October 23, 2012

When Worlds Collide

From October 13, 2012:

I lay in my childhood bed at home, looking up at the same white ceiling that hasn’t changed in the last 21 years.  I turn and face the stacks of Baby Sitters Club books in one corner, then gaze over at the pictures of my best friends and I at high school junior prom pasted on my wall.  The poster of New York City (with the twin towers) above my dresser, along with the magazine clippings of dancers and exotic cities taped to my closet remind me of the younger, restless me that was always looking for something more.  

I can’t sleep, as I’m feeling especially contemplative and retrospective on this night.  I’m throbbing with excitement for the next adventure (Singapore, via a 2 month layover in Portugal), apprehensive of the unknown, and nostalgic and sad for the impending goodbye.  I’ve felt this many times in the last 10 years, and somehow, it’s always been in this bed, looking up at this ceiling which is, as of yet, unchanging.  This spot has always been my starting point, my home base, my reset button.  It’s home, which I suspect has less to do with the physical location, and more to do with the unwavering love that I always find with my family. 

I’m closing this particular chapter of life in the States tomorrow.  I do notice though: these closings and goodbyes are pretty commonplace for me.  Since I was 11 months old, I’ve been waving goodbye to people I love from the deck of a boat, the rear view mirror of a car, or the window seat of a plane.  Chalk it up to having intercontinental parents.  Then marrying a man from across an ocean. And lots of traveling and making friends along the way.

It doesn’t make saying goodbye any easier - that moment of actual departure is always difficult.  But I’ve come to rely on two things to help me get through it:  1. Usually, there’s a happy hello on the other end of the sad goodbye. One always precedes the other, but on the other hand, one always follows. 2.  More often than not, I find myself reunited with those I love sooner than I think I will be.  And this age of technology makes keeping in touch so much easier.     

Because it’s a fact of this intercontinental life, and a consequence of having a serious case of wanderlust, I’ve tried to change the meaning of goodbye.  In fact, I’ve decided to no longer say it at all.  I’ve come to embrace “until next time.”  

To the outsider, it seems like I keep running and spinning from one side of the globe to the other, going far away from people I love.  But I see it as the opposite: maybe I’m spinning around the globe because each new place I visit makes the big world a little smaller.  As I strip away the foreignness of each new city or town or village, and look deeper to see everything that’s similar, I realize our commonalities are much greater than our differences.  My travel brings Fulton, Missouri and Delhi, India a little closer.  My Filipina great aunt who still believes in witches, begins to exist in the same circle as my new friend, the scientist.  Maybe I hope that if I spin fast enough, squeeze my eyes shut and grab on tight to everyone I love, I’ll defy the laws of the universe and somehow bring everyone closer together.  

So, tomorrow, I will step on the plane, and settle into my seat, and take all this love from my parents, my brother, my oldest friends, my newest friends, my happiest memories from this latest USA chapter, and pull it all in nice and tight, ready to start a new round.  I will generate my own weird version of centrifugal force with my spinning, creating that magic moment when worlds collide - if nowhere else, then in my heart.  

“Perhaps we’ve become permanent expatriates- neither fish nor fowl, forever lost no matter our location. But this fluidity also means that we’re now like mermaids and centaurs- magic creatures who always know there’s another way.” Gina Hyams from EXPAT-Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad

September 15, 2012

A contest entry, just in time for a new start.

Travel blogger Nomadic Matt is giving away a 12 day trip to Prague, Budapest and Vienna (!!!!!) with hotel, train and airfare paid for the person who writes the best blog/video entry that explains why they should win the trip. 

These are my thoughts on the contest and why I should win:  

On the contest page, Matt suggests that we develop a unique angle for what we would do if we won, and I’ve spent days trying to find mine. What am I good at - what’s interesting about me? First I thought, I will do various difficult looking yoga poses in picturesque spots in every city! But the emergence of Lululemon, and coconut water has turned Western yoga into a disingenuous hobby.  Then I thought, I could offer to eat my way through each city!  But that’s a given, and I’d hate to pass myself off as a poor man’s Anthony Bourdain. 

My next idea was that I’m a voracious reader.  I could read a book about Prague IN Prague and so on…and…no.  Not good enough!

I was deep in thought about this on the way to meet my friends for lunch the other day, when I realized I had stepped off the train and walked in the opposite direction from the restaurant…for half a mile, in the city where I’ve lived for 2 years. I proceeded to turn around, and walk another quarter of a mile in a different, still wrong direction.  

My route on the way to the restaurant.  Should have been a simple line to Point B, as you can see, I took the scenic route that included Points C, D, and F. 

Annoyed, I sighed to myself.  How many times can a person get lost?  But then my annoyance turned to triumph when I realized - yes!  That’s my thing!  I will get lost every day in every city, at least once on purpose.  And document what happens when I deviate from what’s known.  I’m exceptionally suited for this task.   I can get lost walking back from the restroom in a crowded restaurant.  

Ok, I exaggerate. It’s not that I’m completely directionally challenged – I can read a map if I concentrate.  I know my cardinal directions in daylight.   

See?  Me, faithfully studying a guidebook full of maps at the Qutb Minar in Delhi.

It’s that I’m more prone to notice random interesting things around me rather than street signs.  That I prefer to follow an enticing scent down an unknown street without thinking.  That I’m likely to discreetly follow a group of locals to their regular eatery without leaving a trail of crumbs behind me, and have been known to let myself be swept away by small crowds.  

Me in purple, getting swept up in monks on Mandalay Hill, Burma.

Truthfully, in a weird way, I like to get lost.   When my agenda is empty, when I have no expectations, when all I know is that I have no idea where I am- I’ve found that’s when the really good stuff starts to happen.  Send me off to get lost in these cities!  

In Bagan, Burma, riding in more than 100F in the heat of the day.  We followed a random, questionable path that led to this beautiful temple in the middle of nowhere.  And it looks like a fairly clear path, but just in front of me, the path turned into a mix of sand, brush, sticks, and other various substances that made riding a 20 year old bicycle quite difficult, before the path disappeared altogether.

Why do I want to win/why should I?

My blog is a collection of my random travel stories…and I need new inspiration!

I should win this trip because I just put in my two weeks’ notice at my well-paid, low stress job in academic publishing so both my husband and I can travel to a new place and pursue our dreams, and at the moment I’m looking at a lot of free time.  But I’m also looking at a huge opportunity to see what else exists for me when I have no boundaries.  Just the other day Nomadic Matt posted on Facebook: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”  I have a sneaking suspicion that for the last two years we had been nowhere close to risking going too far, so now it’s time to test where that line is.  

So, my husband is pursuing architecture and what’s my dream?   I want to write and travel!  I want to write for the sake of writing, travel for the sake of being inspired.     

One hitch - I have yet to find someone who will pay me to write…but this contest is a good start. 

Why should I be sent to Prague, Budapest and Vienna?  

Simply, I’ve never been to this part of Europe.  Funny about this traveling thing– for every place I cross off my list, I add 5 more.  The more I see, the more I realize how little I’ve actually seen.  Years ago, I simply wanted to go to Spain.  Then when I spent six months in Spain, I wanted to see Italy.  Once Italy was crossed off, the whole of Western Europe became my goal.  And so it continues.  

There’s also something poetic about starting this new phase of life with a trip where I have the chance to walk down the streets of the original Bohemia.  Maybe I’ll try out a Bohemian lifestyle for a while. Love, art, music, writing.  Maybe I’ll skip the drugs and absinthe.  I once took a shot of absinthe in a tiny cafĂ© tucked behind the Coliseum in Rome at midnight and promptly lost all feeling in my legs.  Note to self: ingestion of absinthe is in inverse correlation to proper use of limbs.  

At the absinthe bar in Rome.  Obviously before taking the shot, as all limbs seem to be in working order. 

I want to see all the tourist spots that make each city so beautiful, but then I want to get lost on the way back to my hostel and find the little streets, corners and cafes that used to be teeming with artists of all kinds. 
So in addition to the seeing the winding streets, historic museums, beautiful fountains and views of these cities, I would love to: 

Visit every single palace in Prague!  The little girl in me loves palaces. The big girl in me loves palaces - I instantly want to move in to each intricate palace I see, and have fingers crossed that any day now, my husband will reveal to me that he is secretly a prince. 

My husband and I at Palacio de Sintra outside of Lisbon, Portugal.  As he is Portuguese, this would have been the perfect moment for him to let me know that the Palace was actually all his!
I couldn’t leave Prague without drinking some beer too.  Beer, palaces, and daydreaming in the plazas. Now that will give me something to write about. 

One of many Palaces in Prague - Goltz Kinsky Palace - Source: http://www.travellingbazaar.com/Prague%204.html
I would visit each library in Budapest.  As a writer, I also love to read, and I consider the library to be the greatest social invention of all time.  Free books!  Seriously!  I’ve heard Budapest has some awesome libraries, and I want to get lost in each of them.  

Reading Room of Szabo Ervin Library in Budapest - so many old books!  Source: http://robaroundbooks.com/2009/03/bookshelf-of-the-week-reading-room-of-the-szabo-ervin-library/
I would experience Vienna knowing it’s the City of Music.   As a pianist, I want to walk in perhaps the exact same place where the big guys did.  I mean, the really big ones – Mozart, Haydn, Strauss.    I want to stop for a glass of wine in a cafe and wonder if Beethoven had lines of Moonlight Sonata running through his head in that exact spot. 

Vienna: Source: http://hostelsclubblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Central-Vienna-With-Pestsaule.jpg

 So that’s the short version of why I want to win this contest: because I really want to get lost in these cities, especially at this period of change in my life, where everything seems possible – I just need a starting place.  I want to open my notebook, grab my pen, and write about it all.  

And I believe that in wandering through Prague, Budapest, and Vienna, I’ll come to realize something that I already suspect: I’m not lost, I’m only in search of a little bit of inspiration.    

Getting inspired in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, looking out over the tea plantations. 

April 26, 2012

To Whom Much Has Been Given....

One of the doormen in our building came over last night for a late night chat – Bejto from Bosnia.  The conversation focused on our desire to move from the United States to somewhere new.  Sergio and I began waxing poetic about finding what you love, loving what you do, and finding a place to live that feels 'just right'.  Bejto nodded solemnly at us, and said he knew what we meant.  He began to tell us about the time in his life when he also was on a journey to find a place to live that was just right.  In the 90’s. As a refugee from the Bosnian war.  Choosing between a destroyed home country, a refugee camp in Switzerland, and relocation to Serbia.  As a Muslim. 

He stretched his arms over his head, trying to remember in what month he, his wife, and his newborn daughter had decided to leave the Swiss refugee camp.  His short shirt sleeves bunched up, revealing the scar on his upper left arm where a bullet from a sniper went in one side and out the other, during a shootout in the war.  He then wrapped his hands around his water glass and described his life in those days: how hard it is to go back to your country after a war has bombed and shelled it to nothing, and why he ended up here in the first place.  He didn’t tell his story sadly, with drama, or as a martyr. He just described to us how it was, as a fact of his life.  

I listened to him speak, our panoramic view of Lake Michigan sparkling behind him, my stomach full after I complained of having “eaten too much” for dinner, and I was immediately humbled.  And so grateful.  Grateful that I, through no real effort on my part, have a life in which I can pursue such lofty ideals as happiness and personal fulfillment.  

Sergio and I are two people of many who have been given the main things we need to achieve what we wish.  So far, we’ve never dealt with hunger, poverty, violence, discomfort, or war – not in the true sense of these words.  We can dismiss America and its land of opportunity as materialistic, corrupt, insincere, and “not our thing”.  But we see America differently than a refugee from a warring country sees America. Or a kid on a small island in the middle of a third world country.  It seems trite to tell a man who works 18 hour days, 6 days a week that work isn’t everything in life.  That we just want to do what we love.  That we want to follow our dreams.  These kinds of sentiments change meaning in the face of actual struggle. 

I’m not looking at Bejto with pity.  Things are the way they are; each person deals with what they have to deal with.  And I’m not saying we’re wrong to act and think the way we do, in our own circumstances.  I’m only saying: that conversation shifted the way I see my own world. 

I’m grateful that I turned out to be damn lucky. Lucky to be born in the right place at the right time; lucky to have parents who sacrificed and worked hard every single day to make sure we never knew what it meant to truly need something, who made us Priority Number 1. And it’s precisely because all these things have been handed to me, to us, that we feel a great responsibility to actually do something with it all.  

During a Dave Farmar Power Yoga podcast the other night, lying in a pool of sweat on my mat in my clean, warm, lovely living room, Dave said: 

When you must you can, and if you can, you must.  

This idea we’ve had for the non-profit in the Philippines has unfortunately been pushed aside these last few months by more pressing matters: the concerns and habits that keep us busy in the day to day.  But the idea itself is still brewing, ready to jump into action as soon as possible.  

We absolutely can.  So we definitely must. 

Stay tuned for more regular posts, and the slow but sure development of something new. 

February 1, 2012

The Rain in Spain

Two Sundays ago marked 7 years since the day I waved sadly to my family, stepped through airport security and onto a plane alone.  I turned away from everything familiar and easy to spend six months in a country where normal festival activities include running away from angry bulls, small children and drunk adults brandishing fireworks and other explosives, and ruthlessly throwing tomatoes at fellow revelers in tiny cramped streets.  

A country where they speak an entirely different Spanish than what was taught to me throughout 6 years of Spanish classes (vale, what?) Where laughter is written out jajaja, where girls have mullets and tiny white pants, and  the only things needed for an unforgettable party is a corner of the Plaza de la Virgen and bottles of €1.50 wine.  Where they socialize in the streets, close everything down for part of the day and, as I’ve come to realize, have perfected the art of living.  

I stepped on the plane 7 years ago to begin six months studying abroad in Valencia, Spain.

I did everything an American girl in a study abroad program is supposed to do.  My experiences were both utterly generic, and singularly amazing.  I moved into a small apartment with four international roommates and at times had double that amount of people living in the space.  

I danced the nights away, drank tequila and cheap wine, had dinners that consisted of Milka chocolate bars and bread.  I lounged on the beach during the day or had lingering picnics in parks that lasted until twilight.  I had deep, soul baring conversations with people whose names I couldn’t pronounce, let alone remember.  I flirted in Spanish, kissed in Italian, fell in love in Portuguese, and realized that music is one language that everyone speaks.  I sang in the streets, and laughed like crazy, but most of all, I was simply….me.

As my parents like to point out when the subject comes up, the time was light on studying and heavy on partying and general hedonism.  Put thousands of young, adventurous travelers in a warm Spanish city on the Mediterranean and, well, what else could be the outcome? But even with the paucity of time spent in an actual classroom, I maintain that it was the greatest learning experience of my academic career to date.  

Did I learn the nuances of Spanish Regional Economy 101 or how to conjugate the past participle of the verb To Be?  My actual grades from that time say no - but I picked up more verb tenses in a dark bar talking to an attractive native speaker, than from endless classroom repetition.  I also learned the nuances of myself.  For the first time, being half Filipina/half American was something that I needed to embrace as an actual identity, not just something that made me different and therefore weird (in my hometown), or slightly exotic and therefore probably Hawaiian (in college).  I became exactly who I was meant to be and in doing that, opened up to things that I imagine I was always meant to do.  

Six months flew by in a blur, and my stories from that time are full of inside jokes and “you just had to be there moments”, but my first Spanish road trip is an anecdote that captures the spirit of the whole time there:

First week of February - Carnival.  

Carnival - the older, bigger and better cousin of the American Halloween or Mardi Gras fell on a day in early February about two weeks after I arrived.  So, I did the rational thing and piled into a rented SUV with two other Americans, a Dutch girl, an Israeli, and a Spanish guy to make the 6 hour road trip to Cadiz, THE place to be for the Carnival celebrations.  

We took our time getting down there, sleeping on the couch/floor of a friend of a friend’s apartment some nights, sleeping in our jeep others, and finally splurging for a hostel the night of my birthday.  We drank Sangria in the car on the way down, pulled into random vineyards for lunches, made friends wherever we went.  We drove happily into Cadiz just in time for the party to start.  We all bought random costumes on the streets and began to make our way to the city center to join in the party. 

We squeezed through the packed streets of Cadiz drinking, dancing, and toasting.  When we had had our fill of cheap liquor and random costumes for the night, four of us met up and made a decision to walk back to our lodging for the night – our vehicle.  It’s safe to say that a night of partying (for some of us) and a general inability to point out North (for me) inhibited our leisurely walk to our destination.  None of us could quite agree on where we had left the jeep hours before, and we wandered around for quite a while trying to figure it out.  Because the universe loves nothing more than a good laugh, it began to rain as our patience with each other grew thin.  

So, there we were, four angry foreign exchange students wandering the streets of Cadiz, lost, wet, and until two weeks ago – strangers.  As we were standing at an intersection, glaring at each other through the raindrops, at a complete standstill, laughter suddenly overcame me.  Not just a smile, but uncontrollable giggles began wracking my body.  I was laughing at the ridiculousness of being angry at the world while the curls from my a giant blonde afro wig kept falling over my eyes, laughing at a new friend trying to be serious while strands of his neon pink wig blew into his mouth obscuring his words, but really I was laughing because that time last month I had been sitting in a classroom, learning something mildly interesting, pretending that the upcoming night out in a small town bar was just what I needed, and stuck in a rut.  But now, I was wandering the streets of some random town in Spain with people I hardly knew, away from any familiar comforts, lost, cold, wet, and…happy.  Something in me was set free through that laughter, and it stayed free for the rest of the time in Spain.  We finally straightened ourselves out that night and somehow made our way back to the jeep for a fitful night of wet sleep and a new experience to start the next six months off right.  

I have many more stories like that, and each one still makes me laugh to this day, but pictures are worth a thousand words as well, so here’s a glimpse: 

We loved with abandon the entire time we were there.  There was no preconception of who we were supposed to be, what we should be doing, or where we had come from.  In leaving behind everything  we were... surprisingly,  we could do anything we wanted.  

 For another example of complete freedom, check out these guys and their documentary: 

"A free man is someone who is true to himself. Who follows his dreams and turns them into reality. You have to put fear to one side – it will always be there, but you have to follow your path.  It’s all possible if you put enough energy into it.  A free man, to me, is someone who, who tries to make his dreams come true." - Tancrede Melet

These guys are light years ahead of me and amazing at what they do.  For a girl who is prone to falling over while walking on solid ground, going to Spain was my personal equivalent of high lining solo for the first time – removing my harnesses and safety nets to realize how much more was possible.  

So, on my 7 year anniversary of the beginning of that trip (can it really have been 7 years?!), I offer a tribute to everyone with whom I crossed paths those six months, at a time when we were all really free - free to love, free to live, free to do whatever the hell we wanted.  And it was awesome.  

And here’s to an attempt to recapture that energy, to allow ourselves now the freedom to accomplish those random, seemingly impossible goals that come into our heads when we let them.  Here’s to the freedom to stop acting as if the ground below us will unwaveringly always be there and to begin to act how we would if the only thing supporting us was a single, one inch length of string.