Friday, November 7, 2014

I knew all week that it was coming. I could feel my anxiety mounting. I worried and fretted over what little things to bring-so certain that the right thing would be the difference between a successful visit and a horrid one. (which, by the way, is so like me to focus on something manageable and doable when it is in fact my heart that needs to be preparing).

This morning I woke up and jumped out of bed (as opposed to my normal snuggling deeper under the covers that Mark loves ever so much…). I packed my bag and re-packed it once more-double checking I had all the documents and information I needed.

I met my friends at the BTS station and we went together-first to arrive-ha. I surveyed the place and people with critical eyes, feeling so immaturely that these are certainly the “bad guys” we often talk of.

I checked in, I registered my visit, and waited. I watched as wives re-packed food parcels to be given to their husbands. Watched friends and relatives and strangers all preparing for their one hour visit. I had thought I would stand out with my few bags and big pillow-but many had loads more stuff to give to their loved one.

We talked work, first, my co-workers and I. Plans for this and that to be done, and isn’t it awful that such and such thing hasn’t happened yet, and when can we do this for so and so…our normal busy minds planning for our clients. But then we watched a young teenager get brought in with handcuffs and we all fell quiet-just watched and feared and felt our hearts sink down to our toes.

With tears in our eyes we made small talk-avoiding this horrid thing right in front of us. It just wouldn’t do to cry here.

When the time came the doors were unlocked and we were lead to a small room. We arranged our parcels in baskets to be given to our friends. We put our own belongings in lockers. We went through a metal detector and got patted down-my money okayed to be given to my friend, but the pillow my friend requested deemed “too big to fit in the cell” as it is crowded with just over 90 people sharing one room..(though I dared to suggest he might share the pillow and surely room could be made…I was denied).


 And, there they were-those receiving visitors for the day. In orange shirts they stood in a line. I spotted my friend and took my place opposite him, with two chain link fences separating us. We yelled and strained to hear each other-to make some small conversation. I searched for some small word of hope to give, but it all fell flat and sounded trite.

When it was too loud and impossible to hear, I took time to survey the room. Saw my co-workers, who had organized their visit so that a husband would be able to see his wife and son (as they are housed separately). I watched a mother holding her newborn, a two year old reunited with his dad…and I really more than anything just wanted to leave that awful place.

Our hour passed and we said our goodbyes, with plans that maybe Mark can visit again soon (with a smaller pillow, just to see…). And part of me wants to think, we’ll, it wasn’t so bad. But the other part of me tells myself not to ever grow so insensitive that my heart doesn’t crumble into a million pieces when the system is wrong and 95 men share one room where pillows can’t fit, and little babies are growing up in jail and people are being holed up in tiny rooms with only one hour of outside time every three days….all because they are asylum seekers/refugees and seen as illegal immigrants in Thailand. I mean, let’s all agree and say it together – that is wrong. It’s just so wrong. 

But I'll go back...I couldn't stay away if they asked me to.


If you would like more information about the Immigration Detention Center in Thailand, Human Rights Watch recently issued a report entitled “Two Years with No Moon” which highlights the detaining of children in Thailand.  


Mark's school required we complete an "adjustment" assessment this past week, with an optional (for me, a spouse) appointment with a counsellor. My assessment results are in with no real surprises-my job causes me stress and I'm missing close relationships (that is all of you, my dear friends).

I've wanted to write about my job. But where to start? What to say? First, that I love it. I would choose it-this job, with these people, with the writing, and the visiting, and the whole thing. I really do love it.

But I can feel the weight of this job...Feel it in my heart, in the pit of my stomach, can see it in my eyes.

I have always been a person with a heightened sense of justice. What's fair is fair and there is hardly any cause I can't get behind if something just isn't fair.

And there is a lot of heart-wrenching, jaw-dropping, eyes overflowing, stomach sinking injustice faced in this job.

And I feel like all of my passionate fighting and hard working and cleverest thinking and best planning has added up to one tiny drop of goodness in a mighty and powerful ocean of wrong, wrong, wrong...

And I don't know how to feel about all of that. If I were to sit and reflect about my days, to think about the stories I have the honor to listen to, to revisit the places I spend my time....I feel like no tears cried could be enough. But though this has been a season of tears cried for the injustice of it all, I honestly don't know when I've ever laughed so much. Laughed at myself, with new friends, at the ridiculous things I carry all over Bangkok (like mattresses, or today, a pillow-literally all day). Dang, just laughed because finding something to laugh about is just so necessary when the world is showing you all of it's ugliest parts.

With one little drop at a time may I keep on dripping,

Monday, September 22, 2014

On Adventure

I used to think that my life would be more exciting if it contained more travelling. That somehow there was a correlation between a life well lived and a person well-travelled.

Maybe you’ve thought that too.

Because we read books like Eat Pray Love and Three Cups of Tea and it seems like life will bring us more fulfillment if only we go, go, go.

We watch movies like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and we all agree that it’s more adventurous and it’s a better story if we are jumping out of helicopters or fighting off sharks.

I used to think that was true. Maybe it’s looked like to you like we are living a grand adventure over here in Thailand. And well, we are.

But I just want to remind you that you are also living a grand adventure.

In fact, you are living some adventures that we might not get to live. You might be living some adventures that we sadly sacrificed living to choose this other road we are on.

Denver is not our home anymore. That beautiful mile high city with twinkling lights and pedicabs and Rockies games and Mynt mojitos. With aspen trees with leafs that literally jingle. With promises of a white Christmas and snow days. With fall parties and carving pumpkins. Oh-we miss this city like we miss a friend. Denver is an adventure I hope we can live again.

We don’t live near our families. We can’t meet up for dinner. There is no “Richards” or “Cooprider” pew where we gather faithfully on a Sunday morning. There’s no Taco Tuesdays or game nights or home-cooked Chinese dinners. We can’t watch each other’s kids or buy each other’s groceries. We can’t pop in or catch a movie. We haven’t chose the adventure of living near our loved ones-but oh what a beautiful adventure that is!

We haven’t bought a home and planted our roots. We haven’t said “Texas Forever” and settled down. We haven’t learnt the beauty of a life lived long in one place-of learning so well friends and neighbors and restaurants and streets and every little bit of a little old town. There is a beauty and an adventure to that that I really would like to live. But we haven’t done that either.


So maybe sometimes you think we are crazy. Or maybe sometimes you think we are lucky. Just so you know, sometimes when we think of all of you we are jealous.


“Adventure is not outside man; it is within.”
George Eliot





Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sights and Sounds

Outside our studio apartment and across the street there is a man with a whistle. My days end and begin with that man and his whistle. It is so incessant it has now become the background noise of my day in day out.

This whistle man is not alone in his endeavor to control pedestrian, car, and motorbike traffic. There are men like him with whistles everywhere I go.

I have, in fact, had the whistle blown on me. Once for attempting to take a short cut through some bushes (I was not amused by the whistle blower and marched away in a huff) . And twice now, two different men have blown their whistles at me until I looked at them- just so they could salute me. (I was very amused by that.)

I have wondered who these men are and who their employers might be. If I so desired and bought my own whistle, I could probably blow away down their on the streets-saluting and disciplining and annoying busy girls working on their report writing during their work from home days.


If you were to come over and sit on our bed (which isn't really so far-fetched an idea as we do live in a studio), you would notice that every time a bigger car-maybe a truck or some such thing-drives by, the whole apartment shakes as if it is an earthquake. Just an interesting observation.


Sometimes when I walk down the street my stomach rumbles at all the yummy things I can smell. Specifically when I walk by the waffle sandwich booth at the Victory Monument BTS station. Those puppies smell like heaven! One day I will cave and buy day.

Sometimes when I walk down the street my stomach a most concerning way, at the many unappetizing odors that affront my olfactory receptors.

Sometimes when I walk down the street....I begin to cough uncontrollably, my eyes water and I feel a burning in my throat. Don't worry-just someone across the street cooking ridiculously spicy peppers. They are like a super weapon. My goodness.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~, not even just often. Typically, mostly, Usually....I have no idea what it is I am actually consuming. The fact that most food has MSG in it is a fact I am overly aware of, but not really sure what to do about. So I just eat it up.

Even when I do order my food (horribly and occasionally) in Thai....just because I say I want "chicken" does not guarantee that I get anything close to what I am hoping for. (ie a plate of chicken liver and hearts. Delicious....)

My go to method for ordering is usually to point. I might say a few other meaningless words to try and hope my dinner will be somewhat satisfactory, but typically it is all up to the poor Thai people to decide what it is they think I would like to eat. At the very least, this is entertaining.


What you may not know about Thai people, or at least BKKers...they LOVE their sweets. This is something I can definitely get on board with. I, too, love a little sweet treat. But here, things are a little extreme. Sweetened condensed milk is in everything. Everything. I'm not saying this is a bad thing....I myself love a little sweetened condensed milk in my iced latte's....but it sure can't be good for you!


My number one Bangkok living annoyance?
  Well, glad you asked. =)

Any and every time I walk anywhere, if a taxi driver sees me  he incessantly honks his horn at me until I acknowledge that I do in fact see him, and I don't in fact need a ride. It is maddening. As if I am incapable of catching a cab when there are 1000 right in front, behind, and alongside me. I suppose it is not the norm for a farang to walk anywhere-but I never was very normal anyways. =)


It's easy to forget that we live in Bangkok. Life is busy and I'm not constantly out of my comfort zone. But every once awhile I'll see something that is so quintessential "Asia" that I have to stop for a second and smile-just realize that we live here, that we're doing it and we love it. The other day I was huffing along with a mattress and a Costco size bag of rice (don't ask), and saw this guy on a motorbike holding an outdoor lamp. He had both arms completely extended with this outdoor lamp post, and the little light pendant was hovering up above he and the motorbike driver's heads. It was hilarious and definitely made me feel less sorry for myself.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

2 Months in Bangkok

2 months in Bangkok. That is a little bit crazy.


We are getting on well here- sometimes feeling like life is lived much the same way as it is in America, other times feeling like we haven’t got a clue about the ways of this new place.

I think that’s to be expected though.


In two months…

We have amassed a small amount of “house” things that make us feel like we are making a home.

We have both developed routines and schedules (both separate and together), that make this new life seem a bit more normal.

Mark has just started Thai classes with a tutor- he is excited and learning quickly. I am sad to say that my Thai has not improved, but my Mahatiri is coming along just fine. Life is full of surprises. =) I am hopeful to learn Thai, and it is still a priority to me…I am still waiting to see how I can make this priority happen with such a limited amount of free time.

We have found a church that we love. We’re still in that awkward “getting to know you” stage with our new church, but the more we’re around the more we resonate with the vision and the people.

We have conquered a myriad of different transports: taxi, skytrain, water taxi, motorcycle, subway, rickshaw, train, and more.

We have both felt the joy of working in our new jobs and feel so blessed with where we are spending our time.

We have rejoiced over the ease and regularity we are able to communicate with friends and family all over the world. Gone are our days of frantic internet time every few weeks. Thank God. =)

2 months.

Such a small amount of time, but also a good chunk of time.
It is hard not to feel some inner conflict about our introduction to Thailand versus our introduction to Tonga.

A very opposite approach- these two beginnings- with good and bad each.

I do find myself longing to take a big leap into the middle of things here-to live with a Thai family, even just for a bit, to dive headfirst into the language and culture. Don’t worry, I remember how hard that is, I just think that I’ve decided it’s worth it. ;) For that, Peace Corps is truly one of a kind.


With 60 days under the belt and a whole lot more to learn,


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Stairs, Stairs, Stairs

Down three flights

Up two flights

Down two flights

Up four flights

Down three flights

Down three flights

Up two flights

Down two flights

....and I've made it to work.

Reverse, repeat, and I'm home.
Multiply by 5 and bye bye thunder thighs.

Just in case you were wondering where my thighs had gone...

No more step class for me,



Sunday, August 17, 2014

All of the Sudden

After all the worrying, anxiety, tears, and google searches

          I prayed to have a happier heart that would be content with loving well the people and schedule of this new life- even though I wasn't working with refugees and my days were mostly empty.

After letting go and digging in where I was placed

    I got offered a position at Jesuit Refugee Service as a caseworker for the Bangkok Child Protection program.
I feel incredibly blessed by this opportunity- clearly see God in this. And I am praying fervently (and you can pray too) that my clients will see God in me.
JRS is an organization that I couldn't be happier to align myself with. Their vision is to "accompany, serve, and advocate" for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, and to serve the most vulnerable by, "go(ing) where no one else is working and serving the most forgotten".

I am loving this job so far. I have never been so happy to go to work. =)


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

First Impressions

Where to start?

I’m not sure why I am finding it so hard to put into words the ins and outs of our new life here in Bangkok.

We are trying, rather unsuccessfully, to resist constant comparison of Thailand to Tonga.

                  …. But if I were to compare…I would say my first impression is that there are some extreme differences-Thailand is big where Tonga is small, fast-paced where Tonga was slow, slow, slow, and well-stocked with anything and everything under the sun (food, clothes, entertainment, etc) where Tonga offered canned meat and the occasional bunch of lettuce, and the night stars were the only reason to be up past 7pm.

However, as I spend more time talking with people who have lived here before….as I walk the streets and observe-I find there are so many similarities. A sweet evening hour when the streets are full with people talking, gossiping, eating, dancing….so reminiscent of our evenings spent in “loto kolo” on good ‘ol Nuapapu. To live, once more, in a monarchy, where the people love and respect their king in a way so different than us Americans with our president. To feel, so intensely, the importance of language learning. To enjoy the constant hellos and smiles-the acknowledgement of one’s presence that just doesn’t happen that often in the States.


There have been times of wonder- wonder of whys and whats and whos- why Bangkok, what, exactly, is going to fill my time, and who will be our community.

But there have been far more moments of revelation, purpose, connecting, and comfort.

I am happy we are here, and though my doubts may bubble up from time to time, they are quickly eased. I feel now it would take 100 years to know the ins and outs of this city, this country. I’m so excited to discover more.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Apartment Pictures

New home in Bangkok!

Table and Kitchen



Living Room
We live in a studio. Our wardrobe separates the "living room" from our "bedroom"

Richards family tradition. These bells are gonna see the world!

Apartment 401=lots of stairs for me!

View from 4th floor. The parking lot is in front of our apartment building. The little house is the guard building-they open the gate to let cars in/out.

ICS (the school) is on the left.

Our bed and wardrobe

The back of the wardrobe and far too many pictures (mostly of my nephew!)

Our entertainment center covered in all of Mark's school stuff and minus a TV

Nurse Ali

Mark was sick this last week-just a two day, miserable bout of fever, dehydration, and stomach issues. As I nursed him (to the best of my ability) hour after hour and all through the night, I couldn’t help but think of the last time I had taken his temperature every few hours, walked with him to the restroom every half hour, and cooled his feverish skin with cold washcloths. My, how things have changed. Thank God, thank you God, for your protection on that little island in the big Pacific. From multiple foot infections, eye ulcers, heat exhaustion, and dehydration battles….I am, again, so aware that we were not on our own. I am so thankful that we can walk and see and that beyond a few very uncomfortable days, we were (and remain) incredibly healthy. (Also thankful that our bathroom is attached and inside of our apartment, for amazing air conditioning, and the gift of cold, refrigerated water to drink!)

Not only did God protect us, he used us (yes me!) to nurse others. When I think about the amount of times I looked out our (perpetually) open doors and saw a huddled mass bringing a bleeding student, neighbor, kava bro, or church elder to my house….crazy. My heart would immediately sink to my stomach, as I grabbed every medicine, ointment, and bandage we owned. From busted heads to machete hacked feet, back pain, tooth aches, and infections….I have never practiced as much “nursing” as I did in Tonga. Again, thank God, that my poorly wrapped bandages and suggested doses brought healing and comfort.

As I think and hope and plan about my time in Thailand, I am reminded of my unexpected (and yes, often unwanted) role as a nurse in Tonga. I often felt inadequate and scared, even by the simple task of cleaning a wound. But I was the only one with first aid materials-and the nearest doctor a good 2 hour boat ride away. So with prayers on my lips, and tentative hands-I did what I could, what was needed.

Praying now to be willing in whatever way I am needed in/at here in Thailand. I pray for courage to do the things that intimidate me. For a happy heart to do the things I’d much rather not spend my time doing.  For a (perpetually) open door that tells my new friends, co-workers, neighbors, and whoever else that comes into our lives- that they are welcome. That we will drop everything, always.


                            Still learning from our little island on the edge of the world,



Saturday, July 12, 2014


We have made it to Thailand!

Our first impressions have been truly wonderful. I think this second first week starting a new life in a new country has been much easier than our first, first week. =)

We have been greeted very warmly, have been taken care of incredibly, and of course, Mark is plowing away with his Thai studying.

We have learned that women cannot sit next to monks on planes, or elsewhere. (whoops!)

That it is not okay to stop a rolling coin with one’s foot (as the king’s face is on the coin).

That there are a lot (a lot a lot) of people here. A lot.

That malls can sometimes have at least 7 floors-with a water park on top.

We have been busy getting to know the teachers that are around (we are the first of the new teachers to arrive, and many of the “old” teachers are not back from their various vacations. ).

We have done a lot of shopping (which could not be a more opposite experience from Tonga).

We have tried some yummy Thai food, and eyed much more things we would like to try.


And all in all, we are getting settled in this new place. More to come, I’m sure!



Tuesday, July 8, 2014

We made it to Korea and it just hit me that this is my first time in Asia. I have now, in a combination of ever so short bops and some longer stays, been to 6 of the 7 continents. Crazy.

We have one more flight ahead of us and then we are home. I feel very ready for whatever bed will be waiting for me.

Thanks for your prayers, well wishes, and sweet goodbyes. It is always hard for us to leave behind our families and friends.

In my travel weary, sleep deprived state, I often tend to have a few moments during our long plane rides away from home where I wonder just how crazy we must be. But then we get little goody bags from the stewardess, and I find that what I thought was surely little eye masks are instead cute slipper, we spot monks and cute kids, smell new smells, hear new sounds, make silly mistakes for lack of understanding....and I remember why it is we love all this. (But still I think I will be a bit more happy once I sleep...)


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

ma'ulu'ulu (Sitting Dance)

Remembering good times past, I came across some fun videos yesterday. Our school's (in Ma'ufanga) final performance of our Sitting Dance was a really great day in Tonga. We spent hours and hours learning the song and the motions-some of my favorite hours after our move to the 'ol T-Top. Here it is (and here we are-in the back row) in all it's glory: 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Churchgoing and Being Home

It's been a while...thought I'd share some thoughts.

Serving in the Peace Corps has changed us in countless ways, and our views about God and the church are among the things that have been impacted the most. When folks ask us what was most difficult, we always seem to mention, in some way or another, the lack of an English-speaking spiritual community. Church was a huge part of our lives in Tonga, but the vast cultural differences (not to mention the language barrier) made it very, very different. We missed everything about church - worshipping corporately in our native language, enjoying fellowship and community with a group of people that share the most foundational part of our worldview, listening to a trained and dedicated preacher teach about the Bible and theology.

Needless to say, we returned to the U.S. with a hunger for church. And, over the past few months, we have gotten to attend a lot of church services - We've actually been to five different churches in four different states. We've also had so many great, life-giving moments of spiritual communion with friends and family spread across the States. Throughout all of these experiences, my reflections about church and community have been different than in the past.

My thoughts are summed up pretty well in a passage I re-read recently from C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters - his satiric, stylized correspondence between two tempter demons that brilliantly turns ideas on their heads to make readers think about things in a different way. In one letter on the subject of church, the mentor Screwtape advises his novice nephew in his temptation of a young Christian:
Surely you know that if a man can't be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that 'suits' him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches. The reasons are obvious. In the first place the parochial organization should always be attacked, because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy (God) desires...In the second place, the search for a 'suitable' church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil.
I (and much of my generation, I fear) have at times considered myself this kind of "church connoisseur." I shudder to think about the countless, prideful conversations I've had, somehow believing that I had figured everything out, that all who had gone before me had gotten it wrong.

As Lewis cleverly points out, it is so easy to miss the point of church, especially when you live in a place with a veritable buffet of different churches. He warns us that our focus should not be finding a church with a style that suits our preferences and people that are nearly identical to us. In the words of Screwtape, it is so important that we approach church as a pupil, not a critic, and that we embrace, not shy away from, the diversity and great differences of people within a congregation.

In my post-Peace Corps church hunger, I've found myself looking at church with baptized eyes. Regardless of music style, I have joyfully joined others in corporate song, remembering the times when we would save our IPad battery just to listen to a couple English worship songs on Sunday mornings in Tonga. I have been challenged by and learned from preachers of very different backgrounds and theological bents, remembering all the times I would zone out during a Tongan sermon because my brain could translate no longer. I have rejoiced at the opportunity to reconnect and talk with family and old friends, remembering the thousands of repeated, surface-level Tongan conversations when my vocabulary had been completely exhausted.

The most powerful and memorable moment that I felt these things most deeply was when we participated in the Eucharist at Hope, our old, wonderful church in Denver. As I prepared my heart for this, the most powerful and beautiful of all sacraments instituted by Christ himself, I was moved to tears as I gazed around the room. It was a brilliantly beautiful portrait in my mind as I reflected on the meaning of this ritual - people of a wide variety of age, background, and belief standing with Christians all over the world and throughout the centuries of history, eating bread and drinking wine, remembering our Savior's sacrifice and professing together that we belong to this global body of Christ followers. And as I took the bread and the wine, I thought of my brothers and sisters in Tonga, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, California, Thailand, and all over the world, doing the same thing and professing these same truths. Despite our differences and our preferences, we are a part of this beautifully broken thing that Christ himself instituted to be his chosen instrument of bringing redemption and his upside-down Kingdom to this world.

I hope and pray that when we inevitably join another church community, this time in Bangkok Thailand, we will remember these lessons, stay hungry, and guard ourselves from the ease and dangers of missing the point...

- Mark

Friday, April 11, 2014

Lately, I've been Reading:


1.       And Life Comes Back: A Wife’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope Reclaimed by Tricia Lott Williford

I fell in love with Tricia’s writing a few years ago when I stumbled upon her blog via a friend on Facebook. This is Tricia’s first book- it is truly moving. You can get a taste of her writing style and incredible journey at and


2.       Red Letter Revolution: What if Jesus Really Meant What He Said? By Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo

This book discusses many hot-topic issues in today’s world-on homosexuality, on being pro- life, on immigration, etc. It was challenging and motivating. I highly recommend it. I was most touched by reading some of the sections that I didn’t already have strong opinions about, for example, Liturgy, Saints, and Empire. Read this book-and then let’s talk about it!


3.       The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls



4.       Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexander Fuller



5.       Little Bee: A Novel by Chris Cleave

Thursday, February 13, 2014

From Tonga to Thailand (Part 1)

To all those who will read this, whether you know all or nothing about our next steps, the purpose of this blog is to share some very big news with you. But before we do that, we first want to say thank you. I don't think either of us knew what it would look like to try to stay connected with family and friends from various stages of our lives during these last two years, but it's been hard. We've done our best to be invested in the present and in our current home, but we have also strived not to forgot those from our past and those far away. And I know I've written a couple times about the dangers of technology, but we can't express how meaningful a quick email, message, or comment can be when things get hard. So, to all those who have supported us and continue to love us well, we say thank you.

Also, before we share our news, I feel the need to share this. For the past five or so years, both Alissa and I have wanted to live and work in Southeast Asia. Call it what you wish...a calling, a dream, a vision, a goal...we've certainly used all of those words ourselves. Whatever the case, based on countless prayers, conversations, and events, that is what we want, and that is where we believe that God wants us to go.

So, the first part of our news is that we are finished with our Peace Corps service, and are now home in the U.S.. We've shared briefly on our blog, and more extensively with close friends and family, that Peace Corps' decision to move us from our island was a pretty negative experience. Still as we look back, we feel that we were moved for very inconsequential reasons, and that the process was done very hurriedly and insensitively. Once we arrived to our new site, we were disappointed to find that Peace Corps did not develop our worksite and was nowhere near finding us a house to live in.

We do feel that we went into this new situation with as open of a mind as we could, but since we were over a year into our service, we ultimately made the decision to leave Peace Corps early. It was a very hard decision, but we felt a lot of peace about it very quickly. When the day came for us to talk about it with our Country Director, he was very understanding and supportive about it. In the end, we were released from our commitment through what Peace Corps calls "interrupted service", stating basically that our service ended because Peace Corps did not hold up their end of the deal and provide us with satisfactory housing and worksite. All in all, we left Tonga on good terms, at peace, but with heavy hearts, remembering all we had done and all the amazing people we crossed paths with.

Peace Corps has been such a blessing in so many ways, but we were and have remained a little disappointed that we were not sent to Asia. However, for many reasons both practical and idealistic, we said yes to the South Pacific. And we are so glad that we did. We wanted a cross-cultural immersion experience. We wanted to learn a different language We wanted to live as part of a small, village community. We wanted to experience living without our many modern amenities. We wanted to know what it was like to live at the same standard, wages, and cultural expectations as those we are serving. We wanted many things from this experience, and whether or not we wanted them with the best intentions or experienced them to the fullest degree, we got everything that we wanted in our wonderful, tiny island.

Yet regardless of what we wanted or gained from our experience, far and above the most lasting and important part of our last two years abroad has to do with the people in our lives. We realized very quickly that the most meaningful, sustainable, and precious part of our service was our relationships with the Tongan people on our island. What we learned and how we grew as a result of knowing these people that are so entirely different from us is what we will remember the most. I still assert the statement that I made very early in our service - that cultural differences are much more significant and run much deeper than I ever imagined. And that challenge, that beautiful struggle to build meaningful, give and take relationships with those wonderful people was, to say the least, life changing.

Lastly, something else that I realized early on is that our Peace Corps Tonga service would be much more of a team effort than we had originally imagined. Because Tonga is such a small place, the roles of the members of our Peace Corps group extended much further than us simply being trained together. Our group was very much, for lack of a better world, our community. And it was a community made up of people that at times felt more different from us than the Tongans we were living with. But, it was such a journey and such a joy getting to know each and every one of them. We are leaving Tonga with some amazing relationships with some incredible people that it's hard to imagine we didn't know at all just a year and a half ago. We will manatu'ofa (remember and cherish with love) all of them, and we know that these relationships will endure.


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On Technology and Reverse Culture Shock

It's not hard to believe, I'm sure, but one of our observations and struggles after coming home after a year and half abroad had to do with re-entering a culture that is obsessed with technology and being "plugged-in" to the online world. Of course, most of us realize and freely admit this, but it was something that was a glaringly stark contrast to how we had lived on our island. I came across this quote from Thoreau's Walden a while back, and it kept coming to mind over and over again during our time in America.

"Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at."

(side note: unsurprisingly, these sentiments seem to be right in line with the spirit of this famously subversive "fight the man by finding the meaning of life alone in the woods" piece of literature. But, it's also funny to realize that the "pretty new inventions" that Thoreau was ranting about were railroads and the telegraph. I wonder what ole Henry D. would think of Facebook and iPhones...)

Now, it may seem trite and predictable for us to pretend that we have come back enlightened and elevated above the evils and distractions of contemporary America after our short time abroad. But the true, saddening reality was how easy it became to fall right back in to the temptations that our technology offered us. How easy it was to disconnect from real conversation when there was wireless internet to be had. How easy it was to care more about how people on Facebook perceived me than fully loving the actual people around me.

The other funny and interesting thing to notice was how other people talked about this phenomenon. It seemed like everywhere we went, people would make remarks completely on their own about "how lucky we were to have lived so simply" or "how damaging our society's obsession with technology is." It is as though we are addicts who are fully comfortable admitting that we have a problem, but helplessly floundering as if we don't have the tools to fix ourselves.

Yet, I will always believe it is an unbelievably tough subject, because of all the benefits of modern technology. It was amazing to be able to share our stories, pictures, and experiences with all our family and friends. It was so cool to be able to correspond with and hear from friends living and serving the Lord, literally, all over the world. I believe that globalization and the growing smallness of our world has the potential to connect us in ways never before possible, drawing us to be more compassionate, understanding, and informed people. But, of course, there are dangers on the other side of that coin.

Meditating on Thoreau's quote brings up so many important questions for us. What are the "serious things" that our pretty toys distract us from? Genuine community? Vulnerable relationships? Deeply embracing nature and beauty? Denying consumerism and embracing simplicity? True intimacy with God?

And while our technology has continued to improve and develop at an astounding rate, what is the "unimproved end" that we are striving for in our use of these fancy gadgets? Are we spending time using our inventions for healthy or unhealthy things? Are we choosing to engage with people and the world through online personas rather than genuine, face-to-face interactions? Are we capable of embracing life-giving simplicity while finding a proper balance in our technologically-oriented world?

I'm certainly still very far away from understanding this balance and putting it into action. But, more than ever, I realize that it is so important that we guard ourselves against the temptations of modern technology and strive to live genuine lives free from these easy-to-fasten chains.


Top 10 Moments of 2013

10. Adam's sweet toast at our Christmas dinner. I don't know when he stopped being the baby and became a man, but wow, I'm just so proud of him.

9. The day the lights got turned on. (You can see that post here). It was such a once in a lifetime type of experience and the celebrating was ...unreal.

8. Paella-both times. The boat, the dancing, the stars, the wine, the friends, the laughs, the memories.

7. The day the boat broke down. And we were stranded in the middle of the ocean. After a few hours a yacht came into view and we flagged it down. From beginning to end it was hilarious and so so memorable.

6. The return of Amanaki's "ako faiva" (Tongan singing and dance practice). The realization we had come one full circle. The beginning of the end. The sharp distinction of who we were and who we are now. The tenderness of the song we could now understand. The easy laughter with our new friends.

5. The 4 days we spent recording our CD. So many great memories with our kiddos!

4. The day we showed mom and dad our island. We literally walked the whole town and they met every single person. I appreciated them coming, their words of encouragement, seeing all we had learned through their eyes, showing off our relationships....just the whole thing.

3. Swimming with the whales. No words!

2. The wharf uma's. Our whole village lined up along the wharf to say their goodbyes and kiss us farewell. I won't ever forget it.

1. Meeting my sweet nephew Jason Lane. I already love him so so much and am counting the days until I get to see him again. Aim has said, " he's the best thing we've ever done" and I love seeing them live that. They are amazing parents.

Can't wait to see what 2014 has in store for us!

An aside: I wanted to put a special moment Mark and I experienced-a moment for us, about us, that bonded us uniquely...but I can't. Because all of the above mentioned we experienced together. In fact, upon reflection, in the entire last year, Mark and I never spent more than 6 hours apart. For those of you who are thinking "you are so so lucky" - you are absolutely right. Never in our married or dating life have we had much time together. It was a huge blessing- a time of amazing growth. For those of you who are thinking " that sounds insane and makes me feel slightly claustrophobic"- you are absolutely right. It's a little (ahem) hard to spend that much time with anyone, even your very best friend.

But crazy amounts of time together aside....I have learned so much about Mark this last year. I have watched him in so many different circumstances, and loved and respected him more and more. We have laughed, read, played, talked, shared old stories, played ukulele and sang, worked crosswords, gardened, swam, walked, worked on Tongan, tickled, played cards, played scrabble, written letters/emails/blogs....all together.

So thankful to have eaten breakfast with my Mark every morning, and to hear the eager greetings of all our neighbors and the barks of our little pup as Mark and Buster returned every afternoon. He is such an amazing man, and I'm happy to know him more and more as the years unfold.

Honorable Mentions: billfish dancing at IST and MST. Seeing family after a year and a half! Our final feast and fakamalo's. Karaoke "scrubs". Our going away party. Ofu kayaking. Tevi 1000. Getting scolded at the Mormon dance. Marks solo at the Mormon conference. The first day of our Kindie. "How Great Thou Art".

Cyclone Ian and Fiji

During our travels back to Tonga, a catastrophic category 5 cyclone hit Tonga. This was/is the worst cyclone to ever hit Tonga, and while there was only one fatality, on the Ha'apai Island group there is around 80-90% destruction. All of the Tonga Peace Corps Volunteers are safe -though two lost their homes and everything in it, and one volunteer experienced it, taking shelter in a Mormon church. (Thank goodness for the Mormons! Their churches saved so many lives!)

We landed in Fiji about 3 hours before the storm was supposed to hit Tonga, so our flight was cancelled. Our PC country director had family living nearby the airport - so they picked us up, fed us breakfast, and got us settled in a nice hotel in Nadi. We (Mark and I and a fellow PCV named Joey) spent 4 days in Nadi. We were eager to get back to Tonga to hear from all of our PC and Tongan friends, but it was also nice to explore a little of Fiji. We had lots of Indian food, drank kava at weird and questionable places, hiked the famous "Sleeping Giant", tried to look cool swimming in a waterfall, saw the famous Hindu temple, watched every Rocky movie ever made, went zip lining dozens of times, tried to learn Fijian, discussed the differences in Tonga and Fiji, and met some really...eclectic people. All in all-we successfully did Nadi, Fiji in four days, with no pre-made plans, and almost no money. Job well done!

Please keep Tonga-specifically the Ha'apai island group in your prayers. Everything we've heard is that it's bad and is going to get worse.

There's no Place like Home for the Holidays

Sorry for the blog silence! Mark and I got to spend an incredible, amazing, wonderful, unforgettable month visiting family back in the States. We spent a few weeks in Oklahoma with Marks parents and Grandmas doing all things Christmas, drinking way too much coffee, learning about Russia, enjoying movies, and catching up on all we had missed.

My brother popped on by for a few days. I was so so excited to see him that I literally cried when I saw him walking up the drive. I am so proud of Adam, and so awed by how...mature he is. Since when did my baby brother get so grown up?! He treated us to an amazing dinner, complete with toast, and shared so many crazy stories of his last year that I can't help but hope he'll write a book someday.

Mark's sister and brother-in-law came home for a few days as well. It was so great seeing them and connecting with them in new ways. We always enjoy hearing about Laura's life as a nurse, and we sure didn't mind Aaron's new manager position at Bonefish Grill, which allowed us to stuff ourselves full of steaks and Blooming onions for about $7.

Then we drove down to Texas to finally finally finally meet the cutest baby in the whole wide world, my nephew, Jason Lane Austin. This kid blew my socks off, if you haven't met him, you need to! It was so good hanging out with Aim and Jase- lots of laughing, lots of talking, lots of kava and cranberita's. :) I personally also enjoyed watching Mark try to change a diaper (all three of us were on deck, secretly hoping he would get peed on.)

Then we were off to California to celebrate the New Year. My parents have really inspired us this year with their focus on memory-making, and we all definitely made some great memories. Mark and I (and mom and dad) visited Napa for the first time, which was so wonderful-thanks Dad for planning such an unforgettable trip.

We ate so much (and way too much) amazing food, shared so many laughs, felt a little more caught up on all these dear people's lives, and all in all had a great trip home. We had hoped to see some of you faithful friends out there, and can't express how sad we were/are that it didn't work out that way this time. I hope it does next time...our days just flew!