Musings, Travel & Adventure

2535 Kilometers on the China Train

We had exactly one week to spend in China, and we needed to travel 2535 kilometers in that one week (not including a short trip to Hong Kong smashed in there), and we needed to stop and see some of China along the way, too. We were willing to meet this challenge with the help of one very important asset: China’s high-speed train system. After several years of construction, this train system is both the longest high-speed rail system in the world and also the most heavily-used in the world.

A little summary of our 2535 kilometers through China by train: 

We landed in Guangzhou, a major city in the south of China, on the Thursday night that we had left Bangkok for the last time. I tried to swallow some of my sadness over leaving Thailand by focusing on the challenges facing us in China: Mainly, how the heck were we going to make it to Tommy’s friend Brady in Shenzhen when we didn’t know a piece of the language, we wouldn’t have phone access to find him, and generally, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing? (Read: Silly, lost, clueless tourists in a very foreign country.) But with all four of our silly tourist heads put together, we managed to get it done. We had printed the Chinese address of our hotel to give to the taxi driver at the Guangzhou airport. Our hotel in Guangzhou turned out to be lovely, and the receptionist helped us get a cab to the correct train station the next morning. At the train station, we were helped by an exasperated employee who managed, through many gestures and basically by pulling the correct money out of our wallets herself, to get us four tickets to Shenzhen, our first 139 kilometers by train. In Shenzhen, thank goodness, Brady found us where we had agreed to meet and escorted us to his apartment and throughout the city of Shenzhen.

Here we are, happy to have made it to Shenzhen. This would start our long, increasingly-colder journey north to Beijing:

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Because Shenzhen is near the China-Hong Kong border, Brady also escorted us to Hong Kong and back for a night. I only wish that we had more than one night to spend there, because it was a pretty amazing city. We took the ferry out into Victoria Harbour to see Hong Kong’s skyline; we ate burgers and drank ale at a delicious diner; and we stayed out late to enjoy the local nightlife. We were only there for a total of about 16 hours, but I’m glad we stopped by.

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Did you know that Hong Kong is also home to the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator system? I secretly like riding escalators just as much as I did 20 years ago — and so do all of you, be honest! — so personally I thought this 800-meter-long escalator system was pretty sweet:

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Upon returning to Shenzhen in the morning, we said goodbye to Brady, and, armed with instant noodles and packaged cookies, we hopped on board our second high-speed train and traveled 1707 kilometers north to Zhengzhou, current residence of my friend Erika, a college professor. Unfortunately, it was so foggy that we couldn’t see much of the countryside out the train windows, but we enjoyed our trip regardless. It was indeed a speedy train: during our trips, the trains traveled most of the time at a speed of 300 kmh (around 186 mph).

We spent a lovely two nights and one day in Zhengzhou with Erika. She showed us around her college and introduced us to her friends and co-workers. She also took us to some pretty tasty street food, which is a quick and sure way to all of our hungry traveling hearts:

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It was also getting increasingly bitterly cold as we went farther north. After spending two and a half months in tropical Southeast Asia, I would classify myself as a rather giant weenie when it comes to cold weather. (The only good news here is that China was doing its best to prepare me for my trip home to the brutal winter of North Dakota.)

Finally, we left Erika behind in Zhengzhou and commenced the third and final leg of our journey by high-speed train, 689 kilometers north to famous Beijing. We felt we were pretty experienced high-speed-train travelers by now.

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That was a little irony, because we were still kind of just silly tourists in a very foreign country.

But we had at least figured out a few crucial tips about China train travel: First, the hot water dispensers located in every train car are invaluable for anything from instant noodles (in other words, cheap lunch) to hot tea. It took us until the last leg of the journey to figure out that they even provide paper cups for your tea leaves.

Second, they do have both squatty potties AND Western-style toilets in the trains. However, as I learned after waiting for what seemed like an hour for my preferred Western-style toilet and finally resigning myself to the local version, using a squatty potty on a swaying train — while it takes some skill and courage — is not actually so bad. (When in Rome, right?)

Finally, when you spend 2535 kilometers on high-speed trains in China, even more important than the flavor of instant noodles that you choose and the type of toilet that you use is the quality of your travel companions. And I had pretty good ones:

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

Scuba Diving and No Mishaps

Traveling is full of mishaps. Just when you think everything is going smoothly, you get food poisoning and only barely make it to the public airport bathroom. You get lost looking for a museum and somehow find yourself in a field of goats. You end up stranded on an island because the weather prevents any boats from leaving. You “accidentally” almost murder a rooster. These things just happen. Actually, now that I think about it, all of these things I just mentioned DID happen.

Mishaps make the best stories provided they don’t end up in disaster.

However, I will put my storytelling instincts aside and report that our last week in Thailand actually decided to be kind to us. How boring! No one got sick. Our scuba course passed by in a blissful three days with no problems at all. Even the weather, which had been on-and-off rainy for weeks, seemed to smile on us. We also spent the last week in great company: Our brother Danny and cousin Adam joined us in Asia for the last two weeks of our trip – one week in Thailand and one in China – following the conclusion of our volunteer teaching. Seeing them across the world was a pretty sweet feeling.

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And of course, for them, missing the -40 degree wind chill back home and swapping it for a balmy 85 was a pretty sweet feeling too.

We met them in Bangkok and spent a day there before heading south to the island of Phuket, Thailand. We had to spend a little time on the beach before we could even think about doing anything else. Adam was so thrilled to be in sunshine again that he fried himself a bit – I don’t even think he cared. The rest of us are Norwegians with a red-headed mother. We don’t mess around with sunburns.

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The next day, we started what we had come to Phuket for in the first place: our scuba certification course. Of the four of us, Tommy was the only one with any scuba experience from a college class he had taken, but he hadn’t been certified. We chose a 3-day course that included coursework, pool work, and the open water dives. At the end, provided we passed, we would be PADI Open Water certified.

Usually at this point the mishaps would come in. I would tell you about one of us getting seasick, falling off the boat, failing the course, eating something nasty, getting caught in bad weather, being hospitalized for sunburn, or some other problem. But everything was pretty perfect. We liked our English instructor within a few minutes of meeting him. The weather was gorgeous. The water was so clear it was turquoise. Being able to breathe underwater is a pretty sweet feeling. And yes, we all passed.

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Pretty boring, isn’t it?

Because it really was perfect. Hands down, these were my favorite three days of our entire Asia trip. When I looked around and realized I was a world away from home, underwater in the Indian Ocean with two brothers and a cousin… Well, maybe it was one of those times you just had to be there. And maybe every once in a while, perfect isn’t so boring.

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It was a good way to end our time in Thailand.

Musings, Travel & Adventure

The Truth About Roosters

I have a confession: Tommy and I have an ugly side. For the most part, we are easygoing and agreeable, but this ugly side revealed itself recently.

Because of a rooster.

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I really don’t like those things. Don’t get me wrong: Chickens are great – cooked and arranged artfully on my plate, that is. Roosters live and in the flesh? No, thank you. In fact, I have some disappointing information: We have all been misled on the topic of roosters. According to cartoons and egg advertisements (both reliable sources, so I thought), these colorful fowls are supposed to perch on the barn around 6 a.m. when the sun is peeking over the horizon to give a cheerful crow and wake up the farmyard. At this point, the farmer and his wife and their daughter, who is wearing some adorable blue cotton dress, finish their breakfasts of biscuits, bacon and buttermilk and tramp out of the farmhouse with rosy cheeks to begin morning chores. That rooster, he just starts the morning off right. Thank goodness for his cheerful crow every sunrise.

So idyllic.

Such a lie.

Here is the truth about roosters: They do not crow at 6 a.m. They crow at 3 a.m., 4 a.m., 5 a.m., 6 a.m., and whenever they darn well please, lest you have forgotten their measly little existence in the past few minutes. Also, they do not crow in the farmyard. In Asia, at least the parts we visited, roosters crow all over the cities, in backyards, on rooftops, in the markets, and next to hotels where people are sleeping peacefully, Furthermore, their crow is anything but cheerful, and I wouldn’t even go so far as to call it a crow. It’s a screech.

Had I been asked a few months ago my opinions on roosters, my answer probably would have been indifferent. My dislike for them started in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. After months of listening to the horrible screeching music of roosters, the dislike has only magnified. Now when I am walking down the street, I give each one that I see an evil eye. I secretly hope that every chicken meal that I eat contains at least part of the rooster that woke me up the night before. Harsh, I know. I’m not proud of this.

I mentioned that Tommy also has an ugly side when it comes to roosters. On a recent visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand, this came to surface in both of us. (Never mind that we could have ended up in jail.) Here are both sides of the story, which we had sent in an email to our family shortly after the incident:

Tommy’s side of the story: A couple weeks ago, Rachel and I were staying at a hotel in Chiang Mai. It had great reviews and we were excited about our nice place to stay upon arrival. That changed quickly. The very first morning, I woke up at 3:59 am to the sound of a dying rooster. His song of sorrow was a sick melody of crowing for the next hour and a half. At first I felt bad for the chicken, but soon that changed as I realized I should probably put an end to its life. Hence, I soon found the chickens’ roost next door, in clear sight from the 3rd balcony, right outside my door. Looking for an object to throw was difficult, as many of the objects were too valuable to kill said rooster’s poor crappy existence. However, finding a 5-liter bottle full of water soon gave me hope. I was going to crush that rooster’s head.

Rachel’s side of the story: I had no sympathy for this so-called dying rooster. It was not dying but probably just really stupid. Its song was not a crow but a 3-note call that went high-low-SQUAWK! High-low-SQUAWK! Over and over, every 5 seconds, from 4 a.m. onward. I agree, however, that this thing needs to be put out of its misery. By 5:30, my ears were ringing with the high-low-SQUAWK and my thoughts had turned murderous. I wondered to myself, how much time would I spend in a Thai jail if I went out of this room, found the rooster, picked it up and wrung its neck? (This thought process really happened, by the way.) At least jail might be quieter. Did I just hear Tommy’s door open and close? In fact, unbeknownst to me, Tommy was indeed outside, taking my thoughts one step further. He had located the squawking rooster and was standing on the balcony aiming a full water bottle at it. He was checked only by the rooster’s owner coming outside to feed the chickens. This was probably a good thing, we decided — until the next night, that is. This time, the squawking started even earlier, and all I felt was despair. Did I just hear Tommy’s door open and close again? Way to take one for the team, Tommy. I promise to visit you in jail after I sleep a few more hours.

The third night, I had gotten past anger and despair, and when I heard the rooster squawk at 4 a.m., I felt nothing but depressed. I was going through the stages of grief. The thing I was grieving was my chance at ever sleeping again.

Only one thing has happened which has made me feel sadly vindicated over these little brainless menaces. Don’t worry, I promise this turned out fine in the end. But we did get a little laugh when we saw this:

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I still wouldn’t be too upset if he ended up as a box of nuggets….

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Tidbits About Thailand

Our time in Thailand, rather shockingly, is drawing to a close. Two months ago, I had said goodbye to my family and students and made frantic last minute additions to my backpack and iPod before leaving in a rush with an anxiety-induced stomachache, having no idea what to expect. Experiencing the initial culture shock upon arriving in Cambodia, I felt that my almost three months here would trickle by slowly. Instead, it’s flown by. I can hardly believe that we have only a week and a half left in Thailand before we head up to China for another week and then, home to the United States.

I have learned a lot of interesting things about the culture here. I am grateful we were able to come here as part of a volunteer teaching program, because we were able to learn more about local life than we would have merely as tourists. Of course, in two months I have barely scratched the surface of understanding a new culture, but I thought I would share a few little tidbits that people back home might find interesting:

  • Chopsticks are not widely used in Thailand. More common is a fork and spoon, as in the West, but general table manners would have you use the back of the fork, in your left hand, to push your rice or noodles onto your spoon, in the right hand.
  • Tipping is not common in Southeast Asia. In fact, on some occasions when we have tried to leave tips, the server has insisted we take our “change.” One transplanted American working at a beach restaurant told us that generally the only customers that leave him tips are other Americans.
  • It is generally considered poor manners to drink from a bottle by tipping it up to drink from it. Better manners dictate to drink from a bottle by using a straw. Should you buy a bottle of water or a Coke from a 7-Eleven, for example, you will be given a straw to go with it. Teachers should definitely not drink from bottles of water without a straw in front of students, as the students are likely to emulate them and thereby go home copying these bad manners.
  • Speaking of 7-Eleven’s, they dominate every street corner in every major town here. I haven’t even seen one in the United States for I don’t know how long, but I have grown to love these little treasure troves of convenience where you can buy a 1.5 liter bottle of water for a mere 40 cents.
  • The “wai” greeting is used largely among native Thai people, meaning to place two hands together in a type of bow to show respect. How high or low you place your hands depends upon the rank of the person you are greeting – place your hands higher (fingertips at eyebrows, nose, or chin, depending on the situation) when greeting monks, elders, teachers, and bosses, for example; and place them lower (chest level) for employees beneath you, people younger than you, and students if you are a teacher. However, with Thailand’s active tourist industry, the locals generally understand that we Western visitors will not be able to “wai” correctly and don’t often try to greet us in that way.
  • It is rude to beckon someone with one finger as we do in the United States, mainly because that is how they call animals such as dogs. Instead, you should turn your hand so that your palm is facing down and use your entire hand to beckon someone. It is also rude to point at someone.
  • In Thailand, the head is considered holy and the feet are considered lowly. For this reason, you must not touch the head of an adult (with small children, it’s usually ok), and you must not point your feet at someone while sitting. Instead, it is more polite to keep your feet crossed safely underneath your chair.
  • Because feet are considered lowly and feet touch the floor, the floor is also considered an undesirable place for items of value. Books and school supplies must not be placed on the floor or stepped over, as knowledge is considered valuable and stepping over them would be disrespectful to knowledge.
  • So many people in Thailand’s tourist areas speak English, that if you attempt to speak to them in Thai and greatly butcher the pronunciation (as I do), the friendly Thai people are almost less likely to understand you then if you just speak English. At the very least, you may very likely get laughed at. At least, I do. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, however! Tommy is better at speaking Thai than I am, I admit.
  • Much of the beauty market sells “whitening” products, in the form of face creams, lotions, and makeup. I always find myself jealous of the beautiful tan complexions here, but then again, usually we want what we can’t have. Perhaps it is similar to America’s obsession with tanning beds, fake tanners and bronzers?
  • Although Thailand is a democracy with an elected prime minister, the country greatly adores its royal family, so much so that to say anything disparaging about the king could land a person in jail. Even to step on money inadvertently is considered disrespectful, as the face of the beloved king is displayed on Thailand’s coins and bills.

Cultural differences are fascinating.

Speaking of, I think going back to the United States may be a culture shock all over again. Going from the humid 80- and 90-degree weather back to North Dakota’s winters will be the biggest shock of all!

Musings, Travel & Adventure

New Perspectives from the Airport Bathroom Floor

About eighteen months ago, I decided my life had gotten too comfortable and that I needed a new perspective.

A few days ago, I found myself on the tiled floor of a public airport bathroom in Bangkok, throwing up my food-poisoned dinner from the night before, cursing myself and the bathroom and all of Asia in general.

Why did I ever think that “too comfortable” was a problem?

Let me tell you exactly how I came to find myself on that bathroom floor: After deciding I needed this new perspective, I researched Southeast Asia volunteer teaching programs online for months, began setting aside chunks of my teaching paycheck, got a second evening job, booked tickets, quit both my jobs, moved back home, found a new job willing to give me three months leave, prepared sub plans for those three months, applied for visas, got all sorts of brutal vaccinations in my arms, stocked up on sunscreen and mosquito spray, and packed everything I could into a backpack.

And here I am.

Did I really do all of this for the sake of gaining a new perspective on life?

I’ve always been accused of being a little bit dramatic.

But on that bathroom floor, I came to the realization that it’s working. As my list of new experiences expands — some more enjoyable than others — I do believe I’m getting what I came here for. I’ve seen and tried more new things in the past two months then I have in any other period of my life. I’ve been lost, homesick, swindled out of money, challenged, exhausted, disgusted, and culture-shocked. I’ve lost what feels like half my body weight in sweat in one day; I’ve battled the fastest, most ninja-like mosquitos that I’ve ever battled; I’ve trusted the kindness of strangers who don’t speak a bit of my language. I’ve purchased overnight bus tickets just to find myself on the overnight bus from hell. And of course, I’ve lain on the floor of a public airport bathroom in Bangkok, wanting to die and be put out of my misery. (I told you I could be dramatic.) Oh, and I really miss my dog.

But here’s the thing: I’ve also made new friends, learned a bit of a new language, and (somewhat) successfully taught English to Thai children. I’ve enjoyed my interactions with locals; and I’ve had interesting conversations with other travelers from Poland, France, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Iceland, Spain, Australia, and the UK. I’ve gained a new taste for spicy food, gazed at the Indian Ocean for the first time, and found a good traveling partner in my brother Tommy.

I didn’t know what to expect when I signed up, but I think I can say that so far — despite the few hiccups — it’s been a good decision. The months preparing weren’t easy; the months spent here haven’t been easy; but I knew they wouldn’t be. I knew I was going to be hot and sweaty the whole time. (To those freezing in the Midwest right now: I apologize and I know this may be hard to hear, but intense heat is not all it’s cracked up to be.) I knew I would end up lost more than once. I knew I would like the kids at my school just a little too much. I had a strong suspicion I might get food poisoning. And I knew I was going to be thrown right out of my comfort zone. That’s what I signed up for, for reasons I can’t always remember now.

Here are a few pictures of our more memorable new experiences. (If you don’t mind, I’d rather forget the airport bathroom.)

Remember The Spider?

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I’ve made new little friends:

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And new grown-up friends:

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We’ve trekked over mountains:

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Climbed waterfalls:

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Visited countless beautiful temples (this, the White Temple in Chiang Rai):

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Participated in a lantern festival:

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Gave Thai cooking a shot:

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Went white-water rafting:

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Got up close to an elephant:

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And kayaked, in the rain, through Thailand’s renowned karst formations. On this particular adventure, I also had to arm myself with my paddle against creepy little bandit monkeys, but I refused on principal to take pictures of the little jerks:

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Most of the new experiences, unfortunately, really can’t be caught on camera. If I could, I would show you the insane traffic in Cambodia, or the friendly Thai security guard practicing his English on me, or the moment we realized we were really, really lost in Chiang Rai. I can’t, but you can take my word for it that my perspective, in just 8 short weeks, is changing. I appreciate things I didn’t appreciate before. I’ve gained new ideas about the world. And I still have a few more weeks to go before I go home for Christmas. Hopefully, the list of new experiences will keep expanding until then.

On second thought, remembering the airport bathroom that I’d really like to forget, maybe I should be careful what I wish for….

Musings, Travel & Adventure

The Kids at Korpai

Our weeks at Korpai Kindergarten were filled with singing, games, flashcards, and all sorts of fun (slash exhausting) activities that I don’t usually get to do at my teaching job back in the States. “Teacher Tom” and I had a lot of fun during our teaching experience there. We taught little English lessons with different topics every day, from insects to zoo animals to things at a park. I think Teacher Tom was a bit of a natural, actually. If he wasn’t going into secondary science education back home, I think he would make a pretty good elementary teacher. He sang enthusiastically, he led games that were loud and boisterous, and the kids loved him.

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One day, I did get a pretty good laugh, though. I was preoccupied taping flashcards of insects up on the wall for our next activity, so I let Teacher Tom handle the transition by singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” with the kids. He started too high. “Wait, stop,” he said. Then he started too low. Then his voice started cracking. Then, he skipped a line. Then, another kid sang the wrong line, so Tommy went with it. I found myself laughing harder and harder, unable to step in and save him. Tommy glared at me. “Thanks for the help,” he said. I just laughed more. The kids probably didn’t know much different, although I think a few of them had an inkling that Teacher Tom didn’t know much about “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

When it came time to say goodbye our last day of teaching, it was pretty sad. We sang the Shark Song one more time. I watched Dtang-Mo run around the Duck-Duck-Goose circle one more time. I watched Teacher Tom yell at the top of his voice during Red Light, Green Light one more time. The hard part was knowing that, more than likely, we won’t see these kids again in our lifetime. Hopefully, they are in good hands.

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When we packed up to leave at the end of the lesson, the kids asked their regular teachers where we were going. “America,” she said. The kids rattled off something to their teacher in Thai, which we didn’t understand. She said something to them, and they looked at us pretending to rub their eyes and cry. “They are sad,” she translated.

When we walked away, they gave us a pretty sweet goodbye for us to remember. To leave every day, we had to walk by a gated doorway that looks from the kindergarten out onto the street. This time, the kids rushed to the gate when we left and stuck their arms out in little waves and little peace signs. They were smiling, laughing, sad. It was a pretty touching moment.

Happily, I snapped a picture before we left for good:

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I’m going to miss those little rascals.

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Stolen Inspiration

I love learning about new cultures. But one thing that this trip to Southeast Asia is showing me yet again, is that although the world contains its cultural differences, the people in the world are really not that different. Everywhere I go, there is love and laughing; there is pain and despair and things we don’t understand and will probably never understand. My time in Cambodia was heartbreaking at times with its level of poverty, especially in rural areas. Some of Thailand’s kids, like my little friend Dtang-Mo, need more than just English lessons every day — and they are so adorable that it hurts. To the southeast, our neighbors the Philippines have been slammed by “super typhoon” Haiyan, which has killed and displaced thousands.

The struggles extend beyond Southeast Asia to the rest of the world, to America, to North Dakota, the oil boom, friends and family, my home, your home, everywhere.

That’s why I like this poem I’m going to share with you. I stole part of it from a decorative sign at a Minnesota lake resort last summer. I liked it so much that I recently did some research about its origins and in doing so, stumbled across the rest of the verses. I’ve learned that it is actually a hymn based on poetry written in 1919 by a young woman named Annie Flint Johnson.

Some stolen inspiration for you:

What God Has Promised

God has not promised skies always blue
Flower-strewn pathways all our lives through
God has not promised sun without rain
Joy without sorrow, peace without pain

God has not promised we shall not know
Toil and temptation, trouble and woe
He has not told us we shall not bear
Many a burden, many a care.

God has not promised roads smooth and wide
Swift, easy travel, needing no guide
Never a mountain rocky and steep
Never a river turbid and deep

But God has promised strength for the day
Rest for the labor, light for the way
Grace for the trials, help from above
Unfailing sympathy, undying love…

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