Tag Archives: adventure

Weekend in Thessaloniki #sol16 14 of 31

 I’m writing this slice from the passenger seat of our tiny, stuffed-to-the-gills rental car, as we make our way back to Tirana. We are still on the Greek side, which means smooth, mostly straight roads. Once we pass the border, it’ll be impossible to type, as we avoid potholes and drive through the twisty-turns of the mountainous roads on the way home. It’s raining, as it has most of our time in Thessaloniki. I think I’d really like Thessaloniki, but the weather definitely put a damper on the sightseeing portion of the trip for me. I opted to stay in more than Celeste. She is braver than me when it comes to venturing out in the rain! We’re jamming out to our favorite songs, belting them out, Celeste with perfect pitch, and me, well, not so much. Regardless, we are having a good time. And the trip is much better now that we are driving in daylight. We are able to see the mountains, gorgeous pink flowers adorning the side of the road, and neat little houses with the terra cotta colored roofs.

 We had a lie in on Saturday, easing into the day after getting to bed at 2:00am the night before. I sliced, drank my tea, and shared some of my slices with Celeste. We wandered down toward the sea, in search of a place to eat. Celeste spotted this cute, little spot full of people. It had to be good if it was so popular! We were instantly happy when we walked in and noticed the colorful light fixtures, balloons, and streamers. People were bustling around, bringing plates full of Greek delicacies to other patrons. The menu was full of so many choices, that we opted to order several dishes to share. We had two different salads, tzatziki, pita bread, and breaded, fried feta coated in sesame seeds, covered in honey. Our food arrived in what seemed like minutes, and it was delish! Of course, we couldn’t finish it, but we loved taking a bite of this and a bite of that, mixing the flavors.

We debated whether we should go to IKEA Saturday or wait until Sunday, but since it was pouring, we decided it would be better to go then, in hopes that Sunday would bring a bit of sunshine to explore. It’s a good thing we went on Saturday, because, as we found out later that night, it was a holiday weekend in Greece, and all stores were closed on Sunday and Monday. This news proved to be very disappointing, as we had plans to hit up the grocery store, too, and had been planning on doing this on Sunday. Unfortunately we completely missed out on the grocery store, because in addition to being closed the next two days, the grocery stores closed before 8:00pm on Saturday, so they were closed by the time we finished at IKEA. We had a field day in IKEA, and were like kids in a candy store, ooo-ing and ahhh-ing over the colorful décor, smell-good candles, and vibrant plants and pots. I’m so excited over my goodies, and can’t wait to unpack, organize, and make my apartment more home-y!

Sunday was another rainy day, and while we ventured out a bit, making a necessary stop at Starbucks for a Chai Tea Latte, I opted to spend the afternoon cuddled up at the apartment, slicing, commenting, drinking hot tea, and catching up on Grey’s Anatomy. I felt guilty, for a bit, about spending my time in a new city indoors, but I quickly got over it! We met up with a few friends for dinner, who also happened to be in Thessaloniki. Dinner was divine! Again, Celeste and I shared, which means I get to try more yummy things. We had a lovely salad of rocket, toasted almonds, grapes, tomatoes, and sesame-crusted cream cheese, honeyed orzo pasta with shrimp and a light tomato sauce, and the richest, dark chocolate torte ever. It was the fanciest dinner of the weekend by far, but all the food we had was tasty!

 This brings me back to today, and our road trip back home. After stopping for a last visit at Starbucks (sniff, sniff), filling up the tank, and rearranging our car, Tetris-style, we’re on the road. Next stop, Tirana!

Trouble at the Border #sol16 12 of 31

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Travel can be glamorous, whimsical, magical, eye-opening, fun, adventurous, exciting, and life-changing. These are the parts of travel most people see. We lust after our friend’s Instagram posts of selfies they take in front of the Eiffel Tower, Facebook posts about the adventures they had while zip-lining through the rainforests of Thailand, and blog posts of meeting sweet, Italian men who take them on a private tour of Rome. And while travel is all of these things (and more!), travel can be frustrating, scary, overwhelming, uncomfortable, and awkward. These are the parts of travel most people don’t see. Your friends don’t want to hear about how you walked two hours in the freezing cold, your feet in extreme pain, just to take that selfie at the Eiffel Tower, that you got sick to your stomach while in Thailand and spent part of your holiday cooped up in your hotel, or that prior to meeting the man in Rome, you were ripped off by a taxi driver and had to pay three times the price you should have.

Yesterday, Celeste and I took off after work in our little rental car bound for Thessaloniki, Greece, anticipating our 3-day weekend of shopping, eating, and sight-seeing. Tired and stressed after driving through Albania at night, on two-lane roads, through mountains, dodging the potholes in the roads, hair-pin turn after hair-pin turn, and nearly getting in a head-on collision because of a maniac who passed a vehicle on a curve, we arrived at the Greek border. Passing through the Albanian border patrol with ease, we get to the Greek border patrol booth. Readying the car documents, and our passports, I went up to to the agent. Handing over our passports, she asks for the car documents. I pass over the envelope the rental car company told me I would need to show at the border.

“I asked for the documents. You gave me an envelope,” she says, her tone bordering on rude.

“I don’t read Albanian, so I’m not–” I begin.

“I don’t read Albanian either. I’m Greek,” she spouts.

“No, no, what I’m trying to say is that since I don’t read Albanian, I don’t know what the documents are. I was just told to give this to the border patrol,” I explain, trying to remain calm.

“I don’t care. As the driver of the car, you should be responsible and know which documents I need,” she says, while snatching the envelope out of my hand. She begins rifling through it and pulls out two documents, questioning why the names on the documents don’t match up.

“Ma’am, I’m not sure, as I don’t own the car. I’m happy to call the rental company, and I’m sure they can explain.”

“How do I know who you are calling? You could be calling anyone. I’m not talking to anyone on the phone. And where’s your green card insurance?”

“OK, so what should I do? This is what I was told to do by the rental car company. I was told in Albania that I can buy it at the border for 40 Euros,” I reply.

“Albanians don’t know what they are talking about. They are stupid! You have to have the green card, or I can’t let you pass into Greece. You should have it already. If we are willing to sell you one, which I can’t guarantee, it would be 180 Euros. Are you willing to pay 180 Euros?” she rudely shouts at me.

“Well, if I don’t, what’s the alternative?”

“Go back to Tirana.”

Frustrated beyond belief, I call the rental car company. The woman on the phone is helpful and willing to speak to the agent on my behalf. The Greek woman refuses, saying, “I’m dealing with you, not whoever’s on the phone.” Celeste decides to walk to the Albanian office to see if she can buy a green card there. I continue to be yelled at by this Greek woman, who is so obviously prejudiced against Albania (as many are unfortunately). I try to remain calm, worried that if I put her in her place, as I so desperately want to do, she’ll deny our entry completely. Deciding to go find Celeste, I ask for my documents back, and she doesn’t seem interested in giving them to me. After some cajoling, I get my passport and car documents back.

Documents, phone, keys, and wallet in hand, I begin trying to find out how Celeste is doing. Thinking she’s at the office 100 meters away, I am worried when I can’t find her there. Walking into the dark, silhouettes of men in the distance, smoking and standing in a huddle, I am worried. I call out “CELESTE!!!” My voice is swallowed up by the darkness and the music blaring from the open cabs of 18-wheelers. “CELESTE!!!” Nothing. Phoning her, I get some message in Albanian, meaning that her phone is either off or out of service. “CELESTE!!!” By now, as I continue to walk in the darkness, freezing cold from wearing too few layers, worry begins to really set in. I get to the Albanian side and the man doesn’t let me cross. “CELESTE!!!” I call again. At this point, a huge, aggressive guard dog, who is likely startled by my yelling, begins barking loudly, his leash taut as he lunges toward me.

That was it. The last straw. I crumble. Ugly-crying sets in. Between my tears and sobs, I tell the man who can’t understand me, “I can’t find my friend. I’m worried. The Greek lady is so mean. She’s not going to let us into Greece. I need to find Celeste.” Seeing this outburst of emotions, the kind Albanian border patrol agent, who speaks a bit of English, comes to my rescue. She pulls me into her booth, which is warm and toasty, and assures me it will be OK. She knows where my friend is, and she will take me to her.

Reunited with Celeste, we figure out how to buy a green card for 40 Euros. With the documents in hand, shivering, Celeste and I make our way back to the Greek border. I fill her in on what she missed, and we are both stressed about whether we will be let in. We make a plan. Celeste will do all the talking, since the woman and I are not on good terms. We arrive back to our car and the woman is not there. After much searching, another agent comes to help us. Whew! He lets us in. Beginning the two and a half hour drive to Thessaloniki, Celeste and I try to make sense of what just happened. The only thing we can figure is that the apparent tension between Greece and Albania, and the subsequent prejudice, is what drove her to behave this way. We felt caught in the middle, as Americans who work in Albania. After talking it out, we went back to listening to music and telling each other stories. We are determined not to let this taint our trip to Greece. Today is a new day.

Travel isn’t always easy. It’s messy sometimes, but the challenges you encounter when traveling, especially abroad, are worth it. They stretch you, and make you a better person in the end. Even though I was frustrated, it’s all of my travel experiences that make me love traveling across this big, vast world we all share.

18 Hours in Rome #sol16 9 of 31

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hDuring the summer of 2014, I traveled in Europe for a few weeks- mainly the UK, Ireland, and Greece. On the way from London to Athens, I had an 18 hour layover in Rome, and I decided to make the best of it.

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My first stop, after dropping my stuff off at my hotel, was the Colosseum. To say this structure was awe-inspiring is an understatement. It’s beautiful and breath-taking and powerful. After the Colosseum, I made my way to Trevi Fountain, via the metro.

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Upon exiting the metro, I found myself in this gorgeous piazza. After snapping a few pictures, I sat down on a bench to rest and take it all in. Sitting about a meter away from me, reading, was Maurice, a little, old Italian man dressed in a pressed blue short-sleeve button-down tucked into oversized pleated gray slacks. Somehow, we struck up a conversation. Exchanging pleasantries first, he learned that I lived in Shanghai. “Why would you want to do that?” he asked. I shared a few of the reasons why I loved Shangers, but he wasn’t buying it. That’s when I learned that he was fluent in Mandarin! Like…he can read and write it, too! Obviously intrigued, I asked him if he’d ever been to China, to which he promptly informed me that he hadn’t and that he had no desire to go to China. “Why, then, did you learn Chinese?” “I was bored,” was his reply. Who does that?!? Oh, I’m bored. I think I’ll just become fluent in Mandarin. Needless to say, I was impressed. And bewildered.

Next, the conversation changed. His next question caught me off-guard, and was the sweetest question I’d ever heard. “Do you have a love story?” (Cue the “awwwwww” from the audience.) Not only was I melting from the sincerity and Italian-ness of his question, but I was suddenly sad to answer that, no, I did not, in fact, have a love story.

“I had a love story. But my wife of over 40 years died a few years ago. It’s just me.” Now doesn’t that just hit ya in the gut?

He shared more of his love story and his life in Rome with me before I realized that, while I was enjoying this conversation, I was on a timeline and needed to see more of Rome. The sun was slowly lowering in the sky, reminding me of my dwindling time left in this lovely city. I politely asked Maurice to point me in the direction of Trevi Fountain, a place I’d been told I must see while in Rome. Instead of showing me which way to go, he insisted on walking me there. I realized that putting up a fight didn’t matter. He was going to show me anyway.

Trevi Fountain was unfortunately under construction, so it was a bit of a let-down. Sweet Maurice felt personally responsible for not knowing this. Taking my friend Linner’s advice, we found a gelato place near the fountain where I got the most delicious gelato ever. I tried to pay for it, as a thank you to Maurice, but he insisted, saying this was his city, and I was his guest. Being so independent, it was hard for me to accept. But I eventually just said thank you.

Gelato cups empty, our stomachs wanting more, Maurice asked me what I had planned for the rest of the day. “Ummmm…I’m just gonna wander around and figure things out,” I replied.

“Do you want a tour guide?” he timidly asked.

For a second, I contemplated saying no. What if he’s a serial killer? OK, that’s a bit extreme. But still. He could have ulterior motives or something. Hemming and hawing over the decision, I figured, why not?

Maurice and I then proceeded to have a lovely evening. As we strolled through the cobblestone streets, I was in constant awe of the beautiful buildings, adorable Vespas, and foliage. The only photo I managed to take of Maurice that day was on one of these streets.

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How cute is he? He sorta looks like an Italian version of my grandpa.

I lucked out with my tour guide! Not only did I see the typical touristy stuff in Rome, I got to see the stuff “only Italians do.” One of my favorite experiences was when we tried to throw a coin on the top of the ruins for good luck. I made several attempts, but didn’t quite make it.

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We wandered down by the river, where Maurice helped me bargain for two watercolor paintings- one for me and one for my friend Melissa, who I was meeting up with in Greece. Crossing a bridge, we happened upon a very famous restaurant whose name escapes me at the moment. Anyhow, the door was covered in Michelin and other food awards. The foodie in me really wanted to try it out, but Maurice wanted to see what else there was to eat. After checking out a few places that didn’t seem quite right, we headed back to the Michelin restaurant. This was a good choice for sure.

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We both ordered the spinach ravioli, and let me tell you…it was divine. Italian food in Italy cannot be beat! Seriously. Determined to repay Maurice for his kindness, I tried to pay the (quite pricey) bill. He, again, fought me on it and insisted that it was his treat. It was his city, after all, and I was a visitor. This man was a gentleman! They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

As the night drew to a close, Maurice proved to be a gentleman one last time. After warning me that Rome isn’t that safe at night, he rode with me in a cab to drop me off at my hotel. (He let me pay the taxi ride, so that was good at least.) We said our goodbyes. I thanked him for a lovely day, and I never saw him again.

I had 18 hours in Rome, and you know what? I wouldn’t have wanted to spend it any other way!

Dreaming of Paris #sol16 5 of 31

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Ah, Paris…how I wish I was back there. Two weeks ago I traveled to Paris for the first time. Paris was one of those places that was always on my list, but was never really near the top. There’s too much hype. People build it up too much. I always thought it could never live up to its reputation. Plus I like going to places that are off the beaten track. Paris was just too mainstream for me. Seriously, everyone goes to Paris. Why would I want to go?

Now that I live in Europe, Paris is close enough that I can take a trip for a long weekend. I know, even as I write that I realize how bratty I sound. Anyway…my friend Sally and I decided we’d go to Paris for our four-day holiday, which happened to fall on her birthday. Neither of us had been, so we figured, why not? I didn’t really research the trip much, and other than a visit to the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and eating some croissants and macaroons, I hadn’t really planned much else.

When I got to Paris, I realized why it’s hyped up as much as it is. It’s amazing, and deserves every bit of the attention it gets. Even the fact that it was really cold and rainy much of the time, I still fell in love with that city. How could I not? First of all, the architecture is stunning. No matter where you look, the detail cannot be missed. And the Louvre? Holy crap, that place is awe-inspiring! Not only because of the sheer size of the structure and volume of the collection, but the feeling one gets when walking through it is enough to take your breath away.

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Of course, a trip to Paris isn’t complete without a visit to the Eiffel Tower. It’s one of the most recognizable structures on Earth, and I’d be remiss not to see it up close and personal. On our first night, we were wandering around in search of a Starbucks (found one!), and decided to stroll by the Seine River on the way back to our hotel. Once we reached the river, I saw the Eiffel Tower in the distance, lit up in a golden glow, beckoning me. I convinced Sally to take a walk and see it at night. Let me tell you something that you may not know. The Eiffel Tower is an optical illusion! It seems close, what with it being so big and all, but don’t let it fool you. Don’t think that you can walk to it quickly. Because you can’t. We walked for an hour, but it still looked the same. We walked for another hour. It still seemed out of reach. By this time my feet were killing me, but stubbornness in me refused to take a taxi. It was right there!! Anyhow, when we reached the base of the tower, all the pain was worth it. The Eiffel Tower, especially lit up at night, was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen! I probably took a million pictures of it. I couldn’t get enough!

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And then there’s the food! Oh my gosh, this is a foodie’s paradise. Especially if you like decadent, indulgent, laden-with-so-much-butter-you’ll-clog-an-artery-but-every-bite-is-worth-it food. The food alone is enough reason for me to go back. In my opinion, you need to go for a week just so you have enough time to eat. That was my problem. I wanted to eat all the time, but because the food was so rich, I wasn’t always hungry. Some of my favorites were croissants and hot chocolate from Angelina’s, macaroons from Laduree, bread and butter from anywhere, cheese souffle from Le Souffle…the list goes on. Oh, and Paris has goat cheese! My life was complete.

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I intend to write more about Paris in the future, but suffice it to say, I loved it and will definitely be back! Here’s a short video of my time there…enjoy!

A New Adventure

Moving abroad was the single best decision I have ever made. Five years ago, in 2010, I made the decision to live and teach in Shanghai, China, packing up my life and moving literally halfway across the world. It definitely hasn’t always been easy, and I’m not without my scars, but the benefits of this expat life far outweigh any setback I’ve encountered. I have met some amazing people who will forever be in my life. I’ve experienced life in another culture, challenging my beliefs and giving me a broader perspective on life. And I’ve had the opportunity to travel to incredible places I never would have otherwise. I am a different person, a better person, because of my experiences in China, and I will forever hold this place close to my heart. But my time in China is quickly coming to an end. After five years, and three positions at my school, I have decided to try something different.

This fall, I’m off on a new adventure! Beginning in August 2015, I will move to Tirana, Albania! I am really jazzed by this move, as it provides me with opportunities to challenge myself in many ways. As part of the leadership team, I’ll be opening a new school, Albanian College, which will open its doors to students for the first time on September 1st of this year. I’m the Deputy Head of School/PYP Coordinator, a dual position that will split once enrollment increases. In addition to the excitement of opening a brand-new school, I’m looking forward to the challenge of taking the school through the PYP authorization process.

So, you might be asking yourself….where exactly is Albania? I know I did! 🙂 Albania is in Eastern Europe, near Greece and Italy. It’s not officially part of the EU yet, although they are a candidate. Albania is a small country, roughly the size of Maryland, USA.

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I’ve been doing a lot of research to find out as much as I can about my new country. Here are a few facts I’ve learned. I’m looking forward to learning lots more once I arrive!

  • Size= 28,000 sq. km. or 11,000 sq. miles
  • Total population of Albania is about 3,000,000.
  • Tirana, where I will be, is the capital. Tirana’s population is about 1,000,000. Shanghai is roughly 24,000,000, so it’s going to feel so tiny in comparison! There are about 1 million people living in my neighborhood here! :O
  • Albanian is the official language, and while it’s probably easier to learn than Chinese, it’s a pretty difficult language. English is not widely spoken, so I’ll be taking lessons! I’ve already picked up a few words and phrases.
  • The official currency is Lek. $1 USD= 123 Lek
  • The cost of living is extremely low since Albania is a very poor country.
  • There is only one American chain in the entire country, and it’s not McDonald’s or Starbucks. It’s….Cinnabon! I kinda love this! 🙂
  • Food is a mix of Greek, Turkish, and Italian. Yumm!!
  • The climate is a typical Mediterranean climate. They have heavy annual rainfall. This isn’t my favorite thing, but you can’t win ’em all, right?
  • Apparently they don’t drive well there, but they don’t in China either, so I think I’m ready.
  • They shake their head for yes (‘po’) and nod their head for no (‘jo’). My brain is seriously going to have a hard time with this one. Try it- say “no” while nodding your head. It’s freaking hard!

In addition to finding out random facts about Albania, I’ve been researching pictures…and I must say, Albania is a gorgeous country I cannot wait to explore! Check it out for yourself…

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I’m soooo excited!! 🙂 I suspect I’ll have quite a few visitors in the three years I’ll be living there.

Here’s a video of Tirana, where I will live. Check it out!

 

Lost in Tokyo

So this one time…in Tokyo…I got lost.

Back in October 2012, Melissa and I took a cruise from Shanghai to Tokyo. I had never been on a cruise before, and I wasn’t sure I was the “cruising type,” but it was cheap, and we were desperate to get out of Shangers for a holiday, so we went. For the record, I’m not the “cruising type,” but I’ll save that for another story. Anyhow, about halfway through the week, we arrived at the port in Yokohama, close to Tokyo. Being that we would be at port for 24 hours, and the fact that it was Tokyo, Mel and I were pretty excited for our adventure. Little did I know, I was in for a bigger adventure than I bargained for!

Mel and I decided to spend our time in Tokyo with our newfound friends, Jr. and Gregory, who were really fun! Jr. and I, the “no cares in the world type” were just alike, as were Mel and Gregory, the “I need to know all the details and I’m going to listen to all the directions type.” It was a good thing Jr. and I had them to pay attention for us. 🙂 At the port information booth, Mel and Gregory gathered maps, figured out the best way to get into Tokyo, and figured out some sites for us to see, while Jr. and I lollygagged around, making each other laugh at the most random things.

With Mel and Gregory as tour guides, we set off for Tokyo, an hour or so away from Yokohama. Let me let you in on a little secret. Tokyo does not have nearly as much English as Shanghai, which we quickly figured out when we arrived at the train station to buy our tickets. No English on the ticket machines and no English signs meant we were pretty confused. After asking about five people, we found a nice man who helped us purchase our tickets. Mel and Gregory informed us that we would take one train to a bigger station, switch lines, and then ride that train into Tokyo, where we would head to our first tourist destination, a large outdoor market. Easy enough, right? Wrong. Once we arrived at the much bigger station, we once again had to navigate the Japanese-only ticket machines to purchase tickets for our next leg. Tickets in hand, we headed up to the platform to board our train.

The front of the train displayed, in both English and Japanese, the destination that it was headed. A few trains went by, and then one arrived with our destination listed on front. The only problem was that underneath the name was the word “Express.” Using my schema (I know, I’m such a teacher!) about trains, I alerted my friends that I was pretty sure that was the wrong train. Express trains usually only stopped at a few stops, hence the name “express.” Informing my friends that I was going to double-check, I turned to ask some of the Japanese people on the platform whether or not this was the correct train. Mel, Jr., and Gregory all jumped on the train, urging me to join them, confident in their choice. Again, using my schema of trains, I knew I had a little bit of time until the doors closed, so I was content remaining on the platform to ask my question. In Shanghai, you have anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute and a half before the doors close, and prior to them closing, you hear a series of beeps, warning you that the doors will close soon. My schema, being rooted in China, failed me in Japan. Not only did the doors stay open less time, there was no ‘beep, beep, beep’ indicating it was time to jump on. Uh oh!

Hearing my name being called out in desperation, I turn around just in time to see the doors of the train close with my three friends inside and me outside. Gregory’s fingers unsuccessfully tried to pry the doors back open. Panic spread across their faces as they began to fade away. Calling out to them, I told them that I’d just meet them at our final stop. I wasn’t a detail person, but I at least knew the name of the stop where we were going. Feeling confident, I waited for the next train headed to my destination- one that didn’t say express- and jumped on (For the record, I was right about the express train. It was the wrong one). Knowing where I was going, I settled in for the nearly 45-minute ride into the city. Popping in my earbuds, I jammed out to some music, feeling pretty proud of myself for being so calm despite being separated from my friends without a phone or a map. It’ll all work out, I told myself. These things always do.

Arriving at my destination, I jumped off, eager to greet my friends and begin my Tokyo adventure! Hmmm…they weren’t waiting for me on the platform. Knowing that they left first and were on an Express train, I figured they’d have arrived first and waited for me. Convincing myself that they must have headed to the market, figuring that we would just meet up there, I headed out of the train station. Greeted by rain, with no umbrella in hand, I was frustrated, but still determined to meet up with my friends. Once on street level, I quickly realized how helpful a map would have been, or at least listening to the oral directions the nice Japanese lady gave Mel and Gregory at the port. No signs directing me where to go…no problem! At random, I headed to the right, figuring I’d happen upon the market in no time. After walking about 10 minutes, I ran into an American who informed me that I’d gone the wrong way. Pointed in the right direction, I was so relieved when I located the market.

No friends were waiting at the entrance. I figured they’d gotten tired of waiting and had decided to check it out on their own. Meandering through the stalls, taking in the sights, smells, and sounds, I searched for my long-lost buddies. By now, you may have guessed it, but I did not find my friends. I did, however, run into about half of the people who were on my cruise, who happened to be on one of the excursions. At this point, my patience began to waver, and I felt, for the first time, that I may not find them. Wait! Melissa is a technology teacher, and she brought her tablet with her. Why didn’t I think of this before?!? Surely she has found internet somewhere and posted a message to me on Facebook! With a renewed determination, I set out in search of internet. How hard could it be? (Famous last words, huh?)

That logo with the green smiling lady beckoned to me. You know the one. Starbucks! The sign on the door indicating free wifi was like a beacon of light. I was saved! After buying an overpriced tea, I sat down and attempted to logon with my iPhone. Of course, I could only use the internet with a password that had to be sent via SMS to my phone. The same phone that only had reception and service in China. Such a bust! Rattled, but not giving up, I headed out in search of another coffee shop or restaurant with free wifi. Five or six places later, I learned something about Japan. It’s not a super internet-friendly place. I gave up on my Facebook post idea, and on the thought that I’d ever find my friends in Tokyo.

Figuring that I’m only in Tokyo once, I decided to make the best of it, and see something cool. I stopped at a few convenience stores in search of a map, only to discover that they don’t sell maps. OK, this was getting a little old. Frustrated, hungry, tired, and wet, I just started wandering. Nothing around me even looked like Tokyo. I wasn’t even sure I was really there. I happened upon a McDonald’s, where I stopped to get a Coke and fries. If you know me, you know I don’t even like McDonald’s, but there’s just something comforting about those golden arches when you are away from home and at your wit’s end. With renewed energy (most likely brought on by the chemicals coursing through my veins), I began my search for a bookstore. Surely I’d be able to find a map or a guidebook there.

Locating one, I walked in and was again overwhelmed by the lack of English (I know, I sound pretty whiny, but it was a whiny kind of day!). After numerous failed attempts at communicating with the store clerk, the tears began. Not full on crying, but those tears that come when you’ve tried so hard to hold it together, but you’ve been met with obstacle after obstacle. A nice English bloke happened to see me, and came over to check on me. Recalling my tale to him, he pointed me in the direction of the guidebooks, but being a traveler himself, couldn’t offer much advice. His kind words of encouragement gave me the boost I needed to pull myself together and press on. I picked up a Lonely Plant: Tokyo book, skimmed a few pages, and found a picture of “real” Tokyo. I want to go there, I thought. With not much to go on but a picture and the word Ginsa, the part of town it was in, I set off in search of the big city lights. I contemplated jumping in a taxi, but considering I would have no way of telling the cab driver were to go, I figured the subway was my best bet. Descending the steps into the first station I saw, I was taken aback. I happened to walk right into the Ginsa line. What are the odds of that?!? Buying a ticket to Ginsa (I figured it was a safe bet), I headed out.

Arriving at Ginsa station, I was greeted with another set of choices. With about twenty exits to choose from, I had no idea where to go, but I figured, I’ve gotten this far, who cares, right? Choosing an exit at random, I ascended the stairs to the street. I couldn’t believe what awaited me as I stepped out of the station. Right before my eyes was the picture I saw in the guidebook. Smiling from ear to ear, I took a moment to savor this. After encountering obstacles at every turn, something had turned out just right. Here’s my view from that night:

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With just a few hours left until I needed to head back, I set off on a night out. After window shopping at the most expensive stores, eating some authentic sushi at a Japanese sushi counter, and plenty of zigzagging around the city, I was content and ready to head back.

Again, not having a map proved to be difficult, but through sheer determination and grit, I managed to find my way to a train station and navigate my way back to Yokohama station. Once there, I relied on memories to get me to the correct exit. My photographic memory comes in handy sometimes. 😉 On the street, I had a moment of panic, wondering which way to the boat, but after some searching, I saw the lights of the cruise ship in the harbor, and I followed them back. Arriving at my room, I expected to find Melissa. When I didn’t, I figured they must be out on the town. Shortly after I got out of the shower, there was a knock at my door. Upon opening it, I was greeted by Jr. with a surprised look and a hug, while he shouted, “You’re alive!!!”

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The Little House in the Rice Fields

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The view from the terrace. I couldn’t get enough!

As you know, I’ve recently returned from a trip to Nepal. I was only there for five days, so I just stayed in and around Kathmandu, the nation’s capital. Kathmandu was alright. It was a busy city with lots going on and much to see, but I live in a big city with a lot happening, so I wanted to experience something a little different. I wanted to see what real Nepal was like. And I did just that…

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My taxi took me outside of town, past the noise, past the shops, past the chaos. We ended up driving down an old dirt road that wound around houses, up and down hills, past an orphanage. When the road was too bumpy for the car to continue, I got out and met Gopal, the man who ran the guest house. I jumped on the back of his motorbike and rode the rest of the way. Soon enough, the cutest little house, nestled in the rice fields, came into view. This would be my home for the next few days. I was smiling from ear to ear.

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After dropping off my stuff in my room, I explored the house. Gopal, giving me a tour, explained that I was the only guest this week, and that I’d have the whole place to myself. Is this possible? I thought. I’m one lucky girl! The house had a total of three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a sitting room, kitchen, dining room, terrace, and a room that housed the chickens, rabbits, and dog at night. Upon encountering the chickens and their distinct smell, I was instantly taken back to my Mamaw’s farm. This place was perfect, and just what I needed this week- a place to rest, relax, and recharge. Bliss. Perfect bliss.

My room :)

My room 🙂

Sitting room, where I'd blog and read each night

Sitting room, where I blogged and read each night

Gopal was the kindest, gentlest, most giving person I’ve met in a long time. He and I sat and talked about Nepali life a lot during my stay. I learned that electricity in Nepal is shut off 12 hours per day. The guest house had a backup generator that worked most of the time, but most Nepali people couldn’t afford a generator and just had to deal with the regular power cuts. The times were random each day, but I found they were at pretty inopportune times. For instance, there was no electricity from 6am-1pm and from 5-10pm one day. Those seem to be the times you would need electricity. For him and the people of Nepal, it’s just a way of life. I also learned that the average Nepali family income is 8,000-15,000 Nepali Rupees per month (80-150 USD). That’s it. To say they live in poverty would be an understatement. I learned that in order to give your children the opportunity to succeed in Nepal, they must attend a private school. People who graduate from local schools are unable to get jobs since they have a reputation for being so bad. Sending a child to a private school costs 25 USD per child per month. Gopal sends his three children to private school. Because of this, he and his family all share one room in a shared house with 6 other families.

Gopal and his family :)

Gopal and his family 🙂

Speaking of his children, I had the pleasure of meeting this little guy on my first day. Madan, the most adorable four-year-old around, was instantly taken with me, curious about who I was, following me around, both of us communicating in broken English and hand signals. I introduced him to my iPad, which he’d never seen. After demonstrating a game, he would try it on his own right away. He did very well! He’s so bright.

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The next day, I awoke to the pitter patter of little feet. Opening the door to my room, I find Madan proudly showing off his 3-day old pet rabbit. How cute is that?

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While I spent a lot of time enjoying the peace and quiet of the house, reading on the terrace, blogging in the sitting room, playing with the kids, and talking with Gopal, I also spent some time each day exploring the areas in and around the guest house. I went for a walk with Dehli, the dog, one evening at sunset. I came upon a small group of high school kids playing volleyball without a net. Saying hi, they smiled and introduced themselves. After talking with me for a few minutes, they invited me to play with them, to which I happily joined and had a lot of fun! Gopal took me on a couple of day trips to surrounding villages, where we’d get off the bike and wander around, stopping in to look at the goods for sale and talk with the locals, who were very much drawn to me, the blonde haired girl who looked very different from them. I met some 11 year-old girls who later walked by the house to share some peas they’d picked for me. Even though I was only there three nights, I felt like a part of the community. Wandering around the villages, I found kids playing soccer, table tennis, and tag. My heart was so happy as I caught a glimpse of a life so different than mine.

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My favorite day was my last day there. Gopal and I toured the entire perimeter of Kathmandu Valley on his motorbike, winding through narrow pathways, high into the hills, and down into the valley. We stopped frequently to take in the beauty of the valley, have a Coke with the locals, watch ladies harvest wheat and mustard, talk to some kids, buy a souvenir, and cross a huge bridge connecting two hills/mountains. I managed to get a sunburn despite my 50 SPF sunscreen, but it was totally worth it. The breathtaking beauty of Nepal is truly indescribable. You just have to see it for yourself. And when you do, stay at The Little House in the Rice Fields. Tell Gopal I sent you!

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First Impressions of Kathmandu

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Namaste. Greetings from Kathmandu. Before arriving in Nepal two days ago, I really didn’t know much about it. I knew that geographically it was between India and Tibet (China), so I figured that it would have some influences of both cultures. I had heard that Nepali food was good, but I hadn’t ever tried it before. I knew that it was a poor country, as is most of Asia. I only know two friends who have been to Nepal before, and they loved it, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I’m definitely glad I did.

I arrived really late Sunday night after a mishap with my flights. The visa process was actually pleasant and quick. I’d heard that it can take hours in line to get your visa on arrival. I guess landing at 11pm can be a good thing. I managed to get a taxi and get to my not-so-nice hotel. I only stayed there one night, and moved on in the morning. Needless to say, I didn’t get much of a feel for the city late at night while riding to my hotel in a taxi.

Morning came really early…because of all the noise! Beginning around 6am, my ears were inundated with all sorts of noises, from dogs barking, birds chirping, horns honking, hammers hammering and all sorts of other construction noises, and people chattering. I quickly realized that Kathmandu is not the place for lazy holidays where you can sleep in until the late morning. Despite my late arrival, I was up and out of the bed by 7am, on to explore the city.

The only way to describe the roads in Kathmandu is chaos. Unpaved, bumpy (What’s worse than bumpy? Because that’s the word I should be using.) roads so narrow that you think a car can’t possibly fit on it are filled with people on foot, motorbikes weaving through, carts and bicycles, oh, and cars as well, honking to signal that they own the road. Everyone fighting for space, zipping past, barely squeezing through. There’s no listening to music while leisurely walking the streets. No, you had better have your eyes and ears open at all times so you don’t get hit!

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Speaking of the roads, let’s talk a minute about the traffic situation. It’s every man for himself. With no paved roads, no working traffic lights, and many (unmarked) one way roads, it’s a wonder they don’t have a million accidents all the time! People drive around other people, oftentimes on surfaces other than the road, with a beep, beep, get out of my way. A few of the major intersections have a traffic police officer who stands on a pedestal and directs traffic. The intersections without someone directing traffic, however, are everyone for themselves, flying through, dodging others as they go.

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Another crazy thing is the electrical and telephone wires. They’re everywhere! A tangled mess of wires, going this way and that, hang from poles, sometimes near to the ground. How they possibly fix ones that are broken is beyond me. I wouldn’t know where to begin to make sense of it.

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And the AIR! Let me tell you, I’ve been in dusty places (ahem, Egypt) and I’ve been in polluted places (Shanghai, duh), but this place takes the cake. Not only is there a ton of pollution in the air, evidenced by the permanent haze in the sky, but the unpaved roads and lack of maintenance mean that dust is constantly being flung into the air. I’m so glad I brought my face mask. I didn’t wear it all the time, though, because it got hot, so when I got home and blew my nose, my boogers were black! Sorry if you were just grossed out, but I’m just being honest.

The kids here are the cutest little people you’ve ever seen. Their smiling, sweet faces melt my heart. I love how curious they are, too. They’ll walk right over to me, smile and shyly say “Namaste” with their hands in a prayer-like position. So cute! Some of the children wear eyeliner. I’m not sure what the significance is, but it’s definitely different.

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I’ve sampled some Nepali food, but one thing I tried can only be described as a “meat donut.” I was walking down one of the streets, and a man frying something resembling a funnel cake caught my eye. I stopped to watch him a minute, and asked him what it was. He said it was very sweet. Deciding to try one, I asked before I bought it if it had meat (I’m a vegetarian, remember), and he said that no, it was just fried sweet dough. Great! After my first bite, my tongue tasted a taste I have not had in a very long while. What is that? It vaguely tasted like meat. My friend, whom I’d met on the flight from Hong Kong, confirmed that yes, I was tasting meat. We figured that the oil used to fry the dough had previously been used to fry meat. Yuck! I had to drink lots of water to get rid of the taste. Some of my risk-taking doesn’t always pay off…haha.

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Pigeons, pigeons, pigeons! Everywhere around the square you can find them. Scrambling for food, these birds congregate in one area, condensed so that all you see is a sea of pigeons. Children play a game, chasing the pigeons away, laughing as they succeed to break up the pack. The pigeons fly up for a moment, and quickly land back where they were, ready to peck for more scraps.

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As Nepal is a Hindu culture (some are Buddhist), cows are sacred. You can find them roaming the streets, lazing around wherever they want, and generally taking advantage of the fact that no one can mess with them.

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The thing that I love most about Nepal is the people. While they are impoverished and live on next to nothing, yet they are able to find joy in life. I have met some of the most helpful people on earth here in the last few days. Traveling alone can be troublesome, but I have met nothing but generous, kind people, willing to help me out.

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More of Nepal to come! Stay tuned! 🙂 

 

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Lost at Sea- SOL #19

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Adventure seems to follow me everywhere. What I mean by adventure is that crazy things that probably wouldn’t happen to most people, tend to happen to me. It’s a gift. 🙂 One such time was back during my first year in China, when Linnea and I took a trip to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. Malaysia is known for good diving, so we decided to give it a go.

Linnea was a certified diver, but at the time, I was not. I had been on a 3-day diving excursion in Australia a few years prior, but those were guided discovery dives. Not having a ton of time to get my certification, I opted for the discovery dive again. Linnea, myself, and the guide were only ones diving, so I was pretty excited about the one-on-one attention I would get. Before we dove out in the ocean, we participated in some training in the shallow waters near the shore, things like breathing under water, clearing our mask, removing and locating our regulators, and reading the gauges that indicated how much air was left in the tank and how deep we were. During our training session, things started coming back to me. That unnatural feeling of breathing under the water when your brain tells you “this is wrong.” Remaining calm when your reg was out of your mouth and you couldn’t breathe. The stinging in your eyes when your mask filled with saltwater. I had listened to the directions. I had practiced the drills. I knew the underwater signals. I was ready.

The boat took us out to a deeper part of the water, far from the coast and, sitting on the side of the dinghy, we tumbled into the water, ready to explore. The first thing we noticed was the murky water. Bummer! How were we supposed to see everything when we couldn’t see more than 3 feet in front of us? I guessed that the recent daily rains had stirred up all the sand and muck from the bottom of the ocean. Regardless, we kept going. As we dove deeper and deeper into the depths of the ocean, I was constantly aware of where the guide and Linnea were in relation to me. Linnea was swimming a few feet above me, while our guide was next to me. Once we reached our final depth of 14 meters, we slowed down, taking in the coral landscape in front of us. Every 30 seconds to a minute, I took stock of my diving buddies, making sure I was keeping up with the more experienced divers. Something caught my eye. A clownfish! I had found Nemo! Stopping for half a minute to take a mental image of this beautiful creature in its natural environment, I was in awe.

Following my brief distraction, I swam ahead, checking the locations of Linnea and the guide. Uh oh! I can’t find them! Swimming in a circle, darting my eyes up, down, and all around, I realize I’ve lost them. Crap! Don’t panic, Jennifer. The worst thing you can do 14 meters underneath the ocean is panic. Constantly turning in circles, looking for any sign of them, my mind replayed the directions the guide gave us. When the air gauge reads 50, it’s time to go up, or else you might run out of air. When you go up, you have to go slow because of the pressure. Safety stop at 5 meters, where you wait for 3 minutes before you go to the water’s surface. But what do you do if you get lost? As I racked my brain, I realized he didn’t tell us. As someone with an insanely accurate memory, if he had told us what to do, I know I would have remembered it. Think…think…what would I tell my students if they got lost on a field trip? ‘Stay put! I will find you!’ Two people looking for each other isn’t productive. It was decided. I would just stay put and wait until they came to find me. They would come to find me. Right?

Doing my best to distract myself from the thought that I am 14 meters under the ocean, in another country, as a non-certified diver, in murky waters, alone, I look at the fish and coral around me. Despite my efforts, the scenery is just not as cool as it was a minute ago. Steadily looking at the gauges, I become more and more weary as the little dial marches toward 50. I decide to make a plan. If the needle reaches 50 before I’m found, I have to ascend. I know how to read the depth gauge. I’ll just stop at 5 meters, and since I don’t have a watch, I’ll count to 180, and then safely swim to the water’s surface. Time ticked by. S-L-O-W-L-Y. Swimming in circles, on the lookout for someone, anyone, I noticed the needle touch the 50. Time to go up. Just then, I feel a tap on my shoulder. I’ve been found! Turning around, I come face to face with an angry guide. I get the “What the hell are you doing?” shrug. Me? What am I doing? “I’ve been waiting on you!” I gesture back. Pointing toward the surface, the guide indicates that it’s time to ascend.

Following the safety measures, we reach the surface. Breaking through the water, I am greeted by Linnea’s face, a face that is scared, worried, and unsure. “Where were you? What happened? I was really worried!”

Our guide, clearly annoyed with me, asks me why I didn’t come up once I was lost. “I didn’t know I was supposed to come up. I just thought you guys would find me,” I replied, quite annoyed that he’s mad at the girl who is doing a discovery dive, supposedly under his careful watch.

“I told you, if you get separated, wait 1 minute, then come up to the surface.”

“No, you never told us that. I would have remembered that!”

“Yes I did. You just weren’t listening.”

“Linnea, did he say that?”

“No, he didn’t. I just know from my diving certification course,” she informed me. No apology was given by the dive instructor for his lack of instructions.

At that point, we load the boat, headed back to shore, a bit more shaken up than when we left. Linnea had been so worried about me. Apparently I was lost at sea for about 8 minutes. Now 8 minutes isn’t that long when you’re driving, reading a book, or watching a TV show, but 8 minutes alone, at the bottom of the ocean feels like forever. I felt really bad for Linnea. I knew I was safe. I knew they were together, and therefore safe, but she didn’t know what had happened to me. She thought she’d have to go back to RBIS and tell everyone she lost Jennifer at the bottom of the ocean. She thought she’d have to call my parents, and tell them I was lost, or worse. I can’t imagine what she was going through.

See what I mean? Adventure finds me. Even though it was scary, it was an adventure, and it makes for a good story, don’t you think?

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Unplanned Traveler- SOL #15

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As I’ve evolved as a traveler, my planning has become more minimalist. I often buy plane tickets at the last minute, even when traveling internationally. I rarely book accommodations past the first day or two of my trip. I don’t buy Lonely Planets, and my research is kept to a minimum. Do I need a visa? What are some of the must-see sites? What’s the weather going to be like? What currency is used, and what’s the exchange rate? Do they tip? How do I say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’? Beyond these basic questions, I choose not to know.

The excitement of traveling is discovery. I love feeling the heartbeat of the city. My less-planned philosophy allows me to experience, first-hand, the culture of my newest destination. With feet to the pavement, one of my favorite things is walking (or biking) around the local neighborhoods, getting a feel for the ‘real’ city, not what your typical tourist experiences. Mingling with the locals, observing everyday life, taking in the sights, smells, sounds of the city…now this is authentic. Anyone can be a tourist. I choose to avoid most of the tourist traps in favor of real experiences.

Last October when I traveled to Myanmar, I was unplanned. Completely last minute. Having purchased our tickets just two weeks prior to departure, we scrambled to complete the visa application in time. Receiving our visa confirmation just 24 hours before departing was stressful, but the lack of planning on our part gave way to spontaneity. Unburdened by an itinerary, we were free to roam untethered, time and location not a factor. Had we had an itinerary, we never would have met ‘Uncle K,’ the 67 year old Burmese man with unending energy, knowledge, and enthusiasm, who became our impromptu tour guide in Yangon, giving us a glimpse of life beyond what’s laid out in the travel books. I wouldn’t have arm wrestled an 85 year old medicine man on the floor of his home while the rain hit the roof, enveloping us in a symphony of calming sounds. I wouldn’t have joked around with the Inle Lake boat drivers, poking fun at the man with the smiley eyes, who later hailed down his friend’s tuk tuk at my request so that I could drive Mel around in the sidecar. I wouldn’t have had such a funny story to tell for years to come. These, and many more experiences, the memories that made me fall in love with Myanmar, wouldn’t have been possible had I come with an agenda, an itinerary jam-packed with somebody else’s must-see locations.

As I look forward to my next trip- Kathmandu, Nepal- in just two weeks, my itinerary includes loads and loads of unplanned time. Time that I hope to fill with taking in the scenery, writing, observing the idiosyncrasies of everyday life, chatting with the locals, tasting the local fare, and venturing into the unknown.