I had the opportunity to take advantage of some extraordinary experiences and participate in some wonderful cultural exchange this past year. It was truly wonderful and I cherish these memories, and as this is the time of year to look back and plan ahead I want to share some of those memories and cultural experiences from around the world.
Dance Honoring Ya Mo in Kaengsanamnang, Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand
This was a particularly special experience as a wonderful capstone to my Peace Corps service. I first experienced the Ya Mo festival during my visit to my site during Pre-Service Training. The next year, my co-teacher danced in the festival and I went to support and watch her performance. That was when I decided that I wanted to participate in my last year of service.
Ya Mo (ย่าโม) is considered the symbol and kind of patron saint for the province of Nakhon Ratchasima (also known as Khorat) in Thailand, and a small village in this province is where I lived for two years. Her royally bestowed name is Thao Suranari (ท้าวสุรนารี), and is affectionately known as Ya Mo, translated as Grandma Mo, and she was the wife of the governor of the province in the early 1800s.
This area, even today, has a strong ethnicly Lao population and in 1826, the King Anouvong of Vientiane invaded as a way to assert independence of these people from Siam. He was able to seize control of the area while Ya Mo’s husband was away and evacuated the people, intending to resettle them in Lao.
The legend varies from Ya Mo inciting the women to seduce the Lao soldiers with sex and fruit to getting them drunk, but the generally accepted version is that the women were ordered to cook and Ya Mo asked for knives to prepare the food. That night, she passed the knives off to the imprisoned men who then surprised the Laotians who fled. The Siamese King, Rama III, sent his army in pursuit which handily defeated the army and sacked Vientiane. Ya Mo was bestowed the royal title of Thao Suranari, the Brave Lady.
Now, each year there is a festival held in her honor across the province throughout the month of March with the main one in the capital happening in early April. Each festival includes a dance performed by the women from the area, which is a way to make a lot of merit, and I was sure to participate before leaving.
Receiving a Khada in Nepal
Going to Nepal was a realization of a nearly 20 year old dream of mine, and completing the Annapurna Circuit was absolutely a highlight of that trip. I went through the company Mountain Sisters to hire a guide for my trek.
My guide, Kumar, was exceptional, providing me me an insight in to the Nepali language, culture and history, making the arrangements for food and lodging each night as well as being there for me every step of the way and making sure that the pace was one that would minimize the risk of altitude sickness. Additionally, we were together when the earthquake stuck Nepal on April 25, and went through the realization of the devastation together as he passed on the snippets of information he was able to gather before we reached Internet access.
We completed the trek in Pokhara and he showed me around the city on our last day together. He had a bus ticket for early the next morning, to get back to his home and family in the Everest region (his wife and four children were all safe, but his house had sustained some damage).
While resting that evening, he knocked on my door and presented me with a piece of yellow-orange silk and placed it around my neck. He told me that it was a tradition of Nepal and that it was a way to mark the accomplishment of finishing our trek together. I looked into it a bit more and discovered it was a khada, खदा, as is used to represent purity and compassion.
When I returned to Kathmandu, I met up with Nanda, the woman who owns and operates Mountain Sisters. She also runs a children’s home, providing disadvantaged children with the opportunity to go to school, which was also thankfully safe from the impacts of the earthquake.
On my last day in Nepal, I went with Nanda to visit the home and children, who had their first art and music class since the earthquake. Upon my departure from our time together, Nanda also presented me with a khada. Both of these scarves, the ceremony of receiving them and the connection with the people who gave them to me are a special memory from this year.
National Day in Cameroon
While I was serving in Peace Corps in Thailand, my friend Elise was began her service in Cameroon shortly after me. I decided that on my way home, I would stop and visit her and give her the chance to show off her country of service to someone who could kind of understand her experience.
I spent a month with her, going “up and down the country” as they say and got to do and see some great things. But I think one of my highlights from my time there was getting to experience one of the most important holidays in Cameroon: May 20, National Day.
Different parts of present-day Cameroon achieved independence from France and Britain at different times, so National Day is not really an independence day. Instead, it commemorates the day that President Ahmadou Ahidjo abolished the federal system of government and unified the country.
It is celebrated around the country with speeches, dances and most particularly marching. Different community groups and students from each of the schools will march past the “big men” of the communities and time is spent with other community members. It was a day where I got to see a slice of Cameroonian culture on full display, and it was amazing.
Partaking in the First Iftar of Ramadan
I’ve written about the first breaking of the Ramadan fast before, but I think it tops my list of favorite travel memories this year (which is not a short list).
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and commemorates the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed. It is observed by fasting during the daylight hours and begins and ends upon the observance of the crescent moon.
Ramadan this year began a few days after I arrived in Cairo, and on that first day of fasting, I went on a self-guided walking tour to check out some of the more famous mosques and was supposed to end up at the Citadel.
I was wandering through some of the back streets, just taking in the architecture and taking my time in the summer heat when an older woman offered me water. I tried to pass it off, knowing that they had not drank anything that day and wanting to respect their fasting by not drinking in front of them. After she insisted, I relented and drank the water that was offered.
Then, one of the woman’s neighbors, a 13-year-old girl invited me to stay until sunset to break fast with the family. I accepted and passed the next couple of hours pantomiming to communicate and learning how to play backgammon from the girl’s father (also through pantomime).
As the calls to prayer rang out and echoed through the alleys, we broke bread together and ate. I set off firecrackers with the children in the neighborhood and around midnight, one of the older men escorted me back to the metro station. That is an evening that I don’t think I’ll ever forget, and I’m sure it beats any experience I could have had at the Citadel, which I never made it to.
What are some of your favorite memories from 2015? Any cross-cultural experiences that are favorites?