Thursday, December 27, 2007

Loving the Elephants!

Yesterday we played with elephants. We waded into the river and scrubbed their backs, tried to avoid the elephant poop floating down the river, fed an old elephant her lunch diet? of watermelon and banana, and even got a big wet slobbery kiss from a baby. It was an awesome day!

We went to The Elephant Nature Park, about an hour and a half outside of Chiang Mai. This place is all about loving elephants! Seriously, though, they are doing a tonne of good, pun intended. We had the chance to meet a small, bright-eyed woman named Lek. Lek is an amazing woman. She is the founder of the park. She rescues abused and neglected elephants from around Thailand and brings them to the sanctuary, as they refer to it, to essentially be loved, healed and brought back to health.

We learned so much about the elephant tourism industry in Thailand. A hundred years ago, 100,000 elephants could be found in the country. Now, only 5000 remain. The stories of each of the elephants in the park were so sad. One had a gnarled leg due to a landmine while logging in Burma. Another was blinded by his mahout (owner). One had his tusk chopped off and nearly died because of the infection. We learned about how the mahouts put the elephants through a brutal training to break the independence of the elephants- an ancient Thai tradition. It was sick.

Most tourists are just not aware of the exploitation of elephants. I didn't know about most of this until yesterday. The Park has a great focus in offering day trips to tourists. Their hope is that it will catch on, and that other elephant owners will see that it's an attractive option to tourists. There were also a number of other long-term volunteers from around the world. It lets people come and have a natural experience, and really it is so much better than watching them paint pictures, spin hula hoops, etc. Getting elephant poop in your shoe while scrubbing its backside and getting a big kiss from the biggest mammal on the planet is way better than the former option!

So yes, now I am all for saving and loving the elephants! What a great experience. I took so many pictures; can't wait to show you!

The Juniper Tree

In my last post, I mentioned that we are staying at The Juniper Tree. This place is really something special. It meets a real need for missionaries living overseas- a place to be refreshed, to be together with family, to be renewed. They take such good care of each visitor.

Christmas Day was made special by meeting so many new people from around the world. A family from South Africa serving as dorm parents in South Korea, a family from Lumsden (yes, Lumsden!) also working as dorm parents, but in Malaysia, an American family going on 7 years in the south of Thailand, a young British family serving in a remote village in the north of Thailand, a Swiss family in Bangladesh doing business and trying to create job opportunities for the many that are jobless, an American family teaching in Cambodia, the list goes on! It is life-giving to be around people devoting themselves whole-heartedly, as a family, to making a difference in Asia. A sweet blessing to have crossed paths in such a beautiful place.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve in Chiang Mai

It's Christmas Eve. I'm sitting in an internet cafe in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It is marvelous! Our first day and a half in Chiang Mai included:

-Foot massage (if you follow this blog, you likely assumed this would be on the list!)
-Market shopping (MORE to come! Chiang Mai has the best night bazaar!)
-Quadding through the Chiang Mai jungle-like land (so much fun!!!)
-Whitewater rafting (my first time- the only downer was that by the time we got on the water, the sun was tucked behind the mountains, so it was rather chilly...but still a great ride!!)
-Seeing plenty of elephants (though we will spend Wednesday at the Elephant Nature Park- giving the elephants a bath, feeding them, spreading a little TLC to the big guys)
-Eating delicious curries, pad thai noodles (my favorite), accidently and painfully downing a disastrous chili (ohhhh the suffering!), mango salad, and fresh fruit shakes
-Offroading in the back of trucks as the general mode of transportation

Another highlight has been our home here in Chiang Mai- "The Juniper Tree". It is a wonderfully cozy retreat center- a getaway spot for missionaries in SE Asia. We're staying in a lofty little cabin-like house. There are likely 50 others staying here as well. Tomorrow we will enjoy a Christmas dinner together. What a blessing this place is! Quiet, secluded, clean, quaint.

That's all for tonight. Warm wishes for a cozy Christmas from Thailand...

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Ponytail Present

I have a special friend in Hong Kong who is fighting cancer. She just took her second round of chemo, and the last time I visited her, she knew her hair would be gone by Christmas.

In honor of this dear woman, as well as my Aunty Laurie and other women I have known who have bravely fought cancer, and inspired also by one of my beautiful sister-in-laws, I decided to give away my ponytail. I will send it, as Tara did, to the Beautiful Lengths campaign organized by Pantene Pro-V. They will hopefully accept my curly mop of a ponytail and use it, along with other donated ponytails, to make a wig for a woman who has lost her hair due to cancer. If you're interested, have a look at their website. I think it's just one more way to encourage those we love- "we're with you all the way".

So, here's Harmony minus the ponytail...for the first time since 1985?!!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Saying Goodbye to Hiroki

I am feeling heavy with the news that one of my students will be leaving our school, as of the new year. This is my first experience in having a student leave in the middle of the year, and I don't like it! This particular student has brought so much joy into our classroom, with an additional measure of ten-year-old boy silliness. He is one of those kids who light up a classroom- so eager to learn, so easily excited. A true joy to teach, even on the days when I had just about had it with his goofy faces or his questions: "Hey, Miss Muckkk-Millan (as he pronounces it), can you do this??"(moving his ears without his hands, actually, quite impressive). Ah, it is hard to let him go. I guess we do our best to make a difference for as long as we have the chance, and then trust that someone else picks up where we left off.

(on the right)

Monday, December 17, 2007

High Tea Blessing

Two friends and colleagues treated me to High Tea at the Peninsula Hotel yesterday afternoon. What a treat! It was my high tea debut. What better way to experience high tea than with a British gal and a fellow Canadian, a beautifully festive stringed quartet playing from above, and most lovely (that sounds British doesn't it?) Christmas decorations dressing up the colonial Peninsula. They claim high tea at the Peninsula is a Hong Kong institution. Oooh. Too bad they didn't offer to drive me home via one of their Rolls-Royce Phantoms...

Live Tennis, Gotta Love It!!

I'm really excited about what came in the mail today: tickets for the JB Group Classic 2008!! I'm going to the "Super Friday" on January 4, which should showcase the best of the bunch in the semi-finals. I'll be rooting for Ivanovic; she's my favorite in the draw. Other top players in the draw include Sharapova, Venus, Hantuchova, Chakvetadze and Dementieva. It's just a warm-up tournament and lacks real intensity (I went to the event in 2005), but it's still so awesome to watch these ladies play.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hong Kong: Built for Speed.

Each time I fly into the HK airport, I'm reminded of the striking efficiency of this city.  I have to yet to find myself in a city that compares.  Even as you travel from the airport to the city, it's easy to see that this is most definitely a place that thrives on convenience and speed.  I'm sure that even as I step off the plane, people are walking faster!

My favorite part of returning to Hong Kong is watching the visitors go through immigration, while I whip out my nifty residence card, note the many empty stalls calling my name, and slip my card into the slot.  I pass through the first gate, it takes my thumbprint, and bam- I'm back in Hong Kong.  The only glitch in the system is that while you pass through at lightning speed, you still end up waiting for your bags on the other side.  This actually makes the baggage folks appear subpar, but the fact is that they can't catch up with the swift immigration process.

The "Airport Express" train takes you from the airport to the city in 20 minutes flat.  You can actually check in your bags at two different stations in the city, which is pretty neat.  After zipping back to town on the train, you are filed into a line and into a taxi immediately.

These are just a couple examples.  Essentially, this city is built to maximize on time and space.  But no matter how efficient Hong Kong is, no matter how quickly you can get from A to B- it's never fast enough it seems.  People are always speeding ahead.  

I must say I love the efficiency and convenience.  Hong Kong is a very cool city to live in.  It makes Canada's set up seem slow-moving. A Hong Konger might even feel quite inconvenienced by much of the comparative waiting.  Compare it to its neighbors in SE Asia, and it is worlds apart.  But while I love how easy it is to live here, it's harder to slow down when the world around you is zooming, never stopping, always going.  I can't forget it because I can hear its chorus 32 floors beneath me!

It may be fast, but I see the effect it has on people's lives and the culture of Hong Kong. Though I now have many awesome friends here, walking through the city it feels like people are disengaged and disconnected from one another.  So, which would you rather?  Are speed, efficiency and convenience worth the sacrifice?

Holiday Playlist

A Christmas to Remember- Kenny and Dolly (YES!)
Christmas Without You- Kenny and Dolly
Wintersong- Sarah McLachlan
River- Sarah McLachlan
Song for a Winter's Night- Sarah McLachlan
Do You Hear What I Hear- Out of Eden
The Christmas Shoes- Newsong
Welcome to Our World- Michael W. Smith
Let It Snow- Michael Buble
Babe in the Straw- Caedmon's Call
Bethlehem Town- Jars of Clay
Love Came Down at Christmas- Jars of Clay
Manger Throne- Mac Powell

Monday, December 10, 2007

Two Days in the Philippines

I had an awesome weekend! On Friday at 6pm, I flew to Manila, arrived at the airport and anxiously sorted through a sea of faces, trying to find Jane, the "girl in the red shirt". I finally found her, not long after I had started imagining how I might spend a weekend in Manila on my own. We were joined up by the rest of our group: three South Africans, one Hong Konger, two American Hong Kongers, Jane, and myself.

We stayed the night in Manila. Though I was only there for a very short time, Manila didn't give off a good vibe. I heard quite a few sirens through the night. We were greeted by a guard dog and a security check at the hotel entrance. I wasn't sad to leave early the next morning for our destination- Bohol.

We arrived in Bohol, a tropical, coconut-tree spotted island just south of Cebu, which you may be familiar with. Bohol is known for its chocolate hills, the smallest primates on earth (tarsiers), white sand beaches and the fattest python in captivity. We actually saw all but the first during our day there.

At the airport we were picked up by the Filipino workers for ICM (International Care Ministries). They were a major highlight for me. Such giving, hardworking and joyful people. Filipino people in general are such fun, easygoing, quick to smile kind of people. I have much to learn from their joy-full way of life, evidently not stemming from their circumstances. The ICM gang showed us some highlights of their work there. We stopped by a slum, where we watched the feeding program at work. About 40 ladies waited there to receive their weekly supply of rice, given by the pastor responsible for distribution in their community. The pastor serves as the touchpoint for ICM, feeling out the needs of the people in his area and then addressing them using the ICM resources and workers. We spent time treating the kids to candy.

They also took us to visit two "special patient" cases. The first was a sweet one year old boy, suffering from severe eye problems. ICM takes the special cases and gives them what they need to pay for surgery. We also visited a twelve year old boy in desperate need of three major bowel surgeries. Both were extremely touching to visit, and realize what a difference had been made in their life because of God's provision extended through ICM. I held that baby boy tight, and we prayed for his vision, his life and his family.

In the afternoon, we saw a couple of sights and stopped by the ICM's crusade, "Celebrate Jesus". There were about 2000 people there.

We enjoyed supper with the entire ICM crew. There are about 100 ICM workers, all local Filipinos. They are working in 3 different places in the Visayas area in the Philippines.

The next morning we joined them for church. The preacher was a blazing fireball! He prayed for English before he started....and he had way more than that. He spoke of the futility of our efforts without the Spirit of God. It was a powerful morning- later he prayed for the two fourteen year olds that were on our team. Very special.

We had to leave shortly after that. It was an extremely fast weekend, but so worth it! I was moved by the hearts of the people there, and very excited about the work being done there. It seems the needs are endless, and many times the main response is feeling overwhelmed. But ICM has managed to create a ministry that is touching so many lives, meeting so many different needs. It is primarily supported by Hong Kongers, and within the Philippines it is generally carried out completely by local people. It's exciting stuff! This coming year, they are planning to relocate an entire slum- between 10,000 and 15,000 people!!

The group I traveled with really made for a great weekend, too. They were a lot of fun!! I learned a lot about the Philippines AND South Africa, too! The mother and daughter combo were always laughing...which made them quite a joy to be around. They infected kids with joy by blowing up countless balloons and shaping them into swords and dogs. The street kids loved them.

Oh, there are more stories and more reflections- but this is already very long, and I'm ready for bed! Hope you enjoy the pictures up on Flickr. They always tell the tale best.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

One Long Skate

There is an ache in me that never leaves when I'm away from home, but there are times when it feels more acute. The last couple days have felt that way. It likely has much to do with the arrival of the Christmas season. Though I'm very excited about the adventures Thailand has in store and I will enjoy soaking up the sun and feeding elephants and eating colorful curries, it's not home. I miss my family. I miss, in advance, the family dance nights (yes, we McMillans dance up a storm), Mom's Christmas dinner, Mom's Christmas brunch, holding a new baby nephew, watching the kids I love open their presents, playing guitar with brothers, having great chats with my sisters, going to the McMillan New Year's party, and so on.

My favorite Christmas album, Wintersong by Sarah McLachlan, has been on nonstop for the past week. One of the best songs, River, makes me ache for a good ol' skate. I wonder how long it might take me to skate across the Pacific....

Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I wish I had a river so long
Teach my feet to fly high
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

I miss Canada. I miss you!