Category: Travel

Letting Go

Letting Go

“We must try not to sink beneath our anguish…but battle on.” –Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I’ve been feeling A LOT of emotions the past few weeks. It all started when I said goodbye to my parents. Since then, everyday presents new opportunities for self-reflection and growth. Change is coming. It’s drawing near on the horizon, and as always in my life, this is something that never ceases to trip me up.

Today was tough. I was incredibly overwhelmed from the moment I woke up. But what I’ve learned through a year of journaling and blogging is the power that comes when one writes down thoughts on paper. Getting those emotions out of the head is the healthiest way to deal with them. After a day like today, I needed to ask myself, why am I so stressed? What am I upset about; what is worrying me that I can’t put a finger on?

Today, just like any other day, I hope to finish it off feeling well-fueled, well-rested, content and grateful. Above all, I hope to finish the day off with a smile on my face. In order to achieve these goals, I must acknowledge the aforementioned questions though. Acknowledge that something is wrong, something is clearly bothering me, but that’s okay. It’s not so much that I am having strong feelings that is wrong; but it is incredibly frustrating for me when I can’t recognize those feelings and name them as emotions. Am I happy, sad, scared, overwhelmed?

First off, I have been feeling stressed. So much so that my body has broken out in an irritating, itchy, blotchy red rash. If my stress level is so high that it is manifesting itself in very real, very uncomfortable ways on the exterior of my body, then clearly it’s time to address this stress.

I’m stressed because a hell of a lot of things are changing in my life. There’s a hell of a lot going on, and there’s only so much that is within my control. And not being in control has definitely taken its toll on me these past few weeks. A part of me finds this quite strange. I have done so much this past year; I’ve seen so many places, met so many people, and grown as a person one hundred times over. I assumed control had nothing to do with the wonderful feelings of success I’ve had this past year.

Leave nothing up to assumptions though. Assumptions are misleading; assumptions can be wrong. Apparently, I’ve assumed lately that I’m living such a relaxed and go-with-the-flow lifestyle, and that this would help me deal when things aren’t in my control. That assumption is proving to be very, very wrong. For me, it still remains true that there are certain things in life where I feel like control is necessary.

Planning is one such area. I have always planned my life. From very early on, I knew what I wanted, when I wanted it by, and how I was going to get it. Through college, what I wanted was to graduate in three years. During grad school, my desire was to finish my schooling, and finally transition my role from student in the classroom, to teacher of the classroom. For three years of employment, despite loving my job and having wonderful coworkers greet me at work everyday, I always knew that Eagle Point wasn’t my final destination. From the very beginning it would never be my home; so I suppose during those first three years of teaching I always knew that I was going to move on.

Eventually I did. And not only did I leave my job at Eagle Point, but I left my home, my family, my dog, my friends. I left everything I knew and considered important in life, to set off on the adventure of a lifetime. Fast-forward through one amazing year and I’m left without a plan. I don’t have a job lined up for the fall yet; I don’t know what life is going to be like when I come home; I don’t know how I’ll handle the transition when I finally say goodbye to the incredible life I’ve spent the past year building for myself. I’m out of control, and that is a very upsetting truth to deal with at the moment.

It’s not just a lack of control that I’m dealing with though. Also troubling me is the fact that everything I do these next two months has such a finality attached to it. Everything I have come to know as typical life over the course of a year is about to end. Nothing will be the same when I finally board that first plane on 24 July 2017.

On the one hand, I’m really okay with this chapter of life drawing to a close. I do feel like it’s the right time to go; but it almost feels the same as ending a relationship. We all know that feeling. The one you get when you have been with a person for a significant amount of time, and you finally decide to call it quits. Even if you’re breaking up with someone for all the right reasons, it’s still incredibly hard to say goodbye. There’s so much you feel like you’re leaving behind; it’s not hard to forget, all too often, what you’re making space for.

This is how I feel about coming home. I know it’s the right choice; I know it’s the right time. But I am going to miss the days of being a traveling teacher. I am going to miss the opportunities to adventure and explore the world. I am going to miss living an ex-pat life. I’ll miss my job, I’ll miss the friends I’ve made along the way. But the thing is, come July, it will not be the first time I say goodbye.

I’ve already said goodbye once in the past year. I said goodbye to Thailand last October. I said goodbye to teaching English; I said goodbye to being hot and sweaty EVERY.SINGLE.DAY. I made it through that goodbye, and while I can draw strength from that fact, there’s a part of me that knows this time around is different.

I don’t know if I’ll ever live abroad again. Certainly I’ll continue to travel, explore, and see as much of the world as I can. But will I ever move to a different country again? That is a question too hard to deal with at the moment. That is a question best left unanswered. Instead of focusing so much on planning for my future; instead of spending all my time dwelling about the past, I turn to Emily Dickinson for advice; “dwell in the possibility”.

Possibilities are endless; this is an exciting truth. There’s still so much to do, still so much to see. Adventures await around every corner. And at the end of the day, “Everything has to come to an end, sometime.” -L. Frank Baum

An anniversary celebration in Prague: I lasted a whole year!

An anniversary celebration in Prague: I lasted a whole year!

“She stood in the storm, and when the wind did not blow her way, she adjusted her sails.” -Elizabeth Edwards

Monday 1 May is International Workers’ Day; happy Labor Day in Europe! As I write this post I’m sitting at a table in Starbucks in Prague enjoying my morning Americano, and reveling in the direction my life has gone over the past year. Exactly one year ago today, after forty-eight grueling hours of anxiety, excitement and travel, I officially landed on Thai soil in Bangkok. One year ago my adventure started; life sped up to an unimaginable quickness over the next three hundred and sixty-five days, and I haven’t been the same since I left.

It’s surreal that after an entire year now I find myself celebrating my day off from work for Labor (or technically I should be spelling it Labour, since it’s not actually an American holiday) Day in Prague, Czech Republic. After I finish writing this blog post, I’ll have a few more hours to explore the city before I head back to the train station to catch my bus back to Deutschland at three this afternoon.

The past year has been nothing shy of EXTRAORDINARY! I am so grateful for the endless opportunities that have showered my life in adventure, learning, adversity, and growth. I am so proud of the Emily who smiles back at me in the mirror everyday. She’s a pretty great lady! Adventurous, inquisitive, passionate, goofy, fun, loud and loving. It’s crazy to reflect back on this rollercoaster of learning that I’ve been on the past year. So much has happened; so much has changed. I’ve seen so many new and exciting places and I’ve met so many wonderful new people. But what’s most crazy of all is how, at the end of the day really, everything is still the same.

I’m still me, I still teach, I still love history, culture and travel. I’m still loud, I still laugh uncontrollably at times, I’m still quite strange. Even after all the growing I’ve done I still find myself uncomfortable in new situations. And above all, still, I am most grateful for my family and friends across the globe. The people who have stood by me, supported me in this dream, the people who I can’t wait to see again soon! If I don’t say it enough then I apologize because I think it every minute, of every single day. I am so thankful to have such a wonderful support system in my life. People who believe in me, see my strengths and capabilities, and push me to reach for the stars and always chase after my dreams. I am humbled, grateful, and blessed.


This past year certainly has been an adventure; I’ve done more, seen more, and felt more love than I ever dreamed possible. Even this past weekend has far surpassed my expectations! I was so busy and consumed for the three weeks in April that my parents were visiting, that I never realized I’d have the first two Mondays after spring break off from work. What a treat!

Last week on Tuesday we came back from a two-week holiday at my school. By Wednesday, after settling into a rhythm again I took a look at my school calendar and noticed that Monday 1 May happens to be a holiday (in most of the world…). Meaning a three-day weekend for me, hooray!

The thought of staying put this weekend never crossed my mind. Three days if a gift, time that is meant to be lived and explored. Instead of thinking about staying in Neustadt, I had to decide where I’d like to go. Almost immediately I settled on Prague.

I hate to disappoint, but I don’t have a great explanation as to, Why Prague? Rather, I just had a feeling that it was the right choice. Honestly, I’m sure that anywhere I ended up would have been as lovely as the next place. But I’m so glad that I ended up here!

To my surprise and delight, getting here was easy. A train to Nuremberg and then a bus to Prague. Simple enough. In total, a trip that would take me across international borders, but would require less than seven hours of travel. For this reason (and so so many more) I love living in Europe.

My first evening I found my hostel, explored the surrounding area a bit, and found a great place to taste Czech beer. While there I met two Americans, a husband and wife from Kentucky, both on their first European trip. They too love travel, as they explained to me in our ensuing conversation, but have focused much of their efforts on state-side travel as of yet (my next adventure perhaps…). We shared stories, advice, and company for a few hours; it was great. I don’t always fall into easy conversation with new people at every stop, but when I do it’s always so enjoyable. Even more, it reminds me how much I truly love my life and love what I do.

Drinks and conversation at the Prague Beer Museum were followed by a stroll over to one of Prague’s most iconic landmarks, Charles Bridge. The views and people watching didn’t disappoint. Although what surprised me most, the mass volume of people! As I mentioned before, a three-day weekend, for most of Europe; apparently I wasn’t the only one around who thought about getting out of town for the long weekend off.

Sunday was my self-guided walking tour around Prague, and it was wonderful! After ten miles of exploring I’d visited most every place that I set out to when making my original plans for the weekend. Starting off at the Prague Castle, the castle grounds, and the glorious cathedral. From there I hiked my way back down, and then back up again, to the Petrin Tower. Who knew that Prague had it’s own replica of the Eiffel Tower as well? The Petrin Tower sits atop Petrin Hill, a dense and lush space of hilly terrain and green from the ground up. It’s beautiful.

Located just between the castle and the tower is one of the oldest working monasteries founded in 1140, called Strahov Monastery. From the gardens outside I enjoyed a rest from all the walking and a snack while I took in the surrounding views of the city below.

Afterwards my tour took me back to the Old Town Square, where I found the town hall, built in 1338, and the even more famous fifteenth century astronomical clock. Next, I made my way to the Jewish section of town. Starting at the Starnova Synagogue, one of the oldest and most valuable European and world Jewish monuments, and also the oldest synagogue in Europe. I learned a bit about the history of Jewish culture in Bohemia, through the nineteenth century, as I visited the other five synagogues in town. All are located within a few square blocks from each other, set up as historical sites, memorials and museums; and centered between them is the old Jewish cemetery with headstones dating back for hundreds of years.

By late afternoon on Sunday I was quite tired. My day started early and had me trekking all around town. So in the afternoon I went back to my hostel for a much-needed nap. I would finish my day back at the Old Town Square for dinner and a lovely view. A great day!

My Monday plans consist as follows: Wencslas Square (as in the Christmas song). This boulevard is well-known in Czech history, originally as the city’s main horse-trading market. Then, in 1848 when a giant mass was held outside the national museum, the street gained more recognition. By 1918, attention fell upon it once again when they hosted a massively public celebration of the new, Czechoslovak Republic. It was here too, in the 1980s, where two university students committed suicide by lighting themselves on fire, in a dramatic and powerful protest of the communist state in Czechoslovakia. Finally, most recently in 1989, yet another celebration was held after the fall of communism was announced. (Think of it as the Times Square of Prague.)

After that, my final stop in town is the Lennon Wall. After his murder in 1980, Lennon became a pacifist hero in the region. An image was painted on a wall behind the French Embassy. After years of trying to keep it covered, white-wash after white-wash, communism was no match, and the Lennon Wall became a permanent symbol of political focus for Prague youth.

My weekend in Prague has been wonderful. I am so grateful for every adventure, big or small, that I have the opportunity to take. Life is a beautiful gift.

January 2k17: from France to Austria and everything in between.

January 2k17: from France to Austria and everything in between.

Last month was incredibly exciting! In a matter of thirty days I was able to visit six different countries. I spent time in Germany (of course), France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and finally Austria. Here’s a quick recap of the month of January and all its adventures:

Paris, France: 30.12.2016-04.01.2017

As I previously wrote about in my last blog, I spent my New Year’s holiday in one of my all-time favorite international cities. On my first day in the city, I visited someplace new that I hadn’t been to the previous two trips I’ve taken to Paris. This time around, I made my way out to Monte Martre and visited the incredibly beautiful cathedral, Sacre Coeur. A bit out of the city, but nothing more than a thirty minute metro ride. Unfortunately, as it was early January in Paris, the skies were overcast and gray, leaving little views of the surrounding city. Still, it was worth the trip, and I’m glad I finally made it out to Monte Martre this time around.


My next main event during my time in Paris was to take a walking tour around all the top sites. Most of which I’ve seen previously, but it was great just being back in Paris, surrounded by the narrow streets, beautiful architecture, and all sorts of different people from around the world. Also, because it was New Year’s day when I decided to wander the streets of Paris to view the top sites, the busiest street in the city, Champs Elysees, was still closed off to traffic from the night before. Therefore, it was virtually deserted; I was able to walk down the middle of the street with the Arc de Triomphe behind me, as I made my way towards the Louvre. It was very interesting to experience such a busy street in such an unusual way.

Next up on my agenda in Paris was DISNEY! I’m a huge fan and I was given the opportunity to go back to Disneyland Paris for FREE! I reconnected with a friend from high school, whom I hadn’t seen in more than ten years. What a unique way to experience Disney, all alone. It certainly made decisions quick and easy. There was no one I had to bounce ideas off of all day, basically I went wherever my heart so desired. However, being that it was the middle of winter in Paris, it was REALLY cold. I even got to experience my first official European snow fall right in the park itself. Overall, a very fun day letting my inner-child out to play.

Brussels, Belgium: 04.01.2017-07.01.2017

The next and final stop on my Christmas break venture around Europe was another new country, Belgium! I absolutely fell in love with Brussels. The people are fascinating, the architecture is a mix of old and new, and the BEER. By far, the Belgians know how to do beer best. Some of the sites during my three day tour of Brussels included the Atomiom, the Mannekin Pis, the Belgian Comic Book Center, several beautiful cathedrals and churches, a city bus tour, and best of all…Harry Potter- the Exhibition!

Luxembourg City, Luxembourg: 20.01.2017-22.01.2017

Happy Birthday to me! And a very happy birthday it was, indeed. I spent my birthday weekend exploring yet another new country; this time I set my sights on Luxembourg. Only a three and a half hour train ride from Neustadt, I took the day off from work on Friday as a treat to myself, caught a mid-day train from Neustadt to Trier, then on to Luxembourg, and spent the next two days exploring another wonderful international city. Originally my cousin was supposed to be joining me on Friday evening for a fun girls’ weekend together, but due to unforeseen circumstances she had to back out last minute. Upon hearing this news, I was a bit bummed that I’d be spending my birthday on Sunday alone, but I only allowed myself to dwell for a very short while. I have been traveling on my own for the past eight months, what’s another weekend of solo travel, if not an amazing opportunity, new experiences, and an incredible blessing! The theme of the weekend, #treatyoself2k17. As it was my birthday, and I was turning twenty-seven, officially entering my “late twenties” as my family so quickly reminded me, I knew I wanted to make this weekend special. Truthfully, it didn’t take much. As I was staying in an actual hotel and not a hostel, on Friday night I ordered room service, used the pool and sauna, and enjoyed a relaxing evening in. Then on Saturday I headed out to explore the city, and what an incredible day that was! Luxembourg City is essentially laid out on two levels, making for an incredible day hike around town. I saw castle ruins, churches, modern architecture, and beautiful scenery. It was a wonderful day, and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect gift for my twenty-seventh birthday. The opportunity to travel and see the world this year has been an incredible blessing, full of experiences I will surely never forget.

Zell am See, Austria: 29.01.2017-03.02.2017

The mountains are calling and I must go. -John Muir

My final adventure during the month of January was Austria! I had the incredible opportunity to chaperone and attend a week-long ski trip with students, staff, and parents from ISN. It was an amazing, albeit exhausting week. Myself and four other adults (two teachers and two parents) boarded a coach early Sunday morning with thirty-nine students from grades 6-10. After a seven and a half hour bus ride, we had made our way to the Austrian Alps, to a small resort town called Zell am See. Despite being on board a bus with thirty-nine loud and smelly teenagers, when we reached the Germany-Austria border, the bus ride was breathtaking. Being surrounded by mountains all week reminded me so much of home. It also reminded me how centered and peaceful I feel when I’m surrounded by snow-covered mountains too. I had a blast snowboarding again (for the first time in over two years) and enjoyed my time getting to know my students outside the classroom setting.

The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles. -Anne Frank

Happy New Year…a few days late.

Happy New Year…a few days late.

“Friendship with oneself is all important, because without it one cannot be friends with anyone else in the world.” -Eleanor Roosevelt

Welcome to the new year! Twenty-seventeen has a hell of a lot to match up to, because in my book twenty-sixteen was about as amazing as life gets. What I cannot fathom already is that we are two weeks into January. Halfway through the first month of the year, already?! Where has the time gone? Well I wish I could have shared this next story with you all two weeks ago, but traveling without a computer, shotty data service at best, and poor wifi connections in my hostels all around Europe prevented me from writing this any sooner. Without further ado, a piece I wrote on New Year’s Eve and had intended to publish much, much sooner:

31.12.2016 9:10PM

Okay, I’ll keep this short. I just want to document this moment in case I ever feel like reliving it someday in the future.

I was all eager and excited to be spending New Year’s Eve in Paris solo; that is up until that final moment when I had to officially decide where I’d be spending my time when the ball drops. I had a lovely day at Monte Martre and Sacre Coeur today, and also a nice mellow evening at my hostel drinking a delicious Scottish IPA and beginning my newfound obsession with NARCOS. I even took myself out to dinner across the street from my hostel too. But when it came time to actually make my decision as to where I’d be heading for the night, to be honest, I had half the mind to literally stay in, cozy up in some sweats, and watch Netflix…while in Paris…for New Year’s Eve…I should be fined.

Unacceptable. Even these thoughts. They remind me that while it appears to the world watching my new year unfold on Facebook and Instagram that I’ve become this vagabond world traveler, without a home or a care in the world; deep down inside I’m still the same Emily who left on this adventure of a lifetime eight months ago. Despite even the feat of visiting multiple countries in a few short weeks, I can’t truly abandon my old self, no matter how hard I may try at times.

I recently finished reading Amy Schumer’s autobiography, “The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo,” and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I laughed, I cried, I LOL’ed, I even recommended it as a read to a few of my besties who I thought would find meaning out of it too. But it wasn’t simply the humor that I connected with. Rather Amy (it’s fun referencing her as Amy…almost as it we’re friends) opened up with her readers on a real personal level about all sides of herself, and it was for this reason that I so deeply connected to the book. She writes of being an introvert in a world where everyone expects the opposite out of her at all times. She’s a comedian. She’s meant to smile, make small talk, make people laugh. Being a quiet, introspective thinker just doesn’t fit the mold, right?

If you find this dichotomy at all interesting, then please, by all means, read Schumer’s book. Don’t leave it up to me to illustrate the humorous juxtapositions, read it for yourself firsthand. It’ll be far more interesting and a million times more funny for you. But the reason I’ve brought it up is because the dichotomy she illustrates is where I connected to the story most of all.

I’ve spent the last eight months of life living alone in a foreign country. I’ve been living alone for the first time truly, in my entire adult life, and it’s been nothing shy of extraordinary. First and foremost, it’s been wonderful, but it hasn’t always come easy. For the most part, Thailand and Germany couldn’t be more different. In Thailand, I was teaching English (not my passion); I lived with some instant besties (shout-out to Al, Iz, and Laura if you’re reading this!); I was HOT-ALL THE TIME!

Fast-forward five months and I set foot on European soil, to embark on my third teaching assignment of twenty-sixteen. Moving to Neustadt was absolutely the right decision for me- both personally and professionally. I needed to be back in my own classroom, teaching social studies, doing what I do best; doing what I love most. The small class sizes at ISN are an incredible blessing, but don’t get me wrong; just because I’ve been able to shrink my class sizes from fifty down to fifteen, doesn’t mean it’s all been rainbows and ice cream parties at school. Rather, this professional transition has been quite trying, for a number of different reasons.

First of all, I’m teaching grades nine through twelve, geography and economics. Not to mention having never taught above year ten prior to October ’16, let’s just say juniors and seniors are a whole different ballgame. Which my three years experience teaching seventh and eighth grade social studies and language arts at Eagle Point Middle School didn’t fully prepare me for…

In addition to the age of my students, I’ve also never taught the particular content I’ve been assigned at my new job either. Now I don’t mind the geo classes one bit. I teach grades nine-twelve geo, and I’m thoroughly enjoying teaching and learning the new content myself, prior to sharing it with my students. It’s heavy on the prep-side of teaching, but enjoyable nonetheless. Needless to say, I don’t share the same feelings about being an “economics teacher.” No, the econ classes are definitely a whole different story! I haven’t actually studied economics myself since I was seventeen years old, just a junior in high school myself, when I took AP Econ at AHS. Obviously, never having studied econ in college, this was a factor I chose to omit during my interview back in July for my job. Whoops…

Maybe I just figured the position being in Europe made it a long shot. Who knows? But the truth is that I’m responsible for six different preps, each of which I see four separate times in a week. Meaning that I have to lesson plan twenty-four different plans. Every. Single. Week.

Ya, ya, I can just hear my elementary ed friends rolling their eyes at me, saying that’s what they do every week. But without the risk of sounding like a total bitch, it’s very different lesson planning for a room full of fourth and fifth graders, as compared to high school students, most of which are learning at the IB level (think of it as the “AP” version of classes in Europe). The moral of this tangential story, my job is far harder than it may seem according to my Instagram or Facebook page.

Outside of work I’ve struggled since moving to Deutschland as well. Being that I’m at an international school in Europe, the median age of my coworkers at ISN is probably around 40-45. Not to beat home a dead horse, but I’m nowhere near that age. No surprise to me though, I’m actually much more comfortable being the youngest member on a staff, than being of similar age to many of my coworkers (as was the case in Thailand). While I thoroughly enjoyed the network of friends in Thailand, my three years at EPMS prepared me for my “youngest staff member” role, which I’ve fallen into again at ISN. Still, while I certainly feel comfortable in this role, and I don’t mind it in the least, it too coms with a unique set of challenges that I’ve faced since moving to Germany in October.

Being the youngest on staff may not sound all that bad, but when you work at a very small school as I do, a total of fourteen teachers for grades six-twelve, and you’re younger than the next person by a solid ten years (more likely fifteen if I’m being honest), it can potentially make it tougher on one socially. I certainly enjoy my job, I get along well with most all of my coworkers, but if you’ve noticed, I have yet to travel anywhere on the weekends with a new friend. In Thailand, I quickly set off on adventures with my favorite ladies (shout-out #2). Not the case in Germany. I’m learning the truest, most pure meaning of solo travel right now.

And by right now, I mean this very instant as I write this. Currently, I’m sitting alone at a bar, in Paris, on New Year’s Eve.

But that’s besides the point I was trying to make. Please don’t read this and misinterpret my words. I don’t want my reasons for sharing this side of reality to be misconstrued. I’m not looking for pity; I’m not sad, hell I’m very rarely lonely over here except for the seldom quiet evening at home alone. What I’m trying to convey is that I am, at heart, an introvert through and through. And while I’d like to think that living on my own, across the world from family and friends, has pulled me out of my shell, the truth is, that just ain’t gonna happen.

I’ve adapted, I’ve grown. I know now to make small talk with strangers, sure. But as my previous confession illustrates, if my darkest desire is to spend my solo New Year’s Eve trip in Paris (a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity), cuddled up in sweats, in my hostel, watching Netflix, then I think it’s very clear that I haven’t really changed as much as I thought I had over the past eight months.

Where does that leave me, though? As one year of epic proportions draws to a close, and I realize I’m still pretty much the same ol’ Emily, what can I expect or hope for in two thousand seventeen? I’m not entirely sure about anything ahead, but what I do know, is it’s one hundred percent okay to just be yourself. Don’t waste time or energy trying to be someone you’re not. Rather, learn to love yourself, and strive to be the very best version of yourself that you can be. It’s proven quite effective for me this year, because I’m honestly the happiest I’ve ever been. And that has nothing to do with the fact that I’m sitting at a bar in Paris as I write this.

Location is fluid, surroundings constantly change. Happiness though, evolves within oneself. Wherever you are, if you’re happy, you’ll be happy. Right now, at 10:30PM on 31 December 2016, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. And that’s in large part due to the fact that I have learned to love myself.

We’re often flooded with stories of love this time of year; social media perpetuates this fact. Babies, boyfriends, girlfriends, engagements, weddings. Well, I can’t officially announce it on Facebook to the world, for the sheer fact that if I did, it may be significantly misunderstood if I came out in 2017 as being “in a relationship” on social media. But despite my incapacity to do so, that’s exactly how I feel right now. As 2016 draws to its final close, the clock is ticking down; people will be rushing all across the world to find that person whom they’ll share a kiss with at midnight. Despite being all by my lonesome tonight, even at a bar out in public, I’m with exactly the person who I want to be with as I welcome 2017 with wide open arms and an open heart-myself. I’m thrilled to be so happy, content, and confident in myself that I’m the only date I need this New Year’s. A whole hell of a lot has changed this past year for me; but deep down, I’m still the same, boring, shy, loud and weird Emily, and that’s completely okay with me.

“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” -E.E. Cummings

Ubon Ratchathani: Motorbikes, wax, candles, and more!

Ubon Ratchathani: Motorbikes, wax, candles, and more!

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger in the long run is no safer than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” -Helen Keller

So much to write, such a long weekend. Earlier this week I traveled to Ubon Ratchathani, with fellow teacher traveler Laura, and we had an absolute blast! Ubon is the easternmost province in Thailand. It borders both Laos and Cambodia. Not only was this trip a chance to travel east, but the true purpose of our visit to Ubon was it’s world-famous candle festival that celebrates the beginning of Buddhist Lent, on 19 and 20 July.

The Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival is the country’s most elaborate traditional parade of life-size wax sculptures to wats (Thai temples) at the start of the Lenten period. This tradition is rooted in preparation for rainy season, when devout Buddhists donate items for the personal use by monks. During Buddhist lent, monks retreat to their temples and live off only donations provided to them and the light of candles. Also called Vassa, it is the annual three-month period taking place during the rainy season, that dates back to the era of Gautama Buddha. Rooted in Indian traditions, it was common to not travel during the rainy season so as to not harm crops, animals, or even themselves at times. The celebration of this period has evolved into a national two-day holiday all across Thailand, though Ubon is home to the original and most elaborate candle festival to date.

Our trip started on Saturday, last weekend, though we didn’t leave Bangkok until 6pm. I had a lazy morning at home, before getting packed, showered and ready to go. I met up with Laura at 1:15 to head to Bangkok for our flight to Ubon. We settled on flying after I overheard another co-worker last Wednesday mention how he was unable to buy his train ticket as early as last Monday, 11 July. This came as quite a shock to me, because I have been under the impression that you don’t pre-book tickets for Thai train travel. Instead, you just show up to the counter prior to the time of train you’d like to take and ask for your ticket. Although true for most every other time of year, being that Ubon is home to the original candle festival, apparently people from all over Thailand flood the small city for the holiday weekend, making train, van and bus travel virtually impossible for last-minute travelers.

Prior to making it to the airport, Laura and I had a bit of a trip ahead of us. First, we took a van to Victory Monument, then we transferred to the Sky Train (BTS) for one stop, and finally we switched to the city line that took us directly into the airport. It was really nice for once though, because Laura already knew how to get to Suvarnbhumi (BKK) because she had just done the trip three separate times when her family was in Thailand visiting two weeks ago. This meant that I got to simply tag along, follow her where she went, and didn’t have to meticulously plan how to get to the airport from Ayutthaya, aside from taking a taxi. It ended up taking quite a while for us to get where we needed to be, we rode the Sky Train the wrong direction at first, mai pen rai, but we finally arrived to get in line to check-in for our flight by 4:15.

This turned out to be perfect timing actually. We found our gate and then decided to grab a drink while we were waiting to board. We stumbled upon a small Irish pub where I enjoyed a delicious Guinness on draught. One of the many things I miss in Thailand is access to good beer. About half way through our drinks though, while Laura and I were deep into a great conversation getting to know each other a little bit better, we were interrupted by a guy sitting next to us at the bar. He interjected, started saying some really odd, and honestly very confusing things about Americans and how we talk, and namely what we talk about. Laura and I were both utterly confused and just wanted to finish our drinks and leave. I’ve met such a wide range of people over here, and most of the time other ex-pats are a delight to talk to, but this guy certainly does not make that list.

Our plane ended up being delayed almost an hour, thanks #thaitime, but we finally took off by 7pm. We landed in Ubon just about forty-five minutes later, a very quick flight, and found a metered taxi to get to our hotel, The Outside Inn. What a delightful place! The man who owns the hotel is originally from Portland (small world), the staff was very nice, spoke excellent English, and were all very eager to help. They have a restaurant as well, Brent’s wife does most of the cooking, and they serve delicious Mexican food in Thailand! For dinner on Saturday, after unloading our packs in our room, Laura and I shared a plate of nachos, tried their “crazy spicy” salsa (it was SPICY, but so good), and had some drinks before heading up to bed.

On Sunday our day started around 7am. We woke up, had breakfast downstairs, and asked about how to get to Pha Taem National Park, one of the things on our agenda for the week. Brent gave us two options; we could rent a car for the hour-forty-five minute drive there, for one thousand baht; we could add a driver as well for just three hundred baht extra; or we could rent motorbikes from the hotel for 250/day. Laura and I were sort of on the same page at this point. We both really wanted to go to the national park, but we didn’t want to pay 1300 baht, and we also were very interested in learning/practicing how to drive a motorbike, something on my Thailand bucket list.

Our final decision, we rented the motorbikes on Sunday to drive around Ubon, get familiar and comfortable with them, and then we’d decided whether or not we wanted to drive them to the national park the next day. Sunday turned out to be a great day, despite the nearly-unbearable heat and humidity. We drove around Ubon, went shopping, walked a bit in the 100+ degree heat, checked out the carnival, then had lunch at a great placed called Peppers Cafe. It is run/owned by an American/German ex-pat living in Thailand, who says everything he puts on his menu are things he can’t live without in Thailand (salad, pasta, pizza, Mexican, German food, French food, to name a few…). We made it back to The Outside Inn for a quiet evening, Laura and I played cards, and shared a pitcher of Chang (Thai-style lager) from the tap.

Despite a lovely day, I ended up running into a few bumps along the road on my own on Sunday. My shorts got very wet from riding the motorbike all day in the heat, and this caused me to have some serious chaffing problems, ouch! It grew more and more significant as the day wore on when we were walking around the carnival and doing some shopping. Instead of driving from place to place, we parked the bikes, walked around, thus my legs were pretty raw after a long, very HOT day. I still managed to have fun though, even after I tripped on a fallen electrical cord on the sidewalk and scraped the top skin of my toe off too. It didn’t feel good by any standards, but it looked far worse than it felt when it was gushing blood. At this point in time, we were still making our way back to our parked bikes, my legs were raw, my toe was bleeding, and all I wanted to do was get back to our hotel room, change into long pants, and relax. All injuries aside, we made our way back to the park, made an obligatory first-aid stop at 7-11, and finally reached the bikes before getting home for the night.

If Sunday was a lovely day, then Monday turned out to be magnificent! This was the day we ventured away from Ubon to explore and go hiking in Pha Taem National Park. Monday morning we woke up, had breakfast, got driving directions, and by 10:15am having only one day experience driving a motorbike, Laura and I set off on our adventure. Since I had little experience from the day prior driving on any main roads, the drive to Pha Taem was quite intimidating from the beginning. I basically had white knuckles the whole way to the park, and although Google maps predicted our ride would take about an hour and forty-five minutes, that estimation was for cars and we were driving much slower than the speed limit, especially on the way there. It took a while to get accustomed and more confident with my ability to drive. Ultimately it wasn’t my own abilities that concerned me though. Rather I was much more nervous by what everyone else on the road might do, Thai drivers are insane!

Long story, and an even longer drive to the park, but a little over two hours later we finally reached Pha Taem. The first stop, prior to reaching the park entrance, was Wat Tham Khuha Sawan. This temple sits on a cliff overlooking what’s called the “Two-Color River”. The place where two rivers join, the brown Mekong River and the blue Mun River, it also creates the border between Thailand and Laos. The views were amazing, the temple was quite beautiful, and there was a huge gong painted with many Asian flags on it, although I’m unsure of it’s significance.

When we reached the park we paid our 400 baht entrance fee and stopped at Sao Cha Luang and Lan Hin Taek. The first of which is a unique rock structure, and the second is a rock with a huge crack separating it down the middle. From there we drove on to the visitor’s center, saw the place of the “First Sunset in Siam”, had a coffee and got to pour wax for the candle festival on Tuesday. Up next was the day’s highlight.

The hike through the park follows a path along the base of a 600-meter cliff edge, painted with ancient hieroglyphics depicting daily life in Thailand. This hike was just magnificent! I took way too many pictures, of course, but none of them truly do justice to the views we were afforded on our hike. Although I didn’t bring enough water, and I was sweating an abnormal amount, the day was still so much fun.

After our hike we drove further into the park to see one of the waterfalls, Soi Sawan. Unfortunately this waterfall turned out to be nothing more than a small swimming hole. Not quite the grand sight we were hoping to see. Not to worry, we enjoyed a further bit of a hike, hopped back on our bikes, and headed back to Ubon around 4:30. We wanted to beat the sunset back and just about made it into town, right as the sun was setting and it was getting dark. I am at a loss for anything more to say than it was so much fun!

Monday certainly was a day not to be topped, but definitely matched by the events on Tuesday at the Candle Festival. On Tuesday morning Laura and I decided we would sleep in, eat breakfast, pack, and stay at The Outside Inn until check-out at 11am. We both wanted to enjoy our last bit of time there and wished we could have stayed another night. Eventually though, we packed up and were ready to find our new hotel we had reserved for Tuesday night, before venturing to Thung Si Muang Park to check out what it looked like for the Candle Festival that evening. I had made our reservation for Tuesday night on (we couldn’t stay at The Outside Inn on Tuesday as they were already fully booked when I requested our dates), I already paid for the room, and had received a confirmation number and a receipt, my credit card was already charged. The place we were staying at wasn’t nearly as nice as The Outside Inn, but it put us about one kilometer closer to the park for walking purposes and was a bed to sleep in. With our packs on our backs and directions on Laura’s phone, we headed out at 11 in the 90 degree heat, with 70% humidity, and walked to Thawesook Grand Mansion. Once we arrived, we simply wanted to ask for a place to store our bags till check-in later, but as it turns out we were in for quite the surprise.

First problem: the girl working at the desk spoke no English. No problem, mai pen rai, I’ll just show her my booking confirmation and payment on my phone…or so I thought. Second problem: the hotel was overbooked, for quite possible the single busiest night out of three hundred and sixty-five days in Ubon, and we didn’t have a room! Third problem: this being the busiest night of the year, in an otherwise relatively small, quiet, non-tourist town, I had discovered that basically everywhere else in Ubon was also fully booked. Okay, still no need to panic, although I was getting slightly frustrated by this point, being that I had already paid for my room in full.

The first thing before any rational solution could be made was getting past the significant language barrier between Laura, myself, and the Thai front desk associate. Somehow, by the grace of God, and a seriously good dose of fate and good karma, there happened to be a Thai man who walked in to the lobby minutes after us, had been waiting (and listening…) all the while to our conversation (or rather lack-there-of, if you take into consideration the language barrier), who wound up speaking excellent English and offered to translate for us! Wow, did we luck out. The man told us even though our hotel didn’t have a room for us, they were working on finding us a different place to stay. We were instructed to take off our packs, sit down, and help ourselves to a cup of coffee while new arrangements were being made. About fifteen minutes later, after feeling frustrated, helpless, then eternally grateful for the kind Thai gentleman, Laura and I climbed into the back of a taxi to be driven to a different hotel with a room for us for the night.

Once we left, both Laura and I thought whether that situation would have turned out much differently, had it not have been for the helpful Thai gentleman? It’s a bit ironic, but based on my Thai travel experience thus far, honestly we probably would still have wound up in the back of that cab. Only major difference being because of our Thai gentleman friend, we knew why we were in the taxi and “where” we were headed. Without his help, we probably would have been ushered into the back of said taxi, looking at each other, neither one of us having a clue as to what was going on, but just simply hoping for the best…Chalk it up to Thailand travel and just go with the flow.

By the time we finally reached our new hotel, it turned out to be much further away from the park than I had hoped. One nice thing about leaving The Outside Inn was to have a shorter walk in the heat, but in reality, we had no such luck. All in all, despite my frustrations, and despite it’s less than ideal location (down some random back alley off a busy, Thai city street) our new hotel, called Varinthorn Residences, turned out to be fairly nice with very well-decorated rooms. When our room was finally ready we unloaded our bags and then headed out on foot to see what was going on at the park.

Something unique in Thailand (and probably many other countries where it is always so hot…) is how big into nighttime festivities everyone is. They’re really into night markets and often times things don’t get going till after five, due to the heat I can only assume. Despite it being just around 1pm we still decided to check out what was going on at the park at this point in time. By late Tuesday afternoon, Laura and I could start to see what we imagined would soon turn into an expansive production that evening. Streets were blocked off, there was a kid’s carnival setting up, lots of shopping, vendors selling everything from clothes, to jewelry, even hand-crafted wooden furniture was for sale. The options for street food were endless, the only thing missing by late afternoon time on Tuesday were the floats and the thousands of people who flood the city from all over Thailand to celebrate the traditional beginning of Buddhist Lent. A few hours of walking around and shopping later, it was still only 4pm and there was still no sign of candles yet.

At this point in time we were worn out, exhausted from Monday’s long hike, and dripping in sweat yet again due to the day’s heat and humidity. We decided to take a taxi back to our hotel, as I was far too tired and hot to walk again. Then, around seven we would grab dinner from Pepper’s Cafe again, finally making our way back down to the park on foot to see the highly-anticipated wax sculptures and parade floats. Again, things got a little bit more interesting when we tried to grab a tuk-tuk back to our hotel. After the first two drivers looked at the business card I handed them, with an address written in Thai, but seemed utterly confused as to where we wanted to go, I got slightly nervous. Not because we wouldn’t be able to walk home in the case that we ran out of other options, but rather because neither Laura nor myself could remember how to find the random alley our hotel was on, and no search results came up when we tried googling it for an address. Another potential crisis was adverted here because finally the fourth driver we asked seemed to have a grasp on our desired location. After settling on a fair price, (I’ve learned my numbers in Thai which helps IMMENSELY with bartering), we were driven back to our hotel, and I paid much closer attention how we got here for later on.

I was quite exhausted, and passed out for a two hour nap, nearly the moment I walked in the door and collapsed onto the bed. We got ready for dinner around six-thirty, walked to Pepper’s Cafe, and had a delicious dinner that did not disappoint. I am noticing that although I like Thai food, when I leave Ayutthaya on the weekends, I am more inclined to find alternate choices of cuisine, since Thai food is all I eat during the week. Pepper’s had wonderful salad (with REAL dressing, not just Mayonaise) and delicious Italian-style pizza. After dinner Laura and I walked back down to the park and were blown away by what we saw! Our expectations were far surpassed, and I am so glad we made it work to visit Ubon for this once-in-a-lifetime sight-to-see.

First, the parade floats! I should mention, I’m a pretty big parade-fanatic already, am a lover of floats, and easily impressed by what people can design, build, and create to be a moveable piece. Therefore I certainly expected to be impressed by floats made entirely out of wax, but I didn’t know just how amazed I was going to be. It was beautiful artwork, and uniquely Thai, a cultural experience I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to see up close.

Next, the crowds! As I mentioned before, Ubon is a relatively small, quiet city, without a lot of reasons for tourists to normally come visit. Except for once a year, in July, that is, when thousands of people flood the city to do the same thing that Laura and I were there for. Now I’ve been in crowded places before. I’ve gone to fairs, music festivals, amusement parks. I’m no stranger to crowds and how they’re organized and controlled in the West. But this is certainly not the West, and a huge festival in Thailand is nothing like anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. Organization, what a concept? Security or crowd control, what is that? Nah, people in Asia live a much more “relaxed” lifestyle. Instead of over-planning and preparing all the fun out of an event, they like to just let things happen their own way. Traffic was backed up for miles, people walk in and out in the same places because there’s certainly no need to distinguish between an entrance versus the exit. You walk wherever there’s space, and you make space to walk where there’s none. It’s a (for lack of a better descriptive term) giant, shit-show, cluster-fuck! It’s a free-for-all, go-where-you-please, do-what-you-like, madhouse!

For example, I’m certainly no expert and I didn’t see any signs posted, but past experiences and common sense lead me to believe you’re not supposed to touch the wax sculptures. Going into Tuesday night I would have declared that with one hundred percent certainty. But based on what I saw when the floats finally arrived, I can no longer say that what I thought was a rule everywhere, also applies in Thailand…who knows?

What I do know is that despite the heat, travel mix-ups, heat, and sheer volume of people that flooded Ubon last week (did I mention the HEAT already?…), I had an amazing time! It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I am so grateful to have experienced, and I surely will never forget!