Giving Thanks for This Year

As an American, I love Thanksgiving. It’s the most quintessentially American holiday – we started it, and I like that we make it a priority, as a nation, to set time aside to give thanks for all we have.

And this year, I can’t help but think of all that I’m thankful for. It’s been a hell of a year (with a month still to go!), but I know I’ll look back on this year as a pivotal year in my life.

So, without further ado, here’s what I’m thankful for (not in priority order – more in the order of the year): Read more

Plot Twist: Twist Two

I mentioned a while ago that I decided not to go trekking in Nepal, and thus had a spare block of time from August through mid-October. Well, I have finally decided what to do with it!

Originally, for Europe, I had two weeks in Greece, a week in Germany, and a week in Italy scheduled. As of right now, I’m sitting on a train in Bulgaria, after spending a week in Greece!

My new itinerary is focused on the Balkans – they really are incredible, and the transit has been excellent. I can tell I’ll be able to get a lot in! I came from Greece to Bulgaria, and then I’ll go to Romania, then Hungary (Budapest), then Austria (Vienna), then Croatia, where I’ll meet up with my friend Holly!

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My Round the World Reading List

I decided for the most part to try to get books that are set in the areas where I’m going for my trip. There’s something fun about having a fictional account of a place and then seeing it in person! For me, it adds a lot more context. And then I’ve been reading books about other people traveling, and catching up on some recent stuff I haven’t read.

Thank goodness for the invention of the Kindle. And the part where you can rent Kindle books from the library! I’ve got about 15 books with me at any given time, so there’s lots of reading to do!

Here are the books I’ve read so far on the trip (and yes, some of them are not set where I’m going)

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Plot Twist: The Magic of One-Way Tickets

So the blog right now is about a week to ten days behind where I am (just a heads up… and sorry – it gives me a bit of time to get the posts put together! And some days have more than one story!).

This week, I’m in India – you’ll get to see posts soon! However, I thought this would be a good time to mention that my itinerary has changed.

Originally, I was going to go trekking in Nepal for three weeks and enjoy the Himalayas, rainy season be damned. Then I got over here, and one too many people used the word “leeches” and alas, I will be rescheduling the Himalayas for non-rainy season.

This has, however, thrown a wrench in the schedule. I planned to go from Myanmar to Nepal to India, but luckily was able to decide on an earlier India tour date (yes, I’m going with a company!). However, after India… we are in the land with no plan.

I was working with G Adventures, the tour company I’m using for India, to schedule the tour and they were asking about arrival and departure transfers. Alas, I told them I had an arrival flight but hadn’t scheduled a departure flight and I’d likely let them know by mid-week the week we are on the tour. I don’t think they get that often!

If India is less scary and overwhelming than I think it will be (which I’m hoping to figure out by mid-week), I think I’m going to go spend a week in Goa relaxing on the beaches. If I find India overwhelming, I’ll likely head to a different kind of overwhelming – Jordan.

Due to costs/entries/visas/transport/timing, I have decided I am not going to go to Israel after all (unless somehow I get over there and it just happens… who knows). So I’d fly into Jordan, go through Jordan for a few days (I won’t be spending long there – it’s crazy expensive!), and then head into Egypt. That would put me leaving Egypt sometime in late July or early August.

Leaving Egypt for where, you ask?

I have no clue. Right now, the whole block of time from early August through early October is listed as “Europe” on my itinerary. Please, please make suggestions of places to go!

I have a few thoughts, but we’ll see. I’ve thought about starting in Portugal and making my way through Europe’s wine regions – Porto, Rioja, Bordeaux, Champagne, Tuscany, etc. Tough life. This is a definite top pick, but I do worry about transport between all of those. We will see how the trains and busses are!

I’m also thinking about spending a lot more time in Greece. I’ve always been captivated by ancient history, so I think I could spend quite a bit of time there. I’ve also always loved Alexander the Great, so maybe take a detour into Macedonia.

Or, go through the Balkans (they’re safe now, Mom). Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Moldova, Romania – there is so much nature there and I think I could get my trekking fix that I didn’t get in Nepal.

Maybe I’ll spend some time in France – I’d love to discover the countryside, perhaps wander the coast, see Paris, etc. And maybe I’ll spend extra time in Italy.

I’ve also heard good things about Austria and Hungary.

In the department of wanting to send my mother to an early grave (not really!) I have been thinking about Capadoccia in Turkey – it looks amazing! I can just hear my brother’s voice as I type that… “Why don’t you just add a nice vacation in Syria while you’re at it?”

We are officially off the map now. I don’t think I’ll have any problems entertaining myself through Europe. Who knows where I’ll end up?! (But seriously… if you have any suggestions, please send them my way!)

I Hate Tuk-Tuks (And Other Cambodia Stories)

Oh Cambodia… coming straight after the Philippines, it was a bit of a culture shock. In the Philippines, almost everyone speaks English, and the areas I went were touristy but laid-back.

Then I landed in Siem Reap.

One of my friends here referred to it as “Siem Reap You Off” due to how expensive everything is and how aggressive the vendors are.

A Soapbox on Tuk-Tuks
Like the tuk-tuk drivers.

What is a tuk-tuk, you ask?

It’s this:

Each one is essentially a “chariot” on the back of a motorbike. And each carriage is constructed to be quite functional. But that’s not to be confused with comfortable.

These things are definitely made in such a way that you’d never know any sort of shock absorption had ever been invented. You say Jeeps have a rough ride? Clearly, you’ve not recently been in a tuk-tuk.

Because they’re wider than a bike, and because the bike is set in the middle for hauling the carriage, there is essentially no avoiding EVERY bump in the road. Every. Bump.

Seriously (and sorry, TMI), my bum has never been so sore as it was when I rode in a tuk-tuk for the day. At the end of the day, I just hurt.

But the vehicle itself is not the hardest part of the tuk-tuk – it’s the drivers. For tuk-tuk drivers, the temple circuit is quite lucrative. So they’re very aggressive about selling it to consumers, and seem to have a bit of a sense of entitlement that they’re the only transportation one should use for temples.

It’s hard to deal with the aggression of the tuk-tuk drivers, but there are times you see why. I saw multiple tuk-tuk drivers who actually live in their tuk-tuk. They will have a hammock to string across the carriage, and that’s where they sleep. Many of them come from the poverty of the countryside, so they’re working to send as much money home as possible.

But all the same – they’re aggressive in sales and perhaps the most optimistic I’ve ever seen. There can be six tuk-tuks in a row about 30-40 meters long, and you will say “No” to the first five tuk-tuks. Even though tuk-tuk #6 saw you say no to the other five, you will still get hassled. Got to admire the optimism!

Tuk-Tuk Art
I failed to get any pictures (crap), but one funny thing the tuk-tuk drivers will do is decorate their tuk-tuk to set them apart.

I saw two with the Audi rings painted on the back – and “S6” painted on the side. Definitely legit. Right?

There was one that had “Ferrari” and a few that had superhero themes – I saw a couple Batman tuk-tuks and a few Superman tuk-tuks. It’s a very creative way to make their vehicle stand out, and I have to say it’s probably good for marketing! I think foreigners find it funny to ride in an “Audi” tuk-tuk, so get a laugh from hiring the driver.

Cambodian Music
Before I came to Cambodia, I had not experienced Cambodian music.

It’s basically like a louder, more horn-like version of listening to a cell phone ringtone.

How do I know this, you ask?

Because the people next door to the hotel I stayed in began playing Cambodian music at a deafening volume at 6:43am. It did not stop until after 8:40pm. All day. I mean, I was out for a good part of the day, but it was so loud it was difficult to hear yourself think.

I was on the phone with Brandy during some of it, and she got to experience the joy that was that music!

Apparently, it was for some sort of celebration – either a wedding or a funeral. But it went on for two days (then I left… day 2 they started at 5:37am!), and it made me realize that I’m definitely not in Kansas anymore.

In the States, they would have been reported within an hour for being a public nuisance. And then the music would have stopped. It was an interesting cultural experience for me just because it was so different and loud. And (in my opinion) rude. But that’s a whole different post…

The Good News is I Survived

And luckily there’s really not bad news!

I feel like I need to start this post off with a brief history of my interactions with motorized vehicles – just for added context. Once we went as a family to Breckenridge, CO and decided to take some time to go snow-mobiling. Sounds fun, but alas, I almost flipped the snowmobile with my mom and I on it more than a few times, and I think we both ended up more than a little stressed. Whoops.

And then there were driving lessons… apparently, the way to start is not to ask “Which is the brake and which is the accelerator?” because I think my mom might have had a minor panic attack.

If the key won’t come out of your car, you probably shouldn’t call your brother almost panicked. He might suggest you simply place it in park.

One of my friends and I went to lunch one day, and on our way back to the office he asked “Did you really just make three right turns rather than a left turn?” The answer most certainly was “Yes.”

Suffice it to say, I’m not excellent at piloting things. I’m pretty good with a Sea-Doo, but that’s about it.

Here in Cambodia, there aren’t many ways to get around. One way is through tuk-tuk, which I found to be a giant pain. And very uncomfortable to boot.

Another is by motorbike. That still scares me.

Then I discovered e-bikes. E-bikes are motorized bicycles and I think they just have bike pedals on them to avoid licensing requirements. They are technically “bicycles” for insurance and driving license purposes. You can pedal if you want, but generally you don’t need to – it’s essentially like a motorbike but it goes a bit slower and has less exhaust. They go about 20km/h, or that’s the recommended speed for best battery life. They can go up to about 32 km/h.

What could possibly go wrong if I rented one of those in Cambodia?

Nothing, of course!

Given my excellent history with driving things, I decided it would be a fantastic idea to rent an e-bike and drive it out to Angkor Wat for my second day of temple sightseeing.

I went to the e-bike company, signed the paperwork, and handed my passport over as collateral. Terrifying. But standard practice I’m afraid…

The lady at the shop gave me about a five minute lesson on how to use the bike (and a helmet, thank goodness) and then I was off.

Except I wasn’t used to the e-bike so as I pulled out of their front sidewalk, I made a somewhat wide right turn. Right into the left lane. And had a bit of a problem getting to the right. Behind me, the lady from the shop was yelling “We drive on the right here!”

I’m praying she chalked it up to me being British or Australian or from somewhere where they drive on the left (though she had my passport, so I think I’m giving myself the benefit of the doubt to save some embarrassment).

Then I was straight into merging into traffic. Of course, the e-bike office is in downtown Siem Reap, and that’s about 10km from the Angkor Wat complex. All told, the route I planned was about 55km.

But leaving from the heart of Siem Reap meant that I had to navigate my way to Angkor Wat through the traffic in the city. Traffic in an Asian city. Where I think I’ve seen a total of four stoplights. And street signs are not a thing. Turn signals don’t seem to be either.

I stayed as close to the side of the road as I could (there’s really not a multiple lane concept here for traffic going in one direction). People just kind of go around you, and will frequently go into the oncoming traffic lane if they think that’s a fast way to get around you.

Even so, I had to make two left turns and cross about five busy streets. Doesn’t sound like much, but each one had my adrenaline racing.

I made it to the complex without issue, and decided that this was quite possibly the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened. My day of temple touring was so different from yesterday – I took my time at each temple, I wandered around, I stopped at the side of the road for pictures. It was leisurely and wonderful. Driving around on the bike was fun, and it was great to feel the breeze in the heat.

I came across the most breathtaking expanse of rice fields, and it was easy to stop and take pictures. It didn’t feel like I was inconveniencing anyone like with the tuk tuk driver.

The Angkor Wat complex does not have a ton of traffic – it’s all tourist traffic of tuk tuks, cars (a shocking number of Lexus RXs, Toyota Highlanders, and Range Rovers), motorbikes, and bicyclists. But the complex is giant and especially where I was going, there was virtually no traffic to contend with. Most of the time I had the whole road to myself.

However, you get the evil eye from every tuk tuk driver you pass. They seem to hate people who rent e-bikes, bikes, or motorbikes because it’s one less tourist that’s paying the locals to drive them around. It’s an interesting balance – I feel bad not supporting them by using a tuk tuk driver, but my experience with them has been one of inconvenience.

I spent almost the whole day going around the complex – I left the e-bike shop about 10am, and decided to head back around 5pm.

I did not think that one through.

Turns out, rush hour here is the same time as rush hour at home. So I was now navigating my e-bike back to the shop through rush hour traffic while praying that the battery lasted me the whole way.

Rush hour here is like nothing I’ve ever driven in before. The “bike” lane on the far right side was filled with people who just plopped their street food kiosk in it… so I had to merge into the main traffic to get around those.

Then there were people who decided to use their motorbikes in the bike lane so they could drive into oncoming bike traffic. (What could possibly go wrong? I have no clue what possesses them to do this but it seems to be quite common.) There were all sorts of cars, trucks, and who knows what also parked on the side of the road.

The whole thing felt like I was playing Mario Kart – I had to dodge all sorts of things being thrown at me by my opponents. It really was just like Mario Kart except for the part where it was real life.

It took me far longer to get back than it should have – I might have gotten lost in Siem Reap a few times, but I finally made it successfully back to the e-bike shop. Thank God.

As I was driving in the traffic, and just in general today I recalled a lesson from learning to snowboard. Once, when I was working on switching from my heelside edge to the toeside edge, I had a number of problems. (This was one of my first snowboarding lessons.) My instructor came over and said “Your problem is not that you can’t do it, it’s that you don’t commit to the turn. You’re afraid if you commit to it, you’ll fall – but if you don’t commit you’ll definitely fall. Decide you’re making the turn, and go all in.”

In retrospect, that’s not terrible life advice. It was very true while driving in Cambodia – if you want to cross a street with traffic coming in perpendicular, you can cross it if you basically just confidently go across the street (while there’s the lightest traffic coming). You’ll never get a spot where there’s no traffic – people here are used to that and they tend to move around for you.

But if you don’t commit, if you’re hesitant, they no longer know where and how to move around you. So when you’re being overly cautious, you’re actually putting yourself in more danger. It’s an interesting balance – you have to be aware of others on the road, but if you proceed with confidence, you can cross almost anything.

But confidence and commitment are key.

{{Side note: the bike company has no idea I wrote this post, and it’s not sponsored in any way. Opinions are completely my own, but seriously – if you’re in Siem Reap you should check them out.}}

Backpacker Moments: Adventure Outtakes Part 1

There are so many times I have to sit down, throw my head back, and laugh at what my life has become. There’s something about traveling for a decent amount of time that just brings out the funny parts of life.

Also, I think you might have the impression that this is a very glamorous life. And it is, for the most part. It’s a crazy blessing to be able to do it, and it’s been such a fun adventure. But it’s not all islands, sunsets, and adventures. Sometimes there are moments that don’t make the highlight reel… but here they are anyway. (With some random photos thrown in just because I have extra photos?)

“Solid Days”
I met a couple from the Netherlands at my hostel in Coron, and I mentioned to them that something had upset my stomach a bit. I wasn’t quite sure what it was, but they joked with me “Ah, so today is not quite solid.” I just laughed and said “Well, that’s one way to put it.”

So between the two of them, they explained to me their points scale – because yes, this is a contest. For every day that’s “solid” each one gets a point. For a day that’s not, no points. For a day they take medicine for it, that’s minus one. And they both knew exactly what their scores were at that point in the trip. I could not help but laugh so hard at this.

Travel stomach is definitely not the same as home stomach!

“Real Backpackers”
At my hostel in Coron, I was chatting with a guy from Australia – he was a really nice guy and we got to talking about my trip. He reacted to my planning with a “Wow, that’s quite a trip.” but also wondered out loud whether or not I was truly “backpacking.” To him, backpacking meant not having a schedule or plan, and having life a little rougher.

And then I realized how much “rougher” is different from person to person. For me, and probably everyone reading this in the States, what I’m doing is on the side of “roughing it” – sharing dorm rooms in hostels, trying out street food, all of that kind of stuff makes it more “backpacking.” And the Australian guy joked with me that “real” backpacking involves having more time than money and he speculated that perhaps I’m time poor and money rich. I told him that no, I’m on a budget for this trip. Yet still he looked at me.

The whole exchange left me to thinking what backpacking really means, and was an introduction to the levels of what I’ll call “travel snobbery” among backpackers. First you have real “travelers,” which means that they travel on buses, rarely take airplanes, and spend a month or more in each country. Then you also have “backpackers” who don’t have a plan but just drift from place to place on a really tight budget. As far as I can tell, these are the people who try to live in places like Thailand for less than $10/day. I think they define me as a “holidaymaker” in that they think of my trip as more “vacation” and less “travelling.”

What’s really odd to me about all of this is that having levels of travel snobbery is, I think, a defense mechanism and way to say “I’m cool and important” even though they’re not staying in nice resorts and living lavishly. And to them maybe the experience is more authentic.

It all makes me laugh because it’s all ultimately a matter of perspective. But I thought it was worth sharing the laugh. You can judge for yourself where I fit on the spectrum – I’m not sure I really care.

“Jo Malone”
When I was in the airport in Manila, I was headed to my gate and passed a Jo Malone store. I went in and smelled the perfumes, and tried one of them on. I had to laugh at how far I’ve come that just trying a perfume on made me feel so much better. There are two things I’ve really started missing from the States – one is a general feeling that I smell good, and the other is my hair straightener. My hair over here is just a mess. And I constantly am worried that I smell. Y’all – it’s hot, dirty, and very active over here.

Anyway, I considered buying a small bottle of perfume because I realized how much I liked it, and didn’t just that moment. I know I’ll have other opportunities. But it did make me realize that a lot has changed in just two weeks that simply trying on perfume did wonders for my self-esteem.

I had been thinking about the “real backpacker” conversation that day and decided that I am, in fact, a real backpacker. Whoever wants to disagree, I don’t care. I have a backpack, I’m traveling the world, thus, I’ll call it backpacking.

Then I got on the airplane to Siem Reap.

“Stinky”
I boarded the airplane in Manila to head over the Siem Reap. In my head, I definitely did not do a good job accounting for time differences and thought it was going to be like an hour and a half flight. It was three.

As we got on the plane, it was clear that it was not going to be a full flight. A nice Filipino lady was sitting on the aisle and I had the window. We looked at each other and the middle seat and commented that the seat was probably going to be open for the flight, shared a bit of a smile and relaxed into our seats.

About two minutes later, as boarding continued, a gentleman boarded who made me realized what the Australian was saying about “real” backpackers. He was wearing pants from some kind of Asian market, a sweater that looked like it had been run over by a lawn mower, and had his hair in a man-bun. And it was all in dreadlocks. Dreadlocks made into a man bun. Quite odd.

Well… you can guess where this story is going. Mr. Backpacker had the middle seat in my row. As he walked over to get into his seat, I smelled one of the worst smells have maybe ever smelled. (This, by the way, about 20 minutes after the Jo Malone store.) It was the most odorific combination of body odor, weed, and cigarette smoke. Upon smelling the marijuana, I realized why this guy needed out of Duerte’s Philippines and into Siem Reap. (Where they sell “Happy Pizza” as a normal course of events, and yes, it’s exactly what you think it is.)

I had to suppress my gag reflex, and for the first time ever, considered asking the flight attendant to move me. But I decided to tough it out. I was thinking about this guy (wondering if perhaps he might be a “begpacker”) and wondering what could possibly have prohibited him from showering in the last month. I was speculating that perhaps he was on an extreme budget.

At that moment, he pulled out his MacBook (shiny and new, clearly a newer model), and his iPhone 6 or later (couldn’t tell if it was a 6 or 7). My only thought was “Seriously?! Why haven’t you traded in your gadgets for money to buy a place with a shower?” And yes, this was extremely judgmental of me. I know. But I had to smell him for the entire three-hour flight. It was quite a long three hours.

And then made me reconsider whether a “real” backpacker is something anyone would ever want to be.

Oh, The Places You’ll Go

The Dr. Seuss quote has been ringing in my ears for the past couple of days “Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way!”

The last two days before leaving were so incredibly busy! From buying last minute supplies to making sure everything was ready with my house, I feel like I barely had a spare moment. But I also was so blessed by being able to spend some time with close friends before leaving – I got to go to lunch with them, dinner with them, and all in all – I had a fantastic send-off.

However, I also decided I wanted my house “ready-to-sell clean.” Not that I want to sell it, but I hold that up as the gold standard of having a clean house. I did not quite achieve that level of clean. The night before I left I was up at about midnight cleaning the bathtub and the shower, and spray bug preventative, and all sorts of things. It’s not perfect, but I’m happy with the way it turned out, and I think I will be VERY happy to return to it in a few months.

On Sunday morning, Brandy picked me up at my house to go to the airport, and I will admit to being a bit teary on saying goodbye. I’m so excited for everything that lies ahead of me and I’m so excited for this trip, but there’s something sad about saying goodbye to one part of your life and moving onto another. But something so, so, so exciting! I told my mom it was like when I drove away from Dallas to move to Tampa – I was so happy for what was ahead of me, but also sad to leave a great thing in Dallas. Same thing here.

When I was searching plane tickets to the Philippines, almost all of them had horrendous layovers on the way – including mine. A bit more than 15 hours – but luckily, it was in Toronto. So instead of a horrendous layover in an airport, I got to spend time with my family there. It was so wonderful to catch up – all four of us got together for dinner. And if you don’t know them, you don’t know what a feat that is! Kim and Derek spend as much time out of the country as in it, and Aunt Cathy is constantly busy with all sorts of fun things. It was just luck that everyone was in town and available, and I think we ended up having a three-hour dinner. It felt like about 30 minutes!

Kim and Derek have both traveled extensively, so I was so happy to hear their tips and suggestions – and they both laughed at the level of detail, planning and organization that has gone into this trip. Apparently it’s a bit much?

On Monday morning, Aunt Cathy drove me back to the airport for me to pick up my flight to Hong Kong. Fifteen hours on a plane – no small ordeal! I packed a few sleeping pills so I think I’ll be able to sleep for a lot of it, and once I’m in Hong Kong, I’ll head on to Cebu, Philippines. Then an overnight in Cebu and on to Siargao the next morning. All in, it will take me about three full days to get there.

So there you have it! Everything up to Hong Kong – more when I get to the other side of the world!

30 Before 30: The List

As I’m writing this, I’ve got about 50 weeks until I turn 30. My twenties have been amazing – I have no regrets, I’m happy, and I feel no need to “find myself.” But I do feel a need for fun and adventure. So I’m dedicating my 30 before 30 to having more fun and appreciating how amazing life is.

1. Cultivate an opinion on which region of the world has the best wine
I’m excited to pursue this one. I think it means drinking plenty of wine.

2. Jump off a cliff (literally)
Because why not? Read more