Arriving in Accra

There is a risky feeling when preparing for middle of the night arrivals at a new destination. It’s easy to sit on a plane and ruminate on the potential challenges the mind creates. Airports are typically dark, empty and heavy with a foreboding air. Darkness fills the unknown city outside ominous glass doors. Pioneering an inaugural trip to an unfamiliar hotel fills the mind with potential pitfalls of seeking reliable transportation. And, then, just as typically, the eerily anticipated arrival is seamless, and all is well. This was the case when I arrived in Accra, Ghana at 2:30 AM after three weeks in the Canary Islands. Although the taxi driver struggled to find my New Town hotel, we navigated with the universal system of stopping, rolling down the window, and asking for help. Even at that late hour, outreach efforts proved to be a success that added to the air of hope for this leg of my journey.

New Town is an interesting neighborhood in Accra. It’s an area with fewer visitors than other parts of the city – which opens doors to great opportunities for neighborly relationship-building. On my first morning, I wandered to a nearby school where a group of boys were playing soccer. They graciously covered a small set of viewing stairs with a small nylon backpack and gestured for me to sit down and enjoy their game – all the while showboating their talents and making sure I didn’t miss an opportunity to take pictures and praise their moves. Sadly, my soccer cheering knowledge is pretty much limited to, “Wow, great kick.” As I watched, and “oohed and aahed” at what felt like appropriate moments, booming drums signaled the beginning of a church service in the school building.

I was drawn in for a pastor’s message that was hopeful for the onset of my journey and filled with spirited preaching about resisting darkness and negativity. Sounds of the soccer game competed with these inspiring words and the ball occasionally made its way through the door and into the front of the service – only to be tossed back without a blip in the message. As I sat and enjoyed some spiritual development, small children giggled and waved from the open windows. Some inside would stop near my seat with curious stares, smiles, and whispers of “Obroni.” One toddler boldly planted herself on my lap to the intrigued and somewhat shocked eyes of her peers. It’s easy to become smitten with kids who are so curious and willing to connect. One of my favorite interactions has been watching a young girl sitting on my lap and trying to wipe away the birthmarks on my face – only to become frustrated by the fruitless process.

Walking is an interactive social event in Ghana with endless opportunities to meet people. By early afternoon, I had done more chatting than my combined three weeks in Spain. A young girl named Apene quickly became my local friend and pretty much the handler for every need that arose – with some needs that I didn’t even knew I had.

Apene is not your typical sixteen year old, with confidence and independence typically earned through a lifetime of experiences. “Resourceful” is the word that comes to mind, as she guided me through busy streets, while telling stories and asking questions, negotiating the best prices for services and goods, and finding every opportunity for selfies with my phone and to chat with friends and family along her way.

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We visited Apene’s home and it was easy to connect with her grandfather TeTe who is a retired teacher. It doesn’t matter where you live, far and wide, teachers share common experiences and can endlessly enjoy school chatter. Our time together was a welcome wagon overflowing with openness, generosity, and kindness that I aspire to have. His gift of a beautiful homemade straw hat is already a cherished treasure. As Apene showed me her talent for beading, her young neighbors and family members entertained me with their songs and games.

Throughout the week, Apene religiously knocked on my door each morning to prepare me for fully-scheduled days she had outlined in her daily journal. She arranged for us to paint a Hope for the Day mural at her school and taught me about the history of Ghana, pop culture for young people, and highlights of Accra. The kindness of Apene and her family are an unexpected gift in Ghana with weeks more of adventures to share.

As I travel, I am purposed to share the Hope for the Day message of proactive mental health while engaging in conversations that reduce stigma that often interferes with addressing mental health challenges. Their team sent me armed with outreach stickers, bracelets, and resources to provide collaborative workshops on this topic and the mission of connecting with global partners in this work. In only one week, doors have opened wherever I turn, with a clear interest in others who are anxious to share their ideas and learn together. Mental health dialogue is a global need that is slowly becoming a familiar conversation. Much more to follow in this area including meeting with local NGOs, learning more about how students with unique needs are supported, and providing a staff workshop at Global Mamas. You will be able to find more specifics on the Hope Travels initiative on the HFTD webpage soon.

Speaking of Global Mamas!!!!!! If you don’t know this organization, you should! My cousin Kristin has tirelessly spent her life in service to the mission of developing women-owned businesses in Ghana, with a side benefit for her family and friends being introduced to their beautifully unique clothing and jewelry. I often wear Global Mama dresses to school and work at the hotel – and enjoy sharing their success story. It was my great pleasure to meet Kristin’s partners in Ghana and visit their store. I have quickly given away all the colorless dresses I brought from home and replaced them with bright, beautiful options. You can buy their clothes online – but I feel like my visit to the store was a pilgrimage by one of their big fans – that exceeded all of my expectations. Plus, Apene was able to visit for a fall photo shoot – sadly in the rain – but still an opportunity for her to meet new local friends.

My first impression proves Ghana to be an easy place to love. As always, travel makes me more aware of the world, while also tangibly reminding me that I have so much more to learn.

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Let’s Get This Adventure Started!

“A year? What will you do?” People asked so many logical questions when hearing about my leave of absence. And – I’ve had limited answers for the “where are you going” and “what are you going to do” small talk. For the last three years, it was hard to even dream about specific destinations while working, working, and working to save the funds to make it happen, so I decided to choose a starting point and let the rest of the journey unfold. Booking a ticket to the Canary Islands served as a gateway to flexibility for further travel in either Africa or the Middle East. From this restful spot, it’s easy to get anywhere.

Plus, it sounds so exotic, right?

But, here I am. It’s my seventeenth day in Tenerife, and it is the first one where I am starting to feel like I have a bit of life in me – and am not just forcing myself to be out and about. My sleep has been more on than off – and I’ve been okay with spending lots of time in my tiny hotel room – just reading and watching some Netflix. My hair’s been kind of greasy – and my pajamas have been my best friend. I’ve worn my black $10 Walmart dress for just about every single trek outside of my room without a desire to plan for more. I have been relatively invisible here. Most people would say that I probably could have done these exact same things at home…which is true.

In reality, after years of running and a summer of decadence and fun, my time in Tenerife was purposefully filled with a mental and physical detox. I felt tired and unsettled with my physical fitness and self care. Knowing that it would be hard to connect with others in this state, there seemed to be value in taking time to recharge the strained pieces of my heart and mind. Usually, a calendar and daily flow of life dictate my actions. Instead, I created a daily plan that included drinking more water, working out, and eating in ways that prepare me for a rigorous year in unfamiliar places.

So, today, my hair is clean. I am dressed in something different. I am feeling ready for what comes next. In eight days, I will leave for Ghana after enjoying a short visit in Tenerife with my aunt, Bones.

The unknown excites me and there is a lot of that to come. Glad to have my partners at home to share the journey on my blog. Thanks for joining the fun! While I still don’t have answers to the questions, I am one step closer to finding the answers on this journey.

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I Will NEVER Do That!

As we get older, it’s natural to define and refine our tastes and preferences based on life experiences. For example, I know I don’t like OKRA. I’ve tried it fried, baked, and mixed with other vegetables, and I just know that it has been slimy and gross every single time I’ve tried it. When people serve it, I don’t have to taste it again to know that I’m going to gag as soon as it hits my tongue. I’m good with that.

I’ve also noticed, both in myself and others, that life experiences and this refining process have the potential to close doors…sometimes when we don’t even remember why. Like the one time I visited Martha’s Vineyard years ago and heard someone say that tourists are always hurting themselves by renting motorcycles they don’t know how to drive. I don’t know who was hurt, how they were hurt, or anything specific, but motorcycle rentals were just kind of checked off of my life list –  which is kind of odd because people also warn me regularly about walking alone, traveling by myself, eating food from street vendors, and traveling on night buses, but I do all of those things.

So, when Jason arrived in SE Asia three weeks before me, I had a growing sense of agida as he texted how much he was enjoying motorbike trips after a lesson at a bike shop. Yep, one short lesson put him on a bike in the heart of the crammed streets of Bangkok traversing over bridges, across highways, and through intersections bursting with people.

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City two days after school was dismissed with a feeling of being transported into a world of impending adventures. Canceled flights, mechanical problems on planes, missing luggage…all lost in a sense of curiosity and wonder about what stories would fill my empty journal pages.  So, when Jason asked if I was ready to be on the back of his bike for the next four weeks, all of that  “I’ll never do that” stuff just kind of got lost in the jetlag shuffle, and I was on the back of a bike heading to the Cu Chi tunnels.

Busy motorbiking riding in Vietnam

Busy motorbiking riding in Vietnam

We quickly learned that maps provided general guidelines on where to go, but the best way to find our destinations were quick stops where we combined hand gestures, smiles, and questioning eyes with the name of our destination to unsuspecting, but willing locals. Our first ride started to feel a bit like a parade with us waving our arms and yelling, “Cu Chi?” to everyone we passed. It was the first of many rides that were longer than expected and where Jason focused all of his energy on navigating dangerous potholes, people, and unexpected obstacles while I enjoyed hours of reflecting, daydreaming, and sightseeing from the bumpy backseat.

Time in SE Asia renewed my focus on “what comes next” in life. These summer adventures are more than opportunities to get away. To me, they are stepping stones. What inspires me most are interactions with people who are living life successfully in all different ways. When I am invested in life at home, it’s easy to forget that there are people living in non-traditional ways – making money and just being in the world.

I should have blogged during the trip because I like the way it highlights more authentic emotions as they are uncovered, but I couldn’t even jump start my motivation to jot postcards on this trip. Dreaming was good enough for me. So now, that story is over, but after reading this blog post by Elizabeth Gilbert about traveling, I was struck by her words and a desire to take a few minutes to reflect on the highlights of Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand.

I have just passed a memorable three weeks of adventure, shared with two people whom I love with all my heart — two people who will not live forever. I will not live forever either; that’s the contract. But I have filled my mind with stories and encounters and pictures that I get carry around with me to the end of my life.

I have given myself something to remember me by, when I am old.

That’s why I travel. ~ Elizabeth Gilbert Author of Eat Pray Love

The first days in Asia are stimulating and a bit tiring for no reason other than your senses are in overdrive with the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. They are so different, but enticing. Outside of the Cu Chi tunnels, most of the time in Ho Chi Minh City was spent eating noodles and drinking tea and fruit drinks. The tunnels offer perspective on hardships faced during war and history lessons I wish I learned in school. An AirBNB in Hanoi was a bit off the beaten track, but near a small lake with local restaurants and lotus-filled ponds. I couldn’t help but laugh when we had our fancy chicken dinner with feet that were more fun to play with than eat.

The Chicken Dance

The chicken dance

Sapa, Vietnam was dreamy. Riding through the rice fields, mountains, and even the clouds is the reason I’m glad I gave up the motorbike bias because of the opportunities to see the smallest parts of nearby villages. Stopping on the side of the road at a makeshift fire pit grill for corn, potatoes, and bamboo rice provided the perfect warmth for another otherwise cool and rainy day. At this point, I was sniffling a bit and feeling congested. While I tried to keep it to myself, Jason soon found himself in the same boat – but much worse – “ravaged” with a sour stomach, headache, and more…all while enjoying at least one 20 hour bus trip from Sapa to Laos. Okay…in the spirit of full disclosure, I made fun of him saying he was “ravaged” and didn’t really have much empathy. While looking at pictures for this blog post, I spotted this one, and a sense of guilt welled in my heart. Sweaty, pale, and thin…I think he really was pretty sick.

REALLY Ravaged By Illness

REALLY ravaged by illness

I can’t think of one word to sum up the overnight buses to Hanoi and then to Laos. Generally, overnight buses are a great way to travel because you save hotel dollars while moving to new spots without losing daytime hours. As soon as we squooshed ourselves into the sleeping capsule seats, we recognized that the overnight buses in Vietnam are definitely built with locals in mind. With our knees crouched to our chests, and carry-on bags in our laps, we “slept” and traveled for a few hours at a time before a leg would fall asleep and we’d have to do a shake and flip.

The trip to Laos started with the overnight bus, continued with a border stop and switched to a smaller van. As we sat on the van, with two others who quickly became our friends,  our seats and aisle were quickly filled with bags of rice, appliances, boxes, and a few mini chicks who were quacking from their seats on the roof of the van. With a big bump, one of our van tires took a dive into a small roadside hole. We all climbed over the stuff, took a peek, and watched the bus driver and male passengers push the van out of the hole. Me…I took pictures.

Sometimes a bus needs a little push

Sometimes a bus needs a little push

After a few hours, we did a quick change to another van. What makes this fun is that you never know what to expect on these journeys. What is sold as a 12 hour ride may be closer to 19. We quickly gathered that a “direct” trip is never really direct with multiple changes of vehicle and lots of surprise twists and turns.

About 17 hours into the trip, the man sitting next to me began wobbling from the heat of the missed air conditioning and the motion of mountain bending curves. Wobbling soon turned into gently falling on the floor next to me which quickly turned into sounds of vomiting from below. Sometimes, when I don’t know what else to do, I start to giggle. I know…it seemed like I was lacking empathy (again), but it happened, even while I was feeling very bad for the young man next and found a bag to hand him. I looked to the girl behind me and we had an instant bond of “uh-oh” as Jason suggested I comfort the man by rubbing his back and grabbing his bag of vomit to toss out the window. I didn’t exactly rub his back, but gave him a few shoulder taps as I reluctantly pried the bag from his elevated, half-conscious hand. Clearly this had happened before because the bus driver – who really lacked empathy –  barely glanced back and kept driving. At our next stop, the vomit van baked in the hot sun. Opening the door to the sour stench told us we needed a hero to clean it up…like a two time veteran of war who prides himself on his ability to do jobs that others might resist. Sure, Jason was sick, but it was clearly a perfect leadership opportunity for him. We were all lucky that he thought so, too.

This was my first trip to Laos with visits to Luang Prabang and Veng Vieng. We spent the week with our new friends Eva and Joao from Brazil who we met on the vomit bus…proof that you can make new friends under the most unusual circumstances. I love meeting people on road trips because you share so much in a short amount of time that you develop quick and cool bonds you might not have with familiar friends. Our days with Eva and Joao were filled with mini adventures like waterfall swims, jumps off of tree limbs (or watching those jumps), morning monk walk, motorbike rides, motorbike wipeouts, batty caves, riverfront beers, sunsets, delicious meals, rustic bungalows, and surprise storms. As I write this, it all seems like a dream.

Traveling with new friends...we'll meet again someday!

Traveling with new friends…we’ll meet again someday!

Beyond a trip to a local waterfall and swimming holes, being cave explorers was probably one of my favorite moments. The thing about caving in other countries is that you just kind of get to go and see what’s inside the deep dark corners. One cave required a motorbike trip that was estimated at 3 kilometers, but was more like 7 – through the mud. After tipping a few times and needing to stop to collect Jason’s flip flops from the mud, our main concern was exploring the cave and getting back to the paved road before the impending storm broke. We arrived at the cave entrance, picked a locked gate, bent into the dark space, and let Jason lead the way. As we walked deeper into the dark cave, we heard a swoosh over our heads and watched Jason’s flashlight follow fleeing bats.  He not quite screamed, but definitely high-howled. When we left, he swore that the “girls” were scared of the bats, but our video proves that there was only one person howling!

From Laos, we spent a few days in Chiang Mai, Thailand which included a daylong motorcycle ride to the White Temple in Chiang Rai. Outside of catching occasional GoPro footage and waving to locals in our typical parade style, my only jobs on these long trips were to hold on tight and watch beautiful things go by. By this point, I embraced my hours on the back of the bike as opportunities to dream and work on important mind tasks. For example, if I knew I wanted to send an email, I would remind myself that I could think about the details once I got on the bike. If an idea popped into my head that needed consideration, I would write myself a note and think about the details from the backseat. The bikes also provided serendipitous road sign/side adventures like a quick turn on this trip that lead us to a hiking trail leading to a beautiful waterfall swim. As we traveled home in rainy conditions, I was thankful for Jason’s strong spirit and sense of calm under pressure.

The White Temple was a bit crowded when we arrived, and while it was very cool to see, it felt a bit dark to me. The ceramic hands reaching up from the underground gave a sense of helplessness. It was an unusual array of ancient and modern symbols of evil things that made me feel heavy while also feeling like I was surrounded by a tourist showplace. At the same time, you couldn’t help but be a bit awed by all of it.

Still not sure what I think about this place

Still not sure what I think about this place

Myanmar (Burma) was the final destination of this journey that was the “something special” place I had been dreaming about. After years of conflict, Myanmar is opening to visitors which offers fresh and welcoming interactions with locals. Meeting people who have never met Americans provides an opportunity to be loving ambassadors.

Our first days in Yangon were rainy. That’s what I remember! Rain, being a little grumbly with boredom, and just more rain in a busy city. The special event was meeting Jim in our hostel breakfast room who shared his story of having an NGO, adopting children, and preparing to open a café in Kalow with his children. Jim is an American who has lived in this area for years, building relationships and doing cool things. He’s the kind of guy who seems to have mastered dreams of living in a way where his gifts influence the lives of others in meaningful ways. He invited us to visit his home later in our trip – which we did – spending a day cooking with his family and learning about plans for the café.

One of my favorite memories of this trip took place in Myanmar, and it’s one of those permanently stored travel memories because it was an adventure that unraveled before our eyes and left me wondering exactly what would happen next.

Motorbike adventures became the theme of the trip. My “I will never” attitude shifted to a “what was I thinking” perspective as we continued seeking bike opportunities where they might not otherwise exist. Thailand and Vietnam have strong motorbike cultures for tourists. It’s kind of a thing to do with visitors sometimes even buying/selling bikes at the beginning and ends of their journeys. You could easily rent bikes for 5-$10 per day and knew they were easy to find. Myanmar was a bit different with strict laws denying access to tourists in major cities. When we visited Mandalay, Jason found a bike via the hostel front desk clerk – one of this “gotta guy” things that began with a warning not to ride the bike up steep hills. EVERYONE says that you must visit Bagan as the “must see” spot in Myanmar. It’s a land filled with temples that can be explored on foot, bikes, and by horse-drawn carriages. Google Maps suggested that this was a 3 hour and 18 minute trip, so we left with the confidence that we would enjoy a lovely afternoon at the temples with time to return for an early night of sleep before our early morning flight the next day.

We started the journey with our typical “Bagan?” to people we passed who happily pointed us in the destination direction? After driving for a few hours, we were surely getting close…we thought…until we stopped at an ATM and the security guard drew us a map showing at least 4-1/2 more hours of travel. We followed his road plan feeling confident that his timings must be a bit off…and we rode and rode and rode…down busy roads and then a tiny two lane rural roads with sporadic villages along the way. As we passed a school playground, we stopped the bike so Jason could join their soccer game and I could try a few circle games. The teachers just stood around and laughed at the antics – especially Jason’s silly faces and fun runs after screaming students.

As we rode, the motorbike got louder and louder with a few surprising pops that we couldn’t identify but were surely ours. After a delicious lunch stop at a petrified wood themed outdoor restaurant, we debriefed on our morning and considered our next steps. It’s painful to abandon a mission, but it was nearly 3:00 and we couldn’t imagine the dark ride back on the isolated roads, so we turned around with assurances that Bagan would happen someday, just not on this visit.

Recognizing that we needed to stop and pause for bike repairs, the first of three, we watched three mechanics in a small roadside shop work on the bike for about an hour. Imagine our reverse sticker shock when they asked us for the equivalent to $1.50 for their services.

As we passed a local village, we stopped to watch a long procession that included horses, beautifully dressed people, instruments, and songs. As I sat on the sidelines, Jason moved ahead to take pictures with a front view. As I engaged with a woman and her thanaka-covered baby – who she handed to me – I watched as a monk stopped the parade so Jason could take pictures with the parade-leading couple and two monks. The parade continued and we “chatted” in body language with the monks whose foreign (to us) words and fingertips to their mouths let us know that they wanted us to have dinner together. A sweet young girl who spoke English guided us to follow the monks on their motorbikes to our food destination. As we glanced at each other, we had a “how do we say no, but let’s make this quick” look with the knowledge that there was a long road ahead in fading summer skies…and we followed the monks.

Visiting with the parade philanthropists

Visiting with the parade philanthropists

The monks led us around curving dirt roads to a cluster of houses. We park and walked around to the back of a house where hundreds and hundreds of people appeared, eating at low tables with plates of rice, beans, and vegetables culled from mountain-shaped community piles. The small field area buzzed with party sounds.

A community meal

A community meal

We were led into a home where a table was pre-set with about 15 small bowls filled with the same food we saw outside – along with bowls of meat. Not just any meat – but a bowl filled with pork – well I’ll say pig – because you could see small cubes of skin lining an inch of gelatinous fat with a thin layer of meat below. As we enjoyed the food and tried to learn about the reasons for the festivities, I blended all of the food items together – Burmese style including the herbs and spice mixes provided – while avoiding the meat. We ate and chatted and the monk showed us a tall stack of dollars as the English speaking girl used Google translate and showed us the word Philanthropist and pointed to a picture of the couple who led the parade. It appeared that they hosted this event as a gift to the village, and I assumed the money was donated to the monk.

In my daily life, but especially during the open-eyed awareness of travel, I often think about my brother Dave and feel his gentle nudges. When he was alive, he believed that any of my ailments could be solved by eating some meat. He judged my mental state on my weight. If I looked a bit thinner than his last visit, he suggested that I would feel better if I ate some meat…even when I was feeling just fine. “Have a Whopper, Nan,” was one of his favorite phrases. Before he passed away, he gave me a copy of the Pursuit of Happiness by the Dalai Lama – not because he was seeking a Buddhist life – but because he agreed that being happy was a choice and felt the book highlighted his views, too.

So – as we sat at that table, I couldn’t help but think, “Well played, Dave,” as the monk opened his wide smile and proudly hoisted three big cubes of pig onto my rice and waited for my reaction. Jason’s plate was next. Again…the eye contact communication…and a clear understanding that we were BOTH eating it. Who says no to a kindhearted monk who welcomed strangers to celebrate with his village? Dave won as one, two, three cubes exploded in my mouth and slid down my throat. YUM?

Thanks, Dave!

Thanks, Dave!

When we exited the house, we watched a spectacular scene as we learned that the stack of money wasn’t for the monks, but for the villagers. One monk friend gathered the people around him and began to separate small piles of money from the stack, throwing it high into the air for others to catch. It was chaos! It was exciting! It was even a bit dangerous as we watched a woman holding a baby fall onto the ground and into a puddle. This was definitely a once in a lifetime event that we won’t soon forget.

Money! Money! Money!

Money! Money! Money!

After a short visit to our English-speaking friend’s house for more food, and one more set of bike repairs by the monks and their friends, we were on our way back to Mandalay. With this special day under our belts, we left feeling the pressure of the setting sun, a thin dark road, and hours of riding with a bike that continued to pop – even after multiple repair stops – a broken speedometer and gas gauge. We wondered how late village gas stations would stay open and decided to fill our seat storage with water bottles filled with gas. Our light only appeared to have a high setting, so Jason used his headlamp as a source of light…a funny sight to see. It was exciting…being unsure of what would happen next on this daylong escapade.  With one more motorbike stop that included an English-speaking professor who called a neighbor to open the local mechanic shop, and with a near-hanging muffler loudly blaring through the quiet alley, we pulled into our hostel at 12:30 AM – with time to spare to catch our morning flight.

The final days were spent in Bangkok – fitting and filling. Fitting in my last few $12 massages and filling the backpack with a few LIGHT treasures for home. The trip ended perfectly – with a near midnight ride through the busy streets of Thailand with a few slightly frowned up (or maybe illegal) trips along stunning viewed overpasses heading to the airport.

Yep…life in SE Asia was good – really good.

There were a few takeaways from this trip…always are.

The first is obvious. As I get older, I need to remember really reflect on the root of my “I will never” moments where incidents of the past determine decisions of today. Without an openness to get on that first bike, I would have missed so much. I appreciate Jason’s resilience, and while I am currently saying I will “never” ride my own bike, I just might. Sorry, Bones!

Sorry, Bones!

Sorry, Bones!

The world is changing so fast and getting smaller each day. Both our waterfall detour and village day ended with, “Are you on Facebook?” from young girls we met. We left Eva and Joao knowing that it was likely we would meet again someday because it’s easy to stay in touch. I am thankful that it’s easier than ever to stay connected with people we meet on life’s journey. At the same time, there something rapidly changing about our curiosity about the world. I feel it more and more with each trip. When we missed time in Bagan, it likely didn’t hurt as much because we felt like we had already seen so much of it while browsing Google images. We watched as children, who in years past may have craved interactions with foreigners, sat and watched Food Network shows or playing games on monitors while barely looking up. It’s getting harder and harder to stay curious while finding unexplored terrains, but it’s also feeling more and more important to just open up to new experiences while building real life people connections and friendships.

Speaking of friendships and connections, another takeaway is constant recognition that I am blessed by mine. Traveling with others offers challenges, and I felt grateful to have had a patient and generous partner on this trip who shares desire to be IN the world – even more than see it. There were moments when I had to stop and just say WOW – that is so cool! And…I certainly appreciate all that motorcycle driving that provided hours of “ME” time. I’m also aware that I have a team of well wishers and prayer partners who stay at home and send lots of warmth my way. It’s hard to miss home when there are so many cool people just a few keystrokes away.

Final takeaway? I am more determined than ever to make an international lifestyle my normal. In so many places, people have a non-traditional and location independent lifestyle. I am committed to making significant lifestyle changes for the next four years to get me there. I won’t exactly be retiring, but I’m calling this my “leaping” plan. Four years…saving all I can…gaining new work skills…and focusing on building international connections. It’s going to happen.

Other memories I want to store…

  • Eating LOTS of Indian Food
  • Stumbling upon the abandoned French monastery near Sapa
  • Fishies eating our feet in the waterfall pool in Laos
  • Splurging ($60 per night) for Inle Lake Viewpoint bungalow hotel with amazing breakfast and view
  • Coconut Snowball Dessert in Yangon…amazing
  • Delicious mangos bought on the streets for so little
  • $12 massages – especially those in Thailand
  • Dinner with Rafael and Lydia’s family in Yangon
  • The “burro” carrying the items purchased to replace lost suitcase items
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Feeling….GRATEFUL!

After 10 and a half months of life on the road…countless train rides, a load of flights, and almost one hundred different places where I’ve laid my head, this is it! One hour until I head to Fiumincino Airport and begin my journey home!

My last six weeks have been spent in Italy. Throughout the trip, I have happily shared highlights on my blog, but it has been hard to write in Italy because all I seemed to do was eat and eat and eat. Since I am not a foodie, I couldn’t imagine people wanting a daily report on my pizza with no cheese and pasta with tomato sauce.

Italy has been restful and a chance to soak in places I love! I have lost countless hours to people watching while reading and walking through new narrow streets.

When traveling to Italy, it’s fun to stay in the famous cities that roll off of our tongues from years of dreaming, but being on a budget makes “the town next to that famous place” the only viable option. For me, that is what made this trip quiet, exploring familiar places from a slight distance.

So, here I am! Ready to start dreaming again! I thought about spending my last lunch doing something out of character, like ordering something exotic with a glass of wine, but I am on a cement bench in Piazza Navona, full from my $2 slice of eggplant pizza, just sitting and watching people. I wonder how I will adjust to the fast pace of life that begins again tomorrow. Piazza Navona is filled with musicians, artists selling their work, and wedding couples taking pictures. It is a sunny afternoon and in my final minutes, I am feeling especially grateful and blessed with the fortune of great friendships and a network of support!

I have had hundreds of wonderful moments…times when people have gone out of their way to guide my path…answer a question, lend a phone, and so much more. Above and beyond those daily blessings, I made a list. I have met 21 people who have either invited me into their homes, spent a few days with me, and offered hospitality and friendship in extraordinary ways. Of this list of 21, I expect to continue friendships, welcome them to my home, and experience continued benefits of new friendships. These Divine moments and blessings will always be the best thing about my
trip.

I had no fear leaving…but now, as I prepare to come back, I am a bit scared. My trip of self discovery has left me with lots of answers, also some questions. I was prepared for anything and every worst case scenario that people presented. I remember when being away for almost a year sounded like such a long time…so why do I feel like I just left home? At the same time, why do I feel like it will take a bit to get in the home routine because I have been gone too long? Why do I not so secretly not want to fit back home? Why do I feel more peaceful than I have ever felt before while suffering from minor bits of being worried about maintaining good habits I have formed when thrown back into life at home? Am I in a great place or am I going to be a mess when I get home? And…months with nothing but time to think, why can’t I answer these questions?

I am eternally grateful for all of the support from home. Some travelers choose to disconnect while away, but for me, the messages from home, excitement of my people, and just general interest has meant a lot. I am excited to just listen and catch up on all of your years! That really excites me!

So, now…back to my favorite city in the world!!!!! Chicago, here I come!

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Big Ideas? Nope!

I have half a blog post written that is all nostalgic about my great travel experiences this year and the wonderful people I met…all true but not really feeling it today!

I have a half post written about how scared I am to come home because I just might not fit into my life there and how I think I forgot how to make my own bed…but I am not totally feeling that today either.

What I am feeling as my 11 month journey comes to an end is…not sure!!!

AND this was supposed to be the year when I figured it all out! Maybe I need another year to dig into the complexities of my brain or else I just need to admit that I am not very deep.

What I can say for sure is…

*I am in Tuscany for the next two weeks before coming home.

*I am excited that I will teach the 8th grade literacy classes at Westmont Junior High…always fun to try something new.

*When I get home I need to be very serious about saving money so I can open new doors…because I have been busy working on new dreams.

*I have met great people and I am grateful for that…and soon I will write and tell you all about them, but for now, I am just going to eat another pizza!

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Scenes From An Italian Restaurant

People have told me that they have phobias about dining alone in restaurants that stop them from seriously considering solo travel. Generally, I opt for places where I can buy street food, shop at a grocery store, or just graze all day on items purchased from fruit and veggie vendors. For me, it’s not about social anxiety, it’s just that most food doesn’t excite me much. When I do visit restaurants, it is usually for a quick bite and the free wifi. Getting eating “out of the way” is my priority, so I can move on to do important things like connecting with friends online or catching up on the latest news. My friends say they “live to eat” while I “eat to live” and show displeasure when we dine together and I generally consume my meal at the fastest pace without savoring much of the “foodie” experience. Give me your standard plate of pasta with marinara sauce and a huge basket of bread, and I will give your restaurant a five start rating. When asked to share my favorite meals of this trip, I get most excited talking about homemade tortillas, tamales from a street vendor, corn on the cob sold from a fire pit, or…see, I already ran out of things to say.

But, Italy is different. This is a place where I am drawn into restaurants the same way I am drawn into a new novel. The food is amazing…no doubt, but it’s the entire experience where I watch scenes unfold before my eyes. My recent visit to Taverna Rossa is an example of why. What started out as a quick trip for takeout, turned into a full evening event.

I am staying in San Angello which is a 3k hike from Sorrento, but feels like a world away…. without the throngs of tour buses and expensive restaurants lined with tourist menus. My hotel is the third story of an apartment building in a residential area surrounded by narrow cobblestone streets and beautiful mountains. You wouldn’t pass this address unless you were looking for it, and as I peered in and saw the brick oven in the nearby pizzeria, I thought it would be a good place to grab a quick takeaway later in the week.

So, after a Saturday afternoon nap, I didn’t feel like trekking back to Sorrento, so I decided this was going to be my pizza night. Since I was planning to take out, I decided I could just quickly wash my face, change my pajama bottoms into lounging pants, throw a sweater over my sleepshirt, and make the trip down the street where no one would have to encounter messy me. This is Italy, I should have known better.

I washed my face with new products from Lush that are a mixture of two scrubs called “Angels on Bare Skin” and “Herbalism.” Instead of being a liquid, they are a claylike pastes that work when combined with water. The good news is the clean, soft skin the products leave behind. The bad news is that the bright green paste often gets mixed in my hairline leaving clumps of goop to be removed with morning shower. This is not a big deal when I am going to bed, and to me, not worth fussing over for a quick pizzeria outing.

I walked into the empty restaurant announcing my intentions, “I am here for a takeout pizza.” I didn’t get too close and kept my eyes on my phone to avoid giving the owner contact with my fresh face, green haired look. At this point, it was 7:30 pm, but the restaurant was empty because by Italian standards, it was way too early to eat. “Please sit.” I heard it, but tried to avoid sitting, until the owner walked over and guided me to “the best seat in the house” which was near a window overlooking the street. He assured me that I could just wait until my pizza was ready to go. As he sat me down, his face had a perplexed look as he started picking the green clay bits out of my hair without apprehension. I laughed and suggested that I could just go the the bathroom and do it myself. When I returned, he told me that, of course, if I was “waiting,” I had to try the lovely, complimentary new wine he just purchased which was already sitting on my table. Then, there was an icy glass of water sitting next to the addition of a placemat and silverware that were there too. Fine, I was staying! I changed my order to whatever is the opposite of takeout and ate my way around the perimeter of the crusty, brick oven baked veggie pizza covered with roasted peppers, zucchini, eggplant, and mushrooms. The owner visited every few minutes to see if I was enjoying the dinner asking the obligatory Chicago questions about Al Capone and Michael Jordan. We laughed with each stop at the table and he said I was the only person there because Americans were the only people who would eat at 7:30 pm. I tried to explain that I held out as long as I could, but to him, he couldn’t imagine how I could eat at this early hour. As I finished the pizza, I was ready to pay my bill, and head back to my hotel, but this would not be easy because I soon had a shot of local limoncello sitting before me in a frozen shot glass. I didn’t recall being asked if I wanted it, but once it was there…

Another couple came in and sat at the next table, which seemed like a perfect distraction for my getaway. I got up and made my way to the front counter, until they stopped to ask where I was from. After another 20 minutes of sharing stories and solving world issues, I was finally on my way home with a full belly, a warm limoncello gaze (that stuff is toxic), and a reminder that meals in Italy are NEVER quick, but always a beautiful adventure.

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I Love Italian Things!

Years ago, when Chicago’s beloved Cardinal Bernardin was dying of pancreatic cancer, he wrote a book titled “The Gift of Peace.” The stories of his life were especially reflective because he knew that his health condition was terminal and that he had only a few months to enjoy his days left on earth. While he might have always been led by his faith, this book showed a spiritual readiness for what lie ahead. I remember closing the book, and crying for hours. I have only done that with one other book…”The Bridges of Madison County” and I still blame that one on hormones.

As years have passed, I don’t remember many specifics from his life story, but I have always found comfort and pleasure in the way he described heaven.

“As I conclude this book, I am both exhausted and exhilarated. Exhausted because the fatigue caused by the cancer is overwhelming. Exhilarated because I have finished a book that has been very important to me. As I write these final words, my heart is filled with joy. I am at peace.

It is the first day of November, and fall is giving way to winter. Soon the trees will lose the vibrant colors of their leaves and snow will cover the ground. The earth will shut down, and people will race to and from their destinations bundled up for warmth. Chicago winters are harsh. It is a time of dying. But we know that spring will soon come with all its new life and wonder.

It is quite clear that I will not be alive in the spring. But I will soon experience new life in a different way. Although I do not know what to expect in the afterlife, I do know that just as God has called me to serve him to the best of my ability throughout my life on earth, he is now calling me home.

Many people have asked me to tell them about heaven and the afterlife. I sometimes smile at the request because I do not know any more than they do. Yet, when one young man asked if I looked forward to being united with God and all those who have gone before me, I made a connection to something I said earlier in this book. The first time I traveled with my mother and sister to my parents’ homeland of Tonadico di Primiero, in northern Italy, I felt as if I had been there before. After years of looking through my mother’s photo albums, I knew the mountains, the land, the houses, the people. As soon as we entered the valley, I said, “My God, I know this place. I am home.” Somehow I think crossing from this life into life eternal will be similar. I will be home.”

As soon as I get off the plane and onto Italian soil, I relate to these words and appreciate the comfort I feel in this beautiful place. I can’t think of any other way to share my feelings than to write a list of the things I love about Italy. So, in no particular order, here goes!

I love the way people shop in small markets and seem to buy just the few things they need for the next day. As soon as I get to a new town, I scope out the shops for a place with fresh bread, fruit, veggies, and cheese. As I watch women leaving with a few carrots, tomatoes, a potato, and some greens, I can taste the soup I imagine they will make that night and want to follow them home for dinner.

I love that cafes and coffee shops are extensions of homes. As I sit and linger, I watch people pass by, greet the server, and stand at the counter enjoying the daily routine of espresso drinking. There are moments when people hang around but cafes are one place where I see that Italians do not always linger.

I love the way people are really affectionate and enthusiastic here. Very few people pass babies without a loud “Bellisimo” and cheek pinching; greetings are always big, mushy cheek kisses; people pass on the road with “Buon Giorno” greetings to strangers; and you should see what happens with couples who are in love. Mama mia!

I love shopping for dresses here. At home, women who are small on the top and big on the bottom have the option of looking like a sausage butt, constantly tugging at too big, falling sleeves, or needing to get things altered. Here, women are built like me, so everywhere I go, I can buy dresses that feel custom made. Really…it is a problem because I know I have way too many dresses, but it’s so exciting to find ones that fit so well, and the sales ladies are so enthusiastic, so even when I say “no more,” I walk out of the store with two new colorful dresses to stuff in my already full closet. (When I recently told Bones about buying a new dress, she actually went to the closet where I am storing some clothes and reported how many dresses were there. I think she thought that would make me reconsider buying another. Hasn’t worked yet!)

I love the old men here. I swear, it’s like they refuse to give up the suave days of their past and conform with modern ways that men and women interact. It’s not unusual to walk down the street and receive greetings and cheek kisses with words that seem like they might be too lusty to be appropriate in 2013. Since I am not sure what they are saying, it is hard to be offended, but I always imagine a flashback of days gone by. It might get frustrating if I lived here, and I certainly don’t wish that men reverted to those social mores, but when in Rome…

Not to be outdone by the older men, I love the older ladies, too. I look at them and see traces of my Gram and her sisters. Where else do you see women mopping sidewalks, cleaning up litter and picking dead leaves off of trees in public gardens, and yelling at children who are not their own when they get out of line? The “it takes a village” concept of raising children seems alive and well here in Italy. Once, I saw an old woman sitting in church watching as a small child was dancing near the altar while the parents stood by. After a few minutes of dirty looks, and obvious words of displeasure, she got out of her pew, picked the child up, and handed him back to his surprised parents. Nobody in church looked offended or upset, it was just the way it was going to be and those kids, who I believe were tourists, sat quietly for the rest of the mass, with eyes as big as saucers watching their new “Nonna” from a distance.

I love the teeny, tiny cars that make my Mini Cooper look much too grandiose. The little Fiats and Smart Cars that line the streets are not only cute, but perfect for the tiny Amalfi roads.

Speaking of Amalfi, I love the coastal highway. Although this area is overrun with tourists and in main cities, it seems hard to find a passing person who is actually Italian, it is still a beautiful place to visit. The twisty road hugs the coast from a distance high on cliffed edges. The colorful buildings and luscious blue water offer views that I have never seen anywhere else. I like to think that I am walking on a movie set and just wait for Sophia Loren to show up to perform her lines.

I love the Italian language. I have taken a few daylong Italian classes, but really have difficulty remembering much. Sometimes, I think that is a good thing because instead of focusing on what people actually say, I am watching their facial expressions, rapidly moving hands, and passion for whatever they are sharing. The laughing, talking children are my favorite because their words sound like a mix of talking and singing.

This probably goes without saying, but I love the food here! In the book “Eat Pray Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert describes how much time passes in Italy, based on her need to buy new clothes because of all the sumptuous food she enjoys in Italian restaurants. Sometimes, okay often, I eat when I am NOT hungry, just because I am walking past a pizzeria and the smell drags me in. Like yesterday, I had bread with my breakfast, a calzone by the beach, and a slice of pizza in the middle of the day. I love that the pasta is always served “al dente” and you are given just the right amount to enjoy. the sauces are fresh and light, but the noodles can be perfectly hard and heavy. I love the sparkling water that comes with meals. It makes me feel all elegant and grown up as I slowly take a few sips. I also can’t stop eating the fresh produce which is often sold from trucks along the street. My hotel room looks like a market with a dresser topped with strawberries, bananas, oranges, and apples. By the way, I also love that there are so many fresh things to eat here that taste better than home…the Parmesan cheese…balsamic vinegar, olive oil…all those things we consume in the States just taste more delicious in their hometowns.

I love that people here move slowly and have down time in the middle of the day. Stores outside of tourist towns are often closed from 2:00-5:00 pm so people can eat a big meal and spend time resting with their families. The streets are virtually empty and up can hear sounds of cooking, and chatting (or yelling), and clanking silverware from the windows above. While there are likely kids on couches watching tv and playing video games just like at home, my imagination creates much more family-friendly scenes of shared meals and storytelling of days gone by.

Now that I have started this list, I can’t stop. As I walk down the road, I look around at the things I see and think to myself, “Oh, I love that, too!”

I recognize that I idealize Italy from the vantage point of a visitor, and that many things are much less perfect than I describe. That’s why, on this trip, I had the revelation that I will never move here because I don’t want to uncover those less that perfect realities. Instead, I choose to lovingly appreciate all that is good here and take pleasure in all of these things I love.

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