Wednesday, January 19, 2011

This entry was written by Linda Cassell about our last few days in the village.

We stayed in Piak and Ghing's village Sunday night. Ghing's sister has a piece of property with 4 cottages so all eleven of us were able to stay there. (Tony's parents arrived Sunday morning just after we left the crematorium and had picked up Soraya's ashes so now our little entourage was complete.)  

We went to the temple in Piak and Ghing's village where the monks performed one last ceremony. The sala, which was dedicated to Soraya sits on the temple ground. The piece of fabric signed by their Capoeira friends is stretched out inside the sala forming the ceiling.  The Bhutanese prayer flag signed by many Backroads friends in Berkeley flutters in the wind next to the sala.  

That night was an amazing evening that started with a huge meal consisting of many of Soraya's favorite foods and the dishes they had prepared for her and Emily their last night in the village a week ago.  And toasted her with Chang beer and a big bottle of Duty Free Jack Daniels.  We sent Soraya up into the sky with 33 sky lanterns with the final lantern showering us with fireworks and her ashes.  We all felt we could hear her laughing with delight.  We woke the next morning to a beautiful sunrise in the village. We all inhaled the soft quiet morning. 

After a delicious breakfast of eggs steamed in banana leaves prepared by Ghing's wife, we went for a bike ride.  It was another amazing and emotional day.  But had much lightness in it as well. The process of death here is so real yet so gentle.

We recreated one of Soraya's last day's. We all rode bikes from Piak's home (the Backroads Thai 'warehouse') to the temple where Soraya's ashes will stay until Tony brings them home.  After saying good morning to Soraya we rode to  the Ganesha Museum, which Soraya and Emily visited just last week. It was so great to have both sets of parents riding through the countryside. Especially Amina riding on the back of Tony's pink cruiser.  We all laughed and soaked in the fresh air, sunshine and vibrant green of the rice paddies. Simply wonderful. Then we slurped down big steaming bowls of duck noodle soup - one of Soraya's favorite meals. Tony's forehead dripped with sweat from all the chilies he added to his bowl!   

We don't know if we'll ever be able to fully capture this past week in words.  Being here, and experiencing what we experienced has been absolutely amazing.  It's been comforting, uplifting, incredibly sad, beautiful, a celebration, with every emotion being called upon.  We wish everyone could have been here because it has helped so much in accepting what has happened. The way Buddhism approaches death, and processes death, is so beautiful. It allows one to have a conversation with the deceased.  It's very private and powerful. We truly think Soraya is in a safe, good place.  And we feel that we all helped her on that journey.    


I apologize for adding so few pictures - the bandwidth here makes it difficult to get pictures up in a timely fashion, so I'm going to find somewhere else to post those so people can see more.  

Thanks for all the positive messages.  We hope that reading this has been helpful to some of you and that we have been able to communicate the beautiful, gracious, and courageous spirit of Soraya's parents, Tony, and her Thai family.  

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Soraya's Perfect Day

After a very difficult morning at the temple - where we all had a chance to say our final goodbyes and collect Soraya's ashes - both Soraya's American and Thai families set off to the nearby village where Ghing, Piak and Yunn live. Tony's parents arrived in Chiang Mai just as we were leaving and it was such a blessing to have them with us on this beautiful Sunday.

We headed straight to the temple that Soraya visited on her last day in Thailand. To our surprise, Ghing had spent the past 3 days (between ceremonies in Chiang Mai) organizing and building a sala in Soraya's honour. A sala is a small wooden structure that you see all over Thailand, sometimes used to eat lunch in, get out of the shade, or most commonly to rest in. Soraya's new resting spot. The sign on top of the sala, in line with the theme of mis-spelling Soraya's name was written "Soraya Voster Pandola"...... at least the Pandola was right this time! Tony said it was perfect because the Thai's always pronounced her name with out the R.  Surrounding the top of the sala were bright coloured Bhutanese prayer flags brought by Linda from Berkeley and inside a banner hung on the ceiling full of notes from Soraya's friends at the capoeira school. Just next to the sala was a 12 foot tall white prayer flag signed by Backroads friends in Berkeley and hanging from a long Bamboo pole. The scene was magical. The sun was shining, her parents were in the place Soraya most cherished and we were all quietly enjoying her presence. It was no surprise that as soon as the monks chanted to us, a little black cat poked it's head out from under the sala and came to say hi to all of us..... she actually went straight for Tony and enjoyed a good 15 minute head massage. Then the ice cream man arrived (pronounced "I-team" in Thai) and we all proceeded to yell "I-team, I-team" in Soraya fashion until we all held a delicious coconut ice cream in our hands.

A mouth watering lunch took place next right near Piak's home where we ate some of Soraya's favorite dishes - papaya salad, pakapow, pad see ew, sticky rice etc. After lunch Ghing took us on a walk through the field pointing out banana flowers, rice fields, lemongrass, garlic, longon fruit, jack fruit and all the other goodies right in their backyard.

The afternoon consisted of a group nap, beers, tim tams and more talking.  It's hard to put words to the feeling that we all had inside - one of being so peaceful and 100% in the moment. Some of us have known the beauty of Thailand for a while now, some of us had just been exposed to it, and either way there was this universal appreciation for a  magical place. The people who welcomed all of us into their homes - Ghing, Boom, Piak, Oye, and Yunn were the kindest hosts, treating all of us like they treated Soraya; like family.

As the night came to a close, we lit 33 fire balloons (for 33 years) and sent them up into the air - one of Soraya's favorite things to do on New Year's. We all made wishes as we sent each one into the night. One of Soraya's wishes was to one day have her ashes sent up into the sky attached to a fire balloon and fireworks! So our firecracker went up in style, lighting up the sky and all of our lives.  After watching the last of the flickers of light escape our view, Amina said "It's like Susu is laughing all the way to heaven!"  

Today, after returning to Chiang Mai, we received a message from Soraya's friends, Namgay and Djorji in Bhutan via Berkeley.  It does a beautiful job in summing up the Buddhist view of leaving this world.  "I'm glad I met Soraya two years ago when she came to Bhutan.  She brought joy and happiness to all she met in this  life that she left behind.  The joy she has given to others in this life will be added to her joy in the next life.  I lit three butter lamps at my alter on Friday Night and prayed that the light from my lamps safely guide Soraya in finding her way to the next life.  We believe that the next life comes into being on the 46th day.  We should not cry because the many tears turn into heavy rain, the noise from crying will sound like great thunder and Soraya's soul will be lost and confused in the thunderstorm." 

Tonight, Soraya's yoga studio in Chiang Mai is putting together a practice in her honor that we will be attending. 

Cheers and Cha Yo to the perfect day in Thailand!

More pictures to be added soon.

Emily & Linden

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Last night the second ceremony of four took place.  The focus of the day turned from the general idea of death and dying to Soraya's specific story. We returned to the temple in the evening and saw that Ghing had already brought her dinner -  sticky rice, pork "boob," chili sauce and Chang beer. Since we had last been there, the flowers around Soraya had multiplied.  There was a wreath from Backroads and one from the Suanthip Resort, along with much of their staff.  The top of her coffin was also decorated with individual bouquets.  After a series of chants by a group of monks one head monk spoke about Soraya.  The message of the evening was that just by looking at a picture of  Soraya, one could tell that she was a happy person.  There was no other way to see her.  He went on to say that some people have a long time on this earth and some people have a short time and that's just the way the world works.  Soraya's time was short, but she did what she needed to do to hang on until Tony and her mom and dad could be here with her to see her off.

Soraya's cousin, Ibrahim had arrived from Singapore earlier in the day and was able to see her for the first time.  It was a great comfort to her parents to have another family member here, someone who knew Soraya as a child.  We took a group photo with Soraya and after the ceremony we all returned to Sri Pat. Tony took some much needed rest and we went out to dinner with the Vorsters and Ibrahim to one of Soraya's favorite local places, Prego.  It is really important to her parents, especially Ted, to see the places where she spent her time here.  Prego is an open cafe with organic salads and Thai food.  They also have free wifi, so Soraya used to go there to do her Backroads work and catch up on life during down time here.  She insisted on taking Emily there before the last two trips they led.

We returned to Sri Pat and stayed up way too late chatting, telling stories and listening to the latest pop music with Tony.  Nik got in late and joined us.  It's has been great to see familiar faces.  This morning, we all returned to the temple to bring Soraya one last breakfast.  We pulled out all the stops - it was very abundant with lots of garnish; fruit, cookies, oranges, sticky rice, chili paste, and two waters.  Tony and the Vorsters woke her up to eat and just a short time later Ghing's van arrived with Linda Cassell, Maeanna Glenn, Steve Pandola and Laurel Frederick.  They had had a long trip from California, but it was amazing to see good friends.  They all got to light some incense for Soraya and talk to her a little before we headed back to prepare for the main event.

At about 10:30 am we all returned to the temple for Soraya's cremation ceremony.  The way Tony described it to us, this is the Thai Buddhist way of giving her a visa to allow her to go anywhere she wants on her journey.  And our final opportunity to say goodbye before she is gone.  The monks were chanting today in an effort to open all doors for Soraya. After the temple ceremony, all of the flowers and coffin were moved to a cart.  The cart was then led by two monks followed by everyone to the crematorium.  We then all stood in attendance while the men carried the coffin up to the platform and she was placed inside the chamber.  After watching until the smoke came out of the chimney, we returned to the temple to make one last wish for Soraya before Tony symbolically blew out the last lit candle.

Although the mood was heavier today than it has been, Ghing tried to emphasize to us that we should be happy because Soraya is now free and her spirit can go wherever it wants.  Tony noted that the coffin was extremely heavy, but with everyone's help, he was able to get Soraya up where she belonged.  I can't speak for everyone else here, but it has been a great comfort to me to say goodbye to someone in such a positive and hopeful way.  Soraya is a free soul now, happy wherever she desires.

And now after a little down time, we are heading out for foot massages, beer, and street food.  It's certainly not what everyone does after a cremation, but it feels like what Soraya would want us to do.

There were many people in attendance today, including:  Tony, the Vorsters, Ibrahim, Ghing, Boom, Piak, Oye, Vit, Nu, Yunn and wife, Tuk and son, Holly, Linda, Laurel, Steve, Maeanna, Emily, Nik, Linden, Brian, Rosie and parents, Will, a group from Rose's yoga studio and other Thai friends.

Photos in Order:
1:  Ghing writing in the "A" in Pandola.
2:  Tony and Ghing choosing the menu for the cremation ceremony meal.
3:  Shopping in the market for Soraya's meal.
4:  Pork boob, sticky rice, Chang beer, and chili sauce.
5:  Ibrahim, Ted, Piak, Amina, Ghing, Tony, Linden, Oye, Vit.
6:  Soraya's family.
7:  Head monk.
8:  Linda adding to the cremation banners with all the names from Berkeley and beyond.
9:  Tony offering incense.
10:  Emily talking to Soraya.
11:  The coffin on the cart with all the flowers.
12:  The procession.
13:  More procession.
14:  Tony driving the cart.
15:  Taking the coffin into the crematorium.
16:  Monks entering the crematorium.
17:  Tony, Ghing, and a monk.
18:  The smoke coming out of the chimney.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Being here in Chiang Mai to be with Ted and Amina Vorster and Tony over the last couple of days has been an amazing gift.  Emily and I, together with Tony, Ted and Amina wanted to have a forum to share what is happening here as Soraya prepares for her next journey.  We know that there are countless people all over the world who would do anything to be here for her and her family, so hopefully this forum helps you all feel a bit closer and connected to the ceremony we have already begun.

In Thai Buddhist tradition,  it is believed that the deceased does not understand that they have passed until they have been told.  Last night, the first of four days of ceremony began.  The purpose of this first ceremony was to tell Soraya that she has passed so that her soul doesn't wander and she can start the process of moving on.  Five monks chanted the message that death is universal and unavoidable.

Soraya's beautiful white and gold coffin had been surrounded by tons of flowers donated by Khun Vit, the owner of the Sri Pat Guesthouse where Soraya religiously stayed (even though our stipend barely covers it, she insisted on staying here).  A gorgeous picture of her was placed in a wreath of carnations, orchids and lilies.  The first thing Tony noticed upon walking in was that they forgot the 'A' in Pandola on her name card.  Ghing quickly penned one in with a sharpie - evidence that it is important to always have one on hand.  Some of Soraya's favorite foods had been laid at the foot of her coffin so that she could enjoy them.  The mood was light, we were all able to enjoy a meal with her and crack a joke here and there in her honor.  Everyone lit incense and said a prayer to her.  After the chanting and ceremony, we all had some food, hung out and joked around.   Ghing playfully toasted her photo.  As we were leaving, Tony realized he still had half of his desert left.  As we all know, Soraya had a healthy appetite, so in memory of her stealing half his food on a regular basis, he left the remaining half by her side.  Whataguy.  In attendance were Ted and Amina Vorster, Tony, Emily, Linden, Ghing, Boom, Piak, Oye, Khun Vit and his wife, Yunn, and Holly Mattos and friend.

It is very important to Tony that it be communicated to all of you out there that the mood here is light and full of love and support.  It feels like one big family and we are being embraced by each other, our Thai friends and the Thai culture.  We are constantly reminiscing about Soraya  - her love for cats, her love for food (yes, we are eating LOTS of it in her honor), her passion for ritual, her ability to be 100% in the moment at all times, her passion for capoeira, her insistence that everyone else love what she love and much more.  We are celebrating her love for life and her genuine kindness and compassion.  Her parents are so happy to finally be here in Chiang Mai which had a special place in Soraya's heart, pulling her back year after year.

Standing with tradition, we all returned to the temple this morning to bring Soraya breakfast and share another meal with her.  Tonight we all return to the temple to celebrate her story and spirit.  Spreading this ritual out over four days gives everyone a chance to slowly let go and become prepared for the cremation ceremony which will take place tomorrow.   Soraya's cousin Ibraham just arrived from Singapore and Nik will be here later tonight.  We are also eagerly awaiting the arrival of Linda, Maeanna, Steve and Laurel.

Lots of Love and Big Hugs from CM,
Linden and Emily