Om Gam Ganapataye Namah ~ Removing obstacles & feeling Hmong~ous

Om Gam Ganapataye Namah ~ Removing obstacles & feeling Hmong~ous

Hey Now that’s me way up on an Elephant. And not just any Ele, but the Asian Elephant (Elephas Maximus), this awesome specimen known amongst his kin as Hmong, a nod to the Southeast Asian ethnic group of the Miao people of China, Vietnam and Laos. While now a world away but only weeks back, this was outside Luang Prabang, Laos, my Valentine this year offering tons of Love from the faraway land once known as Lan Xang - The Land of a Million Elephants. Learning only 1.600 now remain, I felt fortunate to experience the uplift, magic and majesty of interacting with such awesome agents of the animal kingdom, a rare and endangered species. In this pic. particularly, man and beast appearing to be moving in concert — while in truth being on Hmong unsettled me, eliciting many prayers and chants.

Let me quickly back up here, in Asian Elephant talk: “Doun” as in move backward - one of a crazy slew of commands I learned at Elephant Village - a private elephant camp and tour destination approved by Laos’ government for the protection & rehabilitation of elephants. Along with “Pai” - go forward, “Kwah” - turn right. “Sai” - turn left, “Hao!” - stop and of course “Kaup Jai” - Thank you (!), the mighty Hmong and I obviously struck up quite the conversation over our one plus kilometer together. Letting me bare-neck wrangle him along with mahout training courses is easier work and a real career path for guys like Hmong, allowing them to earn a living apart from the harsh environment of the logging industry.

Who knew how I was boosting his self-esteem, making him financially and emotionally more self-sufficient as he carted me about the grounds and across the river — all the while hanging on for dear life and forging one of my life’s better memories. This is the experience Elephant Village gives tourists like myself, the chance to know these very special animals, observe them and spend some amazing time with them. Going across that river with his trunk swirling wildly about will forever light up my mental logbooks. And witnessing first-hand the camp’s commitment to allowing elephants to roam the jungle freely, group together in herds, and start new families, seeing the them cut loose to lumber off together, was awesome to behold.

This was all in the afterglow, as finding my spot on an elephant’s neck was quite the challenge. But this bare-necked approach is ultimately better for elephants, doing away with traditional howdahs, or elephant seats. In 2016, Elephant Village went completely howdah-free, striving to set the standard for ethical elephant tourism in Luang Prabang. No howdah means less Ele stress, but also allows for a much more intimate experience on the bare neck, of which I can attest. E. Village also touts a cool museum that assists guests in coming away with a new understanding of the relationship between Laos, their elephants, and their elephants plight. As to the mission of caring deeply for elephants — and all the world’s wildlife — responsible tourism and contributing to local communities, this be not the end of the story. More on recent nows in Laos, India(!) cobra wrangling(!), etc. to come.



Laos (WOW!)

Me & Hmoung emerge from the Healing Waters of the Elephant Village Sanctuary

Me & Hmoung emerge from the Healing Waters of the Elephant Village Sanctuary

The working title for this post was Laos WoW Holy Cow Kapow which is just a nod to how much fun I had visiting the Southeast Asian country to the West of Vietnam, traversed by the Mekong River and known for mountainous terrain, French colonial architecture, hill tribe settlements and Buddhist monasteries. I’ve also been sharing some ridiculously personal aspects of my life on this blog, and thought to ratchet that vibe down a bit. I get it - I’m a teacher and being open-hearted and transparent and all that rot is a good thing. But long-winded posts about my personal pain as well as my healing weigh on me, weigh on me like a baby elephant, so let’s toggle over to some recent happenings that I think we’ll all enjoy in a lighter, airier sort of way.

Back to Laos, and more specifically the north central city of Luang Prabang, just a hour plane ride from Hà Nōi, VN, the name literally translating to Royal Buddha Image and the entire town an UNESCO World Heritage Site. WOW WOW WOW WOW. Actually the whole Laos pronunciation thing is a funny subject. I caught a back and white clip of a John F. Kennedy speech from 1961 at the UXO Laos visitor center - a local shop fostering awareness of Unexploded Ordnances, Laos being the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. - in which Kennedy, sounding like a Massachusetts hillbilly, pronounces it “Lay-Ose” . Much to discuss about Laos then, from its name to its Elephant Sanctuaries, amazing nature, awesome temples, history in South East Asia, etc. I also have to reconnect with my guide there Somphone Inthasone to confirm a few questions. When I met him at the airport, he said, “My name Pon.”. “OK, Pon, how do you spell it?,” I asked. Very slowly he said, “P-O-R-N…” I looked at him, he looked at me, and then I said, “You know, in our language…” to which he quickly cut me off, saying, “I know, I know, I know…” Language translation can be very funny, as the Vietnamese call the lizard a word that sounds like a guttural “Kentucky”. I know how to say it, but every time I see a lizard I ask Phuc, “How do you say lizard?” because I find it so funny. So there was much laughter and amazing experiences in the 4 days I spent exploring Luang Prabang, from the Wat Nong and Wat Xiengthong (Golden) Temple, to the Peace Pagoda to the neck of an elephant named Hmoung. There was even a Temple called Wat Mano which translates to “Broken Head” which I found hilarious. With Phuc and Porn guiding the way, we are definitely on a roll here people.

Let’s just call him Pon for translations sake. Pon was super cool. He would get excited when I asked him questions and respond: “Sho-war, sho-war”, his version of “sure, sure” and always touch my arm when conveying information. Just when I had a little Vietnamese down, he taught me a whole new language, from Sabaidee (Hello) to Kobchai Lai Lai (Thank you very much) to Bor Pen Yang (No worries). He also says “Hello beautiful girl” in the most mellifluous voice, I can’t find it in my notes right now but it’s a heart melter. At one point he mentioned “The Witch Doctor” the Mordu in their language. If this was a movie, I’d turn and speak directly into the camera, asking “OK there’s a Witch Doctor? . We are definitely going to see the Mordu.” We tried to meet with Mrs. Keo and Mrs. Sengha, who will supposedly smoke 10 cigarettes at a time to tap into The Zone, but neither were around. That’s the introduction to amazing Laos, a country of remarkable nature, people, architecture, and religious and cultural heritage, with a few more cool articles soon to come.

Lil' Hà Nôi 'd


“Where you from? Where are you FROMMM?” This was the throaty question of the day, or the weekend rather, from the folks encountered in the northern Vietnam city of Hà Nôi, the country’s capital and second largest city by population. “The United States,” I’d answer enthusiastically, “America”, knowing how crazy curious the good Viet kids are about the country they strangely call Mỹ. They’d all gather around as I drew a quick map of the U.S., encircling earth’s largest geographical mitten. “I’m from Michigan,” I’d explain, my home state being clearly decipherable on a rough outline of the states. “Ohhh Mitchigan,” they’d chorus. “Vang (yes). And where are you all from?,” I’d kid them.“We are from Vietnam!” (hi hi laughter all around). In the past post, I recounted good times adventuring with my ban, my good friend, in the south and Vietnam’s central coast. But if a table of contents existed to the story of my love affair with VN, Phuc wouldn’t show up until Chapter Two. The opening scene would then center on another character – my American friend Aaron James Everhart –Advertising Executive, entrepreneur and Hà Nôi resident since 2005.

Allow me first to take a few steps back, back up the street of Nguyen Dinh Chieu, and explain what brought me to Vietnam in the first place. Prior to my first life-altering jaunt to southeast Asia in December 2007, I’d been the student of a powerful Native American Healer and Medicine Man. In life, we tend to become the person others see us as. But when you’re unseen, when you’re a ghost in the midst of your own people and a little haunted, you’re fairly content being a nothing and becoming no one. Even if you’re born with a ton of talent, that doesn’t matter and in fact makes it all worse, as talented, unsuccessful people in our world are practically proverbs. I was on the road to nowhere, and, like many, life for me was turning out to be nothing but a veil of tears. Fortunately, an Indian Chief saw me, and when he saw me, he really saw me. From the first time I shook his hand, connecting with a real spiritual teacher, the road I was on abruptly ended, and a new road began. Almost two decades later, with many twists and turns, I’m still trudging that same road. And although challenging on a daily basis, I wouldn’t have it any other way, as it’s a life that gets better and better with time, slowly but surely leading to a happiness beyond my own imagining.

My Chief was the love of my life for seven years, a time during which he introduced me to his sacred, Ceremonial way of living. I didn’t care about a whole lot then other than ending my psychic pain, spending extended time on the reservation learning and doing Ceremony. After a few years, I experienced a Hanblecheya Ceremony, a vision quest, Hanble in his language meaning a dream or a vision, and Cheya meaning to cry, hence Crying for a Vision. Going on the Hill as they call it is a four-day Ceremony where one is isolated in the wilderness with no food and no water. Orchestrating this near-death experience and dissolution of the ego helps resolve one’s understanding of what death truly is, and can provide a glimpse forward or back, into one’s own future or past. My experiences on the Hill are other stories in themselves, and if you have an interest, you can read up on what I jokingly call The Great Lakota Weight Loss Program on my old blog here. On with this current account, one of the visions I experienced clearly pointed me toward the country of Vietnam. The Chief, being a robust, authentic Shaman, also suffered many of the health problems of the rough and tumble Native world, being a smoker, former alcoholic and victim of fetal alcohol syndrome. He suffered a stroke in the summer of 2005, and in January 2006 took an untimely, early departure for the World of the Spirit. He was the world to me as well as the world to come for those seven years and then he was gone, and I refer to the period in my life afterward as The Great Return to Civilization. In retrospect, however, there wasn’t anything great about it; not knowing what to do next, I moved from the American Southwest to San Francisco and did my best to return to my former life as an ad copywriter.

At that time, Aaron James Everheart serendipitously entered the scene. I did a gig for a graphic design firm, the owner of which had recently returned from a whirlwind tour through Vietnam. Back to semi-stumbling my way through life, I remembered my vision and was all ears and questions. “The whole trip was inspired by a buddy who lives in Hà Nôi and works for Grey Advertising,” he explained. “He’s a good guy, I’ll give you his e-mail.” And the rest, as they say, is lich sú (history). Aaron’s generous response blew me away. He told me where to go, who to contact and what to do, i.e., “Take the overnight train to Sapa and stay at the Dutch Eco Lodge.” Sapa lies in the country’s northern mountains, a hamlet filled with colorful examples of the 54 minority group that populate the country. The district is one of the few in VN where Hmong people compose the majority, followed by the Yao, Kinh, Tay, Day and Xa Pho. If you’ll recall, a traditional healer of a North American tribe set me on the road that really leads somewhere. My thoughts go back to walking those mounatinous dirt roads for the first time absolutely elated, and on two subsequent trips I lined up home stays, even allowed to attend and experience the healing Ceremonies of Red Szao Shamans. A bunch of other weird, wonderful occurrences while there confirmed my spiritual growth would continue, as it has on this trip and does to this very day. 

Back to the now continuously and 2019, I hadn’t talked to Aaron since Hà Nôi’s 1,000 year birthday celebration in 2010. But I’m happy to report that when he did respond, he was as generous as he was from the start. Funny that he admittedly paces himself, in his words replying to digital messages at the swiftness of postal mail, which is certainly appropriate for a Hà Nôi resident. When we finally did cross paths, we of course went for street food, meeting up at the intersection of Hang Bong and Phuc Duan streets. The food on that corner is of the caliber that can still call to the Spirit of Anthony Bourdain, who said of Vietnam: “It grabs you and it doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it Forever.” True Thật. As an aside, check out Bourdain’s Vietnam:There’s No Place Like Home, a title I can certainly relate to. It that wasn’t cool enough, Aaron invited me to his place later in the weekend and whipped up Fire Cracker Pork Fusilli, nothing delighting like a home-cooked meal when you’re 7,982 miles away. We explored some night life — something I rarely do and thoroughly enjoyed- and of course had some laughs. I’ll always recall Aaron first conveying Ha noi’s mystique- the exotic, echoing car horn, the slant of the moonlight, the mysterious fog that shrouds the city. The joke this trip was that it’s actually not romantic fog — it’s pollution. It really is. Hanging in Hà Nôi previously almost always led to flu-like symptoms, and I simply chalked it up to the miles traveled, the lack of sleep, the hustle to the other side of the world. But on this trip, just walking across town bloodied my eyes, scratched my throat raw and gave me a hacking cough, like I’d been sucking on motorbike exhaust, which I’d indirectly been doing. Even that couldn’t completely dissipate the towns’ old-world charm. I still love it, and its congestion and lack of emission standards can’t kill the fact that it’s one of the coolest towns in Vietnam if not the entire world. 

Which brings us around full circle to Hoan Kiem Lake, to the Viet kids and amusing exchanges that opened this story. Lake of the Restored Sword is a fresh body of water in the historical center of the town, one of the city’s major scenic spots and focal point of its public life. Older folks practice Tai Chi, con gais (girls) folk dance, kids rip skateboarding ollies and play a game called Da Cãu, kicking the Trái Cáu, a feathered, Vietnamese version of America’s Hacky Sack, all adding to the lake’s vibrant scene. I took my jump rope and walked about, a big, bearded American guy leaping around being a funny addition to the mix. This visit there was also a wonderful new development, as at least a half-dozen young women approached me, each with a group of children ages six to about twelve. “May my students practice their English with you?”, the con gais would eagerly ask. I was psyched, because I’m good with kids and good with English and so adore the Vietnamese people, I couldn’t have orchestrated a more heartening scenario. I asked them their name, their age, and how many brothers and sisters they had. They in turn wanted to know where I was from, what sports I liked and how old I was. One boy named Tuan was so sweet, when I told him, “I am old, I am fifty-one!”, he responded: “You’re not old, you are young! And you are funny and you are smart!” I didn’t think seeing a big American man cry would behoove Tuan’s learning, so I feigned blowing my nose, and sent him on his way, telling him, “You’re one of the best English speakers I’ve met all day,” because every child in this world is special and deserves that kind of edification. 

There you have it. That’s why every time I grab my bags at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Saigon, happy they safely made the journey with me, knowing I’m about to see the smiling  faces of my Gia dinh that su cua tôi (true family members), I can’t help but yell “Toi eu Viet nam! Toi eu Viet nam” (I love Viet nam! I love Vietnam!) because of what Vietnam has meant to me. And the people always laugh a little, and I always cry a little, in a good way, just like I did for that vision long ago, the one that brought me here in the first place, will always bring me back, and revealed to me that Vè tinh thân, tôi la nguõi Vięt Nam, that in the Spirit, I am Vietnamese. Hang gap lei (see you soon) Chao tam biet (Later).