Category Archives: Travel

Colombia via Cali(fornia)

 

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Spectacular Views from the top of El Peñol

It’s been a year and a half since I returned from my epic trip around the world and I haven’t left US soil since the fall of 2017.  Almost everything in my life has changed. I live in a new city, have a new job, a new apartment, new car, new friends, and new routines. It’s dizzying if I think about it for too long. And prior to all of these previously mentioned positive changes, just a couple of months after returning from the most incredible 15 months of my life of travel/adventure/joy, I was leveled by a tsunami of unexpected crisis and loss.

I felt like I was in one of those dark fairy tales where the stormy seas take their vengeance on the heroine whose ship is now overturned and is being pulled into the abyss by invisible forces.  And just when I thought I wasn’t going to make it out of the vortex, I saw a life saver just a few feet within reach. I grabbed hold and it brought me up out of the water and pulled me toward the city of angels.

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Skies burn brighter in the west

Starting Over

I spent most of this year in this transition from where-in-the-world-is-sandy to back-in-the-game-sandy. But I vowed that this time, I would do it differently than I had done it before. I returned to the media world but under nearly opposite circumstances from my previous stint in NYC.  I’ve gone from a big corporate job to a daring entrepreneurial venture. I’ve joined a team of incredibly smart and successful people, all of whom have also had the big jobs in other big (and bigger) companies. But more than their impressive career trajectories, which are pretty damn impressive, I’m working with people who care about the world and each other. We’re joined in this mission to do something new, creative and innovative that we feel will contribute something positive.  It feels really good to be a part of something that I am building with a team that respect and like each other.  I think it’s in my DNA to be drawn toward big, bold missions and that has manifested in my professional and personal life.

But like my transitions, it’s not always easy. And while I was far from my family and friends during my world adventures, it’s different when you settle into your day-to-day routine and live on the opposite coast from the people closest to you. But thankfully, new and old friends welcomed me into their homes and their lives and made the change so much easier. I am so grateful to those that have done so much to make LA feel more like home.

The year was almost over and after a really great month of hosting my mom and sister in LA, I decided that I would take advantage of the Christmas/New Year break by taking a trip out of the country and crossing off a major travel bucket-list item. I was finally going to make it to South America with a trip to Colombia, a country that I have been admiring from afar for some time. There were many friends and even a Lyft driver or two that expressed concern about my traveling solo to Colombia. I think that was due to the reputation that Colombia had for many years due to the devastation caused by the drug cartels, ensuing violence and the reacquainting of that history thanks to the success of the Narcos franchise.  And in defense of my friends, their concern mostly stemmed from knowing that I was still dealing with PTSD after the previously referenced trauma tsunami. And while all of their concern was heartfelt and loving, I knew that I wanted to start in Colombia and see how I would feel being there. I wanted to see if I returned even briefly to a life of travel, would I feel the same exhilaration? Would my confidence reemerge? Will I feel like Me?

Christmas in Colombia

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As I left LAX on Christmas Eve, I started to feel that familiar thrill that comes from setting off on an adventure to a new place. “This was the right call” I assured myself. I landed in Medellín around midnight and arranged with the hotel for a car to pick me up.  I knew that I wanted to stay in a hotel that’s more upscale than when I was on my long trip to give myself some of the safeguards and comfort I needed for a short trip.  My driver and I found each other as soon as I left customs and not even 20 minutes into my arrival in Colombia, I had two distinct thoughts: “girl, you packed too much shit” and “why did you study French not Spanish, you dummy?”

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Sipping Colombian coffee. Feliz Navidad!

Medellín known as the City of Eternal Spring, is a large, thriving city with pulsing with energy and change. It’s no longer Pablo Escobar’s city, it’s the people’s city.  They’ve done so much work to turn away from the violence of the not too distant past and a big part of their success in bringing jobs, safety and commerce to the city was by investing in their public transportation. Their metro system is fast, clean, inexpensive and spread across the mountainous areas. Their cable cars are famous not only for tourists who want to climb up the mountain to get to Arvi Park, which candidly I didn’t find that impressive, but the ride up and views certainly are. The cars that go into the small mountain-side barrios give the residents efficient and affordable access to the city center for work and recreation.

I want to say that I felt all of those old feelings from travel’s past, and while I did feel much of what I loved before – discovery, curiosity, humility, freedom, and surprise; those weren’t the only emotions to surface. One day, in the middle of the afternoon when I was walking through the center where children were walking with their parents and grandparents, the market swirling with activity and in so many ways, it was one of the most familiar sights no matter where I traveled. However, this time, I felt my body tighten, my blood pressure rise and fearful and paranoid thoughts started to chime in rapid succession. A tug-of-war began between my rational mind laying out the facts: it’s daytime, there are families all around you, you are safe;  and my traumatized voice responded: it’s dangerous, you’re alone, and you can’t trust anyone.  I jogged out of the most crowded areas of the center and the next two hours passed in a blur of rushing down sidewalks, searching for the metro and taking deep breaths to try and calm down. I finally made it back to my hotel room, shut the door, crashed on the bed and cried until I could fell asleep. When I woke from my nap, I felt foolish, disappointed with myself and relieved to be in the hotel.

A Big Rock in A Small Town

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Front row view of El Peñol.

I decided that I wanted to go somewhere outside of the city, someplace smaller where things moved more slowly.  I went to Guatapé a little town about two hours away.  I took one of those small local buses that was full when I boarded, so the bus driver took pity on me and invited me to sit in the front of the bus. Score!  This was definitely a familiar experience, thrilling and white-knuckled, as the friendly driver talks on the phone and eats his snacks while speeding fast and furious up and around the mountains. I’d heard from a couple of people about this place including from my niece Jinna who is a full-time world explorer, surf photographer and free spirit that I should try and make a day trip to this town.  It has become a weekend getaway for the upper middle to wealthier class and it’s best known for El Peñol a giant rock that is rumored to reward you at the top with spectacular views.

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My adorable cabana

I stayed in the most adorable cabana outside of Guatapé, at the foot of El Peñol. Even though the inside of the cabana is as basic as it gets in terms of design and comfort, the outside is what captivates. You have to drag your bag up a very steep and rocky driveway that many of the tuk tuks won’t attempt, but once you get up there, the views are off-the-charts. On one side you see lakes with tiny islands clustered in between and the other is that giant rock beckoning you toward its 700 steps. The town itself is a 3D version of an impressionist painting  –vibrant, full of character, quaint shops, friendly merchants, and sweet and savory treats – it’s Instagram Xanadu.

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I’m so happy I decided to get out of the city and spend the last two nights in a quieter place surrounded by beautiful natural settings, enjoying the slower pace and fewer people. And Guatapé is so colorful and charming with businesses and vendors selling everything from jewelry, coffee, art and even organic toiletries. And of course, no shortage of food options here. However, Colombian food was a little on the bland side for me.

I was pretty nervous about attempting to climb Peñol because I was woefully out of shape. I used the move to LA and transitional period as an excuse to avoid exercise and my body and energy suffered the consequences. It had been a really really long time since extreme hikes in New Zealand, Australia and southeast Asia. But I knew I had to try. So, I layered on my sunscreen, donned my large floppy Korean lady hat, double-tied my sneaker’s laces, shoved my water bottle in my travel bag and set off to climb the rock. (Side note:  every online review warns you about the 700 steps, but NO ONE talks about the 30 minutes up a steep hill you have to trek up to just to get to step 1 of Peñol.)

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I already gave myself permission to take as many breaks as needed to get up there.  Reminding myself that I wasn’t in competition with anyone, and that if I succeeded, the reward would be even greater than just the famous views.  I knew that after surviving the monster that was 2018 that being able to accomplish something like climbing a big ass rock would do wonders for my spirit.  I took each step deliberately, switching from super slow to slow and sometimes even not slow.  I wouldn’t allow myself to feel superior to anyone I passed as I knew that a moment later, while I’m huffing and sweating in recovery-mode, that lovely 78-year-old abuelita nipping at my heels will scoot right past me without breaking a sweat.

When I finally made it to the top, I finally felt that full surge of gratitude, hope and awe that I felt countless times before in so many places all over this beautiful world.  I looked all around and there were so many amazing views to take in. I bought a cup of freshly sliced mangos, sat back in a chair, stared in awe at the landscape, and I felt a small seed of renewedconfidence take root in my chest.

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Views from the top aren’t exaggerated.
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I did it!
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Yes buddy. Me too.

Korea Part 3: Back to the Future in Gyeongju and Sokcho

After a few days in Busan where mom, Sylvia and I filled our bellies with some seriously delicious food, mom’s suitcases also grew heavier with souvenirs and medicine, we headed north to Gyeongju. Gyeongju is a small city on the southwest coast that was once the capital of the 1,000 year-long Silla dynasty. There are so many ancient temples and remnants of Korea’s dynastic history and culture. As a total history nerd, this was my favorite town to visit and home to some of the most beautiful places we’d see in South Korea. It also turned out to a be place where mom told never-heard stories about my biological father and their happy times together that I never imagined.

We stayed in the “downtown” area of town, which is barely a downtown and still has a ways to go in terms of making it easy to navigate for non-Korean tourists. The accommodations are mostly comprised of “love motels” which are exactly what their names suggest. What was possibly the most unexpected aspect of these places are the ways that they brand them with cute and sexy animated figures meeting each other for various activities including, but not limited to acts of love. It’s a truly unique experience to not only be in this kind of place in an Asian country that still doesn’t show French kissing on their TV shows, but to be there with your mother and sister adds a whole other element of the unexpected. But we all managed to get past the sketchiness especially since the reviews included many families who testify to their cleanliness and family friendliness.

What makes Gyeongju really special wasn’t the love motels, but the fact that you feel almost instantaneously that you’re traveling back in time (queue Huey Lewis & The News) to ancient kingdoms ruled by kings and queens for over a 1000 years, survived Mongol and Japanese invasions and other wars. I loved seeing the ancient parts of town preserved as Unesco World Heritage Sites and you find what remains of the kingdoms, temples and other signs of life from Korea’s rich past. Bulguksa, one of the most famous temples in Korea is a tourist favorite and many Koreans return there to pray and make offerings in hopes of making their greatest dreams come true. Another unique aspect to Gyeongju is that there are so many burial mounds of these dynastic families all over the town and its landscape includes lush, green hills rolling one next to the other.

But if I’m being totally honest, the most unexpected and lasting memory of Gyeongju was that mom told so many stories of her past visits to this place with my biological father, a man I know very little about and about whom mom rarely/never speaks. I grew up with so many questions about him and curiosity about what type of man he was and what their relationship was like. But Korean moms aren’t always the most forthcoming with talking about their pasts especially if they carried any kind of regret and in the case of my parent’s relationship, I only knew the regret. Mom spoke with affection, nostalgia and even happiness about the times they spent there, the food they ate, where they stayed and what they saw and I was surprised she recalled so many aspects of their time here years later. I was stunned into silence, hungrily devouring the details of this stranger, my father, and equally stunned to hear about how happy they were during those times. I corked what felt like could have become uncontrollable feelings that would surely bubble over at a later date and I just wanted to try and extend the experience a little longer. I cherished this vision of my young stunning mom laughing, traveling, eating, and very much in love with my father.

After an intoxicating time in Gyeongju, we boarded a bus to Sokcho, a city to the north not far from Seoul and most famous for its proximity to Seorak-san (one of the largest mountain ranges) and also to the DMZ. We hadn’t booked accommodations in advance of our arrival as we were told by a local man in Gyeongju that we could just show up in town and stay in a bed and breakfast and what I found online was really limited. We did not know that arriving in the summer and on a weekend made it really difficult to find a bed and breakfast, but managed to lock down a place near Seorak Park, but it was really really basic and I think all three of missed our cozy and comfy love motel.

The two highlights of our time in Sokcho couldn’t have been more diametrically opposite experiences. We spent one day walking and hiking in Seorak-san which had spectacular views, trees, waterfalls, rocks and a slowly moving mist which all added to a feeling like we were walking through a Korean nature dream. After taking a cable car up most of the mountain you can continue to climb by foot up to the highest points of the range. Even though I’ve done many of these hikes during this year of literally and figuratively climbing to new peaks, it was really special to do it with my baby sister, Sylvia.

All of the freedom and dreaminess of Seorak-san swung to other extreme when we went to the DMZ the next day. Even after reading about and seeing images of the DMZ, actually being there is a whole new level of surreal and intense sadness about the people who are just a few steps away living in tyranny, starvation and fear. We could hear the propaganda of government voices playing on a constant loop from the designated areas where tourists could look through viewfinders to see across the other side. It was during our time at the DMZ when Trump made his thoughtless and dangerous threats of using “fire and fury” against North Korea. And while my Korean American family and I felt fear for ourselves being there literally between the two sides, it did not feel like the enemy on the other side of the line. It feels more like distant relatives, potential friends, children with dreams, and the elderly who look like us and share our history. It’s intensely tragic to know that they are trapped there with a leader who cares so little about them and allows his people to starve and live in constant fear that they will be executed for their thoughts and actions. And more than fear, I felt a sense of frustration and mounting anger that they do not have the kind of opportunities that I have had as an American and as a South Korean. There are some beautiful unity messages and sculptures as I believe many South Koreans would welcome their families and friends in the north to reunite as one.

My trips to these cities filled me with a range of emotions that were completely surprising and sometimes conflicted. There were times I felt like I was watching this experience like they were movies. One was a biopic of my parents and a love story that led them to have a daughter who would grow up an American. The other was a historical drama of a unified Korea that was tragically torn apart with a future that is hard to predict. But this year of travel and witnessing the aftermath of war, conflicts and seeing how resilient people are after some of their darkest times, has made me a more optimistic person. It’s a hard time in our own history to feel optimistic, but I do. And its my optimism and gratitude that allows me to see my past with rosier lenses and to feel hope that there are happier days ahead for me, my family and all of the people of Korea.

 

 

Japan from a Korean American Perspective

Anyone can be anime thanks to Japanese photo booths

After traveling on my own for a year, I was excited to meet up with my family in Japan. We haven’t seen each other since our month-long romp through Bosnia/Croatia/Italy at the end of last summer  (http://whereintheworldissandy.com/2016/10/09/family-reunion-in-bosnia-herzegovina-and-croatia/).  This time we would be spending six weeks seeing Japan and then South Korea for a first-ever family trip back to the Motherland and country of my birth.

Welcome to Tokyo!

I was looking forward to seeing Japan, a country that friends and fellow travelers consistently rave about, but candidly as the daughter of a Korean woman who remembers the devastation of Japanese occupation, I was cautious with my enthusiasm at least with mom around. My sister Sylvia a lifelong anime fan and artist has always been openly admiring of Japan, much to mom’s chagrin. My hope was that despite the long, complicated and devastating history between Korea and Japan, that we would all enjoy our time together and as soon as I saw their adorable faces at the airport, I knew that we would.

Tokyo Tetris

Tokyo is a perfect metropolitan puzzle, buildings of every size and shape that seem to perfectly together, like Tetris pieces. Everything is exceptionally clean with a sometimes annoying lack of public trash cans (because you carry it home or to the office where it can be disposed of privately). And despite the dense population, it all feels speedy and silently orderly. I’ve never seen such a big city full of so many people, cars and other forms of transport, lights, and distractions making such minimal noise.

Senso-Ji Temple in Tokyo

I’ve heard that not many Japanese people speak English and that proved to be quite true, but their reputation for politeness is also spot on. My first day in Tokyo, I wandered around lost trying to find my Airbnb in the Kyobashi neighborhood and it’s easy to be lost in these small streets without names. A lovely young woman saw me walking around in circles, staring desperately into my phone at Google Maps and approached me and we did a variety of body and hand gestures trying to communicate. I showed her the directions from my Airbnb host, which included like 10 screen shots of corners of buildings directing me to the apartment none of which include street names because as I already mentioned, there are no street names. This woman proceeded to walk a few circles with me for the next 10 minutes and I was so grateful and astounded by her patience and kindness so when we found the building, I was happy she initiated a hug because I was thrilled to give her a grateful squeeze.

We explored Tokyo using its amazingly efficient public transportation system, using mostly their subways and trains to get around the city. A tip for those who are going to travel around Japan, go ahead and buy the JR Rail Pass. It’s expensive, but worth it. Not only does this pass allow you to travel buy the famous Japanese bullet trains from city to city, but the JR lines also run all over the Tokyo province as well and the pass is good for those trains and you can use that pass as much as you’d like for the period that your pass is valid.

Food Glorious Food

Like Godzilla, we destroyed everything in our paths. Well, everything that’s edible, including the sushi, savory ramens, crispy tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlet), yakitori (skewers), mochi (sweet rice cakes) at every turn and so many things. Japanese cuisine is delicious and always beautifully presented even when you’re eating at the most casual izakaya. In fact, our first night in Tokyo, we wandered to a local izakaya and were given enthusiastic welcomes in Japanese and the menu which was all in Japanese (as are most menus in Japan) and pointed to pictures of food that looked relatively familiar or just yummy. The tiny cafe was filled so the waiter made an impromptu table for us with a few plastic crates and a piece of wood that they put together on the small street outside the restaurant. The three of us squatted, graciously ate the delicious meal and laughed as the only cook who is apparently also the logistics person left the grill, jumped on a bike and returned in about five minutes with stools for the next group of patrons to sit on the street next to us.

Akhibara Anime Heaven

Sylvia got to live her greatest fantasies in this neighborhood that’s known for being the center of the anime universe. There are enormous digital and traditional billboards with bright, sexy but adorable anime girls, game rooms, toy stores and fans lined up we don’t know what, but it was definitely something to do with anime. As you wander the streets, there are young woman dressed in cute skipper or maid costumes with bright bows in their hair and they invite you to come and have dessert in a maid cafe. So we did and I described it as a happiness nightmare where everything is over-the-top cute. We were given cat ears to wear and the cafe is decorated like a little girl’s tea party. When mom was initially asked to “meow-meow” when ordering her food and drink, she didn’t seem too keen, but we were all meow-meowing by the end. But don’t let all of this cuteness fool you, it comes at a cost, literally every part of it includes some kind of charge including taking photos inside the cafe.

Domo Arigato Mr. Robot Restaurant

There’s really no way to accurately describe this surreal experience in way that does it justice. It’s part musical, part dance performance with everything from unicorns, robots, dragons, lasers, and rainbows all colliding together for an unforgettable hour and a half. Yes, it’s very touristy and I think every foreign tourist in Tokyo was in the restaurant, but it’s also such a uniquely Japanese cultural experience.

Taking It Down A Level in Izu

We took the speed train to the Izu Peninsula to a small town just outside of Ito and stayed in a traditional Japanese house with sliding wood doors, sleeping on tatami mats, all nestled in a quiet street where the only sound are passing trains. It’s a totally sleepy town on the black rock/sand beach and like much of Japan, surrounded by mountains. We loved Izu, it’s scenic and quiet and we were able to slow down from the dizzying pace of Tokyo life. We saw some lovely temples, amazing volcanic cliffs and turquoise water, and mom and Sylvia rode ski lifts for the first time. Our favorite part of the Izu experience was visiting an onsen, a Japanese bath house that’s set in the mountains with an outdoor bath where you can sit in the steamy bath set outdoors overlooking the side of the mountain and you feel like Venus rising, all powerful, beautiful and nude. Mom, Sylvia and I spent a lot of quality time together this past month, including much of it with our clothes off visiting these awesome baths. When in Japan…

Kyoto the Florence of Japan

Everyone loves Kyoto and it’s because it’s gorgeous and timeless. In many ways, I felt like Kyoto was the Florence of Japan, not as much happening in the craziness of Tokyo, but there’s wonderful cultural liveliness and the history feels more tangible there. Part of that is because there are temples literally everywhere in the city and we stayed in Gion, the part of the city known for temples and a rare geisha sighting. There are a ton of kimono rental shops as many people, especially the young adults want to experience this city in traditional clothes. And as much as I love the ways these kimonos look, I have to say that with 90+ degree weather and 300% humidity, I didn’t envy these pretty ladies in their clothes and struggling up these steep streets in their wooden sandals.

We were lucky enough to meet my new friend Ben from the US who is living in Kyoto so we got a personal tour of this amazing city. Ben’s incredibly knowledgeable and excited about Japan so it was fun to see the city with him and he took us to some awesome places, including Kinkakuji Temple (the Golden Temple), Ryoanji Temple the home of Japan’s most famous rock garden and a drizzly walk down Philosopher’s Path.

My favorite part of Kyoto was the bamboo forest in the northern part of Kyoto. I loved Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and one of the most memorable scenes from that movie took place in this bamboo forest. It’s otherworldly and you’re slowly meandering through green serenity.

Oh Yeah Osaka

We ended our fabulous journey through Japan in Osaka, the country’s second largest city. It had many of the amenities of Tokyo but felt far less dense and immense. The city’s most famous for food and we definitely know why as we had some of our favorite meals in Osaka. I also got to see my friend Shun whom I met in Australia and we quickly became lifelong buddies. He lives in Kobe not far from Osaka and met us at the Osaka Castle stop and brought us to an insanely delicious ramen place. After stuffing our faces with salty savory ramen, we explored the incredible Osaka Castle. It was like 200 degrees that day, but we loved every minute of it and loved seeing it with my favorite Japanese friend.

In the end, we all left having a greater appreciation of Japan, the modern and ancient aspects, the food, the polite and kind people and ease with which you are able to travel the beautiful country even if none of us spoke Japanese (well Sylvia remembers some from years of anime and mom recalled a bit from childhood). And it was so wonderful to get to connect with friends during this trip to Japan, generously giving their time and hosting us in their respective cities. To them and to the quiet and polite people of Japan “domo arigato goziamasu”.

Fiji: Dive In and Face Your Fears

Sunset in Kadavu
Have you ever done something that is on your Top 3 Terrors List? Scuba diving was on my Top 3, but it’s now something that thrills rather than just terrifies me. I wrote about my first time diving in the Great Barrier Reef in my second post on Australia (http://whereintheworldissandy.com/2017/07/02/how-dorothy-gets-her-groove-back-in-oz-part-2/).  After an incredible couple of months traveling Australia, I knew I wanted to go somewhere to chill, where it’s sunny and tropical and I considered the possibility of getting my diving certificate so I boarded a flight to Nadi, Fiji.

After just one night in Nadi, the main island that’s the hub for international tourists, I was off to Kadavu, a small and more remote island that’s best known for diving. When I arrived to the domestic terminal of the airport, I was shocked when the gate agent asked me to step on a scale before checking me into the flight. Let’s add public/airport weigh ins to my Top 3 list. After that unexpected and humbling check in, I boarded a small 20 seat plane for a 40 minute flight to paradise. Another interesting observation during my Fijian flying experience was that the captain and co-captain literally work together to get the plane off the ground, as in their hands are on top of each other’s as they push one of the levers on the plane to take off.  Here’s a photo capturing that unique moment and you know you’re on small plane when you can see their hands clasped together so tightly.

Team Fly Fiji

The flight was short, but man was it gorgeous. Everywhere below us I could see aquamarine seas and small island after small island. It looked like scene from every movie or TV show made about paradise. Upon landing in Kadavu, the airport was the size of a small shop and I was picked up by the men from the “resort” where I would be staying for the next week. They grabbed my bag and we walked along the beach, a few steps from the airport and we hopped on a boat for the 20 minute ride to Dive Matana, the place I selected based on something I’d read about their famous AstroReef, one of the best reefs in the world, according to this website and I was ready to sign up for the Open Water Dive Certification! On the boat ride to the resort, I met Joe, the resort’s manager and the dive instructor, a Fijian man with a wicked sense of humor and who turned out to be an awesome instructor and friend.

Welcome to Kadavu aka paradise. Who needs electricity?
Arriving in Matana, I couldn’t believe how stunning the surroundings were — water, volcanic mountains, lush green forests and the most welcoming smiles from the staff and locals from the village. I was in a remote island paradise. Along with stunning scenery, there are a few other “perks” of being in a remote paradise, which included losing our generator and backups the second day of my trip, which meant that there was no electricity for me the week I was there. And while I am quite accustomed to life on the road occasionally being a challenge, not having any electricity for the week when staying at a “resort” was unexpected. But I made jokes with Joe and the staff about it and felt sorry for the staff who had to figure out how to keep running the place without power. But I had dinner at 5:30pm with solar powered lamps and went back to my bura (my hut) by 6:30pm because it was completely dark with nothing but stars lighting the cavernous sky.

All you really need in Fiji
My first night in Kadavu I was asked if I wanted to go and visit the village. I did and we walked about five minutes into the dark and essentially the buildings next to the resort was where we crossed into the village. We walked to the community hall where many from the village were gathered to drink kava, the traditional grog made from the root of the kava plant, which is then pounded and placed into a cloth and soaked in water. People, mostly men, gather in the common room, drums are played, songs sung, and the Chief is present and special guests are welcomed as people sit in circles and the kava is served in a communal cup that’s shared among everyone. Mary was kind enough to bring me to the village and act as my liaison during the whole village experience. When we walked in to the room, I could feel all eyes on me, many smiling and lots of “bula’s” (“welcome” in Fijian). I was aware of kava and knew that it’s a popular tradition in the Pacific Islands, but I have heard varying tales of its effects, from hallucinating, numbing of your tongue and mouth, and of course a buzzy drunkenness. Mary told me that kava tastes like “earth” and so when the young man offered me the cup, I drank the lukewarm, muddy colored kava and she could not have been more accurate in her description. I just drank earth. And my tongue started to tingle and grew numb and several cups later, I felt a light buzz, but nothing like affect of a few martinis. And as we sat around sipping kava and listening the young men sing Fijian songs and everyone around me seemed pretty darned content. Bula, indeed.

Kava a taste of Earth

Joe gave me diving lessons with two young and friendly people from the village, which was really cool as he was hoping that Mary and Bero would learn to dive and perhaps someday be instructors themselves. Joe explained that so few Fijians have an opportunity to dive, which is not all that shocking as I’ve learned that diving is quite an expensive sport. But I was psyched to have diving buddies learning with me. We read from the course manuals and did our skills tests and dives together, as a team. For those who are interested in getting their certification, it’s actually an intense set of skills tests that one has to pass in order to be certified and in complete honesty, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do it. But as I’ve said before, this is the year of doing shit that scares me and pushing myself physically, mentally and emotionally in a positive direction that ultimately makes me feel like I’m stronger than I ever imagined. One of those tests included swimming 200 meters (that’s like 667 feet) in the sea followed by 10 minutes of treading water with your hands in the air. Now remember I was doing this with my scuba buddies Mary and Bero who are in 22 and 19 respectively so not only did I worry I would not be able to do this, but I also did not want to let down my young and fit teammates. And while they were both much faster swimmers, it turned out that slow and steady still works and I was able to do the swim and the tread with energy to spare. F YEAH! Some of the other tests include taking off your gear under water, including your face mask, oxygen device, saving your teammate by sharing oxygen, swimming with an underwater compass and more. I seriously felt like US Navy Seal by the end.

My scuba buddy Mary

F YEAH! I’m PADI certified!
Beyond the physical, emotional and psychological endurance tests, what is really exciting about diving is that you’re entering into a whole new, unfamiliar world filled with creatures and life forms of every color, shape, texture, size and so much of it feels like something right out of a sci-fi movie. And despite the fact that you’re in their world, somehow you feel welcome to observe, follow, swim, and when appropriate even touch this previously undiscovered place and its inhabitants. One of the most thrilling moments during diving was when I was diving in Nadi following my certification in Kadavu and although the water wasn’t nearly as clear nor the coral as spectacular, one of the divers found a leopard shark. I was just explaining to someone that as a new diver, the thrill is big enough for me just being down there with the schools of fish, turtles, coral, etc. and I’m not looking to chase sharks. Then we find a 4 foot leopard shark on the bottom of the sea and my instructor takes my hand and pulls it closer to the beautiful and terrifying predator so that I can touch its tail. If I wasn’t in a sound proof underwater environment, he would’ve heard me squealing and dropping a couple of F-bombs, but I did as instructed and I lightly touched its tail. I thought it was pretty amazing but I won’t be signing up for the Great White Shark cage dives any time soon.

Thanks to my instructor Joe!

Fijians made me feel so welcome and took great care of me.
I left Fiji feeling so excited and proud that I managed to get my scuba license and that I met some really great people along the way. Fijians are so friendly, welcoming and their kindness extended beyond basic hospitality standards. I look forward to my next underwater adventure and will always be grateful to Fiji and teacher Joe for giving me the courage to literally go deeper.

How Dorothy Gets Her Groove Back in Oz (Part 2)

Cape Byron in Byron Bay where the wind was no joke

In the second half of my adventures in the great and powerful Oz, I say goodbye to the desert of the Northern Territory and head to Queensland for the sea to the east coast home to its world famous beaches, crazy surfers and of course the Great Barrier Reef. The road trip continues as I ride the Greyhound bus down from Cairns to Sydney, continuing to meet new friends, conquer a major fear and even cuddle the natives.

Also visited Daintree Rainforest

Under the Sea
My first stop was in Cairns an eastern city that’s well known for being an access point to the Great Barrier Reef, the largest reef in the world, visible from space, an incredible 2900 km stretch of reefs home to all of the magical creatures of the sea. I got to hang out in Cairns with two of my Uluru tour group friends, Yannik from Switzerland and Anja my German pal who would become a good friend and travel buddy for much of the rest of our trip. Anja and I decided to sign up for the boat tour to the GBR, she was going to snorkel and I decided to try scuba diving for the first time.

I’ve always been curious about diving and have many friends who have been espousing how majestic and peaceful it is to dive, but despite my absolute love of the sea, I’ve always been terrified about the idea of diving. Part of my fears about diving are due to my moderate claustrophobia. I’ve never enjoyed crowds but as I get older, being in confined spaces is even less appealing. And maybe it’s the combination of Shark Week, the Jaws movies and a vague but terrifying idea of the bends (aka decompression sickness, you know when your body/organs can’t handle the pressure of being deep sea), but I’ve been too scared to try diving. But this has been the year doing stuff that scares that shit out of me aka my Year of Joy. And much of those scary activities include doing things that feel far beyond my physical capabilities. As if the psychological and emotional fear of diving deep into a sea full of things that can kill you (Oz’s marketing tagline), I had to first squeeze my body into a skin suit (to prevent deadly jellyfish stings, not kidding) and then a wet suit on top of that. It’s impossible to feel sexy and confident in two layers of sausage casing.

They give you a very quick briefing on the basics of diving and after you put on your suits and about 30lbs of gear and weights, I felt completely ill prepared and I could feel the terror rising in my constricted body. Since we are not certified divers, they give you a drill test as you hold onto a rope that’s tied across the boat. It’s a pretty simple test that makes sure you know the basic hand signals, you can use the equipment to breathe under water, and to clear your ears, which is one of the most critical aspects to diving especially to avoid the dreaded bends or you know an exploding lung. When I went down the first time, holding onto the rope, I could feel my heart beating so fast and so hard, I was breathing so quickly that I was worried I would use all of the air in my tank in about 5 minutes. I FREAKED OUT. I pointed upwards within the first 2 minutes and when we surfaced, the instructor asked, “what’s going on” to which I responded “I’m freaking out!” He then simply said, “stop freaking out” and that seemed like a totally rational response and I gave it another go. And before I knew it, he and I along with another new diver went deeper into the sea and like Ariel the Little Mermaid, I was under the sea.

The GBR is unlike anything I’ve ever seen and I felt like a guest in this new universe of both familiar and unfamiliar life. There are colors, shapes, creatures that look like aliens, predators, prey and a bustling population down there. It was exhilarating and a little scary, but I was hooked. I knew that I wanted to do this again and I wanted to be able to do it without being afraid.

Don’t Get Kidnapped Trying to Cuddle a Koala
After Cairns I went to Townsville to get to Magnetic Island solely for the purpose of cuddling a koala. I’d been in Australia long enough to hear all of the bad stuff about them, yes they can be grouchy, yes apparently they have chlamydia, but I didn’t care. I still wanted to hold these fuzzy and adorable creatures. To get to Magnetic, you have to take a ferry from Townsville, so I had about an hour after the bus before it took off and decided to wander the town a bit. While walking through the downtown area, I heard someone ask, “hey are you a local? Do you know where I can buy cigarettes?” I looked at the person asking the question and noticed it was a handsome young man who looked pretty hungover and I had to laugh because I couldn’t have looked more like a tourist if I tried wearing my Korean tourist wide brimmed hat and small backpack. That young fella’s name is Harleigh and he recently moved to Townsville and he and I formed a fast friendship.

Harleigh and I did a sweaty hike in Townsville together

When I got Magnetic, it was about 4:30pm and as I only had two nights planned to be there, I wanted to try and catch the sunset on my first night. No matter where I’m traveling, I can’t get enough of sunsets. There’s something hypnotic and spiritually calming about watching the sun lay rest to the day in the most visually spectacular way and the magical sequence is so brief and easy to miss. I asked my Airbnb host about a great spot to watch sunset and she gave me vague and confusing instructions about how to get there from her place. That and my notoriously bad sense of navigation led me to a deserted dirt road far from anything that resembled a neighborhood. It was then that a car stopped next to to me and a man asked incredulously “ummmm… what are you doing all the way out here?” I replied with an honest but seemingly ridiculous “looking for the sunset?” The man then said the best spot to see it was on the west end of the island, where he was heading home and offered me a ride. Now, not even a week prior to this incident I was explaining to a co-traveler that I have never nor would I ever hitchhike because it’s dangerous and reckless. Flash forward a week and I ignore my own sage advice and every instinct and get into this stranger’s car. The man was probably in his late 50’s and I noticed immediately that there were about 10 opened beer cans in his car. He started speeding off down the deserted road in the direction of the sunset and I regretted my decision immediately and even more so when he stared me up and down like how I imagine a crocodile looks at clueless chicken wandering to the shore. He then kept repeating the following “you don’t have to be scared” which honestly has the exact opposite effect. In that moment, I assessed and planned my escape from the moving vehicle, which included opening the car door, rolling out and running into the almost dark swamp. I also recalled that I read somewhere that if you’re ever kidnapped you want to reveal personal information that may make your kidnapper relate you in a way that’s more humane so I began rambling about my life, my dreams, my mom and sister and my nonexistent boyfriend who was napping and waiting for me.  I was never so excited to reach a nearly empty and remote beach when he stopped and said that this was it but I missed this sunset. The car barely came to a full stop when I leapt out and thanked him profusely and when he asked how I would get back to the other side, I replied confidently that I would get a taxi.

Claudia the koala is so adorable. Worth being kidnapped? Yes.

As it grew dark in this beach and the taxi dispatcher informed me that they could not pick me up from this unknown dirt road with no name, I wondered if I would have to sleep on the beach in the dark in my first night in Magnetic Island. I happened to see a family with young children on the beach doing some night fishing and thank god they generously offered to drive me back with them when they left. When they asked me how the hell I got to this spot in the first place and I told them the story of my almost kidnapping but that I thought it was going to be OK because Aussies I’ve met have been so nice and so friendly they laughed in unison and told me that was the dumbest thing they’d ever heard and I should never do it again. And then they regaled me with scary stories of backpackers who’d been murdered or missing from hitching rides in Oz. As I said, there are so many things that can kill you in Australia but thanks to this wonderful family, my story had a happy ending and I did get to cuddle a koala named Claudia the next day.

Sailing, Dingos and Whales Oh My!

Welcome to the Whitsundays

My friend Anja and I also did a two day sailing trip to the Whitsundays on a boat called the Matador. The Whitsundays are a group of islands including Whitehaven Beach that has the whitest, softest sand and perfect turquoise water in the world. While Anja who is incredibly athletic and the first to raise her hand when the crew asks for volunteers to work the sails, my primary job was the do minimal labor and maximum relaxation. We met some fun people on the tour from all over the world and the crew of three super tanned and funny Aussies made for a memorable time on the Matador.

Perfect white sand in the Whitsundays

One of my other fun trips was to Fraser Island another famous beach/island where ironically you cannot actually go into the sea because there are so many sharks it’s actually too dangerous. So our entire water experience was in the fresh water lakes on the island, which was pretty chilly during this time of the year, but nonetheless still beautiful.  One of the highlights of the trip included our multiple humpback whale sightings.  I made friends with a young crew of people including Karine from Canada, Simon from Germany, Marc and Caroline of Switzerland and Team Scotland and together we flew in tiny planes over the island, swam in freezing fresh water, avoided dingos, bounced in the bus and played an intense but fun game of Jenga.

My pals and I took an incredible flight over Fraser Island where we witness whales migrating!
A shipwrecked boat on Fraser

It’s an interesting experience to be the oldest person on some of these tours. While the Uluru tour was more diverse in age and I was in the middle of the age range, in the next couple of tours I was definitely the oldest. I think some people would feel totally self conscious and uncomfortable being so much older than the 20-30 year old group, but it didn’t bother me. Maybe it’s because I’m doing so many things for the first time making me feel younger and more alive than ever, or maybe it’s just that I am so grateful just to be there and I’ve been able to connect with people of all ages. And I’ve been lucky enough to meet younger people who aren’t just traveling to get wasted and act like kids, I’ve met really interesting, funny, smart and curious people and those are traits that are appealing at any age.

Me displaying my maturity to my young friends during a game of Jenga

G’day and G’bye Oz

After some time in Byron Bay and Brisbane, I finally made it back to where it all began in Sydney. I got to spend more time with my friends Jonathan, James, Erika, Liz, Anja and my Scottish girls Lauren, Susie and Bonita. I spent two months in Australia, longer than I’ve spent anywhere else in the world. I saw more places, made more new friends, drank more booze, ate more meat, cuddled more animals and laughed a lot along the way. When I was leaving the US a year ago, my sister Sylvia who was so supportive of my trip told me that her greatest fear was that I was going to fall in love with an Aussie man and stay there far away from home. My response was “ummm…. that’s the most selfish thing I’ve ever heard. That sounds awesome but I don’t want to live in Australia.” So I didn’t fall in love with an Aussie, but I did fall in love with the place and friends but as Dorothy said clicking her ruby slippers, “there’s no place like home”.

Off To See The Wizard in the Land of Oz (Part 1)

Do you remember that scene from The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy lands in Oz, she first steps out and everything transforms from black and white into the most vibrant colors and fantastical setting? Along her journey to see the Wizard, Dorothy meets new friends; has several (mis)adventures, discovers bright, crazy and sometimes scary new places; finds her own brain, heart and courage along with her travel companions; and saves the day when she realizes that the hero isn’t the Wizard, but that it’s her destiny. That pretty much summaries my two month journey along the yellow brick road through the magical and massive land of Oz.

Sydney
I arrived in Sydney and stayed in an Airbnb in a neighborhood called Surry Hill, which turns out to be the gayest area of Sydney and as I passed attractive gay men of all ages and shapes and as soon as I saw the rainbow flag waving outside of my window, I knew I was home. It reminded me so much of Chelsea, my very gay and wonderful place in NYC. And just as Dorothy got to experience an exciting makeover when she arrived in the Emerald City, I put on mascara and lipstick, my only pseudo “going out” top to meet up with my friends James and Jonathan for what turned out to be a long and crazy night out. I met Jonathan and James in Cambodia when I dined with my friend Rob and Andrew from San Francisco who met the couple in Siem Reap. As soon as I met this beautiful and hilarious couple in Siem Reap, it was love at first sight. They’re a couple of British boys who are living the fab life in Sydney and I was excited to reunite with them in their hometown and they took me under their wings, introduced me to their incredibly sexy inner circle of friends and made me feel like Sydney was my own.  I’ve been asked what it is about my gay male friends that bonds me so closely to them and the answer is that there are so many things.  In simplest terms, we have a mutual admiration for our strengths and vulnerabilities, and the traits (independence, sassiness, humor and sometimes brutal honesty) that have often been a cause of strain with men that I date are the same that are cherished by my gay friends.  J&J also allowed me to keep my large and unruly roller bag in their brand new home for the next 6 weeks while I skipped all around Australia. (THANK YOU!)

Dorothy wears makeup to hang with the handsome Jonathan and James, princes of Sydney
Yes Sydney!

I got to tour around Sydney with my friend Rachna’s brother Anish  who recently returned to the city. It’s no surprise that the city ranks among so many traveler’s favorites. It’s a gorgeous city, the harbor, restaurants, Opera House, bridge, many restaurants, bars, shops, Bondi beach, and fast but not insane hustle add to its dizzying appeal. Sydney was a time for me to also reunite with my friend Alex from Soul & Surf in Sri Lanka and I also got to spend time with my friend from my William & Mary days, Erika who lives in Manly with her teen-dream kids Taylor and Hunter. While so much of my time in New Zealand was spent alone and isolated, Australia was the opposite with reunions and making a lot of new friends.

Sydney Opera House
Sydney Bridge
Art installation at New South Wales Library
St. Mary’s Cathedral
Ferry to Manly Island
Bonding in Bondi with my surf pal Alex
My Tribe girl Erika and her baby boy Hunter,.

Melbourne
After a fun few days in Sydney, I set off for Melbourne the country’s other popular city in the south. I stayed in St. Kilda’s a suburb of the city in a place just outside of the beach. One of my favorite things about St. Kilda’s small town is that there are seriously like five bakeries all on the same main street! I arrived just in time for the beginning of Australia’s winter, so instead of bathing suits and shorts, I had to layer up in my mostly summer clothes and explore the charming town feeling cold. That feeling of being cold is a theme that would follow me throughout my journey, particularly in the next part of my trip. The highlight of Melbourne was getting to go out with Alexis and Andrew close friends of my favorite NYC Aussies Tim and Lucas. I got to meet this beautiful couple at Tim and Lucas’ wedding in upstate NY and was so happy to get to see them on the other side of the world. I went to a fun improv performance of Andrew’s and his improv group in the city and then we all went for pizza and cocktails, it felt very NYC. Melbourne is known to be the country’s cultural center, boasting the best in food, bars, coffee and culture.

St. Kilda
Beautiful couple Andrew and Alexis of Melbourne

Follow the Yellow Brick Road to Uluru
Australia is such an enormous country, it was intimidating to figure out where I wanted to go and how I was going to get there. The only place I absolutely knew I wanted to see was Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock in the center of the country. So I decided to sign up for a 10 day tour that takes you by bus from Melbourne to Adelaide and then Adelaide to Alice Springs, which is about 2500 kilometers or 1500 miles. Sounds like fun, right? I spent more time on buses in Australia than probably all of my other trips combined, but a trip’s not just about the destination but the people who are part of it. And I was lucky enough to meet two really great groups of people on this long haul journey, people from all over the world, of varied ages, backgrounds and interests. But we all had that commonality of wanderlust and curiosity that took us from our homes to drive from the ocean coasts of South Australia up through the no man’s land in the outback into the Northern Territory.

Twelve Apostles (in truth there are only 7 but they’re still pretty damn awesome)
So much to see along The Great Ocean Road

The first three days of the tour was a drive through the famous Great Ocean Road and hitting some of Australia’s well known sights including The Grampians, Twelve Apostles, as well as getting to see kangaroos, wallabies, koalas and emus along the way. When I arrived to Australia, I remember thinking, “I really hope I get to see some koalas and kangaroos here”. Well, on Day 1 of this trip, it’s as if the Great and Powerful Oz heard my wish and we were literally surrounded by them and even got to pet a few roos on the trip, which made me feel quite guilty when our tour guide Steve grilled some kangaroo steaks for us to try. Sorry little fellas but your friends were kind of yummy. After the gobsmacking natural wonder of New Zealand, it’s a bit hard for Australia to compete, but it’s unfair to compare the two even though both countries love the competition with their neighbor. I saw some remarkably beautiful places in Australia especially in that stretch of the Great Ocean Road.

My fun Melbourne to Adelaide group

Two of my tour mates Alistair from Australia and Julia from Switzerland were also continuing on with me from Adelaide to Alice Springs where we joined another dozen new people and our new guide Keith. The seven day trip was the hardcore portion of the program, you know where Dorothy is really tested with flying monkeys, scary trees, and poppy fields that knock her out. Australia is a remarkable country for so many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s a country filled with every species of plant, animal, insect, fish and other living creature that is designed to kill you. I’ve actually theorized that the reason Aussie’s are so outgoing, funny with an often dark sense of humor that I love is because they live in a country where you’re constantly on the cusp of death so there’s a true “FUCK IT” esprit de corps.

It was also the first time I felt like so much reminded me of home, the size and scope of the country, the humor, the friendliness and of course the English (although there were definitely times the accents were so thick I couldn’t understand what was being said and at times I was told my accent was also challenging to understand!). Also, as a major fan of several Australian films (Muriel’s Wedding, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Mad Max, Strictly Ballroom, Crocodile Dundee, etc.), everywhere and everyone I met felt like a scene and/or character from these awesome films. Whether it was talking to a leathery man wearing a vest without a shirt who spoke to me at length in the outback and the only discernible part of our conversation was “G’day” or seeing how the desolate and dry desert would inspire George Miller’s post apocalyptic Mad Max, or getting a chance to dance on the canyon where they filmed Priscilla Queen of the Desert, there were many magical moments for a pop culture nerd.

I had so many firsts in Oz. Like in New Zealand, there were some hikes, but this time I was with a group of people and most of the hikes weren’t as crazy treacherous as the ones I experience in NZ. But there were other dangers. One of them included sleeping outside in a swag. For those like myself who are unfamiliar with what the hell a swag is, it’s basically an outdoor envelope that you put your sleeping bag into that allegedly protects you from the elements. Do you know how cold it is in the desert in winter? The answer is fucking freezing. And as previously stated, I did not have winter clothes nor did I have a winter sleeping bag. I bought one from the tour company but tragically they only had a summer bag, which turns out is as warm as wearing my summer dress to bed. My new pal Alistair, an outdoorsy Aussie found it unendingly amusing that I was so ill prepared and miserable in my hypothermic state. My first night in the swag, I borrowed a warm winter scarf from my friend Liz and it was the warmest thing I wore and I spent the entire night shivering, miserable and convinced I wouldn’t make it to the morning. When dawn finally broke, I anxiously awaited tour guide Keith to wake up so I could turn in my resignation and let him know that my weakling, city self wasn’t cut out for this tour. But as the sun started to shine brighter, so did my disposition and my resolve that I would not give up because I really wanted to see Uluru and well because quitting wouldn’t do me any good in the middle of the outback where there was no other option out of there.

How cute is this roo?
Many many hours spent in this vehicle.

During the days when we weren’t driving through hundreds of kilometers of empty road, we would stop in random small towns full of quirky people. One of those stops was in Coober Pedy, a town known for opal mining where it gets so hot in the summer and cold in winter that many of its residents live in holes dug out of the ground. They convert these holes into “apartments” but the walls, floors and ceilings are dirt. We got to tour one of them and the lady who showed us around was straight out of a real estate reality show enthusiastically selling us on the great benefits of life underground. We even stayed in an underground motel with dormitory rooms and I was so grateful to not be in a swag that I was beginning to understand what that lady was so excited about.

Uluru, A Big Red Sacred Rock

One of the faces of Uluru at sunrise
Uluru

When we finally arrived to Uluru, I was worried that the time and effort of the trip and the hype may diminish the effect of seeing this wonder of the world, but it absolutely did not. We stayed at the campsite for a couple of nights and got to see Uluru a few times in various light, sunset to sunrise. I opted to do the sunrise walk around the perimeter of the rock and it was completely magical. Each side magically transformed colors from red, orange, brown to shades in between as the sun rose higher, as did the shape and terrain of each face. My time seeing Uluru remains at the top of my list even after everything I saw and did in Australia. There is a reason that the indigenous people believe this place is sacred — there is something so unique and other worldly about it. In fact, the Australian government recently returned these sacred lands back to the aboriginal people and they requested that people do not hike up the rock. To my disappointment, many still do, but for me, seeing it up close and from afar and walking the perimeter was more than enough and as there are so many places in the world you can hike, I did not want to do something that would disrespect the wishes of those to whom this place sacred.

Alistair, my Japanese buddy Shun and I enjoying Uluru
We made it! 

One of the aspects of my time in Australia that I found really tragic was learning more about the history of and seeing how so many of the indigenous people live.  The history of genocide, persecution, racism has paid a heavy toll on the original people and their younger generations.  Much like the shameful history and current pervasive racism that exists in America, Australia has far to go in making changes not only politically, but socially to bring these people to equality.  It was most stark in Alice Sprigs where many aboriginal people live and were visibly under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

After the tour ended, many of us spent the last night in Alice Springs out together, sharing a last meal and drinks together. My time with the Alice Springs tour group was really fun. We were like a mix of family, friends, school kids and fellow world travelers sharing stories, advice and laughed our way through thousands of miles together. I am so happy we got to experience this part of my trip with new friends who cheered me on, laughed at and with me, some of whom I would see again in Australia and others whom I hope to see somewhere else in the world.

A fun and goofy group of friends

Dorothy’s journey does not end in Alice Springs so stay tuned for part 2 in the Land of Oz.

New Zealand: Trauma to Triumph

The Crater Lakes look like you've landed in Jupiter, but it's actually a reward for the punishment and pleasure that is the Tongariro Crossing.
The Crater Lakes look like you’ve landed in Jupiter, but it’s actually a reward for the punishment and pleasure that is the Tongariro Crossing.
My amazing journey through the New Zealand
My amazing journey through New Zealand

There’s a reason New Zealand inspires filmmakers to shoot its unparalleled natural landscapes or use them to create even more fantasized versions of them in Lord of the Rings, Avatar, X-Men and more. Everything about this country feels bigger, greener, surrealistic and stunning. I spent a month in this country of physical (and in my case also emotional) extremes. There’s nothing about New Zealand that doesn’t test and ultimately reward you for making the long trek to the edge of the world to see this place for yourself. I experienced some of the lowest and highest moments of my 10 month journey, I felt more isolated than anywhere else I’d been and thankfully I also met some remarkable people that I believe will be lifelong friends. The country is so far and isolated from the rest of the world, I felt a bit like an explorer discovering new and unchartered lands. New Zealand transformed me into an outdoorsy person or at least as close as I was ever going to get as I faced harsh weather without winter gear. My tropical Southeast Asia clothes weren’t going to do me much good here.

Christchurch has some really cool art displayed around the city.
Christchurch has some really cool art displayed around the city.
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My first stop was in Christchurch, a city that is unfortunately best known to many of us after the devastating earthquakes of 2010 and another smaller one in 2016. I really liked this city. You get a feeling of resilience everywhere you go and its residents who are still very much recovering from the natural disaster and aftermath. Some of the locals I met conveyed an attitude of moving on without complaint. That’s something I really admire about Kiwis, they’re used to handling hardcore weather conditions, remote areas, physical extremes and they do it with a friendly and optimistic ruggedness.

One of the best things about being a tourist in New Zealand is that they have these amazing I-Sites, which are the information centers for tourists and they help with everything from transportation, tours, hospitality and general questions. The super helpful woman at the Christchurch location helped me determine that I would take the Intercity bus system that you can use to bus all around both the south and north islands. I know a lot of people drive around the islands and camp, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing it on my own until I got to the north island where the majority of the population lives and in the end was happy with my decision. The South Island is a Jurassic World of forests, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, jaw dropping cliffs, fjords, glaciers, volcanoes and it felt like five kilometers there was something new and awesome and I wouldn’t have been surprised if I spotted dinosaurs roaming around.

How could I drive and also pick my jaw up off the floor?
How could I drive and also pick my jaw up off the floor?
Before I began my bus journey around the south, I took the famous TranzAlpine train from Christchurch to Arthur’s Pass National Park, home of the Franz Josef Glacier. The TranzAlpine was shut down the month before due to serious fires that took the line down for some time so I was lucky that the train just started running again. The ride gives you a plethora of opportunities to “oooooohhh and ahhhhhh” with the most incredible scenery. Arthur’s Pass Village is a tiny town, population total of 29 with a general store and two cafes. But you’re going to Arthur’s Pass to see the glacier, and do some of the many walks through the forest and mountains. Remember how much I loved Iceland’s glaciers? Turns out they’re also awesome in NZ.

The famous Tranzapline train line with stunning views to the west.
The famous Tranzapline train line with stunning views to the west.
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I took the bus from Arthur’s Pass to Greymouth for a night where I stayed with an Airbnb host who gave me a friendly interrogation about Trump and how it was possible that he became the President of the “greatest country on Earth”. The Trump questions and concerns do not end and I can’t blame people for asking. Not too much going on in Greymouth, it’s a bit of an industrial town but a good stopping point.

Hey Franz Josef Glacier, you're as lovely as the one I met in Iceland.
Hey Franz Josef Glacier, you’re as lovely as the one I met in Iceland.
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I've taken a lot of photos of great signs all over the world like this.
I’ve taken a lot of photos of great signs all over the world like this.
Then I traveled from Greymouth to Wanaka, my favorite in the south and maybe all of NZ. I stayed in another Airbnb and met some friendly non-Kiwis who were both working and living in NZ and a lovely woman from the UK who was hiking all around the south. It was in Wanaka that I received news that someone in my family died and although it wasn’t necessarily unexpected, there’s always a shock that accompanies death. 

When I started this trip last year, I lost my stepfather Richard, my grandmother and my aunt Su all within a span of a few months. I attended a memorial service for dad and my grandmother just a few weeks before I left the country and when I returned from Florida from the service, I packed up my things and left NYC. That time was a total blur and full of so many emotions: grief, guilt, regret, anger, and sadness to name just a few. At the same time, I tried hard to focus on the positives in my life and about the journey I was about to embark on and reminded myself that this limited time in life was part of what was driving my decision to do this. But the weight of my grief from losing my family was heavy as I started my “Year of Joy”.

These guys are so cute. I don't know if I can eat lamb again after we make eye contact.
These guys are so cute. I don’t know if I can eat lamb again after we make eye contact.
I learned from the passing of my dad that complicated relationships in life leads to complicated feelings about their death. While he and I had not been in touch since he and mom divorced, his unexpected death sent me reeling. I felt the loss like a sledgehammer to my gut and was really surprised by how truly devastated I felt. How could I feel so grieved about someone who wasn’t even a part of my life in the last 15 years and with whom I always had a complicated and not very close relationship? I think it was the regret of not being as close as either of us probably would have liked that made the loss so final and cutting as well as a life cut short by alcoholism and not taking care of himself.

The views from Wanaka were my favorite.
The views from Wanaka were my favorite.
I watched the movie The Lion here in Wanaka. Or more accurately, I sobbed hysterically watching this movie.
I watched the movie The Lion here in Wanaka. Or more accurately, I sobbed hysterically watching this movie.
WOW is a word I uttered all of the time in Wanaka.
WOW is a word I uttered all of the time in Wanaka.
So when I found out about another death while I was quite literally as far from home as possible, I felt blindsided and the pain felt like a tidal wave knocking me down and every time I tried to catch my breath, I was taken under. I decided that I still needed to do what I could to try and be present for the gift of this trip and enjoy NZ so I did a lot of hiking. As previously mentioned, I’m not an outdoorsy person. I enjoy nature, but usually from afar in a protected vehicle. I’m often intimidated by it and here I am in NZ, basically nature on steroids. So much of my time in the South Island consisted of me pulling myself up higher and higher in vertical climbs that terrified me, that I wasn’t exactly practiced or familiar with and sliding down often tumbling on the way down, which is even more terrifying.

The famous Wanaka Tree that grows in the lake.
The famous Wanaka Tree that grows in the lake.
One of my most memorable moments was hiking Ben Lomond Trail in Queenstown, which I found really challenging. As usual, I was alone and stupidly did not tell anyone I was hiking alone. Not sure who I would tell. I heard it was a five to six hour hike if you go all the way up to the summit. By the time I reached a part of the trail called the “saddle” I was panting, my legs were spasming signaling SOS and I had been sobbing by myself for almost the entire two hours up to that point. I looked around and saw beautiful red pine trees, inspiring mountains, and a shimmering lake, but I couldn’t feel anything other than a blurry mix of heartbreak and exhaustion. At the saddle, the weather was starting to change from fairly cool, to much colder and I had to decide whether I’d try and summit to the top. I don’t even know if I weighed the decision consciously or if I just let the heartbreak momentum push me further up, but I realized quickly that the last bit was totally treacherous. I somehow got off the trail and found myself on an almost completely vertical area without any kind of trail and covered in sliding rocks. I slid several times, sometimes almost a couple of feet at a time and there was nowhere to grip to break the fall. I was genuinely scared and alone so I prayed “God, please don’t let me die alone on this mountain. Not right now. Please.” A minute later as I peeked over my shoulder to see the drop below, I saw a kea, a rare New Zealand bird, perched on a ledge not far from me and I swear it was making eye contact with me. As I pondered giving up on the summit knowing that I didn’t have much time before the sun would set and get dark, I still had hours to trek back and the weather took a mean turn as the wind whipped around me as a warning and it started to drizzle icy rain. But then the kea moved even closer as if he wanted to tell me something or to make sure that I saw him. I’m not sure if I imagined it, but I think that bird was encouraging me to keep going. And so I did. I slid a few more times, but somehow I made it to the summit. And I was all alone up there. It was so cold and wet that I didn’t have much time to pat myself on the back and it was too dark and rainy to take a decent photo to commemorate the occasion. All I could do was cry some more. I quickly slid my way back down and hiked the three hours back, frozen, head aching from tears and dehydration and grateful to that bird for giving cheering me on and witnessing my small triumph.

Ben Lomond Trail you almost killed me, but I survived.
Ben Lomond Trail you almost killed me, but I survived.
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You take a cable car up just to get the party started on the 6 hour hike.
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Even on a grey day, the views are so beautiful
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Another awesome view
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My guardian angel, the Kea.
My time in the South Island was marked by visiting some of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen. I spent almost three weeks in wondrous awe of nature’s beauty and challenges, as well as almost debilitating pain reliving past trauma, death and grief. In some ways, the stark solitude of the south was probably what I needed to face all of these emotions and process everything. New Zealand was like the kea, watching over me as I stumbled, picked myself up and moved on. It was fucking hard though.

One of the most beautiful places is the famous Milford Sound.
One of the most beautiful places is the famous Milford Sound.
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Lucky to have a perfect sunny day in Milford
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Goodbye gorgeous
This waterfall has starred in many films including LOTR, X-Men and more.
This waterfall has starred in many films including LOTR, X-Men and more.
More awesome southern views
More awesome southern views 
Even the mushrooms are pretty here
Even the mushrooms are pretty here
A reward for all of this insane hiking
A reward for all of this insane hiking
So when my fab friends JJ and Rachna (Kiwi American) offered to introduce me to their friends in the North Island, I was so grateful. It was through them that I met Lucy and Jessica and these wonderful women graciously opened their homes, let me eat and spend time with their families and slowly nurse myself back closer to normalcy. I spent a few days with Jessica in Wellington, a lovely (yes also windy!) and emerging city that is also home to Peter Jackson’s WETA studio. She and her sons Quincey and Felix made me feel so at home that I offered to become their nanny, although 13 and 16 year olds don’t need a nanny and Jessica is killing it in the awesome mom category. And Lucy who recently moved from NYC back to her home country also let me luxuriate in their beautiful new home in Tauranga. Lucy and I bonded over NY stories, Ru Paul’s Drag Race and talking about life changes. Lucy and I even got her city kids Iris and Freddie out of the house to go on a hike one day. I connected with Jessica and Lucy immediately and just being around smart, funny, and kind women was like a healing balm. I am so very grateful to my friends who connected me to their tribe and I feel like I made two incredibly good friends in NZ as a result.

Lucy and I are super cool that's why her kids are so psyched to hang out with us. OK, maybe not that excited.
Lucy and I are super cool that’s why her kids are so psyched to hang out with us. OK, maybe not that excited.
Jessica and Nicola (another Rachna friend) and I went to yoga and promptly had a fab dinner and wine after. Namaste.
Jessica and Nicola (another Rachna friend) and I went to yoga and promptly had a fab dinner and wine after. Namaste.
Quincey is Jessica's son also my Wellington tour guide. #futureheartbreaker
Quincey is Jessica’s son also my Wellington tour guide. #futureheartbreaker
Felix is the younger son and future/current Justin Bieber.
Felix is the younger son and future/current Justin Bieber.
Lucy's adorable Freddie and Iris adjusting from NY life to being full time Kiwis. Looks like they're adjusting just fine.
Lucy’s adorable Freddie and Iris adjusting from NY life to being full time Kiwis. Looks like they’re adjusting just fine.
I also did one of the most unforgettable hikes in my life in the north island in Taupo. There’s a trail called Tongariro Crossing which is one of The Great Walks in NZ and the seven to eight hour hike is an experience like none other where you pass the gates of Mordor (Lord of the Rings for you amateurs), volcanoes, red craters, descend down the steep and slipperiest set of rocks on Earth to end up seeing a trio of lakes the colors of which I think are only seen on Saturn or Jupiter and eventually through a dark, cold forest where I nearly gave up. I fell three times on the way down and noticed I wasn’t alone as I passed a poor man who just sat on the rocks after a bad fall looking like he resolved to just stay there until the end of time. By the time I finished, every part of my body was shaking and I was covered in five layers of volcanic ash, dirt and rocks. When I got back to the gorgeous Airbnb where Shani my host, a smart and fascinating woman took great mercy on me and made me an incredible dinner and poured wine into my cup to anesthetize my pain.

This is Mt. Doom in the LOTR trilogy.
This is Mt. Doom in the LOTR trilogy.
This is The Devil's Staircase and when you do it, you know why.
This is The Devil’s Staircase and when you do it, you know why.
Red craters also add to the other worldliness of this hike.
Red craters also add to the other worldliness of this hike.
The Crater Lakes deserve another look. This was my least favorite to get to because it's treacherous down the hill but good lord it's worth it.
The Crater Lakes deserve another look. This was my least favorite to get to because it’s treacherous down the hill but good lord it’s worth it.
Got to see a Maori warrior dance in Rotorua. They make these crazy faces as part of the ritual.
Got to see a Maori warrior dance in Rotorua. They make these crazy faces as part of the ritual.
Hobbiton!!!
Hobbiton!!!
A month in NZ included seeing the craziest real phenomena such as volcanoes, crater lakes, mountains, waterfalls, glow worms, fjords, as well as some of my favorite fantasy fulfillment of drinking in Hobbiton, letting the waterfall from X-Men wash my face, a selfie with Gollum and much more. It was also the toughest time I’ve had this year with the mix of death, grief, isolation, and trauma as well as some of the hardest I’ve pushed myself physically which felt like the only way to distract myself from the emotional pain. I’m certain that the physical and emotional challenges I experienced there followed by the kindness of strangers turned friends, I left New Zealand feeling a sense of triumph that I have never experienced.

Ended NZ on Waiheke Island where these monarch butterflies are everywhere. Felt a bit like a caterpillar turned butterfly myself after this time here.
Ended NZ on Waiheke Island where these monarch butterflies are everywhere. Felt a bit like a caterpillar turned butterfly myself after this time here.

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