra herself lost her job and was no longer able to pay rent, forcing her to seek shelter living in the Jungle. She explained that she was mortified and terrified but the people living in the Jungle took her in with no questions asked and treated her like family. 

Society has constantly pushed the homeless into the margins in an attempt to silence them and ignore the real issues at hand. It is believed that about 400 people are living underneath the I-5 greenbelt for various reasons, including drug addiction, mental illness, etc., but the overlying issue is the lack of resources and affordable housing in this rapidly-growing city. 

Today, during our staff meeting, my co-worker Kaitlin read us a meditation based on a painting called Stillness and I could not help but think of the two courageous women who shared part of their story with us on Friday. Mary Jo Leddy meditates on Stillness saying,

       The two women pause and gather their lives up in the single moment. They do not
       look at each other. They close their eyes and look within, behind, and ahead. They
       stand still, between all that has been and all that shall be. This is the rarest moment
       in the rush that picks a life up and pushes it forward... They gather up their lives, 
       gather up who they have become and prepare to walk into the unknown. Will they
       find a place to land? Will they be given wings?

It is a coincidence that Leddy meditates on two women who are walking into the unknown, just as Michelle and Kyra do everyday. Each new day these women must live the questions: "will they find a place to land? Will they be given wings?" Each day presents new challenges for those experiencing homelessness who hope to one day to find a safe place to land. 

As Leddy's meditation continues she describes that, before a moment of stillness, the women "carried the weight of words and regulations, the crush of cruelty and barking orders that hounded them from place to place." It is easy to see the comparison between the two women in the meditation and the experiences life has thrown at Michelle and Kyra. Leddy continues, 

        Life slipped through their fingers as they tried to hang on, to hold on. They are
        weary from moving without ever really arriving. No one has ever asked them to
        stay. Home is never, never land. These are women forever on the move. The
        powers tell them: Move along, pull up your life and just keep going. Do not stop. 
        Not here and not now. These two women have kept moving to keep alive... The
        women know the pieces of their lives are being gathered up. They are still here. 
        They are still ready to walk toward the borders that nations have constructed
        between the insiders and outsiders.

Michelle and Kyra are still here and although society has pushed them as outsiders I have been given the opportunity to see them as insiders. I was briefly welcomed into their home and am forever grateful to have heard a part of their story. They have further enlightened my passion to work against the injustices of homelessness and to not turn away from the countless people I pass living on the streets. They all have a voice and story that deserves to be heard. 

You look out at the view from the Jungle and can see Safeco Field, a stadium that cost $517.6 million to build and home of the Seattle Mariners, a team valued at $1,100 million. This is just a small glimpse of the wealth in this city and yet there are an estimated 4,505 people sleeping outside throughout Seattle/ King County because the cost of living is too high and not enough affordable housing is available to meet the demands. Enough is enough; housing is a human right and all deserve a safe place to sleep. 

the last six months

"Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever... It remembers little things long after you have forgotten everything." - Aaron Siskind

I have been staring at this quote that sits on a post-it note stuck to my desktop at work realizing I have majorly slacked at sharing everyday photos after initially moving to Seattle.  I have finally put together an edit of city exploration, advocacy, and friendships formed these last six months. These are some of those moments of feeling, of touching, of loving that I have captured during this first year of post grad life and the growing pains of the new life I am creating for myself. 

PNWander

Today I finally made it to the mountains I am usually admiring from the city. Lake Twentytwo, a 5.4mile hike with a 1350ft elevation gain, led me through part of the North Cascades. The trail climbs through mountain rainforest, rocky, damp terrain and the most snow I have seen this winter. The hike up the mountain leads to Lake Twentytwo, the center of an alpine wetland in the northern shoulder of Mount Pilchuck.

As I made my way through the stone steps, moss, hemlocks and red cedars I took in a deep breath of the abundant life surrounding me. A much needed escape from the busyness of the city and a few hours to meditate with the earth. I cannot wait to continue to explore these mountains that regularly give me intense moments of awe and allow me to connect with the gratefulness of life.