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

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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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