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So… What’s Next?

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America, the beautiful. Hiking the Pacific Northwest in Oregon.
The period of time from July 2016 – September 2017 is what I’ve been calling the “Best Year of My Life”. I traveled all over the world, I pushed myself to cross off bucket list experiences. I ate, climbed, dived, drank, meditated, practiced yoga, flew, trained, rode in buses, walked everywhere, laughed, cried and lived my life in a way that I did not know was possible. And then I returned back to the U.S. because it had been over a year of this journey and I thought it was a good time to evaluate my life from many angles, reconnecting with family and friends whom I missed so very much. There were so many reunion dinners, lunches, drinks and I loved it. I traveled from LA to San Fran, then Portland and eventually to DC and of course NYC, the place that was last “home”.

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Revisiting my old place in NYC only to find out it’s become super fancy and even more expensive. I love you, NYC but we have broken up.
When I returned, many friends and family asked a few questions about my trip (usually “where is your favorite place?”), which is impossible to describe in a few sound bites, but even more wanted to know “so…what’s next?” What could possibly follow the Best Year of My Life and not feel like a major disappointment? Anticipating these questions, I decided prior to my return to the U.S. that I would head to South America, which for me was still unexplored territory. More exploration, adventure and new experiences and places?  That sounds good to me.  I decided all of this without having done that assessment part that I mentioned earlier.

I would go to South America after the holidays and after my cousin Grace’s wedding at the end of January. Grace is like a little sister and the only daughter to my beloved uncle and aunt so this was a major family event. I’ve witnessed her life from birth to becoming a successful doctor (every Korean family’s dream) and I knew I wouldn’t miss it even if it meant being in the intense judgmental glare of my entire extended Korean family. Do not underestimate the anxiety of being a single, unemployed and homeless woman in her 40’s who is about to step into the Gladiator’s Arena that is a big Korean family wedding. And to give up a big job where you made good money and had a big fancy title (Koreans love that too) and lived in NYC, “well that doesn’t make any sense” would be the prevailing sentiment in most of my relatives’ minds and being Korean, spoken directly out loud. I managed to avert most of the scorn and concern about my triple curse of being single, unemployed and without my own home by miraculously transforming myself from hideous beast to lovely swan (to translate the Korean response, I lost some weight).

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Korean Swan
Prior to the wedding, my time spent with friends and family was everything I hoped it would be. I met babies that were born during my absence, told of upcoming weddings, new jobs, new relationships and the many life events that I missed while away. But the euphoria of reunions and homecoming plunged into darkness in December when a series of unforeseen life events came crashing over me.

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On December 21st, I was sitting outside on mom’s front stoop when I got a call from Ley, one of my closest friends.  Our history is so long and deep that I knew from the moment I heard the first word out of her mouth that what would follow would change our lives forever. She told me that our friend, her best friend, Kristin (affectionately nicknamed “Pig” since our college days) passed away peacefully after a merciless eight year battle with cancer. I barely recall what words we exchanged because all of it was heavy with a devastating sadness that comes with the knowledge that we lost the best among us. She was the most beautiful, boldest, bravest, most loyal friend to all of us, our sister, our favorite belligerent warrior who fought cancer without complaint or self-pity, often being the one to console her loved ones as we were sometimes unable to mask our fear of losing her. There are too many memories of our decades-long friendship to list, but her presence could never be forgotten as her strength and hilarious laughter are like treasures we carry with us every single day. And when the GIRLS get together, we don’t talk about cancer, we talk about trips, dancing, wine, her gorgeous son, her stubbornness and the endless ways in which we love and remember her. We celebrated her life and said our goodbyes to her the days after Christmas finding brief moments of comfort in huddling together and shedding fountains of tears and howling over our favorite Piglet stories.

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We love you, Piggy
As if the trauma of losing one of your dearest friends wasn’t enough to endure, the days leading into Christmas, I developed a crazy infection on my leg that had me spending Christmas morning at Urgent Care. I’ll try to avoid the gory details, but what started as a seemingly innocuous pimple turned into a throbbing, angry and ever expanding mass on my thigh that kept me from being able to sit, lie down or do anything without intense pain. It’s not the most reassuring feeling when the doctor’s initial response to seeing something on your body is “UGH! That’s a bad one.” It turns out it was an aggressive bacterial infection that took two weeks of antibiotics that made me sicker than the infection and multiple visits to the clinic where the wound had to be treated. The only positive outcome of that infection was that it provided some comic relief to my friends to see me arriving to one of the saddest events of our lives with a small pillow featuring a beautiful angry elf character (it belongs to my gaming sister Sylvia).

And just when you think things couldn’t get worse and I prayed that 2018 would bring some positive news, I crashed. More accurately, a car came crashing into me. It was the first week of January and I was on my way to my friend Andy’s place when I decided being sad on his sofa sounded more comforting than being sad on my mom’s. I got into my car and braved the 12 degree day and appreciated seeing the sun. I was about to get onto the highway when at the last minute I decided to keep straight and treat myself to a car wash and take advantage of the sunshine and wash the salt off my Mini. Seconds later on this busy road where most drive 45-55 mph, the car in front me came to a sudden stop. I slammed on my brakes and by some miracle managed to avert hitting him and for a millisecond I celebrated my luck before the car behind me hit me so hard, my car spun, hit the car in front me and I experienced that thing people talk about during life threatening events. I had that moment of “God, please don’t let me die not this way” and thankfully I didn’t. But the impact was so forceful it moved my car seat off the rails so that I spun about 60 degrees to the right and the left side of my body slammed into the car door.

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This car crashed and destroyed the poor Mini
I sat in the car frozen with shock and confusion about what just happened when I saw for the first time the cause of the accident. A woman who looked about 30-40 yrs old was dancing around the carnage of cars and parts that flew all over the road and she was wearing what looked like pajamas. She was shouting, spinning and taking off her bra, which she then hung on the side mirror of the car in front of me. I later found out that she was yelling “I am going to kill all of the cars!” Mission accomplished lady.

The man who hit me from behind was the first to spring into action, getting out of his car to check on the man in front of us and me and he asked if I was OK. It’s a powerful and bizarre reflex to immediately respond “yes, I’m OK.” Truth was I was far from OK but I did not know that. I mean, I was “lucky” in that I was alive, my bones were not broken and thankfully no one else was obviously injured. When the police arrived, I was still in shock but started to get really upset and unfortunately encountered an inexperienced officer who missed the day in police training when they talk about showing any kind of sympathy for victims of trauma. When he asked me if I needed an ambulance I was quick to respond I didn’t, but as he was recording the details of the accident and the adrenaline started to diminish, I could feel increasing pain rising in my body. I started to cry and I asked him if I should go to the hospital when he replied with agitation “ma’am you need to calm down. I am not a doctor.” Luckily, Sylvia and her boyfriend Ervin came to pick me up and despite the fact that they also didn’t go to medical school, they insisted I go to the ER just to make sure I was really OK.

In the days and weeks that followed this accident, I’ve learned so much about the do’s and don’ts of post car accident decisions. The “I’m OK” reflex had me signing settlement claims with the insurance company within three days of the accident, which I later discovered was the not the smartest thing to do. I may not have broken bones, but I’ve needed a lot of physical therapy and treatments and I didn’t just lose a car in the whole mess. It was so emotionally traumatic and I replayed my last minute decision to go straight instead of turning and how that decision led to so much pain and negative consequences. And in this time post Best Year of My Life, I haven’t worked so the financial consequences have also been an unforeseen cause of stress as well. Insurance called it a “total loss” which felt like an accurate description of not just the accident, but life the past few weeks. Sadly, the value they placed on “total loss” was about $5000, which doesn’t quite seem commensurate with the phrase or the way I felt.

My friends have described this month of my life using biblical and literary references like the trials of Job or the Crucible. Initially, I was trying to not to slip into the whoa-is-me of it all because I did not have cancer, I did not lose my leg to infection and I did not die in an accident. However, finding the silver lining felt impossible when these things happened in rapid succession and before I knew it, I was drowning caught in the riptide of trauma, loss, grief and pain. I withdrew from friends and family and everything slowed to a pace of just existing and contemplating how to get through each day without freaking out my mom with my never before seen fragility.

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My family. My heroes.
I was listening to a podcast with Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild and she quoted from her book Tiny Beautiful Things that gave me comfort and hope, two things I hadn’t felt in a while. I shared it with my friends that I knew were going through their own grief and pain.

“You let time pass. That’s the cure. You survive the days.
You float like a rabid ghost through the weeks. You cry
and wallow and lament and scratch your way back up
through the months. And then one day you find yourself
alone on a bench in the sun and you close your eyes and
lean your head back and realize you’re OK.”

Now back to the question so, what’s next? I know that I need to work and earn money, but I am not rushing to get the next big corporate job. I am fortunate enough to have friends reach out to me and talk about some professional opportunities, share their experiences in consulting/freelance work, which is something I am starting soon. I am channeling my attention back to writing and sharing my stories. I am taking the advice of a trusted advisor who told me to slow down and take the time I need to figure out what I want my life to be and not just my career. She knows that is not in keeping with how I normally operate because even in the Best Year of My Life, I rarely stayed still. I had to constantly remind myself to enjoy the slower pace of life. Being back in the reality of “real life” that is filled with so many things that can break my heart and make me feel small, I am also reminding myself of all of the reasons I feel lucky and grateful. I have friends and family who support and rally around me and show me all of the ways that I am loved. I am finding my voice again and starting to share my pain and vulnerability in ways that feels really uncomfortable, but I know that is also what will help me move past the smallness and shame of this period. I still want to go to South America, but not rushing there either. I look forward to the day I will be sitting on a bench and feel the sun on my face.

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Here’s to the sunny days ahead.

Street Fighting in Seoul

The last part of my family’s Korean expedition was in Seoul. This capital city is best known for its unexpected combination of its close proximity to North Korea/DMZ, being the country’s financial and business hub, being the Hollywood of Asia with its famous and perfect (sometimes surgically perfect) stars and of course Psy’s Gangnam Style, which had I think a billion views on You Tube and made that particularly posh neighborhood even more desirable.

Another unexpected aspect of Seoul is that for most of my life, until I was in my mid 30s, I believed it was also my birth city. I mean, that’s what I have on every official document in my life and when people have asked where I was born, I always responded “Seoul”. That is until mom casually dropped one day, “you not born in Seoul. Why you think that?” To which I replied, “Ummmmmm? Ok. So where was I born? And the only way I would know where I was born would be because you would’ve told me.” Mom just shook her head in response disappointed that I would come to such a conclusion. Apparently I was born in a city called Gwangju, which is not known other than the prestigious university. So yeah, not born in Seoul.

Tourists love to go to the palaces in traditional Korean clothes.

Sylvia and I are both the Year of the Ox in the Chinese Zodiac.

The first half of the week we stayed in a hanok, which is a traditional Korean house that’s located close to Gyeongbokgung Palace, the most famous of the Seoul palaces. I thought it would be fun to have a more “authentic” experience of staying in one of these historic homes, but it turned out it meant really cramped quarters where mom, Sylvia and I essentially played Twister to maneuver around each other in the bedroom and that we had to escort mom in the dark of night to find the bathroom so she wouldn’t slip and fall on the rocks in the courtyard that you had to cross to get there. Win some, lose some.

Getting really cozy in the hanok.

Seoul is a big city, filled with sharply dressed Koreans who are all in a hurry to get somewhere, my guess is shopping. Shopping isn’t a casual activity in Korea, it’s a blood sport. We visited so many malls, open markets, boutiques, stalls and there isn’t a square foot of Seoul where a transaction isn’t readily available. Mom and Sylvia were PSYCHED. Luckily/unluckily mom and Syl bought two enormous new bags that they were on a mission to fill/overload so we scoured Seoul for all kinds of goodies.

Thankfully there were lots of options to stress eat.

One of our treasure hunts involved going to Namdaemun Market, one of the most popular outdoor markets where you can find deals on everything from clothes, shoes, amazing street food, hair accessories, medicine and more. And if there’s one thing mom loves, it’s medicine. No matter where we travel in the world, she’s always looking for a cure for a variety of ailments and pains and often brings back these treasures for gifts for her sisters and brother. We were looking for a particular kind of arthritis medication when mom’s legs and back were acting up and unfortunately this market where you can find anything except for a comfortable place to sit. I knew she needed a break from walking around in the heat, so I told her to stay put with Sylvia while I offered to run around the maze of the market to find the medicine and would come back to find them once I accomplished my mission.

After about 30 minutes of frantically running around the market, I came back to the spot where I left mom and was relieved to see she found a rare bench in front of what looked like an antique market. She looked exhausted and overheated. Right then a man in a pink polo shirt pulled up and parked his moped next to the bench. He gestured to a couple of other guys sitting on the bench next to mom and he asked “who’s this lady?” I disliked him immediately. The two goons shrugged and smirked in response that they didn’t know and then Pink Polo looked at mom and said to her with his rudest tone “Lady, you need to get up. This is my seat.” Mom shot up immediately and replied to this 40 something Pink Polo in shame “I’m sorry. I am just so tired and my legs and back are really hurting”.

Don’t be fooled by this adorable face. She’ll fight you and win.

Apparently Sylvia made a failed attempt to pull me and mom away from Pink Polo before things escalated, but I honestly must’ve had a rage blackout. And that’s when she decided the best thing to do was to escape on her own into Pokémon Go on her phone and seeing her holding her phone up was like waving a red flag in front of a raging bull. Pink Polo then crossed over toward Sylvia and grabbed the phone from her hand and started screaming about taking his photo. When he did that, I lost what little patience remained in my body and thought “ok, this guy is really crazy. He could get physical with us”. So I rushed over, grabbed his free hand by the wrist and simultaneously concocted an exit strategy that would cause the least harm to mom or Syl, which may or may not have involved taking mom’s massive E-cigarette whom we call Precious (as in Gollum’s Precious) and defending us with it. I got up in his face and threatened “how dare you touch my sister and give me that phone. If you don’t give me her phone right now, I’m calling the police!”

Spicy Korean fried chicken is something every person should have at least once in their lives.
Sylvia is in a chicken coma
My mouth is on fire and I am psyched about that.

We didn’t realize that during this conflict, the many many people in the market started to circle around us to watch in horror/excitement/fear at the spectacle. I managed to grab the phone from him once I told him she wasn’t taking his picture and was just playing a game and the next thing I knew, a team of skilled older Korean women who worked in the market swarmed around us like an elite Navy Seal Team and pulled us all apart. They attempted to calm us by confirming and reassuring us that Pink Polo was in fact an ASSHOLE that was in the wrong, but that nothing good would come from continuing on with this fight. And they were right.

Mom was understandably really shaken and upset from the entire ordeal and the only way she could deal with it was by retelling the story to every person that crossed her path the rest of the trip. I think the worst part for her was thinking that Sylvia and I would walk away from this trip to Korea thinking that the people are awful and that would color our impression of the country she loved so much. But I assured mom that Pink Polo wasn’t an asshole because he was Korean. He is just an asshole that could’ve been from anywhere. And truth is that there were also really good, kind, respectful, helpful people we met on this trip as well.

We saw a wonderful musical called Arirang about the history of Japanese oppression of the Korean people. Needless to say, not the happiest musical, but mom loved it.

Despite this unexpected street fight in Seoul, my overall impression of the city was really positive. I had amazing food, explored beautiful palaces and historic sites, begrudgingly shopped like a gladiator, and most important, I spent time with two of my favorite Korean Americans, mom and Sylvia. And so we left Korea with our bags and bellies filled to the max, ready to come back to our actual home in the good ol’ USA.

Sylvia’s doodle of the three of us that we left in the Seoul Tower.

Korean Travel Tales Part 2: Going Home Again

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Drinking Makgeolli a fermented rice wine. Trust me, it’s delicious and does the job.

I emigrated from South Korea to the United States back in 1978 with my mom and most of my aunts, uncles and cousins. I was just a little over four years old so most of my memories of “home” is here in America. My memories of Korea are a synthesis of blurry images, sounds, smells and people from my early childhood memories, mixed with stories that my family would tell me over the years with their voices filled with pride and longing about the small but beautiful country of our birth and history. And despite the fact that so many years passed (almost 39 to be exact) before I returned to my birth country and discovered for myself if those memories and stories lived up to my imagination.

Despite the fact that I never went back to Korea, being Korean is such an important and defining part of my identity and how I’ve moved through the world. I am and have always also been exceptionally proud to be an American because I knew firsthand that the American Dream is not merely an inspirational ideal, but a reality that came from education, hard work, opportunities, and perseverance through adversity. When mom and I took our US Citizenship oaths together in 1990 we both felt so proud and took seriously our civic responsibility and patriotism. So now mom, Sylvia (who was born in Florida) and I would return as proud Korean Americans.

Welcome to Fantasy/Jeju Island!

We started in the most popular tourist attraction and flew into Jeju Island, one of the largest volcanic islands in Asia. Mom always talked about Jeju like it was Fantasy Island but with Korean versions of Mr. Roarke and Tattoo. My only other point of reference for Jeju was that in nearly every Korean soap opera mom watched my entire childhood through adolescence, was that all beautiful Korean couples go there for their honeymoons, take long romantic walks on the beach and share a chaste kiss (aka not the way those out-of-control French do it) at sunset. We were all excited to check it out for ourselves and I noticed an immediate and sharp uptick in mom’s enthusiasm once we left Osaka, Japan and landed in Jeju, Korea.

Jeju lives up to the hype in terms of its beauty, the flora is lush, vibrant and exotic. There are waterfalls, cliffs, black sand beaches, mountains, fresh seafood and famous Jeju women divers. We saw multiple Unesco World Heritage Sites, ate meals that were so good that mom and I had to moan out loud (soundtrack of our time in Korea), explored dark caves, swam in the sea, watched Sylvia masterfully sketch scenery, walked in sweltering humidity and heat and laughed a lot along the way.

After Jeju we flew to Busan, the second largest city located in the southern part of Korea. I remember that my mom’s eldest sister whom we call #1 Emo (Aunt in Korean) lived in Busan back in the day and that she was a very wealthy and by many accounts, a bit ruthless in her time there. #1 Emo was tyrannical right to the end of her life as she bullied her visiting relatives and many of her roommates at the nursing home. Busan is also a port city and best known for its incredible Jalgalchi Seafood Market. I saw things in that market that I have never seen anywhere in the world and not all of it was stuff I wanted to eat. Busan was my favorite city in Korea as it was large enough for ease of transportation and city amenities, but it also had a more chill vibe compared to the pace and intensity of Seoul. And with every new stop, our food experience was even more gratifying and amazing.

The first half of our trip to Korea was going well and the three of us enjoyed our time there. Mom’s pride for the little country that survived and thrived through wars, occupations, poverty and to this day lives under the threat of nuclear war with North Korea is clearly justified. However, there was a growing obviousness that although we are Koreans, we are Korean Americans and the distinctions therein become much clearer as the trip continues. My next blog will feature stories from our time in Gyeongju, Sokcho and Seoul.

 

 

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

Perfect sunsets over the Indian Ocean

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

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

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

Offerings at Buddhist temple

 

I’m a little obsessed with monks

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

“Are you a terrorist?”

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

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

“Have you ever stolen anything?”

“Are you telling the truth?”

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

The talented artist Venuri Perera

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Jinna in full surf and happiness mode.

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

One last beer for the Bad Girls of Surf Camp

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

Sunsets are good for the Soul

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


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

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

22,280 approximate travel miles

17 countries visited (not counting airport stops)

37 cities

18 planes

9 trains

5 cars

1 houseboat

3.75M approximate steps (according to my Fitbit)

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

My daily schedule was pretty much the following:

3:45am first gong to wake everyone up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6pm – 7pm meditation

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

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

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

9:30pm lights out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italian Masters and Sisters Trip

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

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

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

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

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

Artist at work!
Artist at work!

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

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

Sisters
Sisters

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

Sisters cracking up
Sisters cracking up
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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Mom’s a total trooper in the rain

Ponte Vecchio

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

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

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

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Oh Dios Mío España!!

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

SPAIN!! Where do I even begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alles ist Gut in Deutschland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scotland IS Magical

Ahhhhhh the sunsets in Edinburgh.
Ahhhhhh the sunsets in Edinburgh.
I almost lumped in Scotland with my London post, but that would have been a major disservice to a country that has a history of fiercely fought independence and a spirit to match. Scotland is absolutely breathtaking — the landscape, the architecture, the colors are some of the greenest and greyest I’ve ever seen.  And as if that’s not enough to convince you about Scotland’s awesomeness, did you know their national animal is the UNICORN?! That strikes deep in this child of the ’80s  whose favorite sweatshirt of all-time is the rainbow colored unicorn with glittery horn and still obsessed with the unicorns in that wacky film Legend with Tom Cruise.  Scots have a great sense of humor blending warmth and sarcasm, their accents are probably my favorite to date, can sometimes be difficult to understand, but it is always a pleasure to listen. My time in Scotland was spent meeting up with old friends (my college roomie Asha and my friend Amy’s mom Irina), making new friends and feeling an incredibly deep satisfaction with my time alone.

View from my amazing room at Igor's. If you go to Edinburgh and want a unique experience, stay here.
View from my amazing room at Igor’s. If you go to Edinburgh and want a unique experience, stay here.
I started in Edinburgh, the gorgeous capital city and stayed in New Town at an Airbnb hosted by my new pal Igor. Only in a city as old as Edinburgh could a part town that was built in the 18th century be called “New Town”. Climbing a shitload of stairs within the building and eventually to my room, I was rewarded with the most magnificent view of the city and beautiful church from my bedroom window. I’d spend every night that I was there staring outside of that window and each time stood in awe as I was mesmerized by the slow, luxurious sunset after 9pm.  Igor is an artist who is mostly focused on documentaries, but has a natural curiosity about everything from history, carpentry, design, macrobiotic diets and much more. I have a natural soft spot for artists because of my sister Sylvia whose artist’s mind makes her equally passionate about 3D modeling to the differences in paper textures, as she is about breeding pet crawfish (this is a real example so if anyone has an interest in a pet crawfish, please don’t hesitate to ask me about this).

That's Arthur's Seat behind the small area of town.
That’s Arthur’s Seat behind the small area of town.
Two of my favorite days in Edinburgh involved starkly contrasting experiences. The first was going on a couple of “walks” in the city. These “walks” are really a misleading term because they involve some serious and treacherous climbs up these massively mountainous hills that formed after volcanic activity. I did two of the most famous walks in the same day, a miscalculation on my “no planning necessary and be spontaneous” part that had me climbing over 1100 feet that day. But I’m so happy that I not only climbed up Calton Hill, but followed it up by the much more challenging Arthur’s Seat climb because that kind of physical exertion when rewarded by astounding views makes you feel like a goddamn SUPERHERO. There were moments during the Arthur’s Seat climb when I would stare at the completely vertical, unstable and rocky trail and think, “I don’t think I can actually do this. I’m not strong enough. I’m in terrible shape. Why didn’t I work out more before I left NYC? OMG, my knees are going to collapse and some kind stranger is going to have to carry me down or Edinburgh rescue will have to send a mule up to get me off this MF mountain.” But then I decided to take the climb up with the way approach I think we should be moving forward in life: one strong step at a time and not too focused on how much longer it takes to get to the finish. And after I expended as much sweat and fear as possible, I made it to the top and I high-fived myself.

Ruins at the top of Calton Hill.
Ruins at the top of Calton Hill.
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Monument atop Calton Hill. And yes, climbed to the top of that bad boy too.
Holyrod Park leading to Arthur's Seat
Holyrod Park leading to Arthur’s Seat
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Sweaty satisfaction on Arthur’s Seat.
Some gorgeousness coming down from Holyrod
Some gorgeousness coming down from Holyrod
My other favorite day was spent on a spontaneous art tour with Igor and his friends in the city. I was lucky enough to get to Edinburgh right at the beginning of the famous Fringe Festival (for those unaware it’s one of the largest international arts and cultural festivals in the world). But Igor wanted us to go take the lesser known and free Art Festival tour so he, a lovely Lithuanian musician named Zurida and Pat his friend from St. Andrews University all followed along. While the art tour itself was fine
but the real fun was after when Igor who has a deep pride and enthusiasm for the city wanted to take us on what I would call the “Detour Tour”. The Detour Tour included pit stops for Thai food, beers, a visit to a bar where you can literally just lay down while having your drinks (formerly a brothel so yuck, I didn’t lay there), a visit to a tiny secret garden (possibly trespassing on private property), Igor’s attempt to get inside the city morgue (we were denied and I was relieved) and the best was a visit to Pat’s family in their beautiful home where we had dinner and drinks. We were originally just dropping Pat off as he was visiting his dad and stepmom and siblings from South Africa, but the Detour Tour lasted much longer withhis parents generously offering us wine, dinner and a hilarious and lively conversation about everything from Brexit to Trump (I’ve become an international anti-Trump apologist being asked in every country about how this could happen), travel, how Pat’s dad went to school with Tony Blair (whom pretty much every British person seems to dislike immensely), Pat’s teenage brother who looks like one of the leads in One Direction or whomever is the most popular Brit teen boy band talked to me about how he doesn’t want to visit the US even though he likes Americans because he can’t drink alcohol which is something he’s done responsibly with his family and friends since 14. There were really no topics off limit. This was a gorgeous, smart, connected, well traveled and hilarious family and by the time we left, a little buzzed on wine and excellent conversation, I wanted to be adopted.

Super host and new friend Igor
Super host and new friend Igor
Highlight of the Detour Tour was visiting this awesome family.
Highlight of the Detour Tour was visiting this awesome family.
In Edinburgh, you walk through all of these cool dark alleys with great names like Tol
In Edinburgh, you walk through all of these cool dark alleys with great names like Tol
While I was in Edinburgh, I got a Facebook message from one of my old college roommates Asha whom I haven’t seen or heard from in a decade and invited me to come and see her in Aberdeen just about 2 hours north of Edinburgh. That’s the thing about social media, I used to think of it mostly as a tool for work and for feeling annoyed about inane posts about the sandwich you’ve eaten that day, but it’s really become a lifeline for me. I’ve come to appreciate how it can be such an invaluable tool to feel connected to friends and the people who love you when you’re out there alone, they share tips, cheer me on, like my inane posts about food and it feels for the first time since I’ve used Facebook, a real way for me to catch up with people I care about. So when Asha invited me up to visit, I knew I had to do it.

I found Asha and she's in Scotland! We're on a walk in Stonehaven to Dunnottar Castle. #TribePride #ChiO #CaryStreet
I found Asha and she’s in Scotland! We’re on a walk in Stonehaven to Dunnottar Castle. #TribePride #ChiO #CaryStreet
Beach in Aberdeen
Beach in Aberdeen
According to Asha, these guys make up Aberdeen's largest population.
According to Asha, these guys make up Aberdeen’s largest population.
This cute guy came right up to me during our Dunnottar walk.
This cute guy came right up to me during our Dunnottar walk.
I tried so hard to get a better shot of these Scots in their kilts -- HOT!
I tried so hard to get a better shot of these Scots in their kilts — HOT!
Aberdeen is the 3rd largest city in Scotland and it became immediately apparent that the city and its inhabitants suffer from a bit of low self-esteem, I think because Edinburgh is so damn beautiful and cultured and Glasgow has become a hip and more happening city. Well, let me tell you that I found it charming and the darker grey granite buildings weren’t depressing but added to the mystery you sense in Scotland and candidly, it didn’t matter because I’d hang out with my girl Asha anywhere. Asha and I had an epic catch up over wine, beers, great Scottish whisky and lots of food so clearly not everything changes after college. We did a day trip to acharming town called Stonehaven set on the coast, home to some adorable cows and the famous Dunnottar Castle. A note on Dunnottar, it’s a 15th Century fortress where some films were shot, including Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet made in 1990 starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close. My taxi driver to the airport was Gibson’s body double for all of the horse riding scenes in that movie and had a 3 month brush with the Hollywood life and shared that “Mel Gibson’s a bit of an asshole (probably an understatement), Glenn Close was as nice and as professional as could be (TRIBE PRIDE!) and Zeffirelli was one of the nicest, kindest and most generous people. The driver also told me another incredible story that Zeffirelli was a POW during WWII and his cell mate was a man from Aberdeen whom he hadn’t seen since their release and the driver took him to see this man who still lived in Aberdeen and the two of them had the most emotional reunion!  Zeffirelli, a legendary filmmaker claimed it was the highlight of his life.  And while my reunion with Asha was certainly not as long awaited nor as emotionally charged as Zeffirelli’s, it was still pretty damn special and so worth a trip to the great city of Aberdeen (I’m leading a pro-Aberdeen campaign).

I really loved Scotland. The experience is bit like drinking their whisky, it feels warm, a little dizzying and you leave wanting a bit more.

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Living La Vida London

It’s hard to believe that this was my first time in London since it’s one of those cities that everyone seems to have have stories about visiting or living there for what they’ve often described as one of the “best times of (their) lives”.

Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge

But before I share my own London tales, I have to begin with what was my most bizarre passport control situation to date.  I arrived in Standsted Airport, one of London’s smaller regional airports, which is often preferable especially when Heathrow is a notoriously challenging airport to navigate.  The line was short and there was only one baggage claim area, so I was feeling pretty great about Standsted.  That is, until I got to the passport control window and the immigration officer began asking me a series of personal questions that I found not only intrusive but downright ridiculous.  Here’s an annotated version of our exchange:

Officer:  “So, I see that you’ve been traveling the past few weeks.  What brings you to London?”

Me:  “Yes, I’m lucky enough to travel in Europe for the summer!”

Officer:  “I see.  What is your occupation?  Are you married?”

Me:  “Well, I worked for a media/entertainment company, but I don’t anymore.  Um…no not married.”

Officer:  “Why did you leave your job? Do you have a boyfriend? How long are you traveling?”

This interrogation  went on for about 10 more minutes until I found myself confessing to this officer about how hard it is to meet a good guy and that it was a really tough decision to leave my job but it felt right and as if that wasn’t enough, I also had to let her know how much money I had in my personal bank account.  WTF!! I realize that everyone is locking down on immigration, but this seemed over the top.

OK, back to the part where I love London.  Thanks to Facebook, my old high school friend Tuyen generously connected me with her sister and I stayed the first couple of nights with a wonderful couple named Jolie and Zack and their adorable baby girl Lavender.

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Westminster Abbey is enormous, impressive and makes me want to speak with an English accent.
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I mean, look at this place. It’s incredible.

It’s easy to see why so many people, especially New Yorkers, are obsessed with London.  There’s a familiar energy,  incredible ethnic diversity (in fact, I’m pretty sure I saw more interracial couples here than any place I’ve ever been), the hustle of people rushing through the streets, theater everywhere (side note:  if you’re wondering what The Game of Thrones cast does when they’re not shooting the show, they’re performing in London theater), restaurants and bars and yes, it’s expensive so it felt a bit like home, but much more scenic.  Sorry NYC, it’s just the truth.

Here are some visual highlights to my time in London Town.

Drinks at Gordon's Wine Bar and a delish dinner at Barrafina with the lovely Cassie Bowman!
Drinks at Gordon’s Wine Bar and a delish dinner at Barrafina with the lovely Cassie Bowman!
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The incredible gardens at Regent’s Park.
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Queen’s Garden inside Regent’s Park had the most insanely gorgeous rose garden I’ve ever seen. And yes, I did stop to smell the roses!

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Black swans!
Black swans!
Tower of London!
Tower of London!
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These houses inside the Tower square belonged to the Tudors
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This is where you can see the Royal Jewels.
This is where Anne Boleyn was executed by Henry VIII who was a total womanizing lunatic.
This is where Anne Boleyn was executed by Henry VIII who was a total womanizing lunatic.
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Camden Market on a typically dark cloudy London day
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The British Museum is enormous and free!
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Look kids, Big Ben (Parliament)!
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Inside the British Museum
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Trafalgar Square
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Bombay Pimm’s at the very delicious Dishoom recommended by literally everyone I know who’s ever been to London and now I will pay it forward and do the same.

I stayed a few days in Shoreditch, also recommended to me by many friends.  It’s a hip/happening neighborhood full of bars, street art, and as one friend described it “is bit more gritty” than other parts of the city.  I particularly enjoyed my lunch at Dishoom, an Indian restaurant that has an incredible local and US following and it did live up to the hype.  If anyone is visiting, I recommend you go to the one in Shoreditch for lunch where you’re less likely to deal with long lines.  I also made a new friend from Spain living in London and over a couple of beers we traded stories about work, travel, his love of Americans and our open/warm personalities, my love of Spain and what it’s like to live in London (not easy).

It’s impossible to see all of London in just five days, but I certainly got a good feel for the city thanks to new friends like Jolie and Zack who gave great recommendations, as well as so many of my friends from the U.S.  I’m excited to be part of the “I Love London” club and look forward to returning to this beautiful, big city.