Tea time in Palestine

With all the violence/ceasefire/more violence between Israel and Gaza in the past weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot of my 2009 trip to Israel and Palestine. For this Show and Tell Tuesday post, I thought I’d share with you a somewhat relevant essay from my World Nomads journal, which is made up entirely of (failed) travel scholarship applications from the past few years.

After studying abroad in Rome for a semester, three friends and I spent about two weeks in Egypt, Israel and Palestine. It was a life-changing trip that greatly influenced the lens through which I see the world. This essay was my first jab at travel writing and while I kind of cringe when I read it, I also reminisce and appreciate where I was in life during my trip and later, while writing the essay:

I tuck my blond hair even deeper into the scarf draped over my head. This is my feeble attempt to stand out a little less in this holiest of Holy Lands. Even traveling with three male friends, the constant presence of militiamen (and women) creates a sense of apprehension and desire to blend in.

We eagerly exit the mandatory checkpoint. Crisp, December wind whips through the eight-foot-high steel-bar fences on either side of us. Cigarette butts litter the concrete below as artificial light glints off razor-sharp barbed wire above. The eight-meter-high concrete Israeli West Bank Barrier Wall opposite the fence represents a canvas reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. We follow alongside, stopping periodically to survey the cries for peace and equality splashed across it in a hundred languages. I can already tell that this “little town” has come a long way from a stable and manger.

Upon exiting, two-dozen Palestinian taxi drivers voraciously compete for the emerging tourists. “I’ll drive all day for five [shekels],” proposes someone behind me, his English almost accent-less. Shocked by this low offer, equivalent to $1.20, I turn to a man no older than thirty, wearing jeans and a black hoodie. His olive skin is smooth but for dimpled cheeks that immediately communicate amicability. His smiling eyes ask, “What are you waiting for?” as he turns to his car, our taxi.

The view of Bethlehem from Ahmed’s house

Having tea at your taxi driver’s home probably isn’t recommended in countries plagued by terrorism, but here we are, only hours after entering Palestine. Our driver Ahmed won us over with his honesty, charm and conversation, and after a tourism-filled day, invited us to his home. It was impossible to pass up.

Ahmed speaks of life as a Muslim Arab in Palestine. He talks matter-of-factly about Palestinians’ lack of education, jobs, and freedom. “We don’t care if you’re Jewish, Christian, whatever. We want peace.” He relays his dream to one-day see Paris and I cringe; I was recently there. I’m ashamed of the luxuries I take for granted: my opportunities, freedom, passport.

Ahmed’s modest house, situated atop a hill, overlooks the rise and fall of this ancient town’s landscape. Ice-cream-scoop clouds hang calmly beside the setting sun as our host situates pastel-colored plastic chairs on the patio. His mother, wearing a long abaya and rose-pink slippers, shuffles by quietly carrying a silver tray lined with glasses of honey-colored tea, snow-white sugar, and fresh spearmint. Although her gaze is low, she radiates the same gracious aura as her son.

Me with my friend Nick and our taxi driver Ahmed!

I remove my scarf, letting my hair flutter freely as the late afternoon breeze cools our steaming chai. I gaze upon this truly historic city and realize that my perception of the world shifted in the past few hours. Palestine isn’t some real-life Narnia, nor is it solely a war-zone. It’s home to families who crave basic human freedoms. I reach for my chai and smile sympathetically at Ahmed, reminding myself to give him much more than five shekels and to keep his story alive.

Three years later, this essay doesn’t even touch upon the current Israel-Palestine conflicts. Luckily for everyone, the Washington Post recently published an article that answers 9 questions about Israel-Gaza you were too embarrassed to ask. I really recommend reading it — the writer condenses an incredibly complicated situation into a factual and comprehensible summary.

Although I was only in the West Bank, not the Gaza Strip, I still saw a glimpse of the daily struggles Palestinians face. Having tea that afternoon was truly a moment of growth — it opened my eyes and marked a turning point for me. Weeks after this trip, I would move to New York City, transfer to NYU, begin internships and jobs, and — with this experience in mind — build my degree/life/career around the idea of using my talents, time, energy and knowledge on projects of substance. What that means, exactly, I don’t know. I guess it means I decided I want to do more than just make movies. If nothing else, it was my first real inspiration to write about traveling.

Show and Tell Tuesday: The Band-Aid Queen

I apparently had issues with my left knee…

When I was a kid, I earned the nickname The Band-Aid Queen. And by earned, I mean I wore band-aids like they were high-fashion accessories. I found every excuse to put them on. If I bumped my shin, it needed a band-aid. Got a bug bite, had to fix it with a band-aid.

It was all justifiable: I thought scrapes, bruises and broken bones were the coolest proof of adventures. When my sister broke her wrist by falling off the couch (I know…), I was so jealous. She looked daring in her pink cast and I wanted one too. Not two weeks later, I fell out of our neighbor’s tree (accidentally, I swear!) and broke my right arm in three places. My forearm was literally bent in half. Our parents’ warnings and the saying, “Be careful what you wish for!” finally began to mean something to me (although I did feel really awesome rocking my own purple cast).

I still think a person’s Adventure Street Cred goes up when they have interesting scars and I love hearing stories about what happened to cause them. Hopefully nothing too serious, of course, but something telling of the person’s life, adventures, experiences. Each little scrape or bruise has an interesting story behind it. Like that time a mattress spring on a rooftop in Thailand drew blood from my leg. That’s a story.

I should have gone with the chair

I had just finished a week of working (WWOOFing, actually) on a farm in Northern Thailand when I made my way to Chiang Mai and settled into a very popular guest house called Julie’s. My scratches from planting pineapples were healing up nicely and I just wanted a few days to relax after all my (arguably) hard work. Julie’s has this great rooftop where I decided to spend a pleasant afternoon reading/napping. It was all so cute that I had a hard time choosing which place to lay down, but the hammock looked most inviting so I tried that first. Nope. Felt like steel. So I figured the mattresses would be better. Nope, actual steel. Steel springs popped right out of the sheets when I sat down. One even poked my leg. Foul, yes, but it only left a small scratch so I moved to another bed. More springs! And this time, they actually caused me to bleed. Gah!

I’m happy to report that I’m tetanus-free and the cut has healed nicely into a cool white scar

I mean, it was obviously no problem for The Band-Aid Queen and her fully-stocked first aid kit… But still, is there anything grosser than a cut from a mattress on the rooftop of the cheapest and most popular guest house in Chiang Mai? I don’t even have a scandalous story to go with it! Luckily, I had my shots.

Because private rooms were just $3/night, I ended up staying at Julie’s for about two weeks and had an overall good experience there. The bed in my room was without bugs or sharp springs, but I hereby give fair warning to any future guests: Get your shots and watch where you lay.

Like tattoos, injuries and scars are great conversation starters — especially when you travel. Right before leaving to study abroad in Rome, I went white water rafting and got a huge scratch down my shin. That scab started so many conversations in the first week of school that I credit it for attracting most of my friends. Southeast Asia was no different. Motorbike accidents are super common on the islands in Thailand. I can’t tell you how many of my friendships started with, “Motorbike?” and a nod towards someone’s bandaged foot/shin/knee/face.

Naturally, I’m interested in hearing other stories… Has anyone else sustained an injury or heard a good story of one while traveling?

Jersey Shore Sunset Slideshow (*complete with Snooki GIF)

So it turns out there’s more to New Jersey and its famous shore than Snooki and her bouffant.

When I know someone’s full of BS

No really, hear me out. I’ve actually always liked New Jersey. My family used to vacation there every year and when I was living in NYC, my Jersey friends would sometimes invite me to their homes for dinner on Sundays. I recently returned to this overly stereotyped coastline with nostalgia and a mission to capture the Atlantic in all her autumn glory.

I’m lucky enough to be producing a documentary with filmmaker Brad Grimm. He just bought a condo in WIldwood, NJ, so on our way to film some interviews in the Berkshires this October, we  stopped in Wildwood to capture some Jersey shore b-roll for our film. While Brad strapped his RED camera onto his Steadicam and trekked through the sand towards the ocean, I did my role as the producer and… um… carried an extra battery. Oh, and I took some production stills:

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I would rate this sunset somewhere between pretty incredible and incredibly incredible. Not a single photo here is edited (except for the Snooki GIF of course). And Wildwood was luckily spared from the worst of Hurricane Sandy, meaning Brad’s condo remains intact and the few year-round restaurants there can still feed the sweet (if townie) locals this winter.

I think we can all agree that New Jersey is at least a pretty decent state based on this sunset alone. Now if you’re looking for a great way to celebrate that fact, why not spend your Sunday evening playing around with this Jersey Shore Name Generator? Just enter your name and gender, “fist pump,” and in seconds you’ll have your new favorite JWoww-inspired nickname like “Pookie” or “The Back End” (gross). Any thoughts on whether I should change the name of my blog to conquistaD-Pow? Yep, D-Pow.

Halloween’s Surprising History and Weird Traditions

Thanks to Sandy (that wench!), my neighborhood trick-or-treating was postponed until last night. That means I spent my Saturday evening working and handing out candy with my mom.

Am I the coolest 24-year-old you know?

I don’t know these kids, but Walter White and Jesse Pinkman popped up on my Facebook feed.

Actually, it was a really fun night. My mom is the best! And little kids are the cutest (after baby animals… especially otters). Halloween always provides me with the perfect dose of kid interaction and when it’s over, I’m pretty much good for another year with the exception of an occasional babysitting job.

The night also inspired some academic research Wikipedia skimming on the history of Halloween. Each “Twick or tweat!” from the adorable shivering princesses, witches, morph suits and monsters on my porch got me thinking about how weird this tradition of trick-or-treating is. Parents put their kids in costumes and send them up to strangers’ doors to fill pillow cases with sweets the kids are normally told not to eat. It’s almost as weird as setting out milk and cookies for the obese man who plops out of your chimney and knows everything about you. (I realized the truth about these stories at a very young age… Too many questions for my parents.)

We always hear about Christmas’ real life Saint Nicholas, but did you know that Halloween is a holiday sprung from the old sod!? That’s right! My ancestors — those stew-brewing, pint-tipping, potato-growing Irishmen and women — started Halloween. It’s true. Wikipedia says so. Apparently, Halloween has both Christian and pagan roots that stem mostly from the warding off of harmful souls by wearing disguises. It comes right around the Christian holy days of All Saints’ and All Souls’, as well as the Celtic festivals Samhain and Calan Gaeaf. So how did this turn into kids dressing up as Angry Birds and college girls, as any and all things sexy/slutty?

No dirty dishrag in this barnbrack = a good 2013

Wearing costumes began as a way for people to disguise themselves from harmful spirits said to be gathering during the aforementioned days, and trick-or-treating emerged as a way to collect food donations for the spirits. Eventually it all tied together into a festive bundle that includes harvest festivals, pumpkin carving, apple bobbing, and eating barnbrack. If for some reason you’ve never heard of barnbrack, it’s a fruitcake that can supposedly foretell the eater’s future based on the prize found inside. A ring means marriage, a piece of straw means a prosperous year, a cloth (?) means a poor year, and other things that can choke you imply different exciting/ominous futures. As a professional lifeguard, I suggest eating this around someone who knows the Heimlich.

The things people will do for a $2 burrito!

Speaking of food, my Halloween night ended with a trip to one of my favorite places in the world: Chipotle. That claim is no exaggeration. You might think you like Chipotle, but until your friends start bringing it to you at the airport when they pick you up, I have you beat. So, when I heard that Chipotle was selling $2 burritos to anyone in a Halloween costume on October 31st, I planned my week accordingly.

Chipotle didn’t just do this to get a lot of #boorito tweets. They donated up to $1million of the proceeds to The Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, their non-profit organization “committed to creating a more sustainable and healthful food supply and to raising awareness concerning food issues.” I dig the cause — and the Burrito costume at the end of the below video — and the whole thing just makes me love/crave Chipotle even more. I’m hoping the $2 boorito deal sticks as a new Halloween tradition.

Show and Tell Tuesday — The grossest thing I saw in Southeast Asia

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Softball was my worst sport ever. I was the girl who sat in the outfield and picked dandelions while the ball rolled past me.

How great was Show and Tell day in grade school? I used to love to show off my favorite toys and discover other things I could ask my parents to buy for me. Some of my favorite Show and Tell items include rare Pokémon cards, League Participant (aka Nice Try!) softball trophies, and my Talkgirl — a pink and therefore much cooler version of the Talkboy tape recorder used by Macaulay Culkin/Kevin McCallister in “Home Alone.”

Even as an almost-grown-up, I still see things that would be perfect for Show and Tell. This is especially true when I travel because I discover stuff I’ve never seen before. Hence the creation of Show & Tell Tuesdays. In honor of its inaugural post and, of course, Halloween, I thought I’d start it off by sharing my creepiest memory from Southeast Asia.

eh, em…

It was a dark and stormy night. (Really, it was.) Rain and wind pounded against the roof of our crowded bus as dozens of sleeping bodies rocked back and forth with the bumps and curves of slippery unlit roads. Monsoon season was upon Northern Vietnam. I sat restlessly in my seat by the window hoping this 27-hour ride to Laos would pass quickly. I stuffed another sock into the vent overhead to block the blasting A/C and slipped my eye mask on.

Just as sleep began to take over, the bus suddenly veered right and screeched to a stop. Pulling my eye mask to my forehead, I squinted as the overhead lights flickered on and the driver yelled to get off the bus (yelling is popular on Vietnamese transpo). I pulled back my window curtain to reveal a small covered market armed with a few sleepy workers. Eager to stretch my legs, I climbed over my sleeping friend and followed a line of zombie-like passengers to the door, careful not to trip over the huge rice bags piled in the narrow aisle.

Stepping out of the stuffiness, my breath of fresh air was met with humidity and the scent of fish, of spices, of phở, of animals. I lazily strolled along a row of small snack stands eyeing bags of chips, bottles of beer, fresh fruit and sleeves of Oreos. Then, a slight crackling, almost like Rice Krispies in milk, caught my attention so I made my way toward the end of the row to explore.

I think it’s some kind of wasp nest, maybe Asian paper wasps?

And there it was. Somehing I had never before seen and never wish to see again. A nest. A nest of larvae, squirming away under an overhead fluorescent light, crackling against their little nesting holes.

Yes — larvae. The mushy insect babies that infest dead bodies, compost piles and old food. And make for a tasty and popular (not to mention protein-packed!) snack in many parts of the world, including, apparently, Vietnam.

My nostrils flared, my throat made some sort of gasping noise, and my hand went straight to my iPhone to capture the horrific scene. Like an accident on the highway or food in someone’s teeth, I couldn’t bear to look and I couldn’t look away.

In general, I have a pretty strong stomach. I used to eat lunch while watching Nip/Tuck and I always watch the needle when I get shots. Bugs don’t really bother me, either. I take them outside instead of killing them! But for some reason, the larvae was too much for me that night. Unable to shake the maggoty holes, the crackling, or the smells from my memory, I spent the rest of this bus ride — two nights and 38, not 27, hours — itchy and tired and grossed out.

If I had stopped groaning in this video, you’d be able to hear the horrible crackling that caught my attention in the first place.

Snacking on larvae is super popular in Southeast Asia. Cooked, salted, doused in soy sauce, or just plain. I’ve seen little kids pop these like Smarties and Gushers, no problem. It’s really not as gross at it seems.

No… wait. Yes it is. It wasn’t until I saw and heard just how these snacks are created that I came to this conclusion. To be fair, I never tasted any bugs in Asia. Maybe, just maybe, they’re the yummiest thing since caviar. Maybe someone can fill me in. But aside from the obvious animal rights violations (poor innocent maggoty creatures!), these little guys are sadly freaky. And this was only the first (although largest) nest I saw in Asia.

I think I’m going to keep this Show & Tell Tuesday thing alive. I try to surround myself with things worth showing and telling about. They might not be as fun as Talkgirls or larvae, but hopefully they keep you reading!

Memories of a Burmese Train Ride (Not your average photo essay…)

Having seen The Darjeeling Limited at least a half-dozen times, I really thought I knew what to expect from train travel in a country that, although not the same as India, at least borders it. But after two 20-hour train rides in Burma, I’m telling you: you couldn’t know what to expect.

With only one day to plan and five days to see Burma, my friend and I decided that in addition to visiting Rangoon (which we flew into), we would squeeze in a trip to Bagan, a city about 400 miles north. Flights were expensive and we read a review that said something along the lines of, “If you value your life at all, do not take a bus,” so we decided our best mode of transportation was the $40/way overnight train recommended by the article.

Hey, here’s a travel tip for everyone: Read. More. Than. One. Review.

Turns out, Burmese trains are a bit outdated. And by a bit, I mean by like, forty years. The ride was wild — the word “bumpy” doesn’t do it justice. The smell of the sheets during our first ride has been burned into my brain forever. And this was all in the second-highest-class sleeper car, a nice luxury for this train. One other tourist group occupied a similar car, and the rest of the passengers were locals who slept on regular wooden bench seats. So yeah, I realize I’m evil for complaining about this.

But really, I don’t have any complaints. Looking back, these trips are easily some of the funniest and most memorable of my time in Asia. That said, I can’t really recommend that others take Burmese trains. Not because of the smelly sheets or the cockroach or the earthquake-like ride, but because money paid for railway tickets goes to the government, which, if you care about human rights, justice, or really anything at all, is not something you want to support. (We didn’t realize this until after we bought our tickets, by the way.) Plus, the trains cost about double the price and time as buses. Still, stepping onto this train was like a time-warp that was definitely worth experiencing, if only once.

Most photo essays are artsy and beautiful and tell a story without many words. This isn’t one of those. For the record, my “photo essay” isn’t meant to diss on this wondeful country or its trains. It’s just an honest depiction of my then-horrible-now-hilarious experience. And so, since this story can really only be told in pictures, here’s a compilation of some of my (and my friend Michelle’s) finest work to date. I know they’re just pictures, but if you want to start comparing us to Wes Anderson now, feel free.

It all began on this platform at the Yangon (Rangoon) Central Railway Station. Looks pretty nice, right?

My vegetarian dinner request was met with white (left) instead of dark chicken meat. I’m going to go ahead and conclude that most Burmese aren’t vegetarians, so hey, it’s the thought that counts.

This was as flat as Michelle’s bed got. “Maybe one day we’ll laugh about this.”

What you can see in this picture was our private bathroom, complete with toilet, sink and shower. What you can’t see is that the shower was actually just a hole in the roof that leaked rain water all night. This was fine with us since the sink didn’t actually work.

This little guy, let’s call him Gregor, introduced himself to us in the middle of the night. I’m sad to report he quickly had a violent run-in with a newspaper.

Apparently our breakfast stop was out of “the usual” (cake and coffee). Instead, our window waiter brought fried dough with gravy and chai tea in plastic bags (that’s the chai hanging on the fan control).

Hey, at least we had a cup.

Watch this documentary: “Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country”

Before I planned my trip to Southeast Asia, before I could even place Burma (Myanmar) on a map, I saw a film that eventually inspired one of the most influential and eye-opening trips of my life so far.

During college, I took a course called Shifting Focus: Video Production and Activism. It was a full-year class that focused on utilizing the students’ skills and resources (and our obvious passion for world peace!) to help organizations in New York City that needed more effective media. Aside from working with community organizers, we read a lot of Noam Chomsky and Saul Alinsky and watched a lot of documentaries.

Late into the first semester, my professor held a screening of an Academy Award-nominated documentary called Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country (2009). At that point in my life, I pretty much knew nothing about Burma besides that it was, um, a country… in Asia… and (I was sort of sure) that there was always “bad stuff” happening there. I mean, I kept up with the headlines of world politics, but the news on Burma usually sounded so complicated that I never took the time to really read about it. Normally I would feel stupid about being that ignorant. But the more I talk to people (particularly Americans) about this, the more I realize that many of us hear little to nothing of the happenings in Burma. After all, it was a closed country for a long time. And that is why I hope everyone will take the time (85 minutes, to be precise) to watch Burma VJ.

The idea for this film began in 2004 when Danish producer Lise Lense-Møller became intrigued by “the idea of how a country could simply disappear from the public consciousness.” She teamed up with director Anders Østergaard and independent journalist group Democratic Voices of Burma, but their efforts to capture the country’s oppression proved to be difficult without any uprisings to film. Then, in August of 2007, major protests began in response to the ruling military regime’s decision to remove fuel subsidies, which caused the cost of petrol and diesel to rise by 66% and natural gas, by 500%. Knowing how rising fuel prices affect Americans, who live lives of incredible luxury compared to most Burmese, it’s not hard to understand why this event caused the people of Burma to react so strongly.

With thousands of Buddhist monks leading the way, 100,000 people throughout the country protested the military junta. This was Burma’s largest anti-government protest in twenty years and the military (which overthrew the government in 1962 and has ruled ever since) didn’t respond lightly: they banned foreign news crews, imposed dusk-til-dawn curfews, prohibited gatherings of more than five people, and shut down the internet. The world already didn’t hear much about Burma and now they wouldn’t know about these very importnat demonstrations either.

Armed with handycams and cell phones, and risking potential torture and life imprisonment under the regime, thirty anonymous video journalists (VJs) took it upon themselves to show the world what was going on. According to a WSJ blog post, Lense-Møller and Østergaard received only two hours of footage between October 2007 and January 2008. Having working on a few documentaries, I can tell you that this is practically nothing to work with. Especially considering how complicated the background of this story is. Luckily, by late May, about sixty hours of raw footage had been smuggled out of Burma and into the filmmakers’ hands. Using this footage — some of it so rough it makes The Blair Witch Project look smooth — the filmmakers pieced together the story of the 2007 uprisings through the eyes (and lenses) of the VJs who risked their everything to show the world just a glimpse of truth.

Less than five years after this uprising, I found myself — a blonde girl from Pittsburgh — strolling down those same city streets seen in the film. But a lot has happened in the last five years and the streets, and people, look different now. More peaceful. And happier. But damaged.

Walking — camera in hand — through the streets of Rangoon (Yangon), the primary setting for demonstrations during the 2007 anti-government protests

Between camera phones, iPads and the like, I would guess that most “Westerners” almost always have a camera on hand. I do, and I pull it out somewhere between five and five hundred times a day. I see something interesting, funny, sad, delicious, disgusting, whatever — I take a picture or video. And I rely on others’ pictures, videos and stories to inform me about news around the world. The filmmakers and video journalists behind Burma VJ understood the importance of visuals and their brave and heroic dedication resulted in an educational and eye-opening film. This film was my first glimpse of the struggle for peace and freedom in Burma, and if I hadn’t seen it, who knows if I would have ventured there.

If you are interested in Burma, politics, protests, human rights, activism, journalism, monks, or just overall good documentaries, watch Burma VJ. I’ve even made it easy for you:

Watch it on Netflix  or  watch it on this website  or  order the DVD.

Thoughts From a Guest House

I am sitting in the lobby of Julie’s Guest House in Chiang Mai. Actually, I am lounging on a triangle cushion and my back is finally admitting to me that there is nothing comfortable about these seats. Why are they in restaurants? And houses? And hostels? I suppose they do look authentic, sprawled out on the floor and all.

The Havaianas knock offs I bought in Bangkok two months ago are now held together by white duct tape. I am also using duct tape to label my bags, seal plastic bags shut, and patch a hole in the rain cover of my backpack.

I just got my eyebrows waxed for the first time in three months.

I am feeling bittersweet as I prepare to board my last overnight bus of the trip: About 11 hours from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.

I’m hoping I say what I want to here before my shuttle comes. The 6pm bell is ringing so it’ll be here any minute now.

The people next to me are in the middle of an awkwardly flirtatious convo. She’s not interested. I think back to how many of these conversations I’ve heard over the past few months. “How long have you been here?” ….blah blah “I’m from America.” “Oh, where abouts in the states?” …blah blah “We should grab a drink later. I heard of this really authentic spot that plays great — “Western” — music!”

My iPad is dead because I spent all day reading blogs instead of writing (or you know, exploring Chiang Mai). I think that’s a sign that I might be ready to leave. One article had a list of ways to know if you’re ready to head home from a trip like this. Number one on the list was something like: “Your girlfriend says she can hold off on doing laundry so she doesn’t have to spend more money.” I am no one’s girlfriend, but I am indeed holding off on laundry, and have been for a two weeks, because the $1 it would cost would be better spent on another sticky rice and coconut milk dessert or bowl of green curry.

Ok, bus is here. Looks like awkward flirty guy is on it. Bummer.

Interesting Moments (Minimal Words)

Those last few posts were terribly long. My apologies, readers. I know that none of us can focus on words for that long anymore.

So, here are some interesting moments — this time in the form of images — that took place in the past month. One day I will figure out how to add actual captions to pictures on my iPad. For now, please accept my awkwardly spaced posts.

What’s Homer doing in Vietnam?
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I still don’t even know how this happened…
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New, really intense friends on a Vietnamese sleeper bus
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She was really cute… until she put her entire hand in her mouth and then rubbed it on my iPad screen
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Massage attire in Chiang Mai
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Oh, the things that happen in Bangkok…
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A Friend for the Road

Why does everyone here have to be so cute?

Seriously, it is annoying. Even from my first flight into Bangkok, I started to see the awful/adorable trend of couples traveling together through this place that I so happily pursued alone.
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Looking around at other travelers in SE Asia, you see mostly couples or groups of friends, neither of which are necessarily easy to join. For example, you might see an attractive young man checking into a hostel and think, “Oh, he looks interesting!” But low and behold, his equally attractive girlfriend will soon sneak up behind him with a loving kiss, giving you the evil eye over his shoulder and crushing any chances of you making new friends. Or you might see a friendly looking young lady and decide, “She looks fun!” but then cringe in disappointment when six of her giddy friends come prancing around the corner. Gah!

Where are the people like me, who thought that traveling with a boyfriend would only create tainted memories? And that backpacking with a big group of girls had the strong potential of turning into an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians? Was I being too negative about it all?

I think that compatible travel partnerships require a healthy balance of similar wavelengths, budgets, interests, patience, and personalities. I wasn’t really looking for a travel buddy, but after just a few days of being in Asia, I knew it would be a welcome addition to my experience.

Enter: Michelle Fuller — a recent UCLA Comm. grad, certified TEFL English teacher working in Prague for the year, and my spontaneous travel partner in SE Asia. Her previous residences include Geneva, Massachusetts, Shanghai, Houston, Hong Kong, Maui, New York City, Prague, and Los Angeles. Raised as an expat, by the time she was 16 months old she had been to 16 countries (or something impressive like that). Yes, she was more well-traveled as an infant than most people are as adults.

I met Michelle in New York City during NYU’s 2010 Spring in New York program. We instantly clicked over a shared love of travel (and $9 pitchers at Reade Street Pub), so when we saw some potential overlap during our 2012 travels, we made it a point to try to get together. Although her plans were up in the air until the last minute, Michelle was able to secure a solid month to travel before starting her teaching job. She arrived in Bangkok just as I returned from Ko Tao and we immediately began making plans. Two days later, we were on a flight to Burma and our incredible/exhausting adventures began.

Having Michelle as a travel partner for the past month was beyond great. Yes, I am that behind on my blog — she is already on her way back to Prague! I got so behind because we literally didn’t stop moving for the last 30 days. It was a little a lot rushed for both of our tastes, but we had to move quickly if we wanted to cover a lot of ground.

I learned something really important about myself in going from traveling alone to traveling with a friend: I prefer to have company. Well, good company at least. To be honest, being alone for the first month was kind of lame. I didn’t hate it and I wouldn’t rule out doing it again, but it just wasn’t as fun or rewarding as traveling with a friend. Before Michelle was around, I found myself wanting to tell someone, anyone about what I was seeing, but telling is never the same as sharing an experience. Plus, I was forced to awkwardly take pictures of myself (and only myself — big L on this forehead!) when no one else was around to take pictures for me. I met people, sure, but I just didn’t like the whole solo thing as much as I thought I would.

It’s nice to have some time for yourself and flexibility with plans, but if you travel with the right person, you can have all that plus someone to share it with. It really is quite nice to have a friend to get advice from, play endless games of gin rummy with, blot mysterious armpit rashes, spot money, take pictures, split meals, split rooms, split a single glass of wine when you’re really pinching pennies — or kip, in that case, and even blame when things go wrong (not that we ever did that, of course!).

By way of Vietnamese sleeper buses, crowded minivans, cheap flights, rotting train cars, and rickety boat rides, Michelle and I made it to Bangkok in Thailand, Yangon and Bagan in Burma, Siem Reap in Cambodia, Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hanoi and Halong Bay in Vietnam, Luang Prabang in Laos, and Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. It’s hard to believe we did it all in the past few weeks! I wouldn’t change much about our trip except to extend it by at least another day in each city, if for no other reason, to just relax and write. Actually, I would maybe also rethink our train travel in Burma, but that’s for another post…

Obviously Michelle and I got lucky. The situation could have easily turned into a nightmare and resulted in me ranting about how I will never travel with anyone ever again. But not this time. In fact, we are now toying with the idea of South America, 2013…

What started in NYC, 2010…
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Turned into planning…
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Which turned into traveling…
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Which resulted in this:
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And this:
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And these!

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Being able to remember your favorite experiences with the person you shared them with is really a priceless part of life. So maybe, when Michelle and I are old ladies, we will sit around playing gin rummy and splitting a glass of wine as we talk about our memories of this very trip.