How God and the Catholic Church nearly ruined my twenties

"Before we go any further, I have to tell you something."

Eric looked at me expectantly but I could feel my nerve wavering. This was the talk I had been preparing to have for days, but now that the time had come, I wanted to forget the whole thing and go back to making out.

We had only been dating for a few weeks but things were going well. Eric was nice, funny and respectful. We liked each other. It didn't hurt that he had a ridiculous body. There was no apparent reason not to keep heating things up between us.

Except...

"I'm a virgin. I'm waiting to have sex until I'm married. So we can't have sex."

"OK."

"OK?"

"Yeah, that's fine. We don't have to do anything you don't want to do."

I should have been relieved. Hadn't my fear that the virgin card would bring things between us to an end been abated? Instead, I turned away from him, tears in my eyes. I was embarrassed, and angry that I felt so hemmed in by the constraints of Catholicism, the religion I had practiced for most of my life. I was 24, and seriously sexually frustrated. But at least I was making God happy, so that was some warped consolation.

I had been raised on the promise of Heaven for the faithful, Hell for the wicked, and the latter group included fornicators. I was told that God had a man chosen for me and I was to trust in His plan and wait for "the one." No sex before marriage. The message had been burned into my brain during 12+ years of Catholic school. Never mind that the vast majority of my classmates and fellow Catholics seemed to have disregarded the abstinence lesson. I was convinced that if I stayed pure, I'd be rewarded one day.

But when I was 23, I started questioning everything about my religion. And that included the Church's mandate against pre-marital sex. I wanted to be having sex, but fear of being damned in the eyes of God prevented me. I felt that I was missing out on a huge part of my young adulthood and was feeling increasingly out-of-place and uninformed during conversations with my friends about our love lives.

When I think back now on the beliefs I held then, I shudder. There are few things more irrational than telling human beings that they must utterly refuse themselves an act that they are biologically wired to perform. Forcing people to deny their most basic impulses or to feel shame at every hint of a stirring in their loins is cruel and foolish. We've seen how well such practices have worked out for the multitude of Catholic priests exposed as child molesters, and in the many cases in which abstinence-only education has resulted in high rates of unplanned pregnancies.

Having abandoned Catholicism, and religion, altogether three years ago, I can see now how warped and backward my thinking was. I used to cling to the promise that God would lead me to the right man and that it shouldn't matter to a guy whether or not we had sex. It's absurd to me now that I ever believed such a thing. I know that I would not marry a guy or commit to a serious relationship with him if he refused to have sex with me. It's an essential, intimate part of a romantic relationship and I would not expect someone to pledge his life to me before we had determined if we were compatible in that way. Yes, I realize there are a number of other areas that are vital to a long-lasting relationship. But this one is a requirement of mine.

I resent the fact that sex, and all of the fun related activities, were such a source of guilt and fear during my formative years, all because of the teachings of a corrupt and antiquated institution. But I am grateful that I awoke to the realities of the Church's teachings in time to heal and get to know myself as a sexual being.

Things between Eric and me ended before I made the leap into atheism and decided to become sexually active. When I did start having sex, my early experiences came with what I suspect are the same insecurities and uncertainties that accompany a lot of people's first forays into that area. But I felt no guilt. I felt no shame, and no fear of burning in the pit of Hell for all eternity. The only judgment that concerns me about my sexual activity now is my own.

One last chance, this world is gonna pull through

The Buddhist New Year festival, Songkran, was celebrated in Thailand this past weekend. It's the biggest festival of the year and the celebrations go on for at least three days. These celebrations are not your average holiday festivities, however. Songkran is a massive, multi-day, city-wide water fight. Everyone buys water guns and buckets and plays outside for three days, the only goal being to soak everyone who passes you as much as humanly possible. It's quite possibly the greatest holiday in the world.

Thapae Gate

Friends who had been in Chiang Mai for the holiday before had been telling stories for months, getting the Songkran newbs pumped for what promised to be the most epic waterfight we had ever seen.

I marveled at the stories; I watched the videos; I saw the pictures. I was not prepared for all that is Songkran.

Thapae party

The day before the holiday officially began, people were already lining the streets with Super Soaker knock-offs, PVC pipe syringes, buckets and hoses, ready to take down anyone who crossed their paths. Street vendors lined Chiang Mai's famous moat selling sausages, sweet corn, spring rolls, water and beer.

My friends and I donned t-shirts we had made for our crew, the Songlorious Basterds, and spent a wonderful pre-Songkran afternoon eating home cooked Thai food and drinking Sangsom, a sweet Thai whiskey, in between bouts of unleashing hell on every passerby who dared walk past our guest house.

Songlorious Basterds

Already, the holiday was off to a glorious start. But even that didn't prepare me for the real deal.

In some ways, words fail me when I try to describe Songkran. On the first full day of the festival, we took to the streets and found the best party you could ever imagine: an entire city playing, eating, drinking and dancing in the sunshine. It's absolute mayhem and you can't walk two feet without getting soaked to the bone. There's no place for vanity or reservation. You simply jump into the fray and enjoy.

Swimming in the moat

Celebrating Songkran in Chiang Mai was, without exggeration, one of the most wonderful experiences I have had since moving overseas. There were many times when I couldn't stop smiling from the sheer joy I felt at being there, and being surrounded by friends and a city full of people in celebration.

There were countless instances and interactions that made me smile or laugh out loud: getting covered with foam and dancing in front of Thapae Gate, having children smear talc on my face to stave off the heat, being beckoned by a laughing old woman eager to throw her bucket of freezing water on me. But I will never forget the way I felt on the first day of Songkran.

Songkran child

The water symbolizes a time of cleanse and renewal at the start of the new year, which is why it factors so prominently into the celebrations. On Saturday afternoon, the first day of the festival, rain clouds rolled over the steaming hot and already drenched city. People had been in the streets all day, blasting each other with water guns, dumping buckets of ice water on each other's heads, clinking cans of warm Chang beer in a toast to the new year. But then the sky opened up, punctuating what had already been a perfect day.

If I was Buddhist, or religious in any way, I would have taken the rain as a sign from God that the coming year was a blessed one. Instead, I stood there in the middle of the street, arms wrapped around my friends as we laughed and hugged one another and I was grateful that I, and they, are alive.

Foam party

That's the kind of celebration Songkran is. The generosity of spirit, the abundance of people and food and drink and water and music - it makes you happy to be alive. And when you're dancing to Bruce Springsteen in the middle of a reggae bar, sopping wet and surrounded by people who are just so damn happy they could burst, you can't help but love them.

And when you start teaming up with Thai kids to attack trucks full of people with squirt guns and buckets, and see groups of strangers helping a drunk old man who's done a little too much celebrating for the afternoon, you can't help but really like human beings as a species. And when you watch a little girl celebrate her first Songkran with shrieks of delight and demands to be doused in water, you want to cry a little out of happiness because it's moments like those that make you think that maybe humanity does deserve to exist.

Songkran trucks

Songkran is the sort of holiday that helps you continue to believe that people are good, even when you wake up the morning after it to the news that people were murdered and maimed at the Boston marathon and that 55 others were killed in Iraq on the same day. Yesterday morning, when I read about this wave of horrors, I held on to the memory of Songkran. Seeing people in such a pure, happy state, in a communal moment of joy, sharing and celebration ... I have to keep that in mind in the face of senseless tragedy, and believe that decency will eventually triumph.

Thanks to Will Moyer, Joshua Du Chene and Agnes Wdowik for the photos.

Why Hannah Horvath is my hero, or something like that

Last night I watched the season two finale of Girls, and was compelled to share some of my thoughts about it. This isn't about why Girls is such a damn fine show, whether or not Lena Dunham is a feminist hero, or even about how brave she is for showing her naked, "real" body on camera every week.

My love of Girls has always been an intensely personal one, and this blog post is personal as well. I do think this is a high-quality show and am always happy to have a spirited debate about what makes it such from a critical point of view. But that's not what I'm writing about at the moment.

Hannah Horvath, Girls, HBO

My initial interest in Girls was piqued by a New York Magazine piece that referenced the painfully awkward sex scenes and the "realness" of the main characters' naked bodies. I was skeptical of the promised gritty, realistic portrayal of how 20-somethings live, and watched with the expectation of being proven correct in my assumptions.

But I liked the show immediately, so much so that I proceeded to hold regular viewing parties with friends, in Beijing during season one and in Chiang Mai during season two. My friends and I would debate the merits and flaws of the characters and divulge who our favorites were. Each of us confessed that the character we found most endearing was the one who reminded us most of ourselves.

From Hannah's first monologue, in which she declared that she thought she could be the voice of her generation, or "a voice of a generation", I knew I had found a kindred spirit in this character.

Throughout both seasons, I have winced at her willingness to debase herself for a man, cringed sympathetically when she was called out on her self-absorption and empathized perhaps a little too well with her spiral into anxiety, OCD and presumably, depression.

I saw some of my own worst qualities reflected back to me and much as it pained me to watch them, I also thirsted for more. Here at last was a character who reflected not the traits I was proud of or aspired to possess, but the things I feared and was finally ready to see in myself.

It's been nearly a year since I entered into a period of emotional upheaval, intense reflection and many months of emotional extremes. In some small way, the presence of Hannah Horvath in my life was a comfort, a validation. I was mortified by some of my internal thoughts and insecurities. I didn't want to tell other people about what I saw then as the horrors in my head. Instead, I could watch Hannah and take some comfort in the fact that anyone who could write such a character must occasionally grapple with the same brands of insecurity, self-doubt and uncertainty that I was feeling.

The development - or regression - of Hannah's character in season two particularly resonated with me. Certainly I could relate to the messiness and futility of her relationship with Adam in the first season, but I didn't really need to see my own mistakes with men mirrored back to me to learn my lesson. I knew that what Hannah was doing was kind of fucked, much in the way that I knew my own behavior was every time I made excuses for a guy who had repeatedly shown he wasn't good for me, just so I could feel a little less bad about continuing to be involved with him.

Hannah Horvath, Girls, HBO

It was the unraveling of Hannah's inner world that kept me hooked on the show during season two. Perhaps I projected some of my own life onto the character, but I related to her apparent fears of not being able to deliver on professional promises, of being a failure, of being alone. The sense of being disconnected from everyone around you. The harsh reality of sitting, alone, in your apartment in your pajamas, unwilling or unable to get out from under the covers and face the world. Were these not the very things I had been berating myself over for months in between bouts of lethargy?

Where Hannah had OCD, I had panic attacks. Seemingly out of nowhere, I would find myself imagining my own death by suffocation. This would lead to me hyperventilating, clinging somewhere in my mind to a thread of rationality even as I broke into a cold sweat or hot flashes, paralyzed until the all-encompassing fear had subsided. "You're not dying; you're alive and you're OK" became the mantra that kept me in the moment. These attacks became so frequent at one point that I briefly went on Xanax in order to make it through the day without going through the physically exhausting and emotionally draining process at alarming intervals.

I was embarrassed and it took me a long time to admit to my close friends what was going on. I probably would have continued taking the Xanax had it not exacerbated my depression. Instead, I started working with a therapist again and can happily say I haven't been back to such a dark place in months. But I remember it. And I'll always be able to empathize with what it's like to be there.

It's cliche at this point to thank Lena Dunham for presenting her audience with heavy issues in such frank and raw ways, but I thank her all the same. In Hannah Horvath, she gave me a character I needed to see and love at this point in my life, a character who has helped me better see myself. And through writing this character, she made me feel a little less ashamed and a little less alone on the morning I woke up viciously self-attacking for sleeping with a guy I knew didn't respect me, or the many days I could barely get out of bed because I felt so much like I had sold out as a writer and had failed at all of my goals and dreams.

Hannah Horvath, Girls, HBO

There is so much to be said about the season finale of Girls, both about the writing and story lines and the potential social commentary. But my initial reaction to the show, and the season, was gratitude for a character who is, if nothing else, a very real embodiment of some of the most serious issues that many of Dunham's fans face.

The lasting legacy of the Vietnam War in Laos

A young man sat at the desk of the COPE Centre in Vientiane, Laos, working at his laptop. He went by the name of Peter Kim, which was embroidered on his t-shirt. He had a slight build, shiny black hair styled into a bowl cut, and brown eyes.

Peter went about his work, shuffling through his backpack, plugging a USB stick into his laptop, discussing business with a member of the COPE Centre staff. He looked for all the world like any other young Laotian guy.

Except that Peter had no hands. And he was blind.

Peter, whose given name is Phonsavath Souliyalat, was 16 when he suffered the tragic accident that left him blind and maimed.

"My friend and I went for a walk one day, and we were playing," Peter told me. "My friend picked up a bombie. He didn't know what it was and he threw it to me. It exploded and I lost my eyes and my hands."

The "bombie" Peter referred to was a cluster sub-munition that had been dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War. It and millions of others failed to explode on impact, rendering large swaths of the landscape extremely dangerous.

Peter's left arm ends just below his wrist; his right a few inches below the elbow. Scars from the explosion mark his face.

Peter recounted this gruesome tragedy to me in a matter-of-fact voice, then hurried on to tell me that he had taught himself English in the three years since his accident. He also described his advocacy work with the Ban Advocates, an activist group that pushes governments to ban the use of cluster munitions like the one that robbed Peter of his hands and sight. He seemed eager to move on from his injuries and focus on what he had achieved since the explosion. Peter was proud to tell me that he had met former United States Secretary of State Hilary Clinton during her visit to Laos.

Then Peter asked where I'm from.

"The United States," I responded, cringing.

His face lit up. "Oh, the United States! I like it there. I want to go there someday."

Having spent the last hour and a half learning about the ways in which the United States government had destroyed the lives of millions of people in Laos, I couldn't fathom why. I'm not the type of person who feels guilt for the misdeeds of my country's government, but I was baffled nonetheless that Peter spoke so cheerfully about America, without a trace of (rightful) hate in his heart.

The UXO legacy

Peter Kim is one of thousands of Laotians who have been maimed or killed by unexploded ordinances (UXO) left over from the United States' air campaign against communist forces in Laos during the Vietnam War. Between 1964-1973, the United States Air Force dropped 260 million sub-munitions from cluster bombs, known locally as bombies, on what is now the Laos People's Democratic Republic. Thirty percent of those did not explode on impact, littering the Laos countryside with literal time bombs that continued to detonate in the three decades since the war ended.

According to the National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine Action Center in Laos PDR (UXO-NRA), roughly 50,000 people were injured or killed in UXO incidents between 1964-2008. Three hundred are maimed or killed annually.

There are several types of UXO in Laos, the most prominent of which are cluster bombs. These devices are dropped from planes and detonate in mid-air, spraying dozens to thousands of bomblets across an area. They are highly effective at decimating a region, causing widespread casualties and lasting financial and psychological ruin, especially in a poor country such as Laos.

COPE Laos

The COPE Centre in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, houses a small but powerful exhibit educating visitors about the UXO problem and the lasting traumas the bombing campaign wreaked on this impoverished country. The centre is run by COPE Laos, a not-for-profit organization that provides free prosthetics and therapy for those who need them. Their patients include children who were born missing limbs or with medical conditions such as club feet, and people who have lost extremities due to leprosy. Thirty percent of COPE's patients were maimed or disabled by UXO.

The COPE Centre exhibit highlights the UXO issue, a problem exacerbated by the country's poverty. One display involves a collection of prosthetic legs that were gathered from locals. These are makeshift pieces, cobbled together out of scrap metal and wood. COPE provides quality prosthetics and rehabilitative therapy to those who would otherwise spend their lives limping along with these unsanitary and unsafe false limbs.

Elsewhere in the exhibit is a replica of a typical Laotian hut, where the audio to a BBC documentary plays, providing the chilling backdrop to what is seen in the museum.

"This incident is part of the deadly legacy of the Indochina War, which continues to haunt the people of Laos..."

Visitors can watch an interview with two parents whose son died from sub-munition injuries in 2004. The boy, Hamm, was nine years old when he was killed. He and a friend followed a group of scrap metal collectors working outside their village, picking up pieces that were discarded by the adults. Unable to tell the difference between scraps that were safe for carrying and those that were explosive, Hamm picked up a live one that ripped his body apart.

Hamm's parents were summoned and found their son gravely wounded, but not dead. They hired a driver who took them from hospital to hospital, none of which had supplies of blood and oxygen. Eventually, the driver told them he did not want the boy to die in his car for fear of the death bringing evil spirits, and Hamm was taken home to die.

A deadly legacy

There are countless stories like Hamm's, and like Peter's. Scrap metal is a precious commodity and can bring in desperately needed money for rural families. Collecting it, however, means that men, women and children are going into areas that could very well contain explosives that will go off when disturbed.

Because so much of the land remains contaminated, once thriving farming communities are unable to work large portions of it, contributing to a vicious cycle of poverty.

Before that moment, I had never before consciously felt embarrassed to tell someone I'm American. I'm not one to take ownership of the behavior of the American government, or make apologies for "my country." But I felt embarrassed nonetheless. I had had no idea about the atrocities committed in Laos, and could not recall ever having learned much, if anything, about this country before arriving in Asia. The idea of being even remotely associated with any of the horrors that continue to be visited upon the innocent people of Laos made my stomach turn.

Efforts to clear Laos' landscape of UXO continue to this day, and the work is slow-going and dangerous. All 17 provinces were hit, and a third of the land is thought to be contaminated.

Though Peter's optimism and the COPE Centre's commitment to providing health aid to those who need it were inspiring, I left the effort feeling helpless and enraged. I thought not only of the thousands killed during the actual U.S. campaign in Laos while it was in progress, but also of the thousands who have died needlessly since. How could someone like Peter reconcile himself to the fact that he lost his eyesight and his hands because of a bomb that was dropped on his country before he was even born?

Whenever I visit places like this, I try to take something positive from it - inspiration from people who have overcome adversity, are able to rebuild their lives from tragedy, do something in the service of humanity. But this time, I couldn't muster it. I did admire Peter and COPE's work but all I felt was disgust and despair because the same kind of tragedies and war crimes are being visited upon other people in other countries all the time, to this day, always with someone's justification.

Being my own Valentine

When I was in grade school, I loved Valentine's Day. Adored it. I relished picking out those boxes of marvelously corny valentines, usually Barbie and/or Batman, to write out for all of my classmates. Valentine's Day was one of my favorite days at school - an entire afternoon blocked off for exchanging cards, eating Dunkin' Donuts munchkins and watching movies. What's not to love? Barbie Valentine

But as I got older, Valentine's Day became an increasingly stressful holiday. By my junior year in high school, it became downright panic-inducing. That was the year all my friends got boyfriends and my long-held nightmare of being the only single girl among us came true. Why God was plaguing me with such emotional torture, I wasn't sure, but I set about mitigating the public humiliation days in advance (I have since relinquished the notion that "God" had anything to do with it, but that's a post for another day).

There were fewer things more horrifying to me than being at school on Valentine's Day when I was single. What was I going to do while other girls had roses and candy grams delivered to them, sit alone and die of fucking embarrassment?

Not a chance. Rather than orchestrate a cleverly timed trip to the nurse's office or a doctor's appointment that would take me out of school through lunch period - by far the most torturous stretch of the day - I decided I simply was not going to school on Valentine's Day.

Humiliation in any regard was one of my greatest fears as an adolescent, and I felt that not having a serious boyfriend when all of my friends did was a tremendous shortcoming on my part. I went through long bouts of self-loathing, admonishing myself for "fucking up" by breaking up with guys who had actually liked me.

Like most people, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to my romantic relationships as a teenager, but I was convinced that I was some unique breed of singleton. On my worst days, I lamented the fact that I was clearly a mean, spiteful person who deserved to be alone. I virulently criticized my appearance, personality, intelligence and aesthetic tastes until I was nauseated from crying and self-hate.

This made regular days at school stressful enough, but Valentine's Day, I was certain, would be unbearable. Worst of all was the fear that my loneliness and shame would overwhelm me and I might cry during the middle of the day, and that was a hell to which I would not subject myself. Batman Valentine

Of course, I realize now that it wasn't that big of a deal. Being single, not having a Valentine...none of it mattered all that much. And no one would have treated me like a leper had I shown up to school boyfriend-less on Valentine's Day. But the shame of it ate away at me all the same.

And so, well in advance of the big day, I would announce to my parents that I was not going to school on Valentine's Day. Fortunately, by the time I reached the second semester of my junior year, they had stopped fighting me on taking days off and gave their tacit approval to my writing my own absentee notes, so this proved to be a less difficult conversation than I would have originally anticipated. I had my temporary reprieve from the shame of my singlehood.

Once I escaped the Valentine's Day Hell of high school, there came college. None of those are particularly remarkable - lots of chocolate eating and rom com watching with my single girlfriends, if I remember correctly. I still spent much of college longing for a boyfriend, and I still found admitting that I was single to be an exercise in emotional torture, but everyone's love life is a mess in college so I was in good company.

Then came the post-collegiate years of 22-24, which passed in boozier and occasionally more dramatic fashions (in one instance, a former love interest called me at 2 a.m. the night before Valentine's Day and called me "an asshole" when I got upset that we weren't spending the holiday together. Dubious though my taste in men was at the time, I did have enough self-esteem to promptly end that affair.).

The best thing I ever did for my love life, it turned out, was move overseas. I've had more flings, dates, sex and relationship-esque situations in the past three years than I did in all of the years between high school and my early 20s combined. Through the combination of therapy and some serious introspection and reflection, I learned to heal some of my own insecurities and change my perspective on relationships. That opened up a whole new world for me and I gained confidence and became a little less afraid to put myself out there.

And somewhere along the way, I stopped alternately hating and feeling sorry for myself because I was single. I no longer berate myself regularly for not being in a relationship. And when I realized that Valentine's Day was upon us this week, for the first time in years, I found myself looking forward to it. Michael Jordan Valentine

There were no traces of shame or sadness and embarrassment. In fact, those were replaced by a sense of optimism and even elation. This is not the first Valentine's Day I've spent solo but it is the first one that I won't be pining away for or fostering resenting toward someone from my past.

It's the first one that I've felt comfortable with my single status, not because "I've given up on love forever," but because I actually feel open to love and to meeting someone when the time is right, without old fears and losses and baggage hindering my current happiness.

So this year, I'm allowing myself to remember how much I do love Valentine's Day, cheesy and manufactured though the holiday may be. And I will celebrate, probably by watching a movie and treating myself to a glass of cheap red wine. Because even though I'm single, I'm celebrating for that 16-year-old somewhere inside me who can finally be at peace and know she's worthy of love and celebration, even if she doesn't have a boyfriend. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Valentine

All photos from BuzzFeed's "150+ Valentines from Your Childhood"

A reflection before the new year

If I had been asked last Dec. 31 where I expected to find myself in exactly one year, on the last morning of 2012, I probably would not have said sleeping in the back room of a friend’s bar on an island in Thailand. But that is where I found myself this morning, and somehow, it seems a completely appropriate ending to the year that’s been. I’m in Koh Phangan, Thailand, and because it’s New Year’s Eve, and there is a Full Moon Party tonight, there are no available rooms and this bar is the only thing between me and sleeping on the beach.

I don’t remember exactly what I expected 2012 to be like, but it’s safe to say that it turned out far differently than I had envisioned in nearly every way possible. For a long time, I tended to think of the year as a bit of a wash, marred by stress, emotional upheaval, and professional frustrations.

But when I lifted that gloomy pall a bit, I saw that the past 12 months have been more nuanced than that.

Yes, there were some dark and low points. Yes, I worked to the point of burn out not once, but twice, this year. Yes, I went through bouts of depression and anxiety that felt at times like they would never end. Yes, some relationships that meant a great deal to me ended, in sad and less than ideal ways. And yes, there were times when I felt that unresolved issues from the past were too great to surmount.

However. There has been more to celebrate this year than there has to lament.

In the past 12 months, I’ve visited three new countries. I’ve lived with elephants for a week, experienced an intensely beautiful lantern festival I’ll remember all my life, and been to a rave on an aircraft carrier in China. My friends and I started a t-shirt company, and I had the opportunity to write for the Wall Street Journal and Vogue India, two publications that, when I was just finishing grad school a few years ago, would have seemed like a far-off dream. Some relationships ended, but new ones were formed, ones for which I am deeply grateful. And others have become stronger, more honest and rich throughout the shared experiences of the past year. I came through the other end of depression with more emotional clarity and a stronger sense of self than I have ever had before.

If there was one thing that I was searching for throughout the past 12 months, I think it was a sense of peace - an acceptance of the past, a putting to bed of old insecurities and grievances, a freeing of my mind, energy and attention to embrace all the possibilities of the present and the future.

It has been a struggle at times, but as I reflect on the past year, and all the curves in the road, the unexpected and often delightful experiences I’ve had along the way, I think I am closer to finding that peace than I realized. Perhaps I’m not quite there yet, but I’m finally ready for it. I’m ready to allow myself to let go of the regrets and struggles, the self-criticisms and the bad days. That’s not to say I’ll forget them, because all have provided valuable lessons I’ll take with me going forward. I’m just ready to put them to rest, forgive myself and move on. I’m excited for 2013 and about working toward the new goals I’ve set for myself.

I don’t want to sugarcoat 2012, but I don’t want to dwell on it either. As I enjoy the last day of the year, I will focus on one simple theme: gratitude. I’m grateful that among the bad, the stressful, the frightening, I have had so many beautiful opportunities to explore and learn about the world, to meet people and to gain a greater understanding of myself. And most of all, I am grateful to be alive to experience all of it, and to have the opportunity to move forward and create new memories, new bonds, learning from but not being imprisoned by the past.

Photo essay: Children of Koob Kub village

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Koob Kub, a Lahu hill tribe village, in the mountains of northern Thailand. I visited the village with members of The Christopher Robert Project, an organization created to help better the lives of children living in Thailand’s hill tribe communities. This was my first visit to such a community, and the experience was humbling and in many ways profound. The village is not without its issues - hierarchical corruption and rampant opium addiction among the men being but a sample of them, and I hope to write a more extensive piece on hill tribe history, culture and the issues they face at some point. In fact, that’s what brought me to Koob Kub in the first place, research on a people and tradition that fascinate me but about which I know very little.

Koob Kub left a lasting impression for a number of reasons but whenever I sat down to record those for the purpose of a blog post, all I could think of were the children I met there.

To say the community is poor would be a gross understatement, a fact underscored by the state of the children’s clothing and filthy hands and faces. There was certainly reason for concern for their health and well-being, and again, perhaps I will write more on that another time. But these children, through their energy, intelligence, and their warmth toward me and especially toward one another, moved me in a way I have not felt in a long time. I find myself thinking of these kids often, wondering how they are doing and finding myself drawing inspiration from their example.

Rather than attempt to wax poetic about what each of these children did to leave such an impression, I decided instead to go with a photo essay that I hope will give some insight into what their lives are like.

Nasay, Koob Kub Village

Koob Kub boys

School pictures

The next several photos are shots of the kids in the classroom and at play. I've included photos of the old school, which was mostly destroyed in a fire several months ago but is still used occasionally, and the new one, where students of all ages attend "class" together.

Old schoolhouse, Koob Kub

Schoolhouse, Koob Kub

Koob Kub village

Koob Kub village

Koob Kub village

Koob Kub village

Koob Kub village

Sibling Love

The following photos are of siblings from one village family.

Koob Kub village

Koob Kub village

Koob Kub village

My hometown: A former Jersey girl's reflections on Hurricane Sandy

When news first broke about Hurricane Sandy, I felt almost as though I couldn’t comment on it. After all, I haven’t lived in New Jersey for a long time - nine years, if you count from 2003, when I moved to Maryland for college. What could I say that would have any relevance? Then I started to see the photos, read the Facebook status updates and news stories about the devastation at the Jersey Shore. I glanced at one local news site and read that Brick Township had been particularly hard hit, with a house rumored to have floated into the Mantoloking Bridge and structural fires breaking out around the town. Casino Pier in Seaside had been washed away (that link has good photos; apologies that they’re in a story about MTV’s “Jersey Shore”). Route 35 in Bay Head was completely flooded.

The Mantoloking Bridge

To someone who isn’t from Ocean County, New Jersey, these names might not mean much. But Brick Township is where I grew up; for a significant portion of my life, the Jersey Shore was my home. The thought of so much of it being destroyed was surreal and incredibly sad.

For the past week, I’ve found myself occasionally lost in memories of the years I lived at the Jersey Shore. The long afternoons spent playing in the waves and getting sandy and sunburnt while boogie boarding at Brick Beach III. Secretly picking out which beautiful beachfront houses I would buy if I ever had the money. Summers during high school when I worked as a badge checker at Jenkinson’s boardwalk in Pt. Pleasant, slapping bracelets on loud-mouthed Bennys who made the trek from New York to spend a day at the shore. Trips to Long Beach Island and the excitement of getting to play mini golf and go on the rides at Fantasy Island. Getting a taste of freedom when I was finally allowed to walk the Seaside boardwalk at night with friends.

Brick Beach III

I remembered the many nights I drove home from work or a friend’s house down Rte. 35 in Bay Head, one of my favorite drives. The road runs parallel to the ocean, a block away from the beach, and was badly flooded during the hurricane. It takes you to the boardwalk in either direction - Point Pleasant to the north; Seaside to the south, and to the Bay Head train station if you want to catch a train to New York City, a trip I made many times. Most of my jobs during my teenage years were located somewhere along that road. It became in some weird way a constant in my existence. Even when I came home from college for summer or holiday breaks, I would drive down 35 because it was in that familiar setting that I did some of my best thinking.

Ironically, my thoughts on those drives often revolved around my determination to leave New Jersey, Brick specifically. By the time I graduated high school, I was hell bent on moving out of the Garden State and never coming back, except for visits. My attitude toward my hometown has softened over the years - it was a nice place to grow up and I appreciate its charms far more now than I did when I lived there. I’ve been living in Asia for nearly three years and have made a life for myself that I love, but it is still heartbreaking to see so many places from my childhood destroyed or washed away, and to know how many people have lost their homes.

Route 35

No doubt the shore will be rebuilt over time. The boardwalks will be repaired, new and improved rides will take the place of the old ones. Homes will be salvaged. People will still flock to the Jersey Shore for the summer. But I can’t help feeling sad that, should I have children someday and want to show them where I grew up, many of the places I loved as a kid either aren't there anymore or won’t be quite the same.

It's been encouraging and heartwarming to see, via social media, the outpouring of love and charity by people across the shore area as they help one another begin the recovery process. It always seems to be the case that in the face of devastation, the best of human nature appears, which is bittersweet. My thoughts will continue to be with everyone at the Jersey Shore and I look forward to one day visiting and seeing it restored to its full beauty.

I am removed from what's happening at the Jersey Shore right now, but not so removed that the images of the devastation, and the thought of all of the people who lost their lives and their homes, don't bring tears to my eyes. Perhaps this blog post is my small way of acknowledging what has happened to my hometown and the surrounding area, and saying that although I don't live there anymore, I do feel the loss.

I'll end this with a song from Bruce Springsteen that has been running through my head for the past week, and will always make me think of the Jersey Shore as it was when I was growing up there.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31Qbx9oo-Ac

All photos courtesy Jersey Shore Hurricane News 

Mae Tao Clinic: the best and worst of human nature

Note: All information in this post is based on my experience, conversations with a Mae Tao clinic staff member and the clinic's 2011 report. Be aware that there are some disturbing images and descriptions in this post. All photos were taken by Will Moyer I dug my fingernails into the palms of my hands and ground my teeth together. No matter what, I vowed, I would not cry. Not now. There’d be time for tears later.

The man lying in front of me was the victim of a horrific act of violence. The left side of his face was covered in a patchwork of black and red, of skin wounded beyond recognition. His eyes blinked rapidly but he barely moved. His exposed torso was partially bandaged but the cloth strips didn’t conceal the extent of his burns, which crept down his chest and toward his abdomen. Mae Tao Clinic

I shouldn’t be here, I thought. This is invasive, inappropriate. It was not the first time the thought had crossed my mind since my friend Will and I arrived at Mae Tao Clinic earlier that morning.

The man stretched across the wooden table was a day laborer from Burma. He had been brought to Mae Tao Clinic with severe injuries from an acid attack that had been meant for his boss. The boss’ wounds were minimal, our clinic guide told us. The man lying before us while his wife and young child looked on had borne the brunt of the attack.

“His wife tells me he has trouble sleeping,” our guide, Jue, whispered when we turned away from the man. “The acid got into his ear so he has terrible pain in his head. Cannot sleep.”

As we walked out of the surgical unit, I looked back one last time and smiled at the man, even though I cringed at the sight of him. It wasn’t his mutilated body that caused me to shrink back. But to look at his face was to imagine his pain and be horrified that one human being could do this to another.

A crisis of conscience

When Will and I decided to go to Mae Sot, Thailand, for a few days for a visa run, Mae Tao Clinic (MTC) had been at the top of my list of places to see. I had read that the clinic provided assistance to Burmese refugees and migrant workers and was eager to see the work being done there.

Until visiting the MTC, I had never before come face-to-face with the cruel realities of poverty and brutality. I had read countless articles about the atrocities being committed against ethnic minorities in Burma, about the crowded refugee camps in which thousands of people are forced to live, the high costs of health care, the plights of migrant workers. None of those articles prepared me for what I saw at MTC: a man whose face had been mutilated by acid; premature babies born in extremely bare-bones, basic conditions; and a prosthetics ward where land mine victims await new limbs.

Land mine victims

When I first arrived at the clinic and saw people gathering outside the pharmacy and surgery areas, I felt a sudden pang of regret. This was a bad idea; I’m exploiting these people. My intention was to visit the clinic in the hopes of writing a piece about it, but suddenly I felt ashamed that I had been so eager to witness the suffering of other people.

And yet I also felt I had to. Having now spent nearly four months in Thailand since the beginning of 2012, I have gotten the distinct impression that there is a great deal of good being done here, but a great deal of suffering as well. I felt compelled to witness that, in order to better understand this part of the world, to grasp the horrors and the goodness happening in places like Mae Sot and, on a more personal level, understand what it was that had always drawn me to learn more about refugees and conflict zones.

By the end of the tour, my regrets were gone. It was one of the more important places I’ve visited in Asia and the experience left a profound impact on me.

The clinic

The MTC provides free health care to refugees, migrant workers, and poor Burmese people who cannot afford care at government hospitals. Treatments here range from eye exams to surgeries to reproductive health counseling, all of which might otherwise be out of reach for the patients who visit the clinic by the hundreds each day. The work here is funded by donations and they are facing a critical shortage this year - a $320,000 shortage, to be exact. Without additional funding, they will have to cut services and staff, of which they are already in limited supply.

Old woman getting eye exam

The maternity ward was one of our first stops on the tour. Nearly 3,000 babies were born at MTC last year. There is one delivery room, as well as a dedicated area for special needs babies. Expectant mothers sleep on wooden tables in a communal room. Some parents are too poor to buy clothes for their newborns. I am of the firm opinion that people who cannot afford clothes and health care for their children should not be having them, but as these women are already pregnant, that point is moot here.

Maternity ward

To think that this is how so many infants come into this world is heartbreaking. I felt deep despair considering all the challenges these babies are up against before even leaving the womb. Many of them will likely grow up in poverty and in dangerous border zones, and on their first night in this world, they sleep in a hot, crowded room without the comforts of a private crib or bassinette, or the safety of a proper hospital bed.

To be clear, I think the work being done at MTC is remarkable and vital for the tens of thousands of people who visit it each year. I applaud their efforts at providing safe care to the many, many patients who rely on them and to giving newborns as much of a chance as possible at being healthy, under the circumstances.

Children's ward

The in-patient rooms for children and adults consist of a handful of hospital beds and tables. Sometimes there are more patients than there are beds, Jue explained, so some have to sleep on the floor. The ailments they see at the clinic vary widely, she said. Sometimes it’s liver and kidney problems, heart disease, hypertension. During the rainy season, there is an increase in cases of malaria and dengue fever.

In patient room

The conditions at the clinic were quite basic. I thought of the few hospital visits I have had to make in my life, almost all of which were in the United States. The clean, sterile atmosphere, the curtains dividing the beds, the pillows, blankets, adequate amounts of food. Though I have visited a Chinese hospital in Beijing and found it lacking in a number of aspects, I had never visited anywhere like MTC before and it was difficult at first to reconcile the experiences.

One of the biggest impressions I was left with was how beautiful the people there were, and how quick they were to wave and smile. As we passed the children's recreation room, a group of young kids were holding hands and singing a song. Jue, who is from Burma's Karen state, smiled. "They're singing Karen songs," she said wistfully. The children singing amidst these conditions was bittersweet and I found myself once again fighting back tears.

Finding the silver lining

By the time we left the clinic, I was saddened by the amount of poverty and suffering I saw there but also inspired. Because of the work being done at Mae Tao Clinic, people who would otherwise go without have access to potentially life-saving health care and resources on keeping themselves and their families healthy.

The experience left me with the thought: in the face of so much suffering and sadness in the world, what can I do? Mae Tao Clinic is just one organization out of many around the world attempting to provide services and care for those who need it most. The volunteers and staff at MTC are proof of the goodness, generosity and empathy in the world and that’s what I want to be part of. The question is how…and I haven’t quite figured that out yet.

Young girls

Update: The man mentioned at the beginning of this piece was transferred from Mae Tao Clinic to a facility in Chiang Mai, where he underwent surgery, skin grafts and physical therapy. He spent six months in the hospital, and was recently released and is now continuing his recovery at home with his family.

Click here to learn more about donating to the Mae Tao Clinic. 

A week with the elephants

If there was one thing I was going to do when I arrived in Chiang Mai for the first time, back in March of this year, it was ride an elephant. Vain visions of myself communing with nature while riding atop a massive elephant as we ambled through the Thai jungle had been playing in my mind for weeks. And there are plenty of companies here that would have been willing to help me make that dream a reality. You can’t walk two feet in Chiang Mai’s Old City without seeing company posters promising a life-changing experience trekking through the jungle on an elephant’s back. As it turned out, I would have a life-changing experience with elephants in Chiang Mai, but it would not be quite the one I had expected. When a fellow traveler at a Couchsurfing meet-up mentioned he had heard that many of the elephants at trekking camps are treated badly, I began to rethink my plans. I had never been what anyone would call an animal rights activist, but I also wouldn’t go out of my way to hurt one or support cruelty. This same person told me about the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary about an hour and a half outside of Chiang Mai. There was no riding there, he said, but volunteers and visitors did get to feed and bathe the animals.

Mae Kham Geow

Good enough for me. A week or so later, two friends and I boarded a minivan to the Mae Taeng Valley to explore this Elephant Nature Park. By lunchtime, I was so impressed by the work being done there, I promised myself that should I ever find myself in Northern Thailand again, I would come back to this place to volunteer.

Three months later, back in Beijing, I made a 4 a.m. decision to take a China break and return to Chiang Mai for a few months. My volunteer application to the ENP was submitted before I had even booked my flight.

A home for the elephants

The ENP sits on a large plot of land in the Mae Taeng Valley. Lush green mountains surround the park on all sides and a cool brown river divides it from a nearby village. Elephants roam the grounds, playing in the water, chewing stalks of bamboo and occasionally chasing down a baby elephant who's wandered too far from the herd. Without exaggeration, this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.

Nearly all of the 33 elephants here have been rescued from logging or tourist camps. Only four - Hope, Tong Suk, Chong Yim and Faa Mai, who have been raised at the park - have not been subjected to a brutal, barbaric practice known as the pajaan. This ancient custom is used to break young elephant’s spirits until they are submissive to their owners’ demands. Liz at the blog Gentle Living gives a good description of this disgusting practice and its purposes. Many of the older elephants at the park have been beaten, overworked, and in some cases made to participate in forced breeding programs. One female, Medo, had her hip broken when a bull mounted her during a forced breeding session. Between that and a broken leg suffered while working in a camp, it’s a wonder she can still walk at all. Sadly, most of the elephants here have similar stories.

Medo

The ENP was founded by a petite and courageous woman named Lek Chailert, who has devoted her life to saving elephants in Thailand and throughout Asia. She has faced down the Thai government, disgruntled peers, and even her own family in order to protect her herd and raise awareness about the plight of the endangered Asian elephant. For someone who has been profiled by TIME magazine and was recently named Thailand’s Woman of the Year, she is impressively unassuming, friendly and down-to-earth.

Meeting Lek and watching her comfort beautiful Faa Mai, a baby girl elephant who was crankily adjusting to no longer being able to feed from her mother’s milk, was one of the most amazing moments I have witnessed between a human and an animal. Lek can walk among these massive beasts without fear because they love her and respond to her in a way they don’t to anyone else. I have never seen anyone exhibit the kindness and patience she shows not only to the herd, but to the nearly 300 rescued dogs who also live at the park. Many of those are street dogs rescued by Lek and her crew from likely death during the Bangkok floods of 2011.

Faa Mai and Lek

I arrived at the ENP as a weeklong volunteer the last Monday in August. One of about 20 volunteers who arrived that day, I was riding a high of excitement at being back at this beautiful place, though I had little idea of what to expect in the days to come.

The life of a volunteer

When I first signed on to volunteer at the park, I expected it to be hard work but wasn’t quite sure how hard. As I imagine many would-be volunteers do, I had visions of bonding with elephants, spending hours lovingly attending to their needs.

I realized early on that volunteering would not mean hanging with the eles from morning until night. The elephants each have a mahout, or trainer, who is with them the entire day. They see to the elephants’ needs and in most cases develop a deep bond with them. Even when visitors are feeding and bathing the elephants, the mahouts are never more than a few feet away.

Sunset at ENP

The work we did as volunteers was harder than I anticipated. As someone who spends the vast majority of my work days sitting in a coffee shop working on my laptop, I don’t have a ton of experience with manual labor, and don’t have a particularly strong inclination to do it again. Planting jackfruit trees on a mountainside sounds like much more of a lark than it actually is, especially when you’re doing it in near 100-degree heat.

Of course there were moments when unloading pick-up trucks of fruit for the elephants, painting walls and shoveling remarkably large piles of elephant dung lost its charm and I started to lose my patience. The work was hot and tiring but after allowing myself a brief internal bitch session, I decided it was time to change my attitude.

I reminded myself that I came here to help the elephants in whatever capacity I was needed. I came because I was inspired by their stories, humbled by their resilience, and wanted to do something for them. The way I could do that was by planting trees, washing pumpkins and shoveling poop. I didn’t want to waste any of the time I had there being crabby; rather, I wanted to appreciate every moment I had at the park.

The most beautiful boys: Hope and Tong Suk

Were I to choose one highlight of the week, it would undoubtedly be a morning walk I took with Jodi, a long-time volunteer. Our walk ended up being mostly an extended conversation while observing Tong Suk, a young bull with a strong personality.

Tong Suk is magnificent. There is no better word to describe him. Others apply, certainly: young, ornery, strong, proud. But none suits him better than magnificent.

Because Tong Suk has never been through the pajaan, has never felt the end of a hook or nail gouge his thick but sensitive skin, he is fiercely independent and strong-willed. He is as close as it comes to a wild elephant in captivity at this park.

Hope and Tong Suk

Because he is wilder than the other elephants, and because of his gorgeous but deadly tusks, visitors do not spend much time around Tong Suk and he doesn’t join the other members of the herd for bath time at the river. The family group, which includes the babies Faa Mai and Chong Yim, are fond of Tong Suk, however, and regularly pay him visits.

Since my first visit to the park back in March, I have admired Tong Suk from afar. Though I’ve heard affectionate stories about how he’s “naughty,” acting up when he’s in musth (a period elephant bulls go through during which they are particularly sexually aggressive), I always felt a particular fondness for him and for Hope, another young bull who was rescued from the jungle by Lek when he was a baby. My delight knew no bounds when Hope meandered over for some downtime with his friend and I had the chance to observe them together.

The two young bulls, who went through a competitive phase during which they were kept away from one another, have become friends during their adolescence. Watching them share food and wrap their trunks around one another was truly wonderful. That the elephants are capable of such great affection for one another and yet also possess such tremendous strength was humbling and inspiring.

Afterthoughts

My feelings about leaving the park at the end of the week were mixed. On the one hand, I had had my fill of manual work and was ready to return to Chiang Mai. On the other, I knew I would miss the elephants. Though they seemed even wilder and more mysterious when I left than when I arrived, I felt a great deal of respect for them.

Dogs

The work being done at the ENP is important. The Asian elephant population in Thailand is seriously endangered. The people at the ENP aren’t just rescuing elephants who have been abused, they are trying to educate local communities about alternative ways of training the animals, to prevent the abuse from even happening.

Again, I’ve never considered myself an animal rights activist, but it is impossible to leave this place without being moved. Once you’ve learned about the emotional intelligence of elephants, seen what they are capable of and also what many of them have been through, it’s difficult to not feel passionate about this cause. As long as there is a market for elephant riding, painting, dancing and performances, elephants will be captured and forced to work against their will. Getting to see an elephant up close and touch them is amazing, but the more I learned, the more I appreciated Lek’s dream of a place where elephants can roam freely and safely, without human interaction or fear.

A moment of inspiration on the way out of Laos

Since first traveling in Southeast Asia earlier this year, I’ve taken a greater interest in the region, particularly, for some reason, in Burma. I’m not entirely sure what sparked the interest. Perhaps the sudden global focus on the small country, the mixed stories of great business opportunities and unspeakable horrors still being committed by the government against the Burmese people. I began to read books and articles about the country whenever I had the chance. But I still haven’t been, and up until a few days ago, had never spoken with anyone from there.

While volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park outside Chiang Mai a few weeks ago, I worked alongside Burmese staffers but because of the language barrier, was unable to communicate with them outside of enthusiastic smiles and a few English words here and there.

While in Laos on a visa run last week, I had the opportunity to speak with a Burmese woman who was waiting in Vientiane to have a Thai work visa processed. The meeting was unexpected and inspiring, and has stayed with me since returning to Thailand.

This woman had been waiting for nearly a week to have her visa processed, as a series of bureacratic frustrations had cropped up and delayed her getting the document. She told me that because she is Burmese, she is only allowed to apply for a Thai visa at the embassy in Vientiane one time, a fact of which she had been unaware. Now she was there for the second time, banking on the kindness of someone in the embassy to give her a pass and put the application through anyway.

We spoke for a bit while I waited for my ride back to the border and out of Laos. She was hoping the additional documents she needed for her application would come through by the next day, and was looking at another four days in Laos, minimum. She laughed as she described her circumstances, in the way only a person who has accepted the frustrations of her situation and is trying to make the most of them does.

She told me a bit about her life in Burma, and how she had come to be applying for a Thai work visa in Laos in the first place.

She grew up in a rural area in Burma, and moved to Yangon to pursue her education. But, she told me, the cost of living was so high she needed to get a job, which meant extremely long days of work and study. She eventually crossed the border into Thailand and now works at a clinic in Mae Sot that serves Burmese refugees.

In addition to her day job and volunteer work, she is also studying online for a degree in sociology from an Australian university. But because she is still learning English, she is essentially studying a new language as well as working toward her degree.

Hearing her story prompted me to reflect on some of my own complaints about work in the past few months. That I was uninspired, unmotivated, felt directionless at times, unsure of what I want to come next. Suddenly I felt grateful to be in the position I am, to be more or less able to move wherever I want, and have the freedom and flexibility to do work I enjoy. Between visa issues, classes, work and personal demands, this woman said she “can’t see past tomorrow;” she has to go one day at a time.

Our conversation turned to life in her native country, and the changes, or lack thereof, seen in Burma since its opening up during the past year and a half.

“Maybe at the higher levels there has been change. But most people don’t see any difference. Life is still difficult,” she said. She added that it is extremely difficult for her to complete her studies or get any work done while in Burma, due to electricity shortages and slow, unreliable internet. Again, I thought about my own life and how if the wifi where I’m working goes down for five minutes, I’m aggravated and put out. And again, I realized I'm far more fortunate than I tend to appreciate.

“There is no trust,” she went on to say of the notoriously violent and repressive government. “For a long time in Burma, the people do not trust the government. Even when there is a cease-fire, the people don’t believe the soldiers won’t do anything.”

Our meeting was brief, but I was grateful to have had the opportunity to talk with this woman. Her determination to educate herself, help other people and her willingness to speak honestly about her hardships were humbling and inspiring.

Tedium, thy name is visa run: a brief and hectic journey to Vientiane

Visa runs have never fallen under the category of what I’d call a good time. They tend to be expensive, time-consuming, uncomfortable and exhausting. But they are necessary for living in and traveling through much of Asia, so I’ve grudgingly accepted them as part of life. I’ve been hanging out in Chiang Mai, Thailand, since late July, and it occurred to me recently that I had some decisions to make. I had been granted a 30-day stay upon flying into Bangkok, and then made two visa runs to Mae Sai, at the Thai-Burmese border, to get new exit/entry stamps that gave me an additional 15 days in the country each time.

Concerned that the next go at Mae Sai would result in a warning about overstaying my welcome in the Thai Kingdom, or a refusal for a new stamp, I realized the time had come. Either I start making my way back to Beijing or apply for a longer-term visa, which would give me up to two more months in the country and spare me the odyssey of sitting in a cramped van with a sordid collection of expats and travelers twice a month.

Balcony view of Vientiane

Not quite ready to return to Beijing, in part due to new visa laws in China that will make getting back into the country more expensive and more of a hassle, I decided to go for a two-month Thai tourist visa.

Of course, you can’t just apply for a new visa from inside Thailand. That would be silly. In order to obtain this all-important travel document, I’d have to leave the country and apply at a Thai embassy elsewhere, such as Malaysia or Laos.

I had researched this process on and off for the past month or so, and to my dismay, had to admit there’d be no way of doing the run for cheaper than a few hundred dollars. I decided to cross the border into Laos because it seemed to be the closest and least expensive way to get this business done.

Thanks to a detailed post at Got Passport, I had some idea of what the trip would involve. I opted to pay a tour company to get me across the border and back, as I didn’t want to be haggling with tuk-tuk drivers at the crossing on my own at six in the morning. A friend and I tried the go-it-alone for as cheap as possible approach when doing a run in Mongolia, and I don’t care to repeat the experience of being ripped off and creeped out before it’s even noon.

I booked a roundtrip ticket from Chiang Mai to Vientiane, Laos, with Aya Service, a company I had used when visiting Pai, in northern Thailand, and for border runs to Mae Sai. They’re cheap and seemed reliable so I was willing to give them a shot for the longer trip. The cost was 1,500 baht, or about $49USD, which included service to the border, breakfast at their office in Nong Khai near the Thai-Laos border, Laos visa assistance, transportation to the Thai embassy in Vientiane, and the trip back to Chiang Mai. Not too bad.

Following the Got Passport recommendations, and those found on other travel sites, I had new visa photos taken ahead of the trip (you can get four for 100 baht at the Kodak store on Rathvithi Rd. in Chiang Mai, across from Zoe in Yellow) and exchanged some baht for U.S. dollars. The Laos visa costs 1,500 baht, or $35, so it’s cheaper to pay in American currency. I also made copies of my passport and debit card for the whopping price of 6 baht ($0.19), stopped into a 7-Eleven to load up on water and some snacks for the trip and I was good to go.

Having ridden a number of overnight buses in Thailand and Malaysia before, I wasn’t expecting great things from an 11-hour overnight trip in a minivan but hoped for the best.

Silly, silly me.

Visa runs are all hell

At 7 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, the Aya Service van rolled to a stop outside the guesthouse where I had been staying in Chiang Mai. I wasn’t wild about having to do this visa run, but I was excited to see a bit of Vientiane while waiting for the visa to be processed.

About 20 minutes into the bus ride, my enthusiasm began to give way to frustration, aggravation and a dread of the night to come.

Passengers in Vientiane

My fellow passengers included five fratty-sounding Canadian guys who were slightly obnoxious but mostly tolerable throughout the ride.

Then there was an Israeli woman who was nice enough, except that she seemed to have no idea what was going on at any given time and kept demanding answers from Thai and Laotian people who seemed to be doing their best to ignore her.

Then there were my fellow visa runners: a middle-aged German man who is engaged to a Thai woman with whom he has just had a son; a Filipino man who is visiting his daughter and grandchildren in Chiang Mai; and another, younger German guy who is studying in Chiang Mai. I continue to be grateful that these three all turned out to be nice and normal, as they made the entire visa experience more bearable.

The ride was more or less excruciating. No amount of seat reclining, foot propping, twisting or turning could make sleeping in that van comfortable. To add to the fun, a mysterious odor pervaded the van for most of the trip. We never identified the source, though it at turns smelled like sweaty feet, vomit and unwashed rear end. Yummy.

Admittedly, I was intensely cranky by the time we arrived at Aya Services office in Nong Khai. I was aggravated by having to shell out the money for not only a new Thai visa, but one for Laos as well; every inch of my body ached and my skin had a sheen of sweat over it that felt two inches thick. (Did I mention that visa runs often leave you feeling utterly filthy and smelly? Well, they do. Prepare yourself, if you ever make such a trip.)

An Aya staffer directed us to the second floor of the office to enjoy a breakfast of egg sandwiches and coffee before we went on to the border. The fun was only beginning.

Crossing the Border

Before leaving Thailand to head into Laos, we had to fill out Laos visa applications. This is a particularly sore subject for me. It would be one thing if I was planning to travel in Laos for any considerable length of time, but I was buying this visa, which takes up an entire page in my passport, for one day. Someone on a visa forum I was reading recently referred to the entire visa scheme as a “cash cow,” an entirely apt way of describing it. Every government in the world that requires visas for entering the country has an amazing racket going: the cost of the visas, the charge for overstaying the visa, and the nickel and diming that goes into the details, such as the costs for crossing the Friendship Bridge, or making additional copies at the embassy. Nevermind that those costs are usually small; they add up after awhile.

Sunset on the Mekong

We boarded another minivan, this one smaller and older than our ride from the night before. Two minutes down the road, we stopped at Thai immigration to get exit stamps. Then it was back onto the van for a quick ride across the Friendship Bridge and we found ourselves standing in line to apply for the Laos visa on arrival.

This was a fairly painless process, but a tedious one. You go up to a counter, fork over your application, passport and money - the visa itself is $35, but you’re charged an additional dollar for crossing the Friendship Bridge, which you pay at immigration. About 20 minutes later, our passports were returned to us. I suspect we would have gotten them sooner had the woman in the office not been fixated on a television program, so much so that the officer collecting the passports had to keep reminding her to get back to work.

Once we had all received our Laos visas, we boarded a songthaew, or rickety version of a pick-up truck. After a short ride into Vientiane, the driver deposited the four of us visa-runners in front of the Thai embassy, where there were plenty of opportunistic businessmen willing to help us fill out the appropriate forms and make copies of the necessary documents before entering the embassy. It cost me 40 baht, a little more than $1, to have one of these guys make copies of my Laos visa and advise me on filling out the Thai application form. It may seem a little silly to need assistance with something like that, but when applying for any visa, you want to make sure all of the necessary boxes are checked and all information is complete, lest you find yourself having to go through the whole process again.

Once inside the embassy complex, the two German guys and the Filipino man and I took numbers to determine our places in line and waited with a crowd of about 20 or 30 other people to drop off our applications. It was only about 9:15 a.m. Not too bad, I thought. I’ll drop this off, find somewhere to have breakfast and have a wander around the city. I was determined to enjoy what I could of Vientiane, and make the most of the opportunity to see a new capital city.

About 30 minutes later, my number was called. I approached the window, smiled at the decidedly unfriendly clerk, and handed her my passport. She scanned the pages and frowned.

“Your passport is full. No pages left.”

“There are three free pages at the back,” I insisted.

She shook her head and handed me back the passport. “Not visa pages.”

I wanted to scream. I just knew something was going to go wrong. If living in China teaches you anything, it’s that nothing is easy or goes as planned. Apparently this lesson was going to carry over to Laos.

“What can I do?”

“You have to go to American embassy, add pages.”

OK, that’s not so bad, I thought. A hassle, but I was going to do that while in Chiang Mai anyway, so it’s not the end of the world.

The only problem? The Thai embassy closes at noon. It was nearly 10, and I was sure getting anything done at the American embassy was going to take at least several hours.

“What if I can’t get back by noon? Can you rush to get the visa processed tomorrow?”

She smirked. “No. Can get Friday.”

Of course.

Seeing that I’d get no more help from her, I grabbed my bags and headed out to look for a tuk-tuk to take me to the embassy. Just as I was leaving, the sky opened up with a soaking downpour. I would have laughed if I wasn’t on the verge of tears/violent rage.

Local vendors, Vientiane

Finding a tuk-tuk driver proved simple enough and he got me to the American embassy in about 10 minutes and said he’d wait outside and drive me back to the Thai embassy. Fine, great, whatever. At that point, I suspected he was ripping me off by charging me 400 baht (you can use Laos kip, Thai baht, USD and even Euros at a number of places in Vientiane), even with the return trip, but beggars can’t be choosers and I really needed to get this visa application done that day. I was booked on the return bus to Chiang Mai for the next night, and besides, even though I had only been in Vientiane a couple of hours, I already felt certain I didn’t want to spend an extra night there.

Once inside the American embassy, I told the Laotian employees at security that I urgently needed to add pages to my passport.

The woman nodded.

“Ah, yes, but you will have to call inside and ask for special permission. You need to have an appointment.”

Of course you do.

“Who can I call? I’m only here one night, I need to apply for this visa today.”

She put me through to a receptionist inside the embassy. I explained the situation and the kind-sounding woman on the other end of the line spoke with her boss and then gave me permission to come in.

“We can do this, adding pages to your passport today, but we charge a fee. Eighty-two dollars or the equivalent in kip.”

“I see. I only have Thai baht. Will you take that?”

“No, we don’t take Thai baht. Only dollars or kip.”

It makes sense. I get it. Why would they take Thai baht at an American embassy in Laos? That didn’t make it any less frustrating.

Back to the tuk-tuk I sprinted and the driver took me to a money exchange shop. Whether I got the best rate possible, I don’t know and I highly doubt it, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to get this mess over with.

Then it was back to the American embassy, where things went surprisingly smoothly. I paid the fee of $82 and within 10 minutes, my passport was returned to me with 48 new visa pages. That should last me a little while.

Next up: time to rush back to the Thai embassy, where I took another number and waited to be called. When I made it back up to the counter, the surly female clerk was still on duty. She was as unfriendly as she had been an hour and a half before. I’d get no help or reassurance from her. Time to submit the application, walk away and hope for the best.

Mahosot Hospital

Of course, it wasn’t over yet. I had to go to a room inside the embassy to wait for my number to be called so I could pay the visa fee (1,000 baht, about $32).

Once I was paid up, I made my way to the Bahay Pynoy restaurant and guest house where Bohn and Lars, the Filipino man and younger German guy, were staying and asked for a room. We had all arranged to stay at the same guest house and travel back across the border together the next day. The woman at the desk quoted me 500 baht for a single room, which I had read was a standard price. Still, doesn’t hurt to try for a discount.

“Um, yes, I can offer you one room at 400 baht,” she told me. “But you can’t use the bathroom.”

“Why not?”

“Um, doesn’t work. But you can use the shower.”

“But the toilet doesn’t work?”

She giggled nervously.

“You mean it doesn’t flush? How about if I just pour water down it, will that work?”

More nervous giggles. “Yes, it’s OK.”

Fine. I can live with that. Not having a flushing toilet isn’t my favorite thing about a room but I’m OK with going Thai style for a night and tossing a few buckets of water down to make it flush. No problem.

She leads me up to the room, which is bigger than I expected. Almost immediately, I flop down onto the bed and pass out for the next three hours. So much for sightseeing all afternoon. The bus ride, the back and forth between immigration and the embassies - I needed a nap.

When I woke up around 3:30, I was pleased to see the rain had stopped and the sun had come back out. It was extremely hot in Vientiane - heavy, sticky air and almost no breeze. But my plan was to head to the Mekong River so perhaps there’d be some relief there.

First, though, I needed to brush my teeth and pull my sweaty self together so I decided to inspect the bathroom. At first glance, it appeared clean enough. Then I flipped open the lid to the toilet.

The issue, it turned out, was not that the flushing apparatus didn’t work. It was that the toilet was completely clogged with an alarming amount of human fecal matter.

So. That’s great, I thought. I’m spending the night in a room with a toilet filled with someone else’s poop. That’s completely sanitary and pleasant, I am sure. It really is just going to be one those days, huh?

But I had few choices. The small guest house was completely booked and I had already locked myself in for the night. Besides, there was a bathroom downstairs. How bad could it be to walk down three flights of stairs to a public restroom every time you need to use the toilet? It's not like I haven't done that in hostels before.

Nevermind, I told myself. It’s one night. This is completely gross, but it’s only one night.

Grabbing my camera and some cash, I headed out to see Vientiane.

Beerlao

The one thing I wanted to do while in Laos’ capital was see the Mekong River. Various travel blogs and forums had said that if you do nothing else, be sure to get to the Mekong by sunset, grab yourself a Beerlao and enjoy. And by that point, I really needed a beer.

As I stood on a street corner pondering a map, I noticed Lars, the young German guy from the minivan, standing a few feet away, also pondering a map. Turned out we were on the same mission, to get out of the hotel and see some of the city. We both wanted to see the Mekong so we set off together.

We ended up walking the entire way, which only took about 30 minutes or so, and saw different sides of the city. Laos used to be a French colony, so a number of street and building signs are still in French, and some of the older generation speak French.

One thing I noticed about Vientiane was that there seemed to be a tradition of beautiful European architecture on many of the houses and storefronts, but they have fallen into filth and disrepair. Some are covered up by store banners while others just look sad and shabby, in desperate need of some strong cleaner, paint and restoration.

Down by the river, we passed the Mahosot Hospital, a place that inspires zero confidence when it comes to health care. The building is old and dingy-looking and the quick glimpse I got into the emergency room looked the same. The wheelchairs appeared rickety and outdated and there was a drabness to the entire place.

Before leaving Chiang Mai for Vientiane, I had researched hospitals and medical facilities in the city and came up with this gem on the expat site J&C Lao: “Unfortunately, the local hospitals are still a 'no-go' for foreigners due their lack of the most basic equipment.” If Mahosot Hospital was any indication, I certainly believe that.

Just beyond the hospital lay the riverfront and I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of excitement. I have long wanted to see the Mekong River and was delighted that I was finally getting the chance. The sun was just beginning to set, so I had made it in time. Now to get that beer…

Lars and I walked along the waterfront, which is pretty well-developed, at least in this part of town. There is also a lovely park and playground and a decent-sized market where you can buy goods such as clothes and jewelery, as well as street food and very cheap beer.

We each bought a cold Beerlao for about $1 a piece and had a seat near the riverbank, where a number of other people had gathered as well.

I can’t say I found the Mekong particularly beautiful, but it is massive and, for me at least, it was something to behold. I’m sure there are better vantage points and pleasanter ways to experience it, but I was content simply to have made it there and be able to see it at all.

On the way back to the guest house, we wandered through the city center, which was cleaner and more attractive than the area near the Thai embassy. The city struck me as a quiet capital; despite some nice-looking restaurants and bars, there didn’t seem to be many people in them, though it was a Wednesday night so that might explain it.

After a brief dinner of tasty noodle soup at a roadside stand, I headed back to my tainted hotel room and was asleep by 9:30.

The long road back

The next morning, I wandered around Vientiane a bit more, shooting photos and seeking inspiration. But I was antsy to be on the way back to Chiang Mai.

Visa pick-up time at the embassy is between 1–3 p.m. and by the time it rolled around, I was counting the minutes until we left. I was craving the comforts and familiarity of Chiang Mai (I may have developed a bit of an attachment to that city) and was tired of all the bureaucratic bullshit through which I had been wading the past few days.

Monks near the Mekong

Naturally, the embassy at the gates didn’t open until 20 past 1, so all visa applicants got to queue outside like beggars, which in some ways we were, since we were at the mercy of the Thai government. Once inside, things moved quickly enough, though I couldn’t help but think, as I observed the stack of passports and paperwork being shuffled around behind the counter, that this was a magnificently inefficient system and that people surely have gone insane from dealing with less.

The ride out of Vientiane was mostly uneventful, but nearly as tedious as the rest. Bohn had arranged to have a tuk-tuk driver pick up all three of us and take us to the border for 100 baht a person - not a bad deal, since we had been told it’d be 200–300 if we traveled on our own. Some haggling needed to be done when the driver arrived, however. Upon seeing Lars and me, he told Bohn that it would be 300 per person for each of us, 200 for Bohn. Lars and I suspected we got the price hike for being white foreigners, but Bohn insisted that the driver stick to the original agreement and we got the discounted rate.

We schlepped across the Laos border, got our exit stamps, then boarded a bus to Thai immigration for 20 baht.

Once through Thai immigration, we called Aya Service, since they had said they’d send a car to pick us up, but that turned out to be false information. So we walked back to the office and essentially all collapsed on the couches in their waiting area once inside. All that was left to do: wait three hours for our bus to arrive, then board for the 11-hour journey back to Chiang Mai. So close to home, yet so far away.

We got lucky on the ride home. There were only five passengers and we each got a row to ourselves to spread out and sleep. What an amazing difference from the ride there.

Overall Impressions of Vientiane and the visa process

Spending one night in a city is hardly enough time to judge it justly, but my initial impression of Laos wasn’t an excellent one. Seeing the Mekong was cool and there was some lovely architecture to observe, but on the whole, Vientiane was quite dirty and I got more of a “third world” feeling during my brief time there than I have in most other places I’ve been in Southeast Asia.

However, I wouldn’t rule out taking a longer trip through Laos in the future. I’ve heard that Luang Prabang is exceptionally beautiful, and I know a lot of people love the backpacker scene in Vang Vieng, though I am less keen to go there than I used to be after hearing stories about traveler deaths and raids there. And a number of travelers have told me Laos is their favorite place in Southeast Asia, so I’m quite open to learning more about the country and seeing more of it.

Patuxay, Victory Arch

Of course, the entire experience was tainted by my firm belief that visa runs are an enormous racket, and the purest example of extortion one can find. No amount of chipperly resolving to get excited about seeing a new city between trips to the embassy can dull the fury at having to shell out hundreds of dollars just to be a tourist for another couple of months.

I usually don’t waste too much energy getting riled up about visa runs and fees because I recognize that they are a part of life when living overseas, especially in Asia. I’ve been dealing with these issues every few months for the past two and a half years, and while I don’t like it, I try to waste as little time as possible dwelling on it.

It’s only when I’m tired, sweaty, mosquito-bitten 100 times over, and utterly at my wit's end with people hollering “Tuk-tuk! Where you go, miss? Tuk-tuk! Border!” every time I walk down the street, that I feel the appropriate rage and sense of defeat at the reality of the situation.

Oh well. At least I got to enjoy my Beerlao.

Things I'm learning as a solo traveler

Since departing from Beijing about two and a half weeks ago, I have essentially been a solo traveler. To my delight, two of my close friends happened to be in Thailand the same time I landed here so I was able to spend some time with them and have been meeting some lovely people along the way.

But for the most part, I’ve been alone.

This alone-ness was kind of the point of the trip, to spend a couple of months relaxing, journaling, identifying my own preferences, developing healthy habits on my own. Besides, I had always wanted to do a trip by myself because I thought it would be a great growth experience. So far, it has been.

But it’s been some other things, too.

The Downsides

For one thing, it gets a little lonely. Sometimes when I’m sitting alone in my guest room reading or watching TV at night, I find myself wishing I had someone to talk to or grab a beer with. Someone to discuss the events of the day with. Or just someone to sit around and watch “How I Met Your Mother” with me on the occasional night in.

Bungalow in Pai

Traveling alone has also proven to be a bit stressful. When you’re with other people, there’s always someone there to keep an eye on your bags in the bus station when you need to run to the bathroom or want to grab something to eat. There’s always someone with whom to cross-reference your packing list when you’re leaving a hostel and venturing off to a new city. And there’s someone to navigate tense, frustrating or nerve-wracking situations with you. Not that I’ve been in any extreme situations thus far, but there have been times when I’ve been aware that having a travel buddy would definitely alleviate the stress or anxiety - or at least there’d be someone to share the burden.

And traveling alone can be scary. Earlier today, I arrived in Chiang Rai, a city in the far north of Thailand that sits close to the border with Myanmar, or Burma. I’ve had mixed impressions of the city so far - the food is crazy expensive and most places were closed on a Sunday afternoon, though that may be due to the fact that it’s Thai Mother’s Day so I won’t judge it solely on my first impression. On the bright side, every person I’ve met here has been incredibly nice and welcoming.

However, a little while ago, shortly after waking up from a nap, I heard a sound not too far away that sounded like repeated gunshots. I took a breath, told myself the sound could have been any number of things and tried to put it from my mind. But 10 minutes later, the noises started up again, this time much closer to the guest house where I'm spending the night.

Now, the Thai family who runs the guest house was, and still is, sitting outside having dinner and none of them seemed disturbed by the noises so I’m sure it was not gunfire and if it was, it's not something I needed to worry about.

But for a few minutes, despite my rationalizations and reassurances to myself, I couldn’t shake a sense of fear and my mind flooded with horrifying scenarios of rebels or terrorists busting into this small village-esque neighborhood and slaughtering people to make some kind of political point. I felt sick to my stomach, going to extremes and thinking, “What would I do if that did happen? How would I escape? What if I’m shot? How would I get help? What if I die?”

The sounds eventually faded and then stopped altogether and all seems to be well outside. I know the noise probably wasn’t gunshots and that the probability of a rebel group shooting up this small guest house are likely slim. But it was another moment when I wished I had someone with me. Not if there really was an attack, because of course I would never want to see anyone I care about in danger. It just would have been nice to have a friendly face here tonight to reassure me that everything was fine and to help me calm those fears.

The Positives

There are a lot of up sides to traveling alone, too. Until this trip, the most traveling I had done on my own was my move from the United States to South Korea about two and a half years ago. With two layovers in a flight that took me to the other side of the world, I was traveling for two days, entirely by myself. I actually quite enjoyed it, as it gave me time to reflect and think about the new beginning ahead of me.

But as soon as I arrived in Seoul, I no longer felt alone. I became friends with several of my co-workers and immediately started going out and meeting people. All of the traveling or moving I have done since then has been with friends or to a city where friends are waiting. Which is awesome. I’m really grateful to have had people to travel and share experiences with. And knowing that moving to Beijing meant spending time with wonderful people I care about from the moment I landed was exciting and reassuring.

Pai River

Still, I always wanted to try traveling alone. I knew it would be a whole different ball game than going with other people and this trip I'm on now seemed like the ideal time to give it a try. Burned out and looking for some rest and just a space to heal and grow emotionally, coming to Thailand on my own seemed the obvious thing to do.

And aside from the occasional hiccup, it’s been wonderful. I’ve spent so much time journaling, going for walks, doing creative writing, trying new foods, seeking out new destinations and opportunities - all based completely on my interests and preferences.

Only two and a half weeks in, I’ve learned a great deal about myself. It turns out long bus rides through the beautiful Thai countryside make for rich reflection and self-conversation opportunities. Many thoughts and memories, some from the past few years and some from much farther back, have been coming up and I feel as though I am able to understand and process them in a new light.

The hours upon hours of just seeing where my mood or preferences have taken me have proven rich so far and I expect will become only more so as I work toward getting healthy and really being present and making the most of this trip.

Plus, I've just been having some fun adventures. Like renting a riverside bungalow by myself and learning that while reading in a hammock on your front porch is everything it's cracked up to be...living in a bamboo hut and sleeping under a mosquito net while animals crawl dangerously close to the cracks in your roof in the dead of night is maybe not as romantic or appealing as I once imagined.

Of course, I don’t want to be alone all the time. I love having my friends around and embrace the chance to spend time with them in a place as lovely as Thailand. I’ve been going to meet-up groups and getting to know some other travelers, which has been fun. But I am also learning more than ever the importance and value of “me” time and believe that by the end of this journey, I’ll be stronger and healthier as an individual and a better friend, listener, partner - a better everything - to those I care about.

And that will be a very good thing.

Embracing second chances

Five months ago, I wrote my first post on this blog. I had just set out on a month and a half long vacation to Malaysia and Thailand, and was simultaneously eager to visit new places and also burned out to the point of extremely unhealthy exhaustion. At the time, I declared that this was an opportunity for me to rejuvenate, get inspired and reconnect with myself.

The reality turned out somewhat different than that.

Through a combination of personal issues and diving back into work less than two weeks into vacation, the trip was far less relaxing and rejuvenating than I had expected. While I saw some incredible places and have some fond memories of the trip, I came back to China only slightly less burned out than I had been when I left.

While traveling, I dove headlong back into work before I had really had a chance to rest, took on new projects, overcommitted myself, and then was surprised when a couple of months later, things began to unravel. For real this time.

It started out as a few bad days - throbbing headaches, irritability, a feeling of boredom with my work and circumstances in general. "I just need more sleep," I told myself. "There's no reason to feel upset. It's just X thing that's stressing me out. I'm fine."

Then came the full body aches and the exhaustion that had me napping multiple times a day, reluctant to do much of anything that required me to leave my apartment.

I had to admit something was wrong. Some days were great, and I'd feel happy and enthusiastic about my life. Others were the exact opposite, and I'd find myself filled with shame for not doing better work, not being further along in my career, frustrated by certain aspects of my personal life, and above all, exhausted at every level.

Things weren't out of control, I knew. Yes, I was going through a tough time, but I could make changes, figure out the root of the problem. I made regular appointments with my therapist, which helped. But I also recognized that I needed a break. A real break.

It was 4 a.m. on a Monday and I sat on my couch crying, confiding in a friend about how I'd been feeling. I described the sensations of exhaustion and numbness, and a sense of being unmotivated and emotionally drained. Intellectually, I knew that there were a lot of things to celebrate in my life, and that there were a number of work projects I was doing that I loved and was proud to be working on.

Somewhere in my mind, I knew all of that was true, but I couldn't connect with it emotionally. Most of the time, I just wanted to curl up in my bed and hide.

"I just keep having this thought that I want to go away," I told my friend. "I want to be left alone for awhile, to really let things go and give myself a break."

"Maybe you should," he said. "Maybe you should just go somewhere and be by yourself for awhile."

The relief broke through as soon as he said that. It was exactly what I had been thinking privately in recent weeks. To go away somewhere, to give myself a second chance at that relaxing, rejuvenating vacation. To really spend time traveling, tasting, experiencing - not keeping one eye on the scenery, and one on my computer screen. A vacation during which I'm not spending most of my days holed up inside a cafe working or stressing about things beyond my control.

The more I talked about it, the more excited I became. Yes, I could go away somewhere beautiful, somewhere quiet, somewhere fresh. I could rest, meditate, write, meet people, return to exploring my love of photography. It all seemed so colorful and easy and right.

By the time I crawled into bed as the early morning light broke over Beijing, I had decided to go back to Thailand.

The relief and excitement I felt in the following weeks told me I had made the right decision.

Still, the similarities to the beginning of my last trip could not be ignored. Burned out, overworked, running on perilously few hours of sleep and emotionally drained, vacation was meant to be a sanctuary, an oasis toward which I had crawled, fueled by the promise of rest and relaxation. The same patterns that had brought me to that point last time are what had brought me to the same place again.

Vacation is not a cure-all for what ails me. I know that. I have to deal with the underlying issues that push me to take on excessive amounts of work, to set aside things I'm passionate about in favor of less worthy pursuits, to become preoccupied by things that are not emotionally healthy, to move so quickly through my days that I don't stop to reflect, breathe and keep perspective.

It hasn't been all rough, though. Things brightened as soon as I committed myself to taking a vacation and taking that time to myself. I found that, while I hadn't broken the old habits, I was becoming more conscious of them, being more proactive to start healthy ones and feeling more appreciative of the great people, relationships and circumstances in my life.

Despite the chaos surrounding the actual travel out of Beijing, I left on a positive emotional note, and feel confident that I'll be to open myself up to the good things and all the new opportunities there when I come back.

In the meantime, I am happily back in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and consciously appreciating this second chance I've given myself, and all of the opportunities it represents.

This is what a China day looks like

If you’ve ever spoken with someone who’s lived in China for any extended period of time, you’ve probably heard talk of “China days.” China days occur with varying frequency and are usually triggered when you try to accomplish what should be a straightforward, simple task but it turns into an hours-long debacle, and by the end of it, you’ve locked yourself in your apartment, shamelessly ordered a shameful amount of McDonald’s delivery and binge on hours of American television shows until your China frustration has subsided.

Today, as I made my second attempt to embark on a personal well-being trip to Thailand, I had perhaps my most extreme China day ever.

In truth, this “day” had started about 48 hours earlier, when I had shown up for my original flight to Bangkok, scheduled to depart Tuesday, July 24. Not 10 minutes after I had walked through the airport doors was I alerted by a bored-looking staffer that my flight had been canceled. Immediately irked by her nonchalance, I asked what she meant.

“Your flight canceled. Call the airline.”

She handed me a slip of paper that confirmed that my flight had been delayed due to bad weather. Apparently a typhoon had hit Hong Kong, where I had a layover. That's a fairly legitimate reason for a flight cancellation, so I called Hong Kong Airlines to inquire about getting on another flight. I struggled to maintain my composure as the woman who answered the phone repeated that she didn’t know when she would be able to book me on a new flight because “maybe there are no seats from today until July 28.” But, she suggested, maybe I could call the website from which I had purchased the ticket and pay for an upgrade.

I explained to her that it was not my fault that there was bad weather and that the flight had been canceled, and while I recognized it wasn’t hers, either, I should not have to pay additional money just to guarantee a seat sometime within the next week.

She laughed and repeated that she could not guarantee me a new seat any time this week, but would call if she could. Certain that I would be spending a lot of time arguing with her and her co-workers over the course of the next few days, I shuffled outside into the rain and hailed a taxi. The driver glanced at my bags, then at my red eyes (I might have cried a little out of frustration and sheer exhaustion before leaving the airport), and offered me a cigarette. I was touched, but declined. Foolish move. By 8 a.m. this morning, I was fiending for a cigarette. Or a drink. Or a strong opiate.

To my great surprise, a Hong Kong airlines rep. called a few hours after I left the airport on Tuesday and told me they had secured a seat for me on the same flight, two days later.

Great.

Well, because this is China, I prepared myself for the fact that things would probably not go smoothly. And of course, this was exactly the case, once again. It was like deja vu, getting to Terminal 2 of Beijing Capital Airport and immediately sensing that something was wrong.

For one thing, the lines seemed strangely long for 5:45 in the morning. For another, I observed quickly that the lines were not moving. Determined to not let a little delay in check-in harsh my vacation mellow, I pulled out my Kindle and started browsing the articles I had Instapapered for the flight. That, I thought, would keep me cheerful.

But when another 20 minutes had passed and still there had been no movement, I could feel the frustration stirring. I glanced around and saw that those who did make it to the front of the line came away still carrying their luggage and with a cheap voucher tucked into their passports where a boarding pass should be.

Of course, because this is China and because customer service essentially does not exist here, no one alerted us travelers to the fact that there was no 7:40 a.m. flight, the phantom trip for which we were all queuing.

I had to push my way to the front of the line and find out from another frustrated foreigner that “there is no flight. All these people are here for the same flight, and there just isn’t one. There's no plane.”

My roommate, who is British, once told me that she has observed that Americans are quick to complain and far more likely to be assertive and verbal about their displeasure than Brits or other Europeans are. At that moment, I was thankful that I had grown up in such a culture. I could have been waiting all day for a shred of information otherwise.

Among the other foreigners was a Canadian woman who was originally from Hong Kong. She looked to be in her late 40s or early 50s and was traveling with her husband. This was apparently her first trip to the mainland and she appeared thoroughly disgusted.

“If I had known this is what it’s like, we never would have come here,” she said. Excellent, I thought. A middle-aged Western woman of Chinese descent. She will get answers from these people. I'll team up with her. 

She and her husband managed to glean that Hong Kong airlines claimed there would be a flight at some point today, they just didn’t know when. The plane was still in Hong Kong and no one in Beijing seemed to have any clue as to when it would arrive here or when it would take off again.

Obviously, these things happen sometimes when traveling. Bad weather occurs, flights get canceled or delayed. It’s frustrating, but all part of the experience.

I can accept that, however disappointing it may be that my sorely needed and much-anticipated vacation has been delayed.

What I cannot accept is when the people who are supposed to be able to give reassurance and direction begin blatantly lying to shut customers up temporarily. This is a common trick employed in China; it just seems even more outrageous under these circumstances.

I told the woman at the counter that I had a connecting flight in Bangkok that I was clearly going to miss, given the circumstances. Was there another flight I could get on later in the day? Would the airline compensate me for a hotel room in Hong Kong if there was not?

She smiled nervously and said, “There is a departure time now, so go eat and when you come back, I will help you.”

“There’s a departure time?” Ten minutes earlier, an airline rep. had told us no one knew when we’d leave.

“Yes, there is.”

“What is it?”

“I’m not sure, but if you go eat and then come back, I will tell you and I will find out, maybe the flight to Bangkok will not leave.”

"But you just said there's a departure time."

"Just go and eat, and then come back here. I will tell you the departure time then."

All of this, I knew, was fabricated to get me away from the counter. I wasn’t through, but I could see I was getting nowhere with her for the time being.

The comrades in misery I had met while waiting in line and I headed to The Lucky Shamrock clutching our breakfast vouchers (I finally figured out what those passengers ahead of me in line had been carrying). You might expect that, after your flight on a particular airline has been canceled twice, said airline might consider comping you a night in a hotel while you wait out the storm or wait for an available plane. Not Hong Kong Airlines. Instead, they gave us vouchers to The Lucky Shamrock, which purported itself to be an Irish pub.

Now, I’ve lived in China long enough to know better, but my growling stomach and throbbing head could have really done well with some sturdy Irish food. Perhaps they'll have some sausages and eggs with toast, and a nice cup of tea, I thought hopefully. I could refuel before going back into battle.

Ha. Again, this is China. An airport eatery in Beijing that bills itself as an Irish pub is probably anything but, and such was the case with the Lucky Shamrock.

It turned out the vouchers were only good for 50RMB, which was less than the cost of most of the dishes on the menu. The photos of the English breakfast and the French toast looked like the little plastic toy foods I kept in my Playskool kitchen in 1987, but I was so hungry, I would have gone for it anyway … except, the kitchen was only serving two meals: Japanese noodles with strips of chicken that looked like flayed Vienna sausages and Japanese noodles with beef that smelled like wet dog.

So, no eggs, no toast, no bacon, and apparently, no juice, no large bottles of water…my companions were aghast but I just shrugged. This is so absolutely typical of China, I told them.

After powering through the bland noodles (and leaving the questionable beef simmering in the broth), I headed back downstairs to go another round with Hong Kong Airlines.

Evelyn, one of the foreigners I met, who had landed in Beijing after a 13-hour flight from Brussels only to find that her connecting flight to Hong Kong was non-existent, stood in line looking more upset than before.

“They’re saying there’s another typhoon in Hong Kong,” she told me. I started laughing. How convenient. There actually was a typhoon in Hong Kong earlier this week, but it had reportedly moved away from the city by the end of Tuesday night and when I checked the weather there before leaving the house this morning, the report was of light rain. I just checked again while writing this post, and the status is partially cloudy. Must have been a quick typhoon.

“They’re lying, I’m fairly sure,” I told her.

“Probably,” she said, but looked uncertain.

“No, really,” I said. “That’s standard in China. They don’t know what to say about the flight and everyone is angry, so they’ll lie and say there is another typhoon to get everyone to calm down.”

“But that’s just not true!” said a bewildered British man behind me. “I just came from Hong Kong. There’s no typhoon.”

Oh, China. It’d be funny if I didn’t feel like I was banging my head, hard, against a wall every three seconds.

I couldn’t take it anymore. Unfortunately for most of those people, they were actually heading to Hong Kong and needed to get there for business. For me, it was just a layover. My destination was Bangkok. There seemed to be no clear guarantee that Hong Kong Airlines would get me there.

So I decided to hedge my bets on Air China. I walked back out of the check-in area to the international ticket office, where a French man was semi-good-naturedly, semi-expasperatedly trying to secure seats on a flight for him and his wife, after they had been bumped from their original flight a few days earlier.

I felt his pain. As I stood listening, and the minutes dragged on, I must have looked increasingly miserable because a staffer standing next to the counter asked what was wrong and if he could help me.

I tried to be calm but my guess is that I came across a little bitchy and shrill. I told him that Hong Kong Airlines had been useless and would not give any information, assistance or support even though everyone was waiting for their flights.

“I just want to go to Bangkok,” I said, almost pleading. “Are there any other flights there today that don’t go through Hong Kong?”

As it turned out, there was one. A 7:35 p.m. direct flight from Beijing to Bangkok.

I hustled back to the Hong Kong Airlines check-in.

“Can I still cancel my reservation?” (They had offered that option earlier in the day: cancel your reservation with a refund, or wait it out and hope a plane arrives).

“No cancel.”

“No cancel? But I saw you let another passenger do it earlier.”

“No cancel. Just delayed.”

“Right, the flight is delayed. But I don’t want to be on it. I just want my money back.”

“Refund or wait?”

“Refund. I just want a refund.”

They gave me some paperwork and promised I would get a full refund for my ticket. I hope that wasn’t another lie, because the cost of my new ticket was not even close to cheap. I’m sure I’ll have a nice freak out over that tomorrow but for the moment, I’m too exhausted to focus on it, and have ill-placed faith that I will get back the money I spent on the original ticket. All I knew in the moment was that I needed to get out of China for my mental and emotional health and for practical reasons - my visa expires tomorrow and seeing as I had no idea when Hong Kong Airlines was actually going to schedule a flight that would make it out of Beijing, I had to take desperate measures.

If China is done screwing me around, I will be in Bangkok by sometime tonight. If not, I’ll probably be slinking around the duty-free, spending my dwindling cash on something strong and alcoholic to make me forget I’m still in China and not relaxing on a massage table - or even better, watching “The Dark Knight Rises” - in Thailand.

On Chen Guangcheng, human nature and despair

So you know how sometimes something enters your consciousness and lodges itself there until it consumes your thinking and forces you to pause and contemplate life for a moment? That happened to me a couple of weeks ago. For days, news and rumors about the whereabouts and treatment of Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese activist who escaped house arrest in Shandong province and came to the American embassy in Beijing seeking assistance, dominated Western media reports about China.

Something about the case fascinated and haunted me. I followed it obsessively on Twitter and scoured news sites for fresh information every day. I even ended up writing a piece on the Chinese media’s initial blackout on the situation.

Sometime during that week, I was walking along a crowded street in the middle of Sanlitun, a popular foreigner-friendly neighborhood in Beijing, pondering the fact that not far from where I stood, Chen Guangcheng sat in a nearby hospital in the middle of this diplomatic shitstorm, not knowing his fate or that of his family.

Suddenly, a wave of despair struck me and stopped me in my tracks. Contemplating the stories I had read about the situation — threats that Chen’s wife would be beaten to death, fears for the safety of his family and those who had helped him escape his unjust house arrest — I felt utterly sickened by the depths to which people can sink in their treatment of each other.

It wasn’t just about Chen. It was about the sadnesses and tragedies I witness all the time. Children chastised and ignored by parents who refuse to put down their phones even while they are out having a meal together. Couples screaming at each other to the point of tears. Drunk, irrational brutes tackling each other along the sidewalks.

It’s also not just about China. While abuse and irrationality thrive in this culture, the people here are not alone in their transgressions. Cruelty, unkindness and injustice exist everywhere. Chen Guangcheng is but one person who defied an unjust system and paid dearly for it. How many other people disappear or are murdered for a similar offense all the time?

Beyond that, I thought about the way people treat even those closest to them, the people they claim to admire and love. How many lies, hurtful words, cruel gestures are made to those closest to us all the time? How many times do I end up acting out and hurting those I care about the most? How much are we all products of vicious, wounding behaviors?

Generally speaking, I take an optimistic view toward humanity, perhaps because it feels so hopeless and depressing not to. I believe people are good and capable of beautiful, marvelous, inspiring behaviors. I know they are because I’ve witnessed a great deal of beauty in this world as well.

But there are times, as on that night, when I could not help feeling a deep, raw despair that even after so many centuries spent evolving and creating and advancing as a species, people still haven’t learned to live with kindness and warmth and generosity, and can still treat each other in unspeakably cruel ways time and time again.

A Somber Afternoon in Koh Phi Phi

I've been in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand for about a week, and the experience thus far has proven to be full of beautiful beach landscapes, a neverending Spring Break party scene (which is not quite as charming as it sounds, depending on your perspective) and moments ripe for self-reflection. A few days ago, however, I stumbled upon something that took my thoughts outside of myself, for a moment anyway.

I was about to enter a quiet beachside bar to check out their happy hour situation, when I spotted a sign for the Phi Phi Tsunami Memorial Park. I had already passed numerous tsunami evacuation route signs during my walk, so I had already been thinking about the tsunami that hit Thailand in December 2004. Up to this point, those thoughts had mostly been of the "I know it's unlikely, but what would we do if a tsunami hit while we were here? Would I be able to get to safety? What if that's how I die? Is the evacuation route actually of use to anyone or do most people die anyway?" variety.

The memorial park was quite small: a few thick overgrown flower bushes, three benches and a stone memorial covered in plaques naming those who had died. Aside from three cats sleeping on the benches, I was alone in the park.

As I stood in front of the small memorial, I started to get that sick feeling in my stomach. That vaguely nauseous one that creeps into the gut when presented with the reality of death, and of lives that ended abruptly, without any warning. 

A handful of pictures and letters had been placed around the memorial by loved ones who had come to pay their respects. The photos are now faded from the elements, but most of the faces are still visible, and haunting.

One plaque described a man and woman as "missing in the tsunami disaster on 26th December 2004." Somehow that chilled me more than if it had simply said "died in the tsunami of Dec. 2004." Immediately I imagined the man and woman, whose names had been Craig and Barbara. I imagined what death had been like for them, and for all the others listed there. How their bodies had washed away, and were never seen again by those who loved them.

The tragedy felt immense to me. I found myself crying as I read the other notes and inscriptions that had been left, ones that recalled a man named Jeremy's sense of humor or one survivor's hope that he would live a life of which those who had perished would be proud. 

The three benches had been purchased in honor of two young men who died that day in Koh Phi Phi. One's name was Connor. His parents had purchased not only the benches, but another plaque as well. There was an inscription promising to honor his memory, and below that a photo. The tears welled again as I looked at the picture. It was a graduation portrait, perhaps from university. He was probably about the same age as me.

The other bench bore simply the name of another young man, James, and below it the word "Irreplaceable." He was only two years older than me.

The stories, and the photos, went on. Just beyond the small park was the water, calm and beautiful, receding to low tide. I thought of all the people I had just seen on the beach, all also young, on holiday, happy, partying, most likely all with the expectation that they'd make it home, or on to their next destination, safely from Koh Phi Phi. I thought of Will, and Kelly and Phil, who were off snorkeling for the afternoon. I thought of myself.

I shuddered imagining the morning that tsunami hit, the fear, the panic, the desperation that must have seized people. I cried thinking about lives ended so quickly. One night you're out playing beer bong and socializing at tacky Banana bar, the next you're dying, killed by a force of nature you neither expected nor could have escaped.

As so often happens in those moments, the mild irritations I had been nursing earlier in the day seemed far less important than they had 15 minutes ago. The idea that I could die tomorrow has always been one that helps shift my priorities into perspective. I know it's cliche, but it's a good way of recognizing what's actually good and bad in your life, and what's absolutely of the highest importance imaginable and what doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things.

I tried not to dwell on the thought the rest of the day, though. I tried instead to be present and appreciate the incredible beauty surrounding me. Sure there were a few empty beer bottles sullying the otherwise lovely flower bushes, and sure it would have been more pleasant if the beach had been a little emptier and less riddled with drunk Euros today, but are those really problems to be dwelled on? No.

The rest of the day I spent indulging innocent whims: walking and shooting photos along a seaview path, savoring a glass of chilled white wine while lounging in a hammock and reading A Dance With Dragons as the sun began to set over the water. They were small pleasures but they mattered. I decided then that if I should have the great misfortunate to meet my end in some tragic way, the way those poor souls when the tsunami hit Koh Phi Phi, I would like to know that the day before, I paused for at least a moment to remember what was important and to be present for the little things that make up a life.

This one day in Borneo...

I considered writing about all manner of self-knowledge related topics tonight, but none compared with the glory that has been the past couple of days. This day in particular has been amazing and because I have felt so present and aware for it, I simply had to celebrate it with a blog post, if only for my own records. We've been in Sukau, a small village in the Sabah half of Borneo, for the past couple of days. Sukau is right in the jungle, set along the banks of the Kinabatangan River. After days of schlepping from one small and somewhat underwhelming city to the next, Sukau held great promise as a haven of jungle adventuring, and it has delivered.

Today begin with breakfast in the lodge restaurant overlooking the river. Afterward, Phil, Will, Kelly and I joined a group of fellow foreigners for a trek through the Kinabatangan rainforest. I'm trying really hard to adjust to a backpacking lifestyle, but I will freely admit that I was grossly unprepared for this part of the adventure. I ended up wearing two pairs of leggings, a linen hoodie and fuzzy socks with white tigers on them to wander the rainforest. Perhaps not the most practical get-up, but it sufficed.

The trek began with a boat ride out to the path we would take. By the time we stepped into the boat that carried us to this jungle path, we were a motley crew: one of us had just gotten sick, presumably from the food or the excessive amounts of mosquito and leech repellant with which we had been dousing ourselves; one looked the part of the consummate tourist, down to a cheerfully silly hat purchased in one of the aforementioned Borneo cities; one wore enormous garbage bags over his shoes instead of rubber boots because the lodge had none big enough to fit him; and one (namely me) had just slipped and fallen down a set of stairs, leaving me a little embarrassed, slightly bruised and a lot wary of how effective my boots were going to be in the jungle mud if they couldn't withstand a slippery staircase.

Nonetheless, we were a cheerful bunch. And the jungle trek was incredible.

Because it had down poured during the early morning, the mud was thick and the water reached calf-high in some places. My boots did indeed fail me, but not because the terrain was too slippery. They simply weren't tall enough for this trek, and I ended up with several inches of water in my boots, which did nothing to ease my fear of being sucked on by leeches.

We didn't see much wildlife, though our guide did point out elephant tracks, some interesting and sweet-smelling insects, and some fascinating types of fungi. But just being in the rainforest, sloshing through the mud as it sucked at our boots, navigating our way through the vines and trees, was amazing. I'm not sure I fully appreciated the moment just then, but the thought occurred to me that some day, I will look back on this trip and remember that time I walked through a Borneo rainforest and be quite happy that I had this opportunity.

Later on, we went on an afternoon cruise down the river — the lodge where we are staying does a lot of these — and saw gorgeous birds and families of proboscis monkeys. The highlight of the trip for me was seeing an orangutan swinging through the treetops. I absolutely love orangutans, so seeing one in the wild was wonderful.

As if all of this were not enough, we enjoyed a great dinner of curried beef, basmati rice and fresh fruit, followed by an evening cruise that was almost equally as excellent as the afternoon one. The boys passed on this one but Kelly and I decided to go, and I was so glad we did. We saw owls and kingfishers, and then, just before heading back to the lodge, we spotted a yellow and black striped cat snake. This was particularly cool because we watched it slither up and down branches, its forked tongue darting out every few seconds. It was beautiful, and fascinating. That alone would have made the cruise worth it, but on the ride back, the early evening clouds parted enough for us to catch a glimpse of stars that perfectly ended a wonderful day.

The day was full of beauty and wonder and excitement and color and vibrant life that by the end of it, I felt, "Today is a day when I have truly lived." I'd like to live in a way that allows me to feel that every day.

The only downside to all of this came as I was changing for bed, when I noticed a rust-colored stain on one side of my my pale pink bra. That doesn't seem right. What happened there? Turning to face the mirror, I spotted three small red bite marks beneath my right arm.

Leeches.

It appears the little bastards got me after all. The leeches we saw today apparently feast until they're full and then fall off their prey to be on their way, but since I obviously didn't catch them while they were sucking my blood, I think it's safe to say that they made a good meal out of me. But thanks to Kelly's quick research on the danger of leech bites (it's minimal) and the tube of triple antibiotic ointment Will carries in his travel bag, crisis was averted and I'm confident the bites will be nothing more than a good story in the end.

There's also a nice welt on my lower back from my tumble down the steps, and a slight rash that's broken out beneath my chin (which I now realize could be leech-bite related). But somehow none of this bothers me. In fact, it only seems right to leave Borneo with a few battle scars. It's a small price to pay for all the wonder I've experienced while I've been here.

To walk free and own no superior

One of my stated goals of this vacation was to delve deeper into my own personality, and gain greater insight into who I am and what uniquely characterizes me. There have been a number of topics rising toward the top of the priority list, and I made some good progress on one today. Because I've spent time in, and benefitted greatly from, Internal Family Systems therapy, my journaling and self-knowledge work often involve talking with different "parts" of myself, or different aspects of my personality. These include young childhood parts, protectors and defenses that developed in response to childhood trauma, and others that reflect my interests and passions. So it's highly likely that I will refer to "a part who said X" or "part that feels X" at certain points while writing on this blog.

For what it's worth, I have found IFS therapy to be incredibly rewarding, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in doing self-work.

Earlier today, I had a six and a half hour bus ride through the Borneo countryside to ponder the mysteries of me. This was glorious, and quite fruitful.

Between bouts of deep contemplation, I began reading the late Harry Browne's book "How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World." The book had come highly recommended, so I expected it to be quality, but was pleasantly surprised to find myself almost giddy reading through the first chapters. Browne talked quite a bit about recognizing yourself as a unique individual, and abandoning the notion that you can or should try to change someone else. Everyone is unique, he said, and only each individual can know what is right for him or herself.

Of course, consciously, I knew this already. Obviously each person is unique and obviously only each individual can and should decide what's right for themselves, I thought.

In truth, it's not that obvious. Whenever I find myself slipping into old patterns or roles around people, it doesn't take long before alternating thrums of anxiety and resentment, and eventually frustration and anger, kick in. The anxiety happens when I begin trying to either manage or conform to other people's expectations, whether real or perceived. The resentment kicks in when I begin wanting those around me to conform to certain standards in order to allay my fears; I want them to behave in a way that is not so anxiety-provoking for me.

I don't relish feeling either of these emotions under these circumstances. I accept them as what I am feeling in the moment, and feel curiosity about my emotional experience and what is causing this upset. But I don't want to spend my time managing other people, or passive aggressively trying to manipulate other people into managing me.

That last line may sound harsh toward myself, but I fully embrace that those tendencies are within me, as I suspect they are within many people. They are there for a reason, a defense that built up a long time ago, and while I feel the urge rise from time to time, I don't act on it (at least not consciously, and not, I hope, frequently).

Nonetheless, I feel the competing urges rise when I'm not fully aware of my emotional state, and the confusion and disorientation that come with them. They're also often strongly accompanied by a fear of how those closest to me, my best friends, are perceiving me. In the past, the slightest disagreement would reduce me to tears, and a sickened feeling would grow in my gut, knowing that "the friendship is over," and I was going to be alone forever, unloved because I'm such a mess and too unreliable and too bad of a friend for anyone to bother with.

Things aren't that extreme anymore, but the fear is still there. I discovered several months ago a deep, deep fear of being abandoned and alone, and that manifests itself in many ways. One is constantly seeking the approval of others, and hingeing my emotional successes and well-being on their attitudes toward me and their behaviors.

It's kind of like when people say that you won't be happy until you love yourself; no external factors (i.e. good job, boyfriend, etc.) can ever make you truly happy until that happens. Well, I will never know my true self-worth, never truly experience that until I am confident and strong regardless of the opinions of others.

I have moments of that, and the beauty of the unconscious is that I suddenly experience warm memories of times when I felt utterly strong, fearless and blissfully independent, often at times when I need them most.

But that state of mind takes work to cultivate and maintain and when I'm not paying attention, sometimes the old insecurities come back, and with good reason. Those parts are trying to keep me from ending up alone or becoming entangled in constant disagreements with friends. I don't wish to be alone and I value the respect of those I love and care about.

Before that, however, I have to own who I am. I have to be able to stand confidently, even if that means with no else at my side, and embrace my interests, my passions, my desires and my own path, and do it for myself, not in order to secure the approval or promises of friendship from other people.

This crystallized for me today when I read a quote Browne included in his book, from Walt Whitman:

"Freedom — to walk free and own no superior." 

It reinvigorated my commitment to knowing myself intimately and becoming whole on my own before asking others to love me. And it reminded me of the freedom that comes from living for oneself and no one else.