Travel & Adventure

Baby on a Plane

I love to travel. I also have a baby. This last summer, I didn’t get to do much traveling, although that wasn’t the baby’s fault completely. My husband is working hard at building his new business and we just didn’t have a lot of extra time.

The point is, we realized we had a plane ticket voucher that was about to expire in September and we thought, why not just take our baby on a plane? We chose North Carolina, where my oldest brother lives, as our destination, booked the tickets, packed a couple suitcases, and headed out.

It was a good decision.

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Yes, it was a little bit difficult lugging around a car seat and stroller so that we’d be able to transport him safely when we got to North Carolina. Yes, it was a pain taking the extra time to have breastmilk examined by security; although, it was kind of neat having our baby as an excuse to break the liquid rule. I don’t know why. It just made me feel like a bad mama-jama. Privileges, am I right?

But, it was also neat having our carry-on bags checked for free by the nice lady at the gate who took one look at us struggling to dig out our boarding passes while one of us held the baby and the other was trying to fold up the stroller, so she asked if wanted our bags checked for free to our final destination. Why yes. Yes we do.

I was sure that our happy and charming baby might even score us some first-class seats, and, although that didn’t happen, he did charm all of our neighbors on the plane with his non-stop smiles after they all looked at us in terror when they first sat next to us. Because we were those people with the baby on the plane. I’ve looked at them in terror myself in the past. And we didn’t bring goodie bags for everyone around us to apologize in advance for his potential crying. (If you haven’t seen that online, it’s a thing!) While I’m not opposed to a little bribery and buttering up, let’s be honest here – we barely even made it to the airport in time. Goodie bags are beyond my level of organization when I’m getting up at 3 a.m.

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We had a wonderful long weekend in North Carolina. My brother was a great host and our baby was a champ. He got to spend time with his cousins; we went to museums, to breweries (where he charmed a table full of ladies with more smiles), and on a two-mile hike. He tagged along cheerfully everywhere we went. He conquered all four flights with a couple naps and a lot of milk.

Technically, he’s been on a plane before.  In fact, when my husband and I went on our “babymoon” last Christmas to Mexico, it was on the plane that I first felt him kick. At first I thought I might be imagining the tiny flutter that I felt, but as the flutters continued, by the end of the trip I just knew it was him.

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I guess he likes traveling too.

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North Dakota Living, Teaching, Travel & Adventure

North Dakotans in Mexico

I write this blog post from the deck of our suite overlooking the Caribbean sea. The sun is just coming up, the waves are crashing on the beach, and the palm trees are swaying. Although it is our last morning here, these are the sounds that have helped settle me and all my anxieties over the last few days.

A few months back, I made the declaration that if I’m going to be pregnant all winter and stuck indoors in our little house on the farm, I at least want to sit in the sun for a few days over winter break. So, I started researching resorts in Mexico, we booked a four-night stay and airline tickets, and here we are. I typically choose adventurous travel where we walk all day and learn new things and experience other cultures, but this is pretty nice, if I do say so myself.

I was frazzled the day we got here. Teaching is a stressful job, and we just wrapped up the first semester at my high school the day before we left. Teaching is also one of the best jobs, no doubt, but on a daily basis, I am needed by 140-something students, and they all need different things: some, reassurance; others, attention (and they will get it in whatever means necessary); others just need a little help with their grammar and writing skills; most of them need understanding — and some just need help passing the class and earning the credit. And that’s just the students. As a teacher, you are also needed by parents, committees, principals, and each other. It’s a demanding job, and while I love it, it’s also exhausting at times, especially at the end of a semester. I finished all my grading by Friday at 4, jumped into my husband’s pickup to head to Bismarck, and by 5 a.m. on Saturday we were on a plane headed south. I still felt a bit shellshocked, and it took a day or two for me to stop thinking about all my students and a couple nights for me to stop having dreams about school (Really! That happens.) But as I lay on the beach a couple days ago, I couldn’t help but think that the sound of the waves really are mesmerizing, that the sun and salty breeze really did feel amazing on my face — and what was I so stressed out about back home, again?

(In May or June, it usually takes us teachers about a week to recover from the shell shock, so this wasn’t too bad.)

We also took a tropical trip last year for our honeymoon, but being pregnant sure lends a different feel to things. First of all, instead of packing a lot of cute outfits to go out in at night, I realized very quickly as I was packing that most (ok, all) of my maternity clothes have been purchased in late fall and early winter — basically a lot of sweaters — and I was limited to grabbing whatever summer clothes didn’t look obscene on me. It turned out to be a very small pile. Also, I usually bring a few suits and cover-ups, but I invested in exactly one maternity swimsuit and found exactly one cover-up that still fit. I haven’t worn a tankini in years, but why start out this baby’s life by sunburning it, right? I mean, it’s going to be almost half Norwegian. We don’t mess around with sunburns.

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This lack of clothing options really made packing a lot simpler.

Needless to say, we haven’t been going out much at night, anyway, but luckily my husband is pretty easygoing and likes bingeing on Netflix just as much as I do. (That is, he watches Netflix while I fall asleep at 8 every evening.) The last noticeable pregnancy change is my appetite: I usually love seafood, but now the sight and smell of it makes me sick. And here we are right next to the ocean, fresh seafood galore!

We’re having a great time, despite those weird little things. Although I’m not exactly getting a cultural experience on this trip (we’re not seeing much of Mexico itself as we haven’t even left the resort once since getting here), we have met a lot of new people, thanks in no small part to my outgoing husband. I can be pretty reserved at times, so I enjoy watching these interactions. On the plane down here, he offered everyone around us “North Dakota deer jerky.” I was thinking, Oh my gosh, we can’t offer food to strangers, they’re going to think we’re trying to poison them. Boy was I wrong! He had several people around us munching on jerky and declaring how good it was. Pretty soon we knew all our neighbors on the plane. He also knows some pretty decent Spanish after taking four years of it in high school (I took three years, yet remember literally two phrases) and has been practicing it on all the locals. They love it. “Tu Español es muy bueno!” they all exclaim to him. He’s made friends from South Dakota, Chicago, Texas, and Arkansas, and was chagrined when the only other people we met from North Dakota weren’t friendly at all. “They’re giving us a bad impression!” he whispered to me. He’s been our own North Dakota one-man ambassador squad down here.

And he takes good care of me. When I woke up one morning with a sore back, he called the spa immediately despite my protests which he thoroughly ignored. “My wife needs a pregnancy massage,” he said, and it was booked just like that. It was amazing, by the way. I never wanted it to end.

I am a lucky girl in more ways than one. I live in the best place in the world, but I get to travel, too, and all with a good man at my side.

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Nothing like a little rejuvenation of spirits at the ocean! I think I’m ready to come home now.

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Scottish Adventure

When we booked our tour to Ireland, I just knew I had to see Scotland as well. First of all, beyond my obvious love of travel itself, I was an English major and have always loved British literature and history. Second of all, have you ever read the Outlander series? I’m not usually much of a freak fan, but ever since I’ve read the series a few years ago, I’ve been dying to see the land so richly described in those books. All three of us had already been to England, so we left it off the list. I went there with my Shakespeare class in college. (I told you I have a thing for literature!) Here is proof:

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So, the day after our Ireland tour ended, we struggled to life at 4 am and caught a shuttle from our hostel to Dublin Airport. Our tickets were booked with RyanAir, a notorious budget European airline. I say notorious because general consensus is that while they have great prices, working with them is a nightmare. For example. although my suitcase fits carry-on size for most airlines, it was much too large for RyanAir’s carry-on allowance, so I paid for a checked bag. However, my checked bag, at 70 euro, actually cost more than my plane ticket itself! That, along with the ticket printing fiasco of the night before, torturously long lines at the airport, and uncomfortable seats that don’t bother to recline, made us very happy to reach Edinburgh!

We also tried something else that was new on this little detour: we booked a place to stay using the website AirBnB, a relatively new trend in traveling that offers rooms, apartments, and even whole houses – from local residents and their own homes. The prices are almost always better than hotels, and it allows the locals to make a little extra cash. AirBnB is available nearly everywhere, but of course, in a place like Edinburgh, you do end up with a lot more options than you would in, say, North Dakota. The place we booked was a little apartment up a long spiral staircase, right in Old Town and with a view of Edinburgh Castle. It was amazing, and our hosts were gracious and accommodating. I would highly recommend AirBnB for your future travels. Just read the reviews first to get an idea if you are getting a good place or not.

Anyway, back to our adventure in Scotland. We were only there for 3 days, so we packed as much into that time as we could. Here is a little breakdown of what we did:

Day 1: Edinburgh. Since we arrived so early in the morning, we started with some breakfast and then hit up Edinburgh Castle as soon as it opened. This architectural and historical treasure dominates Edinburgh’s skyline, sitting on top of the volcanic rock that slopes down toward the Royal Mile. We spent about three hours exploring all the nooks and crannies that the castle has to offer.

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After the Edinburgh Castle, we took a tour of Edinburgh’s underground. As I mentioned, Edinburgh sits on top of a volcanic rock, which slopes from Edinburgh Castle down to Hollyrood Palace below. The road connecting the two is known as the Royal Mile, which runs right down the spine of the volcanic rock. Off the Royal Mile is a series of “closes,” steep and narrow alleyways sloping sharply down, where the citizens of Edinburgh lived for centuries in tenements and apartments. When the Royal Exchange was constructed on the Royal Mile, it was built right on top of some of these downward-sloping closes, which are therefore now underground. These were closed to the public for years, but now, you can tour the closes through companies such as Real Mary King’s Close. Ghost stories also abound, and numerous ghost tours are advertised as well. It was very interesting, but a little creepy, I admit.

We spent the rest of the day exploring Edinburgh. We also tried “haggis,” Scotland’s national dish. Haggis is various sheep parts – heart, liver, lungs, and sometimes stomach – ground with spices into a type of sausage. I’m telling you, it doesn’t sound appetizing, but it actually wasn’t too terrible! Haggis is often served with “neeps” and “tatties” (turnips and potatoes).

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I do have a tendency of trying gross things. Remember the spider? The haggis was much tastier, though.

Day 2: Scottish Highlands. We booked a day trip to the Scottish Highlands and Loch Ness. What a great decision! We loved it. Although it was a lot of time spent in the van, we were able to see much more of Scotland than we would have otherwise. Our day trip left at 8:00 in a 14-passenger bus/van hybrid driven by an energetic local woman. She entertained us the entire way with historical stories about William Wallace and Mary Queen of Scots, among others. The trip was rich with information and history. We caught glimpses of Sterling Castle, Doune Castle (where several shows have been filmed, including Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Game of Thrones, and of course, Outlander!), and the stone tower where Mary Queen of Scots was held captive by her own people. One of our stops along the way was Glencoe, site of the terrible massacre of the Clan MacDonald in 1692 ordered by King William III. This lovely glen, despite its grim history, offered some good photo ops.

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Next was Loch Ness, which I’m sure I don’t need to define for you. Did we see the monster? Well, no, unless you count the rather scary man telling stories on our ferry. But we did have a lot of fun.

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On the way back, we caught some photos of these little cuties. The Scottish Highlands are full of them! Is it strange that I would like to put a couple in my yard at home?

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This was overall a great day, and worth every pence (see what I did there?) that we spent on the tour.

Day 3: Back in Edinburgh. On our last day, we booked a rather intense 3-hour bike ride to see more of the city of Edinburgh. I mentioned that Edinburgh is hilly? Well, this left us so thoroughly exhausted that we were pretty worthless that afternoon. We did a little shopping, stopped for some coffee, and possibly downed one last beer or two before we needed to catch the bus to the airport.

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In summary: I loved Scotland! Like Ireland, the culture was rich, the scenery was beautiful, and the locals were some of the friendliest I’ve ever met. I’m definitely going back someday! Until then, I’ll be saving money and living in my little modular house with my hunky husband! I’m thinking next time he can come with me…

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

Eight Days on the Emerald Isle

GO TO IRELAND. Do it. If you’ve been thinking about it, do it. If you have vacation time to use up, do it. If you have any extra money, do it. And if you don’t have any vacation time or extra money… do it anyway.

I’ve wanted to go to Ireland for years. My paternal grandpa, Tim, was 100% Irish, and I grew up proud of my Irish heritage, though the other three of my grandparents are largely of Norwegian background and therefore make up an even larger part of my heritage. (I’ll go to Norway next!) My friend and I talked about going on a trip to celebrate turning 30 this year, and we finally settled on the Emerald Isle. We invited a few others to join us. After my cousin Beky accepted, we had a trio. We booked an eight-day tour that took us around the country, which started in Dublin, headed up to Northern Ireland, traveled down the west coast through Galway, visited the south part of the island including Cork and Kilkenny, and ended up back in Dublin.

I did a little bit of research before we went, and discovered that one of my ancestors came from County Down (in what is now Northern Ireland) in 1880. The other came earlier, in 1840, from County Tipperary in the southern part of Ireland. Eventually, their descendants moved to western North Dakota and two of them, James Dwyer and Grace Taylor, married. James and Grace were my dad’s grandparents. Although our tour took us to neither County Down nor County Tipperary specifically, we did drive through both areas, which made our visit that much more interesting for me.

Here is a brief rundown of our eight day visit:

Day 1: Dublin. We arrived in Dublin, checked into our hotel, and visited the downtown a little bit that evening.

Day 2: Dublin to Derry. We got on the tour bus and drove north to Belfast, birthplace of the famous Titanic and also a hotseat of conflict between Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists in recent decades. From there, we went to Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, which sports neat formations of hexagonal rocks as well as a beautiful coastline. Finally, we checked into our hotel in Derry, another hotseat of Catholic/ Protestant conflict. ‘ We also ate fish & chips meal #1. This started a strange little obsession with fish & chips which lasted for the week.

Here are some pictures from the Giant’s Causeway: IMG_3563 IMG_3569 IMG_3581 Day 3: Derry to Galway. We traveled from Derry down to Galway, a quaint town on Ireland’s western coast. In Galway, we did a little shopping, visited a couple of pubs, and had fish & chips meal #2. Yum. IMG_3592 Day 4: Aran Islands. This may have been the highlight of the entire trip. We took a ferry from Galway to the Aran Islands. When we arrived, we rented bikes, bought a picnic lunch at the grocery store, and headed to a set of dramatic cliffs about 5 miles away. It was overcast and cool, and we weren’t expecting such an intense bike ride (it was almost all uphill), but eventually we struggled up to the cliffs – where we promptly decided it was much too windy to actually eat our picnic lunch, took a couple of hurried pictures and tried not to get blown off the cliff, and headed back to the village. The return ride was much, much easier. IMG_3614 IMG_3616 IMG_3618 IMG_3638 IMG_3646 Day 5: Galway to Cork. Our bus took us from Galway to Cork, with stops at both the Cliffs of Moher, which were too foggy for us to actually see, and Blarney Castle. We did get in line to kiss the Blarney Stone, but only one of us (Beky) kissed it. The other two of us were too freaked out by heights (Jackie) and germs (me). That night, we checked into our hotel in Cork and spent some time listening to live pub music.

Here are my travel companions taking advantage of selfie opportunities in front of Blarney Castle: IMG_3668 Day 6: Cork to Kilkenny. On this day, we headed to Kilkenny, with a stop in the morning at the port town of Cobh, last port of call for the Titanic, as well as a stop at the Jameson Irish Whiskey distillery. Once in Kilkenny, we checked into our hotel and went out for a bike tour of the town. Our guide, a Kilkenny native with a great sense of humor, led us to various spots of interest in the medieval town and the lovely Kilkenny Castle. IMG_3687   IMG_3689 IMG_3690 IMG_3695 Day 7: Kilkenny to Dublin. We left Kilkenny and headed back to Dublin to spend more time in the capital city. One of the highlights of this day was a tour of the Guinness Storehouse, where we learned about the process of making Guinness and even learned how to pour a pint! Afterward, we ate our 3rd dinner of fish & chips. (The fish & chips dinners were slowly improving with each attempt. I felt I was on the verge of discovering the perfect fish & chips meal.)

We also walked through Trinity College and saw the Book of Kells. That night was another highlight of the trip – an evening at the Merry Ploughboy Pub, where we were served a delicious dinner and treated to a show of traditional Irish pub songs and dancing. If you ever get to Dublin, make it a point to spend a night at the Merry Ploughboy! IMG_3699 IMG_3705 Day 8: Dublin. This was our last day in Dublin. Highlights of the day included Murphy’s Ice Cream (AMAZING), a garden festival at Christchurch Cathedral, a little shopping, and a great meal at a delicious little pub called The Norseman. This pub had a fabulous selection of food and beer, and I couldn’t help from ordering just one more fish & chips dinner — and this one was the BEST yet! Furthermore, there was more traditional pub music and a lively atmosphere. I would highly recommend the Norseman as well if you find yourself in Dublin.

Unfortunately, that night was spent at the hostel in a frustrating attempt to get our plane tickets printed out for RyanAir on an ancient computer in the hostel lounge, which seemed to eat up a large amount of Euro for minutes used and sheets printed. I swear, I spent an hour and a half just trying to get those darn boarding passes. But I finally printed them successfully, and we left early the next morning for Scotland.

Despite the poor ending to the last night, I thought Ireland was fabulous. Next time, maybe it will be eighty days instead of eight!

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Coming Home: Not As Easy As I Thought

When I flew out of Minneapolis for Asia on a Friday in early fall, I felt queasy. Three months wasn’t a long time to be gone — or was it? I had no idea what to expect. Would I like Asia? Would I like living out of my backpack for that long? Would volunteering be rewarding, difficult, or both? Would I like the food? Would I get sick? Would I still like my brother Tommy after all that time spent together? (Kidding, Tommy.)

I really didn’t know all the answers to these questions, which was both exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. I love to travel, but I also love home, and previously my longest trips had only been a couple of weeks at most. I was determined to make the best of it regardless of what I found overseas, but I knew it wouldn’t be the most comfortable period of my life by any means. That really wasn’t why we were going. If anything, I wanted to be uncomfortable. So as we flew out of Minneapolis that rainy autumn morning, I did my best to push my nervous thoughts to the back of my mind. I remember commenting to Tommy, “Well, no matter how this trip goes, it will be a sweet feeling to land back on American soil in December!”

Because coming home is always an amazing feeling, right?

Fast forward to that December plane ride home to America from Beijing, and something remarkable had happened, for better or worse: I really didn’t feel as amazing as I had thought I would to be coming home. I didn’t feel excited. I didn’t feel eager. Instead, the same queasy feelings that accompanied me on the way to Asia were flitting around in my stomach during the return flights. What was going on? Could it be that I actually enjoyed myself so much that I was now going to pine away for Asia? This was unexpected. The thought of facing “real life” back home was as terrifying to me now as flying into the unknown in Asia had been. I had definitely experienced culture shock when we had first landed in Cambodia months earlier, but it hadn’t taken long to adjust. In fact, it didn’t take long at all for me to fall in love with Cambodia and Thailand.

I had also heard of something called “reverse culture shock,” a term used to describe a difficult adjustment back to life in America. I assumed, however, that it was only for people who spent years overseas. I was not at all prepared for it to be difficult for me. But strangely, it was. It turns out three months was long enough to pick up new habits and expectations, and not long enough for me to miss home much at all.

When we finally landed in Minneapolis, I felt empty.

I had planned and looked forward to and lived the trip for so long, and it had gone so fast, that I wasn’t sure what to do with myself now that I was back. Three months no longer seemed too long, but not long enough at all. I missed Asia incredibly. Where was the sunshine? Where was the diversity? Where was the fresh fruit being sold on every corner? Where were the challenges of trying to converse with people who don’t speak my language? Where were the interesting crowds of people? And why is everything here so darn expensive? Christmas, while it is one of my favorite times of year, just made everything worse. After living out of a backpack for that long and cycling only a handful of outfits, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I owned, and getting more stuff as gifts seemed unnecessary. I missed the simplicity of only a few days earlier. I missed the friendliness and curiosity of the Khmer and Thai and Chinese locals. I didn’t really miss the bad plumbing, but even our fancy American bathrooms added a whole new adjustment. And oh boy, I missed the food. (Except, of course, the fried tarantulas! Those I can live without.) I was pretty excited one night after Christmas to find both pad thai and a native Thai waitress at a new restaurant in town, and she was pretty excited too when I tried out one or two of my terribly-pronounced Thai phrases on her.

I was genuinely surprised and a bit bewildered by the overall difficulty of adjusting back, and I was hard on myself for it, especially when I considered how fortunate I am here at home. Was I just being dramatic? Or negative? I didn’t want to be like that. But it wasn’t until I had an email conversation with my friend E, who currently lives in China, that I understood these feelings weren’t necessarily bad or unusual. She assured me that it happened to her, too, the first time she moved to China for a summer and then returned to America. Through our conversation, I began to look at the whole process differently. Instead of feeling depressed about missing my adventures in Asia, could I take that new perspective that I had wanted so badly and work to apply it to my familiar life here? Could I simplify things, focus on teaching and family and all of the important things, and most of all, know in my heart that these experiences, even if we never get to have them again, make us who we are?

What I was feeling made even more sense when I came across this quote by Miriam Adeney:

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” 

This idea resonated with me greatly. I left a small part of my heart in Asia even after a few short months, and that’s okay with me. Dramatic? Maybe, but whatever. I’ve never been one to hold back much. And the richness I’ve gained from the whole trip has emerged during the weeks I’ve been home, especially once I was able to get past feeling empty and lost. Most importantly, I’ve started to realize that you don’t need to fly across the world for new experiences. It’s about saying “yes” when opportunities present themselves, trying new things, accepting people no matter where they come from, and enjoying the little things that surround us daily.

Coming home has turned out to be its own new experience now that I’m adjusting again. I feel like I’m getting a fresh start, so I’ve decided to fill my life with things that are meaningful, big or small. I’ve taken up local adult classes on everything from photography to crochet. I’m drinking tea for the first time ever. I sleep less and converse more. I have a new fascination for people from other cultures and have become more outgoing in general. I also have a new appreciation for drinkable tap water and flushing toilets! That new perspective is working its magic, and coming home — well, truthfully it hasn’t been as easy as I thought. It’s a little too cold now and a little too expensive, and I still find myself looking at flights online during my free time. I will more than likely jump on a plane overseas the first time the opportunity arises.

But this is home. And I’m finding again that it’s not so bad, after all.

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

A Bittersweet Detour

The purpose of our three-month long trip to Asia was to train in Cambodia and  volunteer teach in Thailand, but we thought it was necessary to end with a week-long detour into China since we were in the right hemisphere and everything. (You can read a little about this Chinese detour here and here.) We enjoyed every stop we made, but we had one major goal in mind: To visit the famed Great Wall of China.

I’m happy to say that on our very last day in Asia, we finally made it.

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Furthermore, we accomplished the impossible: We actually had the Great Wall to ourselves for most of the morning. In China, a land of 1.35 billion people and countless tourists, it can be difficult to find personal space. And this is the Great Wall. Surely, even in December, we would be admiring it with fellow crowds of tourists. But I am not kidding when I say that the one and only time I enjoyed complete solitude in my almost three months in Asia was on the Great Wall of China, which, depending on the source, is visited by four to ten million tourists a year. Amazing!

Several things helped our cause:

First, it was not peak travel season in China. When we went, it was between Chinese holidays. Near the Chinese New Year holiday in January, more people start traveling again, but we were there weeks before the Chinese New Year, and also, the schools were busy wrapping up their semesters.

Second, we were helped out greatly by the friendly manager at our guesthouse in Beijing. He had recommended going to the Jinshanling section, which is a bit farther away than the more popular sections of the Great Wall near Beijing. We took his advice, and I’m glad we did. He also helped by lining up a private car to drive us there. As we had flights to catch in the afternoon, we decided to leave at 5:30 a.m. and were there before 8:30. I’m not even sure if it was open yet, actually. I think they just let us in anyway.

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Third, it was absolutely freezing. Granted, I had just left Thailand where I’d been sweating in the heat and humidity for months, and I had turned into a bit of a cold weather weeny. But even hardened, wizened agriculture men Adam and Danny, who had recently left the North Dakota winter, claimed it was cold. And they were well prepared! Tommy and I, on the other hand, were trying to make do with any clothing we had from our Thailand backpacks that could count as slightly warm, as well as scarves, hats, a fleece-lined flannel, and other outerwear hastily purchased on the China streets. Tommy was forced to wear socks under hiking sandals. Yes, it was cold, my friends; but apparently North Dakotans are among the few crazy enough to go romp around on the Great Wall when the temperature is 10 degrees Fahrenheit and there is a biting wind blowing across the rugged Yanshan mountains.

That’s not to say we didn’t do some precautionary warm-up stretching:

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It was probably good for me, anyway. I needed a taste of winter so I would be prepared to go back home.

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Standing on the Great Wall for the first time was breathtaking. (Perhaps I’m remembering the icy wind that hit me in the face and literally took my breath away.) But in seriousness, in that moment it was worth every minute spent applying for visas and every penny spent getting there. At the Jinshanling section, the Great Wall stretches over ridges and mountain peaks as far as the eye can see in either direction. And once we were up in the sunlight hiking around, even the cold wasn’t so bad.

We were like a group of kids on a really impressive playground.

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The first humans we spotted in the late morning were two Chinese merchants, a chatty, smiley wife and silent, serious husband, who haul their coolers and water jugs to the top of the Great Wall every day to sell drinks to thirsty tourists. These two are tough, I tell you. The cold barely phased them. Partly in admiration and partly in desperation, we purchased cold beers and hot black tea with the last of our RMB – it seemed fitting to spend it there, despite the steep prices – and sipped it on the Great Wall while the wife cheerfully learned how to use my camera, laughed at our pronunciation of “thank you” in Mandarin, and taught us a couple of new words.

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We did eventually run into a smattering of tourists straggling onto the Wall, who looked equally as cold as we did, but we were on our way out by then. We had flights to catch and real lives to get back to and these kinds of moments can only continue in one’s memory, anyway.

It was a bittersweet feeling, stopping on those ancient stones and gazing over the mountains, knowing I wouldn’t be back to this part of the world for a while.

Mostly, it was just bitter because of that bitter cold I mentioned.

Because as far as memories go, this one’s pretty sweet.

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Happy Every Day: Guest Speaking in China

As I mentioned in my last post, we spent a day and two nights in Zhengzhou, in the province of Henan in north-central China, with my friend Erika. Zhengzhou happened to be a perfect stopping point between Hong Kong and Beijing during our week of train adventures.

Usually back home I am trying to convince people to guest speak in my classroom, so when Erika asked if I’d like to accompany her to two of her college English classes at Zhengzhou University, I had to say yes. My brother Danny also volunteered his services. It turned out to be one of the most enriching experiences during my time in Asia. After just a couple hours spent with Erika’s warm and curious students, I could see why so many people fall in love with China for its people.

First, we talked about our Christmas traditions, including Christmas cookies, Christmas trees, sledding, and carols. Danny and I taught two carols to the students, and in return they sang a Chinese New Years song for us. Erika also instructed her students that if they wished to ask us a question about ourselves or about life in America, they needed to share with us something interesting about China first. Here are a few of the cultural things we learned:

  • Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is a pretty big deal!
  • We should try dumplings while in China. We heard a lot about dumplings. (And when we tried them from a street cart later, they were pretty tasty!)
  • Dialects vary greatly from province to province, and even within provinces. We even got a demonstration on dialectical differences.
  • Do not eat a banana by itself! It needs to be eaten with something else or you might hurt your stomach.
  • Do not drink milk by itself either.
  • You should not put honey in hot tea as it ruins the nutrition.

Here are some of my favorite questions the students asked us in return for sharing a cultural tidbit:

  • Why do Americans tuck napkins into their shirts in the movies?
  • Why are dentists respected in America? (In China, they tend to go to the dentist for a toothache only, not for regular cleanings. It’s not a serious medical field.)
  • Is it true that in America, if you wear an outfit to a party, you can’t wear it again? (Blame the celebrities.)
  • Does America watch dating shows too?
  • Are farms in America expensive?
  • Can you use chopsticks? Are knives and forks used as eating utensils even safe?

It’s great seeing your own culture through a brand new set of eyes. Their questions surprised me, but then again, they were shocked that I didn’t know that I’m not supposed to eat a banana alone. It’s the beauty of culture, and cultural differences.

And also, why was it ever OK to tuck napkins into a shirt?

The best part of this whole experience actually greeted me back in America. Erika’s students wrote thank-you notes and sent them to me. Here are some of the heart-warming messages I received from these truly charming students in Zhengzhou, China:

  • “Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! I like your lifestyle very much!”
  • “Welcome to China! I wish you happy forever!”
  • “Hope I could see your ‘star-like’ eyes again.”
  • “Thank you for visiting our class which makes us very happy!”
  • “It’s very glad to see you! Thanks for your beautiful songs!”
  • “Hope you can come back to China someday in the future.”
  • “May you come to China at Spring Festival.”
  • “I am so glad to see you but I forget to take a photo with you! What a pity! I hope I can see you again… and then take a photo!”
  • “What a lovely girl you are! Happy every day!”

What a great message: “Happy every day!” I’m not sure if the students learned a thing about Christmas from me and Danny, but I know I learned a thing or two from the whole experience. China is an amazing place, and I’ve never been greeted so warmly by young people I had never met before. When you are fortunate enough to get to add these kinds of experiences to your life list, it’s hard not to be happy every day!

Here we are:

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Thanks for the experience, Erika!

Musings, Travel & Adventure

2535 Kilometers on the China Train

We had exactly one week to spend in China, and we needed to travel 2535 kilometers in that one week (not including a short trip to Hong Kong smashed in there), and we needed to stop and see some of China along the way, too. We were willing to meet this challenge with the help of one very important asset: China’s high-speed train system. After several years of construction, this train system is both the longest high-speed rail system in the world and also the most heavily-used in the world.

A little summary of our 2535 kilometers through China by train: 

We landed in Guangzhou, a major city in the south of China, on the Thursday night that we had left Bangkok for the last time. I tried to swallow some of my sadness over leaving Thailand by focusing on the challenges facing us in China: Mainly, how the heck were we going to make it to Tommy’s friend Brady in Shenzhen when we didn’t know a piece of the language, we wouldn’t have phone access to find him, and generally, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing? (Read: Silly, lost, clueless tourists in a very foreign country.) But with all four of our silly tourist heads put together, we managed to get it done. We had printed the Chinese address of our hotel to give to the taxi driver at the Guangzhou airport. Our hotel in Guangzhou turned out to be lovely, and the receptionist helped us get a cab to the correct train station the next morning. At the train station, we were helped by an exasperated employee who managed, through many gestures and basically by pulling the correct money out of our wallets herself, to get us four tickets to Shenzhen, our first 139 kilometers by train. In Shenzhen, thank goodness, Brady found us where we had agreed to meet and escorted us to his apartment and throughout the city of Shenzhen.

Here we are, happy to have made it to Shenzhen. This would start our long, increasingly-colder journey north to Beijing:

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Because Shenzhen is near the China-Hong Kong border, Brady also escorted us to Hong Kong and back for a night. I only wish that we had more than one night to spend there, because it was a pretty amazing city. We took the ferry out into Victoria Harbour to see Hong Kong’s skyline; we ate burgers and drank ale at a delicious diner; and we stayed out late to enjoy the local nightlife. We were only there for a total of about 16 hours, but I’m glad we stopped by.

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Did you know that Hong Kong is also home to the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator system? I secretly like riding escalators just as much as I did 20 years ago — and so do all of you, be honest! — so personally I thought this 800-meter-long escalator system was pretty sweet:

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Upon returning to Shenzhen in the morning, we said goodbye to Brady, and, armed with instant noodles and packaged cookies, we hopped on board our second high-speed train and traveled 1707 kilometers north to Zhengzhou, current residence of my friend Erika, a college professor. Unfortunately, it was so foggy that we couldn’t see much of the countryside out the train windows, but we enjoyed our trip regardless. It was indeed a speedy train: during our trips, the trains traveled most of the time at a speed of 300 kmh (around 186 mph).

We spent a lovely two nights and one day in Zhengzhou with Erika. She showed us around her college and introduced us to her friends and co-workers. She also took us to some pretty tasty street food, which is a quick and sure way to all of our hungry traveling hearts:

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It was also getting increasingly bitterly cold as we went farther north. After spending two and a half months in tropical Southeast Asia, I would classify myself as a rather giant weenie when it comes to cold weather. (The only good news here is that China was doing its best to prepare me for my trip home to the brutal winter of North Dakota.)

Finally, we left Erika behind in Zhengzhou and commenced the third and final leg of our journey by high-speed train, 689 kilometers north to famous Beijing. We felt we were pretty experienced high-speed-train travelers by now.

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That was a little irony, because we were still kind of just silly tourists in a very foreign country.

But we had at least figured out a few crucial tips about China train travel: First, the hot water dispensers located in every train car are invaluable for anything from instant noodles (in other words, cheap lunch) to hot tea. It took us until the last leg of the journey to figure out that they even provide paper cups for your tea leaves.

Second, they do have both squatty potties AND Western-style toilets in the trains. However, as I learned after waiting for what seemed like an hour for my preferred Western-style toilet and finally resigning myself to the local version, using a squatty potty on a swaying train — while it takes some skill and courage — is not actually so bad. (When in Rome, right?)

Finally, when you spend 2535 kilometers on high-speed trains in China, even more important than the flavor of instant noodles that you choose and the type of toilet that you use is the quality of your travel companions. And I had pretty good ones:

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

Scuba Diving and No Mishaps

Traveling is full of mishaps. Just when you think everything is going smoothly, you get food poisoning and only barely make it to the public airport bathroom. You get lost looking for a museum and somehow find yourself in a field of goats. You end up stranded on an island because the weather prevents any boats from leaving. You “accidentally” almost murder a rooster. These things just happen. Actually, now that I think about it, all of these things I just mentioned DID happen.

Mishaps make the best stories provided they don’t end up in disaster.

However, I will put my storytelling instincts aside and report that our last week in Thailand actually decided to be kind to us. How boring! No one got sick. Our scuba course passed by in a blissful three days with no problems at all. Even the weather, which had been on-and-off rainy for weeks, seemed to smile on us. We also spent the last week in great company: Our brother Danny and cousin Adam joined us in Asia for the last two weeks of our trip – one week in Thailand and one in China – following the conclusion of our volunteer teaching. Seeing them across the world was a pretty sweet feeling.

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And of course, for them, missing the -40 degree wind chill back home and swapping it for a balmy 85 was a pretty sweet feeling too.

We met them in Bangkok and spent a day there before heading south to the island of Phuket, Thailand. We had to spend a little time on the beach before we could even think about doing anything else. Adam was so thrilled to be in sunshine again that he fried himself a bit – I don’t even think he cared. The rest of us are Norwegians with a red-headed mother. We don’t mess around with sunburns.

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The next day, we started what we had come to Phuket for in the first place: our scuba certification course. Of the four of us, Tommy was the only one with any scuba experience from a college class he had taken, but he hadn’t been certified. We chose a 3-day course that included coursework, pool work, and the open water dives. At the end, provided we passed, we would be PADI Open Water certified.

Usually at this point the mishaps would come in. I would tell you about one of us getting seasick, falling off the boat, failing the course, eating something nasty, getting caught in bad weather, being hospitalized for sunburn, or some other problem. But everything was pretty perfect. We liked our English instructor within a few minutes of meeting him. The weather was gorgeous. The water was so clear it was turquoise. Being able to breathe underwater is a pretty sweet feeling. And yes, we all passed.

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Pretty boring, isn’t it?

Because it really was perfect. Hands down, these were my favorite three days of our entire Asia trip. When I looked around and realized I was a world away from home, underwater in the Indian Ocean with two brothers and a cousin… Well, maybe it was one of those times you just had to be there. And maybe every once in a while, perfect isn’t so boring.

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It was a good way to end our time in Thailand.

Musings, Travel & Adventure

The Truth About Roosters

I have a confession: Tommy and I have an ugly side. For the most part, we are easygoing and agreeable, but this ugly side revealed itself recently.

Because of a rooster.

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I really don’t like those things. Don’t get me wrong: Chickens are great – cooked and arranged artfully on my plate, that is. Roosters live and in the flesh? No, thank you. In fact, I have some disappointing information: We have all been misled on the topic of roosters. According to cartoons and egg advertisements (both reliable sources, so I thought), these colorful fowls are supposed to perch on the barn around 6 a.m. when the sun is peeking over the horizon to give a cheerful crow and wake up the farmyard. At this point, the farmer and his wife and their daughter, who is wearing some adorable blue cotton dress, finish their breakfasts of biscuits, bacon and buttermilk and tramp out of the farmhouse with rosy cheeks to begin morning chores. That rooster, he just starts the morning off right. Thank goodness for his cheerful crow every sunrise.

So idyllic.

Such a lie.

Here is the truth about roosters: They do not crow at 6 a.m. They crow at 3 a.m., 4 a.m., 5 a.m., 6 a.m., and whenever they darn well please, lest you have forgotten their measly little existence in the past few minutes. Also, they do not crow in the farmyard. In Asia, at least the parts we visited, roosters crow all over the cities, in backyards, on rooftops, in the markets, and next to hotels where people are sleeping peacefully, Furthermore, their crow is anything but cheerful, and I wouldn’t even go so far as to call it a crow. It’s a screech.

Had I been asked a few months ago my opinions on roosters, my answer probably would have been indifferent. My dislike for them started in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. After months of listening to the horrible screeching music of roosters, the dislike has only magnified. Now when I am walking down the street, I give each one that I see an evil eye. I secretly hope that every chicken meal that I eat contains at least part of the rooster that woke me up the night before. Harsh, I know. I’m not proud of this.

I mentioned that Tommy also has an ugly side when it comes to roosters. On a recent visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand, this came to surface in both of us. (Never mind that we could have ended up in jail.) Here are both sides of the story, which we had sent in an email to our family shortly after the incident:

Tommy’s side of the story: A couple weeks ago, Rachel and I were staying at a hotel in Chiang Mai. It had great reviews and we were excited about our nice place to stay upon arrival. That changed quickly. The very first morning, I woke up at 3:59 am to the sound of a dying rooster. His song of sorrow was a sick melody of crowing for the next hour and a half. At first I felt bad for the chicken, but soon that changed as I realized I should probably put an end to its life. Hence, I soon found the chickens’ roost next door, in clear sight from the 3rd balcony, right outside my door. Looking for an object to throw was difficult, as many of the objects were too valuable to kill said rooster’s poor crappy existence. However, finding a 5-liter bottle full of water soon gave me hope. I was going to crush that rooster’s head.

Rachel’s side of the story: I had no sympathy for this so-called dying rooster. It was not dying but probably just really stupid. Its song was not a crow but a 3-note call that went high-low-SQUAWK! High-low-SQUAWK! Over and over, every 5 seconds, from 4 a.m. onward. I agree, however, that this thing needs to be put out of its misery. By 5:30, my ears were ringing with the high-low-SQUAWK and my thoughts had turned murderous. I wondered to myself, how much time would I spend in a Thai jail if I went out of this room, found the rooster, picked it up and wrung its neck? (This thought process really happened, by the way.) At least jail might be quieter. Did I just hear Tommy’s door open and close? In fact, unbeknownst to me, Tommy was indeed outside, taking my thoughts one step further. He had located the squawking rooster and was standing on the balcony aiming a full water bottle at it. He was checked only by the rooster’s owner coming outside to feed the chickens. This was probably a good thing, we decided — until the next night, that is. This time, the squawking started even earlier, and all I felt was despair. Did I just hear Tommy’s door open and close again? Way to take one for the team, Tommy. I promise to visit you in jail after I sleep a few more hours.

The third night, I had gotten past anger and despair, and when I heard the rooster squawk at 4 a.m., I felt nothing but depressed. I was going through the stages of grief. The thing I was grieving was my chance at ever sleeping again.

Only one thing has happened which has made me feel sadly vindicated over these little brainless menaces. Don’t worry, I promise this turned out fine in the end. But we did get a little laugh when we saw this:

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I still wouldn’t be too upset if he ended up as a box of nuggets….

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Tidbits About Thailand

Our time in Thailand, rather shockingly, is drawing to a close. Two months ago, I had said goodbye to my family and students and made frantic last minute additions to my backpack and iPod before leaving in a rush with an anxiety-induced stomachache, having no idea what to expect. Experiencing the initial culture shock upon arriving in Cambodia, I felt that my almost three months here would trickle by slowly. Instead, it’s flown by. I can hardly believe that we have only a week and a half left in Thailand before we head up to China for another week and then, home to the United States.

I have learned a lot of interesting things about the culture here. I am grateful we were able to come here as part of a volunteer teaching program, because we were able to learn more about local life than we would have merely as tourists. Of course, in two months I have barely scratched the surface of understanding a new culture, but I thought I would share a few little tidbits that people back home might find interesting:

  • Chopsticks are not widely used in Thailand. More common is a fork and spoon, as in the West, but general table manners would have you use the back of the fork, in your left hand, to push your rice or noodles onto your spoon, in the right hand.
  • Tipping is not common in Southeast Asia. In fact, on some occasions when we have tried to leave tips, the server has insisted we take our “change.” One transplanted American working at a beach restaurant told us that generally the only customers that leave him tips are other Americans.
  • It is generally considered poor manners to drink from a bottle by tipping it up to drink from it. Better manners dictate to drink from a bottle by using a straw. Should you buy a bottle of water or a Coke from a 7-Eleven, for example, you will be given a straw to go with it. Teachers should definitely not drink from bottles of water without a straw in front of students, as the students are likely to emulate them and thereby go home copying these bad manners.
  • Speaking of 7-Eleven’s, they dominate every street corner in every major town here. I haven’t even seen one in the United States for I don’t know how long, but I have grown to love these little treasure troves of convenience where you can buy a 1.5 liter bottle of water for a mere 40 cents.
  • The “wai” greeting is used largely among native Thai people, meaning to place two hands together in a type of bow to show respect. How high or low you place your hands depends upon the rank of the person you are greeting – place your hands higher (fingertips at eyebrows, nose, or chin, depending on the situation) when greeting monks, elders, teachers, and bosses, for example; and place them lower (chest level) for employees beneath you, people younger than you, and students if you are a teacher. However, with Thailand’s active tourist industry, the locals generally understand that we Western visitors will not be able to “wai” correctly and don’t often try to greet us in that way.
  • It is rude to beckon someone with one finger as we do in the United States, mainly because that is how they call animals such as dogs. Instead, you should turn your hand so that your palm is facing down and use your entire hand to beckon someone. It is also rude to point at someone.
  • In Thailand, the head is considered holy and the feet are considered lowly. For this reason, you must not touch the head of an adult (with small children, it’s usually ok), and you must not point your feet at someone while sitting. Instead, it is more polite to keep your feet crossed safely underneath your chair.
  • Because feet are considered lowly and feet touch the floor, the floor is also considered an undesirable place for items of value. Books and school supplies must not be placed on the floor or stepped over, as knowledge is considered valuable and stepping over them would be disrespectful to knowledge.
  • So many people in Thailand’s tourist areas speak English, that if you attempt to speak to them in Thai and greatly butcher the pronunciation (as I do), the friendly Thai people are almost less likely to understand you then if you just speak English. At the very least, you may very likely get laughed at. At least, I do. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, however! Tommy is better at speaking Thai than I am, I admit.
  • Much of the beauty market sells “whitening” products, in the form of face creams, lotions, and makeup. I always find myself jealous of the beautiful tan complexions here, but then again, usually we want what we can’t have. Perhaps it is similar to America’s obsession with tanning beds, fake tanners and bronzers?
  • Although Thailand is a democracy with an elected prime minister, the country greatly adores its royal family, so much so that to say anything disparaging about the king could land a person in jail. Even to step on money inadvertently is considered disrespectful, as the face of the beloved king is displayed on Thailand’s coins and bills.

Cultural differences are fascinating.

Speaking of, I think going back to the United States may be a culture shock all over again. Going from the humid 80- and 90-degree weather back to North Dakota’s winters will be the biggest shock of all!

Musings, Travel & Adventure

New Perspectives from the Airport Bathroom Floor

About eighteen months ago, I decided my life had gotten too comfortable and that I needed a new perspective.

A few days ago, I found myself on the tiled floor of a public airport bathroom in Bangkok, throwing up my food-poisoned dinner from the night before, cursing myself and the bathroom and all of Asia in general.

Why did I ever think that “too comfortable” was a problem?

Let me tell you exactly how I came to find myself on that bathroom floor: After deciding I needed this new perspective, I researched Southeast Asia volunteer teaching programs online for months, began setting aside chunks of my teaching paycheck, got a second evening job, booked tickets, quit both my jobs, moved back home, found a new job willing to give me three months leave, prepared sub plans for those three months, applied for visas, got all sorts of brutal vaccinations in my arms, stocked up on sunscreen and mosquito spray, and packed everything I could into a backpack.

And here I am.

Did I really do all of this for the sake of gaining a new perspective on life?

I’ve always been accused of being a little bit dramatic.

But on that bathroom floor, I came to the realization that it’s working. As my list of new experiences expands — some more enjoyable than others — I do believe I’m getting what I came here for. I’ve seen and tried more new things in the past two months then I have in any other period of my life. I’ve been lost, homesick, swindled out of money, challenged, exhausted, disgusted, and culture-shocked. I’ve lost what feels like half my body weight in sweat in one day; I’ve battled the fastest, most ninja-like mosquitos that I’ve ever battled; I’ve trusted the kindness of strangers who don’t speak a bit of my language. I’ve purchased overnight bus tickets just to find myself on the overnight bus from hell. And of course, I’ve lain on the floor of a public airport bathroom in Bangkok, wanting to die and be put out of my misery. (I told you I could be dramatic.) Oh, and I really miss my dog.

But here’s the thing: I’ve also made new friends, learned a bit of a new language, and (somewhat) successfully taught English to Thai children. I’ve enjoyed my interactions with locals; and I’ve had interesting conversations with other travelers from Poland, France, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Iceland, Spain, Australia, and the UK. I’ve gained a new taste for spicy food, gazed at the Indian Ocean for the first time, and found a good traveling partner in my brother Tommy.

I didn’t know what to expect when I signed up, but I think I can say that so far — despite the few hiccups — it’s been a good decision. The months preparing weren’t easy; the months spent here haven’t been easy; but I knew they wouldn’t be. I knew I was going to be hot and sweaty the whole time. (To those freezing in the Midwest right now: I apologize and I know this may be hard to hear, but intense heat is not all it’s cracked up to be.) I knew I would end up lost more than once. I knew I would like the kids at my school just a little too much. I had a strong suspicion I might get food poisoning. And I knew I was going to be thrown right out of my comfort zone. That’s what I signed up for, for reasons I can’t always remember now.

Here are a few pictures of our more memorable new experiences. (If you don’t mind, I’d rather forget the airport bathroom.)

Remember The Spider?

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I’ve made new little friends:

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And new grown-up friends:

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We’ve trekked over mountains:

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Climbed waterfalls:

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Visited countless beautiful temples (this, the White Temple in Chiang Rai):

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Participated in a lantern festival:

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Gave Thai cooking a shot:

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Went white-water rafting:

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Got up close to an elephant:

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And kayaked, in the rain, through Thailand’s renowned karst formations. On this particular adventure, I also had to arm myself with my paddle against creepy little bandit monkeys, but I refused on principal to take pictures of the little jerks:

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Most of the new experiences, unfortunately, really can’t be caught on camera. If I could, I would show you the insane traffic in Cambodia, or the friendly Thai security guard practicing his English on me, or the moment we realized we were really, really lost in Chiang Rai. I can’t, but you can take my word for it that my perspective, in just 8 short weeks, is changing. I appreciate things I didn’t appreciate before. I’ve gained new ideas about the world. And I still have a few more weeks to go before I go home for Christmas. Hopefully, the list of new experiences will keep expanding until then.

On second thought, remembering the airport bathroom that I’d really like to forget, maybe I should be careful what I wish for….