Eat. Pray. Sandy. A Journey from Europe to India

Many of my friends made the natural comparison of my decision to depart from my “normal” life to take off and see the world with Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir which gave a name to a movement by women who want to shake up their lives and set off to see the world. I loved the book and love the writer even more, she’s smart, funny, self-depreciating and generous. So it is flattering because I think what she did and anyone who chooses to take a major left turn in their lives, take risks, explore the world and themselves are to be commended. It was my brilliant writer friend Sara Vilkomerson (as relayed to me by my other brilliant friend Jessica Shaw) to call this move on my part Eat Pray Sandy, which turns out aptly sums up my life these past few months.

Before I dive into my story of my month-long adventure in India, I want to share some random but surprising numbers from the past five months.

22,280 approximate travel miles

17 countries visited (not counting airport stops)

37 cities

18 planes

9 trains

5 cars

1 houseboat

3.75M approximate steps (according to my Fitbit)

Too many buses, subways, ferries, taxis, tuktuks (rickshaws) and trolleys to count

But my four months in Europe was so much than a series of numbers and hopping on and off transportation, although at times it felt like that. I never had the chance to do the study abroad or post graduation backpacking experience in my 20’s so doing this now at 42 made this experience of traveling through Europe that much sweeter and candidly much more comfortable. When I originally made the decision to travel, it wasn’t Europe that I was most excited about, it was Asia. But by the time I left in November, I was completely in love with Europe and so wowed by its diversity, deliciousness, ease, the friendly and interesting people I was lucky enough to meet and I did not want to leave.

In Europe, I fulfilled the premise to Eat, Pray (more in the form of constant and overwhelming GRATITUDE) and be the best Sandy I could be. As for the Love in Gilbert’s tale, let’s just say that I met some pretty great people both women and men and I felt the love all around me, but in case this story is also adapted to film, I will be excited to participate in casting the male characters (if Javier Bardiem is available would he also be in this version?). But honestly, this trip wasn’t about meeting Mr. Right or even Mr. Right Now, the Love part of this trip was really about loving myself enough to be completely self indulgent and to put myself first something that’s far easier to think and write about than actually put into action. I think that’s true of so many people, women in particular because we’re not taught to think or live that way. Instead we are expected to nurture and take care of others first and that is part of what I love about women, but it is also sometimes our a major weakness because if we cannot put our own air masks on first, how can we help the people we love? And so I have been working on developing this muscle of self care, which becomes an act beyond self preservation to the kind of self observation that can be exhausting, scary, sometimes mortifying and ultimately incredibly empowering.

So thank you, Europe for a summer I will never forget and for giving me the strength and motivation to move forward to my next thrilling destination: India.

When I left Prague, my final European destination and the place that has become one of my favorite cities, I was exhausted and emotional. The past four months felt like a dream and my last days in Europe were spent indulging in the gorgeousness of Prague in the fall. After a teary goodbye to someone special, I was off to Mumbai via a 7 hour overnight layover in Dubai. When I landed in Dubai, I went to pick up my boarding pass for my next flight and was told that I could not get it without having my exit ticket booked for India. I told the ticket agent that I had a 30 day visa for India and so I did not know exactly where or when I would be leaving but assured him I wouldn’t be missing the 30 day termination. He wouldn’t budge and claimed it was illegal for him to give me the pass. So I sat in a chair and despite the fact that I hadn’t quite sorted out all of my India plans, needed to make a decision on when and where I would go from there. I haven’t even made it to India and already the challenging part has kicked in. Oh Europe, your easy trains and planes have really spoiled this fly-by-the-seat of her pants traveler. Thankfully Dubai airport had wifi (side rant: Dear Travel Gods, all international airports should have free and mandatory wifi for travelers) and after about 15 minutes of Google, maps and rolling the dice, I booked a one way ticket to Sri Lanka, a country I hadn’t previously considered traveling to but recently heard some folks talk up.

However, India is a I have always wanted to go. The combination of history, mysticism, the amazing food, the beautiful women in their gorgeous sarees, religious and cultural diversity and mystery placed this country high on my wish list. I was so sad to miss the trip with my Peace Corps friends back when Amit one of my best friends who grew up in India planned a group trip. I had to bow out due to an unfortunate assault/mugging incident in Crimea. I’ve heard so many travel stories from friends who have gone there for business and pleasure and from all accounts it’s a love it or loathe it kind of experience. I decided that I would make my trip to India as easy as possible by booking a tour and giving myself permission to stay in hotels versus trying to find bargain options. I am also lucky enough to have quite a few wonderful Indian American friends who excitedly offered tips about where to go and what to see/do.

I stayed at the fancy Sofitel in north Mumbai, which is really the financial/business sector and on the other side is the craziness that is south Mumbai, the more touristy part of the city. Beyond friends and their personal accounts of the city, my only other reference were some vivid images from Slumdog Millionaire (great film if you haven’t seen it) so I was both excited and nervous to experience it. The hotel arranged a driver, a kind and handsome guy named Shasank who drove me across the bridge that connects the north to the south. Shasank like so many of the Indian people I would meet for the next few weeks was kind, patient, humble and embarrassingly reverential (I still feel awkward when everyone here calls me “ma’am”). He bikes 30 km to get to work, 6 days a week, 12hr shifts and once a month does a 24 hour shift. And although it’s technically winter in India, that means it’s still over 90 degrees and about 200 percent humidity. I felt like a spoiled princess being driven around in air conditioning while Shanshank told me about his schedule, responding to my many questions about the city and what it’s like to live there. But I’m not going to lie, I was really happy to be in that car with him driving us through the chaos that is Mumbai with its overwhelming hurricane of cars, tuktuks, people, animals, motorcycles/mopeds and constant honking. I was amazed that there weren’t any traffic accidents considering the density of the situation, but what I’ve come to learn is that the traffic in India is just one example of what makes this country and its people so amazing — this country of over 1 billion people and everyone remains exceptionally calm, patient and somehow it just usually works out.

We saw some of the popular sights, including Temple Siddhivinayale, the most popular Hindu temple in Mumbai, Mari Bhawan (the Gandhi house), Taj Mahal hotel the oldest luxury hotel, Dhobi Ghat where hundreds of families live off of doing the city’s laundry in a large open space, and the Gateway to India. Shanshank also made a few stops in shops that sell scarves, saris, carpets, jewelry and other trinkets. One thing I’ve grown to appreciate is the Indian salesman, he always offers you chai (tea) so that you may relax because he’s not going to “force you to buy anything”, he just wants you to feel welcome and once it’s time to talk business, he assures you that he can be trusted and will always give you the “best price”. In four months in Europe, I think I literally bought nothing but postcards, a pair of earrings and one dress. I just didn’t want to carry more stuff and quite honestly, I don’t need anything. But India was much harder to resist, maybe it’s the chai or maybe it’s that the goods are like the country, colorful, unique and hard to resist. Another interesting thing that happens in India is that often the men whether they be the sales guy, or the tuktuk driver, or the cafe worker, end up declaring their sincerest affection for you and our brief meetings often end with them holding my hand, declaring their sincere love and admiration with me responding with an awkward smile and thanking them for their compliments. I even had one of my sales guys find me on Facebook and start messaging me his undying love to me on WhatsApp (they had my phone # from the sales invoice).

After a few short days in Mumbai, I had enough of this big city and was ready to head south to Kerala where I would be on a week long tour of the popular southern state. Kerala is known for its lush landscapes where you have everything from green mountains to the largest lake in India to the Arabian Sea, spicy cuisine especially seafood, an a Christian population of about 21% from the previous Dutch and British colonials. Also interesting is that the state is run by the Communist party so while I was there, I noticed many familiar red sickle flags, something you wouldn’t expect to see in India. Another unexpected aspect of Kerala is that many people eat beef here.

I spent the week with a small and wonderful group of people — Judy and Stephen, a sweet and fun couple from the UK and a pair of adventurous and hilarious ladies Fran and Carol whom I referred to as the Aussie AbFab. The five of us spent a lot of time in a van driving from the state capital Cochi to the mountains of Munnar to the backwaters in Aleppy, scrambling through traffic, skidding along the side of mountains, floating through the backwaters in a houseboat and discussed everything from politics, family, books, travel and everything in between. It was so nice to spend time with smart, well traveled, fun people who also knew how to chill out and take it all iOne of my favorite parts of the tour was seeing the lush and gorgeous tea plantations in Munnar. We knew that there would be a tour, but what we didn’t know was that there was actually a hike along the fairly steep plantation to take the tour so that was a nice surprise and thankfully we all had sensible shoes that would allow us to take part. After the driving around winding along the mountain and weaving treacherously passing cars on what is definitely a single lane, we were even more grateful to stretch our legs and take in the fresh air and the greenery. And it’s remarkable to think about the fact that these leaves are harvested by hand, people hiking and cutting on steep hills in the heat makes me appreciate the tea I drink in a way I don’t think I could without knowing the work that it takes to make this cup possible. I also had a chance to unload a pretty heavy bag of school supplies of crayons, small note pads and pencils I bought at the suggestion of the tour company for the kids we were allegedly going to see in one of the villages. Well, turns out that wasn’t actually going to happen but I had them in my backpack just in case and after our hike, we walked down through a small village where we saw a beautiful young girl probably not older than 8 outside with her mom and I asked our guide if it was OK to offer the supplies to her and she could help distribute to her friends. The little girl was so excited and I was happy to unload the supplies and know it would be going to a child that would put the stuff to good use. She happily took the bag and ran joyfully inside. Everything about Munnar felt like a wonderful and beautiful surprise.

Another highlight of the trip was taking a boat ride through the Kerala backwaters. Our house boat was gorgeous and floating slowly through the palm tree lined waters with birds floating along side was one of the most peaceful and relaxing times of our trip. We made a pit stop as we asked if it was possible to have beers (again the tour information stated that alcohol is challenging to get in Kerala but available on the boat. It wasn’t so they stopped.) and got to witness a gorgeous sunset while we stood on a bridge. The chef on this boat was one of my favorite people and he only made an appearance at the very end of our overnight trip so we could praise his magnificent cooking. He was so thrilled that we loved his food and like so many of the people I’ve met here, seems so genuinely invested when visitors give praise to their wonderful country.

Unfortunately all of the serenity of the boat trip instantly evaporated when Carol informed me after a call with her son in Australia that Trump won the election. My stomach dropped and I looked at her with disbelief and responded that her son had to be wrong, Australian news must be confused/delayed and that there’s no way that could be true. I don’t want to spend too much time on the election because we have suffered enough negativity and panic. I realize it’s going to be a long haul, but I also know that continuing to be angry and mournful won’t change what has happened. Only we can change what happens going forward through actions beyond what we post on Facebook. However, even from the other side of the world, I cried along with my friends and family at the devastating turn of events and took solace from my new friends especially Judy and Stephen who had their own PTSD post Brexit.

And as if the trauma of Trump wasn’t enough, we were also then told that there is an Indian currency crisis and 500 and 1000 rupees were no longer valid and everyone had 6 days to change their notes. What? The government made this announcement due to some counterfeit currency problems from Pakistan, but as the month went on, I’ve heard other theories about this being a more politically motivated move. Either way, the only way to explain the craziness of this would be if tomorrow President Obama announced “$20 and $10 bills would not be valid after 6 days and everyone had to go to the bank to exchange the notes… oh and sorry but we haven’t made enough of the new currency to go around just yet so don’t bother going to the ATMs or the banks because you won’t be able to get money”. Also imagine that the US was more cash based as opposed to all of us using our credit cards/debit cards. And did I mention most/many places don’t accept credit cards in India? So 99% of the money I had were 500/1000 rupees and were now useless and the chances of exchanging them at a bank were slim to none. Can you imagine how Americans would respond to this?!?! I’ve explained that there would be FULL ON rioting and chaos. And how are Indian people responding? With calm, patience and everyone just says “in the next few days hoping it is OK”. Turns out 3 weeks later it still hasn’t been worked out. And it’s selfish of me to complain because I am just visiting here for a few weeks and not buying groceries or buying gas or other day-to-day necessities that require cash. I wish I could say that I too remained calm and patient, but it was hard because this shit was CRAZY. I was traveling around India with NO MONEY that I could actually use and none of the ATMs were giving out cash. It became a daily occurrence for me to talk to locals and see if ATMs were working that day, it was like discussing the weather. The answer was almost always the polite, slightly apologetic smile, and bobbing of the head meaning “sorry but no”.

After saying goodbye to my new British and Australian friends, I left for Goa to meet one of my favorite people on this planet, the singular sensation that is Bevy Smith. Bevy is TV, radio, public speaking phenom and hosts a show on Radio Andy on SiriusXM and as she loves to say “Sandy was my boss” but let’s be honest, Bevy is always her own boss. She and I met a few years back and hit it off right away and there’s something magical when two strong, opinionated, been through it souls connect. She just turned 50 and was having a multi-city, international celebration that included coming to Goa so when I saw that was on her itinerary, I knew I had to figure out a way to meet her. And as with pretty much everything logistical in India, it’s always more complicated than you’d like. There were no direct flights and the only one that would get me there on the same day meant arriving after midnight. So when the flight was delayed and I landed at 1:30am, I was relieved that I had worked out getting the hotel to send a car to pick me up. However, when I arrived to Goa airport he wasn’t there, I had no working phone, no money, there were no ATMs and the taxis did not take credit cards. Shit. But then a kind Indian woman seeing me in distress let me use her phone to call the hotel and they sent a driver who arrived 30 minutes later.  

I expected my time with Bevy to be many things: fun, luxurious, over the top, but also that we would be able to talk about everything because that’s the thing about Bevy, she can go left, right, up, down, shallow and deep in any conversation. Seeing her in India was like an NYC Goa takeover for the week. And as expected, she had the entire resort at her finger tips — they all fell under her magical Harlem accented spell. Bevy and I spent the next two days soaking up the sun, sipping cocktails, she gave me some solid real talk about Trump, we swam in the Arabian Sea and ate like royalty. And seeing how people respond to her was absolutely amazing — they wanted her photo, they wanted to talk to her, they just wanted to be in her orbit and can you blame them? However, sadly, I had my only really negative encounter with a local with Bevy when we went to a popular restaurant called Viva Panjim and our server who was a young man bent on making our experience as unpleasant as possible. She called it way before I did, that he was treating us so differently from the other customers and half way through our dinner, I realized that as per usual, she was right. This guy was dismissive, rude and just hostile and then he would go two steps to the tables right next to us with the blonde white customers and it was like he was replaced by a friendly, engaging, laughing doppelgänger. But that brush with racism didn’t dampen our short but awesome time together. And being with Bevy reminded me of what I miss about NYC, the many smart, ambitious, talented and unique people I have been so lucky my friends. My time with her was kind of like a shot of adrenaline mixed with a chaser of tequila and finished with the fairy dust. I left those two days feeling rejuvenated and inspired hoping that when I am 50, I can be half as beautiful, full of confidence and using my power for good like Bevy Smith.

The last part of my Indian tale was the complete opposite of my uber fabulous time with Bevy. I will attend a 10 day course to learn Vipassana meditation. I actually booked my entire Indian trip around the timing of this course and signed up to take it in a small town called Chengannur in Kerala. So what is Vipassana? It’s a form of meditation that was created by Buddha over 2500 years ago, but the Dhamma organization claims that it’s completely universal, nondenominational, they do not believe in rituals (no chanting or visualizations). It operates on the principle that through meditation you can learn to control and eliminate negative thoughts/misery and that allows you to live life with love and compassion. I mean, who doesn’t want that? Sounds great! I don’t want to be negative! I want to live with more love and compassion! The rules are that for the 10 days: no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual activity and no intoxicants. Ummmm, ok no problem! Sign me up!

Some have asked how my “retreat” was and let’s be very clear, this experience was many things, but I wouldn’t call it a retreat. In fact, I referred to my time in Chengannur as meditation prison. For 10 days you spend 9 in total silence without eye contact or any kind of body gestures toward any of the participants; you’re isolated from the rest of the world; you eat two meals a day; you’re trapped in the meditation room for 11-12 hours a day; your day is 17 hours long from wake up to lights out; your permissible activities are limited to naps, hand washing laundry, counting and scratching the mosquito and ant bites on your body, gazing silently at palm trees, stray dogs or other wildlife (one of the most exciting days was seeing a snake and a frog go at it for a few minutes during a short break), or walking back and forth along a short path next to the dorm. And you’re doing all of this with the added amenities of rural India which includes sleeping in a non air conditioned, dirty room with 8 strangers, no hot water, bugs in the bathroom that you cannot kill (no killing during meditation even the mosquitoes!) which means that I felt caked-on/baked-on gross all of the time and was sleep deprived for most of the 10 days.

The meditation itself involves paying attention to your natural breath, no controlled breathing like in other meditation or yoga and noticing every sensation in your body whether it’s a tingle, itch, pain, spasms, clothes or a breeze (not too many of these) on your skin. Whatever it is you notice and you do not react mentally or physically to that sensation. The exercise is to not judge that feeling or thought and to remain equanimous the entire time. Sounds easy, right? Yeah, try it in 96 degree heat, 200 percent humidity, avoiding reaction to a back spasms and toe cramps, itching skin for a four hour stretch of time. Oh, and your mind is to stay clear while this is happening, no daydreaming about past lovers, beautiful beaches, spicy Korean food, nope just a clear and focused mind. Good times. But if you can manage to do that, that’s how you learn to control your mind and the reactions to positive or negative events. I’m not sure that it’s possible to master that skill, but your mind does eventually stop spinning and I was able to focus at least for a good 90 to 120 seconds at a time, start wandering and then I’d reel myself back in.

My daily schedule was pretty much the following:

3:45am first gong to wake everyone up

4:30am – 6am meditation – so you’re in pitch black because the sun isn’t out and even the animals/birds are still asleep. And you’re doing this feeling exhausted and dirty, but for me I knew that once I started hearing birds chirping, we were half way through the morning and by the time the teacher entered the room, I was fighting off sleep and often hanging on by a dirty fingernail.

6am – 7am breakfast. The Dhamma organization has a group of amazing women who volunteer and cook us delicious vegetarian meals that kept us going. The food was really good, but one can only eat lentils and spicy masala so many times before you pray for eggs and toast.

7am – 8am break which usually means most of us pass out

8am -11am meditation in that hot, claustrophobic room and as the temperature rises, so does everyone’s misery. An important aspect of this meditation is learning that everything in life is “Annica” which is Buddhist term for impermanence, a reminder tha everything in life comes and goes, pain, pleasure, etc. So we all spent pretty much the entire time thinking to ourselves “annica” this and “annica” that.

11am – 12pm lunch and here’s where many of us at least in the beginning would load up knowing that it was our last meal of the day with only tea and snack at 5pm.

12pm – 1pm break usually consisting of hand washing laundry, walking back and forth in the short small path, staring at trees and sometimes a short nap

1pm – 5pm more meditation. This is the time I refer to as “my own personal hell” because it’s the hottest, longest part of the day. This is when the hallucinations are strongest and the urge to stand up, scream “THIS IS CRAZY. I DIDN’T SIGN UP FOR THIS. THIS ISN’T PART OF MY YEAR OF JOY. WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING HERE?” But managed not to do that and instead spend the four hour stretch meditating, shifting around 100 times because my back is spasming, daydreaming about boys, beaches and anything else that would at least get my mind of out there and eventually back to meditation.

5pm – 6pm tea, a small piece of fruit and a small cup of yes more lentils but no sauce. Many of the girls felt like this was the most comforting time of the day and probably left with a masala chai addiction.

6pm – 7pm meditation

7pm – 8:30pm video lessons and stories from S.N. Goenka the man who lead the Vipassana movement for the last 45 years who passed away in 2013. I often found this to be the highlight of my day, not only because it was the final stretch in a seemingly never ending day, but also because it was the only time I would get any kind of explanation as to why I was putting myself through this and it was often enlightening and sometimes entertaining. Also, I didn’t have to meditate during the video.

8:30 – 9pm last meditation thank Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Ganesha, etc!

9 – 9:30pm questions for the teacher. I did this a few times and candidly did not find our teacher the most reassuring or insightful. I think there were some language and cultural barriers here.

9:30pm lights out

9:30pm – 1am Sandy tries not to freak out about not being asleep because that MF’ing bell is going to ring really soon and it all starts over

When I first signed up for this, I thought the silence would be the most challenging part, but I found it the easiest and in many ways the most comforting. There is a peace when people are quiet, and you start to pay attention to all of the other natural sounds around you. But it is very strange and isolating to be around 12 other women and 20 men (major gender separation which I will get into later) and all pretend that we are not there together avoiding eye contact, smiling or anything to acknowledge each other. The thing is, I found that you can kind of get to know people even when they’re silent. I was obsessively observing people’s idiosyncrasies, their sleep patterns (my lovely British bunk mate Lucy, God bless her was able to sleep soundly every day and I would find it sometimes comforting to watch her sleep. Creepy? Yes, but that’s the level of desperation I’m talking about here), eating habits, who skips sessions (this drove me insane at first because my Korean student rules dictated that we all go to class and arrive on time and do not get up), how long people shower, etc. I gave everyone a nickname partly because I couldn’t remember everyone’s names and partly to be an asshole so I could think things like “um baby girl it’s time to go to class” and “baby girl, fan on or off, it doesn’t matter because it’s still hot and stinky here”. And despite the fact that the entire purpose of Vipassana is to eliminate negative thoughts, I was full of them both during meditation and out. In the end, I found that this part was one of the most enlightening for me, how I’d like to believe I’m so open and nonjudgmental, but I’m not always those things and it’s something I am working on.

Another interesting thing that happened to me during meditation involved the stray/wild dogs that live near the center. So there are a couple of dogs that live out in the wild, they look pretty healthy, thin but not sickly, they visit daily but not because they want to interact with us, and many told me after the silence ended that they found the dogs so “cute and happy”. Well, it turns out these dogs were obsessed with me and my belongings. The first day when my water bottle disappeared from the sitting area outside of the meditation hall, I figured that one of the volunteers must’ve thrown it out. Then the next day, I noticed that the pants I washed that were hanging on the clothesline had dirt all over them. Hmmm that’s weird. Day 3, one of my beloved and comfortable flip flops were taken by the dogs. When you have a total of 4 pairs of shoes, losing one especially the most comfortable feels like a major loss. Then the next day I saw my pajamas hanging on the line and they looked mangled, the dogs tore three huge holes into them. So despite the fact that the lines were full of everyone’s clothes, they picked my pjs and tore them up. Ananda, my lovely Brazilian assistant teacher and friend, looked at me with her huge empathic brown eyes and whispered to me “I don’t know why but they only like your things. They leave everything but just want yours. I think they like your smell” she said meaning to be reassuring. Despite her completely sincere explanation, I didn’t feel reassured so much as grossed out and sad to lose my 2nd comfort item. It’s not the thing so much as it was about the fact that both of the RIP items were things that brought me comfort on the road. But I laughed and shrugged it off. Maybe mediation is working?! That night the video lesson talked about our need to not attach to anyone or anything because ANNICA. It’s all gone eventually guys. I thought, “are these dogs here to teach me this lesson? Could they have taught me with something I liked less?” I tried to find the highest points on the lines and even wrapped my clothes in a special way to make it harder to reach, so when I came out for a break the following day and found one of the dogs with my black pants in his mouth, I shout-whispered to myself “motherfucking dog” and darted off after him. I managed to save my pants. Ananda later rescued another shirt of mine from the dogs as well. The funny thing is that as the week wore on, I managed to care less and less about my stuff and on breaks the dogs and I would make extended eye contact with each other (not sure if that’s breaking a rule) and it was like we had this mutual understanding.

Around Day 5, I turned a corner and knew that I made it to the half way point and there were moments during meditation when I could feel myself doing the work of feeling sensations on my body and just observe without judgment or reaction. I’m doing it! Wait, I’m not allowed to react to my success. Annica, annica. By Day 8 you could feel hope rising in the air, we were all going to make it! And they announced to us that on Day 9 we will break silence so that we can have the next part of training that allows us to share the experience with each other. But don’t get too excited because you can talk, but no touching or hugging allowed. Again, some of these rules feel really arbitrary and unnecessarily restrictive. I mean, I’m Korean so I didn’t grow up being a hugger, but over the years, I’ve learned the joy and value of hugging another person, especially a loved one or people with whom you have survived a traumatic event (i.e. Vipassana meditation prison). On the last day, the video they showed us was a documentary about how they brought Vipassana to one of the worst prisons in India/the world and we watched these prisoners go through the practice and for the first time in my life, I can say that I really empathized with these hardcore criminals. It really is mediation prison.

When we finally broke silence, the girls were quietly elated at first and then for the next 24 hours, we didn’t want to stop talking to each other.  We talked about how hard it was, how we each contemplated quitting but kept with it, how we all obsessively thought about sex (whenever something is forbidden, you want it more) and we finally could laugh together.  We had so many similar experiences and reactions and these strangers that I spent the last 9 days with in silence turned out to be some of the most interesting, funniest, most conscientious, bravest women I’ve met since being on the road. Most of the girls were in their mid to late 20’s so turns out calling them “baby girl” wasn’t that much of a dick move and I did tell them that I did that. They all reacted to my age with loud disbelief, which was both flattering and a little mortifying. There were subsequent questions about my skincare regiment so I guess flattering is the better answer. These beautiful women spanned the globe from Australia, UK, Korea, Brazil, Columbia, Spain, Sweden, India, Lithuania and I was the sole woman representing Team USA. I was so impressed with these women in just 24+ hours of talking together, we formed fast and hopefully long term friendships. We knew what we just did was extraordinary in so many ways and even if we aren’t all converted to Vipassana (some definitely were), we knew in many ways that this was a positive experience.

Days later, I am still trying to follow the rules and meditate two hours a day and processing everything that happened in those 10 days. There were things I didn’t love like the gender inequality — the men had so much more room to move about, could eat outside, etc. and even the video lessons Goenka gave countless examples of how powerful men were transformed post Vipassana and the few women in these lessons fell into the category of whiny poor old lady, housewife who does the cooking/cleaning, or young hot girl who seduces Buddha to bring him down. I mean, after 2500 hundred years we can’t come up with some positive examples of women’s transformations? Doesn’t feel that loving and compassionate to me. But overall, the experience was good and I feel proud of myself for persevering through it. I think focusing on the present and not obsessing over the past or future is something that I can definitely benefit from. I met some great people and I learned a lot about myself. So I’m not sure that I’m converted, but I’m trying my best to be open and nonjudgmental about Vipassana as well the rest of the world.

So that was a month in India and it was everything and nothing I expected. It’s a country of contradictions: peaceful and chaotic, quiet and loud, beautiful and dirty, ancient and modern. I do love this country and the people — I have learned so much from my time here and I think I’m leaving a more patient person. And most importantly, I want to keep removing the negative and work on being a more loving and compassionate me.

And to that end, I want to thank all of my friends and family who have cheered me on these last 5 months. I love getting your comments on the blog, my FB and IG posts, messages on What’sApp, FaceTime, etc. You have been the fuel when I feel I’m about to fume out and your love and support allows me move forward with clear eyes and a full heart (Coach Taylor forever). And so I am on to the next destination.

Italian Masters and Sisters Trip


When I was a little girl either working or watching mom work, I would have elaborate daydreams about my “other” fantasy family life. These dreams would include exciting twists like Barry Gibb being my stepdad (what can I say, I love disco and he’s the sexiest Bee Gee); I had magical powers and I could fly; and mom didn’t have to work twelve hours/day, six days a week or at all; we would take amazing trips all over the world, stay in fancy places and eat delicious food. So now at 42, when I find myself eating handmade pasta steps away from Il Duomo in Florence with mom and Sylvia, it’s like my fantasy life has become my real life — sorry Barry, we couldn’t wait for you any longer.

We started our Italian adventure in Venice, a city of water taxis, canals, streets purposefully designed to get you lost and a feeling that you’re somehow transported back in time. It could be the absence of cars on the streets, the walking up and down cobblestone streets and bridges that lead you to nowhere/everywhere, or the fact that I still did not have a working phone, but there was something about the city that makes you feel like you’re living in a different time in history.



We stayed in a gorgeous apartment in the heart of Venice in the Jewish quarter where you step outside to see the canal and the street is lined up with merchants selling everything from household cleaning items to leather goods to freshly caught seafood. We had an awesome assortment of cafes, restaurants and bakeries and each meal continued to feel like a feast. The downside of living in a city of water is that the mosquitoes are abundant and aggressive. It didn’t matter how much or how frequently we applied repellent, they too took part in the feasting.

San Marco Square
San Marco Square
Sunset outside of our apartment
Sunset outside of our apartment

One of the most exciting aspects of this trip for me was that it was my sister Sylvia’s first time in Europe and we both anticipated that she would be particularly inspired by the history and magnificence of Italian art. Sylvia is an artist, she is mostly focused on character design and has worked on video game and graphic novel projects that will someday become available to the public. From my earliest memory of Sylvia, she always had a pencil and paper in her hands, opting to sketch characters over pretty much anything else. I know that I am completely biased when I say this, but she is so fucking talented. From an early age, we could see that her doodling was so much more than that. And like many artists, she’s incredibly sensitive and uses art as her primary means to communicate her thoughts and imagination. And despite the fact that I was always the “high achieving” sister, I have never doubted that she is so much smarter than I am or ever will be. In fact, she has this rare brain (like Da Vinci) that can synthesize science and art and for her the two are completely symbiotic. When she draws fantasy characters, their bodies and musculature must always be accurate and she is constantly citing the Latin terms for each muscle group when we have regular conversations about mom or my various aches and pains. And if you think my previous statement about her talented is solely a sister’s love, her work was actually featured in The Washington Post a few years ago for her sketches that included the aforementioned anatomically correct subjects. My dreams for Sylvia are both unlimited in potential and as simple as just wanting the world to see how beautiful her work is. And she really soaked it all in in Italy. She was as inspired by the constant stream of paintings, sculptures, frescoes, and ancient buildings — we were literally surrounded by the masters of the art world.

Artist at work!
Artist at work!

In addition to enjoying the beauty of the city and strolling San Marco Square, I was also dealing with an incredibly persistent cold that became an ear infection and all of the flying and trains around Europe seemed to only exacerbate the situation. My left ear was completely closed and I was feeling really worn out. Mom was terrified that I was going to become partially deaf and insisted that I find a doctor. For those who have ever experienced being sick abroad, it’s an interesting part of the travel experience. I found an “emergency” medical clinic located within San Marco and they have a doctor who speaks English, but to be completely honest, it’s not the place to go for thorough, quality care. He was perfectly nice and prescribed some antibiotic drops and decongestant, which I pretty quickly discovered was not going to cut it and ended up visiting a specialist in Rome.

Mom, Sylvia and I soaked in the beauty and confusion that is Venice. No matter how lost we were, the three of us managed to find pleasure in wandering the narrow streets and discovering new shops, cafes, bakeries and much more. I’ve seen a lot of sub-par souvenirs in my travel, but it seemed like everything in Venice was beautiful, even the small trinkets that I would usually categorize as “junk”. Mom and Sylvia loved shopping — leather bags, leather art notebooks, leather luggage, clothes… when in Italy.


We left Venice after five days and headed to Rome where mom’s younger sister Jemma would meet us from Germany. Sylvia and I referred to this part of our time as the “Sisters Trip”. It’s funny to see that sisterly dynamics are not that different in your 30’s/40’s as they are in your 60’s. Your sister is the person you love most, but also drives you insane. Mom has lost 3 of her older sisters in the past few years, so it was really special for her to spend time with her only younger sister and I know that my aunt who lives so far from her siblings also was grateful to be with us and enjoy some rare family time.

Sisters cracking up
Sisters cracking up
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome

Rome was a totally different kind of chaos than Venice, much larger in scale and scope. It’s impossible to see “everything” in this big bustling city, but we did a fair job of it. While I can see why Rome falls under many of my friend’s “favorite cities” lists, I found it overwhelming. It’s hard not to appreciate the incredible history and absolutely gorgeous architecture, the food and the culture and I absolutely did. But I also found it exhausting and being progressively more ill while I was there didn’t help. (Side note: the worst place on earth when you’re about to faint is inside St. Peter’s Basilica.). It’s challenging to relax in Rome, perhaps because there is so much to see and do, and perhaps because like many other large cities, there’s a frenetic energy that can either feel exhilarating or exhausting. Sylvia even managed to stop a young woman from trying to poach stuff from mom’s bag and then her own. I was so unnecessarily worried about Sylvia being able to handle international travel — she was a total BOSS.

Opera night!
Opera night!
Sylvia and Aunt Jemma all dolled up for La Traviata
Sylvia and Aunt Jemma all dolled up for La Traviata

We saw many of the “must sees” in Rome and Vatican City: The Colosseum, Roman Forum, Vatican Museum (which for me was kind of a nightmare due to the crowdedness and my ear infection), Spanish Steps, Trevi, the Pope, the list goes on and on. One of the highlights of the trip at Sylvia’s suggestion was going to see La Traviata at St. Paul’s, a beautiful 19th century church where they perform the famed opera inside the church. The music was transcendent and we were seated right next to the orchestra. My mom and I were both completely transfixed by the conductor as our seats were facing him and watching the maestro at work, full of passion, excitement and pushing his musicians and singers to perfection was truly inspiring. Mom was so smitten that after the show, I asked him if he would mind taking a photo with her and I can honestly say that I have never seen mom so excited (even more excited than when I took her to see DOLLY PARTON)!

Look out Barry Gibb, you have some serious competition!
Look out Barry Gibb, you have some serious competition!
St. Peter's Square in Vatican City
St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City

We left Rome and spent our last week together in Florence, my favorite of the three cities. Although the weather was probably the worst for us in Florence, it didn’t matter because it’s just so stunning. I also tend to enjoy these small to medium sized cities more than the larger ones, the pace is slower, you feel like you get to know the city after a few days of wandering the streets. We had the best food, easy sightseeing, even spent a day just chilling in our gorgeous Airbnb apartment and cooking, playing cards and just being “normal” which in itself is a gift. And miraculously, I was starting to feel a little better!

Mom’s a total trooper in the rain

Ponte Vecchio

We spent our last day doing a short day trip to Sienna, a small town just an hour from Florence and enjoyed seeing the Tuscan countryside on the way. Sienna is a gem of a small town with one of the most gorgeous cathedrals I’ve seen in all of Europe. And mom and my aunt also really enjoyed the shopping in Sienna as well. The “Made in Italy” thing really has a significant effect on a woman who wants to buy clothes, bags, and shoes.

Florence form Michelangelo's Square
Florence form Michelangelo’s Square


When it was time for all of us to say goodbye, I couldn’t believe that we really just spent a MONTH together in Europe! And we did it the right way — we laughed, we were there for each other, we pushed through brief spats and annoyances, we were grateful and we had a blast. I was so anxious about how we were going to get through a potentially stressful month of logistics, tons of walking and close quarters, but my family pulled together as we always do and we made it something that none of us will ever forget.