Yoga Camp, Silence and Balinese Healing

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Ubud
Traditional Balinese dance that includes an all male chorus and of course a fire walker
Traditional Balinese dance that includes an all male chorus and of course a fire walker
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Offering at the water temple
Offering at the water temple
I’ve been traveling for nine months. That feels significant for so many reasons not the least of which being that in that timeframe, many people experience one of their most epic life changes and are welcoming a new a baby to the family. So spoiler alert to those of you who were hoping I was getting knocked up while out not the road, but no I’m not having a baby. But these 9 months feel like so much has changed in my life physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and financially.

While I have spent my whole life being a caretaker to others, I never quite pictured myself getting pregnant and becoming a mother. So many people have said “you’d be such an amazing mom” etc. which I always take as a major compliment. I guess I felt that I have made many sacrifices in my life and know what it’s like to love another human being to the point that you are willing to put your own needs way behind that of your loved one’s and maybe not even understanding what my needs were until after a decade of therapy. So during this time, in many ways I nurtured that young Korean girl who felt like she didn’t have a time in her life to be completely and utterly free and experience joy without obligation and responsibility. I’m past the stage where I’m learning how to walk, but for the first time, I’m learning how to fly.

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I don't love rice just because it's delicious but also because it's so beautiful
I don’t love rice just because it’s delicious but also because it’s so beautiful
Bali is a perfect place for this phase of my trip not only in terms of how much “touristy” stuff I did or didn’t want to do, but it was a great lesson in how far I’ve come these past 9 months and how much farther I’d like to go (geographically and otherwise). I started by going to a remote town on the eastern most part of Bali called Amed. I arrived really late to Amed after a 17 hour commute from Myanmar including a three hour drive from the airport through winding, dark and mountainous roads to arrive to a hut sitting in the pitch black of night with no one there to check me in. Ahhhh the “adventure” of international travel! Luckily, my hut wasn’t locked and it took me some time to figure out how to turn the light on in there but I was so tired that I basically threw myself on the bed and passed out.

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Black sand beach of Amed
I spent two nights in Amed and it was a sleepy and very chill introduction to Bali, a place that so many people including Trip Advisor ranks as their #1 travel destination. When I arrived in Amed to an unlocked pitch black hut, I wasn’t sure I made the best call, but with the dawn of light, I saw that I arrived in a beautiful black rock covered beach with only a few people around and not much other than the sound of waves, roosters (obvs this is the national anthem of every SE Asian country) and some workers at nearby homes/hotels.

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Everywhere you go in Bali there are beautiful gems like this

I was starting to relax into a blissful state when I grabbed lunch at the beach shack cafe next to my hut when a large man wearing a speedo 3 sizes too tight with a severely sunburned belly approached me. He introduced himself as Yvgeni and said in a thick Russian-sounding accent “where you from?” He then sat down and started a one-way conversation explaining that “America is an OK country, pretty clever” but how we really get ahead because we take advantage of less fortunate countries. And that was followed by a somewhat lengthy lecture on the merits of Vladimir Putin and his incredible strength and “he is true leader and would not let Soviet Union crumble making everything terrible”. As a former Peace Corps Volunteer with a complicated personal history with Russian government/police and the woman who has been “crying Putin” since 2004, it was like crampons on a chalkboard listening to Yvengi extol his virtues.

The expressions on some of the sculptures are everything
The expressions on some of the sculptures are everything
As vocal as I have been about the mistakes that America and our government has made that resulted in terrible outcomes for developing countries, I do that with pride and patriotism understanding that I am a citizen of a country where I can be free to voice my protests. And although I have encountered many people who have wanted to talk about US politics especially with the recent Trumpism of it all, I knew that this particular discussion would not be so open and pleasant. So I took deep breaths and tried to channel my newfound patience and zen, but after a torturous 20 minutes of Yvengi ranting about the greatness of Putin and how he makes everyone’s life so much better, I COULD NOT TAKE ONE MORE FUCKING MINUTE OF THIS.

I responded “well you’re right that America has made its mistakes and taken advantage of developing countries, but are you honestly trying to say that RUSSIA does not do that? Hmmmm… I am also going to have to disagree about how ‘great’ Putin is as a leader to his people. Yeah some people have really benefitted, most notably Putin and his billionaire friends. But many people have and continue to suffer and unlike in America where I can openly talk about how much I disagree with my current President’s actions, that’s not something that can happen in Russia unless you want to be mysteriously murdered or imprisoned”. I then finished my banana smoothie, smiled and trotted away to go and resume zen at the beach.

Apparently my remarks did not discourage comrade Yvengi from chatting with me as he came into my hut the next morning while I was in the shower (yeah about those non locking doors…) then drunkenly came up to me in the afternoon and asked if I wanted to go and get a massage with him. I looked over at his wife and two daughters and back at him and replied “NYET, cpacebo” (Russian for “NO THANKS”) and that was the end of our chats.

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My friend Marc and I both living the tanned and relaxed life
My funky hotel in Seminyak
My funky hotel in Seminyak
My next Balinese experience was in the hip and happening town of Seminyak. The highlight of this time was reconnecting with an old friend of mine from the XM days, an XM-OG, Marc. Marc’s been living in Bali the past few years so he’s a resident expert and VIP of the island. My XM friends fall into a pretty unique category of friendships in that we have known each other so long, been through so much, created and lost something something together and many are like family to me. I haven’t seen Marc in so many years so I was looking forward to catching up with him but admittedly intimated by the social media version of his life comprised of sexy scantily dressed women at various restaurants and clubs around town. People who don’t believe that I am an introvert, you should see my EPG and MRI during these type of get togethers. While I was very much looking forward to seeing Marc, when he set up a “big night out” with his Bali crew, the charts were trending up to a code red for anxiety and dread.

Outside a temple in Ubud
Outside a temple in Ubud
Note to self: don't ever complain about how hard my job is. This lady is carrying a load probably half her body weight up hundreds of steps in the high hills.
Note to self: don’t ever complain about how hard my job is. This lady is carrying a load probably half her body weight up hundreds of steps in the high hills.
The night was an intimate gathering of just 15-20 of Marc’s close to non-close friends and acquaintances and most of the guests were young, hot Russian ladies and their husbands. The crew was friendly and everyone seemed very excited to hang out with each other and although I was happy to hang with Marc who was glowing in with his tanned and healthy Bali lifestyle, I couldn’t help but think to myself “I wonder when I can make my Irish exit?” One of the most random parts of the night involved a guy who offered to give me a handwriting analysis and here are the highlights:
– Not many people know much about me or my personal life. I’m a very private person who only shares what I want people to know.
I don’t like these type of social situations
I really care about what people think about me
I’m horny
I mean, I think the first 4 things are probably fairly obvious based on my body language alone. That last one may have been his attempt to get some (spoiler alert: he didn’t).

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One of my summer camp favs Brynn
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Cathy the Canadian and Amber (pronounced Amba) from the UK/UAE
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Namaste my Blooming Lotuses
The last part of my time in Bali was spent in Ubud, including spending a week at a yoga and mediation retreat. As recapped from my blog about India and my experience in Meditation Prison, I was hoping that this time around with beautiful surroundings and creature comforts, I’d have a better go of it. However, my main priority for retreat was to get some good downward dog in and stretch my travel-fatigued, stiff body.

The shala was straight out of a yoga magazine, open air facing the jungle, khaki colored mats arranged in a perfect semi circle and there were about 20 women of all ages from all over the world in our yoga gear (my yoga gear also my hiking, walking and pajama ensemble). The beautiful young yoga instructors wore white and beamed at each of us.  They were angelic and like friendly aliens welcoming us and declared in whispery voices “We love you guys so much” and asked us to introduce ourselves.

At the wonderful water temple with my pals Samantha and Cathy
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How can you not feel zen here?
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Ummmmm… did she just say ‘we love you guys so much’? I wanted to get up right then and there and politely but firmly let them know that I have to go. This is not my jam. I mean, I’m Korean. My mom and I didn’t exchange regular I love you’s until I was like 30. Our culture isn’t exactly famous for emotional expression unless you count inflicting guilt. But I convinced myself to stay because I really did need the stretch. We all shared our expectations and motivations as to what brought us here and despite our varied ages, races, countries and backgrounds, there were so many commonalities. Many were here to find peace, to heal, to mediate, to do something for themselves for the first time, and other personal growth motivations.

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My camp roomie Alice from Indonesia and my wacky friend Karen from Cali
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Thanks to Alice had the best meal in Bali!
It was a supportive and fun group of women. In between meditations and sun salutations, we shared stories about her lives and loved ones. I realized how long it had been since I was able to just hang out with a group of funny, smart and kind women and it made me a bit homesick for my crew and family. And maybe because I was spending so much time alone, I found it really energizing to be around this safe supportive group and was on. Apparently that made me fairly likable and before they week’s end, some of my new friends encouraged me to become a stand up comedian, host a TV talk show, write a book or become a public speaker (only for gigs that let you curse of course). It was all beyond flattering and truthfully made me feel pretty damn great about myself.

Ummm WTF is Elizabeth Gilbert's photo?!
Ummm WTF is Elizabeth Gilbert’s photo?!
I also had a real-life Eat, Pray, Love experience here with a couple of my new friends visiting a Balinese healer.  Sadly, Ketut, the famous healer from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book who also appeared in the weak film adaption with Julia Roberts passed away in 2016.  When my one of my new friends said she was going I thought it would be a fun new cultural experience and it certainly did not disappoint in that sense.

Nyoman the Balinese Healer predicting my huge career as a singer
Nyoman the Balinese Healer predicting my huge career as a singer
My girl Ashly from Cali getting her happy reading
My girl Ashly from Cali getting her happy reading
Cathy with the lady who dressed us in sarongs for the reading
Cathy with the lady who dressed us in sarongs for the reading
Nyoman, the healer who took over his family’s business was smiley, positive, liked to giggle and incredibly complimentary.  He took time to chat with each of us and gave us a palm reading.  He told me that I should “be happy. Don’t be sad. Sad is bad.”  He also told me that I should be a singer and when I couldn’t help but laugh in response, he said there was something about my voice and how others liked to listen when I spoke or sang.  I’m feeling great about myself, but I don’t think I’m ready to drop an album anytime soon, but I naturally enjoyed what he said about my words having a positive effect on people and felt like a theme throughout my week with my new yoga friends.

I was feeling so zen during this yoga and meditation week that even when an earthquake welcomed us during our morning tea whilst some of the resort employees and guests were starting to panic, I sat there quietly sipping my tea. All of this positivity had a dramatic effect on me and by the end of the week, it was me declaring my love for the group in the final yoga circle.

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These guys should definitely scare the evil away from Bali
My last few days in Bali was during their national holiday called Nyepi, which is a Day of Silence when all businesses close and families get together to observe fast, silence, no using electricity or leaving their homes.  What a remarkable kind of holiday when everything literally stops and the point is to reflect and observe silence to welcome the new year.  There is a massive celebration the day before with parades, shouting, dancing and floats with monsters with the intention that all of this noise will scare away the demons so that on the day of silence all of the evil has left the island.  I also met a couple of fun and friendly American ladies one of whom turned out to be good friends with one of my best friends!  I observed silence and reflection that day and thought about how impossible but amazing it would be if we did this in the U.S.  Can you imagine a whole day when everything just stops and we just spend the day in silence surrounded by our loved ones?

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Pinot Noir… Myanmar

DCIM101GOPRO

Pinot Noir
Caviar
Myanmar
Mid-sized car
You don’t have to be popu-lar.
Find out who your true friends are.
– Titus Andromedon, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I almost missed Myanmar also known as Burma. But thanks to some mild to increasingly persistent peer pressure from my friend Amie, I didn’t miss this beautiful country that feels untouched by tourists (a rarity in Southeast Asia). Myanmar only recently gained independence in 1948 after years of wars with the British over their colonial ruling, as well the Japanese occupation after WWII and a great deal of internal conflict that still exists today. After President Obama removed sanctions and reinstated relations with Myanmar in recognition of their move toward a democratic election, Myanmar opened up to the west in 2012. This country is unlike anywhere else I visited in Asia. Thank you, Amie.

So much gold!
So much gold!
Shwedagon Paya the Golden Temple
Shwedagon Paya the Golden Temple

I started in Yangon the former capital city that’s both bustling and yet doesn’t quite have the frenetic pace of Hanoi or Bangkok. As I’ve written about in previous posts from my visits to SE Asia, I have seen A LOT of temples. In fact I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve experienced what’s commonly diagnosed as “Temple Fatigue” among travelers to the region. It sounds so ridiculously ungracious considering how ancient, religiously and culturally significant and truly impressive these temples are, but after you’ve seen dozens of them, they start to blend together. So when I read that the Shwedagon Praya or the Golden Temple of Yangon is a “must see” I went feeling reluctant with a pretty severe case of TF. Well, good thing I didn’t skip this either because it’s the craziest, most audacious and over-the-top golden structures with more sparkly gems and sequins than a Miss Universe pageant. It felt like the Disney of temples — complete with Burmese families spending the day there to worship, sing, picnic and take photos.

These cuties were at The Golden Temple and their family invited me to sit with them and wanted to take my picture.
These cuties were at The Golden Temple and their family invited me to sit with them and wanted to take my picture.
I love stuff little travel gems like this. Yes rich people water!
I love stuff little travel gems like this. Yes rich people water!

One of the things that makes Myanmar so special are the people. It felt like everywhere I went even though not many people spoke English, locals went out of their way to show me their friendly curiosity and welcomed me with big smiles, eager waves and if they had cameras, taking photos of me. It was the first place I’ve visited where they would come running out of their homes or at least hang their heads out the window to stare, smile and wave. This was another example of this particular Asian sticking out among other Asians and feeling like a bit of a celebrity with giggling children and their moms/grandmothers/aunts wanting to know who I was and what I’m doing there alone. Here’s a common theme with many of my conversations with Asian locals.

Local: You married?
Me: No, not married.
Local: Why no married? You have kids?
Me: No kids. (Akwardly polite smile) I guess I haven’t met someone to marry yet.
Local: (Confused and perhaps sad expression) Ok

This well dressed fellow in Yangon helped me with a photo for my friend Andrew and his family to support #Tommystrong
This well dressed fellow in Yangon helped me with a photo for my friend Andrew and his family to support #Tommystrong
No, I'm not a ninja, I'm just hypothermic.
No, I’m not a ninja, I’m just hypothermic.
The indescribably beautiful sunrise on Inle Lake
The indescribably beautiful sunrise on Inle Lake
Nearly 11 hours after leaving Yangon, I've arrived to my floating heaven.
Nearly 11 hours after leaving Yangon, I’ve arrived to my floating heaven.

One of the most beautiful places I’ve visited throughout my entire journey was Inle Lake. I took an 8 hour overnight bus from Yangon to Nyuang Shwe, but it was a pretty comfortable bus ride with reclining seats and a random but awesome music playlist that included Britney Spears and Lionel Ritchie. I arrived to Nyuang Shwe at 4am and I was supposed to have a taxi waiting for me to take me to the boat dock to get to my hotel on the lake. So when I arrived in pitch black darkness, freezing cold and there was no driver waiting, I thanked god that I no longer just “wing it” without a local SIM card and phoned the driver who was asleep. By 5:30am I was shivering, exhausted and it was still dark, but I was shuttled on to my next form of transportation, a small boat that would take me for a 45 minute ride to my hotel. Yeah, I missed the 45 min ride part when I booked it and I was so freezing that the kind man who drove the boat gave me two blankets. I have to admit that I was feeling a little miserable and slightly hypothermic but as soon as we took off and I knew I would witness the sunrise on the lake and the mountains became more visible, that misery turned to complete and total AWE. I don’t know if I’ve seen anything quite like Inle Lake at dawn. It’s so quiet, the entire sky is reflected in the water, the mist starts to dissipate from the mountains and the only other people in the lake are the fisherman who start their work day in the dark. And my reward was arriving to the hotel that floats in the middle of the lake and my own personal hut/heaven where I’d spend the next couple of nights staring quietly at the sunrise and sunsets and feeling rapt with peace.

Sunset from my floating hut
Sunset from my floating hut
Monkey Temple where you climb 600 steps to get to the top and pass the resident monkeys
Monkey Temple where you climb 600 steps to get to the top and pass the resident monkeys

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After a restful and quiet couple of days on the lake, I moved into Nyuang Shwe the small town at Inle Lake and decided to sign up for a day tour. I do that once in a while to get a more guided experience, as well as to socialize, something my hermetic tendencies can get in the way of and I also like to sign up for physically challenging experiences that I’m in no way prepared to tackle. So I signed up for a bike and kayak day trip, once again not reading the fine print that it’s a 40km mostly off-road/trail bike ride followed by kayaking in the lake. When I arrived at the tour office 20 minutes early and our guide explained the course, I started to get that “oh shit” feeling and prayed that the rest of the group would consist of elderly and/or morbidly out of shape people. Imagine my devastation when the two couples that arrived were all young, fit (i.e. One guy competes in triathlons and the other does multi-day marathons in the desert for fun). FML. I can’t believe that I thought my casual city biking in NYC in some way prepared me for this tour. Do you have any idea how long or how far 40km is?! And most of it was either on tiny, winding dirt roads, some so narrow I called them balance beams, up hills, rocks, sinking sand, wrong turns that could land you in a rice field or ditch? I had my first ever quad muscle spasm. Please let that be my last. Despite the physical torture of the bike ride, it happened to be incredibly scenic as we zipped through fields, bamboo forests, hills, etc. And as much as I wanted to hate my tour mates for their physical fitness and youth, they were actually very cool, especially this great South African couple named Lisa and Clinton who are taking their own long term travel adventure. The reward for an almost debilitating 40km bike ride was the thrill of kayaking in the lake, which would’ve been much more fun if I hadn’t tensed my entire upper body from death-gripping the bike for fear that I would end my amazing “Year of Joy” with a tragic bike ride. But paddle we did and the lake from the perspective of a kayak is pretty cool, especially because they were so bright and yellow it made the locals laugh seeing us paddle past their homes on the lake.

Torture device
Torture device
Famous one-legged fishing
Famous one-legged fishing
Sunflower fields that I would've enjoyed so much more if I was having a quad spasm
Sunflower fields that I would’ve enjoyed so much more if I was having a quad spasm

I took another 8 hour bus ride to Bagan, Burma’s temple city. It’s a bit like Siem Reap in Cambodia, home of the famous Angkor Wat in that the entire town is just full of temples, in fact over 2000 of them. It’s also one of the hottest places on earth. By 2pm you’re physically unable to do anything that involves exposing your body to the outside for fear of immolation. Bagan is a place I will never forget because it is there I got to check off a major item on my bucket list: riding in a hot air balloon! But before I get to the glamour and gorgeousness of riding in a balloon over Bagan, I have to share a far less glamorous moment that also took place in Bagan. Since the start of this journey, I’ve been joking (not joking) about writing a memoir and using my inappropriate humor to title the unwritten book based on whatever’s going on each place. Well, thanks to a lost battle with “village chicken curry” that I had a legit cafe with really yummy food, I am now considering “The Time I Literally Shit the Bed in Bagan and Other Exciting Tales” as a possible title. So after bragging about dodging Delhi-belly and any other stomach or food ailments for the past 7 months, the universe or salmonella showed me who’s the boss and this happened the night before my 4:30AM pickup for the balloon ride. It’s also worth noting again that I have a fear of heights so my anxiety/stress level, which often manifests with extra stomach acid, was also in play. Thanks to some deep breathing, prayers and also dehydrating and fasting before the ride, I managed to conquer both fear of heights and fear of public humiliation to go high into the sky and watch the sunrise over Bagan.

The Pink Temple
The Pink Temple
The seemingly delicious and harmless village chicken curry.
The seemingly delicious and harmless village chicken curry.

After my last 9 hour bus back to Yangon, I would end where I began my Burmese adventure. I met up with Lisa and Clinton who were also back in Yangon and we had a nice salmonella-free lunch in the city. And although my time in Myanmar was full of unexpected and sometimes really terrible physical consequences, I left feeling so very happy that I got to see this country full of smiling, waving, warm and friendly people.

She didn't speak English and I don't speak Burmese but man we cracked each other up!
She didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Burmese but man we cracked each other up!
Tin ba dae, Myanmar you magical beauty.
Tin ba dae, Myanmar you magical beauty.

War & Peace in Laos & Vietnam

The top of the falls looks like the edge of the world
The top of the falls looks like the edge of the world

Just some ladies doing the Conga in the park in Hanoi. No, they're actually doing group massage. That's a great idea we should be doing this in the U.S.
Just some ladies doing the Conga in the park in Hanoi. No, they’re actually doing group massage. That’s a great idea we should be doing this in the U.S.
For a little over a month, I traveled through a part of Southeast Asia with a deep and complicated history with the United States. And in complete honesty, I realized how little I knew about that history outside of what I learned in school or pop culture.

Climbing up to another Buddhist temple
Climbing up to another Buddhist temple
I first spent a week in Luang Prabang, a magical town in Laos, a small country located between Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. There are some places where I felt this immediate and inexplicable connection and Luang Prabang was one of those places. It’s surrounded by mountains and the famous Mekong and Nam Khong rivers through the town where you can find locals swimming, bathing, boating, fishing and it feels like the life source of the community. And it’s just remarkably beautiful. There are the common sights of the region, monks, Buddhist temples, outdoor markets and what I’m certain is the highest concentration of roosters I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Luang also has a lot of great cafes to just chill out, including spots that allow you to take in the hypnotic sunrises and sunsets behind the mountains and over the rivers. The temples aren’t as massive and impressive as those in Cambodia or as glitzy as Thailand and the true appeal (at least to me) of this town is wandering around and watching and rewatching the beauty of the natural surroundings.

The majestic Mekong.
The majestic Mekong.

Hiking up to Kuang-Si Falls
Hiking up to Kuang-Si Falls
My most adventurous day was going on a hardcore day trek through a couple of villages and then up the mountain that would eventually lead us to one of the most famous sites in Laos, Kuang-Si waterfalls, the largest waterfalls in Laos. When I signed up for this tour, the description was fairly innocuous and sounded downright leisurely. The excitement of these type of tours in developing countries is that “truth” or accuracy in marketing is not exactly what’s to be expected. So when I was on hour 4 of the trip perilously inching down a rocky vertical descent to reach the falls, it’s really my bad for thinking this could possibly be an easy nature walk. But the sweat and death-defying climbs are rewarded with water so turquoise that it looks like the entire area has been photoshopped. And there are a ton of tourists here most of whom took a bus up the mountain to the falls (ummm… that’s an option?), but it doesn’t detract from the appeal of this place. And after hours of sweat and dirt, my new Norwegian friend and I decided to jump into the icy blue waters that we were told have some magical healing powers. I’m not sure about magical healing, but it definitely sent a shock and awe to submerge body in 35 degree water. I’m going to assume it’s the fountain of youth and that I’ve just added a few extra years to my life.

Kuang Si
Kuang Si

Sweaty satisfaction post hike and arriving at this gorgeous scene
Sweaty satisfaction post hike and arriving at this gorgeous scene

Fountain of Youth? I jumped in just in case.
Fountain of Youth? I jumped in just in case.
One of the other most memorable experiences in Laos was learning about the history of the U.S.’s “Secret War” in this country. From 1964 – 1973, the U.S. dropped 2 MILLION tons of ordinances in Laos. This was during the period when the conflict with the Soviet Union was escalating and the two super powers exerted enormous influence, money and military in these southeast Asian countries in a battle of “Good vs Evil”. Here are a couple of really fascinating, terrifying and in my opinion nearly silent facts about this war: Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the entire history of the world. Bombed by the U.S. in its attempt to block the Communist regime from the Ho Chi Minh trail. In fact, there are so many bombs that remain undetonated that Laotians continue to be killed and maimed, including many children because they haven’t found so many of the bombs. The other fact that I learned was that this was the first time that CIA began its practice of covertly militarizing foreign armies to influence political agendas (i.e. “Protect Democracy”). And despite the cost of so many lives and its failure to “win” the war, the CIA would continue to use this tactic of militarization of foreign groups which has lead to US connections and conflicts in Central America, South America and the Middle East.

A small war museum in Luang Prabang but worth a visit. These are some of the undetonated ordinances.
A small war museum in Luang Prabang but worth a visit. These are some of the undetonated ordinances.
Despite all of these recent ravages of war and bombs that continue to explode, Laotians are just the nicest people and I did not personally feel anything but welcomed as an American. In fact, I had more than a couple of locals talk to me about how much they love President Obama and how his visit to Laos meant so much to them. This is almost always followed by a look of disappointment, pity and anxiety about the new President.

Last sunset with a serenading Laotian Captain
Last sunset with a serenading Laotian Captain who was as equally enthused to hug it out. 
I left Laos by going on a last minute sunset boat with a hilarious man who literally pulled me off the street and insisted in his limited English that I join him and a few other foreigners for sunset. The six of us including my new friends Anna and Brian with the captain, who encouraged us to drink our BYOB while he began an impromptu “jam” session of drumming on a bucket and improvised songs, we all clapped our hands, laughed and watched another glorious sunset together.


Sunset in Hanoi
Sunset in Hanoi
After Laos, I headed to its larger neighbor Vietnam. My first and last stops were in Hanoi to visit Amie, a good friend from William & Mary whom I hadn’t seen in almost 20 years, a phrase we both kept using whenever we’d meet her friends. Amie lives in Hanoi with her husband Todd and their two adorable and energetic kids Oliver and Julia. They’ve lived in Vietnam for 7 years and were all home from work/school for “Tet” the Lunar New Year holiday, which is also the biggest holiday of the year and everything shuts down so people can be with their families. I stayed in their beautiful house in the city and I got to celebrate the Year of the Rooster with Amie’s family and their friends. After months of traveling alone and being so far from my family and friends, I didn’t realize how much I missed everyone until I got to spend time with Amie and her family. It was a gift to be in a home; to eat meals at a table with a family and talk about school, work (OK, just Todd and Amie talked about work), politics; to drink wine with a friend you haven’t seen in 20 years and pick up like we had drinks last week; to do laundry in a washing machine (major!); and Todd and Amie laughed as I gushed about how awesome their guest room was and that “the bed even has a TOP SHEET!” Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve seen one of those?!” They were so generous and welcoming to me and spending time with them was the highlight of Vietnam. It’s also awesome to have friends who can point you to where to go and what to see in Vietnam — soooo nice not to have to make a decision about those things every once in a while.

Todd, Amie and hilarious adorable Julia (missing from photo but sitting next to me is sporty handsome Oliver)
Todd, Amie and hilarious adorable Julia (missing from photo but sitting next to me is sporty handsome Oliver)

20 years and no time passed at all with my girl Amie #tribepride
20 years and no time passed at all with my girl Amie #tribepride
In addition to chill time with the family, I also had to go to the U.S. Consulate to get a new passport. Although my current passport doesn’t expire until 2019, I actually ran out of pages from all of this travel! When you’re going through Europe you don’t worry about visas (although that’s looking like that may change. Another exciting gift from this new Administration), but once you leave Europe, those pages go fast with each country. And before I headed to the consulate, the news of the travel ban was flooding my social media feeds and stories as well as rumors intensified about people trying to get in to the U.S., as well as those abroad renewing visas and passports. I was so fired up about how horrifying this ban is in principle as well as this anti-immigration policy that I was prepared to be extra belligerent if I had anyone at the embassy asking me questions about my political affiliation, being an immigrant, etc. And as I stepped to the consulate window after hours of psyching myself up to the point where my shoulders felt like they were parallel to my earlobes, sharpening my tongue for an epic verbal battle, the consulate officer could not have been nicer, nor more helpful to make it easy for me. I laughed at myself for a good while after this pleasant encounter and reminded that there are still really good people in the government.

They loved Vietnam too
They loved Vietnam too

This strong lady paddled us in this squatting position all along the Mekong Delta
This strong lady paddled us in this squatting position all along the Mekong Delta
I spent the new few weeks traveling all around Vietnam from Halong Bay all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City fka as Saigon, spending time in Danang, Hoi An, and Hue. Being in Vietnam, it made me think about how many friends I have back in the U.S. who are Vietnamese Americans and I couldn’t help but think of them as I traveled through their beautiful country. There is so much to love about Vietnam. The food is probably my favorite in all of the Asian countries I’ve been to so far. There are unforgettable natural settings, crazy busy cities with mopeds, cars and pedestrians competing for dominance, beautiful and tiny women (my guide said Vietnamese people are genetically the smallest among Asians. I haven’t fact checked this but my Vietnamese friends who have big personalities are generally petite), a fascinating history of foreign colonial powers vying for control over the country, wars both civil and foreign and eventual independence into a unified country.

Some of the other highlights of my time in Vietnam:

A street food tour in Danang with a great family from the UK who are originally from Nigeria and experiencing the intense but friendly attention of being with a black family. People literally reached out to the women to touch their hair, both the mom and daughter had their hair in long braids. It’s funny, I get a lot of attention traveling through Asia, much more than I thought I would, but it turns out that I don’t exactly blend in here either.

Famous Dragon Bridge in Danang. Fire and water shoot out of its mouth on the weekend.
Famous Dragon Bridge in Danang. Fire and water shoot out of its mouth on the weekend.
Hoi An seems to be everyone’s favorite city in Vietnam and it’s probably mine as well. It’s hard not to fall in love with this city of lanterns, canals, old boats and picture perfect cafes. It feels like the Venice of the east and like its western counterpart, it’s crowded and a bit chaotic, but so pretty that you don’t mind bumping into people. I also got to enjoy a little beach time in Hoi An until the weather turned cold and then I enjoyed warming myself with some seriously soothing clam congee (rice porridge).

Yes it's that beautiful
Yes it’s that beautiful

Floating lanterns in Hoi An
Floating lanterns in Hoi An

Hoi An at sunset
Hoi An at sunset
Hue is another popular place for tourists to visit, but candidly, it wasn’t my cup of green tea. It was probably also that it was freezing rain every day that I was there and it’s hard to really get into something when you’re cold and wet. There were also a heavy presence of a young, backpacking crowd aka white dudes with dreads, which is also not my scene. But I did think the Imperial City and Palace were super impressive and I loved learning about the history of these royal dynasties.

Imperial City in Hue
Imperial City in Hue

The gardens at Imperial Palace
The gardens at Imperial Palace
Saigon (I didn’t meet anyone who called it Ho Chi Minh) was a busy, chaotic city, but I really enjoyed it, especially my tour with my new young Vietnamese friend Tu. She’s a university senior studying English and tourism and she took me all over the city on her moped and taught me more about Vietnam than AP History class. I went to the War Museum, which for some reason had their air conditioning off that day and was super crowded, but it somehow felt more appropriate to revisit the history of this devastating war under more uncomfortable conditions. So many lives lost in this war and so many lives still affected by the horrors of injuries and illnesses from bombs and poisons, as well as the trauma. They have powerful photographs of the war featuring everyone from soldiers (US and Vietnamese) and civilians, including the famous Napalm Girl photo that became one of the iconic images of this tragic time. The photos of all of the children and babies born with major defects from the toxins of Agent Orange are burned in my memory forever and should not be forgotten. But Tu and I also had fun/light moments to enjoy, including an awesome meal of Vietnamese pancakes, stuffed snails and other delightful new dishes that I hadn’t tried before. It was great to spend time with a smart, somewhat shy, but incredibly insightful young person who reminded me of my sister Sylvia.

A fabulous guide and new pal Tu.
A fabulous guide and new pal Tu.

A Vietnamese donut in orange sesame glaze aka YUM
A Vietnamese donut in orange sesame glaze aka YUM

Mr. Ho Chi Minh
Mr. Ho Chi Minh

Offering at the temple
Offering at the temple
I left Vietnam feeling like I gained a good perspective on this diverse and special country and people and it was good for the soul to spend time with friends and reconnect. I wish a very lucky Year of the Rooster to all of us.

Happy Year of the Rooster
Happy Year of the Rooster

Christmas in Cambodia & A Thai New Year

Angkor Wat at sunrise
Angkor Wat 
Growing up as a Korean American who spent most of my childhood and teenage years moving from city to city and constantly changing schools, I became accustomed to that feeling of being different and not looking like most of the kids in my class/school/town. Even as an adult with the exception of family weddings and funerals, it’s rare to be in a room with people who look like me. I recall fantasizing about the idea of traveling back to Korea and having that experience of being the “norm” rather than the exception and there have been moments in LA or San Francisco when I’ve had glimpses into that reality. I was excited about spending time in Asia for many reasons and this childhood fantasy was just one of them. Despite what we all see and hear in movies, TV and outdated jokes, not all Asians look alike and are interchangeable and spending time in these southeast Asian countries gives me an appreciation of our cultural, historical and even physical differences as well as gaining an understanding of what we all have in common.

I started in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, a country I knew very little about aside from a brief lesson in high school history class and movies about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and the maniacal leader Pol Pot. I had a really sweet and friendly driver named Thon who waited in the morning to drive me around the city in his tuk-tuk and we communicated to our best ability with our limited language commonality.

Cruising through Phnom Phen with Thon
Cruising through Phnom Phen with Thon

Cambodia has so many adorable kids.
Cambodia has so many adorable kids.
The most memorable and certainly most haunting experience in Phnom was visiting Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, one of the most famous sites known as the “Killing Fields” where the Khmer Rouge massacred well over 1 million of its own people from 1975-1979. The site is now a memorial where over nine thousand bodies have been discovered on the grounds with unmarked graves and a massive Buddhist temple that houses many of the bones of the deceased. The museum does a remarkable job with an audio tour that takes you along the grounds through the history of the rise of Pol Pot and this authoritarian government and each stop feels more terrifying and tragic than the previous one as they explain how men, women, and children were taken prisoner, forced into labor and cruelly tortured and massacred. As I wandered silently through this serene and even beautiful place where some of man’s worst atrocities took place, I began to sob hysterically mourning the senseless loss and injustice particularly when I reached the tree known as the Killing Tree where the soldiers literally executed babies and children bashing their innocent heads into the tree. I know it’s mind blowing and horrific to describe at this level of detail, but it’s an image that I don’t think I will ever get out of my mind and none of us should as it is a reminder as all of the horrors of history are warnings about what can happen when people allow governments to rule without mercy and without any kind of checks and balances. I learned that Pol Pot like many dictators, rose to power using charisma and appealing to those who felt “left out”. He was a teacher who became a ruthless dictator and once in power, he and his regime started to roll out his plan to eliminate the “elite” which consisted of anyone in the country who was educated (doctors, lawyers, his fellow teachers), artists and creative people, the media and more and more people were targeted as undesirables.

The memorial at Cheong Ek the Killing Fields
The memorial at Cheong Ek the Killing Fields

Unmarked graves
Unmarked graves
I couldn’t believe that with this recent history of unimaginable horror, that the Cambodian people are some of the gentlest, warmest and most welcoming that I have met. They are not cynical, angry or resentful. And even when the government leaders were finally put on trial for their crimes against humanity, the people did not demand equal and cruel retribution but rather imprisonment. I find their ability to survive, forgive and be gracious incredibly humbling.

Kissing Buddha for good luck
Kissing Buddha for good luck
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One of the many beautiful temples in Siem Reap.
One of the many beautiful temples in Siem Reap.
The rest of my time in Cambodia I was in Siem Reap where the temples of Angkor Wat and the many other ancient, famous temples of Cambodia are located. I stayed in a great boutique hotel called Green Leafe run by a Canadian who started the hotel as a non-profit business that helps train and employ locals as well as supporting a community orphanage. Siem Reap is a great town, you can walk around the city and peek inside the many tourist and local shops, stroll along the river, or enjoy the many food options that include western tourist friendly options like Mexican (totes had a margarita and nachos), Italian and much more. 

The temples in Siem Reap are unreal — and seeing sunrise and sunset at Angkor Wat is one of those experiences that lives up to the super-hype. Climbing up, down and around these ancient temples in the unrelenting heat and sun makes you feel a bit like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft (and yes Angelina filmed Tomb Raider at one of these temples).

You don't want to be out of shape when you're climbing these temples
You don’t want to be out of shape when you’re climbing these temples

Christmas wish comes true -- surrounded by handsomeness!
Christmas wish comes true — surrounded by handsomeness!
I was also excited to meet up with my friends Rob and Andrew who were traveling through Asia for their honeymoon/anniversary and were kind enough to let me intrude on their romantic time for a night out. Rob and Andrew are great friends to meet up with on a trip because they’ve already scouted out the best food/drink options and you can just ride on their fabulous coat tails. Rob arranged a 5 stop food tour where we feasted on a course of Cambodian cuisine chased with a cocktail. Everything about the night was delicious, particularly the company. And they were meeting up with new friends they met out the night before, a ridiculously fun couple from Sydney, James and Jonathan who later invited me to join them for Christmas Eve dinner at their fancy hotel. For two unforgettable nights, I ate, drank and danced with gorgeous, smart, fun gay men and felt like I transported myself back to my old life in Chelsea (NYC). It was the best Christmas gift EVER.

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After an amazing time in Cambodia, I went to Bangkok a city I visited years before when my best friend Tiffany was doing her own solo travel adventure. It was a very different trip this time as I wasn’t with friends and the city was busier and more crowded than ever. It was also around this time that I caught a terrible cold/flu that knocked me down with a fever, chills and an inability to eat anything without fear of dire consequences. Oh and it was also my least favorite holiday, New Years Eve. So as I laid in bed shaking with fever, alone in Bangkok on New Years Eve, I also started to reflect on those people I lost in 2016 including my stepdad Richard, my grandmother, and two of my aunts. I was fully miserable physically and emotionally and felt truly alone for the first time in six months. It was in this weakened state that I thought for the first time since leaving the U.S. “am I done with this? Do I want to go home? Where is home?” So I took a random assortment of mysterious cold meds from the Bangkok pharmacy, slept for two days and when I awoke, felt a bit better and less sad. I also Facetimed with my family and friends, which did a lot to rejuvenate my spirits. And I gave myself permission to not be a tourist in Bangkok and I went to see 3 movies in the theater, including the new Star Wars (LOVED IT BUT DAMN IT WAS SAD). It felt so nice to just sit in a movie theater, eat popcorn and zone out for a few hours.

Bangkok has so many fancy shopping malls.
Bangkok has so many fancy shopping malls.
I also did a lot of wandering around the city, walking everywhere and getting some good people watching in. The sky train is a great way to get around the congestion of Bangkok and gives you a great, clean and air conditioned experience to boot. I have to be honest, BKK isn’t my favorite city and I know that many of my well traveled friends love it and I totally get it. I’m sure part of my impression is due to my own physical and emotional breakdown while there, but there’s also a seediness to the city, a darkness that I felt was palpable and kind of disturbing. You get the feeling many people around you have secret and probably sketchy sex lives and Thailand much like other southeast Asian countries has a major problem with sex trafficking women and children so that probably adds to my negative lens about some of the tourists and expats. But there are also great attributes to the city, the food, the energy and for many the shopping is some of the best anywhere.

Night market in Chiang Mai
Night market in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai temples
Chiang Mai temples
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I was excited to explore Chiang Mai after Bangkok as I have heard such great things about the city and I was ready to leave behind the hustle of the big city. I often get this feeling immediately when I get to a new place, even as soon as I land and that initial buzz often turns out to be pretty accurate. And my initial feeling was really positive and it turns out that I really loved Chiang Mai. The city is small, walkable and just much more relaxed. It’s set near the mountains so you have a beautiful view of the mountains from the city and there are temples on just about every block. The food is incredible and the shops adorable. I went to yoga several times while I was there and really felt like I was putting myself back into a more positive plane. I met up with my friend Vicky whom I met during Vipassana meditation prison and the two of us shared beers, good food, tales from our travels and even took a fun cooking class together. I’ll be ready to make you some killer green curry when I’m back in the US.

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Tiff also insisted that I sign up to go to the Elephant Nature Park, which is a sanctuary where rescued elephants live freely and are rehabilitated and well cared for by the workers and volunteers. The park is in this vast and gorgeous open area in the mountains and they keep about 60 elephants that they’ve rescued from circuses, trekking, logging, and street begging. They educate the visitors with one of those rip-your-heart-out videos and give you information about how harmful these tourism and other businesses are to these magnificent creatures. We are taught how the brutal trainings, tricks, and riding these animals can cause long term and terrible harm to them physically and emotionally. We got to feed, touch and even “bathe” (really throwing water from buckets) on some of them. It’s a truly special place and I have had a bit of a love affair with elephants since I saw them on safari. The more you know about these special animals, their intelligence, their emotional connections to each other, the way they grieve loss, etc., it’s unfathomable that anyone would want to harm or hunt (WTF) them. They are truly special living beings and we have so much to learn from them.

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I am so grateful that I got to spend time in Chiang Mai and put myself into a place where I could start to recover physically and emotionally. And in some ways it was normal and healthy for me to check in with myself about this trip even if I wasn’t at my optimum strength and clarity of mind. I know that getting to spend six months traveling is more than I could have ever imagined, but the truth is that I want to keep going. There are still so many places that I still want to see and I am fortunate enough to be able to move on to the next destination.

Sri Lanka: Soul, Surf and Snakes on a Tuk Tuk 

Perfect sunsets over the Indian Ocean

Going to Sri Lanka was a surprise to me since I hadn’t really planned or considered going there until I was forced to book a ticket at Dubai airport trying to get to India, but it was one of the best unplanned decisions I’ve made on this five month journey. And the next two weeks in Sri Lanka were full of surprises and the country is now among my list of favorites.

I spent a few days in Colombo, the capital city. You don’t find many positive travel reviews of Colombo as many sites warn you that it’s hectic, crowded and most people land there and head straight for the mountains of Kandy or the beaches in the south. I enjoyed my time in Colombo and after a month in India, I didn’t find it too crowded or hectic. Everything really is relative.

I was going to head south to a yoga and surf retreat about 30 minutes from Galle and needed a few things for the trip so it was nice to be in a city where I could run some errands. I searched for a new swimsuit as mine, along with most of my clothes at this point, was starting to look ragged. Turns out that looking for a bathing suit in a country that’s predominantly Buddhist and Muslim is challenging unless I want to wear a dress in the sea, which didn’t seem very practical for surf lessons. Once I abandoned my swimsuit search, I spent the rest of my time doing a bit of sightseeing and visited a famous Buddhist temple where I attempted to practice Vipassana meditation (made it 45 minutes of the hour but then I HAD to get up to check out a Buddhist drum performance), practiced yoga at a gorgeous studio near my B&B and checked out a very cool art exhibit which led to an unexpected and thought provoking conversation with one of the artists.

Offerings at Buddhist temple

 

I’m a little obsessed with monks

While at the Colombo Biennale Art Exhibition featuring international artists, I was asked by a young woman if I would attend a “performance”. I agreed and when asked to leave my purse with her, I took a leap of faith and left it with her and entered through black curtains into a dark room. I couldn’t see anything, but as soon as I entered, someone took a photo of me and the flash was blinding, there was this rhythmic, hypnotic foreign music playing and a woman’s voice called out to me as she took me by the hand and began to dance with me. While we swayed to this music, her hands landed on my hips and then she gently twirled me around, and began asking in a calm and seductive voice, a series of questions such as:

“Are you a terrorist?”

“Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend?”

“How much money do you have in your bank account?”

“Have you ever stolen anything?”

“Are you telling the truth?”

The questions and frankly, the entire experience was unsettling. I was surprised at myself as I answered the questions but I was so uncomfortable and increasingly agitated, but at the same time the music, dancing and this mysterious stranger’s voice had the opposite effect. After the “performance” was over, I had a chance to speak with the artist Venuri Perera and she was much younger and her face was sweeter than I expected. Her piece titled “Entry/No Entry” was about the immigration/passport control experience and as someone who has spent the past five months going through this process, her piece really reflected the awkward and uncomfortable dance quite perfectly. She shared her perspective as a person who holds a Sri Lankan passport, which I learned was one of the “bottom 10” passports in the world, prohibiting her from being able to enter many countries when she has been invited to study or exhibit her work. It was a humbling reminder of the privilege of being an American and having most international doors opened to me. It also added to my growing concern that we maintain positive international relations so that this continues, but understanding that the doors must open both ways. I worry about America abandoning our founding principle of being a country of immigrants and welcoming those who are escaping tyranny or just looking for a better life.

The talented artist Venuri Perera

After booking my Sri Lanka flight, I knew that I would be spending my birthday in the country and asked myself what I would want to be doing on my 43rd birthday on my own. I’ve been practicing yoga for over 20 years, sometimes religiously and sometimes not at all, but I always feel so much better when I am doing it with some regularity. So I looked up yoga retreats and found one called Soul & Surf, which combines yoga with surf lessons. I recalled a hilarious and memorable trip to Costa Rica to go to surf camp with two of my closest friends Andy and CaroLu back in 2008 and thought “perfect”. I loved surfing and always wanted to keep doing it, I’m sure I’ll still love it! So I headed to the southern coast to a beach town called Ahangama for what I was certain would be 7 days of a perfect balance of relaxation and physical challenge.
Ummm… turns out Soul & Surf was less Soul and definitely more Surf and I was once again going to experience early morning wake ups and physical exhaustion that, while different from meditation prison there were also some uncanny similarities. And it turns out that muscle memory doesn’t last for 8 years without practice and I am a disastrous surfer. The first day or two, most of the first timers (the majority of the group) were struggling, but as more and more people started to progress and I felt like I was regressing, I started to beat myself up harder than the waves. I kept thinking to myself “how did I get up the first time in Costa Rica? Maybe I’m too old to do this?” It was a mind-fuck and for the first time since I started this adventure, I felt defeated and inadequate. Thankfully, there were some really fun, hilarious and amazing people in this group and they kept me laughing and from taking all of this “fun” too seriously. I also realized that this was the first time in my trip that I came into a situation with specific goals and expectations, which is probably why I was feeling like a failure. Being a goal oriented person my entire life and then changing the script the past five months, it’s easy to go back to your old habits and I think that’s ultimately what kept me made from standing on the board. I managed to get both feet on the board several times, but those moments were so brief that I never caught that surfer’s high that I remembered from Costa Rica.

My two fav instructors Gus (middle) and Jelly (yeah female surfer!)

Once I reminded myself that I was actually here to have fun and that I am not here to become a pro surfer, I had a great time. Well, except for the time that my friend Jen and I were pummeled by wave after wave until a baby tsunami hit us and took us down during a surf relay challenge (yeah, Soul & Surf = intense). And then a couple of days later, my board flew into the air and landed on my head giving me a bump and pretty sure a minor concussion and that’s when I retired my board and just hung out with some of my favorite girls for beers on the beach aka my professional sport. It turns out I wasn’t the only one struggling with surfing and also wanting to take the intensity down a level. My new friends Michaela and Rachel and I all enjoyed relaxing with cold beers, talking about life, love and travel. I began referring to us as the Bad Girls of Surf Camp and by the end of the week, pretty much the entire group was ready to drink with us and mend their bruises, rashes, sore muscles and clogged ears. And despite my lack of prowess on the board, I loved the daily yoga and time spent with this group of gorgeous and interesting international friends. Shout out to my Villa 2 girls: Kinda, Alice, Maddy and Jen!

This really says it all about my surfing. Me and Jen post tsunami.
Last night at surf camp!

 

One of the craziest and most hilarious surprises of the trip was when Jen, my British surf camp wife and I were in our tuk tuk heading to Galle for our field trip, our one “free” day. Just a few minutes after we got in the tuk tuk, our driver, a sweet-faced and constantly smiling man named Annura pulled over to the side of the road, got out, came back to us and calmly beckoned for us to get out. Jen and I looked at each other with confusion and hesitated uncertain as to why we would need to get out in the middle of the street when Annura politely motioned us out. We complied and then noticed that he had a small broom in his hand and proceeded to move the broom close to the steering wheel where there was a SNAKE!! After he got the snake out on the road he told us to go ahead and get back in. Jen and I sat back in with trepidation and after she peered over her side of the tuk tuk, she yelped, “OH MY GOD! It’s coming back in! It’s under the wheel!” And we both leapt out. The next few minutes were spent watching Annura and other locals try and find the snake inside the engine, all of us laughing nervously and then they managed to get it out by squirting a bit of petrol on the engine, which drove it FLYING away from the vehicle. Don’t worry animal lovers, no snakes were harmed in the making of this comedy.

While the guys search for a snake, Jen and I take a minute for a photo.
Where’s Samuel L. Jackson when you need him?!
Gorgeous Galle Fort

Another wonderful surprise in Sri Lanka was that my niece Jinna was there at the same time, surfing the island with her boyfriend Tom. Jinna’s in her twenties and after suffering the tragic loss of her dad a few years ago decided to quit corporate America and take her talent in photography and social media to see the world. You should check out her beautiful videos and posts at projectinspo.com, but be warned these gorgeous images and people may cause you to want to quit your job and pick up a surf board. Unlike me, Jinna has completely taken to surfing and surf life and by looking at her radiant face, toned physique and fierce tan, I see that surf life has taken to her. When I think back to some of our times together in NYC where both Jinna and I lived before our nomadic chapters, I recall seeing the sadness of loss and grief on her face, it’s so gratifying to see the light shining so brightly within her now.

Jinna in full surf and happiness mode.

I spent my last few days in Sri Lanka staying in Galle Fort, a small and gorgeous little town not far from Soul & Surf High School. I spent one really fun night hanging out with the founding members of the Bad Girls of Surf Club, Rachel and Michaela (and Dani, Michaela’s friend). The last day/night I spent alone having a chance to reflect on all that has happened from India to Sri Lanka and to watch one of the most memorable sunsets I’ve ever seen. As I took in my last sunset, I had my final Sri Lankan surprise, which was a conversation with a local guy for about 10 minutes which resulted in about 25 text messages, phone calls and declarations of LOVE. We literally talked for 10 minutes about Sri Lanka, my surf camp experience and the U.S. and then he proceeded to try to convince me to have tea, take a drive, etc. and wanted to walk me back to my hotel, all of which I politely declined. He wasn’t a creep and didn’t say or do anything inappropriate except for calling/texting and declaring his love, but it was a good lesson for me that it’s not culturally insensitive to say no to giving out my phone number.

One last beer for the Bad Girls of Surf Camp

I cannot say enough positive things about Sri Lanka. The people are warm and kind, the island is beautiful, the food is spicy and delicious and there are surprises from start to finish. I look forward to seeing what lies ahead on the rest of my adventures in the east.  

Sunsets are good for the Soul

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

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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.

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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.

Sisters
Sisters

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!

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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
Sienna
Sienna

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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.

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Family Reunion in Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia

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After an amazing time Spain with my best friends, I had a few days before a major trip with my family that would last for four weeks and would take us from Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia and Italy! I knew I needed to rest, recuperate from a lingering travel bug and gear up for what I knew would be a fun, but potentially stressful month ahead.

Albufeira, Portugal, my hideaway before family time.
Albufeira, Portugal, my hideaway before family time.

So I took a flight to Portugal and went to Albufeira in the Algarve, a little town on the gorgeous coast with soft sand beaches and tangerine colored cliffs. My Airbnb host Raquel picked me up from the tiny airport which I was incredibly grateful as I didn’t realize that I booked her place that was almost 45 minutes from the airport and the public transportation options are pretty much non-existent in this part of Algarve. It turns out Raquel quit her stressful job as a journalist working in Lisbon a few years ago to slow down and reassess life, move to her small hometown, which led her to meeting her German partner and having her first child. We had a great conversation about city life, demanding careers, travel, the European economy and ventured into more philosophical territories about the meaning of life and how quickly it passes, which is why we both knew it was time to make a change. She told about how tragic it is that the economy in Portugal has suffered and the struggle of trying to make a culture and people conform to “German standards” of the EU. It was a really interesting perspective that I hadn’t heard on such a personal, but quite informed point of view. Raquel’s place was 5 minutes from the beach, amazing and cheap food and little to no tourists — it was paradise and I soaked it up for five days.

I decided in my last day to stop by a beauty salon to ask about getting my color done. I’ve spent the past 3 months without wearing makeup (I don’t count lipstick/lipgloss as makeup as these are in the “essentials” category for me like water) and it’s been GLORIOUS. As a woman, you can appreciate how much time even the lowest maintenance versions of getting ready with as little makeup as possible still adds up. I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup when I was younger even in high school, mom didn’t want me to wear it because she said it would ruin my skin, so I didn’t really wear it in college and so entering the “real working world” I was a little gung-ho at first and probably looked like a drag queen. So not having to do it and just walking around the world without any makeup on is so DAMN LIBERATING. And here’s the thing, I feel more beautiful now with nothing more than sunscreen than I do when I’m all dolled up with full make up on. I’m sure the not-working is making a major difference too. OK, back to the salon story. So the lady was very sweet and she didn’t speak any English and I spoke no Portuguese so when she asked me about my hair and lifted the greys and asked me a question in Portuguese about it, I said “yes” thinking she was asking about covering the grey, but it turns out she turned my reddish highlights in the front of my hair to full blonde. So now, I am a blonde Korean.

Blonde Korean
Blonde Korean

Flying to Sarajevo is a little challenging from Portugal, so the only flight I could find for less than 1000 euro was to spend a night in Brussels and leave the next morning so that’s what I did. I arrived in Sarajevo to find my mom, sister Sylvia and her boyfriend Ervin and his aunt waiting at the airport for me (they flew in the evening before). Although it had only been a couple of months since I’ve seen them, it was nonetheless super exciting to see the people I love most in the tiny arrivals area of Sarajevo airport. And as expected, my mom was thrilled to see me and the first words out of her mouth expressed dismay and horror, “ohmygod! You soooooo DAAAAHHHKK!!!  Your face ruining all those feckles (freckles)!” Korean culture like many Asians, believe “clean”,  fair milky skin is the definition of beauty. But this Korean American loves her some sun and the more Vitamin D I can absorb into my body, the better. I was excited to see my family for our first trip to Europe as a family and we would spend the next two weeks in Bosnia and Croatia visiting Ervin’s family.

View of Sarajevo from the air
View of Sarajevo from the air
My "terrible" tan and the cause of much concern from mom. That's Sylvia's very white leg.
My “terrible” tan and the cause of much concern from mom. That’s Sylvia’s very white leg.

My family didn’t have many opportunities to go on  vacations. Mom was always working and money was often tight. And now that mom is retired and I am taking this time off, we decided that it would be a  chance for all of us to meet some of Ervin’s family in Europe and enjoy some time here together. Ervin and Sylvia have been together for a long time. At this point, I honestly don’t even remember a time when he wasn’t part of our family. He lives in Alexandria with mom and Sylvia and he and his family left Bosnia toward the end of the war and immigrated to a suburb of Chicago.

We stayed with his sweet and kind mom Dijana in her home in Sarajevo and Ervin’s family adopted us for the next two weeks, feeding us, driving us around, and just making us feel as welcome and like we were part of their family. There is no better travel experience than being with locals, and there is certainly no better way to see Bosnia than being with Ervin’s family. There was a constant stream of aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents, neighbors and friends and they were all the warmest, hilarious, generous and most thoughtful people. They brought us into their homes, fed us enormous quantities of food, poured potent shots of rakia (homemade liquor that can be at least 40 proof) into our glasses, gave us gifts and shared stories and much more.

Sylvia, Mom and Dijana loved feeding the pigeons in old town Sarajevo. No thanks.
Sylvia, Mom and Dijana loved feeding the pigeons in old town Sarajevo. No thanks.
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Lovely cousin Alma
Family photo at Uncle Rosco's mountain home.
Family photo at Uncle Rosco’s mountain home.
Peas we picked from Uncle Rosco's garden that later Aunt Jela turned into the world's most delicious soup.
Peas we picked from Uncle Rosco’s garden that later Aunt Jela turned into the world’s most delicious soup.
Enjoying our time at Uncle Rosco's mountain home.
Enjoying our time at Uncle Rosco’s mountain home.
One of our many "light' meals in Bosnia.
One of our many “light’ meals in Bosnia.
Dijana's godfather, part of the cutest couple on Earth
Dijana’s godfather, part of the cutest couple on Earth
Dijana's godmother. She's 84 and I love her.
Dijana’s godmother. She’s 84 and I love her.

One of the most incredible aspects of our trips was hearing from Ervin’s family about their stories from the war in the ’90s. I’m embarrassed to say my memory of these horrifying events was vague at best as I was in college at the time, so hearing accounts of survival, escape, injuries, death, heroes and heroines and even happy tales was so inspiring and humbling.

The Bosnian War took place between 1992 – 1995 and was part of the break up of the former Yugoslavia and the conflict between Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. It was a brutal and devastating war that led to approximately 100,000 deaths and over 2 million people were displaced, horrifying rapes and murders with some later convictions of war crimes. We heard stories over the years from Ervin, but hearing them from his mom, aunts, uncles and cousins painted an even more harrowing and inspiring picture. There were tales about hiding during the bombings, knowing that their homes were not able to withstand these type of weapons, children playing outside near barricades and bombs, food, supplies and people making their way through tunnels, surviving with little food and constant fear and so many examples of heroism. It’s hard to believe that while I was dancing at frat parties to Naughty By Nature, people not too far from me were figuring out how to survive.

Two of our favorites: Uncle Josip and Uncle Rosco. They are both heroes from the war and really after.
Two of our favorites: Uncle Josip and Uncle Rosco. They are both heroes from the war and still today.
The tunnel where many escaped and supplies were brought in during the war.
The tunnel where many escaped and supplies were brought in during the war.
The largest cemetery in Bosnia where many who died during the war are buried.
The largest cemetery in Bosnia where many who died during the war are buried.

And the most remarkable part of these stories was how they banded together, across cultures, religions, families and borders to take care of each other.  At the time and now, it didn’t matter who was Muslim, Bosnian, Croatian or Catholic, they were family, friends and neighbors and they were going to survive together. It’s a lesson that I think that’s more valuable now than ever. And these people do not wallow in loss and sorrow, the family lives fully, work and play hard, and are justifiably proud of their countries and histories.

Seeing Bosnia and Herzegovina was  eye opening and my family and I really enjoyed our time there. We spent a few days in Sarajevo visiting family, touring the old city where the mosque and Catholic church are less than a mile apart, ate delicious treats and mom and Sylvia relished in buying the bronze Turkish tea sets and other souvenirs. Much like the people, you could still see evidence of the war all over the city, but repairs and resilience were also evident.

Mom soaking in the crisp perfect air in Herzegovina
Mom soaking in the crisp perfect air in Herzegovina
Quick stop to buy fresh mountain trout. Note that this fish looks like a minnow in Uncle Rosco's giant hands.
Quick stop to buy fresh mountain trout. Note that this fish looks like a minnow in Uncle Rosco’s giant hands.
Insane cliff divers in Mostar
Insane cliff divers in Mostar
This is the full view of the bridge and freezing waters in Mostar.
This is the full view of the bridge and freezing waters in Mostar.

Ervin’s family took us from Sarajevo through the gorgeous drive through Herzegovina where lush mountains looked down into crystal blue lakes and rivers. We were heading to Croatia to Ervin’s family’s beach home and went via Mostar, an ancient city close to the border. Our stop there included an extravagant meal (yes, my pants were tighter after this trip) and seeing the cliff divers who jump off the old bridge, but not before asking the audience for money to watch the spectacle.

Repiç our beautiful home for the next week.
Repiç our beautiful home for the next week.
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Walking along the one road leading to Klek, the other “bigger” yet really tiny town to get essentials like ice cream.
Our "TV" in Repiç and where I would watch the sunset every evening.
Our “TV” in Repiç and where I would watch the sunset every evening.

I’ve heard so many things about how beautiful Croatia is and all of the hype is true. It’s gorgeous. The mountains aren’t lush like they are in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the climate is more arid, but the Adriatic Sea is spectacular to behold. The beaches are rocky, which is pretty typical of many European beaches, but the water is bluer than the sky, and little towns are set along the cliffs with white and nectarine colored roofs.

We stayed in a tiny town called Repiç, just about an hour from Dubrovnik, but quite different in that it’s mostly undeveloped and locals who have resided there for multiple generations (although that is changing with more foreigners buying property there). The house was built by Ervin’s grandfather who made everything from the structure, to the welding work of the iron terraces, plumbing, and electrical. His grandfather and really the entire generation of men from that time, including his uncles can build anything. It makes me embarrassed that I can barely assemble a 3 piece shoe rack from Ikea without having a complete mental breakdown.

When we were in Sarajevo, Sylvia accidentally stepped on my iPhone, which at the time felt like a punch in the gut because my phone was my map, my calendar, my email, text and really my lifeline to everything and everyone. Being in small towns without having a phone and without internet access was frustrating at first, but eventually allowed me to really relax and unleash. And it was really easy to do this in a little town like Repiç, where our routine consisted of breakfast outside on the patio, followed by a quick walk down the steps to the sea (which was pretty chilly, but worth diving in because the water was so clear), laying in the sun and staring out into perfection, lunch, then a brief walk over to the tiny town of Klek where we would get ice cream, then dinner and bed. It was quiet, simple and perfect.

Ervin's longtime neighbors in Croatia, the super hilarious and active 86 years young. His home was spectacular.
Ervin’s longtime neighbors in Croatia, the super hilarious and active 86 years young. His home was spectacular.
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View from his neighbor’s deck.
This would be the crystal clear Adriatic Sea.
This would be the crystal clear Adriatic Sea.
Ervin returning to his childhood swimming pool in the sea
Ervin returning to his childhood swimming pool in the sea

We ended our time together with one night in Dubrovnik, which after almost a week in Repiç felt like NYC in comparison. There was a serious issue with my Airbnb host pulling an awful bait and switch (first and hopefully only BAD Airbnb experience) and so we were left scrambling for a new place to stay at the last minute. Dubrovnik has been a hotspot for tourists for some time, but it seems Game of Thrones has really upped the fervor as there were so many tours and shops with GOT themes.

The city is really as beautiful as the photos and as much as I wish I had more time to explore there, I was really happy I spent my time with my family in the quiet and off the grid in Repiç. We were all sad to part and say goodbye to Ervin’s family. In just two weeks and despite language and cultural challenges, we had all become one family and shared so many laughs. We hope that we have an opportunity to show even a tiny bit of the hospitality and generosity that they showed us when they visit us in the U.S.  We also said goodbye to Ervin who had to return home and get back to work while mom, Sylvia and I set off for part 2 of our European adventure.

Young love in Croatia
Young love in Croatia
Dubrovnik at night
Dubrovnik at night
Sisters hugging it out in Dubrovnik
Power couple Aunt Jela and Uncle Josip giving a lesson to the young couple
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Sisters hugging it out in Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik at night
Dubrovnik at night
Last family photo
Last family photo

Oh Dios Mío España!!

Barcelona - The Fairy tale begins
Barcelona – The Fairy tale begins

SPAIN!! Where do I even begin?

Do you ever have something/someone/someplace so hyped in your own imagination that you worry that the reality could never possibly meet your expectations? Well, Spain was one of those places for me. I felt an immediate connection to Barcelona when I went for the first time over 10 years ago and each time I’ve been lucky enough to return; that feeling being that somehow I belong here. And Spain not only met those incredibly high expectations, but managed to exceed them by leaps and bounds. When XM and Sirius merged in 2008, my fantasy plan was that I was going to take my severance package and live in Barcelona for a little while, maybe get an Executive MBA (God forbid I do something without some responsible angle), learn Spanish and have the living abroad experience I never had in college. I don’t count Peace Corps Ukraine as quite the same kind of experience. So when I made the the decision to quit my job and travel, I knew I wanted to spend some real time in Spain.

I started in Barcelona, a city that I desperately want to claim as my own. There’s just something about this city and really Spain that is…. Sooooo Sexy. It’s everything from the pace of the city and the leisurely way people move through it; the men and women who are not just incredibly physically attractive with their tanned skin and thick hair, but they have a style that’s effortlessly sexy and bohemian, yet chic; the famous Gaudi architecture that evokes inspiration from nature and their seductive silhouettes; the food is sexy too, tapas that are colorful and full of flavor, each dish takes its own time to reach you, but it’s always worth the wait; the sangria with fruit soaking in the wine, bright and dangerously easy to drink; perhaps the flamenco the traditional Spanish dance that involves intensely passionate, emotional and rhythmic dancers who set fire to the dance floor with the thumping of their heels and expressions full of anger and lust. I mean, there’s very little about Spain that isn’t sexy (e.g., you know you’re sexy when you can make a lisp sound hot). And this sexy confidence is infectious, it makes you walk a little more slowly with a deeper sway in your hips.

It’s Spain, let’s eat and drink!
I was so excited to share Barcelona with my dear friend Susan, one of my closest friends from Peace Corps Ukraine. She had never been to Barcelona and we had similar travel sensibilities: leisure and food before sightseeing. But when you’re in Barcelona, you can do both at the same time. We could enjoy some refreshing cava (Spanish sparkling wine) after the magnificent night tour at La Pedrera, the Guadi House. Something my friend Chris recommended and I would pass along to anyone going to Barcelona. We could enjoy people watching from an outdoor cafe in Villa Gracia while savoring tapas and sipping sangria. We spent a few days eating, sipping and staring our way through Barcelona. I also made a new friend, Arcadi a local architect and DJ who happens to also give tours at La Pedrera. Arcadi gave me some great food tips, as well as some interesting insights on the difference between Catalans and Spanish people (he claims Catalans are slower to warm up but likely to be more sincere. Disclaimer: he’s Catalan). After a week in Barcelona, I left wanting more and still feeling like I want to live here.

Susan and I trek up to Park Guell as part of our Gaudi extravangza
Susan and I trek up to Park Guell as part of our Gaudi extravangza
Night tour of La Pedrera is a MUST!
Night tour of La Pedrera is a MUST!
Market at La Rambla
Market at La Rambla
But I had so much more Spain ahead and I also had my two best friends, Tiffany and Colleen coming from the US to join me, so I couldn’t mourn Barcelona when I knew hilarity and mayhem were around the corner. Tiff and Col are my best friends from William & Mary, my sisters, champions and we’ve spent the better part of over two decades growing up, laughing, crying, celebrating, mourning, dancing, singing and being there for each other through it all. We were spending 8 days in Andalusia together, road tripping through Córdoba, Granada, Sevilla, Toledo and finally Madrid.

Col and Tiff walk through the gates of Córdoba!
Col and Tiff walk through the gates of Córdoba!
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La Mezquita the Cathedral of Córdoba
So many hidden gems in this little town.
So many hidden gems in this little town.
We started in Córdoba where I arrived 24 hours before them and I was slightly delirious with either strep or some crazy flu from my non-stop travel and no-sleep regiment. The angel that was the local pharmacist saw me enter her store feverish and desperate and gave me some antibiotics and despite the fact that I booked it, I didn’t realize our hotel had air conditioning so I suffered through a crazy Andalusian heatwave of 105 degree weather with just an open window allowing hot air to blow on my feverish body.

Córdoba is a gorgeous little town with the most incredible Mosque Cathedral called La Mezquita. Yes, it was both a mosque and a cathedral and it’s not only architecturally one of the most stunning places I’ve ever seen, but also culturally and spiritually inspiring is the idea that these two religions that have historically been on opposite sides could coexist so beautifully in one place.

A highlight of Córdoba is what we affectionately call the “Death March” was also a low point when the three of us walked for a couple of hours through 106 degree heat in the open sun because Google Maps makes us all dumber and go against every instinct when we know we’re heading in the wrong direction, but continue to follow the blue line all the way to the middle of nowhere. Have you ever laughed so hard that you thought you were losing your mind and definitely in need of an adult diaper? Well, I have. Chalk it up to heat exhaustion, sun stroke, or just three best friends who can laugh at even the darkest/brightest moment, but when we found ourselves not in the Jewish Quarter, but rather what Col referred to as “the projects” of Córdoba, that was our response. The three amigos stumbled, sweaty, exhausted and frail into a random cafe where we are certain that the locals and the man who was working there, were very disturbed at the sight of two very pale Americans and a suntanned Korean chugging our beers (I was only allowed a Sprite. Good call, sir.).

Three gals happy to be in Spain pre Death March
Three gals happy to be in Spain pre Death March
And the "After" photo
And the “After” photo
On the road again
On the road again
"Magic at the foot of Alhambra"
“Magic at the foot of Alhambra”
Our next adventure took us to the magical city of Granada, home of the famous Alhambra where we would take our silliness to the next level.  Staring up at Alhambra, Col noted that this experience was like a fairy tale and I chuckled and responded that that’s exactly how I think about Spain as well. We stayed in an incredible apartment at the foot of the Alhambra, which is set high on a cliff, and is decorated with traditional Arabic furniture and decor. It was the perfect place for us to chill out and make ourselves at home. In fact, when I rented the place on Airbnb, the place was actually called “Magic At the Foot of Alhambra” and it certainly was. We had a magnificent dinner at a restaurant called Ruta del Azafran, featuring Moroccan and Mediterranean cuisines and also where the three of us lost our shit for the 2nd time on this trip. The restaurant is just below the Alhambra with the most amazing view and when the three of us asked for our photo from our attentive and wonderful waiter, this ensued and we found it be the most hilarious thing we’ve ever seen.

Note the waiter took several photos and angels to capture this special photo that led to us/me losing it.
Note the waiter took several photos and angels to capture this special photo that led to us/me losing it.
Tiff managed to keep her composure, channeling her sense of  Southern propriety, but Col and I could not hold back and once again, I laughed so hard that I’m pretty sure it was most intense ab workout I’ve probably ever had. We enjoyed walking around the small, windy streets, checking out the shops and wandered into a hookah bar where Tiff and Col did experienced hookah for the first time. It’s fun to smoke hookah, it feels easy on the lungs and there’s something exotic about smoking from these large, beautiful pipes in rooms draped in sheer curtains and sitting on pillow-lined benches. We also met a group of really fun guys from Ireland who were kind of a mirror image of our group, laughing, bashing each other in a loving way and having the time of their lives. They told us about a flamenco show the next night and since that was on our list, we decided to check it out.

Many of the shops and bars had these gorgeous lamps.
Many of the shops and bars had these gorgeous lamps.
"Whooooo are youuuuu?" - Alice in Wonderland
“Whooooo are youuuuu?” – Alice in Wonderland
Apple flavored hookah is a great dessert
Apple flavored hookah is a great dessert
The flamenco was awesome and in a tiny room with probably no more than 30 people. There’s a guitarist, the cantaor (singer) and the dancer. None of us could understand enough Spanish to know what the cantaor was singing, but we do know that he was heartbroken, angst-ridden and powerful when he did. And the dancer was captivating and yes, SEXY. She had full command of the room, stomping, arms flashing up and twisting around, eyes intense and full of rage and lust. Tiff and I had a particular love of the dancer’s take-no-prisoners attitude as she and I had a dance ritual at DC clubs that we referred to as  “Bitchy” where we would also stomp around the dance floor with serious attitude. Our new Irish friends were at the show as well and we all went out afterwards for more drinks, more shit talking and definitely more hilarity. Drinks did not set us up well for our tour of Alhambra, which should be noted is a large and expansive palace and fortress that sits atop a cliff, exposed to 106 degree heat aka the worst place on Earth when you’re hungover. Let’s just say in a death match between the Girls vs Alhambra, it was Alhambra 3, Girls 0.

Team Ireland
Team Ireland
Beautiful Sevilla
Beautiful Sevilla
Our drive to Sevilla was also a little less enthusiastic post Granada. We made it to the beautiful city and once again, due to internet map confusion, we ended up in some of the tiniest alleys and after driving the car hundreds of miles without issue, I scraped the side of our rental in an alley.  Now, this isn’t my first time scraping a rental car in Spain. I did that the first time around with my friend Kristin and CaroLu and despite severely jacking up the side of that car, we managed to escape paying damages, which may or may not have been due to a friendly male rental car employee who was very excited to not speak English with me as I bounced around in my tank top.  So when it happened this time, I was upset, but honestly too tired to give too much of a shit about it. That’s another effect of spending time in Spain. You want to siesta, you want to eat and drink late, and you want to chill the F out.

Incredible flamenco
Incredible flamenco
I officially love lamb
I officially love lamb
Baths in Real Alcazar
Baths in Real Alcazar
Real Alcazar = redemption
Real Alcazar = redemption
Gorgeous covered streets
Gorgeous covered streets
None of us wanted our magical fairy tale to end, so we decided at the last minute to stop by Toledo on the way to Madrid. Toledo is a small city that’s set on top of a cliff with beautiful ancient buildings and apparently also where The Hobbit was filmed. The views from the city are pretty spectacular, as are the buildings and if you ever need a sword or knife of any kind, this is the place to buy them. We also got to see another beautiful wedding while we walked around Toledo and one of the wonderful things we noted about Spanish weddings, is that these gorgeous people TURN IT UP for the occasion. It’s formal wear with women in long, flowing, brightly colored dresses. Everyone looked they like belonged on a set of a fabulous movie (not part of The Lord of the Rings series). And yes, everyone looked sexy.

Toledo where you can find beautiful buildings and swords
Toledo where you can find beautiful buildings and swords

Incredible view from Toledo
Incredible view from Toledo
We made our way to Madrid and cleverly timed our car return with nightfall. And once again, Spain does not disappoint. We returned it without incident and gleefully (and swiftly) left the car rental parking lot and made it to our hotel. We spent our last night together as we have so many nights in the many years of our sisterhood, eating Asian food. We had a delicious Vietnamese dinner and as each of us have Asian cuisine at the top of our food chain, we were grateful. We did not want the trip to end and break the spell of this incredible time together.

The true heroines of this magical fairytale.
The true heroines of this magical fairytale.
I think my time in Spain, particularly the precious time I had with my best friends, really encapsulates this entire experience for me and how profoundly grateful I am to be doing this. Col and Tiff mentioned to me though out the trip that I seem “lighter” and just happier and if anyone knows me, it’s the two of them. They are my Yin and Yang, True North and South. And when I’m lost, I know that I can turn to either/both of them to find me. And they’re absolutely right. I am so full of gratitude and the kind of happiness I didn’t know existed. And to know that so fully, to laugh so hysterically, to cry tears of joy and sadness at their departure, I am lighter and happier than I’ve ever been. And for that I am eternally grateful.

Alles ist Gut in Deutschland

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View from my Airbnb
After Dublin I was going to spend some time in Germany to visit family and then meet up with my friend Chris from NYC. I had a little less than 3 days before I was going to my aunt and uncle’s place in Munster, so I decided to do a quick stop in Amsterdam, a city that’s always been on my travel wish list.

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If I lived in Amsterdam, I’d want to live in Bibiche’s gorge place minus the treacherous steps.
I stayed in the most fabulous Airbnb in a non-touristy neighborhood near Oosterpark owned by a gorgeous woman named Bibiche who works in the fashion business. The apartment looks staged straight from a fashion/lifestyle cover shoot and you need to be a model or at least as tiny as one to climb up the extremely narrow and steep stairs to get to it. Since I had very little time in Amsterdam, I decided I would spend most of the time chilling out and walking around the beautiful city and do minimal tourist stuff. I attempted to get a ticket to see Anne Frank’s House, but it was sold out. I did get to the Van Gogh Museum, which is definitely worth a visit.

People get REALLY excited to jump on the AMSTERDAM sign. Not really sure what the deal is with that.
People get REALLY excited to jump on the AMSTERDAM sign. Not really sure what the deal is with that.

Young Van Gogh. I thought he was kind of sexy in his youth, no?
Young Van Gogh. I thought he was kind of sexy in his youth, no?

One of my favorite Van Gogh pieces. Something about the yellow just makes you feel happy.
One of my favorite Van Gogh pieces. Something about the yellow just makes you feel happy.
One thing about Amsterdam that’s so interesting and unexpected to me is the dichotomy of it’s “relaxed” vibe with coffee shops that offer ways to enjoy the city that have nothing to do with actual coffee, but at the same time there’s an intensity with a massive number of people bicycling aggressively through the city and the constant ringing of their bike’s bells competing with cars and pedestrians. Since I was only there for a couple of full days, it’s hard to get an accurate read of the city, but I can see why it’s such a popular place to visit because it’s really beautiful and the sense of freedom is intoxicating.

I spent the next week in Munster visiting my aunt, uncle and cousin. My aunt Gemma is my mom’s only younger sister in a family of 8 siblings who moved to Germany at 21 when her Korean church offered her a chance to be sponsored to go to nursing school in Germany. There she met my uncle Adolf and they married and had their son Andreas. My aunt’s a great cook and prepared an elaborate Korean feast for my arrival, something I was exceptionally excited about and she took no less than 2 dozen photos of me stuffing my face.

Korean feast! Thanks emo!
Korean feast! Thanks emo!

One of many many photos of Sandy eating.
One of many many photos of Sandy eating.
After a couple of days with my aunt and uncle, I went to stay with Andreas, his wife Monika and their little boy Julius, whom I lovingly refer to “Julius the Emperor” or “Julius the Conquerer”. Andreas is a few years younger than me and I recall the many times he’d visit the US from the time he was just a little kid not much older than Julius to his late teenage years when he’d visit with his German friends. My mom and I came to Munster about five years ago when Andreas married Monika and now they’re expecting their second child. It was really special to spend time with them and to see how much my baby cousin has grown up, found a wonderful life partner and has a family of his own. It was great to be able to spend some time with my German family.

We went to the zoo with Julius and he loved hugging all of the cardboard animals.
We went to the zoo with Julius and he loved hugging all of the cardboard animals.

Thanks emo and emoboo for hosting me! And thanks to Andreas and Monika too.
Thanks emo and emoboo for hosting me! And thanks to Andreas and Monika too.
Next up is meeting up with my dear friend Chris and his brother Eric in Berlin. Chris and I met on my life changing trip to Africa two summers ago and we’ve been two peas in a pod ever since. He quickly became one of my closest friends in NYC and I knew that our time in Berlin would be super fun because it’s pretty much guaranteed when we’re together. I affectionately refer to Chris as “Diamond Status” because when we met in South Africa, I could see that he’s a frequent/expert traveler and very much accustomed to his Delta Diamond Status ways and I knew our time in Berlin would be no different. I met Chris and his adorable brother Eric at The Ritz (aka Diamond Status) and we spent the next couple of days eating, drinking, sightseeing and laughing our way through the city. I stayed in an Airbnb just a mile from them close to Alexander Platz in an apartment that looked like it had been decorated by Prince’s purple designer and not a spot in the home was absent some purple accoutrement.

Potsdamer Platz
Potsdamer Platz
Chris, Eric and I visited a few of Berlin’s many historic and cultural sites.  Berlin is a truly remarkable mix of history (much of it horrifying and devastating) and modern/hip design.  It’s great to visit a city especially when your friend already knows where to go and what to see. But the best part was just hanging out, laughing at everything and everyone and being generally mischievous. Some of my favorite outings with Chris and Eric included:

Strolling through Tiergarten the “Central Park” of Berlin. Did you know there’s a nude section of the park? Not to be missed.

Drinks at Twin Pigs in a hip part of the city called Kreutzberg and fun dinner at Katz Orange where Chris and Eric in typical Ventry style were already VIPs.

The gorgeous location of Katz Orange where we had a fabulous last dinner.
The gorgeous location of Katz Orange where we had a fabulous last dinner.

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Shenanigans with Chris and Eric at a hip bar called the Twin Pigs.
We also had beers on top of The Monkey Bar which is the bar at the 25 Hour Hotel which overlooks Tiergarten and the zoo.

View from The Monkey Bar overlooking Tiergarten and the zoo
View from The Monkey Bar overlooking Tiergarten and the zoo
After Chris and Eric left Berlin, I had a couple of days to myself and I did some more strolling through the big city but my final day before my late flight to Barcelona, my foot had been bothering me from a ill conceived attempt to jog the night before so I didn’t want to do too much walking. So I ended up at the Sony movie theater and watched Jason Bourne and was thrilled to be sitting in air conditioning, eating popcorn and admiring Matt Damon’s ripped body as my final activity in Berlin.  Alles ist gut (“everything’s good”).

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