Friday, June 19, 2015

Home Scary Home

Nine Americans were murdered in a church in Charleston, South Carolina this week because a racist white man had a gun and the privilege to use it. This country that I call home makes me sick. And it makes me scared. Not so much for myself, as I am draped in the security of white skin. But for my friends around the world. Fellow travelers who might someday wish to visit the United States and tour its majestic national parks and grand cities.

"I'm afraid to go to the US. People are always getting shot there," the woman next to me on the plane said. We were enroute from China to New Zealand last December and after ten hours of sitting silently side-by-side we finally started up a conversation over breakfast. I learned that her name is Agnes. She is a mother of six --three sons and three daughters--and was headed to Auckland for her son's wedding.

Agnes is the perfect example of everything American news gets wrong. She is a magistrate from Nigeria. Her husband served as the ambassador to South Korea and they'd lived in Seoul for three years. She speaks English with a beautiful accent and carries herself like a queen--a thought that made me chuckle as I remembered the emails from alleged Nigerian princes who cannot spell. As I starred at my free airplane breakfast, she lamented its inadequacy. "We eat big meals in Africa," she told me. I offered her my bread roll and yogurt, which she happily devoured.

We talked about the misconceptions people have of different places. No matter how many places I travel, I continue to be surprised by the unconscious stereotypes I hold. Agnes shared in my frustration. "CNN is always giving negative reports of Nigeria," she explained. "Is that why it exists?" she asked, genuinely bewildered by the misrepresentation of her homeland in western media.

And yet, she was terrfied to visit the US, convinced she would be shot. I told her that as a black woman, the chance she'd be shot by our police was probably less than if she'd been a young man. She nodded knowingly. But the Charleston shooting this week has once again proved me wrong. Beautiful black women and men dressed in their Sunday best are also gunned down in the US. Agnes would not be safe here. In fact, I would be safer in Nigeria than she would be in my home country. And that makes me angry.

As we prepared to exit the aircraft in New Zealand, she asked a tall young man to help get her suitcase down from the overhead bin. "He reminds me of my son," she said. "Except my son is black and he is white," she added. They had the same physical build and were about the same age. It surprised me when she said that though. Growing up in the US, it never occurred to me that two people with different skin colors might have more in common than not. But the more I travel, the more I see the truth of this. Like the little brown girl I met in Nepal whose spunk and laughter reminded me of my niece. And the black man who treated me like his younger sister even though we'd just met.

Before Agnes walked off the plane, we exchanged email addresses--both She invited me and Josh to visit her in Nigeria and I asked her to get in touch if she ever comes to the USA. And then she opened her black rolling suitcase and pulled out a handmade bead bracelet for me from Nigeria. No matter how far I will travel, I am grateful to have met Agnes and I hope to see her again. But after the recent massacre here, I think it will have to be in Nigeria because I am scared of what would happen if Agnes came to the US.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

An Empty Desert Lake

The valley was green and brown, with signs proclaiming drought as we drove through California's Central Valley. Over the grapevine with the engine whining we crossed into Southern California where a controversy over water rights has raged for decades. As we turned east, chasing the distant lights of Las Vegas, pastel pink and periwinkle mountains rose out of the desert foreshadowing the beauty we were to find at Lake Mead.

We'd been warned not to visit Lake Mead this year. Water levels are at an all-time low, the lowest since the Hoover Dam was constructed and Lake Mead was formed by flooding the valley now hidden in its shifting waters. But we persisted, eager to get our sailing Hobie Cat kayak onto water. We envisioned sailing into tight canyons and seeing the southwest rock layers up close and personal.

Our boat, the Queen Bee, followed that yellow line from Temple Bar past The Temple, a large rock outcropping, through the somewhat narrow Virgin Canyon before coming to rest at a lovely sandbar just outside Hualapai Bay.
What we found was a massive lake, rimmed with colorful rocks showing the many levels the lake has rested at and then receded from over the years. The water lines resemble rings on a dirty bathtub, with invasive zebra mussel colonies hanging on for dear life twenty and more feet above the lake's surface. The tight twisty fingers we looked forward to floating in were dried up and instead looked like canyons rising out of the lake.

Enjoying the mesas and pretty clouds on a sunny day from the comfort of our boat.

In our three days on the lake, we saw just three other boaters, all in power boats speeding along in a hurry to get somewhere, I don't know where. One boat was piloted by a gentleman we'd met at Temple Bar when we were simultaneously launching our watercraft. He'd motored out into the lake to find us and make sure we were okay. We assured him we'd brought plenty of provisions and were self-sufficient, perhaps even better equipped than those back in the tiny outpost we'd left.

Our two nights of backcountry kayak-camping were superb. After sailing We set our camp up on a sheltered beach with lovely 360-degree views. Between our 4-man tent, our outdoor rug, our camp chairs and table set, our sun shelter and our doorstep swimming beach, it was like a private palace in the desert.

After sweeping aside some rocks and smoothing out the sand, we had a lovely foundation for our indoor/outdoor, sun-shaded, pop-up, backcountry cabin.

Our only visitors, apart from the concerned stranger, was a curious duck that swam by each evening. The first night as I lay comfy in our tent reading a novel, I heard an animal noise in the distance. It sounded like a howling coyote at first and I was very excited. Then the noise shifted to that of a donkey (wild burros are common at Lake Mead), before eventually revealing it's true source--a couple of lost cows calling out in anguish.

The sunset from our campsite was peaceful and placid, like we were the only people on the planet.

Our final sail started off with light winds and ended with gusts and water waves so strong that my entire cockpit filled up with water. The boat became a floating bathtub and I opted to sit on the trampolines and laugh like a hyena while the cold water pelted me and Josh sailed us back to dry land. It was an epic ending to our incredible adventure on Lake Mead.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Returning to Childhood Haunts

My hubby spent several of his formative years living in southern Humboldt County amidst the redwood trees and fog. So as we planned our travel route from the Pacific Northwest to Southern Utah, it came as no surprise that he wanted to take the coastal route and revisit some of his favorite childhood haunts. First up was Prairie Creek and Fern Canyon, which I blogged about already. These two destinations were places he'd taken me early in our romance and I enjoyed reliving those old times with him. Plus, seeing elk up close always makes me smile.

Our second day on the Northern California coast found us in places both familiar and new to me, as we continued along the pathway to Josh's childhood. Driving south on Highway 101, we hugged tight to the coastline and enjoyed sweeping views of rocky shores. Our first stop was at Patrick's Point State Park to take in the epic coastline and so I could pee while surrounded by wildflowers. (You know you would too if given the option.)

Pretty pink heart flowers spring to life on this Manzanita bush.

At Avenue of the Giants, we left the highway and meandered between the big trees and tiny towns enveloped within Humboldt Redwood State Park. A short hike in Founders Grove filled us with awe and harkened us back to both our childhoods spent measuring our smallness against the massive tree trunks. I recalled a grade school trip where it took all 28 of us kids holding hands outstretched to fully hug a redwood tree. And Josh and I laughed as we drove by scenes we'd photographed more than a decade ago on our first coastal California roadtrip together.

Josh's 6'3" stature is nothing compared to these old redwoods, which were much too tall to get all in the photo. You'll have to imagine them reaching three times as high into the blue sky.

The hollow in this tree is big enough to build a fort inside! Too bad that's against the rules here.

And then we pushed onwards to Redway, a small town where Josh's mom once worked in a bead shop. We drove down the narrow streets trying to identify the house he once lived in, before heading west on a winding road. The road ends at the bluffs of Shelter Cove, where we intended to camp in a public campground overlooking the shoreline that Josh had remembered fondly from his youth. To our disappointment, that campground had disappeared in the 25 years since he was last in Shelter Cove and so we made do with a grassy lawn set away from the bluff. (It was the only tenting option in town and we were much too weary to drive back inland in search of something else, although we wavered for a few minutes.)

Our campsite near one of the only trees in the park. It wasn't private but it was available and that was good enough for one night.

Luckily we came prepared with a nice bottle of sparkling rose from our favorite winery in Oregon's Applegate Valley. And so as afternoon turned to evening I joined Josh in his brown hiking pants and black soft shell jacket traversing the dark rocks that form tide pools just below the crest of Shelter Cove. Behind us yellow mustard flowers and purple prickly thistles climbed the exposed sandy hillside. And beneath my feet, gray polished pebbles filled my slip-on shoes as the sun warmed my shoulders. We listened to the waves crash and tumble against the rocks and a lone gull screeching on the breeze. The salty sea air filled my nose, displacing the earthy scent of redwood forest we'd left behind that morning. The world felt complete as I sipped my wine while watching a momma seal and her young pup play in the rollicking waters.

Seals and seal pups playing in the cold Pacific Ocean. This shot is from the next day at Seal Rock, just a short drive from our campsite, still in Shelter Cove.

Then, hand in hand, Josh and I climbed back up the cliff and returned to our campsite to make dinner and watch the fog roll in, hiding any view of the ocean and wrapping us in its chilly embrace.

Enjoying some Oregon wine from my sippy cup at the retired Cape Mendocino Lighthouse which now stands on the edge of Shelter Cove. I felt a little ironic drinking wine here as the lighthouse door sported a hand-lettered sign announcing Thursday AA meetings upstairs.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Hello from the Road

After a year of traveling abroad (off-and-mostly-on), we are back in the United States exploring our backyard and beyond. A recap of the first month:

  • On March 26, we arrived in Seattle at midnight and spent the next 19 days catching up with old friends; visiting our doctors, dentists and physical therapists; and enjoying all that Seattle has to offer in the springtime.
  • By Tax Day (April 15 for you international readers), we were headed south to see Josh's family in Oregon and then his brother and our nieces and nephew in Redding, California.
  • 4/20 brought us back north to the Applegate Valley in Southern Oregon for some paragliding and welcome conversations with our pals there. It was like returning home after a year away and I was so thankful to reconnect with the community and landscape that helped nurse me back to health after my accident last year.
  • The following Sunday, April 26, we said farewell to Oregon's wine country and drove the winding road past deer and redwood trees into coastal California. In my mind, our roadtrip began there, in Prairie Creek, California--having already driven more than 900 miles from our home base in Seattle, Washington.

One of several vistas we ogled on the drive along California's wild north coast. These yellow mustard flowers always remind me of my dad who, regardless of the times I picked bouquets for him, is allergic to them.

Prairie Creek

We arrived in the mid-afternoon on a sunny spring day. The golden grasses glowed in the fields, the redwood trees towered in the distance and we were in search of a campsite with a beach view and a flat place to pitch our tent. We settled for a slightly sloping sandy tent site protected on three sides by tall green bushes with a weather-beaten and camper-engraved picnic table just a short jaunt from the ocean. It was divine.

Our plush camping palace complete with plastic outdoor rug and plenty of space for us and our crap inside.

While I drew, Josh walked on the beach. Then together we loaded up into our overloaded Subaru and drove the couple miles to the start of the Fern Canyon trail.

We had to ford a couple streams to get out to the trailhead. Luckily, we didn't need to unpack our boat from the roof to make it.

More than a decade ago, Josh took me to Prairie Creek and Fern Canyon on a camping trip with his high school besties. That same trip, his friend Jonny declared us a perfect couple when I emerged from our tent wearing a dorky headlamp which matched the one Josh sported. Little did Jonny know that thousands of other practical outdoorsmen rely on headlamps, and little did we know that Jonny's declaration would be proven out over the following many years. But I digress.

The hike up Fern Canyon at the end of April this year was beautiful. The ferns flanked the hillsides--albeit not as densely as in pre-drought days--and the winding canyon and its creek provided amble opportunities for Josh to show off his strength as he piggybacked me over the wettest stretches. You see, although my feet are about 75% back to normal, I still need to wear sneakers when I hike, while Josh can skip upcreek in his trusty Chaco sandals.

My matching top and sneakers was a happy accident; the smile plastered on my face is the result of our adventurous life.

On our return to the car, we met an unperturbed juvenile elk peacefully grazing alongside the trail. For more than ten minutes we watched him chew green grass, pose for photos, and generally do his elk-thing while wild children and loud adults hiked past just feet away. I was amazed that a 800+ lb creature calmly devoured his vegetarian dinner while I gazed on. This was one of the highlights of my day and probably even of the week. What can I say? I love wildlife.

So I drew the elk and all his velvet-horned glory.

Back at camp that night we feasted on sausage and vegetables grilled in a single pan and eaten straight from it to avoid any unnecessary washing up. The evening ended with stars overhead and comfy sleeping bags beneath us. Our Western States road trip was off to a good start.



Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Weekend in Redding, California

The first multi-day stop on our Western US Road Trip brought us to sunny, hot Redding, California. Or "almost Oregon" as I call it. Redding is not on most people's list of top travel destinations, but for us it is a must-do adventure. You see, we have family there. Fantastic family. And friends, too. But you can have fun in Redding, even if you don't have family there.

The Highlights

1. Fishing at Whiskey Town National Recreation Area

2. Watching kids play soccer

3. Wading up Cow Creek

4. Visiting the Sundial Bridge

5. Jumping at Rare Air Trampoline Park

Plus, we celebrated our nephew's 9th birthday at a Mexican restaurant, complete with a rendition of Happy Birthday sung while the the birthday boy doned a velvet sombrero.








Monday, April 20, 2015

The Art of Travel

One of the joys of having 24 hours of day to do as I please is choosing to actually spend time doing the things I love. Like making art. I have been drawing, painting and otherwise crafting nearly my entire life. My parents enrolled me in after school art classes in elementary school and I took art as an elective class throughout junior high and high school. I even earned a 5 out of 6 on the International Baccalaurette Art exam (not quite perfect, but good enough!). And I will never forget the junior college art teacher who told me that I should pursue my line art in a Fine Arts program at a respected Unviersity.

Of course, I was much too sensible to go to art school. Instead I got my BA in Environmental Studies, after relizing that my initial major (Architecture) was not for me. It makes sense. I love nature and I don't want us humans to ruin it.

But I also love draw. Not surprisingly, I have drawn and painted a lot of nature landscapes and animals over the years.

And now, with all my extra free time, I have created a regular practice of drawing. For the last month, I have completed at least one drawing nearly every day. And in doing so, I have cultivated a sense of peace and satisfaction within my self. As luck would have it, my artwork is also bringing smiles to the faces of people I care about.

My "daily critters", as one friend calls them, are a happy tree in the sometimes-dark and hostile forest of social media. And they exist not just digitally, but on crisp white paper and inky black relief.

If you are wondering how you can get one of these little works of art for yourself, you'll have to wait awhile longer for the universe to share its answer. The devil is in the details and frankly I much prefer drawing to figuring out how to sell my art. But I did take one leap forward into the technological age of art. I put down my inky pen just long enough to digitally remaster two of my favorite drawings as t-shirt designs!

The moral of the story here is that having more time, means doing more of what you love, which opens up the possibility of sharing your passions and talents with others. And if the stars align in my favor, it might even lead to more time and funds for travel and doing all the things I love. A virtuous cycle indeed!


Friday, April 10, 2015

My kind of double-header

Today was a double-header and not of the baseball variety. One of the best things about being back in Seattle is knowing where to go to get my art fix.

First up today? Bellevue Art Museum. They have an exquisite exhibit of Madeleine Albright's pins. For those who don't already know, Madeleine Albright was the US' first woman Secretary of State (1997-2001). And she loved to wear pins and broches. In fact, she used them to communicate her intentions, disposition and feelings in diplomatic and political arenas. She wore pins with bees when she was feeling fiesty, angels and butterflies when she wanted to communicate hope, and lions when it was a time for courage.

In addition to adorning herself with animal pins, she also wore flowers, American flags and even a pin symbolizing the shattering of the glass ceiling. Suffice to say Madeline Albright is one of my heros and getting to see a smattering of her pin collection today was inspiring. Beyond the hidden (or not so hidden) messages in her selections, many of Madeleine Albright's pins are also impressive works of art. Like the 3-inch mosquito pin with moving parts, the articulated jaguar which she wore draped across her shoulder and the red modern-looking fox brooch.

Act two of my arts double-header today was a circus show put on by the talented IMPulse Collective. Through the telling of a story about the forgotten figments of our imagination, embodied in the imaginary friends that have been abandoned by their creators, the audience got to experience the joy of adults at play. The performers are all staff at the School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts (SANCA) and the show included impressive juggling scenes, dramatic aerial silks and rope performances, contornism, a graceful dance routine with a huge metal hula hoop, among other hard-to-master routines.

The show's message about play, friendship and imagination hit home for me. I fondly recalled the aerial arts classes Josh and I took prior to our world travels and how I delighted in seeing what new tricks my body could do. Getting stronger and more fit had a purpose and that purpose was to play and enjoy life.

As Josh and I prepare to hit the road again, this time on a tour of national parks and beautiful places in America's Southwest, I am doubling down on my commitment to have fun and enjoy life. Be it by learning about the unconventional ways art can help us communicate with others, drawing animals in my various sketchbooks or playing outside like a little kid, I intend to seek happiness and enjoyment everyday.

I hope you will continue to join us on our journey to discover and follow our passions. And I hope you'll share your own adventures in finding happiness in the comments section of this blog, on Facebook or by emailing us.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Illusion of Productivity

One of my highest values used to be productivity. I say "used to be" because I recently gave it up. And not for Lent. I gave it up for good. I will no longer allow myself to be hobbled by the illusion of productivity.

So what does productivity have to do with a travel blog? Everything, I believe. Or rather, nothing.

Travel is the spice of life. (Plus, this post needed a photo.)
Traveling for the sake of seeing and experiencing the world is by necessity not a practice in productivity. Although I sometimes see people take that approach. They make a list of places to see and they tick them off as quickly as possible.
I, too, am a list maker, type-A gal that I am. But when I'm traveling it is supremely difficult to decide when I've experienced enough of a place to check it off my list. "Been there, done that," are words I rarely utter. Instead I know I've only grazed the surface of the dozen or so countries we've visited this year. A few of them I deemed Places of No Return. That is, places I don't feel compelled to explore more. But I definitely don't think I know those places through and through. I hardly know my own backyard.*

When I was in Seattle this February for a short visit, several colleagues asked me how it feels to travel and not produce anything. And they weren't being rude. They too were eager to chuck "real life" and explore the world, but feared they'd feel lost without a daily purpose. I totally understand. I feared the same when we started this adventure.

I have always prided myself on being highly productive, a hard worker, strategic, a valuable employee and colleague. But the truth is, for all the hours and heartache I have poured into work, there are very few lasting impacts that I have made in my career. Sure, I have raised money for worthy organizations, helped people get to work and school, created compelling arguments for good causes and given 100% of myself almost every minute I've been on the clock. But in the grand scheme of life, my productivity has created only an illusion of success.

In the last 14 months of travel, I have created new friendships, improved my marriage, expanded my self-awareness and just enjoyed life. I have seen new places, explored distant horizons and tried things I never dared to dream of doing (like kiteboarding, living on a sail boat, and writing a first draft of a novel). I have spent this time enriching my life and finding happiness. And I've even had energy to do good things for others.

And you know what? People still seem to like me. They don't care that I haven't slaved away in front of a desk all day. Or that I have slept in at least every other day all year. They don't hate me for pursuing happiness or for abandoning my to-do lists. I still send cards on birthdays, tell my friends and family that I love them, and help Josh with the dishes and laundry.

At the end of the day, life is about so much more than being productive. And I'm thankful to have taken the plunge to discover what else awaits when I let go of western measures of success and follow my own path. If you take anything away from this blog, I hope it is the inspiration to follow your own heart--down whatever winding and rocky path it might lead you.

* Note: We will be working to expand our knowledge of our backyard--the US West--this spring. A road trip is in the works. More on that later.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Choosing Happiness

I choose happiness. Every day. And some days are harder than others.


Yes, you read that correctly. I do have hard days sometimes. While traveling. And not working. And generally living the life that many people dream of. And yet, sometimes I get in a funk.


But here's the secret.


I choose happiness. Every day.


And you can too.


That doesn't mean I pretend everything in the world is perfect. Let me clear--shit is not perfect.


But I can't change everything overnight. My magic wand has gone missing.


So instead, I choose to focus on the positive. To let myself be happy in a world full of pain and suffering. To be thankful for my health, my friends and family, the flowers blooming in the streets, the cuddly cats on YouTube, the AC in my rental house, the food in my frig, the ink in my drawing pen.


In chaotic times, I can control one thing: my choices. And I choose happiness.


I hope you will too.


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Travel as an anecdote to stereotypes

We all have stereotypes about people and places, as much as we'd like to believe we don't. These stereotypes are intended to help us navigate a complex world, but in practice they often get in the way of actually experiencing it. For me, travel is one of the ways that I challenge the stereotypes that I've been fed. And when I strip away the stereotypes, I find that life is much less stressful and infinitely more delightful.

I don't know why, but I am obsessed with bathrooms (here and here). Perhaps it is because I use them every day and as much as I'd rather forgo the experience sometimes, I cannot get by without them.

At home in Seattle, bathrooms seem relatively predictable. I know there will be a western-style toilet with a built-in flusher, that I'll find free toilet paper, and there will be a sink with soap and something to dry my hands. And yet even though this is my stereotypical American bathroom, not all bathrooms back home are the same:

  • Some toilets automatically flush, while others have a handle or button to press.
  • Some sinks turn on when you wave your hand underneath, while others you turn on with a lever or press a button to dispense a set amount of water.
  • And some bathrooms have paper towels on a roll or as individual sheets, while others offer a "greener" air dryer in one of several form factors. (My favorite is the one where you insert your hands and slowly pull them out while watching the water droplets fling into the abyss.)
But for me, all these differences meld into a single stereotype of a western (or normal) bathroom. And this predictably is soothing. I never stress about going to the bathroom back home, but having to pee in a new place abroad used to give me nightmares.

After years of foreign travel, I have come to expect different sorts of bathrooms in different places. In Asia, I expect a squat toilet with no toilet paper and a sink with no soap or way to dry my hands. In airports, I expect toilet paper and soap, but no towels and the occasional automated flusher and/or sink system. In Europe, toilets generally have two flush options (half or whole). In the backcountry of New Zealand and rural places throughout the world, I expect pit toilets with or without toilet paper and sans handwashing facilities. In Bali, I expect a western style toilet that you have to flush by pouring a bucket full of water into the loo and a trash can for your used TP, which may or may not be provided.

But the reality of a place rarely conforms to my expectations, even in the bathroom. Sometimes the bathrooms in Thailand have both western and squat style toilets, you just have to peek your head into each stall to find the type you prefer. And sometimes there is TP, it's just dispensed from a single roll outside the stalls so you have grab it in advance. Other times there is a bidet nozzle (which I still can't figure out how to use properly despite reading more than how-to article online). Occasionally the toilet has a working flusher, while other bathrooms provide a small bucket floating in a larger bucket of water for you to do the job.

But despite all these differences within Thailand and around the world, essentially all bathrooms are the same. A bathroom is a place where you relieve yourself regardless of how clean or dirty, well-appointed or lacking, the facility is. And yet, we persist in keeping stereotypes about western versus Asian bathrooms, airport versus gas station toilets and all the other varieties out there. And I wonder why we even bother since our stereotypes are the exception more often than the rule.

And it's not just erroneous stereotypes about bathrooms we hold tightly. It's stereotypes about people and entire countries that we believe, often to our detriment.

A friend of mine recently got a massage here in Thailand and concluded that all Thai massage places lack massage tables with head holes. Instead of asking for a different table, he just suffered in silence as his neck cricked up during a 90-minute back massage. When he mentioned the inadequacy of massage tables here, I informed him that some of the tables do have head holes. He was simultaneously annoyed and relieved. For his next massage, he requested a table with a head hole and was much happier.

Another time, I expected the Thai waitress at my favorite coffee shop understood my English when I asked for fried rice with pork. When I was brought fried rice with prawns, I started to protest only to back down and accept the dish as it had been prepared. The reality is that I'm in Thailand and I can't speak the local language to save my life. So when the waitress doesn't know what I want, it's my problem not hers. And yet often times, Thai people do speak good English and I can get by just fine with my three Thai phrases.

But the worst stereotypes aren't about bathrooms, massage tables or language comprehension. The worst stereotypes are those that stop you from experiencing new people and places. A few months ago I met a Nigerian magistrate (judge) on a flight from China to New Zealand. She told me that she is terrified to come to the USA because she thinks she will be shot (so many people are murdered with guns there, she informed me). I, on the other hand, am afraid to go to Nigeria for fear of being kidnapped by warlords. Had it not been for our side-by-side seats on this flight, I would never had met such an inspiring woman. And the news media does nothing to undo our stereotypes, more often than not reinforcing our inaccurate perceptions, and the result is that we miss the opportunity to form friendships with amazing people who live in places we never visit.

When traveling in developing countries, I know so many people who won't eat fresh produce even if its part of a local speciality. I understand that no one likes to get sick, but I had a rude awakening the other day when a Thai friend and restaurant owner was teaching me to make her signature papaya salad. I had put too much garlic in the bowl and reached in with my hand to fish some out. She scolded me for not using a spoon and contaminating the food with my hands. Who knew that my food hygiene was subpar? Luckily, the papaya salad didn't make me sick and I got to enjoy very fresh vegetables despite being in a country with unsafe tap water.

The reality for me is that every place is different, not just that countries are different from each other, but that people and places within each country do not conform to a single stereotype. Some Thai people speak good English, others do not. Some Balinese motorcyclists drive fast and run red lights, while others drive fast but obey traffic signals, and a few drive slow enough that I can pass them. Some western travelers are entitled assholes; some are kind and generous. Some hole-in-the-wall restaurants serve food that makes me sick and others have better sanitary practices than I do.

When I accept that I cannot predict how things will be, I find that I am less stressed out by the wackiness that is this beautiful world. And instead I have the mental space to learn new things, enjoying meeting new people and savor new experiences. I also have developed new coping mechanisms to deal with life's uncertainty. Now when I walk into a bathroom, I come prepared. I carry tissues that I can use as TP, I know to look for the free TP dispensers outside stalls, I peek into the stalls to see if a western flush toilet is an option, I check out the trash bin to see if others have flushed their TP, and when all else fails and the outdoor toilet is disgusting, I pop behind it and pee in the dirt like I'm backpacking. I try not to sweat the small stuff and I accept that sometimes I won't be able to wash my hands after using the loo, occasionally I will get sick from eating something delicious, and I will meet strangers who speak perfect English and think I live in the scariest place on the planet.

My hope for you (who have braved this long post) is that you will leave your stereotypes behind and experience a new place or take a chance on a new person. And perhaps you will find that life is not as scary as you once thought.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Piggy Goes to Market

Okay not Piggy perse, but rather a bunch of hungry farang (foreigners) accompanied by two Thai locals. Our friend Om, our favorite barkeep, set up a Thai cooking class for us with a chef from Aleenta, an expensive restuarant on the beach of Pak Nam Pran.

First stop on our cooking adventure was Om's bar where we picked the three dishes we'd learn to make: Green Curry with Seafood, Massaman Curry with Chicken, and Tom Kha Gai soup.

The next stop was the local market where we bought our ingredients and some snacks too!

Om picking out the best (read: most transculent) squid for our green curry, as Josh looks on.

Mags, Paul and I with our Thai chef stocking up on fresh produce.

Can you say spicy? I always ask for dishes my pet (not spicy).

Fresh morning glory greens are incredibly delicious!

Ready-made curries may seem like cheating but even the nicer restaurants do it.

U-pick shrimps, head and all.

Scooters parked like sardines outside the market stalls.

Juicy pineapple ready to be snacked on.

Weird meat popsicles? I'll pass, thank you very much!

My preferred snack: fresh strawberries coated in sugar and something red.

10 baht (30 US cents) for this luscious bag of tomatoes.

It wouldn't be Southeast Asia if there weren't whole fish starring in you in the face....

Or raw chicken dripping its salmonella-infested juices into a bucket....

But when you can get a bouquet of beautiful orchids for 50 cents from a smiling woman, there's no reason not to love the market!








Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Home Sweet Home

We have been travelling now for more than year and while perhaps I should be homesick, I am not. In fact, sometimes I feel like I'm home even when I'm far from Seattle.

Home for me seems now to be the places where people and customs are familiar. I don't have a physical home anymore, as we sold our house last year. And while our belongings are mostly stored in Seattle, we have things scattered across the US West.

Arriving in Pak Nam Pran, Thailand the other night it was dark, the streets were vacant, and all was quiet. And yet when I stepped off the bus, our good friend Brad was there ready to help unload our many bags from the bus as if this was a normal occurrence. Riding to our rental house in a familiar neighborhood, I didn't even notice that we were on the left side of the road.

The next evening while riding on the back of Josh's motorbike at night, I reminded him to watch out for stray dogs in the road; a fact of life in Thailand that seems to be embedded deep in my subconscious. And although our friend's bar has relocated after a tree fell on it and then it later burnt to the ground, her new bar feels like home too. She gives me a big hug when we roll up and we promise to get drunk together at least once this season. I order my favorite Thai drink--Sang Som (rum) and Manae (lime soda)--and Josh gets his (Sang Som and soda water).

I remember that 7-11 is the place to get "top up" (phone credits) for my Thai SIM card and I remember to thank the clerk with a "Kob Khun Kah." I also know how to get to my favorite coffee place, which sadly seems to have a different--less skilled--chef this year so my typical fried pork and rice breakfast is less than superb. I recognize the Thai massage place where they are a little too touchy-freely for my taste and delight in seeing the seaside massage stand still standing, knowing that I can get an incredible massage there for just $10US.

Driving on the left side of the road now seems more comfortable than being on the right. When I was in the States a few weeks ago, I was terrified to find the car on the right side of the road and had to stop myself from yelling at the taxi driver in fright. But riding my scooter is a breeze and I'm happy for the free AC while I ride around town.

There is something special about returning to a place and feeling at home, especially when you've only lived there for a short amount of your life. And while we will leave Thailand again in a few weeks, I know we will return here many more times in our life.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Underwater monsters

Bitten by a fish. Stung by jellies. Attacked by a bristle worm. Our underwater adventures took a decidedly dangerous turn this February as we returned to Thailand. And also an incredibly beautiful one.

Last week Josh and I lived aboard Wicked Diving's M/V Mariner based out of Khao Lak about an hour north of party town Phuket. Our dive time was split between the Surin Islands and Similan Islands, both top dive spots in Southeast Asia and new haunts for us. In the big blue ocean we spotted dozens of giant moray eels, plenty of octopus, school upon school of yellow and blue and silvery fishes, long skinny trumpetfish, and acres of colorful corals.

Josh also got into an altercation with a mean old Titan Triggerfish. Triggerfish are very territorial, especially when they have a nest of eggs. This is their nesting season and we got unlucky when I unknowingly floated over the nest, angering a two-foot long mama or papa triggerfish. A whooshing feeling on my leg was the first indication of something of gone awry. The next was a large eyed fish starring me down as it charged towards me. I turned and swam in the opposite direction, fortunately away from its nest. Josh, meanwhile, just looked on in awe as the triggerfish swam full speed in his direction. For some reason, Josh was convinced the fish would turn away at the last minute, a game of chicken of the sea I guess. But, alas, the triggerfish had other intentions and slammed into Josh's bicep, taking a bite out of his wetsuit and a leaving bloody teeth marks on his arm. I watched it all happen, too shocked to intervene. Happily, triggerfish bites are not poisonous. So while Josh lost a bit of his arm that day, we were able to continue the dive and just smear some neosporin on his arm when we returned to the boat.

Then they were the jellyfish on the surface. As we bobbed along awaiting retrieval by the boat after another dive, a current filled with jellyfish mangled in the boat's prop flowed towards me. I was getting stung repeatedly and it turns out so were other divers in group. By the time I climbed back on board, I had a series of bumps the size of a #2 pencil eraser all up and down my arms and legs. And that was the end of my shortie wetsuit dives. From then on out, I covered myself head to toe with neoprene and polypro and delighted in admiring the jellyfish without getting stung.

On our last night dive, Josh and I discovered a new type of sea worm, one that is drawn to the light, glows with iridescence and is covered in tiny spines like a cactus. As we swam along, holding hands and searching for the red reflective eyes of crabs, shrimp and lobsters in the dark, this evil little creature drifted down from the surface into our clutched hands. I was oblivious, cloaked in long sleeves, but Josh thought the weird sensation in his hand was my wedding ring drifting away. Sweet man that he is, he grabbed at it only to be stung by a hundred microscopic thorns which embedded themselves into the palm of his hand as the bristle worm attempted to flee its captor. In the scuffle the worm landed on the back of Josh's leg, which he then grabbed at resulting in more pricks to his hand. Eventually Josh got free of the two-inch tiny bugger and was able to dislodge most of the spines from his hand before we continued our dive. Later I spotted a second one drifting down from the surface. When it landed on a rock, it curled into a ball, then laid flat with its spines folded down. It reminded me of a porcupine or hedgehog, except underwater and not nearly so cute!

The highlight of our dive trip was seeing a manta ray at Koh Bon. Although we later learned it was small compared to some of the other mantas our dive master had previously seen, I was awestruck by its immensity. With wings spanning more than 12 feet, the manta glided through the waters back and forth, up and down, giving us quite the show! One of our fellow divers (Peter from Germany) took some incredible photos of the manta ray and is letting us share them here. Enjoy!

Massive manta ray surrounded by schooling fish. (Photo by Peter)
Mantas are so majestic. We were giddy with excitement to see one on our last dive! (Photo by Peter)

A Titan Triggerfish nibbling on the hard coral, rather than Josh's arm. (Photo by Peter)

Pretty coral and jagged clamshell.

So many fish!

Tomato clownfish among the obscenely shaped sea anemones.

Tiny fish on colorful lichen-like hard coral. I love the colors underwater!

Sea cucumber with its ruffly black feeler thingies (technical term, I swear!)

Josh showing off his bouyancy skills. Did I mention that he flew me like a kite when I was underweighted? At least one of us is good with bouyancy.

One of many creepy giant moray eels we saw. (Photo by Peter)

Believe it or not, there is an octopus in this picture. No matter how many I see, I am still amazed at the way they change colors and textures to blend in with the rocks.

Least you think we lived under the sea, here's a cool shot of our dive boat and home for 6 days. (Photo by Peter)