220 Days Abroad – Lessons Learned

The beauty of spending the last portion of our trip traveling through Europe is the vast system of railways that make moving from place to place extremely simple. You show up 15 minutes prior to your departure time, find the correct platform and when the train pulls in 6 – 10 minutes later, you find your reserved seat and settle. Trains are rarely late, there are no security lines, and very little stress.

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An early morning departure from Cologne, Germany

The tradeoff is that the journey will take longer than a plane flight, but there’s a luxury to traveling slow. You get a different perspective of the world – a brief peak of the countryside and towns that make up a nation. The most obvious benefit of this method of transportation is time. Time to read, listen to music, play cribbage, relax, and write.

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Enjoying some wine and cribbage on the fast train from Milan to Rome

Towards the end of our trip, we took several long trips that provided ample time to reflect. Just sit with myself and think. Unfortunately, I didn’t particularly feel the creative inspiration to write more blog posts (something that I rather regret). There are so many thoughts and emotions swirling around in my brain and I’ve been having a hard time grasping concrete ideas to capture in print. And like many people, I’m very good at keeping my mind busy and don’t often take time to be introspective.

But while in Stockholm, about two months before our scheduled flight home, several things struck me that have continued to circle in my thoughts.

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A cold and sunny Stockholm in April

Dean had traveled to Sweden previously, visiting distant cousins related to his grandmother and grandfather who both immigrated to the US in the 1920s. Because it’s a 30 minute metro ride outside of the city center, Dean was unable to visit Skogskyrkogarden (The Woodland Cemetery) on his last trip. The cemetery is a Unesco World Heritage site, but Dean’s interest is due to its natural beauty as well as its Nordic Classicism architecture.

What was once a gravel quarry overgrown with large pine trees in the early 1900s is now a beautifully manicured resting place with groves of mature trees shading the headstones. Elegant chapels blend into the surroundings of the natural landscape and benches litter the huge park, creating spaces for mourners and the local community to gather.

Now, I’m not much for cemeteries. The associations with death remind me of my father and the unresolved grief from his death in my late teens. Not to mention, that like most people, I avoid thoughts of my own mortality. But while I was sitting in the sun listening to the wind blow through the pines (one of my favorite sounds), I couldn’t help but think about this place not only as a resting place for the dead, but also a beautiful celebration of life.

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A memorial for those who have passed on in Sweden

It was one of those perfect moments of contentment; leaving me feeling grateful and happy. But as often happens, I couldn’t hold on to it. Like a roundhouse kick to the head (Chuck Norris style), I was confronted with the heavy reminder that at some undetermined point in time, I too will die.

And just like that – my mind started to go into a spiral of negative thoughts and worry. What if I die young? Am I living my life to the fullest? What is my calling in life? What if no one remembers me?

Now you’ve likely heard the term “fight or flight,” the instinctual reaction our brain experiences when we feel fear or a sense of danger. This response is often referenced when cavemen were faced with fighting off saber-toothed tigers or huddling in a cave for warmth. You would think it has less of a role in today’s advanced society. However, recent scientific research shows that while the human brain has evolved, its primary function continues to be keeping you safe and alive. Thus resisting change and defaulting to loops of negative thoughts is a defense mechanism designed to discourage you from taking actions that might jeopardize that safety.

I’ve read multiple books and articles discussing this phenomenon and have started to practice techniques that counteract my negative thinking. The first step is recognition of its occurrence. Then instead of reinforcing the endless loop of negative thoughts, I interrupt it by pausing and practicing gratitude.

While it’s difficult to stop the train once it gets rolling, I was able to take a deep breath and instead, thought about the beauty of the day and how lucky I am to be sitting in this stunning place. Continuing that line of thinking, I was reminded that every day is a gift.

At home, it’s so easy to become a slave to routine. Focusing on day to day tasks and waiting for the weekend is a trap that we all fall into at some point. In the book, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubens states, “The days are long but the years are short.” Due to the instability of our current life (traveling with few obligations and little opportunity to build routines) it’s easier to spot where I’ve allowed myself to become stagnant.

For instance, my sales career forced me to be constantly forward looking – hustling to reach each month end and working to beat my number for the year. Interacting with my customers and helping solve business challenges with technology was engaging and I took great pride in assisting them to make the right decisions. Though because of my narrow focus, I was never able to fully appreciate being in the moment and enjoy the process of learning.

In thinking about it further, I became aware that this behavior is extremely dangerous. If you have been following the blog, you know that this is not a new thought for me. It’s something I’m improving, but still have to work at – appreciating the experience, rather than focusing solely on the final result.

Which leads me to thinking about our current journey. We’ve returned to the United States and are spending a couple of much needed months with our families in Wyoming, enjoying the people and the surroundings that we’ve missed before moving back to Denver to resume our lives. Not that things will be the same when we return – how could they?

There are countless lessons I’ve learned throughout our current journey, but after much reflection, I’ve decided on three important themes to share with you:

  • Gratitude
  • Positive mental attitude
  • My relationship with ‘things’

Throughout our trip, I’ve been reminded time and again how fortunate Dean and I are. Let’s start with the basics: we live in a developed nation that has a high standard of sanitation and cleanliness. Though there’s no shortage of political shenanigans, our government is relatively stable, and we have a growing economy with low unemployment and ample opportunities for people to improve their lives.

To many people in the countries that we visited, these simple and foundational principles of society aren’t necessarily a given and thus not taken for granted.  While I’m not naive to issues and struggles of people within the US, I believe there is an overarching sense of ownership in one’s own destiny that isn’t always replicated elsewhere in the world.

I am further grateful that our family and friends are all in good health, that we live in a beautiful area of the country that promotes communing in and conserving nature – something I took for granted previously but now realize is important for my mental health and happiness. Dean and I own a home and have money in the bank. We are both smart and hard-working individuals with bright employment prospects.

Oh! And we have this amazing opportunity to take a year off to travel and work on ourselves. There’s no shortage of things to be grateful for when my negative-thought train pulls out of the station. Daily I’m improving my abilities to stop it in its tracks.

Second, there’s PMA – positive mental attitude. Traveling has taught me that everything is about perspective. Yes, there are times when circumstances are less than ideal. A dirty airport bathroom can put a dampener on your day, however remembering that it will never be as bad as the bus station squatter in Jaipur at 5:30am helps keep my attitude stable.

When I was younger I was on an emotional roller-coaster, swinging from happy to upset in the blink of an eye due to an unforeseen issue or a thoughtless comment. Now, I’m able to take a pause to understand the situation before expending any unnecessary energy reacting (or overreacting) to my surroundings.

A great example happened at an espresso counter in Rome when a gentleman cut in front of me in line to order coffee. Normally I would have made an exasperated noise or comment to let him know that he had transgressed on what I perceive as social protocol, (something that is very important to me). Instead, I waited my turn with a mental shrug, grateful that I have all the time in the world.  It seems like a little thing, and it is. But thinking about how often I would be impacted by little things, puts into perspective how much energy I wasted on stuff that never really mattered.  I realize that there’s very little in my life that I’m unable to change. My attitude is critical in how I view and interact with the world and therefore, I need to continually practice seeing things in a positive light. A habit that will significantly contribute to my abilities to control that thought train (choo choo!).

Lastly, there’s my new found attitude towards consumerism and my relationship with “things.” Knowing that every piece of clothing or souvenir that we purchased throughout the trip would have to be carried on our backs, I was extremely discriminating in determining if something was absolutely necessary. I’ll gladly stow a gift from any of the amazing people that we’ve met along the way, but I’ll forgo an extra scarf or any number of neat souvenirs to save space in my bag. Now, this didn’t stop me from buying some last minute gifts in Paris and filling my bag to the legal limit with French wine to enjoy when we returned, but I only had to lug those to the airport and the experience of sharing a small piece of our trip with those I love is worth the effort.

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Extremely full backpacks on our return to the US

For the most part we worked to adhere to a strict budget and any extraneous purchases came off of our daily target. I would much prefer having a glass of wine on the outdoor stairs of a restaurant in Athens than a perfume purchased at the ‘local’ Sephora. In fact, there are a number of studies and a whole genre of happiness research concluding that spending your money on experiences is a better investment towards happiness than buying stuff (read Dan Gilbert’s, Stumbling on Happiness, or this LifeHack article).

Because I don’t operate with a strict budget at home, I’m not as mindful when visiting stores and therefore I always end up buying things that I don’t truly need. Large box stores in particular are my downfall. A trip to Target to purchase toilet paper often turns into a $200 bill as I wander the aisles, picking up things that I might need in the future. Contributing to an increasing amount of stuff stored in drawers and closets which creates this nonsensical need for more space. It’s a dangerous cycle that often leads many people to buy larger houses, purchasing more stuff to fill it, and oftentimes, working at a hated job to make enough money to pay for it.

Seeing exactly how much we’ve needed to live for the last 7 months shows me that I can do with much less than what we have stored in our garage right now and prompts me to make changes on how I acquire moving forward.  It’s funny, but I’ve found that when you aren’t able to buy things, eventually, you end up not wanting to. Which has led us to spending our time enjoying people and places, actively avoiding the aisles at the countless number of stores in each city. When someone asks me about my time in Paris, or Budapest, or Thailand, I’ll be able to tell stories about the people we met, the places we saw, and the experiences we had, instead of responding, “the shopping was great!”

Thinking about it now, I realize that I used to spend entirely too much time shopping and would have entirely too much of my hard earned money invested in clothes I didn’t wear, extra toiletries, or pantry food items. As an example, I would go to three different grocery stores to get exactly what I needed while stocking up on items that were on sale, instead of adapting my meal choices to what was available at one store. It’s pretty ridiculous. And after my experiences on this trip, I am coming to terms with the reality that my time is truly limited.

I know one thing – I don’t want to waste my time. I want to take the experiences that I’ve had and appreciate my finite gift of time. At the end of my life, I hope to have the luxury of listening to the wind blow through the pines and be happy that I made changes, constantly learning and growing as a person. Now the only thing I have to do is figure out how I’m going to take what I’ve learned and carry it with me moving forward. But understanding that the only thing that I truly have control over is myself, I know I’m capable of making the decision and committing to it (with a little help from those around me). Just like I did when I first started thinking about taking a year off to travel the world.

 

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Fighting For Optimism

The last few of weeks have been some of the most difficult (and rewarding) of the trip thus far. I have seen the impacts of war and been confronted by the deplorable things people are capable of doing to others. On the other hand, I’ve witnessed the hope and optimism for the future and the unfailing strength of the human spirit. It puts into perspective advantages that I have never even considered and those that I routinely take for granted.

After our week in Istanbul, we took a short flight to Bucharest, Romania and landed at a small airport to freezing temperatures and a fierce wind (yay polar vortex!). Luckily our AirBnB was a cute and homey one bedroom apartment, located in the middle of the downtown pedestrian core and surrounded by restaurants and shops. The snow continued over the next two days while we spent time exploring the immediate area on foot while popping into different restaurants to warm up with a cup (or two) of vin fierte, hot mulled wine.

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Welcome to Romania

I had thought we were prepared for the weather, but the dry, cold wind made for miserable walking and I often found myself longing to curl up on the couch to read a book. You know, what I would be doing during a winter storm at home.

The problem was that we only had three full days in Bucharest, and cold or not, there were things that we wanted to see. One of the main sites on Dean’s list was the Palace of the Parliament, the second largest administrative building in the world behind the Pentagon. It is an imposing structure; 276 feet tall, with a footprint of 3,930,000 square feet, and 1,100 individual rooms.

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The Romanian Parliament From a Mile Away

Seeing the building perched on the hill was rather anticlimactic after the hour long, freezing walk but on our way back to the old town, we happened to stumble into one of the oldest restaurants and beer halls in the city, named Caru’ cu bere. The huge interior was warm and inviting, with dark wood and frescoed walls. We originally stopped in for a hot drink and quick respite from the cold, then decided to make a reservation for lunch the next day, as traditional Romanian food is heavy on the soups, vegetables, and meat. The perfect cold weather cuisine!

Our lunch was so delicious that we decided to reserve again the next day, to coincide with their daily string quartet for a pleasant 3 course meal – soup, main and dessert (freshmade donuts with blueberry compote and sour cream).

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Caru’ Cu Bere Beerhall

The snow storm finally broke on our last day and we enjoyed checking out 19th century buildings, monuments, and a huge park complete with an ice skating rink just outside of the old town. The temperature was still frigid however the weak winter sun was out in all it’s glory and I wandered where it shone.

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The Sun Returns in Bucharest

The following morning, we took the metro to the train station for the next leg of the trip. Our time in the Balkans was limited to three day stints (not including one day of travel) in Bucharest (Romania), Sofia (Bulgaria), and Belgrade (Serbia), with a longer stay planned in Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Dubrovnik, Split, and Zagreb (Croatia).

Train travel in this part of Europe is limited to small, regional trains with a number of stops to accommodate the local population of commuters. Each train has a number of brief stops (we’re talking 30 seconds) at tiny stations (sometimes smaller than a house), with slow travel speeds in between. On top of that, the border crossings outside of Europe’s open-border Schengen zone can take up to an hour as immigration and customs officers walk through the train cars collecting a passport from each rider, then disappearing into the station. After an indeterminate amount of time (often depending upon the number of passengers), the agents return to hand back the stamped passports.

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So Much Better Than Flying

Knowing that we were going to spend the majority of the day traveling, we purchased a grocery bag of snacks as well as several foot-long subs from the train station prior to the 7 hour plus journey.

In Sofia, our hotel sat two blocks outside of the main square and pedestrian street (Vitosha Boulevard). I was pretty excited about this hotel as it appeared to be new and its ratings were quite high. Our accommodation experience in Europe had so far been cute but quirky AirBnBs/hotels. I was hankering for a standard hotel room, with a clean bathroom where the shower had good water pressure (and a door).

The next morning we dug into the hotel’s huge breakfast spread and then began our day of touring with a quick take away coffee prior to joining the free Sophia walking tour. The winter storm we experienced in Bucharest (which had enveloped most of Europe) had blown through and the snow was just beginning to melt.

Throughout the morning we dodged droplets of water and snow coming off the buildings while we walked the sidewalks of the city center listening to our tour guide (a young university student) talk about the history of the city. It turned out to be Liberation Day, Bulgaria’s national holiday similar to our Independence Day, celebrating the end of Ottoman rule and the creation of a free state. People were out on the streets, waving flags and wearing the Bulgarian colors of white, green, and red.

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Liberation Day in Bulgaria

Sofia is a very old city, built on layers and layers of preserved ruins dating back to the Roman and Byzantine Empires. After World War II, it was a part of the Soviet Union and was a one-party socialist state until finally becoming a democracy and a market-based economy in 1989. Our 26 year old tour guide spoke of the country’s history of Communism, but having not yet been born, was unable to provide any firsthand anecdotes about that time period.

We spent the next two days exploring. Unlike most European cities, Sofia lacks a large central square that the remainder of the city organizes around. Instead, it has a gilded statue that sits on the median of several main thoroughfare streets with public buildings, parks, and churches surrounding on either side.

The Sofia History Museum, housed in the old public baths, provides the history of the city from the early 1800’s to modern day. The Cathedral Saint Alexander Nevski is an iconic Bulgarian Orthodox Church with New-Byzantine architecture, sitting in a cobbled plaza. The adjacent Temple Sveta Sofia (from which the city takes its name) is a 6th century Byzantine church with an underground museum that preserves and displays the excavated foundations of previous churches and crypts. We spent hours randomly walking through the urban neighborhoods and local parks, happening upon some hidden gem restaurants including a converted house with an amazing salad, a fast/casual soup place, and a local burger and craft beer joint.

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Vitosha Boulevard in Sofia

On the day of our departure, I walked the two blocks to grab three footlong sandwiches for our long day of travel to Belgrade. The shop was supposed to open at 7:30am, but like most things in Bulgaria, they were late. So I decided to grab a couple of Americanos at the shop next door and returned to the hotel 30 minutes later with our lunch, dinner, and to Dean’s surprise – coffee!

It was another long day of travel – 8 plus hours of sitting on the train, listening to music and watching the countryside scenery. We switched trains twice that day and upon entering the train station to check the time table for our second train, we walked through a group of 7 young and bedraggled children, holding their hands out and begging. Several of the group followed us into the station itself and continued their pleas while I kindly repeated, “No. I’m sorry.”

It broke my heart to see their dirty little faces but I don’t think that giving money is the answer. Not only does it reinforce the behavior of begging but oftentimes I doubt where the money goes. In India, we were told stories of adults who ran child beggar rings, commandeering the day’s take and leaving the children ill cared for until they were too old to appeal to the sympathies of tourists and turned out without a sustainable means of survival.

This group of boys however were very persistant and after realizing that I wouldn’t give them money, decided to focus on the ball cap hooked to the outside of my bag. One of the boys played at grabbing the hat, as it was fastened on the bag with the sizing hooks and could have easily been torn away. He was so persistent as to follow us out onto the platform and I had to very firmly yell “no,” while Dean unhooked the cap and zipped it up in my bag, sending a clear message. We finally boarded our train and watched as several other tourists were harassed until we pulled away from the station.

We arrived in Belgrade around 10:00pm and were shocked to exit the train station to desolation. No cars, cabs, or buses were waiting outside the train station. Nothing.

Dean had gone back inside to ask the information desk to call us a cab and we waited, unsure and frustrated, for 10 minutes until a car with a light on top finally came down the road. We provided our hotel address and were surprised when the car stopped on a busy road, pointing vaguely up a pedestrian street. We trustingly followed his directions of “up street, go left,” to find the sign for our hotel, which was tucked on the 4th floor of an old building right in the heart of Belgrade.

The next morning, we searched the pedestrian streets for coffee and breakfast for some time before finally deciding to enter a restaurant on the main square, a stone’s throw from where we needed to meet our free walking tour. The restaurant was a large, touristy place with both indoor and outdoor seating under heat lamps. Under normal circumstances we would have avoided such a tourist trap, but desperation was setting in – me for food and Dean for coffee.

Considering it was still early in the morning, we opted for indoor seating and were surprised when ushered to the “non-smoking” section. On our walking tour an hour later, we learned that every restaurant in Belgrade allows smoking indoors and the majority of our three days spent there was trying to find places that didn’t smell like a 20 year old ash tray.

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Belgrade’s Fort at the Confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers

Our tour guide, Sonja, was a grad student, born and raised in Belgrade, and throughout the tour, she not only shared her beautiful city but also an interesting perspective on life. Serbia is suffering from “brain drain,” with most of their young talent leaving the country to pursue opportunities abroad. When I asked if she had considered leaving as well, she replied that she is very much tied to Belgrade, as she highly values her relationships with friends and family. She had learned this during a year spent in Spain and upon deciding if to return, she chose to pursue a life of working to live versus the alternative that she sees played out in western society.

She spoke with the confidence and optimism of a young person who is just starting out in life with endless possibilities. She has an apartment downtown, recently moving out of her parent’s house, and enjoys spending time with her friends, always making time to meet for a coffee. In fact, we saw no lack of young people gathered at the cafes in the pedestrian streets on the sunny days, whiling away the hours over a cappuccino.

Belgrade is a beautiful city, pocketed where the Danube and the Sava rivers meet, and we enjoyed exploring the pedestrian area, wandering the Bohemian and Jewish quarters, as well as exploring the parks and ancient castle walls. However, when thinking about our time, my major impression will always be that it was “smoky” and because of this, I probably wouldn’t return.

To get from Belgrade to Sarajevo, we hired a minibus (also known as a large van) as there currently isn’t a train route from Belgrade to Sarajevo. The journey was an easy 5 hours. We shared the van with 3 young Serbian guys and a few older women who were all traveling to Sarajevo to ski. At one of our two pit-stops, I asked the one of the other passengers, an older woman in her 60s, where she had bought her Lululemon yoga pants. I was surprised when she responded in heavily accented English that she lives in Calgary, but is originally from Bosnia. She left with her family 24 years ago and had moved to Canada as a refugee, fleeing the war (when Serbia, the seat of Yugoslavia attacked Bosnia).

Immediately after crossing the border into Bosnia Herzegovina, I had started noticing the abandoned houses that were scattered across the countryside. Many had shrapnel holes, while others were empty shells without roofs or windows. Dean and I disagree about the numbers, but I believe that about 1 in 10 houses showed some kind of damage. I asked the Bosnian-Canadian about the houses and she sadly replied that many who fled their homeland never returned. Even worse, many had died in the fighting or were murdered in the work camps. This is the first time that I was confronted with the magnitude of the conflict that occurred upon the break up of Yugoslavia, resulting in the countries we know today – Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Kosovo (still a disputed state).

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Many Buildings in Bosnia and Sarajevo Still Have Scars from the War

Sonja had provided a little background on the history of the socialist state of Yugoslavia and it’s break up upon the fall of Communism but hadn’t touched on the Serbian aggression that resulted in years of brutal war.

We began our education into the war that day looking out the van window – more would come over the next week.

Our first full day in Sarajevo, we decided to join the free walking tour provided by one of the city’s highest rated companies on Trip Advisor. This has been our new routine – we join the free tour on our first day to get an overview of the sites and then go back to study places in more depth with the remainder of our time in the city. Our tour guide, Enes, was a high energy young man, in his early thirties who was born in Sarajevo and demonstrated a great depth of knowledge and love for his city. He kept the information on the tour high level, providing information around the history of the city and touching briefly on the seige.

Like the other cities in this area, it was part of both the Roman and Ottoman Empire, and much of the architecture and culture has been shaped through those two great civilizations. It was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and is the place where WWI was started with the assignation of Franz Ferdinand.

It was largely untouched by WWII, as it was then part of Yugoslavia, a socialist coalition run by the benevolent dictator, Tito. From Enes’s description, Tito is still very well thought of in Bosnia, as unemployment was 0, people had food, and the widespread corruption that often is highlighted in USSR Communism wasn’t discussed. However, a decade after Tito died, his empire fell apart and regions of the state started to succede.

Enes walked our group of 20 around the old town, showing the oldest Mosque in the city, the Ottoman marketplace, the synagogue, the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The tour highlighted some of the infamous history of the city by showing us the Latin Bridge and nearby the exact spot where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated.

Often we walked past the Sarajevo Roses, a red painted demarcation on the pavement of the city indicating where people were killed from the Serbian mortars during the Siege of Sarajevo in the 1990’s. Some 11,000 people died during the 44 month siege, and as you can imagine, there are a large number of the red splatters throughout the city.

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One of the Many Sarajevo Roses

Enes encouraged us to ask questions and most of mine were focused around the siege. I remember hearing about the conflict in Bosnia when I was a child. Enes was a young child when the siege started in the early 1990’s. His family household is on the opposite side of the river valley, or hill, where the Serbs set up their lines and mortars. He made mention of his mother not allowing him to wear the color red as a child so as not to make an easy target for the indiscriminate Serbian snipers.

At the end of the free walking tour, Dean and I arranged with Enes to meet the next day for his Siege of Sarajevo tour, where he would speak specifically about the war, visiting The Tunnel of Hope, the abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Olympics, and the Jewish cemetery that would become a battle ground throughout the siege.

To broaden our knowledge of the siege prior to the next days tour we visited the Museum of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. Slovenia and Montenegro left Yugoslavia without much bloodshed, Bosnia and Herzegovina upon trying to declare independence from Yugoslavia was not as fortunate. There are three ethnic/religious groups that call this area home – the Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox), the Croats (Catholics) and Bosniacs (Muslim). The Bosnian Serbs wanted to remain under Serbian rule and with the help of the Serbian Army (still the army of Yugoslavia), tried to take the country by force. They set up work camps to imprison the opposition (primarily the Bosniac and Croat peoples) and surrounded the city of Sarajevo. The UN placed an embargo on Bosnia, but since the Serbs had already stockpiled arms and were being supplied by the Yugoslav army, this essentially meant that the Croats and Bosniacs were drastically limited in their ability to fight back.

The museum was dedicated to showcasing the heinous crimes committed by the Bosnian Serbs against their neighbors. Stories of torture, rape, and genocide were displayed – the likes of which hasn’t been seen since WWII and the crimes perpetrated against the Jews – except this time, the persecution was against a different ethnic group – the Muslim Bosniacs and Catholic Croats.

Walking through that museum, looking at the pictures and reading the stories was one of the hardest things I’ve done. Tears took up residence, occasionally spilling down my cheek, particularly when I read a remembrance from a woman or child. The pictures were gruesome and I spent most of my time questioning how someone could do such things to another human. And how we, as a civilized world, could allow it to happen. The museum discussed in depth, the ambivalence of the UN and how their indecisive actions exacerbated the abhorrent behavior, as their inaction was seen as encouragement by the Serbs.

The next day, we spent a few hours at an outdoor coffee shop on the square, Dean reading while I wrote a blog post. We then visited the Jewish Culture Museum, housed in a historic synagogue, a beautiful stone building with large windows and wooden balconies used for displaying the local Jewish relics.

On our way to get lunch, we ran into Enes, also on his way to get food before the tour and we asked him if he’d like to join us. He took us to a delicious doner place where our three sandwiches were $10 total. Over lunch, I suggested that we grab a few beers to drink somewhere on our tour. Enes was extremely accommodating and took us to the grocery store to purchase a six pack of the locally brewed lager.

We started the tour by driving through the city, Enes pointing out a barrage of sites left and right as we made our way across the city to the tunnel of hope museum on the far side of the airport. During the drive, Enes had talked about different aspects of the seige, but it really hit home when we sat down to watch a 16 minute video at the tunnel of hope museum that was comprised of footage from the war – first-hand images of shelling, buildings blowing up, people running under fire and helping their fallen comrades were gruesomely portrayed in black and white. After the images and stories from the day prior, I was still shocked by the cruelty and sheer ambivalence for human life that was being played out on the screen.

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Sarajevo’s Tunnel of Hope

When reading about WWI and WWII in history class, it’s easy to gloss over the brutality in your imagination. But when these images confront you in the very place in which they happened, the gravity is much greater. Hearing Enes’s stories about the bleakness of the siege and his first hand experiences were humbling. His willingness to share his honest and unfiltered opinions were refreshing as many times I feel like our tour guides have diplomatically tempered their dialog in the name of professionalism.

At one point, I had a small breakdown, asking aloud how anyone could live with themselves after having done some of these horrendous things. He shared a story about a sniper who had killed himself after not being able to get over murdering an 8 year old girl who was walking down the street with her mother. The man had singled out and killed a number of his fellow Bosnians throughout the siege but apparently this one act haunted him.

I can’t even begin to imagine what that must have been like for him. Or worse yet, for the mother to have everything change in an instant due to someone on the other end of a scope. Can you imagine being a mother and everyday worrying if your children will come home?

The tunnel was extremely interesting as it served as the only means of travel into the seige city of Sarajevo for the Bosniacs and Croats during the almost four year seige (1,425 days). It was built in four months and four days by volunteers from each side, running under the UN controlled safe zone – a strip of land, housing the airport. The Bosnian Serbs had encircled ¾ of the city and planted mines across the hillsides of the Bosnian army zone to the southwest. Sneaking across the open land of the UN controlled airport strip was risky and if caught, the UN would return you to whichever side you originated. Enes told stories about the UN soldiers spotlighting people crossing at night, making easy targets for the Serb snipers on the cliffs above. I’ve always had the perception that the UN serves as the world’s peacemakers, but hearing Enes’s stories about their ambivalence and inaction during the seige, made me reevaluate.

After visiting the tunnel, we drove up the mountain to explore the abandoned bobsled track. Above the track, we stopped on a hillside, overlooking the entire river valley. The point gave us a birds eye view of the large city, sprawling across the hills, and a great place to enjoy our beers. We could see the Olympic stadium, all three parts of the city (Ottoman old city, Austro-Hungarian, and new city), as well as a number of cemeteries littering the landscape.

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1984 Olympic Bobsled Track

We quickly finished our beers on the mountainside and continued on to the bobsled track. It’s one of the most magically haunting places I’ve ever visited. It sits on the side of a steep mountain, the trees and bushes encroaching on the cement chute. Every available inch is covered with layers of spray painted graffiti. Some murals stretch along the walls while others are shortly worded tags. Upon asking about our feelings towards the current POTUS, he gleefully showed us a small tag saying, “Fuck Trump.”

We decided to continue walking down the track instead of stopping halfway. This area was heavily disputed during the war and towards to bottom, Enes pointed out several places where small holes were chiseled in the cement, places that acted as foxholes for Bosnian Serbs, allowing them to shoot their enemies from the high ground while being protected by thick, insulated cement. Another reminder of the cunning of man in killing their brethren.

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Holes in Bobsled Track from the Siege of Sarajevo

During the walk on the track, Dean fell behind to take pictures and I got a chance to talk to Enes about his life. His fatalism about the war and current political situation was tempered with a cockeyed optimism about the future and his own place within it. He had gotten married 12 days prior and was enjoying the afterglow of such a happy occasion.

We compared notes on our weddings as well as our futures. He was surprised to learn that we had quit our jobs to go on this trip. Technically, Dean and I are both on a leave of absense but don’t have guaranteed positions when we return.

In Bosnia, employment is extremely difficult to find and most people would never willingly leave a good job. His new wife is a radiology technician but has been struggling to find a job in Sarajevo due to a limited number of openings and the fact that she is not well connected politically and does not have enough bribe money to secure a position. That alone shocked me but then Enes said something that I will never forget – America is the land of opportunity, children grow up believing that they can be whatever they want. But in Bosnia, children grow up knowing that they can’t.

Pause and think about that for a second.

I’ve never questioned that there isn’t anything that I can’t do if I just put my mind to it and work hard enough. My previous career success was built through sheer grit, determination, and an unfailing confidence in my abilities. But there are so many people in the world that don’t have the same advantages. Oftentimes I think about limitations of opportunities and education in context of poverty. However Enes has a masters degree in tourism. His limitations stem from living in a corrupt political climate, where the system is stacked against people progressing on merit alone. No matter how hard he works, he will not achieve great success. However he optimistically speaks about his future, working hard to build up the tour business and living a simple but happy life with his new wife.

It forces me realize the endless possibilities that are open to me and how much I take them for granted. If Enes isn’t deterred and continues to have big dreams, what’s stopping me?

Judging The Book By It’s Content

The more we travel, the more I’m struck by the similarities of people across the world. You’d think it would be the exact opposite considering the unique differences in almost every circumstance of environment: ethnicity, history, government, geography, language, traditions, religion, etc. Though local customs and societal rules may change, I find that, at their core, most people operate with similar dreams and goals.

In Nepal, Ngawang glows with pride when talking about her four children; one daughter helps run the guesthouse and the family spends much of their day congregating in the kitchen, socializing and preparing the next meal. In India, sharing drinks with Madan and his family, we enjoyed hours of conversation before sharing a meal together, cooked by the women of the house. In Bali, we met a Spanish couple, Anna and Dani, who left corporate jobs in Barcelona over a decade ago to become scuba instructors in Southeast Asia. A similar story was told by Megan and Sal, a California couple, who recently left behind the exhaustion of the American rat race to pursue their passion under the sea. In Greece, we enjoyed discussing birthday plans with our host, Niki, whose daughter’s ninth birthday falls on the same day as my 36th. In Serbia, our walking tour guide, Sonja, shared that unlike many other young people seeking better opportunity, she has chosen to remain in her home country after realizing the importance of her family and friends, enjoying the sweetness of a work to live lifestyle versus the alternative.

When thinking about all of the different people that we’ve met, similar themes are demonstrated over and over; the value of connection with others, whether it’s a partner, family, or friends; the ability to make and pursue choices about career, lifestyle, or location that will impact happiness; the drive to protect and raise successful, joyful children; the importance of protecting local traditions and customs while embracing new ideas; the freedom to practice (or not) a religion and the importance of worshipping whichever God you choose. This last theme became particularly relevant as we traveled to Turkey for a week.

I’ll admit to having some trepidation prior to visiting. First, Turkey shares a southern border with Syria and the complexity of the crisis surrounding their civil war and other factors has made for a heated political climate. Additionally, I feel that the sensationalist nature of the American media makes their reporting on the situation unreliable ensuring a difficult search for truthful information regarding the safety of the country.

To top it all off, recent political friction between the US and Turkey has caused both governments to deny specific visa options to the other’s citizens. The US State Department recommends that visitors “reconsider travel due to terrorism and arbitrary detentions.” In fact, the word “terrorist” is used no less than 10 times on the US State Department’s webpage for Turkey. A word that strikes fear into my heart and conjures mental images of Osama Bin Laden and jihadist suicide bombers.

On the other hand, Dean has fond memories of his time in Istanbul, boldly claiming it as one of his favorite cities. So when he acquired online visas for our visit, I pushed my worries aside.

Arriving in Istanbul was exactly like entering any country. You go through immigration, where a stern faced officer reviews your visa, or in this case electronic visa, before stamping your passport and waving you on. Next, you wait an indeterminate amount of time at a carousel for your bag, walk through customs, and leave the airport to find a taxi or public transportation. We easily followed the signs to the metro where we hopped on a train taking us into the city.

If you ever want a first hand demonstration of the similarities amongst humans, ride public transportation. The interactions and behaviors between people is consistent no matter where you are. Students wearing backpacks gathered in small groups to chat before exiting at the station for University. People entered the train carrying groceries, pushing strollers with small children, or briefcases after a long day at work. They looked at their phones, read books, listen to music, or lay heads back to rest their eyes. The young gave up their seat for their elders (when Dean tried to do the same for a woman standing near us, she smiled, flapped her hand, and told him to sit).

Upon arriving at our metro station, we exited the train and followed the mass of humanity up the escalators to street level. Our walk was a short 3 blocks, halfway down an aggressive hill where we met our AirBnB host, Ali, who efficiently showed us our home for the next week.

In typical Krista fashion, I decided to test the comfort of the bed by taking a nap, while Dean was given the important task of finding a restaurant for dinner. After several hours, I awoke hungry and we ventured out to the street directly behind us for falafel.

The three gentlemen running the tiny falafel restaurant laughed as I walked in the door, obviously winded. The walk had taken no more than 10 minutes, but started with a scramble to the bottom of the hill and ended with a slow trudge up the other side. They jokingly told me to get used to it as Istanbul was nothing but hills… great.

The next morning, I awoke to the haunting sound of a nearby loudspeaker blaring the morning call to prayer. While Dean continued to sleep, I enjoyed curling up in a chair to drink coffee and read. Eventually Dean woke up and we decided to get breakfast at a creamery found through a New York Times article and located close to our apartment. We trudged back up the hill towards the Metro stop to Istiklal Caddesi, the main pedestrian drag.

The creamery was small, sporting 4 tables on the main level with additional seating upstairs. We were the only patrons so decided to sit on the main level with full length windows looking out on the rainy street.

Our waiter was a large, wrestler of a man who smiled as he offered us the English menu. Dean and I quickly decided to order eggs with sausage, cheese, and tomato and were delighted when the waiter brought out a big basket of bread and our orders of menemen (an egg scramble served in a pan, similar to a shakshuka).

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Menemen

After hearing us speaking in English, the owner, Fehmi, struck up a conversation. He patiently stood at our table and helped me pronounce the complicated sounds of a Turkish “thank you,” (teşekkür ederim) while receiving our compliments on the food. We enjoyed the breakfast so much, that we went back three more times during our stay.

On our second visit, Fehmi, recommended that we try the kaymak (clotted cream) with honey, a house speciality. This will go down as one of the most memorable things that we’ve eaten on the trip. The cream was extremely rich but light and the honey was fresh, still having a bit of comb making it extra thick. It is served with bread, though both Dean and I ate it with a fork.

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Kaymak, Honey, and Walnuts = Breakfast of Champions

While reveling in our decadent breakfast, I asked Fehmi where he was from as his English was only slightly accented. He mentioned that he had spent 6 years in Phoenix, working security at The Biltmore. Upon hearing that I had lived in Scottsdale for two years, his face lit up and he shared several stories about the famous people that he’d met at the world class resort.

On our next two visits, we enjoyed the amazing food and conversation, learning more about Fehmi, his farm and sharing our views on life. He had returned to Istanbul to take up the family business after realizing that there are more important things in life than money. A sentiment that we’ve heard echoed from people we’ve met across the globe.

That first day, the weather was grey and cold, forcing us to bundle up and walk briskly down the steep hill from Karakoy (the neighborhood we were staying in) to cross the bridge to the Golden Horn, or the old city. Since we were getting out later than usual, we decided to check out the wait times to enter the Hagia Sophia, then make a game time decision on entering or postponing to another day. As we approached the massive building, we were waylaid by a man, telling us of the closure of one of the sites and asking where we were from. Now, after visiting India with arguably the most aggressive touts I’ve ever encountered, you’d think I would know how to handle unsolicited salespeople. But I was easily pressured to enter the man’s shop where he invited us to sit down and provided tulip cups of tea. We spent the next 30 minutes being shown a number of Turkish carpets, even though both Dean and I stated that we weren’t going to purchase. Perhaps we betrayed buying signs when asking the cost of the carpet as the price quickly went from $500 to less than half that cost. I will admit to seriously considering it, but my better half sagely suggested that we think on it further. And when discussed over a cup of coffee later that day, we decided that while it would be an extremely cool souvenir, we could think of any number of experiences that would be a better value than an exotic floor covering.

After leaving the shop, we walked across the street to the square to be greeted by a long line outside the Hagia Sophia. So we decided instead to walk across the large park to visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, a beautifully massive building located directly opposite. More commonly known as the Blue Mosque, the building was constructed between 1609 and 1616 and acquired it’s nickname due to the hand painted blue tiles that adorn the mosque’s interior walls.

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Blue Mosque

This would be my first time in a mosque. I know very little about the Islamic faith, remembering only a small amount of information from my intro to religion class taken in college. And I don’t know anyone who is Muslim.

Having visited any number of churches, temples, and holy places throughout our travels, I was smart enough to dress respectfully, wearing long sleeves and pants and remembering to wear my scarf that would double as a head covering. However after taking off our shoes, I was asked to also wear a loose skirt over my skinny jeans. A small inconvenience but really a non-issue considering this congregation is willing to allow me to marvel at their place of worship (for free might I add), the least I can do is respect their customs and rules.

At the entrance, pamphlets were provided in a number of languages to explain more about the Islamic faith. The information was laid out historically, outlining the origins of the Abrahamic religion, as well as providing information about the prophet, Muhammad. The pamphlet addressed several misconceptions about the Islamic faith, making a distinction between Islam and Islamists (an advocate or supporter of Islamic militancy or fundamentalism – radical extremists).

I’m ashamed to admit it, but this is the picture that immediately pops into my mind when thinking about Islam. And I don’t think I’m alone. I have no first hand exposure to the religion, or anyone who practices it, and am ignorant of its evolution and history.

Unfortunately the main context that I have is from news reporting on the actions of a small subset of violent extremists or the conflict in the Middle East. Like many Americans, I operate under the assumption that there is truth in journalism and that the news exists to educate the populace. And at one point in time, that may have been true. However after the repeal of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine (requiring broadcasters to cover controversial issues of public importance and offer contrasting viewpoints on those issues) under the Reagan administration in 1987, mainstream media news outlets (owned by a small handful of companies with differing agendas) now prioritize increasing viewership and ratings over offering unbiased coverage. Oftentimes the different news networks focus on sensationalist stories that propagate fear as a tool to accomplish these ends.

But what about the Muslim people who don’t fall into the category of extremist? Islam is the world’s second largest religion with over 1.8 billion followers and 25% of the global population. Just pause for a second and think about those numbers.

I grew up in an area of that is predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant (WASP), and many people, whether religious or not, hold similar beliefs, i.e. Do unto others as they would do unto you. Don’t steal, murder, lie, etc.

The numbers suggest that a large part of the global population grew up in a geographic area that is Muslim. Though a different religion than those I have previously been exposed to, I find that Islam holds to the same basic beliefs as listed above. Why then, does a small faction of radicals shape my opinion of the whole?

I believe that you are a product of the information you consume and the influence of those with whom you choose to surround yourself. When I think about it logically, I can understand how my perceptions are shaped by misinformation. I have participated in accepting news as fact while choosing not to critically and proactively educate myself further to expand my knowledge and therefore, my understanding.

When you travel, you have little choice on your exposure and in turn, are granted an opportunity to rethink your opinions.

The pamphlet at the Sultan Ahmed Mosque spoke of a peaceful religion with deeply held beliefs around worship and similar principles to supporting a healthy community. The fact that they specifically address the misconceptions around defining the religion by its radicals, demonstrates to me the desire to be understood and not painted with broad strokes.

And as we walked around Istanbul, my perception of Islam changed. No longer do I picture long bearded men with M16s (an over dramatization, but important to my point). Instead, I see people. People who share similar beliefs, goals, and dreams as the rest of the world.

Groups of youths congregate in cafes and the main pedestrian areas – walking, talking, and laughing with their friends. Tourists marvel at the beauty of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Families indulge their small children, letting them choose the prettiest dessert in the case at a patisserie. And in one small shopfront, an extremely hospitable cafe owner, who enjoyed sharing his culture with us and fondly reminisced about his time sharing ours.

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Entry Court to Blue Mosque

Small & Significant

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace

On day 110, at the exact halfway point of our time abroad, we flew to Greece to start the European leg of our journey. We had scored $600 tickets to Athens (that’s the price for both of us!), on a 3:00am Scoot flight from Singapore. While neither of us was thrilled about the 7 hour layover at Chiangi Airport, we were pretty stoked about the price tag on the Asian budget carrier.

Considering that Singapore is a major hub for flights to the remainder of Asia and Europe, we weren’t the only ones enduring a long layover. Trends show the Chinese as the fastest growing outbound tourist country in the world, with over 140 million traveling to foreign destinations and spending over double the international average while on vacation. Throughout our travels, we’ve encountered Chinese tourists at almost every major sight. You can easily recognize the large buses and throngs of people, wearing matchings t-shirts, hats, or badges and following a very prominent tour guide. We’ve even seen several groups of Chinese scuba divers, a pastime that has yet to gain a lot of popularity.

As we walked along the concourse to our gate, we passed no less than 6 flights headed to different Chinese cities which explained the number of Pokémon backpacks and cat-ear hats (yes, this is a thing) that we encountered in the main terminal.

Upon boarding the 12 hour flight, we were expecting a full plane. Dean and I had decided to upgrade our seats at $20 each to a forward economy cabin, just behind business class, that promised quiet. Considering that everything on the Scoot flight costs extra money – food, headsets, and even water ($4 for a small bottle of Evian), we weren’t expecting much of the upgrade. However, after everyone finally stowed baggage and took their seats, the main cabin was packed while our’s remained only 15% occupied. I immediately ditched Dean to grab my own row and lay down across the three middle seats. It was one of the most delightful long distance flights I’ve ever experienced – I slept for 7 hours, waking up for a brief sandwich, previously purchased at the airport, and then watched several episodes of A&E’s Pride and Prejudice. Dean, who never sleeps on flights, was able to get 5 hours in spite of his 6’4” frame being cramped across the three seats.

Arriving in Athens at 9:30am we took a 45 minute train ride into the city to meet our AirBnB host, Eleni. Having dropped off our bags, we marveled at the view towards the ancient Acropolis crowned by the Parthenon from our balcony before leaving to find food.

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Hard to Beat the View

In typical Krista fashion, I made Dean walk up several streets, eyeing the open air patios filled with people drinking espresso freddos (iced espresso) and perused menus until forced to turn around and sit down at a restaurant that had only one table remaining.

Surrounded by locals, drinking their mid-morning coffees, smoking and gesticulating in their beautiful language, I couldn’t help but feel content. The feeling could be attributed to having just eaten semi-familiar food – delicious kebab, ground lamb and beef patties resembling a hamburger, or Dean’s mousakas, a Greek shepherd’s pie.

After three weeks in Bali, enjoying the tropical temperatures of 85 degrees with 1000% humidity, we were both hankering for cooler temperatures. The mid-60 degree weather was perfect for strolling down the pedestrian-friendly streets, occasionally passing ancient ruins and more frequently looking into tavernas.

Sitting outside, even throughout winter, appears to be the norm in Athens, every restaurant spills out onto the sidewalks and offers options for dealing with the cold – blankets, portable gas heaters, and roll down walls/windows – allowing for seamless people watching and enjoyment.

Over lunch, both Dean and I mentioned that we were going to need to upgrade our wardrobe for the cooler temperatures and trendier surroundings. Most of my cold weather clothes had been packed with our trek to Nepal in mind, prioritizing function over style. I had originally packed two long sleeved, ¾ zip base layers to be used instead of sweaters as a second layer but unfortunately lost one in India – the second has developed a hole in the right elbow.

Searching the old town shopping district of Athens, I was specifically looking to replace these articles with something similar, not caring how many different stores I needed to peruse to find exactly what I wanted. Dean on the other hand is an efficient shopper. He walked into the Toms store, tried on one pair of shoes and bought them within 5 minutes. To be fair, he owns a pair almost identical to those he bought, but even so, he’s not a patient shopper.

Over the next few days, as we walked all over Athens, enjoying the ancient sites, I covertly window shopped. A difficult task as most of our time walking through the shopping district was in the early morning before the doors were open.

On the first of our two big sightseeing days, we awoke early to grab a coffee and spanakopita (spinach pie) at a neighborhood corner cafe. We then ambled through the small, meandering back streets to the Acropolis Museum while enjoying our coffee, entering the museum just after opening. This is a little trick we learned in Paris when visiting Notre Dame and the Louvre – most tourists prefer to wake up late and enjoy a leisurely breakfast at their hotels before heading out for the day. In getting to the sights early, you not only get to watch the city wake up, but you also enjoy shorter lines and more often than not have “the sights” to yourself for a few hours.

We wove through the museum, looking at the ancient statues and artifacts preserved from the Acropolis. Dean, in particular, enjoyed the museum as it boasted a complex and elegant modern architecture, relating to the footprint of the Parthenon crowning the Acropolis above. The views from the upper floor of the museum got us excited to see the ruins for ourselves. So after a quick snack of pork gyro, we bought our tickets and started the climb up the hill, passing several ancient temples, caves, and amphitheaters on the way.

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The Acropolis, Athens, and the Aegean

The Acropolis is the name for the large, bluff that overlooks all of Athens and is home to multiple ancient ruins dating back to the fifth century BC. The most famous of the ruins is the Parthenon, but also located on the hill are the Propylaia, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike, each in different states of restoration.

Having come up the backside of the hill, Dean and I encountered a handful of large tour groups at the West side of the bluff, where a paved road allows easy access to the masses. We walked up the stairs of the Propylaea, the monumental gateway that serves as entrance to the Acropolis. Walking through the ancient marble pillars, you get your first real sense of the magnitude of this place.

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Overlooking the Propylaea

And then the top of the hill opens up – on the right the Parthenon, shrouded in scaffolding on one half, and to the left is the Temple of Athena. We immediately started wandering the south side of the Parthenon, which overlooks the museum that we had just left. I spent time marveling at the view, both of the Parthenon as well as Athens’ patchwork quilt of old buildings, parks, and ancient ruins surrounded by mountains. The weather was overcast and windy but occasionally a ray of sunlight would sneak through the clouds, illuminating a certain area of the city.

Dean was focused on taking pictures, his camera sporting a large lense, so I was left to enjoy the scenery at the top of the hill mostly by myself. This is fairly typical as we each have a tendency of moving through sites at a different pace, leaving me plenty of time to find a nice place to sit and reflect while Dean catches up.

Over the last several days, I’d been thinking about how travel makes you feel small. You get to experience the culture, but always from the outside. Often giving you a glimpse into alternative lifestyles, challenging your ethnocentricity and helping to realize that people define happiness differently across the world.

While being in Europe definitely feels more comfortable, it throws into contrast how really out of place I felt in Asia. In my opinion, we had done a fairly good job of trying to experience the local culture and try things outside of our realm of comfort. Eating at a night market in Thailand was unnerving as I couldn’t easily identify what was being offered, but we challenged ourselves navigating the different street stalls for our Saturday night dinner. Being scammed in India and working to get our money back was daunting but we figured it out. Getting accosted by a mob of angry cab drivers in Bali, and feeling threatened as one followed us for 10 minutes screaming, “I’ll kill you” was extremely unsettling but we ended up being ok.

Immediately after each one of these experiences, I felt very insignificant and lonely in the big world. But after dealing with each situation, often with a positive outcome, I continually built confidence.

And don’t get me wrong, we’ve had many more amazing experiences than bad. Trekking the mountains of the Himalaya, watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat, being contorted during a traditional thai massage, marveling at jungle waterfalls, playing with elephants, scuba diving with mantas – too many to list. And oftentimes, with a little extra work and a bit of luck, we find ourselves getting to experience places that most people never see. Leaving me feeling overwhelmingly grateful.

With those thoughts in mind we decided to forgo the popular Greek isles to instead travel to a rural part of central Greece to celebrate my 36th birthday. The area, called Meteora, is a famous rock formation hosting one of the largest and most precipitously built complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Greece. Six working monasteries are built atop immense natural stone pillars, and offer a glimpse into Greek monastic life, as well as fantastic views and hiking. While it isn’t the secret destination that it was twenty years ago, the area is still very quaint.

After a 5 hour train trip from Athens, we arrived in Kalambaka, the small town of 15,000 people at the base of the stone pillars. We checked into our family run guesthouse, Iridanos, and were welcomed by the proprietress, Niki – a Dutch transplant who moved to Athens before the Olympics in 2004, married a local, and then opened a guest house in his hometown. I had written to her previously, letting her know that we intended to hike around the area during our stay and she pointed us to a local tour group (VisitMeteora.com) to sign up for a hiking tour, and provided a map of the footpaths that traverse the area.

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Kalambaka Tucked at the Base of the Monastic Plinths

Since we had three full days to explore the area, we decided to do the hiking tour on our first day to learn the history of the area and get a local’s perspective on the culture. But first, we walked to the center of town to Palladinios, the Greek taverna run by Niki’s husband. We enjoyed a fantastic meal of pork leg, cooked in the oven for 5 hours, the meat falling off the bone, and meatballs cooked in tomato sauce. The food was so amazing (and the table wine cheap), we ended up going back to Palladinios everyday for lunch over the next 4 days.

Afterwards, we went to the Visit Meteora offices to set up our hiking tour and met an American couple from Virginia who were also signing up for a tour the next day. Upon both exiting the office at the same time, we decided to walk up the street to get a drink together. Two hours and a liter of red wine later, we had some new friends.

The next day, we were picked up at our hotel at 8:30am, to start our hiking tour. We shared our guide, Vaggelis, and hike with an Italian couple from Sicily.

We started, overlooking a large rock with a number of caves carved in the sides and an overview of the history of the area. The first monks traveled here searching for solitude and found the caves on the sides of the rocks the perfect place for a hermitage. After a while, the hermits started to form monasteries, located high on the rocks to ensure isolation as well as protection from the conquering Ottomans and raiders.

Our trail led us around the rocks, providing an overlook of the river valley and snow capped mountains beyond. Winter comes to this area in the form of rain, instead of snow, providing an environment for the plants to thrive and moss to sport green coatings on the conglomerate stone cliffs. While brisk, the weather was a perfect 57 degrees. Just cold enough to require a coat in the shadows of the looming cliffs but warm enough to make the walk comfortable. Since we were hiking in the winter, the deciduous trees had lost their leaves, leaving us with unimpeded views.

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Winter Hiking, We Swear

 

We walked for 40 minutes, enjoying Vaggelis’ stories about the area and information on the local plant life. We took a quick break at a small stream, then rounded a corner where the first monastery peeked out.

The monastery of Ypapanti is one that most tourists never see as it’s located on the North side of the main monasteries, and instead of perching on top of its own cliff, it’s cleverly tucked into a fissure, clinging precariously to the side about 100 feet above the ground. Ypapanti was once used as a retreat for the monks of the Great Meteora monastery and has recently been renovated and opened to tourism in the summers.

After marveling at the beauty and engineering from the ground, we climbed an opposing hill to view the monument of a local hero, as well as to bask in the sun, take pictures, and enjoy the sweeping views.

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Ypapanti

We continued our journey upward, over a brook, past a wild boar watering hole, and eventually found ourselves cresting the hill to look down on the monasteries, each perched on their own rock cliff. The view was stunning. Winter sun directly above us, made the red tile roofed monastic enclaves pop with color against their grey and mossy green plinths. We stood on the side of the hill while Vaggelis regaled more history of the monasteries, explaining that each operates autonomously from the others, managing it’s own money and lands. The 4 monasteries have less than a handful of monks each, as most devotees are located at the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church in Mt. Athos. However, the two nunneries house 13 and 28 sisters respectively, as these are a female’s only option for a religious cloister.

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Cresting the Hill we are Treated to Views of 4 Monasteries

We scrambled down the hillside on goat trails, until reaching the road and walking down to Varlaam, one of the larger monasteries just below us. Up until the 1920’s the monasteries were only accessible via wooden ladders that could be drawn up in case of invasion or by climbing into a large net and then being winched, as two monks walked in circles at the top of the tower to pull you up. Now there are bridges and stone stairs, carved into the rock, and several have a metal tram for moving supplies and the less mobile.

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Ladder Requiring Prayers

Dean and I were left to explore Varlaam by ourselves as Vaggelis remained outside and the Sicilians had visited the day previous. We started climbing the impressive stairs, stopped to pose for a few pictures and entered through a heavy wooden door which is barred at closing. While Dean paid our €3 each at a small admission stall, I tied the provided skirt wrap around my waist as women must wear long skirts to show respect.

We continued up the stone stairs to emerge into the sunlight on a large stone court, opening to the south, providing a fantastic view of the rocks and slivers of Kalambaka beyond. A small garden was planted to the side and several stone benches were provided, I would like to think for religious contemplation, but more likely to aid the winded travelers after they’ve made the climb.

In the spring and summer, this area is overloaded with tourists. Filling every guest house and restaurant in town and jamming the small monasteries with teaming crowds. Vaggelis had told me that during the high season, he and another guide hike every day and each will have as many as 10 people in a group. This still blows my mind, as that means that no more than 20 people per day will get to explore this area by foot and enjoy the hidden Ypapanti and gorgeous views.

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Feeling Small Happens Often on the Trail

I had little time to think about this as Dean and I continued to explore the areas open to the public. We enjoyed the court, the winch tower, and the museum which showed relics of books, vestments, and paintings from the monastery. The cathedral had been recently renovated, the frescoes on the walls looking nearly new, making me question the authenticity of the images. After learning that they were originally painted in 1548, I understood the need for a touch up.

Upon returning to our group, we began hiking down a cobble paved trail just below Varlaam. This path had been built roughly 500 years ago and was the main thoroughfare for monks from Varlaam and the Great Meteora when visiting town for supplies. The trail followed a lively stream, the trees overhead were bare of leaves but a number of wildflowers were still in bloom on the ground. After only 15 minutes, we were on the road and walking to meet the large, Visit Meteora bus, where we joined the group who had just finished the half day driving tour. Our friends from the previous day, Chris and Mary Carol were part of the crew and we decided to grab lunch together before they continued their vacation in Northern Greece.

 

The next day was my birthday! I awoke to a kiss and a “Happy 36th,” before watching a gorgeous sunrise and eating a huge breakfast of hard boiled eggs, pastries, Greek yogurt with honey, cold cuts, cheese and coffee. More than adequately fueled, we laced up our boots for another full day of hiking.

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Birthday Sunrise

Grey clouds threatened rain but we were undeterred and starting making our way into town to find the footpath leading up to Holy Trinity. Similar to the path from the previous day, this trail was paved with stones and clearly marked for the first part of the journey, snaking vertically up the side of a hill leading to the stone plinth. We walked through the forested hillsides, appreciating the glorious views that the fallen leaves afforded and vowing to return during a different season.

After an arduous climb that left us both breathless, we reached the top and made our way into Holy Trinity. The public areas of the monastery weren’t as impressive as the larger Varlaam, however it is posed on a larger cliff top and therefore had much more open area for gardens and we sat to enjoy the views of the valley and town below. Pulling out the hiking map on loan from Niki, we debated following the road to the farthest nunnery, Saint Stephen.

I’m certainly happy that we did as this was my favorite of the 4 monasteries we visited. Its buildings cover every available inch of clifftop and the open spaces in the center have been utilized to their fullest. We passed no less than 3 different gardens, two of which sported both flowers as well as herbs, the last being a greenhouse growing tomatoes and other vegetables that feed the 28 nuns who live there. The chapel has been beautifully renovated and while marveling at the inside, I happened upon a young nun, holy book open upon her lap, having a quiet conversation with an older nun, who was crocheting a doily. It was such an out of the ordinary sight that I couldn’t help but be taken aback. I lingered in the chapel, looking at the frescos while keeping an eye on the two women, thinking about how their lives are so different than my own.

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Cloistered Gardens in the Monasteries at Holy Trinity

After fruitlessly searching for a small goat track indicated on our map, we decided to walk along the paved road to our next stop, the Holy Monastery of Rousanou. We made a few exploratory stops along the way, walking out to the edge of the rocks in several places to see the views and get more pictures. We made it to Rousanou with 30 minutes before closing. A good thing, as the public areas were very small and we had just entered with a large group of devout Greek women, who had arrived on a large bus. We quickly went through the chapel and museum, as there was little else to see and then decided to make our way back to the footpath we had come up that morning, but from the other side where a trail was clearly marked on the map.

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Rousanou Nunnery

We started off on the small footpath but must have lost the trail while crossing several large rocky areas as we spent the remainder of the hike scrambling down a dry creek bed in the center of the gorge. Having ditched my hiking poles in India, I had to use tree limbs and large boulders to keep my balance. After an hour of scrambling, we finally made it back to the footpath and trudged into town to find a very late lunch.

 

The meal was a decadent affair, with a liter of house red, saganaki (fried cheese), salad, sausages, and fruit. Dean had promised to take me to a local bakery for a treat, so after lunch, we headed over to buy some birthday baklava to take back to the hotel. Overall, it was a perfect way to ring in my 36th year!

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Birthday Lunch

Waking up the next morning, we talked about what to do on our last full day in Meteora. Dean wanted to draw for a few hours at the vantage point we had seen our first day of hiking above Varlaam and Great Meteora. So we ate our huge breakfast and then walked into town to find a cab to drop us near the monasteries where we scrambled up the steep hillside, dodging fresh cow pies.

We sat in silence, sitting on a large rock and drinking our coffee. Dean made progress on his drawing while I sat with my thoughts. I kept going back to the two ideas that I’d had in Athens – how wildly outside of my comfort zone I felt in Asia and how travel makes you feel small. And in thinking on it further, I did feel small. I’m one of 7.6 billion people on this earth (for reference, 1.4 billion of those are Chinese), each making decisions and living their lives in a way that they think best and oftentimes, in a way very different than my own. I’ve seen countless examples of this over the last 3.5 months, the most recent in the chapel of St. Stephen.

But here’s the thing – sitting on that hillside, enjoying a view that only a handful of people will ever see, I also felt big. Infinite. Significant.

As I’ve said, the last several months have helped me to build confidence as well as cultivate gratitude. But I also think there’s something else – something that I’ve overlooked and after our time in Meteora, has become glaringly apparent to me – spending time in nature will always heal my soul and no matter where I am in the world, it’s a place where I will always be a fish in water.

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Back in My Element

In The Now

It’s been over a month since I’ve uploaded a post and as I sit here writing, I can’t help but think, how many times in my life, have I stepped back and thought, “Wow. Where has the time gone?” I find that this happens more often the older that I get. Because of my tendency towards looking forward – always anticipating some time or event in the future – I don’t often feel that I do a good job of living in the present.

I enjoy having something to do and feeling productive, quickly moving from task to task on my To Do list, particularly at work. But what happens when there is no “next task,” and the only thing you have to do is be exactly where you are?

But before I continue my musing, let me update everyone on what we’ve been up to over the past month.

As you may remember, I was struggling with homesickness in Laos over the holidays and desperately missing my family. Dean and I could have easily stayed in Luang Prabang for several more days enjoying the cute town along the Mekong but we made plans to be in Bangkok over Christmas to take advantage of fast wifi to video chat with family. On Christmas Eve, I decided that if we couldn’t have potato cheese soup and kraut bierok (my family’s traditional Christmas Eve dinner), we would have the next best thing – burgers. So we returned to our previously scouted burger restaurant and I enjoyed my rare beef patty with mushrooms, brie, and garlic aioli with curly fries. A true luxury in Southeast Asia!

The next morning, Dean and I awoke saying “Merry Christmas” and I offered to go to the Starbucks on the ground floor of our building to get coffee while he relaxed and cooked breakfast. On our previous trip to Bangkok, I had gone in the Starbucks to borrow the free wifi and had noticed that they were selling travel French presses. Dean and I were both hankering for control over our daily coffee after too many mornings spent drinking expensive americanos (when we could find a coffee shop) or worse still, instant coffee (the horror!). I had purchased a hat at a brewery in Hanoi and successfully kept it hidden for two weeks and knew that adding a French press to Dean’s small Christmas hoard would be a big surprise!

So I returned to a breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh cut papaya, yogurt with granola, large Starbucks coffees, and a piece of blueberry cheesecake (because why not?). And after eating our breakfast feast, we exchanged gifts. I really enjoyed seeing the surprise on Dean’s face when I presented him with the hat and French press and my present was a super adorable card, originally purchased before the trip and carried for 2 months as well as the promise of a spoiling spa day.

We spent the next few hours, calling our families back home who were enjoying their Christmas Eve and then went out to shop for toiletries and get haircuts. It sounds rather underwhelming however, after the limited options in the smaller cities, it was a treat to find several luxuries like body butter and a pumice stone.

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Alley Barberbox

Dean found a street level barber shop in an alley, while I looked on my phone for a cheap salon. I finally found a place I thought would work and we entered an older, four story mall that now sold nothing but golf equipment and accessories. Seriously. Every store and open area was packed with rack upon rack of golf clothes, clubs, bags, etc. Imagine my surprise when I found a pair of really nice no-show athletic socks for $1.00USD a pair! When I was younger, I would have hated to get socks for Christmas, however after 2 and a half months of traveling, again, with a limited and often low quality selection of everyday items, I was beyond delighted to get cheap, high quality socks.

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Korean Christmas Dinner

The remainder of the afternoon was filled with Thai massages, laundry, and a massive Korean BBQ for dinner. It was the perfect Christmas Day!

In the afterglow of Christmas, we repacked our bags to get ready for our 5 day scuba diving trip, living aboard the boat over the New Year. We had scheduled this trip at the end of October while in Nepal, shortly after being defeated in trekking to Everest base camp. In preparation for the diving on the liveaboard, we had traveled to Havelock Island in India to get our PADI Advanced Certification and for two months was the only truly fixed commitment on our calendar.

Flying through Phuket, near the south end of Thailand, we arrived in Khao Lak – a small beach town that is just now being developed for tourism – the embarkation point for liveaboard boats traveling to the Similan Islands.

Our boat, called the Oktavia, is Swedish owned with room for 20 divers, the accompanying Thai crew and (primarily Spanish) dive instructors. Over the next 5 days we would be living, traveling, and recovering on the boat in between our 19 dives, allowing us to enjoy some of the most beautiful dive sites in SE Asia.

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Diving Liveaboards at Port South of Khao Lak

Aboard were a mix of German, Swiss, Italian, Aussie, Dutch, Spanish and Chinese divers. Everyone spoke English and most of us enjoyed chatting during the short breaks between dives, swapping scuba stories and learning about life in other countries.

Over the following 5 days, we enjoyed some of the best reefs and most interesting underwater wildlife that I’ve ever seen. While all of the dives had their own charm, the best dives were by far those at Richelieu Rock, a small pinnacle in the middle of the Andaman Sea, closer to Myanmar than Thailand. Because the pinnacle is located so far from any other reef, the site is teeming with diverse wildlife using the pinnacle as shelter in the surrounding abyss of ocean. We did three dives here and each time, it felt like we were immediately dunked into a fish tank (or fish soup, as Dean fondly calls it).

Our days took on a consistent routine of waking up at 6:00am to enjoy the sunrise and drink our (French-pressed!) coffee with pre-dive toast. The boat only had instant and we were the subjects of much envy by having the ability to make real coffee. We then would meet for a dive briefing and were in the water by 7:30/8:00am. After our first dive, we would eat breakfast, relax for an hour or so and then it was time for another dive. We would then eat lunch, take an hour long siesta (well, I did at least) and then it was time for another dive. Then time for an afternoon snack, another couple of hours of down time (a possible second nap for Krista) and our choice of a sunset or night dive. Dinner was each night at 7:30pm, and we’d hang out afterward for a few beers, a little conversation, and were in bed by 9:00pm to do it all over again the next day.

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Morning Coffee Onboard the Oktavia

There was a slight change to the schedule on New Years Eve as the mood on the boat was festive and after dinner, most people continued hanging out after their requisite two beers. Towards 9:00pm, we migrated to the captain’s quarters at the front of the boat where the Thai crew had apparently been celebrating for several hours. The party was in full swing with each person receiving a shot of liquor being poured out of a jar filled with what appeared to be wood chips. Upon entering the small apartment, I was immediately handed a glass filled with the noxious liquid and dutifully took the shot. Dean hung out behind me at the doorway and therefore dodged the bullet.

Over the next hour or so, the cabin became more and more crowded as word of the party spread throughout the boat and more of the group decided to join, jumping up and down to the Thai techno music and shouting people’s names when handed a shot. It reminded me of the college parties we used to throw in Laramie.

We decided to leave the small cabin as the Thai’s broke out the silly string, almost hitting me in the eye and risking explosion as people were smoking and the stuff is highly flammable. This is about the time when Dean threw in the towel and headed down to the cabin, while I stayed on the main deck, dancing with the group who was slowly migrating out to the larger space.

At around 10:30pm, I also decided to head to bed. The party however continued and we woke up briefly at midnight to the sound of fireworks and people crying, “Happy New Year.” I reached over to Dean, gave him a long kiss and whispered, “Happy New Year indeed.”

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Sunrise Diving at the Similan Islands

Upon arriving back to shore the night of our fifth day, we said good-bye to our amazing dive crew and were packed into vans to be dropped off 2.5 hours south in Patong, Phuket. I had booked an AirBnB with a kitchen and laundry facilities as I knew we were going to need a few days of downtime after the boat. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the apartment was spread across two cramped levels, with an awkward spiral staircase leading down to the bedroom whose floor to ceiling windows looked out onto a brick wall. The kitchen had the bare essentials for cooking and it was located in a quiet area with only one restaurant within walking distance, meaning that we had to rent a motorbike to go down to Patong, a super touristy, party going beach town (think Cancun on steroids), to buy groceries or find meals.

Both Dean and I were in sorry shape as he broke his toe on the last day of the liveaboard and I was struggling with land sickness, feeling the rolling of the boat every time that I moved. To make matters worse, I had come down with food poisoning, resulting in a night of fever and stomach cramps, leaving me weak and cranky the next day. I spent the entire day in bed, eating soda crackers and wanting to go home. Up until this point, I had been dealing with bouts of homesickness but I hadn’t been serious about going home early. As I laid in the uncomfortable bed, looking at the brick wall, all I could think about was how much I hated this place and how much I wanted to be back in my own house, in my own bed, cuddling the Bodeman for emotional support.

While packing up that night, Dean and I talked about the impact that your surroundings can have on your well being. Because I’ve lived in my own house for 7 years, I’m don’t often stay in spaces that I find uncomfortable. Even with all of the traveling that I did in 2016 for work, I became very accustomed to the average hotel room set up and could deal. But there was something about feeling wretched in this apartment that exacerbated the situation and I couldn’t wait to leave the next day.

Upon arriving in Chiang Mai, I could already tell something was different. For starters, the apartment was spacious with a comfortable king bed, full kitchen, and a balcony overlooking a large Buddhist Wat with the mountains in the distance. I immediately found a large, Western style grocery store and even though I didn’t recognize half of the items on the shelves, I was able to find fixings for fajitas. Because we eat out for the majority of our meals, I get really excited when we find an AirBnB that has a kitchen and even better yet, has the necessary pots, pans and dish-ware to cook a full meal. It’s a small thing but I truly miss the full ownership of what I put in my body as well as the catharsis of cooking.

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View from Our Balcony in Chiang Mai

Over dinner, we planned out what to do with our 10 days in Chiang Mai. Both Dean and I were excited to interact with elephants, explore the Old City, visit the weekend markets, drop into some trendy coffee shops, and spend time recovering from our hectic couple of weeks. Since I was still feeling poorly from my bout of food poisoning and struggling with land sickness, we took the first few days easy, hanging out at local restaurants and reading in the sunny apartment.

On the third day, we woke up early for an hour and half long ride in the back of a ‘tuk-truck’ with 8 other people to visit the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, an organization that has rescued over 90 elephants and keeps them at 10 different sites, or camps, that are open daily for visitors. We joined a group of 15 or so other people and commenced our half day elephant interaction.

Our guides started by explaining the history of elephants in Thailand. First, elephants are indigenous to the area, many having been caught and used in the logging industry or trained for third rate circus shows. They were treated very poorly, and often repeatedly beaten with hooks to control behavior. In 1989, Thailand outlawed the use of elephants as beasts of burden, improving conditions for the animals but also leaving the owners with the conundrum of how to care for the expensive animals. During this time, many sanctuaries were started, promoting ecotourism to fund daily care and feeding while allowing visitors up close interactions with these beautiful creatures. Each elephant has a companion, or mahout, that seems to be the primary care giver.

They then wheeled out a large cart (about the size of a chest freezer) filled with whole bunches of bananas and cut pumpkins and we were advised to grab as many bananas as possible to make friends with the 6 elephants that make up the “family” that lived in the camp. At first, the large animals were a little intimidating. But after several trips to the cart, we became comfortable with the huge beasts and enjoyed feeding, petting and taking selfies.

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Hanging Out with the Elephants

After feeding time, we moved down to a small damned off pond where the goal was to spread wet mud on the hides of the animals as it’s good for their skin. I was a little skeptical however 4 of the elephants stood in the pond while we smeared them (and ourselves) with mud, and if they didn’t enjoy it, at least they tolerated it. Two of the mahouts let us know that their elephants didn’t particularly enjoy the mud, which I thought demonstrated their care for the animals themselves rather than simply providing a show for the tourists.

Next we made our way down to the a small river where the elephants spent 30 minutes washing off the mud and playing in the water. It was amazing to watch them interact, poking each other with their trunks and rolling around, sometimes on top of each other.

After the bath, it was time for us to eat lunch and we enjoyed a small buffet of curry, rice and fresh fruit. There were several pieces of fruit that I hadn’t eaten and therefore I asked if I could feed it to one of the elephants who was lounging nearby in the shade of a wooden platform where many of the mahouts were hanging out. Sensing that I had a treat, the elephant raised its’ trunk through the platform, seeking. We then spent the next several minutes feeding our leftover fruit through the platform. It’s lucky that Dean got a video as it’s one of the best moments of my life.

Overall, our time in Chang Mai was great. We’d gotten over the hump of homesickness around the holidays and recovering from our action packed New Year not to mention the benefits of a number of amazing experiences: hanging with elephants, taking a Thai cooking class, experiencing world famous latte art, eating street food at a packed night market, sampling the northern Thai cuisine (can you say Khao Soy?!), and enjoying nightly sunsets from our balcony.

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Chiang Mai Thai Cooking Class

We also had plenty of time to plan the next leg of our trip. I had originally wanted to end our time in SE Asia with a trip to Bali, imagining myself having a life changing experience like Liz Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) in the idyllic rice pattied jungle. However a large volcanic eruption had occured in November and people were uncertain if the large Mount Agung was finished causing problems. So we looked into several other island nations that would allow us to go diving, but after a little research we decided volcano be damned.

One of the amazing dive instructors on our liveaboard, a Catalonian ex-lawyer named Pato, had given us the contact information for two friends who are currently running a dive shop in Lembongan, a small island 45 minutes fast boat ride from Bali. So we reached out to Dani and Anna and sent a down payment for a 6 days of diving at Two Fish Dive Resort.

We arrived in Bali at 1:30am and narrowly avoided catastrophe. The volcano didn’t erupt or anything, but while waiting for our backpacks to make their way around the carousel, someone grabbed my bag. It was an honest mistake as his bag (identical to mine) came around on the carousel a minute later. I didn’t notice until I picked up the bag and I realized that my hiking boots were not protruding from the front pouch. Dean, being the fast thinker, grabbed the backpack and sprinted through the crowd, catching the guy just before he exited customs to switch bags.

Two days later, we arrived in Lembongan. After getting settled, we meandered out to the beach for dinner and to enjoy a beautiful sunset over the water. Unbeknownst to us, this was the only sunset that we would see during our stay in Bali.

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Ferry Boats Heading to Nusa Lembongan

The next day, we woke early to eat breakfast and head out on the boat for our first day of diving. Considering this is rainy season, and therefore low season for tourism, there were only 4 divers on the boat. While it was raining on the surface, we enjoyed diving the shelved reefs on the North side of the island, looking at prestine hard and soft corals and the multitude of fish that live in the vibrant landscape.

Over lunch, we were introduced to Meg and Sal, two Americans from LA, who are going to run the Two Fish in Gili Air, a nearby island. A year ago, Meg and Sal had been on a similar journey, having quit their jobs and deciding to travel SE Asia. They started diving and couldn’t stop, deciding to become Scuba Instructors instead of going home and picking up their lives in food service (Sal is a chef). We heard a similar story from Dani and Anna, who have rented out their apartment in Barcelona for the last 12 years while working in dive shops across the globe. It definitely gave us food for thought and an interesting topic of discussion over dinner each night. Could we leave behind our lives in the US? This trip was supposed to be a temporary sabbatical, but what if we decided to make it permanent?

The next day, we went to see the mantas. Lembongan is famous for two dive sites, Manta Bay and Manta Point, both areas highly frequented by the manta rays who live around the island year round. Mola mola, or sunfish, are also common here but only during the high season as they prefer colder waters.

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Reef Mantas Crossing

We got a reminder that it was rainy season as the seas were very high and we spent the 30 minute boat ride being pelted with rain. However upon arriving in Manta Bay, our boat crew spotted three mantas so we quickly got ready and rolled into the water. Throughout the dive, we were rewarded with multiple sightings of mantas and it was amazing to see the size (some are as large as 6 meters/18 feet across) and majesty of these gorgeous creatures.

We got to see mantas twice during our 6 days of diving in Lembongan. We were also rewarded with the only mola sighting in the last 2 months and one of the best dives that I’ve done done, called Mangrove. Imagine a seemingly endless reef, brightly colored with bulbous corrals and technicolor fish of all sizes in every direction. Every few minutes, you stumble upon something of note: a turtle swimming directly in front of you, an octopus hiding under a large shell, purple puffer fish, and so much more. It was an experience I will always remember.

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Off-Season Mola Mola Getting Cleaned by Bannerfish

After Lembongan, we traveled to Ubud. A small, inland town located in the jungle and rice patties and the yoga and health food capital of Bali. This is the area featured in Eat, Pray, Love and the idyllic scenery in the movie is what inspired my desired to find a beautiful AirBnB and hang out for a week of relaxation, reflection, and writing. The only problem is that the bungalow we rented was a little too nice, and instead of posting up at the large community dining table to write every day, I decided to sit by the pool, reading. To be fair, the weather was extremely hot and in order to survive (I’m a cold weather person by nature), I required constant dips in the pool and typing while wet seemed like a bad idea.

Better yet, let me take full ownership for my decision. I didn’t feel like writing. I felt like sitting around, enjoying the jungle environs and infinity pool by sitting on a lounge chair, reading and napping in between dips in the water and working on my tan. I felt like relaxing with the only pressing concern of what to eat when hungry.

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Jungle Bungalow

How often in my life have I had the luxury of an empty calendar? Sure, every weekend or vacation I have the choice of doing nothing but there’s always a part of my brain that is thinking about my commitments on Monday, or how much work I’ll have when returning. In Bali, I’d seemed to have hit a sweet spot where I truely was in the moment, fully relaxed and enjoying every second as it came.

It’s a new sensation for me, and one which I realize is very important for me to learn. Otherwise, I run the risk of living a life of planning, constantly anticipating that next thing, instead of simply enjoying the moment that I’m in. Because one of my biggest fears is to look back at the end of my life and think, “Where did the time go?”

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Laid Back in Laos

There I was, sitting on a rustically built bamboo bridge with my feet dangling in the water of a pristine pool, fed by three different waterfalls, when I’m struck by the thought, “Is this my life?” This place is magical. No wonder it’s flooded by thousands of tourists everyday, packing the hiking trails to take pictures in front of the three different sets of large falls, swimming in the pools, and eating in the restaurants and picnic areas set up around the park. But yet again, Dean and I have diverged from the masses and managed to find a deserted piece of paradise that we have all to ourselves.

Since arriving in Laos, I have been thinking about my life and how I’m choosing to live it. It’s been just over two months since we left the US and up until now, it’s felt like we were on an extended vacation. We’ve seen the two places that we wanted to share with each other (Nepal and India), and now we are traveling with no major plans, choosing destinations that appeal to us as we research different countries.

Our only current commitment is in Thailand on December 29th – January 3rd, as we are going to be scuba diving four times daily, living aboard a boat in the Andaman Sea. So we decided to visit Vietnam and Lao in the 2 weeks prior to our liveaboard. Instead of traveling to multiple destinations, barely skimming the surface of each place, we decided to spend a week at one location in each country.

The main reason is that it allows us to really get the feel of a place, exploring new areas and things to do. But also, traveling can be an exhausting business. We’ve learned that moving from place to place involves a large time commitment. Think about it, you have to:

  • Pack bag & check out of hotel/AirBnB
  • Travel to the airport, bus or train terminal
  • Wait in line to check-in for your flight
  • Go through security
  • Board & Deboard
  • Pass immigration & customs
  • Travel from the airport/bus or train terminal
  • Check in to hotel/AirBnB & unpack your bag

It’s a commitment of at least 5 hours, not including the actual time it takes you to travel from Point A to Point B. And going through that process every couple of days means a lower percentage of your time is spent enjoying each destination.

So when researching where to go in Lao, we happened upon Luang Prabang. Roughly 25,000 people live in this World Heritage site, recognized for it’s outstanding examples of the fusion of colonial French architecture and traditional Lao building. It is known for it’s countless Buddhist temples, some dating back to the 16th century. It’s nestled in the mountainous highlands of Northern Lao, where the Nam Khan River joins the Mekong, providing a port for travelers taking the slow boats from upriver Thailand. The numerous streams that feed the Nam Khan have left lime deposited on the hillsides, creating numerous waterfalls and the Laotian people have capitalized on the natural beauty by marketing tours to visit the attractions.

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Young Monk at the Mekong River

Earlier in the week, we had taken advantage of a hiking/kayaking tour to the smaller Tad Sae waterfalls. We left the tour office at around 9:00am, packing our group of 10 into the back of a tuktruck – the bed of a small, single cabbed pickup with seats and roof welded into the sides. We then drove 45 minutes into the mountainous countryside, arriving at a bamboo bridge spanning the river, leading to a local village. The locals rebuild these rickety bridges after the rainy season each year and make no qualms about slowly motoring scooters to cross.

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Bamboo Bridge over the River Nam Khan

We then received a tour through the village which housed roughly 84 different families from three different tribes; Hmong, Lao and Khmu. On the far side of the village, we happened upon a group of men, burning the hair off a freshly slaughtered pig. Three men held lit bamboo twigs and were charring the hair while another man used a hoe to scrape the skin clean.

During the Hmong new year, members of the outlying villages travel to Luang Prabang to celebrate, dressing up in traditional clothing, cooking traditional food, and catching up with relatives. The unmarried girls and boys participate in a number of games, with the intent of finding a mate. According to our Hmong guides, many young people will find someone from the opposite sex who catches their eye and they will exchange phone numbers. Courtships can last several years but many are very short, lasting only days in order to take advantage of the auspicious dates just after New Years. These gentlemen were preparing an age old custom where the groom’s family will kill and butcher a pig to then serve to the bride’s family as a gift. Upon hearing this, I gently nudged Dean and told him that my mom is still waiting for her bacon.

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De-hairing the Wedding Pig

We then kayaked several minutes down the river and walked up a steep embankment to enter the park housing the waterfalls. The locals have built this place with the intent of taking advantage of every tourist dollar available. There was an elephant village, where a handful of pachyderms were standing under a sheltered roof, harnessed into their riding platforms for the day so that tourists can ride them through one of the pools. Understanding that most of these animals are treated poorly as babies in order to be “tamed” for tourists, we quickly moved past this attraction to the actual falls themselves.

Several permanent structures have been built to house the many restaraunts, shake shacks and convenience stores selling snacks, cold beverages and beers. A coffee shop sporting a hanging bridge and large deck is built over the lowest pools and a number of wooden walkways and covered huts are provided for the picnickers. Most of the walkways have stairways to provide access for swimming in the different levels of pools and it appears that many a tourist spends their time in these initial stages of the falls.

Upon arriving in the main area, our guides had the group agree on a time to return and eat a communal lunch. We decided on 12:30, a little under an hour. Not particularly interested in swimming, Dean and I decided to explore a trail that led further upriver. The trail was a narrow track, meandering up the hillside in the jungle and then back down to the river for several smaller pools and two sets of falls. I looked at my watch at 12:15, thinking we should turn back. But we could hear another set of falls just ahead of us so we continued onward.

Walking up a quick section of steep trail, we came out on a flat area with a handful of picnic tables covered by large trees that overlooked the largest set of waterfalls yet. Dean and I both stood, marveling at the beauty. Unfortunately, it was now 12:30 and not wanting to make our kayaking companions wait for us, we quickly took pictures and headed back.

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Tad Sae Waterfall #3

I had noticed on the map at the entry of the park that the trail was a loop and therefore took the track on the opposite side of the huge pool. The trail led nearly straight up, taking a much more direct route back to the first set of pools. This time, we didn’t dally at each set of the magestic watering holes, instead glancing as we hoofed past. We made the hike back to our lunch spot in just under 15 minutes.

After lunch, we had 20 minutes before needing to leave so Dean and I sat on a walkway, overlooking a large pool that glittered in the sun. We talked about the beauty of this place and how we wished we had more time to spend. We both agreed that it was simply a reason for us to return.

We spent the next 3 hours kayaking down the river, getting a close up view of the jungle leading up to sheer mountain cliffs. At the end of the trip, we fist bumped and agreed it was a great day.

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Paddling Down the Nam Khan

Because of our short experience at Tad Sae waterfall, we decided to go to Kuang Si waterfall unguided. Everything that we had read online had mentioned that this waterfall was much more heavily touristed so we decided to wait until later in the day to take the 45 minute tuktruck ride in the hopes that the crowds would have dispersed. We got out a little later than anticipated as we’d spent the morning at a coffee shop, overlooking the river and playing several rounds of epic cribbage. The afternoon sunshine was golden as we sped through the mountain countryside, enjoying views of rice patty valleys surrounded by heavily jungled hills.

Upon arriving at the parking area to Kuang Si, we quickly realized that maybe we hadn’t timed our arrival to miss the crowds as there were people everywhere. What we didn’t realize is that they were leaving the park, walking down a narrow lane that was bracketed by restaurants and vendors selling souvenirs and snacks. We quickly bought tickets, hurrying to get in front of a large pack of Chinese tourists and started working our way up the path that followed the river, leading up to the different sets of falls.

We stopped for a photo at the first bridge we encountered, and instead of continuing on the heavily trafficked path, we decided to cross the river and follow a narrow goat track leading into the jungle and appropriately labeled “Trekking Trail” on an old wooden signpost.

We followed the meandering path, dodging low branches and walking through spider webs. Clearly this path wasn’t heavily used. Which was shocking to me as we continued to find little inlets to the pools below each set of falls, completely devoid of another human being. For the next 20 minutes we hiked along, taking pictures and marveling at the beauty of this place. We encountered only one other person on the path, a middle aged German gentleman who like us, was remarking upon our luck at getting to experience this place alone.

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Kuang Si Waterfall

Eventually we came upon another bridge that was built over the river just below a particularly large set of falls. The bridge was crowded with huge groups of people who had obviously come up the trail on the other side of the river. We joined the throngs of people taking pictures and decided to continue on the far side of the river, however the trail here was a little more heavily trodden and we encountered a handful of couples coming down from the top.

After climbing a flight of stairs, we finally had reached the top of the hill and the entire river opened out in front of us. The edge of the falls themselves have been fenced off but several narrow bamboo bridges cross the river and allow for an uninterrupted view of the valley surrounded by mountains and the falls below. Several wooden dams have created artificial pools for swimming and a large group of Japanese teenagers were hooting and hollering as they jumped on a rope swing, trying desperately not to touch the water.

Actively trying to escape the noisy crowd, Dean and I decided to walk back through the forest, along the main channel and quickly found ourselves alone again. And here is where we found our solitary pool, fed by three streams. And where we sat, talking about the beauty of this place and our gratitude for the decisions that led us to this place.

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Paradise Above Kuang Si Waterfalls

The late afternoon sunshine reminded us that we were hoping to see the sun set on the Mekong in town later, so we decided to forgo a swim in the pool and explore a little. We happened upon a signpost pointing to a cave, and decided to follow the trail through a forested hillside. The slanting sun shone through the trees, which were highly reminiscent of light filtered by Aspen, and again, I felt so content. We held hands and walked, enjoying the magic of our surroundings.

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Hiking Through the Forest Above Kuang Si Waterfalls

When a sign on the trail marked that the cave was another 2.5kms along the trail, we decided to turn back. Remember, we were really committed to seeing the sunset on the Mekong and with time running short, we decided it was time to head back.

We decided to go down on the other side of the trail, and enjoyed the change of scenery. In one area, the trail leads to a set of wooden stairs that are built on the rocks of the falls themselves, allowing the water to run over the wood. Again, we encountered only a handful of groups heading up the trail however we found the hordes at the wooden bridge overlooking the second waterfall. This side of the river was heavily trod and there were people everywhere – taking pictures on the bridges, spreading across the trail in groups, and swimming the pools. We quickly dodged through the crowds, excusing ourselves when we encountered groups walking 5 abreast, completely oblivious those around them.

On our tuktruck ride back to town, over two large Chang beers which I had purchased as we walked out (because I’m a genius), we talked about our experience. I still marvel that we keep finding these hidden places by simply being curious and willing to try the road less traveled. Which sounds cliche, I know, but keeps proving to be true.

There were so many people at the lower sets of falls but so few at the top and again, no one when we chanced to follow a small track into the woods. Now it’s possible that the hordes that thronged the lower falls had already visited the top and were slowly working their way down but given their enthusiasm at the second falls, I don’t think so. I think that many chose not hike the trail to the top and therefore only saw a small portion of the beauty of this place. A huge score for Dean and I, but limiting to the masses.

A few days later, Dean wanted to spend some time drawing around town so I posted up at a restaurant and back-packers haven called Utopia. The space houses a covered bar area and garden that leads to a large wooden deck, scattered with low tables and reclining lounge cushions. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner with an assortment of non-alcoholic and boozy drinks. Patrons are invited to grab a chaise and hang out for however long they like, flagging a waiter if they want anything.

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Old Town Luang Prabang

I ordered a cup of ginger tea and sat at a low table, overlooking the river and mountains beyond for several uninterrupted hours of writing. I’ve been practicing my writing in several different places. First, keeping a journal where I capture the details of our travels as well as any insights or feelings. I’ve also been writing TripAdvior reviews for the different restaurants, tour companies and attractions that we visit. And finally, the blog.

In the journal, I captured my thoughts about our journey so far. We’ve seen a countless number of amazing things, met so many kind people, and really gotten to spend some great time with each other, improving our relationship. However long-term travel can be exhausting and there are periods of downtime littered within all of these experiences.

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The View from Utopia

In the days leading up to Christmas, I’d been having several bouts of homesickness. Severe homesickness. We had planned to be in Luang Prabang on the 25th, however we didn’t want to gamble on low speed internet making FaceTime calls home impossible. So instead, we decided to cut our time in this beautiful paradise short, and head back to Bangkok on the 24th, ensuring smoking fast wifi and the ability to text and call our families. While I knew I was going to get the chance to at least talk to the family over the holidays, it wasn’t the same as actually being there.

It’s an interesting conundrum. Here I am, in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and all I want to do is go home. I reminded myself of why I wanted to take this trip in the first place; to get out of my comfort zone and have a bunch of unique experiences to learn and grow as a person. The problem is that change takes time and unfortunately, you can’t see it from day to day. I know that I’m already a much different person than who I was two months ago. One example is that I’m much more patient (I know that will shock some of you!), particularly when waiting in the countless number of lines required when traveling. Therefore, I can only wonder at what additional changes will occur over the next 5 months.

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Paradise in Laos

This is why it’s so important for me to recognize these feelings. Being away from home during the holidays is difficult; it’s ok to miss your family. But more importantly, I need to remember that we’re on a once in a lifetime journey. Oh, we’ll definitely plan to prioritize traveling throughout the remainder of our lives. But if there’s one thing that my father’s passing taught me, it’s that you don’t know how much time you have. So many people plan for a utopian “someday” – this nebulous date in the future when the stars will align and they’ll be financially able to retire and live life on their own terms. We constantly rationalize all the reasons why we can’t do it now, always betting that we will be granted the opportunity to reach that “someday.”

But sitting here, I can’t help but think how fortunate we are that we made this decision. And I also can’t help but chuckle at the serendipitous coincidence that led to writing about this utopian someday, at Utopia today.

Rowing Through The Muck

I’m sitting on the second-story balcony of a craft brewery in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, drinking a Thai Iced Tea IPA and listening to Stevie Nicks blaring from the speakers. It’s grey and chilly, raining intermittently. The forecast is calling for cloudy weather for five of the six days that we’ll be in Vietnam, a delightful change from the brutal heat of Cambodia.

We arrived late at night at our bargain AirBnB on a narrow and back alley. I purposefully booked this homestay as the hosts help arrange travel plans and we had yet to book our trip to see the karsts in Halong Bay or the less touristy Cat Ba Island – a short journey outside of Hanoi. To our disappointment, waking up the next morning after a night of constant rain, we realized that the bad weather was intending to stick around and upon further research, we learned that there is a good chance of the boat tours cancelling in inclement weather. We debated simply booking the trip and taking our chances. But, having read a number of online horror stories from stranded travelers forced by circumstance into staying at bad hotels upon cancellation we were a bit concerned with the uncertainty of traveling 4 hours to potentially be left in the rain. Doing some quick math we realized that we had exceeded our budget in Cambodia and probably should make up some money before our diving liveaboard over New Years in Thailand. Finally, I read that touring the bay in cloudy weather can be mystical (get it?), but that the cold often forces travelers to remain on the boat, forgoing the kayaking and other water activities that are the main attractions for a junkboat tour.

So after a breakfast of homemade vegetable pho, we made an executive decision to spend our time in Vietnam enjoying the city of Hanoi, saving the trip to the bay and the surrounding countryside for another visit.

I had booked a hotel online the night previous and we moved the two blocks from our AirBnB to the Meracus hotel around mid-morning. I had splurged for the hotel, using a $50USD credit from our Hotels.com rewards, bringing the total cost to $20USD. The reason for the splurge? Because long-term travel requires constant periods of downtime. Unlike vacation, where you have a limited amount of time to see and do everything in a particular location, there’s no possible way that we could spend every second out sightseeing and purposefully finding time to relax is very necessary. Instead of rushing from site to site, we try to travel slow. Really getting the feel of a place by wandering into areas that don’t boast tourist sites and trying to be more spontaneous with where we eat. We’ve both had some bouts of illness due to food so we’re trying to be careful without missing the joys of the local cuisine. And while we’ve had a great time at home stays, occasionally it’s nice to have a hotel room that is technically all yours.

We had an unforgettable experience in Siem Reap, spending three action packed days being awed by the temples of Angkor Wat. However the impacts of being away from home for two months and the upcoming holiday season were starting to surface some major emotions and I needed a place of refuge.

This time of the year has been hard for me since my father passed away on December 14th, 1999, just before the Christmas holidays of my senior year in high school. Outside of the annual reminder of my father’s death, I’m one of those people who hates gift-giving – and going into Target any time after November 15th is my own personal definition of hell. Don’t get me wrong, I love that the holiday season allows for spending time with loved ones, primarily doing two of my favorite things – eating and drinking. But the forced consumerization and need to spend money on useless crap that will be discarded by the next year really rankles me. My mom and sister often lament that I’m the worst person to buy gifts for, as I would rather spend quality time together than have “things.”

That being said, I still enjoy this time of year as it provides countless reasons to get together with friends and family, revisiting annual traditions that deepen the important relationships in my life. Some of my favorite are Katie’s cookie baking party, Christmas Eve dinner of kraut bierok with the family, the Softchoice prime rib pot luck, and the Stradiot holiday appetizer party (arguably my favorite day of the year).

Christmas Tree made of traditional Vietnamese hats

From Thanksgiving through New Years, I’m extremely busy with both personal commitments and work, it being year end for most major corporations.

For most of my adult life, being busy has been my primary coping mechanism for dealing with the unresolved feelings from my father’s death. Whenever I feel sad or start to become too emotional, I’ve always been able to distract myself with work commitments or spending time with friends.

My second coping mechanism is to watch YouTube videos of soldiers returning home to their families after deployment. The joy you see upon their reunion and the knowledge that I’ll never have that with my own father creates a sense of gravity that allows for the tears to flow unchecked for several hours. Normally, I let Bodhi up on the bed and his consolation efforts make me cry harder, helping to quickly expend excess emotional energy.

This year however feels different. It’s not just that we’re unable to participate in the usual rituals, but being in this alien setting, away from everything that is comfortable, forces you to be introspective. Additionally, I’ve run out of excuses for avoiding the emotions, instead, forcing myself to spend time feeling and trying to understand them. The problem is, I’ve never really known how to sift through the different feelings and resolve them.

I feel like these are things that should be taught in school, right along with several other neglected life skills; how to do your taxes, drive a manual transmission, the importance of compounding interest, and sewing a button. But there is no handbook and often, you have to learn these lessons for yourself.

So we’ve been spending our days in Hanoi enjoying the vibrant city. Navigating traffic on narrow streets, to find small coffee shops, steaming bowls of pho and bun bo nam bo (a delicious beef noodle soup/salad), and day drinking (or as Dean calls it, living the dream). This city has so many great hidden wonders.

On our way to see Tran Quoc, a large Buddhist pagoda on the West lake, we stumbled into the Dong Xuan, a three story open mall packed with stalls selling any kind of good that you can imagine. On the main floor, we saw mostly purses, hair accessories, shoes, stuffed animals, and souvenirs for tourists. The second level was primarily fabric stalls, selling bolts of silk, satin, suit and shirt fabric. By the time we’d finished meandering the second floor, we were overwhelmed by the crowds and didn’t explore the third floor which mostly offered clothes. Apparently, if it’s available in Vietnam, you can find it here!

On weekends, traffic is closed on the main thoroughfare around the lake and both tourists and locals throng the streets to walk and shop. Big groups of teenagers sat in the streets socializing and families rented motorized Tonka trucks to drive their small children along the wide road. We held hands while strolling, the first time we’ve been able to do so for longer than a few steps.

The food scene is widely diverse, we’ve had fantastic Vietnamese, Italian, sushi, craft beer, and believe it or not, Nashville hot chicken. We leave our hotel each morning with a general direction in mind to see a different tourists site, meandering through neighborhoods and getting a view into daily life. We’ve dipped into several sidewalk cafes, ducked through two Christmas markets, dove into a number of local brews, dodged the motorbikes parked on every available sidewalk, and gawked at the display cases of roasted ducks along every block.

A delicious bowl of Bun Bo Nam Bo

Each day we find a new coffee shop, where I’ve been spending hours writing. Reliving that year that my father was sick and capturing my feelings of both then and now. At some point, I intend to reread my journaling and craft it into something that is worth sharing.

Coconut coffee at The Note

On the 18th anniversary of dad’s death, I cried several times throughout the day. The pain is still very present but less raw than in previous years and it’s helped immensely that I have someone to support me through the tears. Dean spent the morning on a coffee shop balcony while I typed, we ate lunch and then returned to our hotel room, where the hotel staff, upon learning that we are on our “honeymoon,” decorated our room with candles, rose petals, balloons, and a cake saying “Happy Honeymoon.” That night, Dean held me while we drank a bottle of wine, watching Love Actually and anihiliating that cake (what did you think?).

As the weather brightened over the next several days, my mood also improved. And instead of writing about all the sad things I remember from my father’s illness, I’ve begun writing about the good times. I’ve also started to really think about how this time away is changing me.

I’m still having bouts of homesickness and am sad that we won’t be taking part in beloved rituals with our families over the holidays. But I’m also happy for the opportunity to be so far out of my comfort zone, exploring new emotions and developing different perspectives around how I deal with grief, loss, and life.

I have no idea what I’m doing but that’s ok. The most important part of this period is the process. The ability to change and grow has always been a struggle. I like stability and routine. But at this moment, it feels right to be afloat. And I’m pretty lucky to have someone so supportive to share my boat.