Tag: adventure

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.

Mandelbluten Festival: spring is here!

Mandelbluten Festival: spring is here!

It’s just past two p.m. on Saturday and I’m sitting outside at a picnic table in the vineyards surrounding Gimmeldingen at the opening festivities of the wine festival season in the Rhineland-Pfalz. The kickoff to winefest season is called the Mandelblutenfest, a celebration in March when all the almond trees are in full bloom. It celebrates springtime as well as the beginning days of wine in the Pfalz (pronounced ‘falltz’). And it is absolutely breathtaking on this particular Saturday afternoon!

The origins to this wine festival date back to 1934. At that time, National Socialist leaders tried to improve the marketability of German wine, by not only beginning to grow several more varietals in the region, but also by creating the German Wine Route (Deutsche Weinstrasse). In addition to the wine, each year during the festival an almond blossom queen and an almond blossom princess are elected. There is a processional through the festival streets that officially kicks off wine season in the Pfalz. Visitors can simply stroll through the streets enjoying the wine and the views, as I did, or you may sign up for official guided tours throughout the local vineyards.

Currently I’m alone as I sit here and write this draft. I made the walk over here by myself, about a twenty-five minute stroll from my house; and now I’m enjoying the wine, the sunshine and a bit of self-reflection. Soon though I’ll be joined by some coworkers so the rest of the afternoon is shaping up nicely.

As I mentioned, my walk from Neustadt to Gimmeldingen took no more than thirty minutes. Gimmeldingen is a neighboring wine village, also located along the Weinstrasse (street of wine). The walk was lovely and I could see the blooming trees off in the distance as I made my way here. So far I’ve only managed to hit the very first stall, but I was quite eager to take a seat, enjoy the views, soak up some sunshine and indulge in a traditional “Rieslingschorle”. It’s a very common beverage in the region. They simply add three-quarters of a glass with Riesling and then finish it off with one quarter of sparkling water. The Germans love adding bubbles, aka ‘gas’, to EVERYTHING, and their local wine varietals are certainly no exception. What it does is simply lighten the flavor a hint while adding a bit of refreshment with the bubbles. It’s actually quite nice and I like the flavor more than I excpected I would.

My plan for the rest of the afternoon- wait till my coworkers arrive, then check out the rest of the fest stalls while making our way through the streets of Gimmeldingen. I’m enjoying every bit of sunshine this afternoon, as the spring weather in Germany is very similar to Oregon spring weather back at home. One day it will be sunny and sixty-five degrees, the next cloudy, overcast and a cold forty degrees.

I’m really enjoying this experience as it is a unique springtime festival to the region I’ve called home for the past six months. A lot of my efforts on the weekends are to get out of Neustadt, hop on a train and explore other parts of Germany as often as I can. However, this weekend it’s nice to slow down, step back, and appreciate all that my current home has to offer.

Nuremberg: The Imperial City

Nuremberg: The Imperial City

On 2o April, 1945, the 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions of the 15th Army Corps of the 7th US-Army liberated Nuremberg from the rule of the National Socialist regime. The official victory celebration was held on 21 April 1945, on the Main Market Square. At a further victory celebration of the 3rd Infantry Division on 22 April 1945, on the Zeppelin Field, five soldiers were awarded the highest military honor for bravery in combat, the “Medal of Honor”. US American soldiers were stationed in Nuremberg until 1994. Memories of those years of respect and friendship are still vivid today.

Saturday 18 March 2017:

I arrived at the Nuremberg train station just past noon on Saturday, 18 March 2017. What struck me immediately upon my arrival was the town wall. It’s amazing that after all the destruction the city saw during the war, the wall remained largely intact. Originally a “vacation stay” for royalty under the monarchy in Bavaria, Nuremberg is home to an old castle in addition to its relation to WWII era history. The castle explains the reason and intent for having a city wall in the first place, not something you typically see when touring modern European cities. The city wall is practically the first thing that meets your eyes the moment you step foot outside the Hauptbahnhof (train station).

From my research I learned that there were basically two separate zones of the city that I wanted to visit in my short amount of time. Of course I would explore the city center, the castle, some old churches and a few museums. But I also wanted to see the Nazi Party Rally Grounds which are located about 4km from the city center. So my plan was to visit the Rally Grounds and Documentation Center on Saturday afternoon and save everything in and around the city center for Sunday before I would catch a train back home. This logic, I believe, turned out to be best, because I had the entire afternoon and evening outside the city center, allowing me to experience this unique and surreal cultural opportunity exactly the way I had hoped to.

My afternoon started with me catching the tram outside the city center to take me to Kongresshalle, or the Reichsparteigsgelande. The exhibition, which I spent more than three hours exploring, details the rise, influences, and successes of the NSADP (National Socialist Workers Party) in Nuremberg. The city was chosen specifically early in the twentieth century to play a key role in the development of the NSADP, outside of headquarters in Berlin. Walking through the museum you can’t help but sympathize with reasons many Germans accepted Hitler as a symbol of a better tomorrow. After suffering humiliation and shame at the close of WWI, many, like Hitler himself, were embarrassed by peace negotiations signed in Paris in 1919. To top it off, an entire population slipped into a disastrous recession, leaving the door wide open for someone to come in and change the direction of Germany’s future.

Still, at the end of a long day, there’s apart of me that’s completely incapable of understanding how an entire populace could simply turn a ‘blind eye’ to the horrors that were well underway by the mid-1930s. And although I left Kongresshalle feeling depressed about the course of a nation’s past, I’m glad I made my way out there and I’m very glad I took my time throughout the entire exhibition, learning a bit more about the history of the National Socialist Party leading up to the days of WWII.

Reichsparteitagsgelande: Kongresshalle is not the only piece of construction that makes up the Nazi Party Rally Grounds though. Actually my tour through the Documentation Center exhibition was just the beginning of my self-directed walking tour of the Rally Grounds. Much of the construction projects were never completed, despite their fervent and speedy construction orders prior to 1939. Still, there was so much to see surrounding Kongresshalle that I knew I couldn’t let a tad bit of less-than-desirable spring weather hold me back.

Luitpoldhain: After my tour through the Reichsparteitagsgelande I wandered over to Luitpoldhain and visited Ehrenhalle. During the 1929 Party Rally, the Nazis for the first time incorporated the then unfinished Hall of Honour in their staging of the cult of the dead. The “Fuhrer”, commemorated the fallen soldiers of WWI and the Martyrs of the NS movement. The ritual was intended to commit the “party soldiers” present to sacrificing their lives for the “Fuhrer” and for National Socialism. In 1933, Hitler had the Luitpold Grove Park remodelled into the Luitpold Arena for the Party Rallies. Opposite Ehrenhalle, a grandstand for guests of honor was installed.

Grosse Strasse, or the “Great Street”: According to the plans of the architect, Albert Speer, the Great Street was to be the central axis of the Party Rally Grounds. It is sixty meters wide and was to be 2,000 meters long. Only 1,500 meters were completed though. For this street, 60,000 granite slabs were laid. Speer, in his designs, aligned the Great Street with the Imperial Castle in the old town, to create a symbolic link between Nuremberg as the city of the imperial diets and Nuremberg as the “City of the Party Rallies”.

Grundstein Deutsches Stadium: Only a few hundred meters from where I stood visiting this prospective place, the German Stadium was supposed to be built, as the world’s largest arena with a capacity of 400,000 spectators. The foundation stone for the German stadium was laid on 9 September 1937. The works did not proceed further than excavation though, so now in its place is Silbsee Lake, after the excavated grounds filled with water.

Zeppelin Field and Zeppelinetribune: “On 20 April 1945, the 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions of the 15th Army Corps of the 7th US-Army liberated Nuremberg from the rule of National Socialist Regime.” To read this utterly brought tears to my eyes. Already my day was full of emotional and I was simply left speechless by the next stop on my tour. From 1933 the National Socialists used the area for their party rallies. The Zeppelin Field was the central venue for staging the party’s rallies. Speer, again the same architect responsible for the entire Nazi Party Rally Grounds construction chose the ancient Pergamon Altar as a model for the grandstand. The building was made of concrete, brickwork and faced with limestone slabs, and “is considered representative of National Socialist State architecture” to this day.

This location is where one finds those epitome black and white photographs of the “Fuhrer” addressing his crowds. Today the complex remains largely intact. In fact, I was actually able to stand out on the slab where Adolf Hitler once stood, only this time my audience didn’t greet me with cries of cheer and excitement. To be there, in a moment in time, sharing foot space where one of mankind’s most evil once stood was incredibly upsetting to me. Honestly, I can think of no other way of describing how I felt at that moment in time than simply saying, “Holy F**k”.

On 22 April 1945 the US Army held a victory parade at that very same grandstand though, so I pictured myself in the footprints of the liberators of freedom and a peaceful world instead. This helped curb my anxiety a bit. After said ceremony, the swastika once perched atop the complex was blown up to make the entire world aware of the end of National Socialism.

Sunday 19 March 2017:

First on my agenda for day two was to visit the Imperial Castle on the edge of the old city. On my way there I stumbled upon the Town Hall building and the first of two churches visited. The walk through the old town to the castle was just lovely. And despite not really seeing the sun at all in the sky, it didn’t rain today unlike yesterday, which was a pleasant treat. The old town is filled with narrow cobble stone streets, sandstone masonry (building materials local to the region), half-timbered houses and countless bridges crossing the river that runs through. Upon my arrival at the castle I took many pictures and I wandered around the vast grounds. This castle is one of the main unique attractions in Nuremberg, drawing visitors as early as the thirteenth century. While I opted against paying the entrance fee, I still feel as though I gained a sense of its importance and charm by just touring the outside grounds and courtyards.

From the castle I made my way over to the famous artist, and Nuremberg native, Albrecht Dürer’s house. Now a museum where many of his original works are on display, again I only admired this beautiful half-timbered house from the outside. Located almost next door is the entrance to the historic Felsengänge underground cellars. I’d say this tour was the surprise highlight of my weekend! Not having anticipated a visit here during the “planning” of my trip I’m glad I stumbled in at just the right time for the only English tour available all week. Ninety minutes later I learned so much more about the history of the imperial city, the beer brewing process in Franconia, as well as the details of the underground city of Nuremberg during the Allied bombing raids of WWII. The tunnels far pre-date their practical uses during the war though.

As far back as 1303 cellars were dug underground in the sandstone to store and house beer. These cellars over time grew into an expansive network both horizontally but also vertically. As time progressed and eventually the first “ice house” was built, the cellars’ purposes gradually changed. By the time of the outbreak of WWII and the subsequent Allied air raids their purpose evolved into a network of escape routes and evacuation centers for civilians of Nuremberg. An alert system was developed giving residents a ten minute heads up prior to the bombing raids. Families would layer clothes, grab valuables, and pack their one-alotted suitcase to take with them as they sought refuge and safety beneath the city.

Not only did they serve civilian purposes. Nazi and Wehrmarkt (German Army) leaders set up permanent offices and work spaces beneath the city, taking advantage of the safety and durability of such a location. Even more, cellars were used to house both German art and foreign pieces seized by Nazi soldiers (think of the movie “Monuments Men”) of which their entrances would be concealed from the general public’s knowledge and accessibility. An absolutely fascinating tour beneath the city streets!

Afterwards I headed outside the city wall and made my way towards the Memorium Nuremberg Trials, located at the Nuremberg Palace of Justice. This is the building home to the infamous Court Room 600, where the actual trials took place back in 1945. Twenty-four different men were brought to trial in front of an international court of justice and held accountable for the indecencies and horrors committed by the Nazi Party against humanity. Luckily for me the courtroom was available to the public for viewing; as it is still a working court room in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice, at times a trial is in session thus access is restricted to visitors. Walking around in the courtroom was as surreal as my visit to the Nazi Party Rally Grounds the day prior. To be in the presence of such revolutionary history is a blessing beyond words. I can’t even begin to describe how I felt standing inside those four walls, but I am grateful to experience such adventures in life.

Located a floor above Court Room 600 in the Palace of Justice building is the Memorial Exhibition to the trials. Another hour and a half spent with my ear glued to an audioguide, overwhelming emotions, and an expression of deep consternation across my face.

I have learned so much in the span of forty-eight hours. I visited beautiful churches, saw unique architecture, but above all I learned the value of owning one’s past. The city of Nuremberg impressed upon me deeply an overwhelming sense of appreciation, respect, and an endless amount of gratitude for every effort made towards peace in our world’s past. May we continue to let these lessons remind us all of the powerful greed that threatens humanity; and yet share an appreciation for the even stronger forces of commitment, compromise and courage that serve to protect and preserve it.

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. -Winston Churchill

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

October 2016: a month of change.

October 2016: a month of change.

“Change is the law of life. And those who only look to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” -John F. Kennedy

It is 10:30am on Sunday morning, 30 October, and I’m sitting in bed with a cup of coffee in hand, Lumineers radio playing in the background, thinking about what to write. This past week I finished teaching my first full week of school at ISN (International School Neustadt). Also, as of 7pm yesterday, I have officially been in Deutschland for one whole month. Four weeks ago I embarked on a new phase in my journey, and it’s been wonderful. Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t been perfect, there’s certainly been a few bumps in the road, but I am content knowing that I made the right decision to leave Thailand and try my hand at something new. I haven’t been as diligent in keeping up-to-date on my blog upon arrival in Deutschland though, so I may as well spend this time writing an overview about the past few weeks. Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Week 1: Frankfurt

I arrived in Germany on Saturday 1 October, in Frankfurt. I spent the weekend there, at the Hilton Garden Inn Airport Hotel, for convenience sake, but still managed to get out and explore the city a bit too. Fortunately, the ride from the airport to the city center in Frankfurt is actually much easier than many other big cities. My experience with large airports (Frankfurt Int’l is the second largest in Europe) is that they are located at least an hour outside the city, making day trips in and out much more of a hassle. Like I said, fortunately that is not the case in Frankfurt. Rather it’s just a fifteen minute train ride into the city center from the airport, and the train/rail system is very easy to learn in Germany.

On Sunday I took the ride into the city center, walked around for a bit, managed to stumble upon a local weekend market/festival, and even took a bus tour around the city. I truly enjoyed my first full-day in my new country, full of feelings of excitement for the coming months ahead.

Week 1: Teaching

After my weekend in Frankfurt, I made my way down to Neustadt to begin my first week of teaching. As I mentioned in my last blog post, Monday 3 October is German Reunification Day, therefore the first week of work for me was a four-day work-week instead of five. Although I went to school all four days, I spent most of Tuesday in the HR department: signing my contract, filing for health insurance, filling out endless amounts of paperwork, etc. Therefore, I didn’t really feel like I was “teaching” just yet. I experienced the same sense of an “absence of teaching” for the remaining three days during that first week of work. Although again, I went into my classroom on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, for several class periods the only role I took as an educator was to proctor exams. Further, when classes had finished with their end-of-term exam, being that fall break was quickly approaching, I didn’t set out to create any real lesson plans either. For the rest of that first week of teaching, I spent my days trying (and failing) to learn students’ names, introducing myself, playing YouTube videos, and letting each class spend their forty-five minute period how they wanted. What a great teacher, right?!

Despite my feelings that I wasn’t technically doing my job, I never received any pressure from the Head of Secondary to do any more than what I had chosen to do; thank goodness, a clear conscience. Instead of sharing the mundanity that was my first week as a teacher, I’ll write a couple of early comparisons between teaching in Deutschland and teaching in the states. At an international school, such as ISN, some terms are a bit different than they are at home. For starters, technically according to my official title, as stated on my contract, I am not actually a “teacher.” Rather than calling teachers, teachers, or students, students, at ISN teachers are referred to as “mentors”, and students are called “learning partners” (LPs for short).

Another difference is the structure of administration at ISN. Instead of having a district office at the top of the pyramid, international schools employ Heads of Schools. These people, most closely resemble a mixture of a principal and members of the DO back at home. They’re certainly in charge of everyone/everything, but they’re hardly ever seen. Under the Head of School, ISN employs two “vice principals”, the Head of Secondary and the Head of Primary. My “boss”, Peter, is the Head of Secondary; and it was with him whom I interviewed for the job, and it was he who offered me the position. I report directly to him, and he just so happens to be the teacher who helped cover my classes for the first six weeks of the year.

Several other differences between teaching at an international school and teaching at home include class sizes, resources, and the school calendar. Because the school I work at is so small (less than 200 students in grades K-12), my class sizes are AMAZING! The largest group I have in one lesson is 12, the smallest is 5; it’s awesome! This dynamic almost completely removes classroom management as apart of my role as an educator. Not only is it different from my class sizes of 30-35 back at home last year, but it’s miles different from teaching classes of 50 in Thailand these past five months. I am very grateful for this change, and will treasure it while it lasts.

My new classroom
My new classroom

Weeks 2-3: The Work Permit Process

Although fall break started Friday afternoon, 10/7, my “vacation” was postponed till that following Monday. I had arranged to head over to the immigration office Monday morning, to officially apply for my work permit and residency. This process, of moving to Europe to work with a US passport, has proven quite difficult for several reasons. First, when I originally started looking for jobs after Thailand, I had certainly hoped to move to Europe. It has always been a dream of mine to live abroad, but also, I have dreamed of living and working in Europe. Unfortunately I ran into trouble when I first began applying for jobs. One of two scenarios would occur: first, I wouldn’t even apply as the one application requirement holding me back was many schools don’t accept applications from candidates who hold a US passport. I’m not entirely the expert on this, but it comes down to something like giving European jobs to European passport holders, i.e. keep the jobs in the local economy. Second, if I did manage to submit an application, I would get a response a few days later saying, “Thank you for your interest, unfortunately unless you hold an EU passport, we cannot accept your application. If you’d like, check out these positions available in Asia, the Middle East, or Africa…”

Ultimately, I obviously made it past this road block. However, I was unable to file any immigration paperwork prior to my arrival in Germany because of my US passport. Technically, when I arrived (without a return ticket no less) I was instructed to say I was only here for tourism. Further, as it is not allowed for one to work on a tourist visa, I needed to apply for a work permit as soon as possible. However, one cannot apply for a work permit in Germany without a permanent address. And being that finding a place to live was one of the most difficult road blocks to overcome (since I arrived during Winefest, one of the busiest seasons in Neustadt), there were clear problems with the immigration process from the start.

None of this would have bothered me originally, as I assumed there would be a member of the HR department at ISN whose job it is to help me sort all this out. Unfortunately, one area where my small school is lacking, is in fact the HR department. It’s a one-person department, filled by two, part-time employees; only one of which speaks English well enough to help with the process of welcoming new teachers. And needless to say, she’s clearly not very good at her job…I’ll just leave it at this: another new experience, however difficult it may have been, I was able to work through it, come out the other end, having learned valuable life lessons during the process.

Weeks 2-3: Heidelberg and family adventures

After several hours of waiting at the immigration office in Neustadt on Monday, 10/10, I heaved my backpack onto my back, and made my way over to the main train station in town (called the Hauptbanhof) to set off on my vacation. Considering the fact that it costs a fair bit of money to move from SE Asia to Western Europe; on top of that, I’d already paid for an entire week’s stay at a hotel and I had close to three more weeks ahead of me before I would be able to move into my apartment; I knew that I needed to be fiscally cautious for the next two weeks of fall break. Therefore, I had only three things planned, in order to save money. First, I would take the train on Monday from Neustadt to Heidelberg (a town located about an hour and a half away), spend the night, before packing up and moving on. I would then head north, near Cologne, where my cousin Tammy and her husband Jaxon live, with their twin boys. Jaxon is in the Air Force, and they are currently stationed at Geilenkirchen NATO Air Base. Finally, I would head back down to Frankfurt, where I would meet my dad’s cousin, JoAnne for the first time, and stay with her for a few nights as well.

Heidelberg:

I chose Heidelberg as my first stop (of many) that I am planning throughout my time here, for two simple reasons. One, it’s close by, only an hour and a half by train from Neustadt; second, there’s a castle in town with great views, and I was in the mood for a bit of medieval magic. The train ride from Neustadt to Heidelberg was beautiful. Upon arrival, I walked across the street from the train station to my hostel, checked in, then headed out to explore the city. The hike up to Heidelberg Castle, although strenuous and tricky when navigating the old cobblestone streets, is certainly worth the effort. The castle and ruins combined date from the twelfth-nineteenth centuries. Having seen years of war, a number of monarchs, and countless tourists visits, Heidelberg Castle is in great condition. The most interesting part to me, was the ability to see the juxtaposition between the portions of the castle that have been restored and preserved amongst the ruins that outline what once was.

Family Time: #fraziersinholland

On Tuesday, I woke up, packed my bag, and headed back to the train station across the street from my hostel. I was taking the train from Heidelberg to Aachen (outside of Cologne) where Tammy would pick me up. She and Jaxon actually live in a tiny town called Hoengen, but with a population of less than 3,000 people, the train wouldn’t be dropping me off right at their doorstep. I enjoyed my train ride, as I had the chance to ride both the local German rail lines (S-Bahn) and the high-speed German trains (I.C.E.). In just under three hours, I arrived in Aachen and was reunited with family again, in Germany no less!

I’m very excited to have family close by. As I’ll be spending my very first holiday season away from home this year, it will be nice to have a place to go where I can be surrounded by family again. I am so grateful to my cousins as well. Tammy and Jaxon welcomed me and opened up their home to me for more than a week. I finally met Jaxon for the first time, and I also met their 2 1/2 year old twins, Hopkins and Winfield, and what cuties they are!

For the next week, although my schedule wasn’t jam-packed with sights to see, adventures, or endless places to explore (if you can imagine, there’s not a whole lot to do in a town of 2,000 people…), it was absolutely lovely to spend time with my cousins, relax, catch up on some reading, eat home-cooked meals again, and play with the twins. That’s not to say that we didn’t get out of the house at all over the course of the week. On Wednesday, Tammy had scheduled to drop the boys off at the child care center on base; then she and I drove across the border to Valkenburg for my first trip to the Netherlands! It only took us thirty minutes to arrive in Valkenburg, a town rich in history as it is home to the remains of the only hilltop castle in the Netherlands. Beneath the castle ruins lie an extensive and intricate series of caves, which we took a tour through as well. To finish off our fun day together, we took a stroll through town before sitting down outside at a local restaurant for lunch and spirits. After spending one week with Tammy and Jaxon, I have now learned that the best beer in Europe, far better than Dutch beer, even better than German beer, is Belgian. Therefore, despite being in the Netherlands for lunch that day, instead of a Dutch beer I was introduced to the first of many delicious flavors of Belgium.

That following weekend, Tammy and I had planned a trip, sans children, to Amsterdam. I had been looking forward to that weekend for the two weeks leading up to it, I was so excited to visit one of the cities on my must-see Europe list! On Friday evening, she and I drove the two hours it takes to reach the Dutch city. Tammy had booked us two nights at a hotel, and although it was about a thirty-five minute bike ride outside the city center, it was a lovely place. We were pretty tired by the time we finally arrived on Friday night, it was after eight pm, so once we checked into our room, we simply headed downstairs for dinner in the hotel.

On Saturday, we woke up, got ready, and rented bikes from our hotel to use for the day in order to “see” Amsterdam the way the locals do. Amsterdam is one of the most bike-friendly cities throughout the world. Everyone rides around on two wheels, it’s easy, convenient, safe, and faster than riding the tram or driving a car around in traffic. First on our agenda was the Rijksmuseum. This Dutch national museum is dedicated to arts, crafts, and history. I chose the Rijksmuseum over the Van Gogh museum as Tammy had been to the latter but not the former already, and she also said the Van Gogh museum is quite small, there’s not much else to see. Next on our agenda, we both would have loved to tour Anne Frank’s house, however tickets were sold out, thus it will have to wait till my next trip. For the remainder of our Saturday, we rode our bikes around town, found a nice place for lunch, toured the Heinekin Brewery (as you MUST do on any trip to Amsterdam), walked around the red light district (to get the true “Amsterdam experience”), before finally making our way back to our hotel that night.

The agenda for Sunday: view beautiful pieces of Delftware (traditional Dutch pottery), take a stroll through the flower markets, and finally take a boat tour so as to view the city from the wonderful canals. Amsterdam was wonderful! I had a terrific time in a new international city, and what a special experience to share with a close cousin. I can’t wait for similar experiences to come.

 

Week 4: Back to the grind…

This past week has been a blur. I arrived back in Neustadt on Sunday afternoon. As my apartment wouldn’t be ready until Wednesday, I again had to pack my bags and stay somewhere new for the next three nights. At this point in time, by early last week, I had been living out of my backpack for nearly six weeks (if you include the trip to Bali before arriving in Germany). Needless to say, the hotel experience had lost its novelty. By Sunday, I was beyond ready to move into my own place, finally be able to unpack, and settle down before the week of school ahead. Unfortunately I’d have to wait till Wednesday before getting my keys. Although this was tough on me emotionally, I was so over the life of living out of a bag, I managed to cope, but the anticipation was killing me.

During the days, the thing that occupied all my time was work. Coming back after fall break, I actually have to start being a “teacher” again. Back to the grind: lesson plans, SIX preps, staff meetings, professional development. Yep, it’s back to the real work world again. Gone are the days of Thai teaching with equal hours of teaching time as prep time. There’s no more Netflix between classes here. Planning for six preps is A LOT OF WORK, and will be a main focus of mine over the next coming weeks. I can’t let the stress of planning overwhelm me, I will figure out a good balance between work life, home life, and adventure.

On Wednesday, as I mentioned, I finally received the keys to my new place. I’m no longer homeless, my vagabond days are behind me (for the time being, at least…). I’m growing more and more comfortable in my new home every day. It’s much nicer than what I had in Thailand, there’s even four whole rooms in my flat: a bedroom, bathroom, living room, and a KITCHEN! I never thought I’d be so excited to cook my own food again, but living in a one-room Thai-style studio apartment has made me appreciate the value of a home cooked meal. Regardless of what it is, I ate a bowl of cereal with my coffee for breakfast this morning, but still I was in heaven. Just the fact that I can buy a box of Multigrain Cheerios is exciting to me (the only cereal I had in Thailand was corn flakes, that DID NOT taste like regular corn flakes…).

There’s a lot of newness in my life right now, and a heck of a lot of change has occurred these past six weeks. I went from living in Thailand, counting down the days till the end of the semester; to finally being reunited with my Momma after spending five months apart. We had a phenomenal mother-daughter vacation in Bali, before the dreaded and difficult “see you soon” crept quickly upon us. I managed to haul myself and all my stuff from SE Asia to Western Europe, and moved to a new town. I immediately started a new job, that has brought with it its own set of unique challenges and rewards. It took me nearly four weeks upon arrival in Germany till I finally got the keys to my new apartment; and now I’ve just finished up my first real week of teaching at my new school. Those of you who know me well, already know that if there’s one thing I have always struggled with in life, it’s change.

Change makes me uncomfortable; it makes me sad and happy at the same time. I am full of excitement when I think about all the wonderful new experiences I get to have in the coming months, but at the same time I’m flooded with nostalgia for the things that once were that will never, ever, be again. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with the fact that I don’t handle change well, it just makes it challenging to get through each cycle of change in life. Right now, that’s my primary concern. I want to appreciate all that I learned and experienced in the five months I spent living and teaching in Thailand. However, I also want to look forward to the bright future that lies ahead. I know there are wonderful experiences to be had in my future, and I can’t let a feeling of insecurity or unfamiliarity hold me back from living life to the fullest. I am grateful for where I’ve been, and even more blessed for all that I have yet to experience. I’m thrilled beyond words to be on this wonderful rollercoaster of life!

WC Discovers Deutschland

WC Discovers Deutschland

Update: I MOVED! See ya later Thailand, thanks for the memories. Hello Deutschland; hello fall; hello new adventures!

For those of you who are just now checking in on my journey, here’s an update for you! On 1 October 2016, exactly five months after I landed on Thai soil for the beginning of the biggest change in my lifetime thus far, I packed up all my crap, boarded a plane, and landed in Frankfurt, Germany just after seven pm local time. Five months after I made the biggest change in life, again, another, possibly even bigger change came knocking on my door. Before I get into the details about how life has been in Germany for the past week, I’ll start by clarifying what led me to make this change in the first place.

It must have been around week 12-14 in the term, which would mean it was somewhere in the late July early August phase of my journey in Thailand. Halfway through the term meant two things: first, a long-awaited and well-deserved holiday weekend (I went to Ubon Ratchathani for the candle festival and beginning of Buddhist lent). Second, it was now time to start considering what would happen after the first semester finished up in the middle of September. When I set off on the adventure of a lifetime back in May, my original plans, tentative although they might have been, were to spend two semesters living and teaching in Thailand at Chomsurang Upatham School, in Ayutthaya. However, upon arrival, settling in, teaching, traveling, and thoroughly enjoying life, I began to realize that something was clearly missing. When I would go to work everyday, I was thrilled to see all my students, yet I felt unfulfilled as an ESL teacher.

Teaching English as a second language is no piece of cake. I give mad props to all those educators out there who work day in and day out with students learning English as a second language. It’s tough enough managing a class full of fifty students, never mind the fact that many of them can’t understand you when you’re talking to them. When I went to grad school to become a teacher, it was never a goal/dream of mine to develop skills and learn tricks to teach ESL. Rather I chose to pursue a route that would allow me to share my passion for social studies with future students. As such, this left a huge hole in my days teaching in Thailand as an ESL instructor. Instead of a natural excitement and exuberance for all things social studies, I had to dig deep to find enjoyment and thrill in teaching ESL. Although not a bad job to say the least, what was most difficult for me was not having a deep bag of tools and tricks to dig through during my lessons. As a result, I began to think about what else I might do in life, beginning in October 2016, after the first semester had ended and my wonderful mother-daughter vacation to Bali was over too.

My research led me to believe that what I felt was lacking in the realm of teaching ESL, I could easily find if I transitioned into a role at an international school somewhere in the world. I have been sharing my news and excitement about landing a position at the International School Neustadt, in Germany, since I got offered the job back in August. However, it has become clear to me that while I throw around the term “international school” not all those who hear it understand what that truly means. Let me take this time to clarify: there are endless different opportunities to teach ESL around the world, but your content is limited to the scope of English language development that your students retain. However, at an international school, since all instruction is taught in English, courses are run just as they would be run at a school back at home. Students take ELA, math, science, social studies, etc. Therefore, when I accepted a position at the International School Neustadt, I accepted a role as the Geography and Economics teacher for grades 9-12. Basically, I’ve come full circle and found my home again.

Now, that is not to say that I feel absolutely confident in my abilities as an economics teacher. Rather, I am quite cautious when I give myself this “title” as it is a subject that I’ve been away from since junior year of high school. That’s right, it’s been nearly ten years, since I was seventeen that I actually took part in an econ class; at least it was AP! Well, as the saying goes, I’ll just fake it till I make it I suppose…

Alas, we have once again arrived at the point in the story where I made another life-changing decision. I would decline to renew my contract with my teaching agency, HiValue, and instead I would be moving to Germany to begin a new role starting October 1st. I didn’t leave Thailand because things were going poorly, I just felt it was time for me to take a step in the direction of furthering my career as a social studies educator.

In fact, things were great in Thailand! I loved my life, I loved my friends, I loved my students. Life had taken an incredibly exciting turn when I stepped foot in Asia on May 1st. I was given endless opportunities to explore across Thailand. I saw big cities, small towns, ancient ruins, mountains in the north, and islands in the south. Every opportunity to leave Ayutthaya on the weekends was an opportunity not to be missed! Each weekend I traveled somewhere new, saw new places, met new people, explored more, and lived out my dreams. For all this, and so much more, I am forever grateful for Thailand. It was the country that got me out of my comfort zone. It was the place that I found happiness again. It was where I learned to love myself, and I can’t begin to describe in words what a blessing those five months in Thailand were to me.

Therefore, I did not close the door on the Thai chapter in my life with any animosity, disappointment, or missed opportunities left behind. In fact, I don’t really view it as closing the door on Thailand in the first place. Instead, the way I view it is rather than closing a door, I simply chose this time to open a new door: the doorway that led me to Deutschland. And what a wonderful doorway that has been!

I arrived in Germany around seven pm last Saturday, 1 October 2016. I flew directly from Bangkok to Frankfurt, and while I spent just over eleven hours in the air I anxiously awaited the new chapter in my adventure of life to begin. Luckily for me, timing worked out quite well as I made the transition from Thailand to Germany. When I accepted my job back in August, I explained that I felt obliged to finish out my contract till the end of the semester, 16 September. This was an important detail to note when I interviewed for the job, as the school year in Germany starts in late August, similar to the timetable back at home in the US. I am grateful that I was offered the position, despite being unavailable the first few weeks of school.

Not only this, I also shared during my interview that I had a two week vacation planned and paid for to Bali from mid-September till the end of the month (a trip I was extremely hesitant to cancel, as it was my chance to spend two uninterrupted weeks reunited with my Momma after five months!). Again, I have an endless amount of gratitude that those above me, who offered me my position, were willing to cover my classes until I arrived in Germany on October 1st, nearly six weeks after the start of the school year. The perfect planning doesn’t end there though.

Again, I arranged to arrive in Germany at the start of October. The first of the month happened to fall on a Saturday, just coincidence, therefore I wouldn’t start teaching till the following Monday, which happened to be October 3rd. To my surprise and delight, Monday 3 October, turns out to be a national holiday in Germany. German Unity Day, is celebrated on 3 October, and commemorates the anniversary of German reunification in 1990, when the goal of a united Germany that originated in the mid 19th century, was finally fulfilled again. Therefore, if you’ve been keeping score, not only was I allowed to show up to the start of a new job six weeks late, the day I was to begin teaching, the day my contract begins, happened to fall on a day off from school. Bonus!

There’s more…it just so happens that the first term of the school calendar lasts for six weeks. The end result, basically I arrived six weeks late to a job, had the first Monday off from school, went to work for four days, and now I have two weeks of paid holiday vacation leave till Monday 24 October, when the second term resumes. Pretty perfect planning (or lack-there-of depending on which way you look at it) on my part! I can only smile, laugh a little, and say how grateful I am for this new change in life.

So far, things are going splendidly here in Deutschland. I spent the first two days at the Hilton Garden Inn Frankfurt Airport Hotel. For convenience sake, I decided staying at the airport would be best when I arrived. This turned out to be true, I had a lovely time in a very nice hotel, and even made my way into the city center on Sunday for a bit of exploring around Frankfurt.

On Monday, my school had arranged a car for me, to come pick me up in Frankfurt and take me to my new home, Neustadt an der Weinstrasse. Neustadt is a town located in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of WSW Germany. It’s a small town, similar to the size of Medford actually, with the old town and surrounding neighborhoods’ population to be around 55,000. Vineyards fan out around Neustadt, a busy wine-producing town at the heart of the German Wine Route. Not only was I excited to be moving to Germany, where I’d finally have the opportunity to drink good beer again (Asian beer just doesn’t do it for me), but I even managed to be moving to the center of Germany’s wine region as well. Talk about the best of both worlds!

Unfortunately, although my timing was perfect in nearly all senses of the word, I did happen to be arriving in town during their biggest annual wine festival, that runs from 26 September-10 October each year. What this meant for me was that finding a home would prove to be much more difficult than I had hoped. Currently all of the furnished “holiday” apartments are rented out in town, therefore I’ve been living in hotels for the past nine days. Starting at the Hilton Garden Inn in Frankfurt, I moved into a lovely room at the Panorama Hotel in Neustadt (fortunately, it happens to be located just across the street from my new school), and then yesterday I moved again to Hotel Tenner, located in the hillside neighborhood of Gimmeldingen, just about a ten minute bus ride from the city center. Although each place I’ve stayed at thus far has certainly been lovely, it’s putting quite the strain on my purse strings.

Eventually, by November 1st I will be happily settled into my new home. Fortunately I have found a lovely furnished apartment to rent, but it isn’t available till next month. I’m excited to share pictures and stories from all of my adventures in Deutschland to come. This past week has been a whirlwind of a time, from settling into a new job, new town, new country, even new continent. I’ve had the chance to roam the streets of Neustadt in the evenings after work, and I know it’s going to be a lovely place to call home. I am excited to get out of town tomorrow and start exploring the rest of Germany and surrounding areas. Life is good, I am happy, my heart is full.

Hua Hin: My impromptu weekend trip to the beach!

Hua Hin: My impromptu weekend trip to the beach!

“Say yes and you’ll figure it out afterwards.” -Tina Fey

Friday, 19 August 2016:

Last Friday, my weekend took a surprising turn, and I found myself making last-minute travel plans to get out of Ayutthaya for a few days. Earlier in the afternoon on Friday, feeling a bit unsettled about staying in town for the third weekend in a row (this is very unusual for me considering how I prefer to spend my weekend away from Ayutthaya, exploring new places in Thailand), I asked myself what would make me happy and content? My decision, I needed to do something more with my time off rather than just staying in my apartment all weekend.

Originally my plans for travel were prohibited by my influx of cash on Friday. Pay day was Monday, and by the time Friday rolled around I only had about 2,000 baht left. Feeling as though this wouldn’t be enough for an entire weekend away, I thought it best to do things around town and wait till pay day on Monday; then I’d be able to take a trip the following weekend somewhere when I’d have more cash to spend on fun.

Sitting at work early in the afternoon on Friday though, I was left thinking about what I would do over the weekend and how I would spend my time. When I headed to my last class of the day, and upon arrival I was informed by the girls that only twelve students would be in class today, the rest were going to Bangkok (why, I’m really not sure?…). Hearing that, I showed the girls what their assignment was to be, asked them to share it with the rest of the class, and told them to be prepared for a speaking test next week. When I was walking back to my office I realized it was the perfect opportunity to head out early and actually make something out of my weekend; as opposed to staying in Ayutthaya feeling unfulfilled by Sunday evening most likely. Norman Vincent Peale once said, “Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.” Some very wise words, that I choose to live by in Thailand. I have a savings account for precisely moments like this in life; I can’t let life pass me by over here while I simply worry about money.

Still, I wasn’t exactly sure where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do, even by the time I was almost done with my walk home. I had several options floating around in my head. I could quickly get home and check on prices for something dramatic like Chiang Mai or Phuket, but that would cost a lot of money. And seeing how originally I wasn’t going to leave Ayutthaya this weekend because I was down to only 2,000 baht, I thought it best to save Chiang Mai for another week or two, when I actually take the time to plan out what I want to do, where I want to go, and how to make the most out of a short weekend trip up north before I leave Thailand in October.

When I finally arrived at home, I threw open my Lonely Planet book, and upon opening it to the section entitled “Thailand’s Top 20”, I noticed that Hua Hin was listed as sixteen on the list. At this point, I made my decision. Since I will probably miss out on seeing anymore of the Thai islands, including Phuket, before I leave for Germany in October, then this weekend was the perfect time for me to take the opportunity to see Hua Hin; especially considering how last weekend that was our original plan before the bombings put a dent in our itinerary.

Alas, as it stands now, on Friday night around 10:40pm, I found myself nestled in my top bunk at my hostel, Chan-Chala Cafe & Hostel in Hua Hin. It was a good decision to leave school early, because after I finally made my decision where to go, I quickly threw some clothes and my swimsuit in my backpack, and headed out the door to catch the van that would take me to the beach.

We left Ayutthaya around 3pm, but as it was a Friday, we hit a bit of traffic by the time we were nearing Future Park (a GIANT shopping center on the outskirts of Bangkok). I made it to Victory Monument after 4pm, and actually found my van to Hua Hin exceptionally easily; considering the circumstances surrounding tickets purchases, signage, and the sheer chaos that is Victory Monument. All in all, we were finally on the road, headed to Hua Hin and the beach, by five. It took a little less than three hours to finally arrive.

Craziness that is the ticket booths
Craziness that is the ticket booths

When we were about forty-five minutes out we stopped for gas. I decided it would be wise to top up my data at 7-11 so that I could get walking directions to find my hostel, from wherever the van was dropping me off. (This is the process for adding data to a cell phone: you go to the check-out counter at 7-11, tell them your service provider, in my case, AIS, and ask for an amount in Thai baht of data you’d like to purchase. Then, the clerk hands you a receipt upon receiving your cash; on this receipt, an 11-digit number to dial in your phone; when you’re finished, you’ve added data to your plan.)

This thought process of mine definitely proved beneficial, because soon enough my timing and planning worked out perfectly. I could tell we were nearing the city because we drove past and through a tunnel of twinkle lights. At this point in time I turned on my data and grabbed walking directions to my hostel; coincidentally we had just passed it and walking directions put me there in just five minutes. How perfect! I essentially jumped out of the van at a stop light, and within minutes found my hostel and was getting checked in. I absolutely love it when my travel plans play out so smoothly.

My hostel last weekend was absolutely lovely, well worth the 380 baht/night (about $11). I received fabulous customer service, good amenities, and an excellent location too. After I found my room and dropped off my bag, it was still only about 8:30pm. Not feeling ready to turn in for the night I decided to go check out the night market just down the street from my hostel. Less than a five minute walk later, I stopped in at the 7-11, grabbed a beer, and wandered around for the next hour and a half (no open container laws in Thailand!).

The market in Hua Hin had really fair prices, friendly people, good food, and some nice finds. I ended up buying handmade journals for myself and some friends back at home. It was a lovely end to my Friday, so far my spontaneous trip to the beach was turning out perfect! When I had finished walking the aisles, I made my way back to my hostel, got ready for bed, and was eagerly looking forward to the next day. My plans for Saturday were very simple: just me, my kindle, and the beach!

Saturday, 20 August 2016:

What a moment I had on Saturday morning after I woke up. I didn’t get the greatest night’s sleep in my bunk on Friday night, so I woke up before eight. I decided to make my coffee, grab a yoga mat (the hostel provides them to use on the rooftop terrace for guests), and head up to the roof for a little serenity to start my day. I feel extremely blessed to experience moments like these and be in this wonderful place in life.

4th floor roof at Chan-Chala Cafe & Hostel
4th floor roof at Chan-Chala Cafe & Hostel

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I am blessed to have the opportunity to head to the beach on a whim for the weekend. I think more than anything, a change of scenery is exactly what I needed this past weekend. Time alone, on new adventure, exploring another part of Thailand. On Saturday morning things were perfect: the sun was shining, I found myself sitting at a cafe table on a rooftop garden, just minutes from the beach in Hua Hin, cup of coffee in hand, my journal, and time with my thoughts. Saturday was surely going to be a great day.

Morning serenity

As I sat and thought about how this trip wasn’t planned at all, it appeared that it may end up turning out to be one of the best weekends to date. If only for what I would have been doing had I stayed at home in Ayutthaya instead. But thanks to spontaneity, I was able to think about how life is unfolding for me right now on a Saturday morning in pure bliss. I can do nothing but smile as I write this. Each weekend trip I take, I find myself living out an extraordinary adventure, I am happy and healthy, I am blessed, grateful, and humble beyond words.

J.D. Salinger said it best in The Catcher and the Rye, “It’s such a stupid question, in my opinion. I mean, how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it? The answer is, you don’t. I think I am, but how do I know? I swear it’s a stupid question.” I absolutely love this quote. It proves that letting life unfold in front of one’s self is the perfect way to go. Forgot the planning, the notes, the meticulous details; just go out, have adventures, explore, and live life to the fullest. Just BE.

Sunday, 21 August 2016:

I had an awesome day on Saturday, and if the previous day and a half were any sort of forecast as to how my day on Sunday would unfold, I knew that it was going to be a great day too. At 9:15 Sunday morning, I was getting picked up at my hostel to go spend the day at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, before heading home to Ayutthaya Sunday evening. I was beyond excited for this experience, as I finally was living out my dream of the chance to meet, feed, walk, bathe, and fall in love with my elephant friends later in the day. But first, a re-cap of how I spent the rest of my day on Saturday.

Beautiful beach view in Hua Hin
Beautiful beach view in Hua Hin

After I had a nice morning up on the roof, drinking coffee, journaling, and a little yoga, I went downstairs, made myself some toast for breakfast, and then took a shower and got ready for the day ahead at the beach. First I needed to get cash though, in order to book my ticket to WFFT with my hostel. When that was all taken care of I headed down to the beach.

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I really am quite pleased with the hostel I ended up at last weekend. Not only is it a five-minute walk to the night market, but it only took me about ten minutes, maybe less, to walk to the beach on Saturday morning too.

When I got there, Hua Hin far surpassed my expectations, the beach is absolutely breathtaking! Way better than what I had on Ko Samet, and miles beyond when comparing it to the beach in Pattaya. This past weekend, as I predicted, really was turning out to be awesome, and one of my favorite weekend trips overall in Thailand. It’s a combination of everything: the beach, my hostel, the people, the spontaneity behind it all. By Sunday morning, I was having an absolutely wonderful time in Hua Hin, and the weekend wasn’t even finished yet.

When I arrived at the beach on Saturday morning I was taken aback by the white sand, cleanliness, and aquamarine water. Immensely more beautiful than Pattaya, I could totally envision spending my entire Saturday here relaxing and swimming on the beach. As it was still relatively early on Saturday morning by the time I had arrived, around 10:15am, I decided I would start my day with a stroll along the beach. I did end up having a lovely walk, but three and a half hours and nearly ten miles later, I had sufficiently overdone myself and was incredibly exhausted by the time I was finally done!

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I didn’t originally set out to walk ten miles on Saturday morning in the 90+ degree heat, but when the end of the beach had this beautiful hilltop temple and standing golden Buddha, my determination set in that I would walk to the end to check both of these structures out up close. Well if there’s one thing I am to a fault, it is determined; the moment I say I’m going to do something, I can’t stop or give up for fear of failure (imposed only upon myself, I might add…still haven’t quite overcome this quirk yet, but I’m working on it…). So ultimately, what this attitude led me to was a lovely, leisurely walk there, but a very tired, and just-want-this-to-end attitude on the way back.

When I was finally done walking I basically collapsed at a beach-front restaurant, I ordered a water, a beer, and french fries (in the end, these turned out to be mediocre, semi-soggy, flash-fried potatoes, but I really didn’t care at this point in time), while I tried to get my legs to relax. For some reason, on Saturday, the icing on the cake that was my nearly ten mile walk was that my RLS was acting up too, and my legs were aching the entire way there and back. This turned out to be one of the toughest parts about the whole walk, even more intense than the sun and heat, the fact that my legs were hurting as much as they were.

By the time I had finished my snack, I paid, got up from my lounge chair (as it was under an umbrella in the shade and I wanted to spend the rest of my afternoon lying on the sand in the sun), and found a bit of beach to set up camp for a little while longer. I quickly undressed and ran into the ocean as fast as I could. I had been waiting for this moment for nearly three hours, since my “leisurely” beach walk began. Fortunately, the water finally offered my sore legs a bit of a reprieve.

I ended up staying at the beach on Saturday afternoon for a little more than two hours after my walk. Then on my way back to my hostel, I stopped for an early dinner at an Italian restaurant and enjoyed a pizza that had far too much cheese on it for my taste, but still satisfied my dinner cravings somewhat. When I returned to my hostel I knew that I’d need a few hours to relax and rest from spending all day in the sun, so I watched a couple of episodes of The Good Wife in the comfort of the air-conditioner from my top bunk in my room.

By Saturday night, despite not being too hungry from my early dinner, I decided to head to the night market once more. I ended up spending the rest of my cash, a new tank for me, and a couple of other souvenirs for family and friends back at home. About an hour after I arrived, I headed in for the night, again very anxious and excited about the day ahead at WFFT on Sunday. I was very much looking forward to learning a lot, seeing a wildlife conservation center firsthand, and of course meeting all the animals who live there.

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Monday, 22 August 2016:

Well, I’ve reached the end of a long and exhausting day. A day to make all Mondays live in infamy. I had a wonderful weekend, but it made me very tired for work today.

Yesterday I woke up early, packed my bags, and got ready for my exciting day ahead. I was picked up from my hostel in Hua Hin at nine-thirty, we drove for about forty-five minutes to neighboring Cha-Am, where Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand is. Our day was one of the most exciting, hands-on tours I’ve experienced in a long time!

I learned a little bit about what they do at WFFT, and how they diligently work to combat black market animal sales in Thailand. Something I wasn’t very aware of before my visit yesterday, was how much a lucrative business like this is still surviving and thriving in Thailand currently. It was very sad to see and hear about the animals’ sufferings first-hand. My heart definitely opened fully, and I felt deeply for all of the animals who currently live there. It was such a blessing to see first-hand how hard WFFT works to recover, rehabilitate, and provide a safe environment for these animals. My heart melts for them, even now, just thinking about them.

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My day started with an introduction to Ban-Me. I got to meet her and quickly discovered how friendly and comfortable she is around all humans. Many elephants, similar to Ban-Me, are so used to humans based on their past experiences, whether they have been ridden, forced into hard labor, made to do show work with tricks or painting; regardless, all elephants that have been raised and rescued from captivity have gone through a process of elephant torture called the Phajaan.

This term, which literally means “the crush”, refers to the crushing of an elephant’s spirit, in order to get it to behave a certain way in captivity. The crush is a time in a baby elephant’s life when it is taken away from it’s mother. The infant elephant is crushed, meaning “to divorce the baby elephant from it’s spirit, or to split the will of a baby elephant” (ThailandElephants.org). Phajaan is a tradition long-rooted in the endangerment of the Asian elephant species. It was originally designed to make it so that the elephant being crushed, is eventually submissive to humans;

“Young elephants are frequently poached from the wild for the tourist trade…when young wild elephants are poached, the elephant’s family will be killed-which is [also] witnessed by the young elephant.” (www.thailandelephants.org)

The story of Ban-Me, as well as the many others whom I had the extraordinary privilege of meeting, interacting with, walking, bathing, and feeding on Sunday is that of perseverance, strength of will, and the true testament of a beautiful spirit. Elephants who have been rescued from captivity, like Ban-Me, come from similarly harsh and cruel paths, but now lead a life of socialization, safety, and love. I felt incredibly humbled to be in the company of such beautiful creatures, both inside and out, this past Sunday, during my six hours spent at WFFT.

Ban-Me was eager to say hello, she shared many slobbery “kisses” as she accepted each banana offering that I made to her, and she seemed to do it all with a smile a mile wide across her face.

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Something that especially draws me into my fascination (some might call it an obsession…) with these beautiful gentle giants is their eyes. In every encounter I’ve ever had with an elephant, from my childhood days growing up and going to visit the African elephants at the Alaska Zoo; my more recent, yearly trips to the Oregon Zoo, where if you ask anyone who’s ever gone with me, they’ll attest to the fact that I could spend my entire day in the elephant zone just simply watching in awe and wonder; and now this new experience of meeting them up close, at a wildlife rescue center, every single elephant has a sparkle in their eyes when you meet them. They give off a wonderful expression of wisdom and patience. This look in their eyes is a testament to the truth that elephants never forget. They have an incredible sense of will, are able to cope with, and hopefully overcome some of the most brutal forms of animal exploitation and cruelty.

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What I love about elephants, is no matter their pasts, they still retain the ability to love and trust, again and again, despite all odds. We humans could learn a great deal from this sense of compassion of loving will.

Okay, okay, enough preaching…I’m obsessed, I can’t help it.

Back to my experience yesterday. After meeting and feeding Ban-Me, I was very much on ecstasy, overfilled with joy, excitement, love, awe, inspiration, and wonder. Yesterday, one of my lifelong dreams came true. That’s an amazing truth to experience, and for this, again I am grateful beyond words.

When Ban-Me had successfully devoured every last banana in the bucket, my tour moved on to another exciting encounter. From there, I was then introduced to the first group of the some seventy odd pairings of Malaysian Sun Bears and Asian Black Bears, that call WFFT their home. Again, I learned a lot about the cruel realities of black marked animal sales, that are still very much an ongoing problem in Thailand. My guide at WFFT on Sunday, her name is Laura, she’s been working at WFFT for twelve months now. She explained that black market animal sales is currently still a very serious problem in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia, due to a lack of education and awareness. If more people knew about these problems, then maybe they’d be more inclined to do something about it.

What I found most appalling is that sun bears and Asian black bears, similar to monkeys, gibbons, orangutans, tigers, iguanas, etc. are actually bought and sold as house pets on the black market. I mean, I don’t mean to oversimplify or sound rude here, but how dumb do you have to be to buy a bear for a pet? It is a freaking bear, after all! Come on! Use your little notion of common sense and put the parts of the equation together: cute bear cubs, plus time, growth and maturity, equates to large, strong, sharp teeth, long claws, a literal BEAR. We’re not talking about some big breed of dog that merely resembles a bear; we’re talking about a real, live in-the-flesh BEAR! Not an animal that time has EVER proven it successful to domesticate…

All joking aside, I’m sorry if I’ve offended anybody but come on…a bear as a pet? That’s just stupid. The only people who honestly should take offense to my tone, are people who’ve purchased, or at least attempted to purchase at some time, a bear as a pet in their recent pasts. And considering the fact that to my knowledge, I have met no such people, I’m hoping to not have offended anybody here with my rather flippant and under-approving tone.

But in reality, aside from any sarcasm or jokes, what I was left feeling when I met the bears at WFFT, including Pepsi, Cola, and Prayer (they have such cute names) was despair. Many of the bears rescued from black market sales in Thailand have ended up in monasteries. Their former “owners” get a glimpse of sense and realize that they cannot realistically care for a BEAR as a pet. So they decide to drop it off at a temple; and care for this wild animal thus falls into the hands of the monks living at the monastery.

This situation is highly problematic though. Buddhist Monks who live at a temple survive solely on donations they receive from the public each day. In the mornings they go out with a basket and walk around town collecting donations, which are then used to buy necessities for the monks living at the temple, including food and nourishment. I can’t say with actual concrete facts to back my theory up, but what I believe to be true is there can’t really be a whole lot of spare change lying around at the end of the day at a temple to feed a bear. Thus, these wild animals are given all the wrong things to eat, like rice, sugary snacks, and even pepsi cola drinks. To top it off, they have rotting teeth from the sugar-heavy diet and no way to burn off any calories as they are usually kept in very small enclosures. This is not the sort of life that any living creature deservers.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not mean to place blame here on the monks at the temples either. I merely believe that it would be better if, instead of agreeing to keep the animal that is dropped off on their doorstep, they should rather reach out to contact a wildlife rescue or conservation center first, as an alternate course of action. But here again, is where my guide at WFFT, Laura, argued that the problem boils down to an alarmingly low level, or lack there of, education.

In addition to the elephants and bears, on Sunday I also saw: monkeys, gibbons, two orangutans (which is quite ironic in that they are not a native species to Thailand…so how did they end being rescued from captivity here in the first place?), iguanas, otters, birds, slow loris, deer, wild boar, potbelly pigs, some chickens, the sweetest pack of former street dogs, and even a crocodile. It was a magnificent day, surrounded by mother nature’s beautiful creatures.

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Nom nom nom...
Nom nom nom…

I had an amazing, life-fulfilling experience, feeding, walking, and then bathing elephants. It was, as I already said, a dream come true! I may have already been in love with them prior, but now my obsession has been catapulted to a whole new level of extreme. But the best part of my day, honestly, wasn’t just with my giant, kindred-spirited friends. Rather what I loved most about Sunday was all the knowledge I gained from a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience! Yes, I had to pay money to go visit WFFT. However, it is not a zoo, in the sense that their doors remain open to the public at free will. Instead, you sing up for a half or whole day tour (I chose the full day because it included the afternoon with the elephants, DUH!) and in return you’re given a personalized tour around the entire facility. The staff who work there are extremely knowledgeable, and all share one common goal in mind, and that is to protect and fight for the rights of animals who are abused and exploited in captivity. I would recommend this experience to anyone who finds themselves in Thailand someday. I am a better person for having had such an unforgettable and humbling experience.

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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 Hotels.com (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!