The cost of $1000

The (snarky and sarcastic) opinions expressed here are all my own.


I’m not best known for being great with numbers; but, I am pretty good at finding creative solutions. And I’m SUPER worked-up (some might say angry) about what’s happening to kids, teachers and schools in BC. So, I started thinking – if “I” were in government – what would “I” do to fix all the mistakes “I’ve” made in education?

And here’s my crazy thought: since BC’s per student funding is $1000 behind the national average, that means a lot of other provinces have already figured it out. Maybe we should just ask all of them how they did it??? (Or, more importantly WHY they made the choice to invest in public education, when we haven’t.)

Because $1000 per student, per class, per school, per district…that adds up to an awful lot, doesn’t it?

Just guessing here, but closing that gap might help deal with a few thousand of those overcrowded classrooms; it might help support a few of those kids with special needs who are still waiting; it might put sports and arts programs back into schools (well, the schools that are still open); and it might even help turn the tide a bit for our teachers who have been falling behind for years.

Now, this has got to be tough: I wonder if the government is kicking itself for all the staff and lawyer time they wasted in both creating and defending multiple attempts to impose illegal cuts and legislation on teachers. Or maybe they’re regretting the $11 million they spent in the pre-election period – when they were already in negotiations with teachers – on hosting a big Bollywood party? Perhaps they’re wondering if the $563 million spent on a leaky stadium roof was really the right choice? Rethinking those enormous pay raises that went to all their top insiders and political staff? (Come on now, does anybody think Christy’s Deputy Chief deserves more than Obama’s Chief of Staff?)

That’s all looking to the past though – at a list of things they’ve been willing to find money for when they wanted to. And we do need to find solutions that look forward.

So, maybe Liberal MLAs can help finance public education investments by refunding portions of their wages to the province? Because seems to me that with all the cancelled days where they should have been sitting in the Legislature, they’re not quite fulfilling the scope of work we’re paying them to do. (Only 36 days in 2013? Really?)

So what should Christy Clark and the Liberal government do now you ask?

Stop picking fights and trying to punish teachers for speaking out. And instead do whatever it takes to fix our schools: deal with class size and composition issues (the courts kinda told you that you have to), give teachers the time to have those “one-on-one moments” that make all the difference, help the kids with special needs, and show the people who are educating and mentoring our kids a little bit of respect when working with them. Because that’s what we’re paying you to do: use our tax dollars for what they’re intended. Use them to build and protect the services we count on and care about. Because – if my Facebook feed is any measure – there’s an overwhelming mass of parents, grandparents, teachers and us “just general members of the public” who think kids and their education should top that list of priorities.  



(And thank you to my math, English and every other subject, public school teachers/coaches. I attribute many of my successes to the knowledge, skills and personal growth you helped develop in me.)

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Emotional experiences with giants

“N” and I are lying on the benches at the end of the skywalk. There’s an occasional rustle as the breeze shifts the thatched roof above us. And as we rest before dinner, for the first time today, it has now cooled down enough for the sun to feel comfortable. It helps that the air is filled with a combination of the dry season’s dust and smoke from distant slopes (that are being burned in preparation for coming rains). The Elephant Nature Park skywalk

The sky is also filled with the soft flutter of thousands of small florescent-yellow wings. We were told this is the week the butterflies have all come to life. It seems Buddha’s grace has followed us here.

(I’m reading a novel right now that takes place in Thailand is laced with Buddist teachings. In this space, it’s hard not to acknowledge how right it feels.)

Nate is reading and I’m just trying to soak in this moment.

In the distance, elephants are grazing. No, really. Elephants. Great, big, powerful, beautiful elephants.

We’re at The Elephant Nature Park – a rehab centre and sanctuary for injured, abused and neglected domesticated elephants. It’s a safe space that does some very powerful and emotional work. And we’ve just spent the day interacting with, feeding and observing these giants – gentle creatures who have finally found a space where they’re safe and looked after.

Each of the 38 elephants has come with a story. Two of them have particularly captured my heart.

Medo shows her past with every limping step she takes. And she was rescued from a logging camp – one of the many.

Logging is tough business for an elephant. Rough terrain, long hours and some heavy-handed prodding to make it happen. And it affects both their physical and emotional treatment: one elephant here was even an addict on arrival…with an owner who fed the elephants ya ba (a mix of methamphetamine and caffeine) to keep them working harder and faster.

Medo broke her ankle on the job. And her usefulness was hampered. So, to continue to make money off her, her owner tried to use her for breeding instead.

Her four legs were shackled to keep her still. And the male in heat was released to do his part of the job. Full of testosterone (if that’s what it is in elephants, I’m not sure), his aggression and sheer power took over. He mounted her and beat her. And, shackled and unable to defend herself or escape, her leg was broken and hip displaced.

MedoShe stands crooked now. And there’s a painful looking lumber as she slowly moves. But she’s made friends here: she and two other female elephants spend their days together. And the staff and volunteers who run this centre do everything they can to minimize her pain and reduce the distance she needs to roam.

Mae Jokia’s story is one that would break the heart of any mother.

Jokia was also rescued from a logging camp. But when she first started there, she was already pregnant. With no break from the work, she was forced to deliver on the side of a hill. And, upon a rough entry into the world, her baby rolled down the side of the mountain, and Jokia was not allowed to follow – not allowed to either try to save it or even check to see if it was alive.

We have learned that elephants are very human in their emotion. At one point even warned that if one of the elephants approached us, we should not turn away from her. She would feel like we were ignoring her and become sad. And, given the memory they have, she would hold on to that sadness.

Well, for Jokia, you can imagine what that kind of trauma might have on an emotional creature. She became depressed. She would not eat and did not want to work. Trained in the practice of making these animals respond by force, in a fit of frustration, her mahout shot one of her eyes out with a sling shot. The other he stabbed out with a knife.

Jokia’s only saving grace was the ENP purchasing her from the owner. She arrived alone. Blinded in both eyes. Vulnerable. Sunshine talks to us about Jokia and Mae Perm

In another show of the humanity these animals hold, an older female at the park saw Jokia’s needs. Mae Perm befriended Jokia and is now her greatest ally and protector. She leads Jokia to food and water, guiding her through every portion of their joined lives. The two are inseparable. And they’re inspiring.



Family of 3 elephantsThroughout the night we were awoken to the sounds of this space. Dogs in the distant kennels and the occasional majestic trumpet of one of the giants sleeping 100 metres from our bathroom window. (This rescue centre looks after a wide range of creatures: almost 400 dogs, 50’ish cats, and herds of water buffalo.)

In the morning the air is finally cleared of the faint smell of smoke. While we played cards and sipped cold bottles of Chang last night, we had watched the neighbouring climbs glow red. Locals are trying to clear space to farm…but they’re destabilizing the slopes and slowly encroaching on this safe space. There is even a trekking outfit that has chained animals within hundreds of meters of the ENP property line…and it puts the amazing work of this centre is doing in really clear contrast. It makes the importance of the work all that much clearer.

The morning was set aside for feeding and a walk. Our new guide – Sunshine – leads us through a wonderful day.

We start by pulling steamed pumpkin out of a basket and feed it to one of the oldest elephants. She’s lost her teeth and now relies on the steaming and peeled watermelons to keep her going. (There’s an amazing army of volunteers and staff who keep the enclosures clean and spend hours prepping and individualizing food for each of the animals.)

Then, on to a walk, where we meet a rambunctious one and a half year old boy. He wants to play, but we’re warned he doesn’t know his own strength yet. So we keep our distance but enjoy watching him splash in the water of a hose and try to break into a sack full of corn.

We visit Jokia and Mae Perm as they enjoy a corner of their own – as always, inseparable.

The water buffalo get herded away by the dogs who have joined our walk. And we get to see the two enclosures they’re building to help reduce the human contact a few of the elephants have…as they have hopes of  they might be able to prep some of the younger ones for release back into the wild.

Then comes the moment. The one I don’t want to ever forget the feeling of.

We’ve come across a new herd. And I stand back and off to the side a bit to try and take a few photos. Through my lens, I notice one of them approaching – lumbering in a way that only something that large can do. I drop the camera down and try and stand still, remembering the warning to not insult them by turning away or retreating. I certainly don’t want to be the source of an elephant’s sadness.Elephant love

Suddenly I am within a foot of this huge, beautiful giant. She has stopped short and seems to invite me to reach out. So I pet the sensitive spot behind her ears and rub her trunk, just watching her as I’m amazed. And as that happens, she lowered her head a little and closes the distance of that last foot…nuzzling her powerful head into my body and flapping her ears in a moment of greeting and comfort. I can feel the weight and force of her huge body. But she never pushes me off balance: she seems aware of the power of the contact and our relationship in that moment. It feels like a tender moment of friendship. And her flapping ears seem to reflect the joy she has given me.



My heart has been broken and re-built eighteen times over here. And I think that might be pretty normal. I have learned so much about these gorgeous creatures – about the abuses they’ve faced and the strength that’s let them heal. I’ve been blown away by the stories of the one woman who has created this sacred and beautiful space. I’m touched by the personal generosity and hard work that makes these efforts possible.

We paid a bit more to go to this centre than others around here. We never rode an elephant (like some offer to do). But after all I’ve learned and experienced here, I’m so immensely glad to have had this be part of our experience away. I just wouldn’t want to do it another way.

So, to anybody travelling to Chiang Mai, Thailand, I can’t recommend enough going here as part of your trip. Whether it’s for a day trip, the overnight we did, or volunteering for a week (as we saw many doing), your soul will feel better for it.


Contact info for the centre: 
The Elephant Nature Park

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Contrasts of Saigon

It is impossible to photograph the feeling of chaos that first hits you in Saigon (not that I didn’t try). Still frames seem to suggest spaces and paths that don’t exist in the reality of life…in that moment of standing on a curb and wondering when the best time might be to take the leap of faith and just take the first step into the throng of cars, motorbikes and bicycles.

Throngs of bikes shift through one of the many Saigon markets

Throngs of bikes shift through one of the many Saigon markets

Right from the start, the taxi ride in from the airport had us feeling caccooned into the packed streets. At every stoplight swarms of bikes would skirt through gaps we wouldn’t have tried walking through, to get to the front. People were passing around each side of the car on the one lane road…sometimes against the flow. And looking back, hundreds more were waiting for a green light or scanning for the suggestion of a few inches they might squeeze through.

There is a system to the madness though. And somehow it all works…shifting slowly through space and time in a way that gives everybody a chance to react and predict what neighbouring commuters are doing. And the air is filled by small beeps of warning (in an informational, not agressive or reactive way). And it feels like there’s a Buddist-inspired calm to the action…nobody getting upset about being cut off or people crossing their path. They just slow just enough to let people do what they need to before resuming their own speed and path.

In addition to the constant hum of scooters and horns, the air is also filled by scents. Sometimes the heat and humidity carry short wafts of ancient sewage systems and drying fish…but more often it is the enticing aroma of food that captures us: crusty french bread cooking, chillis and garlic being fried by street vendors who serving people on short plastic stools that cover the sidewalks, and fresh fruit and herbs ripening under the umbrellas in the market.

French inspired design fills the city

Visually it is the architecture that I marvel at. The French colonial nature of the city is everywhere in design. But it has been punctuated by intricate and colourful Vietnames temples and pagodas. Chinese feeling marble floors fill the city’s houses and places of worship. And neon lights take over the night. But with small touches of so many other cultures, it is also just distinctly Vientnamese.

Most noticably though, the sensory overload of the city is contrasted by the calm of the people.

“N’s” height gets him some attention here. The woman selling eggs pulled out a chair and invited him to join them for a short sit.

There is so much value placed in the effort to create small moments of connection. And the people we’ve met have been so kind. They feel attentive in moments of talking…leaning in and always coming across as so present in the (sometimes language challenged) conversations.

Perhaps it is the idea that small talk does not feel small here: it feels like an invitation to create a relationship or friendship. An opportunity to spin delicate webs of connection that — if treated with the deserved respect — might be strong enough to cross an ocean.


Notes and rules that will help you cross the road and get to the other side unharmed:

  • Buses and trucks will not stop for you. Don’t even try and step in front of one.
  • When in groups, cross in lines parallel to the sidewalk so you create a shifting island to steer around.
  • Always walk at a consistant and slow pace so the motorists can predict your place on the street.
  • Moving food carts are too big for the pushers to see around, get out of their way or risk being plowed into the road (a lesson learned from a VERY near miss as “N” had to hustle to avoid the hard lesson on our first night here).
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The Great Adventure – Cambodia

“N” and I are off on our great adventure: 29 days, 3.5 countries (not sure 12 hours in Seoul counts). And so much to see, learn and experience together.

I wasn’t planning on keeping a travel log (as some had asked about before I left). But as I feel so overwhelmed with the amount of experiences and moments we’re packing in, I also worry about not sharing some of it…for fear of loosing the memories of what the moments felt like.

So — on this sticky keyboard in Hanoi — here are some of the words and thoughts I scribbled into my red CBC moleskin book that I’ve been carrying around.

Now a week ago (and already feeling like a world away), below is a quick transcription of my morning meanderings from a small warm veranda in Cambodia…


View from our room over the neighbourhood below

In Cambodia the air is both warm and thick. It is heavy with the fine pinky-peach dirt that makes up the roadways. But the weight feels somehow comforting…like a blanket in the night.

Our hotel is burried in the midst of an area that feels a little untouched by time. A bit out of place, yet not. As if somebody once saw “Field of Dreams” and was inspired to build this grand Western/Cambodian oasis of luxury and beauty…knowing that if they built it, we would come.

On our first lazy day, we dipped in the pool and read in the sun. Then off to siesta before heading into town. But last night I was drawn out of my light slumber, and away from the false-cool of air-conditioned rooms and crisp white sheets, by music. Somewhere in the neighbourhood nearby (which really looks more like a palm jungle punctuated by the occassional colourful tile or thatch rooftop) came the sound of something haunting. Music that felt like it was trying to express centuries of teachings.

But, as softly asitpulled my to my veranda last night, it suddenly drifted away.

Now, the next morning, as the sun is rising, it makes more sense. Again the mystic sounds — filled in by roosters and chirping birds — have mandated my awakeness…needing to let a small part of what was happening wash over me.

There’s only one other person out on their porch. In her white cotton nightie, she feels like an unknowing friend in this moment.

“N” lies in bed still — unaware of the beauty this moment holds. I can see his long frame through the softly flapping sheers. Perhaps though, he has his own peace in this moment.

I feel calm to have been called to life this way. It feels right.

Here’s to what a day at Ankor Wat will hold for us now…


One of the many ruined Wats of Ankor

One of the many ruined Wats of Ankor

(Note: originally I assumed the music must have been prayers with the setting and rising sun. We later learned that a neighbour was hosting a wedding, and we just lucked into the wonder of getting to feel part of it.)

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Blue and yellow contemplations

While Christmas shopping in Chapters, I found myself drawn to a pretty bright blue and yellow covered book. (Yes, sometimes that is how I choose what to read. Other times it might be a clever title that draws me in.)

The Happiness Project - by Gretchen Rubin

The Happiness Project – by Gretchen Rubin

This book though was “The Happiness Project.” Written by Gretchen Rubin, it’s one woman’s research, efforts and memoir of trying to make her life better…of finding ways she could appreciate and grow the happiness she already felt.

Having heard comments about the book and the project in the past, I knew it paralleled  thoughts and efforts that were already stirring in me (part of the reason I had taken an acrylic painting class in the Fall, ideas connected to this big trip we’re planning, and lots of other little things).  So we – the book and I – we became friends. And the little blue and yellow bundle of tightly bound pages now lives in my purse. And between the Candy Crush Saga games on the bus, riding from home to work and back, I’m slowly working my way through it.

No great book review or life changing moments to reflect on here. Not that kind of post.

But I guess I just wrote to quickly reflect on the comfort I’m finding in my slow journey through the story. There are moments where it feels like Gretchen is in my head: a woman who has so much to be grateful for and happy about, but who still sees room and a desire to find ways to be happier…somebody making the active choice to approach life in a way that gets every bit of juice from it.

Posted in Books and arts, Life, reflections | 1 Comment