Knowing When It's Time to Go "Home"

When it comes down to it, I guess I just feel ready and have that gut sense that it's the right time to go back. Does it make me all kinds of emotional? Oh yeah. I've already had several nostalgic crying spells and expect more before I leave. But it's still the right call. I miss the people, I miss this place that was always home before and maybe could be again.

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Asking the Hard Questions

I'm a freelance writer, but to what end? Presumably the writing I am doing now should be building toward something, should be part of a body of work that can be used to achieve a next goal. But what is that next goal?

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Ready for the fall

It's been a little while since I concluded my series on my year of living in Chiang Mai. I hadn't planned on taking a break from posting on here after I finished that, but it appears to have been a good time for a break. Writing that series helped me get closure on a lot of things that happened during my first 12 months in Thailand, appreciate everything I've had here and cleared some mental space for what's next.

I went into the last full month of the summer somewhat uncertain of what the rest of my year would look like, but knowing I was feeling restless and ready for some changes. Since turning 28 in April, I have noticed an underlying sense of...urgency, perhaps, to figure out what comes next, a feeling that I've entered a new stage of my life.

Birthdays have never freaked me out; I never fretted about turning a year older. After all, another year on the planet seems a cause for great celebration, not despair. But 28 did freak me out. It's close to 30. It's firmly in the late 20s. Suddenly things that I used to put on the mental backburner seemed much more urgent and important: my health and overall well-being and what I was doing (or not doing) to maintain it; my finances; my professional ambitions; long-term goals for a romantic relationship and starting a family.

Earlier this year there was a lot of buzz about Meg Jay's TED Talk on Why 30 is Not the New 20. While watching it, I had a moment of fleeting panic - what if I've wasted my 20s? What if I've gotten everything wrong?

The panic subsided when I evaluated just what I've been doing for the past eight years of my life, and considered the investments I've made in myself. I graduated from college and grad school, gained valuable professional experience working at a newspaper and freelancing for reputable publications, traveled, evaluated long-held biases and embarked on a path of learning about people and the world that has changed my life.

Most importantly, I have invested in self-growth and development, which has changed the way I see myself, solidified my values and laid the groundwork for the types of enriching, supportive, healthy relationships I want to maintain and cultivate.

So all of that is great, and I'm thankful for the experiences I've had up to this point. It's been an incredible ride so far.

But that doesn't mean that there isn't room for growth (isn't there always?) and that it's not worth asking questions about what comes next, where I want to live and travel, whether my priorities are shifting and if so, what are they, where do I want to be focusing my energy going forward.

I still haven't answered all of those questions for myself, but some priorities have become clear. The top priority is my overall health and well-being. Once I started reading seriously about fitness and nutrition, I was alarmed to realize how much of my diet and lack of exercise were likely exacerbating my feelings of anxiety and depression. I won't go into all the gory details here, but suffice it to say that some changes needed to be made.

This is an ongoing journey for me, but an important one, so vital to making real progress in any other area.

I'm not sure what the future of my work life is and for the first time, that excites rather than terrifies me. I love writing and will focus on creating a body of work I'm proud of, though I am eager to learn new skills, such as design, that will allow me to do more professionally and creatively. I'm excited to think beyond my self-imposed constraints of “I'm a writer and that's it; that's all I will ever be” and see where that takes me.

I'm also not sure where I will live next, though I have some ideas in mind and all of them have some great potential benefits. In the meantime, I've continued hanging out in Chiang Mai and have decided to visit America this fall.

It will be the first time I've been back since I moved to South Korea, and I am deliriously thrilled to have booked the trip. For a long time, the prospect of visiting the States seemed daunting for a number of reasons, not the least of which was how much I've changed and how much my relationships with people there have changed.

But I've wanted to go back for a visit for awhile now, and decided that this fall would be the time to do it. The idea had been there for months, and then one night, I found an incredible deal on a flight and took the plunge. I expected some waves of anxiety or a feeling of “What the frell did I just do?!” but to my pleasant surprise, all I felt for the first week after booking the ticket was elated.

The response I got from people when I told them I was coming to visit was so warm and enthusiastic, it was impossible not to get swept up in the moment. I felt totally at peace with the decision, and genuinely happy to plan for the visit.

I fly out a month from today and will be there six weeks. It's a short trip for having been gone such a long time, but I'm going to make the most of it. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone, to visiting some of my favorite places in the States and to spending some time in cities I've never visited before.

I planned the trip for October in part because that is my favorite month and I have missed autumn in America something fierce. I'll get to enjoy all the fall colors and the pumpkin and apple treat goodness for the first time in three years. To say I'm looking forward to that would be an understatement.

Oh and the food...I'm already fantasizing about the food.

It will be an emotional trip, I have no doubt. I also think it will be an opportunity for me to reflect on where I want to live next, what I want out of my lifestyle and what I'll do in the coming year. There are some trips that I just know are going to be great opportunities for growth, which adds to the excitement and eager anticipation. This is certainly one of them.

2013 has been interesting so far, with many highs and some lows. But fall has always been my favorite season, and I'm going into this one looking forward to some wonderful things.

As far as Spinning Free goes, I'll be posting more frequently, and am working on moving the blog to a new platform that I think will give it a more elegant, enjoyable look. I hope to have that ready to roll out in a week and look forward to sharing it.

A year worth celebrating

This is the fifth and final post in my Unexpected Year in Thailand series. To read the other posts in the series, click here It is now exactly one year since I arrived sweaty, tired and elated in Thailand, not knowing that I would spend the next year of my life in Chiang Mai.

Even having looked back and seen my struggles with depression and anxiety during the past year, I find that what I feel more than anything else is gratitude for all I've experienced in these 12 months. Playing in the world's biggest water fight, releasing lanterns at the Yi Peng ceremony, sleeping in a bamboo hut in a hill tribe village in the mountains, volunteering with elephants, hanging out with friends at a (vegetarian) piranha fishing resort, interviewing a world-class chef in Bangkok. The list goes on and I know years from now, I will still treasure those experiences and what they taught me.

But most of all, I will treasure the people with whom I've shared those experiences. I've written a lot about the negatives and how badly I felt before I came to Chiang Mai. But to close out this month of reflection and this month of blog posts about this year in Thailand, I want to talk about the people I've met here and who are so important to me.

Back in September, when I found out my friends Will and Skeeter were planning to come back to Chiang Mai as well, I was stoked. Skeet was heading back to the States in October so I knew he'd only be here a short time (he has since returned to Chiang Mai with his partner - I'm telling you, this place has a way of getting under your skin) but Will was also planning to go back to Beijing. We figured we'd hang out in Chiang Mai for a little while and then head to China, just in time for a bitter cold winter.

But then people started giving us all of these reasons to stay: "You can't miss the Yi Peng festival or Loy Krathong; people come from all over the world for those!" and "The winter months are the best time to be in Thailand; not humid, not rainy, just perfect weather!" (This was quite a selling point for someone like me, who hates the cold.)

The real reasons to stay, it turned out, would be our friends. When I arrived in Thailand last summer on a quest to get my head on straight, I didn't expect that the journey would be aided by other people. I already had good friends in China and the States; I didn't expect or think I needed to make close friends in Thailand. I thought I'd find maybe a few interesting travel companions at best.

I don't believe in God or fate or destiny, but I believe deeply in the power of the unconscious and its intuition for what we need in order to heal ourselves and grow. I needed Thailand. I needed Chiang Mai. I needed a space to break down, really break down, to be afraid, to face my fears, to be sick, to be sad, to grieve. I needed that so much more than I realized, which is something I was unwilling to accept or see clearly until recently.

I needed to allow myself to be happy and appreciate the beauty in the world, too,  and to really, fully enjoy being healthy and alive and engaged. And I also really needed friends and love and compassion; I needed to receive those things and to give them. And I had that, in an abundance that humbles me and makes me grateful in ways I'm not sure I’ll ever be able to fully express.

There are so many people I've met in Chiang Mai who have inspired me, impressed me, given me much to think about and been a pleasure to know. But there are a few in particular who I now count among the dearest in my life, and who I hope to know for many years to come.

Will has been my closest friend for several years now, and this whole Chiang Mai experience - the good, the bad, and the outrageous - would certainly have been less exciting and less enriching without him. He's a better friend than even he probably realizes, is one of the most genuine, smart, thoughtful and inspiring people I know, and a fantastic human being.

Ruby, Mika and Hilary - affectionately known as my biscuit sisters - will forever be woven into the fabric of who I am. Ruby, who taught me the meaning of Minnesota nice and who delivers even the harshest truths with love and support; Mika, who inspires me with her willingness to defy conventions and her passion for the oppressed; and Hilary, who I knew was a kindred spirit from our first meeting, when we talked religion, corporate America, writing and a million other things over beers.

There have been so many smart, interesting, passionate, kind women I've met here - Kailyn, who reminded me constantly to be generous and nice simply by so embodying those qualities herself; Sarah, whose effervescent personality and willingness to be unique and embrace the world (not to mention amazing dance skills) made me want to let loose and enjoy life more, too; Alyse, who is friendly, giving and game for a laugh no matter what else is going on; Jules, Laura, Agnes, and so many others who touched my heart and who I'm so glad to know.

Before I came to Chiang Mai, it had been a long time since I had had a close group of girlfriends and here, I was fortunate enough to become friends with a group of women who are all passionate, hilarious and warm. They reminded me of how vital it is to have a community of women you can relate to, cry to, and with whom you can drink copious amounts of wine and just really be yourself - scars, mistakes, dreams and all.

The men I know here are wonderful as well. In contrast to the stereotypes put forward about men's inability to emote and empathize (which I disagree with, by the way), Neil and Rob are both sensitive, compassionate, intelligent, well-read and also hilarious. Neil's earnestness and integrity, and Rob's candor and unique sense of humor make them both so much fun to be around. The romantic relationships between Neil and Mika and Rob and Hilary have taught me a great deal about relationships, and inspired me in their closeness, intimacy, and honesty.

Skeet and his partner, Ally, came back to Chiang Mai later than everyone else, but it has been great having them here, too. I have long been impressed by Skeeter's talent, creativity and passion for music, and his commitment to being a good person and standing up for what he believes is right. Ally continually reminds me to question my own biases, to consider the other side of the story or argument, and to be just in my considerations, an area that remains a challenge for me - but a worthwhile one.

Then there are May and Num, the wonderful people who run the guest house where so many of my friends and I have lived. They have really made Chiang Mai a home and made the place where we live somewhere special.

And there are so many others I haven't mentioned who have made this experience as great as it has been. Together, these people have taught me so much about relationships, honesty, bravery and about the world, and I only hope to be able to return the favor. And they have made me laugh, endlessly, which is such a gift in and of itself. It is a privilege to know each one of them.

A special bond developed among our group and while many have left Thailand to travel to new places and start new chapters, we'll always have Chiang Mai, and the hopeful plans to reunite and be part of each other's lives in another part of the world.

When I stop to think about all of the special occasions, the hangouts, the jokes, the stories, the experiences I have shared with the friends I've met in Chiang Mai, I feel overwhelmed by a sense of love and gratitude.

To commemorate this year in Chiang Mai, I decided to make a short video with some highlights of the time I've spent here. The music is "Safe & Sound" by Capital Cities. I chose this song because while listening to it one day, I thought, This is exactly how I feel about our Chiang Mai crew.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A08Y0tKXBg4?feature=player_detailpage]

I'm not sure where I'll head after Chiang Mai or when exactly I'll go just yet, but I do know that I will always look back on this time as being among the most special in my life, and will be so grateful to have lived in this special place with such wonderful people.

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.

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.

Sinking into sweet uncertainty

Two years ago, I packed all of my belongings and completely uprooted my life. In a few short weeks, I went from working as a writer for a Capitol Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C., a position that fit perfectly along the carefully planned trajectory I had laid out for my life ten years earlier, to teaching English to kindergartners in Seoul, South Korea. A year later, I shifted gears once again. This time Beijing stood imminent on the horizon, and the freewheeling lifestyle of a freelance journalist and editor lay thrillingly before me.

Now, as I approach my 365-day mark in Beijing, I'm about to do it again.

But this time, I'm not shuffling into a new apartment or relocating to another city I'll temporarily call home, at least not yet. This time I am fulfilling a lifelong dream of backpacking through Southeast Asia, taking with me only what I can carry, and living a nomadic lifestyle of which I've secretly dreamed since I was a young child.

This is the first post on a blog will be a personal one, though I'll combine elements of travel writing as well. It's about exploration and growth; introspection and forging a greater connection with the world around me.

The name, Spinning Free, is inspired by the song "Sweetness" by the band Jimmy Eat World. I chose to name my site after it because the lyrics burst to the forefront of my consciousness the night I decided to make this trip more than a simple vacation, and began seeing it as the turning point for the next chapter of my life.

Since hearing the song as a high school student many years ago, these two lines have felt particularly poignant to me, more so in recent years:

"String from your tether unwinds...

Sinking into sweet uncertainty"

Sinking into sweet uncertainty. I had always reveled in the idea of allowing myself to spin utterly free, to embrace the unknown with wide, welcoming arms. Even when I left the U.S. for Korea, and Korea for China, I had a plan, a strategy. I had never allowed myself to simply go in without a plan and take what came in stride. Until now.

I'll delve into all of this in future posts, but for the moment, I simply want to debut this blog to the world, and celebrate the beginning of what I believe will be a beautiful, fruitful and thrilling journey in my life.

As I write this, I am on a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I have spent the past hour gazing at a sunset more spectacular and rich in its warm fiery gold and piercing pink hues than I can convey. And now, as I watch the horizon fade to black, I see the first star in the night sky and imagine that this beauty is nothing compared to what lies before me in the jungles of Borneo, on the beaches of Thailand, in the myriad wonders I will see during the next several weeks as I travel through Southast Asia.

The past two years, with all their upheaval and learning and friendship and joyfulness, have been beautiful, and I will likely reference moments from them frequently on this site.

But this change feels different. I am different. I have reached a new moment of clarity, openness, wonder and a sense of self I had not known before.

I will explore new places, taste new foods, meet new people. I will learn, about my travel companions, who are three of my closest friends, and hopefully more about the world.

Most importantly, this will be a journey during which I learn more about myself, which in my life thus far has led my greatest adventures of all.