A Writer’s Experience / End of Project Acknowledgements

A Writer’s Experience

After working for over five years on this writing project, a blog I originally began in April 2011 in order to capture my Peace Corps experience and share it with people at home, I am ready to park it and will be posting the final conclusion in a day or two. My blog site, “Guatemala, Through My Eyes,” has been the forum I used to practice and refine my writing technique with each new post over the years, and it has evolved into something much more than I ever imagined when I started it. The end result will be a souvenir of three journeys I have taken where the physical locations I visited provided a setting for connection to people all around the world and growth as an artist, a woman, and a human being.

I never could have guessed the amount of time that this project would take when I started it. The writing process is unpredictable in that I never know when inspiration is going to show up – my responsibility is simply to create the space for it. I consider myself a vessel through which my muse, or my inspiration – which is not really me – can work. I didn’t have an end goal in mind when I began this project; I simply knew that I needed to get whatever was in my head out onto the pages. The most important thing has been to make a habit of writing so whichever ideas needed to come out did so at their appropriate timing as long as I took action to release them.

When people would ask me how long “such and such chapter” would take to finish, I could never give a straight answer because it was different every time. Some days I would create my workspace, open my document, and stare at my outline for five hours straight only to rearrange the flow of it and add a paragraph or two; other days I was on fire, burning through seven paragraphs in an hour and a half and feeling deeply satisfied afterward. The fastest pace I had was when I completed two chapters in four days, start to finish, while I was on an isolated island in Thailand. A different chapter had me toiling over it almost daily for nearly three months before it took shape, leaving me with very little focus for anything else. I would often work on multiple chapters at the same time, and some chapter ideas even stayed in my head for years until I finally sat down and tackled them – one of those chapters materialized in a day! And then there were a handful of times when big chunks of my work disappeared or didn’t save properly and I experienced temporary panic and devastation, but I don’t like to recall those days…

Some days I wish that my muse hadn’t picked me, but I cannot ignore her presence – it is all-consuming. The hardest thing has been to just get my butt in the seat and start writing, but once I begin, the outpouring comes naturally. My muse has had five years to occupy my mind space, and I have come to terms with the fact that she is not going anywhere until I wrap this thing up, although I don’t suspect that she’s in a rush to leave as she has made herself quite at home up there in my mind. I think I’m ready to send her on a vacation, though!

I have inevitably met with resistance along the way, as all artists do, which has challenged me to come up with ways to overcome it, although more often than not, I would seek out dead end distractions and create elaborate avoidance schemes, but the muse has stood her ground through all of it. I was recently enlightened to the concept that seeking support is a form of resistance, as friends/loved ones/followers cannot do much when it comes to getting my writing done because my muse does not communicate with them – but they have nevertheless been a great outlet for quality time and endless encouragement! At the end of the day, though, all the time I spent with my supporters could not be a substitute for the attention that my muse required.

In the past year as I have been battling the completion of this project, I read three books about creativity and the artist’s struggle: The War on Art, by Steven Pressfield, Creativity, Inc., by Amy Wallace & Ed Catmull, and Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Each one has offered a few key points to 1) help me understand that the resistance and inner angst associated with artistic creation are completely normal, and 2) provide tips on powering through to the end in a self-forgiving manner.

In Gilbert’s book, she discusses how we artists sometimes have to play the “trickster” card in order to entice inspiration to “join us for dinner.” One such trick I occasionally use is to get all dolled up, complete with hair and make-up plus a dress or high heels and take myself out to have a date night with my muse – just the two of us. Believe it or not, it works and has been very rewarding! Another trick I like to pull out of my hat sometimes is to spontaneously leave the country in order to escape the invisible chains of conventional society–the muse rolls her eyes at conformity–and to silence the expectations to live a secure, routine life. When there is enough distance that guilt is reduced to a far-off echo, the muse comes to life. Inspiration has little regard for time or space so in order to partner up with it, one must be willing to embrace the heaven-sent madness and engage with it in a different realm, apart from those that can be calculated and measured.

Putting the trickster aside, though, the bulk of the creative work I produce is just a matter of rolling up my sleeves and getting down to business. Work is work, and it doesn’t do itself. This project sure didn’t write itself – there was blood, sweat, tears, and plenty of coffee, tea, and wine associated with it! Granted, I couldn’t have done it without my muse, but in choosing to answer her call, I committed to the hard work she had in store for me. While it has been tortuous in some regards, it has also provided some of the best highs I have felt each time I complete the work. That makes it worth every second.

To be honest, I have been a little nervous to finish this project because I have grown accustomed to having my muse around and I am a little afraid of what will come next and how life will be without her. I am curious to see what new things will fill the big open space once my muse [for this project] moves out. It feels like a long goodbye, bittersweet, like parting ways with an old friend. I know it needs to happen because she will drive me crazy if I keep her around, but still, I have to admit I’m a little sad to move one, even though it is necessary for the next chapter to unfold.

Speaking of the next chapter, once I post the conclusion to this project, I plan to let it stew for a little while, then I will eventually get some other eyes on it to see if there is a common thread in these 55 chapters that I can turn into a book. It would require a lot of editing, shortening, and rearranging, but there is plenty of raw material to work with here! This will be my first official finished writing project. From what I have heard, supposedly the first work takes the longest and sells for nothing, but in order to get a second, there has to be a first. So this is it.

While I am awaiting the next muse to come a-knocking, I suppose I will make some career moves, earn some real income again, find a place to live, join a church, contribute to a new cause, study French, sing a song or two, I don’t know, marathon some TV shows or something, and relax a little. Family time without the pressure of writing will definitely be different and wonderful. I have a 3-week a trip to Europe planned for August/September to backpack with my brother, attend the wedding of one of my best friends from the Peace Corps, and visit some other travel friends who are currently in Europe, but this trip will be about spending time with loved ones, not about capturing every new experience on paper. I am grateful to be in a position where I can be open to whatever God has in store for me next…



End of Project Acknowledgements

From the early stages of this project until the very end of it, so many people played a role in some way, shape, or form, contributing to the progress, development, and evolution of its creation and storyline. I couldn’t have done this alone and I appreciate each and every person who had a hand in it or influenced the progression of the project. There are so many people that I want to thank that I do not even know where to start! I guess from the beginning…


To Karina and Robert, for making the suggestion to post updates on a blog in the first place, then for helping me to set up my blog. And for your faith, friendship, and example.

To Bethany, for making the joke that if I started writing a book after I completed my Peace Corps service that it would probably take me ten years. Well, I started it during my service, and it only took me five. I thought of you with every passing year! (And thank you for making my binder-book!)

To Kellie, Scott, and Gabbie, for gifting me with a MacBook Pro laptop right before I left for the Peace Corps; it was the tool that launched this project. And thank you for your mentorship, generosity, and shared love for Guatemala.

To the United States Peace Corps, for roping me into the adventure of a lifetime and giving me access to a world beyond what I knew existed. And for the constant support, protection, and guidance every step of the way, through the highs and lows. Special thanks to Juan Miguel R. And Kellie G., for walking by my side and advocating for me during one of the darkest parts of this journey.

To my family, for letting me go, even though it scared the bejeezus of out you. (This includes Dad, Teri, Mom, Kiki, all my brothers and sisters, plus aunts, uncles, cousins, and Gram.) And for your patience, even when you don’t understand why I did what I do, or when you get frustrated because I am constantly changing. I know that all of this comes from a place of love. I am grateful for how much you care and blessed to have a home wherever any of you are.

To my closest girl friends, Bethany, Elease, Linda, Kathy, Lauren, and Krista, for being totally on board with me becoming a madwoman, cheering me on, understanding that I “would come around” eventually, and for just being awesome, inspirational women in my life.

To my pseudo-family and those who have mentored me in some way or another along the way, for stepping up to offer guidance and support and for embracing me with open arms, always. There will always be a special place for you in my heart no matter where I am. This includes Bert, Cynthia, Sally & Pete, Meg, Sonja, Carol, Karl & Robin, Craig, Doug, and Evelyn, plus the Bruins, the Seeses, and the Moffitts/Browns. I’m a lucky gal…

To all the visitors I had during my Peace Corps service – Krista, Mari & Russell, Jeffrey, Mom, and Christina, for making it possible for me to see Guatemala through your eyes and for making the investment to learn about such a special place in the world.

To my adventurous friends at home who remained excited for all the travel stories and have even embarked on escapades of their own – especially Paul, Pedro, and Lino. And for my friends who periodically came in and out of the adventure but steadily supported nonetheless – Nauma, Scott, Angela, Alex, and Sean.

To my incredible travel buddies and unforgettable travel friends, especially Allan, Giuseppe, Mick, Lise, Rémi, Marcus, Thibault, and Marjolein, who were introduced to my “crazy” upon meeting me and accepted it immediately. (Crazy is suppressed at home, but in full swing abroad!) That authenticity has opened the doors to some amazing lifelong friendships, and I am so appreciative for the wit, the perspective, and the companionship that each one has continued to share with me since we met.

To all the people from the countries I visited during all of my time abroad, which spanned 15 countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia during the course of this project, for hosting me, for teaching me, and for welcoming me. (And also to the ones who tried to take advantage of me, for sharpening me.)

To all the families who collaborated with me for my dog sitting business/hobby when I’ve been in California, providing me with a quiet space to live while they were away so I could focus on my writing in exchange for caring for pets and plants. Some of these families include the Fischers, Sally & Pete, Elease & Miguel, Alisa & Paul, the Briggs, and the Bruins. Also, to all my friends and relatives who have let me crash their couch or spare bedroom for a couple days at a time here and there.

To my accountability partners who voluntarily stepped up to keep me motivated and moving because they knew how much this project meant to me – Linda, Kathy, Meg, Freddie, and Sam.

To those of you who weren’t afraid to offer constructive criticism: Bill B., for encouraging me to write shorter, more readable paragraphs; Russell B., for the positive feedback on creating interactive posts with links/videos; [Alisa’s] Paul, for pointing out my cathartic approach and influencing me to broaden the scope and educational aspect of my story; and Wes – for the tip on how high frequency of adverb usage could water down a message.

Special thanks to Mr. Gordon for flunking me in high school World History because I didn’t write my research papers; I learned that 1) my papers don’t write themselves, and 2) failing at something really wasn’t the end of the world. Thanks to Prof. Mahony for believing in my writing ability and what I was capable of doing, and for being so enthusiastic about the possibilities ahead of me. And to Prof. Xu for accepting my research paper on “The Psychology of Physical Touch” three and a half years late for my freshman JanTerm class in college, ironically titled, “The Destructive Passion.” Lastly, thanks to my many other English teachers over the years: K. Smith, C. Chandley, K. Rose, and L. Smith – there has been a little piece of what each of you taught me that has stayed with me to this day.

To my moms, for putting up with me being a pain in the butt and a stubbornly independent selective listener on occasion. And to the women who are not my official moms, but have loved me as if I were their own daughter, for seeing me for who I am, identifying my blind spots, occasionally calling me on my BS, and voicing their observations openly to me. Bert, Cynthia, Susan, Sally, and Gram. I listen to all of you more often than you know. And in particular, I appreciate Bert and Gram for believing in my calling as a writer even more than I sometimes do, for knowing that it is an integral part of who I am. I hear you. And it makes me want to be courageous.

Last but not least, I’d like to thank all my readers, those whom I know and those I don’t, for taking time to step out of your busy lives and take a vicarious vacation through one of my adventures. Some of my friends pass these posts on to their family members who have been dedicated readers from the beginning. A writer never knows the scope of her work, but in regard to the work I did, I can only hope that what I have written has been educational, inspirational, and maybe even a little entertaining for my readers. And to those of you who provided constant feedback (especially Karl and Cynthia!), thank you for being there.

I’d like to close with a prayer of thanks for God’s grace and guidance during this journey. I made a deal with Him before I joined the Peace Corps, telling Him that I would do my part and if it was in line with His plan for me, then I would walk through the doors he opened for me. There was no question about whether I would serve when I received the invitation to go to Guatemala; I knew that is where He meant for me to be. And while the journey wasn’t easy, He guided my path, protected me, and worked through me while I was there. It is sometimes difficult to let go, but I trust now that I am safe in God’s hands, and I pray that I can maintain the openness to His will for new beginnings…


Stay tuned for “A New Set of Eyes”…

All my love,


Final Backpacking Bonus: Southeast Asia in Summary

All right, all right. Time to wrap it all up nicely and finally put in on the memory shelf.

My backpacking trip that started as a one-way ticket to Thailand with an indefinite end date turned into four months of exploring Southeast Asia in what became the smoothest and most epic travel adventure of my life. It was something that I always wanted to do – travel solo with a backpack and no deadline; I had a rough run in Central America a couple years back when I ran into a slew of problems and some sickness along the way that provided me with a great survival skill set so I wanted a chance for redemption of experience and I got just that and more.

Before I left for my trip, people reacted with various responses including, “You’re crazy and/or brave,” “I’m jealous – I wish I could take a trip like that,” and “Take lots of pictures so I can live vicariously through you!” Travel can often be a foreign experience or just a far-off dream for many people, and even as purchasing international plane tickets and packing up my backpack has become second-nature to me over the years, I still remember the initial fears, anxieties, and “reasons not to go” that crossed my mind as I prepared for adventures abroad–they are the same ones that cross most people’s minds, the reasons to say no.

But there are just as many reasons or more to say YES to travel! People are often unaware of all the reasons to say yes because they have not yet had the experiences to understand just how much there is to learn from traveling. In addition to creating a worldwide network of friends and gaining access to a level of cross-cultural understanding that is not possible from only staying within one’s native country, traveling affords a person an extensive skill set that can include accounting and budgeting, business negotiation, decision-making, risk management, time management, and a refined sense of instinct when it comes to people, places, and timing.

Traveling sharpens a person. When a traveler is on the move, there is a constant exposure to stimulation. It can be exhausting at times but rewarding in that one can learn so much and stretch himself or herself way beyond whatever he or she ever thought possible. In my opinion, travel provides a deeper and richer education than studying books. I never would have learned about Cambodia’s, the Philippines’, or Singapore’s histories had I not traveled to those countries. Immersion is the most effective method of absorption.

As I wrap up the Southeast Asia saga and reflect on the overall backpacking experience, there are a few more travel tidbits I’ll share that briefly cover planning, statistics and logistics, overall observations and lessons learned, and lastly, a summary of the highlights and general feel of the places I visited during this trip.


Map of Asia (taken from Google images). My routes was around Southeast Asia, which lies in the center and bottom right quadrant (until just above Australia) of this map.

Planning, Statistics, & Logistics

While I wasn’t sure exactly when this trip would happen, I been preparing for it by building up my savings account while paying down credit debt which would give me a little wiggle room if I needed it. (I did a balance transfer with the last chunk of credit card debt to a card with 0% APR for 18 months so I was not paying interest while I was away.) When the opportunity came along, the timing and all the other factors were in place so I jumped on it.

120 days – This is how long I was traveling in Southeast Asia, so approximately 17 weeks or 4 months, during which I visited 8 different countries. The longest time I spent in a country was 35 nights [over three visits] in Thailand; the shortest time was 1 unplanned night in China.

$,6,355.29 – The total of my daily living expenses (not counting air transportation); it includes lodging, food and beverages (plus tips), ground and water transportation, all activities, souvenirs, postage for packages and post cards, travel insurance (through World Nomads), and the fees for border crossings and visas to enter certain countries. I was making money decisions every day that went something like this: “Hmm. I’m over here now and that’s really cool” versus, “I don’t want to dip too far into my savings…” While things are generally cheaper in Asia, the money can get away from you fast because you might have tendency to buy more to balance out the lower prices of things, but it all adds up if you’re not paying attention!

$38.71/day – The average amount I spent per day during the month of August, when my costs were the lowest.

$57.06/day – My daily average during the month of November when I was occasionally splurging on things like fancy resort hotels and expensive souvenirs.

15 flights – Including my one-way ticket to Thailand and my return ticket home (totaling $1,213.66 for both flights), plus the 13 flights I took to/from different countries or between major cities while I was in Asia (all 13 flights together rang in at a shockingly low$967.46), my overall cost for air transportation was $2,181.12. Most of this went on my credit card…

$8,536.41 – Adding my flight costs to everything else I spent, this is the GRAND TOTAL of what my 4-month backpacking trip cost. Could I have done it for less? Absolutely. But I traveled very comfortably and safely–even luxuriously on occasion! Because I had been growing my savings, I did not have financial pressure so I felt freedom to stay and eat in nicer places than I would have in my early 20s and participate in whichever activities appealed to me.

37.6 pounds – The weight of my backpack and all the belongings with which I was traveling by the end of my trip (reduced from 39.9 lbs). By traveling lightly and with just one backpack, I learned to appreciate the simplicity by which we can exist. Both physically and metaphorically, lightening one’s load creates so much space to live presently. A lot of thought went into packing my backpack. I used everything I brought with me at least once; I felt that I had everything I needed and trusted that I would have access to anything additional that I would need along the way. Carrying fewer items = having to worry less about losing them.

3 items, 1 day – What I lost during a 4-month trip. The 3 items included my 2 flip-flops that I forgot on a boat in Thailand during the last ten days of my trip and my umbrella that the wind from Typhoon Lando had turned inside out and completely trashed while I was in the Philippines. The day I lost was due to food poisoning stomach sickness in Vietnam, but beyond that and a barely noticeable cold I had in the Philippines, I was blessed with perfect health along the way. No injuries, no incidents, just a smooth all-around trip.

3 phases of the trip – The route I traveled was strategically planned based on weather patterns in Asia. I wanted to avoid the rain as much as possible because there is a slew of extra issues that come along with having a wet backpack, clothes, shoes/sandals, or feet while traveling such as a lack of access to a washer/dryer and high humidity which means belongings could get very stinky. Also, there is a higher probability of contracting a foot fungus if your feet are exposed to dirty streets in the rain. Luckily, I didn’t have to deal with that set of problems; I caught a little bit of rain, but for the most part, I stayed where it was dry. I had great weather and timing for the majority of the trip. I made rough plans that I was constantly adjusting and was pleasantly surprised with all the cool people, growth, and things that happened that I never could have predicted. Here is the breakdown of the 3 phases:


Close-up of Southeast Asia (map image from Google). Singapore is not labeled, but it is just south of the Malaysian mainland. Also, “Burma” is now called “Myanmar.”

     Phase 1 – Starting in late July, I spent about 6 weeks on mainland Southeast Asia. I started in Thailand because it had the reputation for being the most tourist-friendly part of the region. I then moved from northern Thailand into Laos, where I picked up a couple travel buddies with whom I explored Laos and Cambodia, up until early September. Rainy season on the mainland is strongest in September/October so I wanted to get off the mainland before it really hit which meant I would have to come back later if I wanted to go to Vietnam. Phase 1 entailed adjusting to being in Asia, maintaining constant contact with home, finding new friends to compensate for the social void, and organizing my writing goals so I could find my rhythm.

     Phase 2 – September is dry season in Bali so it was the perfect place to visit once the rain started on the mainland. Phase 2 was just under 7 weeks during which I committed to island-living, traveling solo, communicating less with home, and knocking out the bulk of my writing. I went from Bali to the Gili Islands (both in Indonesia), then hopped over to Singapore before finishing up this phase in the Philippines for a couple weeks, bringing me to late October. Singapore has very steady, hot weather with a rainy season in December/January so I was in the clear for that region. The weather in the Philippines, however, is much more unpredictable; while the rainy season was tapering off, the Philippines is expected to have at least five big typhoons per year with the strongest tropical storms cycling through anytime from May to October. While the typhoon inevitably produced disappointing weather that was inconvenient for lying around on a tropical beach all day, it was an exciting thing to experience.

     Phase 3 – From late October to late November, this final phase of the trip lasted just over 4 weeks and was a time of wrapping up as much work as possible, fulfilling the remaining adventure urges, and reflecting on the journey as a whole. I flew into Vietnam, knowing I would meet a family friend there (and socialize with someone I know well again!). Rainy season was pretty much over in Vietnam, and I slipped in and out before the cold winter set in in the northern part of the country. For the remaining two weeks of my trip, I headed back to Thailand, but this time it was down to the islands in the south that were just coming off of their rainy season. I treated my final weeks in Thailand as a sort of reward and vacation from the work and writing I had been focused on for the past several months. It was a magical way to spend my final days in Asia.

Overall Observations, Lessons Learned, and Stereotypes Formed

Southeast Asia is a safe place to be because the people are open, friendly, and generally live by a peace-driven moral code. English is widely spoken which makes it very easy to travel around, and most Asians who live near tourist hot spots are accustomed to foreign visitors.

Each Asian culture is unique, however, similar chords run throughout the region having to do with a shared background in religious beliefs, agricultural practices, and lifestyle habits. “Same same, but different.” That is the coined phrase of Southeast Asia. They say it everywhere. It becomes a joke most of the time, but it is a good way to describe how things work over there: same same, but different.

Non-verbal communication is prevalent in Asia, but mostly on the mainland as life on the islands is free and relaxed so people are generally more direct in places such as the Philippines, Bali, and the Gili Islands. Asian women on the mainland comes across as submissive, obedient, quiet, and polite, but fair warning – never underestimate the power of a quiet woman! They can cause the most damage when it is least expected.

Especially common in the cities and other crowded areas, people in Asia tend to be physically assertive with little regard for queues or personal space. People can be quite pushy while refusing to make eye contact so there is little chance to express disapproval or surprise at someone’s rude behavior. In order to survive this cultural ambush (well, that is what it feels like, at least), visitors to the region have to adapt quickly and push right on back. This really teaches you to take ownership of your space and speak up for yourself, even if that means using only body language, because if you don’t, you will be pushed right on over and no one will really care.

A sometimes frustrating aspect of the Asian culture is the “box thinking.” Asians are really great at learning and implementing systems with a methodical approach, but when something happens that falls outside the boundaries of what their particular system can handle, the reaction is to freeze. There is a general lack of critical thinking and adaptability. It is more likely to find a rule-follower than a rule-bender in Asia. A proposal with an “outside the box” solution will likely be met with confusion.

As far as solo travel goes, I would say that the best backpacking trips are the ones without a deadline. I realize that this is unrealistic for most people and I acknowledge that travel always provides clarity and perspective no matter how long or short the trip simply for the fact that it gets a person out of his routine and comfort zone, however, the best way to go with the flow and have an organic experience is when time pressure is absent.

The magic number to stay in a place I liked was 5 nights. That way I didn’t feel like I was rushing, and I had enough time to have activity days interspersed among down days for writing or resting. I could get to know a place and pick some favorite spots, but I wouldn’t stay long enough that people could get to know my habits too well. (This is partially a defense tactic I often use as a solo female traveler in order to avoid becoming an easy target.) Of course, sometimes I stayed only one night in a place, then bounced, and a few other times, I stayed longer than five nights, but in general, five days seemed to be the right amount of time.

I’ve decided that I would never want to play “Chicken” with a Chinese person or a Filipino (this is a stereotype I formed while traveling); I think the Chinese wouldn’t even notice I was there and the Filipino just wouldn’t stop so I’d surely be toast either way.

Other common stereotypes in the region [and around the world] include the following: 1) Americans are rich, lazy, and ignorant; 2) Chinese are terrible swimmers and they notorious for frantically flipping their fins underwater while SCUBA diving which can destroy marine life on the reefs; 3) Australians are really cool and well-liked, except for the young party-goers to the beaches of Kuta in Bali — those Australians are loud, obnoxious drunkards. 4) Russian, Chinese, and French people speak the least amount of English and the locals are often bothered that they don’t even attempt to learn English, although the French people are better-liked because of their intelligence and social savvy in comparison to the cold, entitled vibe of the Russians and the complete lack of regard for others that the pushy Chinese people display. *(Please keep in mind that these are generalizations and stereotypes, not accurate representations of all the citizens in any of these countries.)

One of my favorite lessons learned from traveling is that money doesn’t talk. Locals don’t respect people who come in and throw a bunch of money around; they respect people’s ability to think, their wit, their intelligence. Money doesn’t connect people – it isolates them.

Lastly, I’ve come to the realization that the presence of geckos and white sand crabs are comforting to me everywhere I go now; they feel like home.
Summary and Impressions of Countries Visited

Thailand – I love Thailand. The culture is rich and the people are friendly, peaceful, kind, and proud of their country. Thai cuisine is top-notch, Thai massage is world-famous, and Thai dancing and arts are elegant. There is everything from big city to hill-tribe village, mountains, jungles, river towns, islands, and beaches, each offering opportunities for interactive experiences and interesting activities. There is so much going on in Thailand that one could never get bored. Some of the highlights of my time there include my initial introduction to Thailand and its people in and around Bangkok Tree House, learning foot massage and reflexology and taking a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai, and the day I spent with the elephants at Elephant Haven in Sai Yok.




Laos – Laos is a quiet land and the hidden treasure of Southeast Asia, although travelers are discovering it rapidly, requiring that Laotians adapt to the international presence in their country just as quickly as the visitors are pouring in. The landscape of Laos is a myriad of jungles, rivers, and karst cliffs, lush and vibrant. My top experiences in Laos include hiking to the Kuang Si Waterfalls (with Allan and friends), soaking up the vibe of the charming town of Luang Prabang, and interacting with locals in the Khong Lo Village.




Cambodia – Cambodia is a mixture of old and new. The scar from its bloody history of the Khmer Rouge still runs deep with sorrow in the older generation, but it is balanced with a curious and progressive energy in the younger generation. While home to Angkor Wat, the remnant crowned jewel of one of the greatest ancient civilizations of the region, which is lauded as a celebration of the past, Cambodia’s future is stamped with a big question mark in regard to whether it will flourish with strong ideas combined with increasing access to technology or head toward economic chaos. The land is rugged, the people are one-of-a-kind, and the city life is based on community, outdoor markets, and activity. The things that made a lasting impression on me were the 3-day exploration of Angkor Wat (with Allan), the performance given by the young people of Phare, the Cambodian Circus, and the general playfulness and enormous smiles of the locals.




Bali (Indonesia) – Bali is a special gem of an island and boasts a society that is considered advanced compared to the rest of the world. With strong roots in Hinduism that are still in practice by the majority of the population, peacefulness and spirituality permeate the land. As a busy tourist destination, the Balinese people strive to maintain a friendly and welcoming atmosphere despite the high traffic and inevitable pollution issues on the island. Bali was my favorite place overall not only because everything was so colorful but also because my time there was marked with healing, inner peace, presence, and friendship. My most memorable experiences there include the two profound meditation sessions I attended, a sunrise hike up Mt. Batur, a trip to the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, and the relationships I formed with three amazing Balinese women, Arini, Wayan, and Tia.



Gili Islands (Indonesia) – The Gili Islands are the epitome of simple island life. While each of the three Gilis has its own vibe, the overall atmosphere on each island revolves around relaxation. Each island’s perimeter can be trekked in anywhere from 45 minutes to two and a half hours, and the sub-culture options visitors have are the party place on Gili T, the rustic honeymoon haven on Gili Meno, and the coffee shop/dive shop blend on Gili Air. All my favorite memories on the Gilis happened on Gili Air where I observed the underwater flower beds of corals while diving, bonded with unforgettable Frenchies from the dive shop, and witnessed some of the most spectacular sunsets of my trip.



*Photo courtesy of 3W Dive, Gili Air*


Singapore – Singapore is sophisticated, clean, safe, and balanced. From the outside, it appears as a sort of Utopia and provides access to an easy life for most of its citizens and a relatively open environment for separate cultures to coexist in close quarters. While I just barely scratched the surface here, I caught a glimpse of some of the underlying issues that make the society a little disjointed. On one hand, the government of this city-state-island nation seems to have thought through every possible issue and created effective systems to keep things under control, however, there seems to be a lack of depth that abounds throughout the society and a yearning among its people for something more meaningful than they can get without having to struggle. I am utterly fascinated by this place and curious to experience more of it. The highlights of Singapore include the innovative nighttime light show among the super trees at Gardens by the Bay, the impressive fully decked-out hostel I stayed in for most of my nights there, and the stimulating conversations I had with a handful of the locals.




The Philippines – The Philippines is the country that consists of islands upon islands, proving difficult to get around at times and often requiring that plane or boat be the primary method of transportation. Filipino people are extremely friendly, family-oriented, and direct – so blunt at times that their questions and comments may come off as rude when confronting more subdued cultures. Filipinos are devout Catholics and also love to have fun. From rice terraces to paradisiacal beaches, the Philippines can provide access to the ultimate adventures. Highlights include floating in the crystal-blue waters off the white sand beach in Boracay, wreck-diving in Coron in good company (Graeme!), and scaling limestone cliffs in the early morning darkness to catch the breathtaking sunrise across El Nido Bay.




Vietnam – Vietnam is a long, diverse, highly populated country that shares borders with China in the north, Laos to the west, and Cambodia to the south. Society moves at a fast pace in the cities, yet the locals are both gracious and playful. The Vietnamese are sure of themselves and happily set in their systematic ways, yet there are subtle undertones of unique artistic patterns and delicate flavors that indicate that the culture is more complex than what meets the eye. At the first thought of Vietnam, two contradicting lifestyle images come to mind: the first is of city streets and sidewalks that are overcrowded with motorbikes and riders wearing face masks to prevent pollution inhalation, and the other is of the outdoor social scene at night when people sit around chatting or playing games at plastic tables and chairs they set up right outside their homes, businesses, apartment buildings, etc. My favorite place in Vietnam, hands-down, was Hoi An both for its locals who openly interacted with visitors and for the magical charm of the river town at night, especially when the silk lanterns came on.




Thailand – Again. I spent the last two weeks of my trip on the islands and beaches of southern Thailand on the Andaman Sea side. This was a sort of “vacation” for me and I decided well ahead of time that I wouldn’t write about it so I could focus on wrapping up everything for my trip. I did a “deep water soloing” rock climbing trip from Railay beach, I watched beautiful sunsets, strolled long beaches, and rented a motorbike for a day while I was on Koh Lanta, then I spent a handful of days in peace and quiet by myself on a tiny isolated island in the same area. While I’ll leave the details of this portion of my trip out (you can get them in person!), here is a photo collage of the highlights of my last two weeks in Thailand.



China – I spent one unexpected day in Wuhan, China during a layover on my way back to the USA because I was not permitted to stay in the airport overnight. It was 34 degrees outside and I was not prepared at all for that! China was difficult to navigate because English is not common In Wuhan and the ATMs were not processing the debit cards so the money situation was also a challenge. Luckily I found some other travelers who contributed to my survival! But China is definitely a place I would like to visit again someday because I do not understand its culture and the behavior of many of its people and I want to know where it all stems from. I need to be immersed in it in order to gain that insight.

Traveling will always be a part of my life, and now I have the confidence to travel any time. The more a person travels, the easier it becomes to just pick up and go. Then settling down and creating a home becomes a choice, not something to do simply because that is all one knows.

The purpose of this trip revolved around making progress on my writing project (little did I know, I would add 15 unplanned Backpacking Bonus chapters to the overall project, plus a deep dive into post-travel readjustment!), but there were many more unspoken reasons for embarking on this journey. I value travel for the space it allows for people to process, perhaps heal from a personal loss, and gain perspective on their lives and relationships with others, themselves, and God. It requires that a person surrenders control and trusts that change and distance are necessary for healing and redesign.

If I could identify the underlying motivation I have for writing about my travels, it would be because I want to share it with others and inspire people to travel if they can. I have learned so much and I want people I care about to have access to the same kind of beauty I have witnessed and love I have experienced all around the world. Starting with a strong base of faith, family, and friends and enhancing that foundation through travel, my life has become enriched beyond measure and I feel so blessed because of it.

People have missed opportunities in their lives all the time and most of the time they just sit and watch an opportunity pass them by, even if it has their name all over it! I would encourage anyone to spend a little more time listening and then to jump on the next idea that feels right, even if it seems uncomfortable at first. What have you got to lose? Toss your “reasons” to the side and just go for it. Make it a conscious choice. Live your life while you can.


My final night in Thailand, having a victory celebration dinner!

TRAVEL TIP: The only regret that I had during this entire trip was that I chose not to carry a hard copy of a book with me (because I didn’t want to carry the extra weight – haha!). Audiobooks are great because they do not take up physical space, and I finished five of them along the way, however, I don’t enjoy listening as much as I do reading. It would’ve been great to have a real book in my hands while I was lounging on the beaches, during all of my flights, and at night before going to bed. Lesson learned. So if you are a reader, don’t forget to pack a real book on your next trip!

All my love and enthusiasm,

Learning to Count Up

Have you ever had a countdown for something in your life? As a child, would you count down the remaining hours during a long drive to get to an exciting destination? Or count down the days until high school graduation? Or the assignments left for you to complete in order to finish the coursework for your college diploma? Perhaps you would count down the passing weeks as you waited either for a special visit from a beloved friend or relative or to take a family vacation during summertime?

We have countdowns all over the place that we normally put into play when there is great anticipation for an event that is going to happen in our lives. Some popular countdowns include the New Year’s Eve countdown for the ball to drop as we ring in a new year, counting down the weeks left until the due date of the arrival of a new baby, and counting down the hours/minutes/seconds that get us closer to witnessing the launch of a rocket into outer space. Oh, and I can’t forget about the well-loved chocolate calendar countdown that kids (and adults!) look forward to every December–there is so much joy and discipline in peeling back a cardboard panel to retrieve a holiday-themed piece of chocolate, one day at a time!

Countdowns can be both useful and comforting. By keeping track of the time and acknowledging that it is passing, people are better able to focus in order to get things finished by a particular deadline. Countdowns keep people moving by applying an invisible pressure to take action. I used to place sticky notes all over my wall with numbers on them representing my countdowns, then I would match different personal goals with various “benchmark” numbers in that countdown to make sure I had projects completed and other preparations in place for the approaching deadline, graduation, trip, end-of-year, etc.

Countdowns are comforting in that as each day passes by, we understand that we are one step closer to attaining the reward for all the patient (or impatient) waiting we have been doing. Waiting, waiting, waiting. And the thing about countdowns is that they are pretty much a guarantee. There is a stopping point. Countdowns do not go on forever. Implicit in the word structure of “countdown” is the idea that a starting point is selected and there is movement toward “zero” or “nothing” until whatever it is that is being counted down simply runs out. We could all sit around doing nothing during a countdown, and yet the end of it would still arrive. We wouldn’t even have to lift a finger if we didn’t want to.

A downside of countdowns is that the time seems to pass quickly when we are so focused on the end goal toward which we are counting down. Putting our attention on things that will come to pass in the future can distract us from living in the present moment and connecting with the people and moments that fill our space right NOW. This is something that is becoming much more common in our everyday lives, especially as advanced technologies become integrated into our way of life; with every attempt to develop a “time saver” methodology or application, the pace of life ironically moves even faster than before.

Toward the end of my Peace Corps service in Guatemala, I was on a Skype call with one of my college friends who commented, “I bet you can’t wait to come home.” I was still several months away from completing my service, but my initial thought response was that yes, actually, I could wait to go back to California. Guatemala had become my home and I wanted to stretch out as much time as possible with the people in my community there because I knew my days were running out. That is when I decided that I didn’t want to count down because I didn’t want that time to escape me. Plus, initially for PCVs, we were all counting down: “Yes! I completed 2 months of service–only 25 more to go!” But as we integrated into and learned the ways of the “Land of the Eternal Unpredictability,” we realized that anything could happen at any given time so simply surviving each month–and being able to count UP–became both an accomplishment and a blessing.

As societies are moving faster and faster especially in the developed world, the theme tends to be that “money is life.” One of the biggest takeaways that a person can get from being immersed in “underdeveloped” cultures such as that of Guatemala is that “time is life.” Relationships matter more than anything. Spending time together is a priority–it doesn’t matter what activity is going on, just that people are together.

There are a handful of people with whom I spent the majority of my time in Guatemala who taught me valuable lessons about time and life. There are so many special people I met in Guatemala that it is difficult to select only a few. These are amazing and inspiring human beings and I am so blessed to have shared time and connection with them. I wish everyone I know could meet these people which is why I have reserved this space where I can introduce them, honor them, and give a tribute to them as some of Guatemala’s finest (in my eyes).

Doña Carmen – Doña Carmen lives in the village of Pajquiej, where she used to run the village bakery out of her home. She has a son and a daughter, and would have had two more children, twins, if she had not suffered from pre-eclampsia during her pregnancy which resulted in her losing both babies when she was seven months pregnant. Several years ago, her husband contracted appendicitis; his appendix burst, sending him to the hospital. From complications having to do with the infection, he required extra care so Carmen stopped running the bakery in order to tend to him; he died one year later. I met Doña Carmen when she was fresh into widowhood in her late thirties, but I never would have guessed it as she was outgoing, warm, and bubbly. She is one of the fastest-speaking Guatemalans I know so it took me a while to actually be able to understand anything she was saying! But I understood her warmth and constant smile and watched how she actively participated with her church group, family, community, and in our health promoter group in Pajquiej. She is a fabulous cook and shared a ton of recipes (including horchata, tamales, chicken tacos, and a yummy beef dish — complete with cooking lessons!) with me as well as some friends of mine. Anyone is welcome in her home at anytime. Doña Carmen is a fearless social butterfly who doesn’t stay down for long and loves to create fun everywhere she goes!



Kelin – Kelin is Doña Carmen’s daughter. I met her when she was 16, right after she had given birth to a baby girl, Dulce Marleysi. I found out much later on that this was actually her second pregnancy; she had a miscarriage when she got pregnant for the first time at 14. While she lived with her partner, the baby’s father, in another village, she would visit her mom in Pajquiej on the weekends (the two villages were a little lees than two hours apart, walking distance.) Kelin also came into town to participate in the nutrition course I held for a group of young women (mostly from the school). She was like a little sister to me and would stop by my house randomly just to visit every now and then. This young woman is mature way beyond her age and has had to take on quite a bit of responsibility. She is spunky and has big dreams for herself and her family. Unfortunately, her baby’s father is an alcoholic and has put her in multiple situations as the victim of domestic violence, nearly killing her when he beat her up one of the nights he came home drunk a year and a half ago. She shared photos with me of the cuts, the black eye, and the bruises around her neck. She left him after that, moved back in with her mom, and returned to school to finish her education. She is a smart, talented woman with a big heart that deserves just as much or more love than she pours out from it.




Three generations of special ladies right here: Doña Carmen, Kelin, and Dulce Marleysi.

Doña Isabel – Doña Isabel also lives in Pajquiej and, in her early sixties, was the oldest woman in my health promoter group in the village. I don’t think I’ve ever met another woman with a sense of humor like hers. She is vocal, opinionated, and sarcastic, loving to push buttons, but always putting the needs of the group and the community above her own. She is a true matriarch. She was happily married to a wonderful man with whom she had nine children. She used to live closer to the coast where she and her husband ran a store in town, but one time, there was a conflict over someone playing music too loudly nearby; her husband had requested that they turn the volume down. I guess they didn’t like that request because whoever it was ended up murdering Doña Isabel’s husband. She took legal action with her eldest son leading the charge, but the night before the trial, her son was murdered as well. It has been a long, hard road for Doña Isabel who now travels with a bodyguard and moved in with another of her son’s, Don Lalo, and his family in Pajquiej. Her youngest daughter, Magaly, also lives in Pajquiej so some reprieve for Doña Isabel is that she gets to be around her adorable and high-energy grandkids. Doña Isabel is probably one of the toughest women I have ever known.


Sandra – I swear this woman could run the entire country of Guatemala if they would let her. Married to Doña Isabel’s son, Lalo, she was my lead health promoter in Pajquiej. At just two years younger than me, she was another sort of sister figure to me, but this woman was a serious shaker and mover who wasn’t afraid to call me out for dilly-dallying when it came to taking actions with the group. Sandra is a mom of three who runs her household with loads of energy and a knack for good-hearted mischief. She is responsible for feeding me cow tongue, cow intestines, and cow kidney–on three separate occasions–without letting me know what I was eating beforehand. She said that since the women had all been so brave in sampling the various recipes that I saved with them in the nutrition course/cooking classes that I could match their courage and sample the foods that they ate on a regular basis! This woman has a keen sense of what is fair and just and knows how to stand her ground well. During the health promoter course, she was the one who got the entire group to set a date and commit to making a trip to the health center as a group to go get PAP smears done for the first time. Hardworking and humble, she knows how to get things done. I would not have been able to work within that community so effectively if it had not been for her leadership.


Sandra, with her brood, Yessenia (oldest, on right), Yaser (middle, on left), and Isabella (youngest, in center). 


Doña Gloria – Another matriarch and mother of six children (although her husband has 10 kids total), Doña Gloria lives in the small town of San Andrés Sajcabajá, where I lived during my service. She was actually my landlord and lived right across the street from me. While Doña Gloria kept to herself and could come across as somewhat distant, she is a pillar of strength and has a heart of gold. Because of what she has been through in her life, it is understandable why she keeps her walls up, but if anyone she truly cares about ever needs anything, she is always the first person to show up. She was somewhat of a mother figure to me as she protected, supported, and defended me in two very stressful incidents that I experienced while I was in that community. She loved that I held classes at the house and encouraged her granddaughters to participate in my kids’ group activities. Doña Gloria is a woman who naturally takes the weight of the world upon her shoulders as she cleans up all of the figurative messes within the family, raises some of her grandchildren as if they were her own, stays steady in her marriage even when her husband was living in the USA for 15 years and when he does whatever he does, and emotionally supports her children both in Guatemala as well as the ones who are living in the States–no matter what, all while running the bookstore in town and managing their properties. This is one mama bear you would NOT want to mess with. Everyone in town will tell you that Doña Gloria is one of the best women they know. Her strength and compassion are incomparable, but if anything could beat those two things, it would be her faith and humility.


Doña Gloria is the woman on the far right. This is the only photo I have with her in it which makes me sad because she is such an amazing, strong, humble woman. With a heart of gold, she is a role model for her entire community.

Acisclo – Of Doña Gloria’s six children, Acisclo is her #4, and, as the third youngest in the family, he is a little over a year older than I am. Acisclo and I were not more than really great friends, but because we used to talk so much with each other, everyone who knew us always joked about us becoming a couple–we even made the anonymous Holy Week “tabloid” newsletter in town one year when it reported that “Acisclo Urizar has an American girlfriend.” We still laugh about that one… Acisclo is a brilliant man and was studying at the university in Guatemala City during much of the time I was in Guatemala. He was one of the few college-educated people in San Andrés and he was often criticized for not having a woman or a family of his own–even both of his younger brothers were already married with children. But this progressive-minded man believed that he should first finish college in order to get a decent job which would make him capable of supporting a wife and kids someday. Under the negative pressure, he constantly struggled with anxiety and depression, but his stubborn willfulness kept him focused and moving forward. Because of how respectful he was toward all women, especially his mother and his nieces, I always felt safe in his presence and looked forward to our conversations and our Spanish/English lesson exchanges. He is extremely loyal to his family and deeply passionate about shedding light on the corruption within the Guatemalan government and creating positive change for the people of Guatemala. I have watched him step up to lead his family and fight to protect their values. Guatemala is lucky to have a man like Acisclo because he is far from the typical stereotype of macho men that people often associate with Latin America. From the last time I saw him, he has since completed his college education and is working as a journalist in Guatemala City while pursuing his hobby as a photographer in his spare time.


Despite all the time I spent with Acisclo, I unfortunately do not have a single photo with him. In place of that, here is a photo of two of his favorite people, his nieces Arli and Sarahy, for whom his love and patience is endless.

Tayra – Tayra is another woman whom I could regard like a sister in Guatemala. She was my first friend. When I moved into the house where she (and her husband and daughter) were also living, Tayra reached out to me to make suggestions on how we could share the kitchen space and take turns buying the propane tank for the stove, which she also offered to share with me. I could tell she was very intelligent from the start and we grew to share almost everything with each other–successes, failures, frustrations, funny stories, laughter, and tears. She was so patient with me as I struggled to communicate everything in Spanish at first. Her family lived an hour and a half away so although she was part of her husband’s family in town, she felt a little isolated sometimes which is partially why we grew so close so fast. We collaborated on her daughter, Sarahy’s (to whom I played an auntie role) birthday party, we cooked together, I was there encouraging her through the interview process for a great job she got, and she was there for me congratulating me whenever I finished a project with my groups. She would also tease me about Acisclo because she said if I married him, I could be her sister-in-law which was really the important thing to her! Tayra has also been subject to domestic violence and a relationship ridden with emotional manipulation. At one point, she left with her two children (her son was just a few months old when I finished service), quit her job in the process, and moved back in with her father. She was determined to make it on her own, but she had trouble finding work, and after several months, her father told her she needed to move out because he was about to get married again. (Tayra’s mom passed away when she was young.) Tayra went back to her husband for the sake of her children because she couldn’t find work and had no other option for supporting them. She would do anything for her kids–they are her world. Tayra is a fierce woman and a survivor. For this woman who has sacrificed her pride, independence, and emotional freedom for the sake of her children, I have the utmost respect.




Sergio – If ever I had any doubt about the existence of angels, once Sergio came into my life, I knew God had sent me an angel so I never questioned it again. Sergio is the epitome of a typical Guatemalan man (not the bad stereotype!): his priorities include family, work, soccer, and God. Sergio is from a town just outside of the tourist city of Antigua and has worked at the same restaurant in Antigua for more than a decade now. He practically runs the place at this point as he is the head manager there. He works six days a week so I used to joke with him that he was married to Frida’s because he was so committed to that restaurant. Sergio is easygoing, gentle, hard-working, and steady. There is absolutely no drama in his life, and he has the biggest smile ever! After we first met, we took our time getting to know each other for a couple months before we started dating. To enter into a relationship when we were both in such healthy, stable positions meant that we had a solid base so partnership and communication was easy from there. I learned so much from him about how to let a man lead–it was not about power or control, but from a place of caring and generosity. Shortly after we became a couple, I went through an experience that had the potential to turn me against men and lose all faith and trust in them; had it not been for Sergio, maybe I would have gone off the deep end, but he kept me sane and walked the journey with me. I absolutely adore this man, trust him with my life, and am so grateful for the time we shared together (which was about six months). Sergio takes care of the things that matter to him–he is fair, trustworthy, devoted, honest, and like-able. Whomever he decides to marry someday is going to be a lucky gal and I hope she appreciates him! He will brighten any person’s day who crosses his path.



Sometimes when we imagine what people are like in foreign places, we think they might be very different from us, with alien-like features or strange customs, but the point I’m making here is that people are all just people everywhere around the world. They struggle, they feel things, they love, and they may even hate. Just like us. A difference that may be obvious by these people’s stories is that Guatemala exposes people to hardships and tragedies that are often preventable in the world that we know, the westernized, developed world. When things like this happen in our world, it catches us off-guard, whereas struggle is a way of life in Guatemala. It took a long time for me to uncover the personal stories of these individuals–one would never know any of the difficult stuff they have dealt with just by meeting them. The takeaway here is that these people don’t live by their stories. They just live.

I had to leave my site earlier than I planned to, before my service was fully completed. After reporting an incident that I was involved in that Peace Corps classified as a rape, I was originally told that I would not be allowed to go back to San Andrés, but I insisted that I needed to finish my work and worked out a negotiation with Peace Corps that allowed me to go back to my site, accompanied by volunteer support and security, in order to properly wrap up my work. We scheduled ten more working days, however an ensuing threat from the perpetrator, whom I had known for nearly two years, resulted in me being permanently pulled from my site after only five working days. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to finish my work and give proper goodbyes, however, Peace Corps did its best to maintain my wishes while prioritizing safety and security. I was reassured that the impact I had made on the community came from me actually being there for two years–another five days was not going to make that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things.

Coming off of that departure, I spent nearly two years in “victim mode,” mourning the loss of relationships and trying to recover a sense of myself again. Living under the pressure of constant anxiety, self-doubt, and insecurity, I was not able to be fully present in anything I was doing. For two whole years. Since then, the case has run its course. Toward the end of the legal process, I was faced with an amazing opportunity for forgiveness, and I found peace, healing, and renewed relationships in doing so. By letting go of what “happened” to me, I essentially took back my life. If I can do it and I’m just a normal human being like everyone else, then I believe that any human being has the ability to let go and take back his or her life in order to really live it.

Bad things inevitably happen to all people at some point or another. That is part of life. Every person I mentioned above has experienced extreme hardship, loss, or heartbreak, yet they have kept moving–they have not let those things either stop them or define them. Their examples show that although tough stuff can happen, we don’t have to give up living because these things really aren’t so bad after all if we are still alive and connected to other people. Guatemala represents resiliency and that is what we can learn from its people.

In the wake of terrible things that happen in the world, there are usually two types of survivors: those who did not die and those who came back to life. Someone who “did not die” is prone to become an empty shell of a person, reflecting on the pain or misery from the past while spending the rest of his days counting down until his times runs out, which it inevitably will. But for someone who has come back to life, there are no longer any countdowns as every day is a gift, and he has learned to count up and approach each day as a new opportunity to create endless possibilities in life to live, laugh, love, and just be.

So the challenge I propose is that you step away from the countdowns and leave your story behind you. None of us know when our time will run out and often it is cut short when we least expect it to be. So why are we conditioned to spend so much time ruminating over things that happened to us in the past? That’s a waste of time when there is so much more we can be creating in our lives in place of looking backwards or counting down. Counting up is so much more fun because there is no limit to it; instead, there is endless possibility in it!

Of course, there is one other option which would be to just not count at all. My grandma has had a clock on her wall for years that shows the face of the clock with all the numbers fallen in a pile right around where the “6 o’clock” zone is. The hands of the clock all function properly, but instead of the numbers, the phrase “who cares?” is inscribed across the face. I have contemplated the meaning of that clock ever since I was a child and I still love it’s simple concept. It really doesn’t matter what time it is. Tic toc. Tic toc. Tic toc. Who cares?!? Relationships matter. Cherish the moment. Time is life. Be grateful.


All my love,

Backpacking Bonus 14: Flashpacking through Vietnam

During my usual lodging investigation upon arrival to a new city one evening in Vietnam, I asked a group of people who had just walked out of one of the hotels listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook what the place was like, how much the rooms cost, and if they liked it. One of the guys responded that the indoor pool [practically in the hotel lobby] was all right because he could just sit next to it and drink beer all the time. A few others raved about the huge breakfast that is included with a stay, and everyone noted that they were paying only around $7/night for a dorm bed, but that there were definitely cheaper places around. Standing in the middle of the road with my backpack still strapped around my shoulders and hips, I asked about private rooms and said that I’m not really looking at dorms. The first guy immediately enquired, “Oh, so what are you–a flashpacker, then?” I kind of laughed, responded that I just had some work to do, and thanked them for the information.

While I had heard the term “flashpacker” before, I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. One of the definitions I found online is the following: “Flashpacking is a term used to describe backpackers who upscale their travels. They travel with a backpack but they stay in nicer digs, carry fancy electronics, tend to be a bit older, have a bit more money to spend, and don’t cook in hostels every day. They are backpackers with means.” While I wouldn’t say that I have met all those qualifications during every part of this particular trip and I certainly do not have much of a disposable income at this point in my life, during my time in Vietnam, I would definitely agree with that guy and say, “Yes, I am totally flashpacking right now!”

While traveling, most people are faced with decisions they have to make based on the question, “Do I have more time or money right now?” Or, the flip side: “What do I have less of–time or money?” In my case, by the time I arrived toVietnam, I knew I was running out of time and was therefore willing to spend a little more money for private rooms, restaurant food, and flights from city to city as opposed to hostel dorm beds, street food, and overnight bus or train rides. A very long country with an area of 329,566 square kilometers, Vietnam has a gigantic population tallying up to nearly 93 million people now. I was actually surprised and impressed at how advanced and systemized the Vietnamese society is considering how many people there are. I moved quickly through the major cities and attractions in only 12 days, but was delighted at what I saw and experienced along the way. By this point in my journey, my main concern was wrapping up my project, therefore, I did not dig deep into Vietnam the way I had been delving into other countries during this trip so consider this just a glimpse.


Just a few weeks prior to my arrival in Vietnam, I was communicating with a family friend back home who was going to be traveling in Asia for a couple weeks while I was still here. Craig has known my family since I was a wee little girl as he and his wife have attended the same church as my family (on my dad’s side) probably since before I was born. I have always admired Craig as a traveler because he has seen so much of the world and the stories he has shared are relatable. He was excited for me and supportive when I joined the Peace Corps (although worried, I recently found out–like most of my family and friends, I gather), and when I told him I was going to be traveling in Asia, he was so happy because Thailand (and Bangkok) are some of his favorite places. I always thought it would be fun to travel with him so when this opportunity came up, I was all over it. Comparing travel plans and options for travel scheduling, it turned out that Vietnam was going to be where our paths would cross.

I am glad I made the decision to wait until the end of my trip–after I had fully decompressed while island-hopping–to visit Vietnam, which is back on the Southeast Asia mainland, because the place can be overwhelming. Knowing that I was going to be traveling with Craig made me feel relieved and ready to tackle this big beautiful country! Also, I didn’t have much of an agenda for Vietnam besides just being there to hang out which was perfect because Craig had exactly the same thing in mind so we spent most of our time just walking through the city streets, hanging out at coffee or ice cream shops, ignoring any advertisement for touristy activities, and having some great conversations. We both had work to do so we balanced each day very well, allowing each other free time and space in big chunks so we could each stay focused on our projects, then reconvening to share meals, walks, activities around town, and–of course–more conversation.


The painting I saw at an airport in Vietnam caught my attention by how it portrays the depth of Vietnamese culture through subtle and delicate, but strong, undertones.

Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon)

We met in Ho Chi Minh, a gigantic city in the south of Vietnam positioned around rivers with skyscrapers spanning across the landscape. Craig arrived a day ahead of me and told me he’d meet me at the airport. (What a relief it was to have someone meet me at the airport and pick me up!!!) Craig had already settled into a fabulous hotel…way out of my budget, but because I was traveling with him, he made sure I had access to some of the perks at the hotel such as business lounge on the 30th floor fully stocked with snacks and beverages and with a panoramic view of the city. Talk about spoiled… The small hotel I had booked was literally right down the street from where Craig was staying so it made meeting up very convenient.

Ho Chi Minh is a very active place. A “big city” in every sense. There are buildings and neon lights and music and motorbikes and people all over the place. There is constant commotion–it’s one of those cities that never seems to sleep. Craig immediately observed that Ho Chi Minh has a conspicuous outdoor culture. People sit on their porches or on the streets and sidewalks in the evening to socialize over meals, playing games, or just chit catting. While the daytimes are busy in the city, once evening rolls around, it seems like everyone hits the streets. Traffic is horrendous with motorbikes jamming in everywhere and even riding up along sidewalks. Yet somehow everybody seems to abide by some unspoken system and they all get to where they need to go.


The streets and sidewalks of Ho Chi Minh City are congested with motorists–mostly on motorbikes, All the time. Many people wear face masks on the streets in order to prevent inhalation of smog and other pollution.

I wish I could share more about Ho Chi Minh, but I lost our one full day there to stomach sickness. It was funny because I had just been telling Craig how I have a pretty strong stomach and I rarely puke and that I hadn’t had any serious tummy issues in the 13 weeks I had been traveling in Asia, and then the next day I was humbled into fetal position where I remained curled up on my bed in between visits to the porcelain god in my restroom for several hours. We figured that it was caused by all the fresh greens I had so eagerly devoured the night before at dinner when Craig and I shared some “pho,” a typical Vietnamese soup of thin noodles, meat, and some herbs/greens, at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. While Craig didn’t go near the fresh lettuce, mint, and other greens, I didn’t even think twice about it because I was so distracted by my excitement over having a companion to hang out with again. Craig was great about it, having had lots of experience with stomach sickness while traveling, and he encouraged me to continue resting my achy body throughout that day.

Nha Trang

From Ho Chi Minh, Craig and I flew north to Nha Trang, a beach town, or city rather, on the beautiful coast. Nha Trang isn’t exactly a “beach getaway” that most people dream about as it is more along the lines of a commercialized resort theme with tall buildings and hotels [blocking the afternoon sun] and busy streets packed with motorbikes and tourists. It wasn’t really my style, nor Craig’s, but we were happy to be there to explore the place and we found a variety of entertainment options that included walking through parts of town that were beyond the tourist tracks, riding Craig’s rented motorbike up and down the main strip along the beach road, searching out the best local restaurants, and making fun of Russians. (Russians have a dominating presence in Nha Trang and the Vietnamese really don’t like them. Not only do Russians make no attempt to speak English, but the majority of them are very cold and unfriendly–quite the opposite of the Vietnamese. Craig said that there are 4 daily flights from Moscow to Nha Trang now so the Russians just pour into the place and take over.)


Nha Trang is like a beach “city” with skyscrapers and resorts lining the crescent-shaped water’s edge.


Craig and I enjoyed many cool meal experiences at local spots that included lots of fresh vegetables and meat cooked right at our table.

In Nha Trang, Craig again stayed at a fancy Sheraton hotel (and allowed me access to the executive lounge again, this time on the 25th floor with a view of the spectacular crescent-shaped golden beach line and blue water), but I hadn’t booked my place ahead of time so he got to join me on my “lodging investigation” this time which was an adventure in and of itself. I picked a tiny boutique hotel down an alleyway after searching unsuccessfully for three other spots recommended by the guidebook. The selling point for the hotel I chose was Mai, the lady working at the front desk who talked to us on the street and showed us the rooms. She was sweet, helpful, and welcoming. We actually became good friends with her and spent more time with her during our time in Nha Trang (next paragraph). In addition to all of our other shenanigans, we did manage to get in a solid beach day lounging around doing nothing but swimming and enjoying the sun.


From the rooftop lounge of the Sheraton, we could see the busy strip that runs along the coast in Nha Trang at night.

On Halloween, our last night in Nha Trang, we made plans to go out to dinner with Mai and her fiancé, Quan. We got a little “dressed up” (as best as we could for traveling and being in such a warm, humid environment) and followed them on their motorbike through town to a nice restaurant overlooking the river with local food. They were so excited to show us Vietnamese culture and food. In three years working at the hotel (her uncle’s business), Mai said that this was the first time she accepted an invitation to go out to dinner with hotel guests. (In the past, she had only been asked by single male travelers and she always turned that down; I think it made a difference that I was female and Craig and I were not a couple. She felt very comfortable with both of us.) Dinner was fabulous and we had a lot of fun goofing off and playing with our food. They both spoke English relatively well, but we had to speak slowly sometimes to ensure understanding. We ended the night getting dessert drinks on the rooftop of the Sheraton, looking down at the glittering lights along the main strip and admiring the nearly full moon. I think it’s safe to say that that night out was the highlight of our time in Nha Trang.


Craig and I sharing a delicious, fun meal with Mai and her fiancé, Quan, who taught us some of the Vietnamese ways to preparing and eating local food.


The many faces of Mai and me, including playing with our squid dinner in the top two corners. She is my Vietnamese sister now!

Traveling with Craig made me realize a lot of things. Our travel styles and mentalities are very different, although we are both much more interested in having “local” experiences as opposed to “touristy” ones and we made great travel companions because we communicated, respected each other’s space, and ditched any agendas (besides some necessary work time). A person’s initial travel experiences can shape how they travel for the rest of their lives. Craig has mostly traveled in Europe and Asia and a lot of it has been for business and work, whereas my foundation for travel comes from getting by on very little money as a single female in Latin America. While Craig and I were together, I had a lot more speculation about people and I was much more wary than he was of any behavior that might indicate someone trying to take advantage of me/us; these things hardly ever crossed Craig’s mind. I sometimes assumed the worst and was often wrong about it, but I am accustomed to having my guard up initially, then slowing letting it down. And while I am a natural negotiator and excel at bargaining to ensure a fair deal is met, Craig said that that behavior is not easy for him. It was funny to me to see how differently we approached certain situations and it became obvious to me that Craig has to worry much less about being taken advantage of. (I guess it helps to be a tall, white guy with 25-30 years of career success and world travel under his belt!)

I really appreciated being with Craig and felt at ease because I trusted his travel ability and decision-making. It is always nice to travel with a companion, and in my case, with a male companion because it takes so much pressure off of me for having to be on high alert all the time and also for dodging invitations and unwanted attention from creepy men. Also, Craig was the closest thing to a piece of home that I had gotten in over 3 months so that made me even more excited!! We shared so many wonderful conversations and I felt completely spoiled, traveling “in style” with my backpack. From Nha Trang, we flew together back to the Ho Chi Minh airport and then we said our goodbyes and parted ways–Craig got on a flight to Bangkok and I took a different flight to Hoi An, a small town on the central coast of Vietnam.


A glimpse of local life in Nha Trang: boys playing in the water, a toddler on a motorbike, a lady stopping on the side of the road to make a call, and teenagers lining the beach after school to play soccer, volleyball, and hang out with friends.

Hoi An

By the time I got to Hoi An, I felt I had developed a good general sense of Vietnam: it is a place infused with subtle flavors, delicate art, and gracious people. Hoi An was a reinforcement of all of this when I was greeted by polite, smiling people everywhere I went. This was the town where I was labeled a “flashpacker” upon arrival and, true to form, I passed on the place with the $7 dorm rooms and opted for a spacious private double room with a long desk in front of a tall window that opened up over my very own balcony with a street-side view for $26/night at the boutique hotel next door. Environment makes all the difference. It even had a big bathtub.

Hoi An is such a delightful town and is definitely my favorite place in Vietnam. The air was cool in early November so I felt like I had a tiny glimpse of autumn while I was there and I even wore my jeans for the first time since leaving San Francisco back in July. The town itself is pulsating with French influence that can be seen in the architecture of the buildings in and around Old Town, tasted in the French bread from the local bakeries, and heard in the street language that seems like a mixture of French and Vietnamese. (There are also street signs and shop advertisements that are written in both languages.)


Hoi An is a city on a river steeped in French influence. Within the localized area, transportation is limited to walking, riding a bike, or taking a boat which significantly reduces the sound and pollution levels within an area of multiple city blocks.

Hoi An, although located just inland from the central coast, definitely has more of a “river town” feel than a beach vibe. Old Town lies right at the river’s edge and consists of two or three long parallel streets that are closed off to motorized vehicles so only pedestrians and bicycles can enter. The street are lined with all kinds of shops and cute restaurants and in the evenings, strings of hand-made silk lanterns–the symbol of Hoi An–illuminate the walking streets overhead, creating a very romantic and whimsical atmosphere.


The charming, lantern-lit streets of Hoi An at dusk.


There is one particular Vietnamese dish that can only be found in Hoi An. It is called “cao lao” and it is a soup-like dish made with noodles, sliced meat, greens, and broth–it sounds exactly like “pho,” but the difference is in the noodles which are cooked with water from a special well only in Hoi An so they end up with an al-dente texture and they are kind of chewy. One afternoon, I set up shop at a place called “Mermaid Restaurant” just so I could try multiple local dishes over the course of several hours. Cao lao was one of them–while its spiciness surprised me, it was delicious and unique. I also had “white rose,” a delicate soft dumpling filled with chopped up, seasoned shrimp, and fried shrimp-stuffed wontons topped with fresh crab. I was there for three hours and stuffed by the time I left, but very satisfied with my foodie indulgence.


My local Vietnamese cuisine taste-testing day at Mermaid Restaurant in Hoi An included my usual mango shake, fried shrimp-stuffed wontons topped with fresh crab (top right), cao lao – Hoi An’s specialty (bottom right), and “white rose” which is a delicate soft dumpling filled with seasoned shrimp (bottom left).

Something that I found very charming about Hoi An was that many of the local people I came across initiated interactive experiences with me. First, I was wandering down the street and passed a shop selling tea that I was interested in buying; the girls insisted that I sit down and taste-test each tea that caught my attention so I could be sure I was making the right choice.


Taste-testing tea at Trà Viêt in Hoi An.

Then, when I went back to the lantern shop I had scoped out to pick one, the girl working there, Viet, (whom I had met the day before–the reason I picked that shop out of a hundred others) told me that she hand makes each lantern; she proceeded to show me how she does it, and then invited me to try. The shop owner was there with us as well and we all laughed and bonded, then I ended up purchasing two lanterns, but we bargained a fair deal first.


Viet and her aunt, who owns the lantern shop, in Hoi An. Viet gave me a lesson in assembling the lanterns and even let me help her adhere silk strips to several lanterns she was working on. Silk lanterns such as these are the symbol of Hoi An.

Lastly, when I went to buy some fruit as a snack from some ladies on the sidewalk, they were completely cracking me up trying to put a whole bunch of fruit from each of their baskets into my bag and then charge me an arm and a leg for it all! I put most of it back and worked out a price I was okay with (probably still more than I should have paid), but I asked to take of photo of them which they agreed to, but then one of the ladies jumped up and put her baskets across my shoulder and offered to take a picture of me! Despite a slight language barrier, we laughed and laughed. It was fun for all of us.


Three Vietnamese ladies selling fruit along the sidewalk in Hoi An. They wear the traditional Vietnamese hats and transport their baskets by puttin a stick across their shoulders and hanging a basket on either end of it. Strong and funny little women!!


I had a go at carrying the fruit baskets myself and was surprised at how heavy they were!

One more thing Vietnam is known for–especially in Hoi An–is its superb tailors. In Hoi An, the streets are lined with tailor shops back to back to back. I don’t know first of all how people choose a shop among all of them and, secondly, how they all manage to keep their doors open! I’ve never been to a place where the tourist activity of choice is to hang out at a tailor shop. I did it, too. When I was leaving Bali, Wayan had given me a piece of beautiful gold Balinese fabric as a gift. I didn’t really know what I was going to do with it so when I heard about the tailors in Vietnam, I knew they could help me solve the issue so I found a spot called Kimmy Tailor (recommended by the reception ladies at my hotel) and showed up with my fabric and some photos of dresses I had seen, then I sat down with Kimmy and another lady and we designed a dress that would work with the material. They took my measurements, set appointments for me to return for three fittings, and sent me on my way. The following afternoon, I picked up the final product of their work and was very pleased with my new custom dress.


At Kimmy Tailor in Hoi An, Kimmy and her assistants (in red dresses) consult with their clients to choose fabrics and lining material, design outfits, and take measurements so they can create custom-made pieces for their customers. The customer service here, as well as the quality of the dress they made for me, was top-notch.


I showed up to Kimmy Tailor in Hoi An with a piece of gold fabric from Bali that Wayan had given me as a gift, then I worked with the designers to create an idea that the tailors turned into this beautiful dress. It is one of my favorite souvenirs from my trip, combining the culture and skill from two amazing countries and reminding me of the friendship I have with wonderful business women from around the world.

Despite the fact that everybody always raves about how cheap everything is in Vietnam, by this point, I felt like I was dropping money everywhere in nearly $50 increments at a time! “Here you go, Tailors, here’s $50 to make me a dress.” “Oh, and Hotel Receptionist, of course you can book my flight for me and arrange my transportation to the airport–thanks for asking! Here’s $50 for those tickets.” And when I went to the post office to send a package home since I was shopping so much and collecting heavy gifts: “Ok, Post Office Lady, you need $50 to send my 6-pound package back to the United States? No problem!” Yeah. That’s how I rolled in Vietnam. I was very sad to leave Hoi An and I wish I could have stayed longer, but it was probably better for my wallet that I left otherwise I might have ended up with another dress or something!


Snapshots from local life in Hoi An (clockwise from top left): 1) Man taking a snooze in the middle of the work day. 2) Board game set-up on a sidewalk in front of businesses, ready to go for socialization in the late afternoon and evening. 3) Women chatting near the market where they sell chickens. 4) Stacks of traditional Vietnamese hats in the market.

Hanoi and Halong Bay

When I left Hoi An, my flight to the capital city, Hanoi, in the north was an easy one hour trip. I didn’t have much time in Hanoi–I mainly went to access my next adventure in Halong Bay–so I can’t say that much about it except that it is also a bustling, lively place. There are SO many motorbikes parked all along sidewalks that people have to walk in the street with the traffic. I also noticed that there are many chic places to hang out with retro-style coffee shops, flashing lights, museums and other capital highlights, open park areas, a beautiful lake accessible to the whole community, and specialty restaurants.


The capital city of Hanoi has an active and social night scene among tall buildings, neon lights, colored fountains, shopping centers, restaurants, and happy people. This particular spot is just across the street from Hoan Kiem Lake, which has local access for all to enjoy.

I found a “health food” restaurant/cafe called Hanoi Social Club near where I stayed: my first time there I had an avocado mango wild rice bowl and four days later when I went back again, I devoured a plate of roasted pumpkin topped with lentils, tomatoes, feta cheese, and a mustard balsamic vinaigrette. I know it wasn’t really “Vietnamese” but it was in a capital city, and typical capital cities tend to be progressive, open, offering a lot of variety, and on the front end of technological advancement in their countries. I need to figure out how to make that pumpkin dish…

Now for Halong Bay, Vietnam’s crown jewel. Halong Bay is made up of nearly 2,000 limestone rock formations that are “islands” in the sea. These islands have been covered by nature’s greenery and so they literally look like emeralds speckled across a large body of water. Halong Bay is recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site so it attracts tourists from all around the world. The only way to experience Halong Bay is through tour companies and taking a 1, 2, or 3-day cruise through the area; if locals are caught showing tourists around, they will be fined which means the cruise companies have a complete monopoly of Halong Bay tourism.


An aerial view of Halong Bay. From this photo, you can see how much of a tourist attraction it is by the plethora of junk boats/cruise ships scattered across the water.

After researching online reviews, hearing some horror stories about cheap cruises gone bad, and referencing my guidebook, I knew I would have to drop around $200 for a quality 3-day cruise. I booked through the hotel reception and ended up on the “Silversea Cruise” steel luxury liner–one of the newest, nicest cruise ships on the bay. Most of the other boats are smaller, wooden ships called “junk boats,” however they are designed very well for luxurious touring of the bay. In any case, the more expensive tours are extremely well run despite the sheer number of visitors to Halong Bay. The place was swarming was people, yet somehow all the guides from the different tour operators managed to keep things on a tight schedule and coordinate boat location, activity times, and transfers so that different groups and boats are not overlapping. The guide we had on the first day said that he only has two days off per month–he runs a crazy tight work schedule.

There were nearly 40 people on my particular cruise ship from all over the world, but mostly Europeans–and of the Europeans, German was majority. It kind of felt like I was on Survivor and if we had to vote people off in the first 20 minutes, it would have been the Spaniards who complained immediately that this wasn’t the ship they had signed up for. (When the crew drove them to the ship they HAD signed up for, a smaller, less fancy one, they opted to return to our boat.)

Strangers on a boat, we immediately had to make friends as we were shoulder to shoulder for all the scheduled activities including a cave tour, swimming in the bay, karaoke night, squid fishing, tai chi, kayaking, and even a quick trip to a pearl farm–all squeezed into the first afternoon and the following morning. Most of these activities were “optional” but our guide was very strict with movement and schedule for those who did participate. “Okay everybody, fifteen minutes for swimming–go now!” followed by, “Excuse sir, don’t swim so far away from the boat.” Then, on the speaker system linked directly to all of our rooms, “Ladies and gentleman, please come to the dining room area for dinner in 5 minutes. Thank you very much. Ladies and gentleman, please come to the dining room area for dinner in 5 minutes. Thank you very much.” Yes, he repeated everything twice–on high volume. Some people compared it to cattle herding, but the best way to handle it was to just go with it and laugh because it really was very entertaining.


A sampling of experiences aboard the cruise ship in Halong Bay: TOP — Karaoke night (R), The Silversea Cruiseliner (C), Me with some emerald islands in the backdrop (L). CENTER — Our Korean friend showing us his squid catch (R), Fancy shrimp dumplings at one of the multi-course dinners (C), The squid up-close before it was released back into the water (L). BOTTOM — Kayaking in the Bay (R), A group of multi-ethnic passengers socializing on the deck (C), Our guide really getting into a special song about Vietnam during karaoke night (L). As you can tell, there was a lot to do and we were never short on activities or overall entertainment!!


Top left – Me, hanging out on the top deck of a junk boat next to the Vietnamese flag. Top right and bottom left – Snaps from the cave tour where the limestone stalagmites and stalactites are lit up by colored lights for visitors. Bottom right – a fishing village in the midst of Halong Bay where locals have actually built their homes floating on the water.

I noticed multiple times while I was in Vietnam that the Vietnamese really love to stick to their schedules–no flexibility allowed! It seems that there are structured systems that have been worked out somehow and every Vietnamese person will adhere as best as possible to the system he or she knows–and usually without communicating what is going on in their head. In some cases, I was even physically pushed in order that I arrived to the exact position that the “pusher” wanted me in. It wasn’t ever a mean or harmful push, just a “hurry up, I need you there, I don’t have time to give you instruction” kind of push. Rarely was there an explanation. This cultural tendency was directly opposite from the one I encountered just before Vietnam in the Philippines where the people are so direct and verbal that they can sometimes come off as intrusive and make people uncomfortable. The Vietnamese will avoid confrontation at all costs if it means they would make someone uncomfortable–they are WAY too polite to do that (even though lack of communication can lead to frustration for the other party involved).

Anyway, the cruise package was better than I expected (but I went in prepared for the worst) and the meals were AMAZING!!! All three lunches and both dinners were full 10-course meals–some dishes were served individually while others were family style, and the breakfasts were amazing as well. The first night we slept on the boat (I shared a room with an Indonesian lady because no singles were available), and the second day we were dropped off at Nam Cat Island resort where we had an entire free afternoon for beach activities, swimming, kayaking around the bay, and just hanging out until we all retired to our bungalows on the island for that night. When we were picked up in the morning, a different guide did a “cooking demonstration” of how to prepare spring rolls, then people all got to have a shot at it. The best part, of course, were all the other people sharing the same experience. While most of the people were just temporary acquaintances, there was one, maybe two, with whom I’ll keep in touch.


The emerald beauty of Halong Bay! Top – panoramic view of some of the limestone formations in the bay. Bottom left – Claus, from Germany, and I out on a kayaking adventure. Bottom right – A distant view of Cat Ba Island and its private beach, where we all disembarked from the ship on Day 2 and spent the day/night until returning to the ship on Day 3.

As for Halong Bay itself? Mystifying. Besides the traffic in the bay from all the other cruise boats hanging around and, consequently, the pollution in the water due to the high volume of people and boats, the limestone islands were beautiful, especially when the sunlight hit them from varying angles. Every time we circled an island, a new string of rock formations would appear. We also passed “fishing villages” on the water in certain areas where local people have built their houses on floating foundations so they both live and work on the water. My favorite time in Halong Bay was definitely dusk because as the sun faded away, the layers upon layers of islands stretching out in front of us also disappeared like phantoms escaping into the night.


Halong Bay as the sun is setting.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Vietnam. I traveled so comfortably that I didn’t really feel like I was backpacking much. I was definitely more than a little spoiled by Craig, but the rest of the trip was just as delightful. The cities in Vietnam were lovely and alive, and it was pretty easy to get around. I enjoyed the cities so much that now a big mystery lingers in my mind as I wonder what the villages are like. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to get off the beaten path in Vietnam! I think I have enough friends in Vietnam now that it would be easy to do if I came back, but I’m about ready to tuck my backpack away for a while–maybe let someone else borrow it…

TRAVEL TIP: When you are taking public transportation, shuttles, or even taxis while traveling, request to sit in the front seat. Most of the time, these spots are not reserved for anyone in particular so if you can snag a shotgun seat, chances are that you will have more personal space, leg room, access to the A/C (if there is one), and overall comfort. I caught on to this idea when Allan used to make this move in Laos and Cambodia, and then again when Craig would make specific moves for that extra space and comfort in Vietnam. Of course, both of these men are over 6 feet tall, but still–it’s a good tip to know. The good spots don’t just get handed to you–you’ve got to be proactive about it!

Daydreaming with a satisfied smile,

Sexy in Guatemala, Part 2


When I say that there is no “sexy in Guatemala,” it comes down to all of this. How can a woman have confidence in her sensuality when she is constantly receiving feedback against it? A woman revealing cleavage or wearing a dress, skirt, or shorts above her knees might as well assume there are invisible signs saying “Grab Me” across her chest and bum that only men can see. And of course, if something happens to her, the attitude is that it was her fault because she shouldn’t have been wearing such clothing. And if something happens to her when she was by herself, she “should have known better than to go anywhere alone.”

Because there is so much violence and mistreatment of women, women are not taught that they are free to love their bodies and express their sexuality as it relates to being a woman. Instead, the main form of female validation comes attached with motherhood. Other forms of validation are associated with the onslaught of catcalls when a woman gets attention from dressing in a so-called “sexy” or revealing manner; catcalls can be interpreted as a measure of worth very similar to the way that “likes” on social media photos and posts can affect a young person’s self-esteem. “Attention I receive means that I am being seen.” People want to be seen, to matter, and unfortunately, the sources of this validation sometimes promote a cycle of behavior that emphasizes superficial values and encourages negative behavior.

Coming off of the time I spent in the presence of Pedro, Jeffrey, and Don, I finally put my finger on all the ways I had changed my behavior and appearance while living in Guatemala so I could deflect unwanted attention, but it made me SO mad to realize that I had been suppressing a large part of who I was in order to “blend in” and protect myself. It occurred to me that women in Guatemala do this on a regular basis, so much so that it is now second nature to them to sacrifice their true identities and desires. When I realized all of this, I became irate and defiant all at once, determined to tackle this issue as much as I possibly could in the short amount of time that was remaining in my service term. I became much more assertive, standing taller and acting boldly, even to the degree of dressing in a way that made me feel both feminine and good inside–instead of trying to hide. I started embracing everything feminine and loving all parts of being woman. I didn’t want Guatemala to take that from me, nor did I want the young, kind, intelligent Guatemalan women whom I came to deeply care about to believe that, for safety’s sake, they had to shadow their identities as women and the individuals that they are for the rest of their lives.

I started close and small-scale with the cat callers in the community of San Andrés Sajcabajá, where I lived and worked. As one person, it wouldn’t have been realistic to take on a tourist city like Antigua or Panajachel, but in a small rural town, it was absolutely possible. Every time I got cat-called or whistled at as I was walking down the street, instead of ignoring it like I used to do and like most of the other women in town do, I would turn around and walk up to the group of men where the call came from and asked who had done it. In developing countries like Guatemala, people will do everything possible to avoid confrontation so the way I directly approached these groups was probably a tad bit embarrassing to the young men in the group. (My intention was always to train, not to humiliate.) I didn’t get mad or say anything rude back to the boys (I usually wouldn’t bother with older men), but I did let them know that I wasn’t a dog, or a cat, or any type of animal for that matter, and that I had a name and if they wanted to talk with me in the future, I would prefer that they greet me with a simple “good morning” or “good afternoon” and that they call me “Seño,” which is short for Señorita and means “Ms.”, or that they address me by my name, which I then provided. I also let them know that if they continued to speak to me as if I were an animal, I wouldn’t have a problem regarding them in an equally animal-like tone, even throwing rocks at them the same way they like to throw rocks at the street dogs. I said that ladies prefer to be treated respectfully, and then I wished them a good day and went on my way.

Surprisingly, the boys actually responded to my requests and the cat calls in my direction significantly subsided throughout the town as the cordial greetings replaced them, proving that this behavior was not only a learned behavior, but that these boys were open to guidance–even if it came from a woman.

In addition to that, many of the girls in town with whom I worked or shared friendship even started noticing it. The girls in one of the nutrition courses with cooking classes that I held at my house started asking me if I could teach the boys how to be respectful to them as well. They used to ask me for all sorts of love advice as well (which was funny because I was single for the majority of the time they knew me), but they trusted me enough to listen as I encouraged them to take their time to find a quality catch. Their requests launched me into the most meaningful aspect of my service which was facilitating gender role workshops at their school. It was extremely important because it was something that they ASKED me for, something they were interested in, something that could be sustainable and effect real change.


I grew close with the small group of young women who came to house for nutrition courses and cooking classes. We discussed almost every topic in our time together and over shared meals. From left: Manuela, Juana, me, Angee and her daughter Alexandra, and Maria Jose.


These young women (Manuela, Angela, Juana, and MaJo) felt very comfortable in my home and were the group of girls constantly consulting me for love advice and requesting that I teach the boys how to respect them.

First Round of Workshops at Magisterio

My work at Magisterio, the institute for teachers in training in San Andrés, had actually begun in the fall of 2012. Peace Corps had trained all PCVs to educate about HIV/AIDS and encouraged us to seek opportunities to run the workshops within our communities. The workshop booklets we had were already in Spanish and came complete with enough activities (and materials) to run a 4-hour interactive training session–although we would usually cut some activities to keep it within a two and a half hour time slot. The average age range for students at Magisterio was 16-21 so it was the perfect group to educate about HIV/AIDS. In addition, there were actually four documented persons [among a total municipal population of 30,000 spread throughout 69 villages] living with HIV/AIDS in the municipality of San Andrés, which was relatively isolated in comparison to other municipalities of Guatemala being that there was not even a paved road to the main town. In the case that a viral epidemic of any sort took off, it could be catastrophic amongst an isolated population which is why it was particularly imperative to teach about HIV/AIDS–what it is, how it works, how it spreads, and how to prevent contracting it.

One afternoon as I was walking down the street in town, I passed a teenage girl, Mayli, whom I had just met the week prior through another friend. I knew she attended Magisterio so I asked her if she and her peers had ever received any HIV/AIDS training at school. She replied, “No, but what we really need is to learn how to prevent pregnancy.” Bingo. I requested that she introduce me to the director of Magisterio, Don Tono, so I could ask for permission to teach. Not only was Don Tono overjoyed to have a Peace Corps Volunteer teach at his school (it turns out he interacted with an English-teaching PCV when he was a child in the department of San Marcos, where he is from), but he pretty much gave me free reign of the place, telling me, “This is your house, do whatever you want.” Immediately after that, I began teaching SexEd workshops to the students, explaining the anatomy and physiology of the male/female reproductive systems, introducing different methods of family planning, and covering material from the HIV/AIDS workshop.

The classes at Magisterio were divided into 10 sections, each of which had anywhere from 20 to 40 male and female students (depending on the grade level and section) and totaled about 300 students school wide. When I first got into the classrooms, I asked the students to raise their hands if they had ever received any lessons about “the birds and the bees” prior to me entering the school. Only about three or four students per class raised their hands. Considering that about 25% of the ~300 students were already married and/or had children, it seemed odd that most of them had never been exposed to SexEd and family planning so I asked them why they thought that was the case. They said that their parents think that if they don’t talk about sex with their kids, it will prevent their kids from becoming sexually active so soon. The students also speculated that some of the reasons could be that sex is a taboo topic which makes it embarrassing or uncomfortable for their parents to discuss, or that their parents hadn’t received enough education about it themselves or were taught different methods. In any case, for the majority of students, the workshops I taught were the first time they had received formal education around the topic (and I was happy that I could really put my biology background into use for this!).

When the school year came to an end, Don Tono asked me to come back when school started again because the students loved the workshops and wanted more. It was during that school break that some of the girls I knew made the request that I teach the boys how to respect the girls. Based on that request, I modified the SexEd workshop and expanded it into a 3-workshop series covering gender role stereotypes, responsible sexuality, and family planning/reproductive health.

Gender Role Stereotype Workshops

The gender role stereotype workshop was powerful in that I played the role of the facilitator while the students basically taught each other. I led an icebreaker in each section where we stood in a circle and each person had to say their name followed by “I am a man/woman because I have [blank] or I like [blank].” We had the obvious physical differences that drew giggles when identified, but there were also examples such as “I am a man because I play soccer/work in the fields/like the color blue/etc.” as well as “I am a woman because I like to cook/I spend time with my friends/I wear jewelry/etc.” At the end of the icebreaker, we identified that, yes, some of the things listed–mostly physical differences–DO distinguish one gender from the other. However, likes and dislikes or activity preferences are often based on personality and are not necessarily a factor that determines whether a person is a male or female. Some girls like to play soccer or say blue is their favorite color, and there are men who love to cook or who wear bracelets, rings, necklaces, etc. The takeaway points from this activity were to demonstrate 1) how easily we categorize gender differences, 2) how those assumptions create stereotypes, 3) that, yes, there ARE different physical traits and capabilities between women and men, but 4) that every individual has a unique personality, and 5) that all women and men should have equal rights, freedoms, and opportunities. This activity paved the way for a productive session.

After introducing the concept of stereotypes and how they can lead to the mistreatment of one group or another, I broke the students into four groups–two boys-only and two girls-only groups. One boy group and one girl group each worked separately on making a poster of what came to mind when I said, “What is a man or what does it mean to be a man?” And the other boy group and girl group worked separately on their poster of “what is a woman or what does it mean to be a woman?” Each group subsequently presented their posters to the class, showing both men’s and women’s perspectives on the opposite gender as well as their own. I was delighted with the results of this activity because it was eye-opening for the students to see that men and women really do think differently, and it also stirred up a lot of controversy about gender role stereotypes which forced the students to have a discussion about it, understand it better, and seek productive solutions.


A boys’ group presenting their version of “What is a woman?”


At Magisterio, the girls’ poster presentation of “What is a woman?”

The poster presentations were fascinating in that the boy groups usually depicted their man or woman as a drawing, focusing on the physical aspects of the gender, accentuating the man’s big muscles and the woman’s boobs in particular. In contrast, the girl group posters usually involved a collection of descriptive words and phrases; in the case that they did draw pictures, their woman was in a dress or skirt and top and their man was clothed, as well, with no extra attention given to his biceps. This exercise showed a significant difference in how 16- to 21-year-old boys versus girls have different trains of thought: the boys placed more importance on physical attributes while the girls focused on behaviors that elicited an emotional response. The students basically demonstrated to each other and themselves how very differently the genders tend to operate–all I did was ask them to make a poster.


The boys’ poster presentation of “What is a man?” Note the inflated muscles!

While both the girls and boys described their own gender as intelligent and unique, there were some differences in perspective of the opposite gender. When the boys used descriptive words for their “woman” poster, they were generally very positive and along the lines of “mother, homemaker, nurturing, caring, beautiful, has a big heart.” In contrast, the majority of the the girls’ posters for a “man” mentioned “father, protector, strong” along with “liars, cheaters, unfaithful, and womanizers.” This is when things got interesting. The fact that all those negative connotations immediately came to women’s minds when describing a man was very telling of the societal standards. I vividly remember one section of students where this situation highly offended the boys in the classroom and the tension in the room was so high that I seriously thought it was going to break out into a full-blown gender war. But it didn’t. In fact, it was the perfect lead-in to tackling the gender role stereotypes that created the situation in the first place.


A girl group presenting their descriptions of “What is a man?” Notice the thorough analysis that took up two posters. Funny how the girls’ groups each used two posters for their presentations while the boys’ groups used only one poster each. A raw example of how differently men and women think!

We identified how stereotypes are born as well as what some of the dangers of acting on them are. Many of the boys felt that it was unfair that the girls labeled them as unfaithful, lazy, lying womanizers; they claimed that they were honest and hardworking and that they had never cheated on a girlfriend. We discussed how “a few bad apples can ruin the whole barrel” and that the actions of just a few people in the group can create a reputation for the entire group, sometimes eliciting unfair judgments toward those who haven’t done anything to deserve them. It rang true for both sides–the boys and the girls. And in that safe space during the workshop, both sides spoke up and had an open conversation about how they feel when one side or the other makes generalizations about their gender. It was neat for me to witness the healing and growth that took place while the students worked through their frustrations and misunderstandings revolving around gender stereotypes–it seemed almost as if I were guiding couples’ therapy sessions!

Following that topic, I would pick a male volunteer to come to the front of the room so we could run through a reverse “cat calling” situation where I got to be the cat caller, sitting in a chair at the front of the room, and the boy had to walk back and forth across the room in front of me each time as I made whistling and “ch-ch” sounds at him (like the ones boys make toward women in the streets) and hollered things like, “I love you, baby,” “Hola, sexy,” and “Ow! Qué guapo” as I smacked my lips and looked him up and down. Every time we did this activity, the class was in stitches laughing their butts off. When I finally gave the brave volunteer reprieve from passing back and forth in front of me, I would ask him to share how he felt about me completely objectifying him. The volunteer often commented that he didn’t want to walk in front of me anymore or that it felt really weird that I was whistling at him–finally being able to relate to how girls feel when they walk down the street. That was a great opportunity to open the floor up for the girls in the room to share more of their experiences getting cat-called. We then discussed everything from why the boys do it to what other ways boys and girls can speak to each other and get each others’ attention in respectful ways.

To conclude the workshop, we summarized the differences between men and women and decided as a class that both genders are pretty awesome and each brings unique contributions to society. Instead of having men and women in competition with one another and working against each other, they should instead support their differences, highlighting them even, and appreciate how men and women complement each other. I suggested that they think of what they could achieve by putting their skill sets together instead of trying to bring each other down–and that gender roles in society are NOT still what they had been for years. I wrapped up the workshop by reminding them to find look for ways to respectfully communicate so they can break down the ingrained stereotypes, one person at a time.

These gender role workshops were absolutely magical to me. The students didn’t really get the opportunity to talk about these issues in a constructive manner anywhere else which was a bummer because they had so much to say and shared so many good ideas. They were totally engrossed in these workshops. I wish I had more time to facilitate projects that came from the kids. They were hungry for information and exploration of these topics.

Responsible Sexuality Workshops

The next workshop topic in the series, responsible sexuality, perfectly piggy-backed onto the gender role workshops because the students were already primed to be on an equal playing field. “Responsible sexuality” was based on the idea that a person’s sexuality is linked very closely to his or her identity as a person and that each individual–male or female–has both a right and an obligation to make responsible decisions accounting for both the pros and cons of engaging in sexual activity. I emphasized the fact that all people develop at their own paces and that no one should be rushed into having to make these big decisions before they are ready to.

My aim for this round of workshops was to influence the students (in their late teenage and young adult years) to to view sex as a natural part of being human, to encourage them to regard it as a gift that is best when it is respected and appreciated, and to give them some necessary tools to be able to protect themselves and their futures and actually plan when they are ready to have children as opposed to being surprised by an unplanned pregnancy. In that age group, especially in that rural society where people often marry while they are still teenagers, sexual activity is on the rise. In my opinion, you can either treat them like children, pretending they are not doing anything and tell them not to do anything…OR…you can treat them like adults, educate them, and transfer the responsibility into their hands. The latter approach was met with attentive, participatory, curious and eager-to-learn young people. (Well, let’s be real…I was talking about sex–of course they were paying attention!)

One activity we did was to have an open discussion about the pros and cons of sex. Some of the “pros” that the students came up with were the following: it feels good, it is a means to have children and grow a family, it is an expression of love for one’s spouse/partner, it can be a stress release, and it is fun. Everyone was excited to discuss these positive aspects in a safe space where they wouldn’t be judged or ridiculed for admitting that they believed that sex was a good thing. Using this topic as a launching point, I pointed out that in life when there exists a possibility of attaining great pleasure by doing a specific activity, there is often also a significant cost and therefore implied responsibility associated with that activity. The greater the risk, the greater the reward.

Naturally from that point, the discussion shifted to listing off the “cons” of sex which included the following: unplanned pregnancies, transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, sexual abuse/violence/rape, and broken hearts. Taking some of those things a step further highlighted a secondary negative effect which was the financial burden that having a child or requiring medical treatment could place on the couple and their families if they were not properly prepared to take it on. Knowing that I would be taking a deeper dive with the students into family planning and reproductive health in the third workshop, I guided this particular discussion toward the exploration and analysis of the other two major “cons” listed, starting with broken hearts.

Being that we were having an open discussion, comments and opinions were encouraged from both the boys and the girls. I distinctly remember how one boy’s comment that he just likes to “get in and get out” caused a big stir in the class. He was vocal about it, surprising both the girls as well as many of the boys in the class, but it was a perfect example of how boys and girls are wired differently. Many of the girls were offended by this guy’s comment, and shared their perspective of how much love and emotion is associated with their idea of intimacy. We continued this exploration of emotions and noted that it does seem that girls get attached more easily than boys when they start dating someone, and they get especially heartbroken when they give a piece of their heart to someone who moves on quickly which can lead to distrust in all men, or the creation of stereotypes due to one bad experience. The challenge I put forth for the students regarding the emotional realm was to really take their time getting to know someone before they made decisions to have a physical relationship; broken hearts can last a lot longer than one expects and all the sweet talking in the world from an “in-n-outer” isn’t worth the time it would take to heal.

Launching from that point, it was easy to start talking about consent and how everyone has rights to make their own sexual decisions for themselves. Due largely in part to Guatemala’s long history of machismo and male domination in various other forms, boys are conditioned to believe that it is their right to dominate women. They are encouraged to go out and “conquer” by whatever method of force or persuasion they can come up with. The definition of rape as the developed world understands it is practically a joke in Guatemala because the definition itself implies that a woman has a say in the matter. Rape occurs often in Guatemala, and while most women feel violated, they do not know to call it for what it is. Just the act of speaking up or making an allegation could put a woman’s safety at risk so most women choose to bear the psychological burden on their own, hoping that nothing bad happens to them again.

Silence is an effective and powerful way to give permission to continue the behavior which is why we focused so much on the importance of speaking up during the workshop. We touched on violence and the psychological impact of sexual assault and rape, as well as the fact that rape can exist within a marriage. A common belief is that once a man marries a woman, he has full rights to her body. While marriage is a sacred private bond between two people, it doesn’t mean that one spouse has any fewer human rights than the other. For most of these students, this was the first time they had even heard of some of these concepts or learned about the legal system and equal rights.

I was so grateful to have a platform within those workshops to educate this group of young people. During the process and through discussion, questions, activities, and group presentations, I actually learned more about these students and their belief systems than I realized existed. These students were bright, curious, motivated, and innovative. In addition to the girls really taking a stand for themselves, the boys were participating and asking tons of questions. This gave me so much hope because it showed that these boys wanted guidance and were open to being taught by me, by the girls, and by each other; they weren’t necessarily stuck to the habits that generations before them had integrated into the community. Once I realized that, I started targeting the boys and picking out the young leaders–the ones who naturally held the most influence over their peers–to let them know that their peers look up to them and that they could really set into motion whatever behavior change they wanted to see in their community. The respectful way that just a couple boys treat the girls (and vice versa) could shift the standard and the tone of male/female relationships for the entire community.

To close out this workshop, we went back to the list of pros and cons of sexual activity and created a third list of “action items” that would account for all the concerns. In order to reinforce the idea of responsibility, I emphasized that each person has CHOICES to make. The obvious, neutral method to avoid everything related to sex is abstinence: if you are not ready for the responsibility, then choose NOT to engage. (Of course, this method could not work for everyone because about a third of the students were already married and had children of their own.) Other things to consider were birth control (available at the Health Center), STI checks and prevention measures (also available at the Health Center), taking the time to get to know someone, maintaining respect within the partnership, and ensuring that consent exists (and is heard) from both sides before moving forward. That is a lot to do!! But the take home point was that these young people now had knowledge and tools to make responsible decisions and if at any point if they were not willing to take on the full responsibility, then the best choice would be to refrain from sexual activity.

Family Planning & Reproductive Health Workshops

The design of the third round of workshops was focused mainly on family planning so we started it with the icebreaker activity (that I had used with my women’s groups) of two or three families racing back and forth to retrieve beans from a bowl and transport them via spoon to “feed” their children. Because there were so many students, we always had enough people to have three “families” participate so it got really competitive and they howled with laughter and teased the bean-racing “parent” when the “severely undernourished” children were pronounced dead due to starvation. The economic impact of having children made a lot of sense to these students.

After some good laughs, I started the workshop by taking a deep dive into the anatomy and physiology of the male and female reproductive systems so that the students gained a better understanding of reproductive cycles and how easily pregnancy can occur. I made posters to illustrate reproductive parts and explain their function. They laughed some more when I compared the uterus to being a nice, cushy bed for a baby and one boy even joked that it was like a sofa and the babies just hang out watching soccer on their in-womb sofas during pregnancies! Creative.

In discussing the ovulation cycle and the probability of pregnancy, we compared the odds. Female bodies release one egg about once a month which is fertile for a window of 24-48 hours; they are of reproductive age from puberty until menopause, so on average for about 35 years, give or take. Male bodies, on the other hand, can produce millions of sperm per release which can live anywhere from 3 to 7 days inside the female body; in addition, after puberty, males do not lose their ability to produce sperm so there is no cutoff age for reproductive capabilities. After doing the math here, it becomes clear that a released egg is totally outnumbered by sperm and will no doubt end up fertilized if the timing is right.

Furthermore, in the days leading up to ovulation, hormones in the female body surge, not only creating a strong sexual desire in the female, but also alerting males that a particular female body is ready to make a baby. I explained that this is a completely natural thing and part of the cycle of life and then pointed out that it is evident throughout the town with the “chuchos” as well as the street cats. I asked if they all could cite a time when they heard a cat howling throughout the night, then I attributed it to her hormones and joked that she was calling out to her feline lovers. I also mentioned the occasions when they see a single female street dog being followed around by seven or eight male chuchos with their tongues hanging out, explaining that when a female dog is in heat, her body emits hormones that attract the males. I joked with the classes, saying that it’s not really fair to the ladies when our hormones betray us like that…but all the more important to take pre-cautionary measures!! Now that they were aware of this, they could understand that sometimes hormones influence us to act in ways that we would not normally choose, and they could look out for it and make a plan to guard themselves from the “attack of the hormones.”

The biology lesson set the stage for introducing the various methods of family planning. I used materials provided by the local Health Center to explain various methods, including how they work, how often they need to be implemented, and what some possible side effects are. First and foremost, we talked about abstinence again (just don’t do it), however, that was not a fair method to encourage for the married students so we continued down the list, covering birth control pills, the shot, IUDs, condoms, and even having one’s tubes tied in both males and females. We discussed how each couple may have a different preference on which method they use, especially depending on timing and whether they had already had children or not, but that it is important for men to be involved in this process as well because it is a shared responsibility. Our activity for this section was walking through the steps of how to appropriately use and dispose of a condom and using materials from the Health Center to implement the “condom demonstration.”

We briefly touched on other reproductive health topics such as PAP smears for ladies and the possibility of contracting sexually transmitted infections/diseases, but I referred them to the Health Center for any concerns in those departments. The Health Centers in Guatemala are actually extremely resourceful and provide plenty of free services to the people, but most people don’t realize that. I encouraged the students to consult the Health Center, which was a mere five blocks from the school, for further information and to use their resources, such as free condoms and other birth control methods, in order to maintain optimal health and opportunity for themselves


Bottom line, FEAR trumps the possibility of “sexy” in almost every situation because it undermines true confidence. I recently saw a speech that Ashton Kutcher gave during which he stated, “Sexy is being being smart, being thoughtful, and being generous.” I like how he framed it as it takes the focus off of physicality. However, in a place like Guatemala where fear and violence dominate society, even being smart, thoughtful, and generous could run a risk for an individual.

Guatemala breeds some of the strongest women a person could ever meet. These women come up with so many coping mechanisms for the adversity they face, and they keep on moving. Sadly, some of these coping mechanisms include trying to gain favor with men by attempting to keep other women from being successful, but on a positive note, they also ban together in tight-knit women’s groups to protect each other. Any “blame the woman” society inevitably results in extremely resilient women who have learned to set aside their pride or their own needs in order to survive.

By not having the freedom and rights that I was used to having in the USA, I really learned to value them, and I had never learned to really appreciate men until I lived in Guatemala. I used to think that I was so independent and could “do it all myself” even if something were typically a man’s job. In Guatemala, however, I came to recognize how important men really are to partnership, to community, and to effecting change. I realized that we can shout, “Women power” and “Si se puede!” all day long, but in a male-dominated society, women aren’t going anywhere unless there are strong, supportive men on board with them. I think back on some of my favorite men in Guatemala, admiring what they have done for their communities and praising the examples they set with their quiet strength and unforced influence. Don Tono at the school, my brilliant friends Acisclo and Hansel in San Andrés, and my boyfriend Sergio were each so different and yet so extremely caring about their families and other beneficial causes in their communities. These men taught me how to let a man be a man, how to appreciate their natural tendencies to lead and to protect what is important to them.

Women’s empowerment is one of the biggest social movements around the world right now. It is inspiring to see the progressive changes in many global societies; some countries, like Guatemala, are a little behind other countries, but the seeds have been planted and change is happening. Women’s empowerment affects more than just women; its impact on men is just as great. In fact, I would venture that men are some of the most important players in these changes so we cannot leave the men behind as women move into powerful positions and embrace equal opportunities that are now available to them.

As a single, American woman living in a small rural town in Guatemala, there were two main things that I stood for in my service, besides filling the role as a health promoter. The first was to firmly support the notion that women have voices of their own as well as the rights to use them. Women can speak up for and defend themselves–it is not absolutely necessary to have a man around in order to have an identity. The second thing–which was for both men and women, boys and girls–was to encourage each person to identify and laud their personality strengths, to embrace those things about themselves, and to protect them. Each person is an individual whose unique talents and abilities can contribute to the betterment of the whole community. It’s okay to be different. Men and women leaders can step up into any role and effect small, but pivotal changes. While I was a living, breathing demonstration of all of this, I graciously recognize that I learned more from both the women and men in Guatemala than I could ever possibly teach or show them myself. (Most PCVs express a similar sentiment.)

In conclusion, sexy is as sexy does and everyone’s interpretation of the term will be different. To me, sexy means being comfortable in your own skin and embracing the man or woman that you are–deeply loving and respecting that person. While this chapter has been a reflection of the conditions in Guatemalan society that prevent “sexiness” from having a solid existence and a brainstorm of how-to’s for bringin’ sexy to Guatemala, the concepts and action items apply to communities all around the world, even in the USA. The absence of “sexy” is startling because it indicates fear, insecurity, or oppression of some sort. The kind of world I want to live in is one where people are free to express themselves and women feel safe when they are walking down the street in the presence of men they do not know.

How do we get to that point where everyone can be sexy? By talking about it, educating people, and enlisting men. (Men can be sexy, too!) With all the gender role changes associated with the women’s empowerment movement, men want to be a part of it just as much as women do and they want to learn how to navigate the changes without sacrificing their purposes, forgetting their identities, or losing their power. Let’s move forward together and be open to interdependence instead of making it a competition between the sexes. Both genders bring so much to the table!

Ultimately through education, fear can be dispelled. Sexuality is an integral part of each person’s identity and doesn’t need to be feared or suppressed, but appreciated and respected. Education around the topic empowers people to think and take responsibility for themselves and could even lead to a reduction in related harassment and violence, such as assault, rape, and abuse as well as domestic violence. I was lucky that I got to take advantage of the opportunity to ignite conversation and be the person empowering teenagers, young adults, and women to recognize and utilize their rights to choose their identities and paths. But this is a conversation in which we can all participate if we are open to engaging in the opportunities that pop up all around us with relatives, coworkers, students, and friends.


Same little girl from last chapter. In her great big smile, I see that she feels happy, safe, and free. It is possible to spread this kind of joy around the world!

Here’s to bringin’ sexy back!

100 Days Later: The Yin and Yang of Travel Withdrawals and Readjustment

The concept of yin and yang is derived from Chinese philosophy and represents the balance of the universe between the two opposing principles. Yin is the negative, passive, dark, and feminine force, and yang is the positive, active, bright, and masculine force. The interaction between these two principles is thought to maintain the harmony of the universe and influence everything within it. So for every negative situation that arises, there is always a complementary positive perspective. According to this Chinese theory, as people begin to detect the flow of these forces in their relationships, in the seasons, in their food, etc., they become better able to regulate their lives accordingly in order to achieve equilibrium more consistently.


Just before I was preparing to leave for Guatemala at the beginning of my Peace Corps service, a former teacher of mine from Saint Francis High School commented that I would be “ruined for life”–but in a good way. At the time I didn’t fully understand what he meant. Now after accumulating years of travel experience and living abroad–and then returning back to the United States–I get it.

After four months of backpacking through Southeast Asia from late July through late November, I have been back in the United States for 100 days now (well, technically that plus another month, give or take). I’ve been through this before, the “re-entry” and reverse culture shock associated with integrating back into society. During Peace Corps, we were all warned that coming home is harder than starting service in a foreign country.

The best way to counteract the negative effects of readjustment is to have a plan, to jump into something big right away such starting a new job, tackling a creative project, or attending grad school. This helps to curb the travel withdrawals because one has something to focus his or her energy on and does not have time to get lost in thoughts and feelings of being “lost.” Readjustment Round 1, after returning from Central America, was an extremely stressful and unpleasant experience during which I essentially became a crazy person. Now, despite the fact that I know better than to just float around after returning from a big trip in order to avoid the torture of withdrawal, Readjustment Round 2 has involved lots of floating thus far, consequently forcing the total experience and exploration all of the thoughts and feelings associated with ending one journey and returning to the place from which I started AGAIN.

I believe that anyone who has traveled for extended periods of time, lived abroad, moved to a different place (then returned “home”), or been deployed on military duty can relate to a lot of these feelings and thoughts. I debated whether to include this chapter and decided that the readjustment process after being away is such a critical continuation of the journey as a whole that it very much belongs in the story. And for anyone reading this who is currently experiencing some of the same things, I hope this can offer some reprieve in knowing that you are not alone, influence in acknowledging and accepting that you are exactly where you are supposed to be, and encouragement to just keep moving.

100 days later, my time back in the United States has been a blur. Most days blend so much into one another that my existence might as well be a flatline. Something has been missing. My high is gone. It sometimes feels as if the life has been sucked out of me. The severe withdrawals I have been experiencing make me realize that travel is like a drug for me. I haven’t really wanted to see many people or even talk to them. Holiday season could have come and gone without even phasing me because even in the presence of my family, I was not really present. In the wake of losing access to my drug, my rebellious mind has mostly just been refusing to engage in society.

100 days later, as I reflect on the drug-like effect that travel has on me, I can identify that I became addicted to the euphoria that I was experiencing on a regular basis–almost every other day–while I was abroad. The constant stimulation I encountered kept my senses on high alert, making me feel alive. Looking back, I remember each day vividly. I did everything I possibly could to maximize my high on life. I was sleeping 8 hours per night naturally, eating a very fresh and balanced diet, and staying active so that I could be at my very best every day to readily take on every single moment, letting them all be a part of me and assist in the flow of my journey. I am grateful that I learned it is possible to experience some of the most amazing highs in life without having to rely on or abuse any sort of tangible drug or other empty substances and activities. None of that emptiness can hold a flame to the natural high of traveling and living/feeling/breathing the present moment. I feel blessed to learn this while I am young.

100 days later, I want to run. I have felt so trapped and disconnected, yearning for the freedom and autonomy that guided my journey abroad. As I have not yet decided where I want to live, I have been existing mostly in other people’s spaces under their house rules and on their schedules; while my hosts have all been so accommodating and open to me having my own schedule, I can’t seem to grasp a hold of anything to call my own just yet, and I am sometimes resentful of my chameleon-like behavior. I am restless and have been up in the middle of the night on several occasions, whimsically planning my next getaway–gauging plane ticket prices to Nicaragua and Panama, researching work visa requirements for Australia and New Zealand, and strategizing about how I am going to get to Paris this year.

100 days later, I realize that running is not necessarily the key to my freedom. Instead, I find peace in believing that my freedom is defined by my skill sets and relationships. I am grateful for all the travel experiences that have increased my adaptability and flexibility while growing my network. I have friendships with some really cool, interesting, compassionate, and amazing people all around the world. I have learned to take things as they come and have acquired the tools necessary to approach any situation with an open mind, steady judgment, and grace. I can navigate the globe and make a home pretty much anywhere when I find a way to relate and connect with other people. That is freedom.

100 days later, I am homeless and jobless. I have very little stability and I hesitate to commit to anything because I usually don’t know where I am going to be at any given time, and I am also trying to stretch my limited resources. I do not have immediate access to most of my “things” as they are nicely stowed away. Sometimes I get this feeling that I am invisible and that I will continue to be until I “make something of myself” or pick a path (i.e. get a job, pick a place to live, perhaps even date someone for once, etc.) because there is no way to describe the state I am in according to the definitions that our societal systems have conditioned most people to operate on. Homeless and jobless illicit a negative connotation in this country. Some of my family members and friends have expressed their concern.

100 days later, I acknowledge that the position I am in is entirely a choice and that I am not in a desperate situation at all. I appreciate that traveling has taught me that I don’t need a title, an address, a fancy car, perfect makeup, or designer jeans to MATTER. Traveling with only a backpack allows people to to connect to others organically, share a meeting of the minds, and exchange energy by simply showing up. A person’s “stuff” doesn’t define him, and I understand that in order to have the most authentic relationships and bask in the present moment, there is no need for anyone to dress up and put on a show. Traveling lightly allows people to leave their masks behind and act on the desires of their hearts. “Heartspeak” is “Godspeak” and traveling allows people to step away from all the noise and distractions at home and really get in sync with God and their “heartspeak.”

100 days later, I feel like a failure. I left to travel with the goal of completing the writing project that I have been working on for nearly five years and I came back before it was done. Even some of my long-term supporters allude to the fact that I’ve been saying, “It’s almost done” for over half a year and have suggested that I move on and maybe come back to it later. It is difficult to think of myself as a writer when people keep wondering when I am going to get on with my life, and sometimes I feel guilty that my time is going to my writing and not to my loved ones who have been patiently waiting for me to finish. I am unfocused and easily distracted, and I seem to meet with rejection around every turn I take. Some days I feel so small and weak.

100 days later, I remind myself of how blessed I am and much I have done in my life. I am so grateful for the time I had to travel and write because I accomplished and experienced so much in that four-month span. I am in awe of how travel affords us the opportunity to be whoever we want to be: when I claimed that I was a writer, I was met with fascination and curiosity, not with challenge and doubt–but that was because I took ownership of my identity and purpose. I was on top of the world and felt like I could choose to do anything in my life. I gained so much confidence in my ability to write that I decided it would be something I do always. I knew it would be risky to come home before I finished, but I reminded myself over and over during my last flight of how I had practiced writing so much in the past couple months that I had developed the discipline, ability, and vision to finish. I refer to my writing jokingly as a “destructive passion,” but I am respectful of its driving force inside of me. Each failed attempt to do anything else besides write at this time is just a reminder that God has something else in mind for me than anything I am throwing dice at right now. He graciously continues to bestow gifts of time, space, and other resources in my life that affirm that He believes in me. With those gentle and quiet, but ovbious, reminders, I remember and believe that I am capable to do my part, which is to continue writing, and say, “Thank you for carrying me through when I have been too weak to take steps on my own.”

100 days later, I get irritated when people comment that I have to go “back to reality” now that I am not traveling anymore. What I really want to do is shout, “That was my reality! First of all, MY reality has never been YOUR reality. And secondly, I refuse to go BACK. I’ve moved on so going back has zero appeal. I will not work at the job I had before. I will not live in the place I lived before. And heck, I may not even socialize with the same people anymore!” But instead, I stare blankly or force a half-smile and make a mental note not to discuss my recent travels, path to re-integration, or daydreams of escape so often.

100 days later, I am patient. I feel so blessed to have had so many travel experiences around the world–I have seen, done, eaten, and explored things that the majority of the population may never have the chance to experience. A lot of what I have done exists only as an unreachable fantasy in many people’s minds. I cannot expect people to understand something they have never been through or learned about for themselves, and I realize that all people exist in their own worlds that make sense to them; by acknowledging this, I embrace the freedom to exist in my own world as well. I am grateful for the power that I have to create my own reality. My life for four months was traveling and there was nothing unreal about it: I met real people, ate real food, interacted with real animals, and spent hours upon hours sharing real conversation, experiences, laughter, and even some tears…with more REAL people. This version of reality is forever integrated into the flow of my life. I lived and breathed it therefore it is my reality. It may not look like the person’s next to me, but do any two people really share the same version of reality? In reflecting on this, I remind myself to keep criticism at a minimum and advise others sparingly as I have not walked in their shoes, nor have they walked in mine.

100 days later, I long for community, connection, and something to which I can contribute, but I feel empty and inadequate, like I have nothing to give. I feel like I need to protect my resources right now in order to make them last, but it conflicts with my nature to serve. I am reluctant to take from others when I don’t feel that I can give back so sometimes I retreat from social situations and community circles, placing the pressure only on myself to be independent and self-sufficient.

100 days later, I think of the song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and embrace the cycles of life: To everything (turn, turn, turn), There is a season (turn, turn, turn), And a time to every purpose under heaven. When we learn to set aside our pride and ASK for help, we will likely find ourselves surrounded by an amazing community of people who just want to do good and serve others, not expecting anything in return. I am blessed that some of those people have found me and encouraged me to come out of my self-imposed isolation, showing me that it is okay to graciously accept generosity from others and that I do not “owe them.” The reward is connection. I have faith that the time will come when I will be able to give, love, and contribute wholeheartedly again. I recall the invaluable lesson that all travelers get a taste of–that our presence as human beings is enough, just how we are, even if we show up empty-handed. Money is not the only currency in life.

100 days later, I feel out of place and guilty that I do not really care to be the good daughter/sister/friend/auntie that some of my friends and family expect me to be. One of the most difficult things about re-entry for all travelers returning home is that people remember them for how they were before they left and only know how to interact with the returnees in the manner that they always had before. The problem is that travel inevitably results in accelerated growth and change because the constant stimulation of new people/places/perspectives stretches the mind of the traveler; the returned traveler arrives home with this new set of experiences, inevitably making it so that he or she relates differently to both the world as well as loved ones. I am very well aware that I am not “showing up” the same way I used to and that has resulted in the weakening of some of my relationships and friend circles, but as hard as I try to be interested in certain things or connect to certain people I care about, I cannot force something that isn’t there. I am sad for the loss of connection and frustrated that I am unable to mend all relationships, but I cannot deny the fact that I just don’t fit anymore into some of the spaces I used to occupy before I left.

100 days later, I am open to the concept of “changing circles.” There is a quote I recently heard that says, “Sometimes God will have to change your circle in order to be able to change your life.” There is no denying that I have outgrown the space I existed in before I left; however, I acknowledge that while I was traveling and experiencing my own healing, growth, and change, my friends and family members at home have all been going through constant shifts in their own lives as well. Sometimes life moves so fast that it is hard to keep up with everything and everyone, but if we are patient and accepting of the ebbs and flows, allowing time for both sides to get to know each other again without judgment or expectation, a path to healthy, strong relationships will be forged; it is also important to recognize when to fight to hang on, when to allow some temporary space and distance, and when to cut ties, trusting that God places people along our paths at different times for a reason and will continue to bless us with beautiful relationships along every step of our journey if we are open to it. ALL human beings are capable of adapting, and with enough love, patience, and determination, eventually adjustments can be made to re-establish the equilibrium of relationships that run deep with unconditional love. I am grateful for the family members and close friends who have shown me this and encouraged me to keep flying.

100 days later, I am lost with no direction which makes me unsure where to step. There is a constant pressure to “know it all right now and make a plan” combined with others’ good intentions and great expectations. Coming from a place of love and a desire to help, people make suggestions as to what they think might be best for their returned loved ones–trying to help solve their “issues,” but that can feel overwhelming when nothing clicks or seems to make any sense, especially as the laundry list of suggestions just keeps getting longer and people follow up, wanting to know if their suggestion was helpful in some way. Going into hiding and “laying low” for a bit is a typical way of reacting to the stress of this situation. As time slips away, I fear that my skills are getting “cold” so I had better hurry up and make a decision. And when I drag it on, I am even harder on myself, unforgiving of the dips, thinking that I should be doing SOMEthing to move forward, but I seem to be frozen in place. We are our own worst enemies, of course.

100 days later, I am exactly where I am meant to be. Transition is a gift and I am grateful that I have the resources to sustain me so I can take my time with this particular transition. Traveling refines a person’s familiarity with his or her intuition because it is sometimes the only thing a traveler has to rely on in an unfamiliar land with no directions. By surrendering the belief that I need to be superhuman and asking for grace and patience, I can come out of hiding, stop questioning my purpose, and trust that my instinct will continue to guide me in deciphering what does and does NOT feel right. As I re-embrace my traveler mindset, I rejoice in the freedom I have to be taste-testing so many different “worlds” right now (right here in my own country mostly!), understanding that the “next phase” will reveal itself to me in due time if I remain proactive and open to it.

100 days later, I feel powerless and resentful that I am being molded by my environment. I am afraid that everything I worked so hard for and all the new skills I learned are just going blur into other people’s lives unless I find an outlet to continue practicing the healthy habits I formed abroad. And when I concentrate on what I am afraid of, the fear manifests and I end up doing exactly what I don’t want to happen. I am only one tiny person trying to protect my fragile new skill set from people’s good intentions and great expectations, and I am SCARED that I won’t be able to stay strong in my values and beliefs, resulting in me falling back into a role of being the supporting actress in everyone else’s lives, cheering them on and mirroring my interests to theirs because I do not have the confidence to speak up for my own desires. When I have nothing to stand on and forget who I am, I so easily give away my time to everyone else, put myself in the wrong company, and beat myself up over my “shortcomings.” I am practically inviting in criticism and misery and opening the door for people to kick me when I’m down–which has already happened.

100 days later, I am rebellious and have become allergic to the “shoulds,” expectations, and obligations of society here as I recall how traveling empowered me to shape my world and to play the lead role in my own life story. What I wanted and what I was doing was so clear to me that I drew in the same kind of creative energy and surrounded myself only with positive people. I remember that I have the power to not put myself in situations where I may be treated poorly. Travel can be a great teacher in reminding us that we do not owe anything to anyone and we can walk away at any time–there is always a CHOICE. I am grateful for the time I got to spend learning, healing, and loving myself because when I was the most forgiving of my imperfections, I was able to be forgiving of others and engage in the world with an open, loving heart. Self-care has a positive ripple effect that goes way beyond oneself. I learned to adore my body, mind, and spirit and treat them all with respect, maintaining healthy boundaries; in turn, other people not only respected those things in me, but also felt inspired to honor the life and beauty of their own bodies, minds, and spirits as well. I have never been more comfortable in my own skin than when I was traveling, and in recalling that gift, I want to share it; instead of keeping the new skills and ideas I acquired abroad locked up in a safe place where no no one can mess with them, I embrace the opportunities to exchange ideas and influence all over the world–even at home. The best way to keep those skills alive is to practice them, share them with curious minds, and allow them to evolve and grow.

100 days later, I am suffocating under the influences of the depression and anxiety that run rampant in our society and I am craving the peace that dominated my daily life as I traveled. An anxious person lives life in the future, constantly worrying about schedules, planning, and achieving as much as possible within a limited space on the calendar; there is never enough time and even when he gets a lot done, he is always preoccupied, counting the minutes, and stressing over the next thing he thinks he is “supposed to” do. I don’t want to live like that. On the flip side, a depressed person dwells in the past, not even caring to count the passing days because he is so focused on his own pain and the story of what happened to him. Depression can be debilitating and leads people to believe that they are the victims of some sort of wrongdoing as they cope with the loss or emptiness they are feeling. In an ever-increasing self-entitled and narcissistic society, people are unavailable to love outwardly because they become trapped by their own plight and hardship in life. I’ve lived like that before, too, and it is easy to fall back into that mindset when we surround ourselves with that energy, but I don’t want that anymore either. Trying to figure out how to escape these dark, powerful forces that hold so many people down can sometimes be baffling.

100 days later, I savor the memory of how it felt to be living in the present moment on a regular basis. There was so much space in my heart to soak in everything that was around me, to try new things, and to learn about other people, places, and cultures. Every day was a brand new day to live, laugh, love, and learn. And that is exactly it–living in the present is simple, but we humans tend to complicate things with stories that take up space in our hearts and limit our potential to love and live in the moment. Everyone has a story–we have a past that contributes to our identities and an imaginary future that we fill with grandiose dreams to chase, and we are all constantly growing and changing throughout life, but we do not ever have to to get “stuck” by our stories. Depression and anxiety are normal emotions to experience, and but we get to choose whether those things dominate our lives; granted, some people are better equipped than others with tools and support systems to help get them through tough times, however, I think ALL human beings are capable of overcoming hardship and moving on. Difficulty is inevitable; drama is a choice. This time around in my travels, I learned that I could detach from my story and write whatever I wanted to on my new blank space. We can make ourselves sick, drive ourselves crazy, or let it all go and be rewarded with the gifts of the present: peace, happiness, and a high on life. Do you want your story to happen to you, or would you prefer to write your story and make it happen for you? We can all make that choice every single day.

100 days later, I am unsettled and restless, and I am not satisfied when I think of what might be next on the agenda: Get a job. Find a place to live. Make some money. Have some stability. Work my way up a ladder. Fall back into step with this society. But really?? I wonder–is that really all there is? It can’t be. It doesn’t have to work like that. I refuse to give in to that. I go in circles debating what my next move is going to be, and I think to myself that my teacher was right when he said that I’d be ruined for life once I’d lived abroad. Ignorance is bliss. I’ve seen too much so there is no going back now! I cannot settle for going through the motions–I need to feel something. I want more.

100 days later, I am at peace understanding that travel creates endless opportunity to redesign one’s life and empowers people to turn their visions into realities. I know what can exist because I felt it when I was abroad AND I created it in my life. I was open, free, and authentic, communicating how I felt as I felt it and letting it pass–and all of that came right back to me through the people I met along the way. I connected deeply with perfect strangers for perhaps only a few hours or days, but in my heart, I know that some of those friendships will last a lifetime. I know now not to be afraid of “aloneness” because I spent a lot of time alone and learned that I actually really like hanging out with myself; in fact, I am grateful for the time I had to really explore and embrace my “womanity,” learning to love my emotions, my mind, and my feminine curves in whatever form they show up. When I was completely at peace with myself, feeling whole, healthy, and happy “doing my own thing,” that energy drew in the same kind of people–and even a true romance. I am now convinced that single, intelligent, gentle, independent, kind, emotionally available, masculine men who love to travel and desire to be in an equal partnership with a woman do still exist. (Yep, ladies, these guys ARE out there! They could be sitting across from you or standing right in front of you, or they might literally have to cross your path twice before you take notice, but they are there if you are ready.) I am so grateful that I have had a glimpse of what it POSSIBLE because that is not only what keeps me hanging on, but it is also what inspires me to feel that I am capable of creating this energy anywhere I go–I do not necessarily have to be traveling in order to be true to myself and live in the present moment. In my core, I know I’m okay so I am determined not to rush through this redesign opportunity and to allow God to guide the process. There are no limits. Anything is possible.

Circling back around to the yin yang theory and its representation of perfect balance, I will re-emphasize that opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world; they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. Upon examination of the symbol again, one will notice that the dark side has a speck of light and the light side includes a tiny dark portion which can be interpreted to mean that negative and positive principles are NOT mutually exclusive. Daoist metaphysics (part of the Chinese philosophy) further explains this in that the distinctions between good and bad are perceptual, not real, and therefore the duality of yin and yang is an indivisible whole–both parts are necessary in order to complete each other, but they blend together in such a way that the two function as one.

I appreciate the conflict that the negative forces instigate because it seems to be critical to the development of a positive solution in any situation. I used to think that in order to have one thing in its fullest, I had to resist its opposite, but now I see
that opposites are actually meant to go together as they enhance the potential for what each other can create. Independence is maximized by partnership, and the more independent two people are, the stronger their partnership becomes. There is great freedom in making a commitment. Stability lays the groundwork for flexibility in one’s life. Chaos creates opportunity for re-organization and redesign. Feminine energy is at its greatest when it is complemented by a masculine counterpart, and vice versa.

One hundred days of rollercoaster emotions have taught me to appreciate the timing of when things really start coming together. I may still experience the occasional withdrawal, but the bounce back response gets stronger and faster each time. I guess the lesson here is to really allow ourselves to feel the lows in life–just as much as the highs–instead of resisting them because they are so crucial to the enhancement of our identities and what we are capable of creating in our lives. It is amazing to me that as the fabric of our beings gets thicker, it simultaneously becomes more intricate. This is a principle of life in general, not only as it relates to travel, however, travel tends to have a magnifying effect on emotions and speeds up life lessons to a sometimes uncomfortable pace. Although there can be unpleasant after-effects of travel, it will always be a part of my lifestyle. It is an obsession and an addiction, but ultimately, travel is a nutrient that feeds the soul and a medicine that heals the spirit.


Always with love,

P.S. “Sexy in Guatemala, Part 2” is coming soon; I’m just still deciding how to wrap up that chapter…

Sexy in Guatemala, Part 1

Let me first start by saying that there really is no “sexy” in Guatemala. That is the point of this chapter. Also, this chapter is mostly devoid of photos because it is an exploration of a sensitive subject and I do not want to influence people’s perception of “sexiness” based on visual representations that I have personally selected. There are a few photos I may use as examples of what is being discussed, however, what is considered as sexy is completely based on perspective and opinion. I’m not about to tell you what you should think is sexy, I am just going to explain how the general concept is pretty much out the window in Guatemala. (I hope all my “picture-readers” aren’t disappointed that I’m making them read the paragraphs this time!)

Also, as I have been writing about this topic, the paragraphs have just been pouring out from my fingers with seemingly no end in sight. It got to a point where I decided I better break this chapter into two parts; part two will post in just a couple days.

The idea for this chapter was born one evening in Guatemala during my Peace Corps service when Kathy, a fellow PCV and one of my best friends, and I were having one of our famously long phone conversations as we each prepared dinner and cleaned up afterwards in our respective homes in villages that were five hours apart from one another. We were trying to figure out what was sexy about Guatemala as it related to the “sexy” cultural things across the world stage, based on a rough classification system revolving around national pride, sensuality, and confidence. Between laughs and serious brainstorming, we came up with the following examples: the French language is sexy in France; in Italy, it is fashion; Argentina is sexy for its Argentine Tango; in Spain, it is the Flamenco, and in Mexico, salsa dancing is sexy. In Germany, the lederhosen for men and the dirndl for women could be considered sexy according to our terms, and we even stretched the concept to include Brazilian beaches and their golden-skinned “babes and hunks.”

We went all around the world throwing out examples of language, cuisine and eating habits, music, dancing, and attire that popped into mind and laughing at some of the ridiculous, nonsensical things that we came up with. But when we got to Guatemala, we reflected on the music–traditional marimba. Verdict? Not sexy. How about the traditional clothing in the indigenous villages? Maybe just a little tiny bit sexy, but not really, AND it would depend on which we were talking about as the traditional clothing changes with the region in Guatemala. Hmm. Maybe the dancing? We thought about the traditional two-step slow box dance that is part of the Maya culture and we burst into giggles–definitely NOT sexy.

Upon realizing that something was missing or that there existed some factor in the Guatemalan culture that prevented sexiness from having free roam, we were prompted to explore the WHY behind the absence of sexy. Based on the idea that a person’s sexuality is linked very closely with his or her identity, and according to our experience, research, and observations that the identity and role of a woman in Guatemalan society are dictated to her from an early age, the opportunities for a woman to confidently express herself and take ownership of her body are few and far between. In what I sometimes pessimistically refer to as a “blame the woman” society, most women wouldn’t dare to tread near the lines of sensuality for fear of what might happen to them–and those who have dared have likely faced unpleasant consequences.

The way I like to describe Guatemala’s “blame the woman” society is as follows: Men hold the power, make the decisions, and take the credit for most things while dumping the responsibility, blame, and consequences on the women. (Please keep in mind that this is a generalization and that not all men in Guatemala play into this system, but it is common.) A middle-aged Guatemalan woman I met–whose husband is a kind, successful, and down-to-earth Guatemalan doctor–who lives in Antigua, one of the most progressive towns in Guatemala (likely due to the high tourism traffic to the area) shared some of her experiences with me, explaining that in the world she grew up in and is still a part of, it works like this: If a child has a positive trait such as good looks or intelligence, he must have gotten those traits from his father; however, if a child is ugly, dumb, misbehaved, or the like, the child definitely takes after its mother. This 40-something-year-old woman went on to explain to me how she is afraid to walk through the streets of Antigua alone or with much skin showing (which is why she always carries a scarf) so as not to attract much male attention or put herself at risk of being harassed in any way.

Another prime example of this mindset is regarding the man and woman who started renting space in the same house where I was renting after Tayra and Ozman (my original roommates there) moved into their own home early on during my service. Everyone in town knew that Don Marco, the man, who was in his mid-forties, had a wife and three teenage children in Chimaltenango, a city about two hours away from San Andrés. When Don Marco and Katy (pronounced “KAH-tee”), the young woman who was half his age at 22 or 23, moved in together, the whole town would gossip about what a “whore” Katy was for being involved with a married man. One day, Katy opened up to me about their story and went on and on about how terrible Don Marco’s wife was and how she could never please Don Marco and that the collapse of their marriage was her fault anyway because she was involved with another man. I couldn’t care less about the finger-pointing, but what struck me here was that even the women blame the other women. Hello?!? Who is the common factor here? Don Marco, perhaps? Doesn’t he have any accountability in the situation?? Of course not. Why would he? He held a prominent position in town, working for the justice of the peace, so he revered himself as God-like and pretty much had the last say in everything; the majority of the community respected him and the power he held. I co-rented in that space with Don Marco and Katy for a year and a half, during which time I had the opportunity to study machismo on a daily basis, thanks to them.

Machismo is prominent throughout the Latino culture, and other relatable mindsets can be seen in different cultures across the world. According to an online definition, machismo is a term that originated in Spain and is defined as “a strong or exaggerated sense of manliness; an assumptive attitude that virility, courage, strength, and entitlement to dominate are attributes or concomitants of masculinity.” Some synonyms that pop up include male chauvinism and sexism. Virility is to a man as fertility is to a woman–related to the capability and power to procreate. To break down how virility plays a part in machismo, the interpretation is that “macho” men believe that biologically fathering a child is a demonstration of their masculinity; the more children they have, the more “manly” they believe they are. Think about that for a second. (This particular factor will come up again later in this chapter.)

When the Spanish arrived to Guatemala in 1524, they brought their customs and ideologies–such as Catholicism and said machismo–with them and began to integrate those with the traditions and beliefs stemming from the Maya civilization that already existed in the territory. The Maya already had their own male-dominated governing system so the Spanish influence only compounded the strength and consistency of female oppression in Guatemala.

While there is evidence dating back to to the years 700-400 BC of ancient civilizations in Meso-America (Mexico’s Yucatán region as well as modern-day Central America), it wasn’t until the first few centuries AD that the history of the early Maya began to be recorded. The Maya inhabited regions of what are now Mexico (as far north as the Yucatán region), Honduras, Guatemala, and even El Salvador. Although there is some evidence of one female leader implementing an important ceremony in the third or fourth century in the Tikal region of Guatemala, every other documented ruler was a man. Upon visiting the ancient Maya ruins of Copán in Honduras with Kathy shortly after finishing our Peace Corps service, we learned that there were only kings who ruled the land. King after king after king. The kings were married, of course, and often had up to 20 wives with sometimes up to five times that many concubines, but acknowledgement of any queens in the society is rare and essentially nonexistent.

The idea that a woman’s role in society is mainly to be a possession, a baby-maker, and a source of entertainment (translation: sex object) for men has been in play for centuries–and even millennia–and has become a deep-rooted behavior across the region. To set the stage for the rest of this chapter, this is what the women of Guatemala, as well as any woman who travels to the region, are up against as this belief system continues to be prevalent.

Motherhood is revered in Guatemala. Especially common in the rural parts of the country, the men work in the fields toward agricultural production and the women are generally homemakers, raising the children, cooking, and tending to chores inside the home. Women can also contribute to the household income in various ways that may include selling produce at the local market, tending cattle for dairy production which they will subsequently sell as milk or cheese to their neighbors, acting as the community baker, or making woven mats and other handicrafts to sell. No matter what odd jobs a woman may pick up around her community, it is understood that her obligations as a mother (and a wife) are expected to be her top priority. With a pre-destined identity that is linked so tightly to motherhood, many young girls and women are raised to believe that it is what they are supposed to do. In a society in which the women have been conditioned that the only time their voices matter is once they achieve that heralded state of motherhood, when it comes to their identities, it is almost as if they have no say in the matter. Most fall in line, especially when they haven’t had the freedom, encouragement, or means to explore what other opportunities might exist for them.


I’m not bashing on motherhood at all here. I have the utmost respect for it. I’m just saying that women have a lot more to contribute, and some women don’t even have the desire or the capability to have children anyway. So then what? Are they worthless in society? Absolutely not. Mother or not, all women have ideas, passions, and minds of their own that could lead to a greater sense of fulfillment in their lives as well as creating a positive impact on their communities if only they were allowed to embrace and express those things.

Speaking of opportunities, there exists a vicious cycle in these rural Guatemalan communities that makes it nearly impossible for women to have any options besides motherhood. The cycle goes something like this: a teenage girl gets pregnant so she usually drops out of school to take care of her child and most of the time get married to the baby’s daddy, who is very like also still a teenager, if not just a couple years older. Once the girl drops out, she usually becomes dependent on her husband or baby daddy for financial support, which also puts a large amount of pressure on the young man. In order to support his family, the man will seek work either locally or in another town. Infidelity is extremely common and even openly accepted throughout many parts of Guatemala. I have a few theories on how and why this is such a common behavior, one of which includes the likelihood that when unmarried teenagers end up getting pregnant together, it may have been due to curiosity and exploration combined with a lack of [sexual] education as opposed to them actually selecting each other as life partners forever when they are only teenagers; now both are “stuck” because they share a child and in some cases, feelings of resentment or being “trapped” can arise in either or both parties. My other theories are related to machismo/entitlement, as well as the fact that there is no one stopping adultery from happening. Even if a woman is aware that her husband is unfaithful, she usually doesn’t have the option to leave; because she dropped out of school, she likely wouldn’t qualify for a job in which she could support herself and her children, so she has to stay.

A thought related to divorce crossed my mind as I have been reflecting on this topic. We hear that divorce rates are rising rapidly, particularly in western/modern societies. People speculate that divorce is so common now because people no longer respect the sanctity of the sacrament of marriage, they rush into getting married, or they just “don’t attend church or put God first in their lives anymore.” I would argue that a large factor in divorce rates is that women actually have more economic opportunity and rights in society than they ever have before in the developed world. Women no longer have to depend solely on their spouses, and on the flip side, men do not feel so much pressure to care for the family because more and more women are working. So if a relationship is just “not working,” divorce will not destroy the other spouse’s or children’s opportunity at basic survival. Perhaps I’m going out on a limb here, but seeing the dysfunctional state of many marriages in Guatemala–with factors that would 100% lead to divorce in the States (for example, abuse, addiction, and adultery)–has convinced me that the lower divorce rates in Guatemala exist simply because women have no place else to go and they often end up sacrificing their pride, their passions, and their freedom for the sake of their children.

In the cases when a man is being unfaithful to his wife, nine times out of ten, she is very well aware of it, even if he hides it well. These women aren’t ignorant to the reality of these situations. However, they have developed their own coping mechanisms to salvage as much of their pride as they possibly can despite their powerlessness in the situation. One such coping mechanism a woman may use is rejoicing in the fact that she is “first woman” or the “first choice” (as opposed to the woman on the side) which means that she gets rights to the home, to the children, and to the man’s income. As long as she and the kids are being supported, she is content. These situations tend to breed an over-abundance of competition, jealousy, gossip, and blaming among women. In other cases involving infidelity, women are also willing participants, seeking an emotional and physical connection with another man as a way of reclaiming a sense of power and self-worth. Unfortunately, the prevalence of infidelity has led to it becoming an acceptable–and almost expected!–habit throughout Guatemalan society, consequently leading to undercurrents of mistrust and insecurity lurking close at hand. And I did not even venture into the realms of abuse and addiction…

Lack of education combined with infidelity results in many unplanned pregnancies and babies born out of wedlock; in the rural societies this combination can have a devastating ripple effect starting at the child, and moving outward to the parents, the families, and even the community as a whole. It all plays into the vicious cycle I mentioned before. There are so many elements in the web of it all that it is hard to explain it, but when you get down to the science of it, the process of natural selection demonstrates that overpopulation leads to a competition for limited natural resources such as food and water (i.e. more babies leads to greater financial stress because it costs money to provide the necessary resources for their survival). Nature’s way of managing population growth is through hunger, disease, war, and natural disasters–all of which can drastically reduce populations in a short period of time. Malnutrition and disease are rampant in poor countries and are the main reason that Peace Corps Volunteers are invited to such countries in the first place.

Unfortunately, when there are so many mouths to feed in a family, young boys and girls are often taken out of school in order to start working to contribute to the family’s income (usually boys) or help around the house (typically girls). The lack of access to education contributes to the cycle repeating itself. A child born to a married man and a woman who is not the man’s wife also suffers from lack of resources because the man’s “first woman” (a.k.a. his wife) keeps the family income within the household to feed her children; not only does a child born from an extramarital affair miss out on its father being present in his or her life, but he or she also likely gets shorted on financial resources and educational opportunities. Women also experience manifestations of the stress of having many children in various ways, including the extra workload around the house as well as the physical wear and tear on their bodies; women who have had 8, 11, or 13 children or more are practically guaranteed to have a prolapsed uterus–requiring a full hysterectomy–by the time they reach late middle-age. (I witnessed this health problem firsthand, multiple times during my service.) Men have their own sets of problems and seek outlets to cope with the stress as well.

There is really no clear-cut cause and effect here; instead it is an extensive web of poverty connecting with machismo connecting with lack of education connecting with deep-rooted gender roles connecting with economic disparity and racism connecting with overpopulation connecting with the psychology of the human condition and a struggle for power and resources which all play into that vicious cycle. There are so many elements that it is hard to explain or define. In my opinion, education is the key to change and giving as many people as possible access to more and more education is really the best solution. If people are equipped with knowledge and understanding, they are more likely to feel empowered to make important life decisions and contribute to their communities in a positive manner.

As health educators in rural Guatemalan communities, many of my fellow PCVs and I tackled some major health concerns within our towns and villages by educating and training locals (mainly women) under the “train the trainer” model so that these ladies could continue educating their communities after we PCVs had left. Among topics ranging from respiratory infections to nutrition to prevention of parasites to reproductive health, we taught interactive lessons that applied to these families’ everyday lives.


Rural women attending health trainings in their villages often had their children in tow. The women and children of Guatemala stick together closely.

Some of the most eye-opening topics for us PCVs we’re those related to reproductive health and family planning. A favorite family planning health lesson activity was one where two “moms” are racing back and forth collecting beans from a bowl with a single spoon on one side of a room and “feeding” their children who are waiting on the other side of the room. Both moms have equal resources–same size spoon, same kind of beans, same amount of time; at the end of the race, it is clear that the two moms exerted the same amount of energy. The difference is that one mom has 3 children and the other mom has 7 children. When the “children” add up the beans in their hands, they fall into three categories depending on how many beans they have: healthy, undernourished, or malnourished (and therefore dead, unable to survive). The mom with three children always ends up with all healthy kids; on the other hand, the mom with seven usually has one or two healthy kids, a couple of hungry ones, and one or two who are so malnourished that they are considered “dead.” The women loved this activity and understood the point: it is better to use resources to raise fewer, but all healthy, children than it is to distribute those same resources among many children and end up with having to spend more money on the problems associated with malnourished kids–or suffer from the grief of losing a child.




Although the women had a firm grasp on the concept of family planning, introducing birth control methods was an entirely different animal. First of all, to bust a “myth” about Guatemala, while it is considered a Catholic nation, the majority of the rural population has religious beliefs that are a combination of non-Catholic Christianity mixed with traditional Maya practices, so the Catholic stance on pre-marital sex and birth control does not apply. (Catholicism is much more widespread among the ladino populations in the bigger cities in Guatemala.) Per the government, multiple forms of birth control methods (including birth control pills, shots, condoms, etc.) are available for free–did you get that? FREE!!–from the public health centers that exist in the centers of all of the municipalities across the nation. So not only were we spreading education about the importance of family planning, how the female body works, why women have menstruation, how pregnancy occurs (yes, birds and bees because very few women in rural Guatemala know more than the basics), and how the different methods work (including the Natural Family Planning method), we also made it clear that access to almost any kind of birth control method a family could want was available and free. So why, you may wonder, was family planning a major issue?

This is where the “virility” aspect of machismo comes back into play. Remember that impregnating a woman is a seen as a demonstration of manliness, therefore birth control is viewed as a threat to manhood. Some of my PCV friends shared their family planning health talk experiences with me, revealing that many of the women in their groups were afraid to use birth control because it would pose a risk to her safety if her husband found out. We encouraged that family planning should be something that a husband and wife sit down and work out together, but the women insisted that if a woman proposed using birth control of any form, her husband would assume that it is because she is being unfaithful to him. End of story. A man is proud of “what he can do” and “where he’s been” when he gets a woman pregnant. The good news is that slowly, as the education is spreading, more and more progressive men are open to the education and are starting to make changes as partners with their wives.

It was heartbreaking to witness the effects of machismo on the community in other ways beyond family planning. For example, in the tiny village of Pajquiej, an hour’s walk from where I lived in town, I was teaching a nutrition course and facilitating cooking classes with a small group of women. We held the class once a week in the village, each lady taking a turn at lending her kitchen and wood for each cooking class so the cost would be shared. After two or three classes, one woman, Doña Francisca, stopped showing up. When I asked the other ladies where she was, they reported that she was at home and that her husband, who was living and working illegally in the United States, had told her that he didn’t want her attending the classes anymore.

The especially sad part was that in the tiny village of Pajquiej, two children had been deemed “malnourished” by the health center nurses and one of those kids was Doña Francisca’s son. Both of her boys, actually, displayed signs of slow growth and brain development and everyone in the community could see it. So while we were holding classes five minutes away from her house, she was, in obedience to her husband, staying home with her two kids, “safe” from the influence of outsiders. It was amazing to me how much control this guy had and how both he and Doña Francisca were so prone to act on their fear: she probably feared that if she did not respect his wishes, he would cut off the financial support and stop sending her money he made in the States–on which she depended; he, on the other hand, maybe feared any change that could result in him losing control of his wife and kids. The situation was very conflicting to everyone involved, especially the other ladies in the group as they could see the benefits of the course and the education and wished that Doña Francisca could also have access to them, however, they understood the system of submission to one’s husband, even if his reactions did stem from a place of ignorance and fear.

Amidst a society where where the men generally have the last word and women are accustomed to being reprimanded by their husbands, it is almost as if the women do not even realize they have voices of their own. Especially common in the rural parts of the country, women cover their faces or mouths with their hands while they speak, embarrassed to speak up or have any attention drawn to themselves, or afraid to take ownership of an opinion of their own, or perhaps it is just out of shyness. Women in Guatemala do not often receive positive feedback when they speak up for themselves, and it has just become easier and safer all around for women to fall into place as part of a collective movement with what the other women are doing and be quiet in the presence of men.

In addition to not feeling like they have permission to speak up for themselves or be different in any way, women in Guatemala also have to deal with constant harassment directed toward them from men. A woman can barely walk down the street without being bothered or getting cat calls which means that when a woman leaves her home, there is an element of fear and anxiety that accompanies her everywhere as she must stay alert and look serious and focused in order to dissuade a male perpetrator from attempting to grope her or smacking his lips in her direction. For female travelers, the probability of harassment increases due to such factors as being light-skinned, foreign/exotic, and going anywhere by herself–and particularly without a man accompanying her. Foreign women are especially targeted because a) they stand out and b) they are more likely to be unprepared to deal with the harassment in the way that Guatemalan women have grown accustomed to.

Female PCVs hated that we had to deal with these gender barriers on a regular basis. Male PCVs had it so much easier than female PCVs in the sense that people in the community just listened to them when they spoke so they never really had to push their way and exercise the same persistence that we women had to in order to get some movement with our work; furthermore, the male PCVs did not usually realize the extent of harassment that the females had to cope with because they only knew about it through our stories, rarely from being a firsthand witness. When boys were around, Guatemalan men behaved.

I was originally placed in my site, San Andrés Sajcabajá, with a male partner. We initially worked together, but after a few months, we decided to split up the work in the communities and go about things separately. I experienced a phase where I was receiving random calls from anonymous men who not only realized that my site mate and I were not and had never been a couple, but also refused to confess how they got my phone number; with negative feedback from me, the calls only lasted for a couple weeks, but I was shocked by how quickly the men swarmed as soon as there was no other man in the picture. Although that stopped, working and living as a single woman in a small rural Guatemalan town continued to have its challenges.

I didn’t realize it right away, but I had a subconscious reaction to the unwanted attention around town. One day, a little over a year into my service, I stopped by the health center to check in with a couple of the health educators and make my rounds to say hello to everyone. By that point, I was working mainly out in the communities and with groups around town so I didn’t need to go to the health center every day anymore.

That particular day, when I walked over to greet the vaccination specialist, Rolando, he looked me up and down and told me to my face that I was getting fat and that I shouldn’t put on anymore weight. My first reaction was shock. Granted, I had gained 8 pounds (which is not that much, really) in my first year of being in Guatemala, but since when was it his place to tell me how I should look? He wasn’t my father, brother, husband, or boss. (Not saying that any one of them should tell me what to do either, but just pointing out that he had a practically nonexistent personal relationship with me.) I wanted to say, “Hey, maybe you should keep an eye on your growing beer belly, too,” but I didn’t. I also wondered if he told his wife, who, at the time, was pregnant with their third child, that she was overweight as well. Comparison is not the point here, though. He made me feel as if it were supposed to be my job to look good for him and “stay fit” so I could stay pleasing to him. In response, I narrowed my eyes and, while glaring at him, defiantly stated, “I like my curves.” And then I left the health center, headed straight for home, walked into my room, shut the door, and cried for fifteen minutes straight.

It was true, I had gained weight. And I had been wearing a lot of frumpy, non-form-fitting clothing. I didn’t realize it until later, but it was a defense mechanism: I gained weight in order to ward off attention thinking that if I could make myself less attractive in some way, men would leave me alone. I guess it had the opposite effect. Unfortunately for women in Guatemala, any defiance or act of standing up for herself often results in the withdrawal of support from the person she confronted. That is both unprofessional and unfair. After that incident with Rolando, I started avoiding the health center as much as possible. He wasn’t the only one in there who gave off that vibe. There were others who would look me–and every other woman–quite obviously fantasizing about God knows what… While I had the choice to not show up there anymore, other women there did not. That was their paid work, Monday through Friday. They had no escape. For the most part, the married women were left alone and respected, but any single woman who showed up anywhere often resulted in the men acting like it was a free for all or a meat market, as if the woman automatically had a “welcome” sign plastered across her forehead that she didn’t know was there.

Until I lived in Guatemala and experienced machismo at its finest, I had never really learned how to appreciate men. Growing up in a household with an on-again, off-again single mother, being the only girl on the boys sports teams for many years up until I was in my mid-teens, and attending an all-girls high school where we had to go ask a boy to be our date if we wanted to attend a homecoming dance at our school breeded an “I can do it myself, I don’t need a man” attitude into my personality. Living and integrating into a society where women’s rights do not come automatically and where there is a constant fight against so many different factors to keeping a woman down really changed my perspective, though.

I didn’t realize that I had been living in such an uptight state while I was in Guatemala until I noticed during a short period of time that I was able to let my guard down and relax a little. The factor to my temporary state of peace and comfort, believe it or not, was men. It started during a vacation I took to Belize with Kathy, her boyfriend (and PCV) Frank, and our friend (former PCV) Pedro. Kathy and Frank were a couple, and while Pedro and I were not a couple, we were often seen together so for an entire week, I was left alone. Not a single guy tried to make a pass at me or cat call me simply for the fact that there was another man in my presence. (It worked both ways, actually, as I “stood in” with Pedro when a prostitute was trying to pick him up on New Years Eve! This is what good friends are for.)

A day or two after we returned from Belize, my little brother, Jeffrey, came to visit me for eight days. At the time, I was 25 and he was 19, but standing at 6’3″ with a nice beard starting to grow, he looked a lot older. My brother also loves to work out so his strong physique and the fact that was was nearly a foot taller than many Guatemalans probably intimidated everyone from a mile out. We had a couple good laughs at how everyone in my town thought he was my husband or boyfriend, but I really loved the fact that I felt like I had my own personal bodyguard while he was there. Then, shortly after Jeffrey left, Kathy’s mom, Carol, and her boyfriend, Don, arrived for a visit and invited me to join them for a week-long trip out to the east coast. Again, in Don’s presence, unwanted male attention was practically nonexistent. But as soon as I left Kathy, Carol, and Don to go back to my site, I was alone again and it all started back up immediately.

First, it was the middle-aged taxi driver who had been driving the four of us around all week and had been cordial to all of us the entire time. He drove me from the resort to the bus station and as soon as I got in the car with him (it was my first time alone in the car), he started commenting on my legs and how he liked how they looked, tried to get my phone number, and drove ridiculously slowly all the way to the station. All I could think was to ask questions about his wife and kids in the hopes that it would remind him that he was married with a family already. I couldn’t wait to get out of the cab! Once I boarded the bus, I sat in the very front seat by myself; across the aisle, the first and second rows were occupied by a man by himself in each row–both of whom were immediately staring at me and looking me up and down. My defense in this situation was to mildly befriend the bus driver, who was, in my mind, an objective party whose work involved holding some responsibility For his passengers. That ended up not being the best idea either because as soon as we arrived in Antigua after driving all day, he escorted me off the bus to my ride asking for my phone number the entire time.

All of a sudden, I had to be “on guard” again. I had forgotten how exhausting it could be because I had such a nice break from it! The following day as I was walking down a street in Antigua, a random guy on the opposite side of the street made a disgusting hand gesture toward me with a nasty look on his face. That was my breaking point. I did literally break down in tears once I rounded a corner because I felt so violated–even though the guy hadn’t even touched me. I had been a part of grope attempts before in Guatemala, most of which I had been prepared for, and the three times men laid an uninvited hand on me as I was walking in the street, I physically reacted by pushing or shoving those guys back, to their surprise. The third guy, who actually got a good grab on my butt when I wasn’t paying attention, was extremely shocked when I started running after him in the street, pounding on his arms and back when I could reach, and screaming at him that “my butt is not there for him to grab”!

The sad thing is that women live with this harassment on a daily basis. Many women are too surprised when they get groped to do anything back to the guy, plus there is the fear factor of not knowing whether the guy might be carrying a weapon combined with the acknowledgement that men are generally physically stronger than women. As far as self-protection goes, a woman has to be careful how she reacts if she is not in a secure location because no one knows what a man might do if a woman “offends” him with outright rejection. This behavior is not reprimanded and so it continues to be widespread, especially among young men although older men have no shortage of cat calls in their vocabulary. On the flip side, females are not encouraged to fight back, but instead, to just “let it happen.” And that mindset is not limited to harassment and groping–it goes way beyond that. Domestic violence, sexual assault, rape. “Let it happen.” “Don’t fight back. It’ll just make things worse.” Maybe they don’t say these things outright, but actions speak louder than words. The public ministry building in Santa Cruz del Quiché, the capital of the department, doesn’t even have a private room for women who come to report a rape or physical abuse; it is all done in a public area. Translation??? “Girls, you don’t matter enough to have rights to your personal space.”

To be continued…


Backpacking Bonus 13: Paradise Found in the Philippines

The Philippines is a country that is made up of 7,000 islands. Imagine that. Flying into the Philippines from Singapore, for some reason I was expecting something to go awry as I knew I was re-entering the “developing” world after leaving a place where everything had been so easy, but it was actually kind of refreshing that I had to “work” again to make things happen–they don’t just happen automatically in the backroads of developing nations. I think the Philippines is actually pretty advanced, but I haven’t researched it enough to know at this point.

Spending two weeks island-hopping in the Philippines was indicative of the closing of the middle phase of my journey, after which I knew I’d be returning to the mainland to ride out Phase 3, so I was really determined to soak up as much island time as I could. While getting in and to my first destination went very smoothly, moving around from island to island during those two weeks proved to be both expensive and slightly complicated as planes and boats were the necessary modes of transportation to get from place to place. On travel days, I felt like I was constantly getting up at the crack of dawn and rushing around trying to get to a ferry station or to catch a plane or a bus. While paradise is accessible from just about anywhere in the Philippines, you really have to work for it. First, you have to show “proof of exit” from the Philippines before they will even let you board the plane to go in, then there are terminal fees and environmental fees galore you have to pay for every flight or boat trip you take, and lastly, the tricky weather (for example, typhoons) can affect travel plans and sometime result in losing money over a missed connection.

GOING with the FLOW

First of all, people from the Philippines are some of the friendliest people a person will ever meet. They are also very direct and not afraid to speak up and say exactly what is on their minds. The first thing the van driver asked me when I climbed in for the ride to the ferry dock was, “Why are you alone?” I could have been worried–especially since I was the only person in that van for the transfer, but he was so open and helpful and took me exactly where I needed to go so I paid no mind to his inquiry.


My first stop was Boracay (pronounced “BOR-uh-kī”), an idyllic island known as a tourist hotspot, honeymoon destination, and party place. I actually didn’t even realize where I was headed until I got there, and even though I arrived late in the evening and couldn’t see the beauty of the island in the dark, I felt a sense of euphoria and satisfaction while the driver of the motorized “tricycle” I was riding in through town to my guesthouse was blasting one of Akon’s typical songs about Africa on his decked-out stereo system. It was neat thinking that I had arrived on a tiny piece of paradise, even though I wouldn’t be able to really soak it in until morning.


Boracay sunsets rivaled its daytime beach settings with spectacular colors and silouhettes of ships in the distance.

The first night, I just picked the first place I found, but I knew it wouldn’t do for more than a night. The following day, I resumed my search during which a young man showing me his available rooms asked me after I saw the third room, “Are you alone?” “Yes,” I answered. “Why?” he immediately enquired. “Because I want to be,” I responded this time. He smiled and said, “Oh,” and kind of nodded his head. Again, I noticed the straightforward way of communicating, but it was more interesting to me to see how concerned the Filipinos were that I was alone, and when I took my observation further, I noticed that Filipinos were almost never alone. Their society is based so strongly around family that they stick together through everything. Cousins, sisters, family, friends–they are always together. And they will immediately include anyone who is by himself because they can’t bear the thought of the person feeling lonely.


Tides fluctuate so drastically on small islands such as Boracay that “parked” boats often get stuck in the sand at low tide requiring multiple men to war together to dislodge the boats and get them back on the water. This was a neat process to witness!

Another thing I absolutely adored about the Philippines was that everybody addressed me as “ma’am,” but it sounded like they were saying “mom.” I had to ask for a repeat a couple times to understand, but I thought it was kind of endearing that they call every woman what sounds like “mom.” Haha! It was always a very polite gesture toward other women and the islander accent just made it even more special.


I don’t recall seeing a sunset sky filled with so much natural purple and red before this one in Boracay.

Speaking of speaking, the official language of the Philippines is called Tagalog, but the really interesting thing is that some of the language sounds like Spanish and some of the same words are even used; for example, certain numbers are word for word in counting, and the national currency is called the “peso.” This is a residual effect from the Spanish influence in the Philippines dating back to the 1500s when the the Spanish colonized the Philippines, thanks to the “discovery” of the land by the Portuguese explorer, Magellan, commissioned by Spain to navigate the area. Had it not been for Magellan and the Spaniards, the Philippines would have become a Muslim nation, but to this day, the majority of the Filipino population practices Catholicism and honors Magellan for his leadership and influence. (Magellan was actually murdered by a tribal chief native to the Philippines named Lapu Lapu way back in the day, but I’m not going into the history of that here.)

Boracay is very touristy and it’s a total honeymooner spot. There are lots of opportunities for outdoor activities available for visitors including snorkeling, diving, island-hopping, parasailing, paddle-boarding, kiteboarding, and sailing. Other options along the main strip include hair braiding, massages, and plenty of partying. In the evenings at many of the restaurants, there are often live performances put on by musicians and/or fire dancers. It can get very crowded, especially in the northern part of the main strip between boat “Station 1” and “Station 2,” however the crowds are avoidable in places toward the south of the island near “Station 3,” which is where I decided to set up shop.


Boracay’s beaches, like White Beach shown here, are some of the most sought after “perfect” beaches with their soft white sand and crystal blue waters. Boracay is a popular honeymoon destination!

The beautiful place where I found an affordable bungalow was situated in a manicured orchid garden about a 2-minute walk back from the beach. It was much quieter and very peaceful there than it was in the north, and I had to pay for wifi if I wanted it so I went without it for several days, taking advantage of time away from the ever-distracting worldwide web. I found a favorite spot on the beach just a few feet away from the water that was part of a beachside restaurant called Shantal’s Bar, where I had daily interaction with three sweet girls who worked there–they were cousins, and their uncle was the owner of the place. I spent afternoon upon afternoon there, writing, eating, swimming, drinking, writing, then swimming more. I definitely got my mango smoothie craving satisfied in Boracay as I appreciated the simplicity of being able to walk 10 steps in the sand and order one from a shack on the beach.


Fresh fruit smoothie and beverage stands lined the main strip of Boracay’s beaches. This coconut stand offered “Coco Locos,” fresh coconuts cracked open and enhanced with rum.

Now for the water. All along Boracay’s “White Sand Beach,” there is a giant aquamarine swimming pool also known as the ocean. It was the most inviting ocean I have ever seen. Crystal blue waters beckon visitors to take a dip and go for a swim. The water was lukewarm, almost like bathtub water, and it was so clear that I could see straight down to my feet on the white sandy bottom. There were hardly any rocks, corals, or sea plants–only a handful of small white fish swimming around that blended into the sand. The best part was that there weren’t any big waves pounding the shore which meant no sand in my bathing suit!! I think many people can relate to the relief of that situation… It was so clean and perfect that I almost didn’t believe I was there. More than once, I was out in the blue water, floating and swimming around and I just started laughing in disbelief that I was in the middle of a scene from a postcard. All I did was hop on a plane, then a van, then a boat, then a tricycle and–BAM–I found myself in paradise.


Mango smoothies were a daily treat I enjoyed between swimming and writing on my little beach spot on Boracay.

Something else I really enjoyed about the Philippines was that everywhere I went, there were love songs from the 90s being played on the radio and everyone was singing along. Tina Turner, Phil Collins, REO Speedwagon, Sara McLachlan–you name it. Philippines, in general, is a musical place and Filipinos have no shame in just opening up their mouths and singing whenever they feel like it–walking along the street, performing at live music venues, participating at church; they are such happy people and so I was not surprised to find them singing all the time. I was like, “Hey! I found my people!!” Of course, I would sing right along with them…

Being that I was on a dubbed “party island,” I knew I needed to check it out. And while I won’t go “party” by myself, I had two new friends whom I had met at the hostel in Singapore who arrived on Boracay just a few days after I did. Kirsty and Chloe, from Ireland and Scotland, respectively, are nurses in London who were on a traveling vacation together. They were absolutely hilarious and Kirsty was always getting hurt everywhere she went so each time I saw them, I could expect a great story about their latest adventure-gone-awry. I made the 25-minute walk along the beach to their hostel so we could all go out together two of the nights we were there. They were so funny and it was good for me to take a little break and be social, but honestly, I couldn’t keep up with them!! Both nights, I think I was in bed hours before they were. Great girls!!


Chloe (left) and Kirsty (middle), two nurses from the UK, were the funniest girls I met during my travels. I went out with them a couple times in Boracay and we had a blast together, but to be honest, I couldn’t keep up with these two firecrackers!!

A sad observation I made during those nights was how prevalent prostitution is in that area–consistent with many of the touristy areas in all of Asia. There were Filipino women throwing themselves at foreign men on every block. This is the lifestyle they live and there is no shame whatsoever–their bodies are the asset they use to make money. And on the flip side, foreign men play into is, enabling the behavior. I was almost inspired at this point in my travels to change the theme of my storytelling, switching it to a documentary about how young male westerners behave while on vacation or traveling abroad. I figured I had collected enough evidence from Bali, Gili T, and now Boracay, the tipping point, that I could really shed some light on the situation. But I thought that it might not be fair to men who don’t behave in that manner. I wouldn’t want the stereotype to go viral, no matter how prevalent it is…

Sure enough, while I was in Boracay, a typhoon, called Typhoon Lando (Signal 1, the least serious on the typhoon grading scale of 1 to 3), arrived to the Philippines, sweeping across the country with gale-force winds, huge ocean waves, and heavy rains. The beautiful, calm blue waters immediately lost their serenity and came alive with the thrashing winds. Swimming wasn’t so fun anymore, and lounging on the beach was not so relaxing, but I did find great entertainment in watching the kite surfers glide across the water.


Stormy seas make for some mesmerizing scenes of nature!

I was amazed at the transformation that took place on the island, and the thought of getting on a boat or a plane at that point made me feel uneasy. During one particular stormy day, I grabbed my umbrella so I could walk down the street to a restaurant, and I unfortunately ended up with an umbrella casualty. You know the scene from Mary Poppins where all the ladies’ umbrellas flip inside out when the winds pick up? Yeah. That happened. My umbrella will NOT be accompanying me back to the USA.


When Typhoon Lando swept across the Philippines, it transformed Boracay’s pristine beaches into unwelcoming stormy sands and seas, with winds roaring through the island at high speed.

I stayed in Boracay for six nights, perhaps longer than I needed to considering that I only had 2 weeks total in the Philippines, but I came down with a one-day cold while I was there so it was good that I had the opportunity to rest and wait for the storm to subside.


Even though I had to get up at 5 AM to catch a boat leaving Boracay to get to the main island so I could get to the airport early and catch my flight, I was rewarded with an enchanting pre-dawn snapshot of an island waking up…


My next stop was the island of Coron, to the west of Boracay, but instead of catching a direct flight from one local airport to the next, I booked two separate flights (Boracay to Manila, then Manila to Coron) which, combined, still only cost me a fraction (like one-fifth) of what it would have cost to fly directly. And despite the typhoon, both flights were smooth.

Upon arriving to Coron, I met a Filipino family–a widowed mother and her four grown daughters–that was on vacation in Coron. While the girls and the mother were all very curious about me and what I do, I was delighted to see local Filipino people vacationing around their own country. It is not a foreigner-dominated vacation destination. The people are welcoming and have the means to enjoy their own land. That is always nice to see, especially when in many tourist destinations, it would be impossible for local people to ever be able to afford to do the activities that visitors do.


Coron was such a small town that THIS room in a municipal building was THE post office for the island. And that is Coron’s proud postmaster.

Coron was a cute little town and definitely not overrun with tourism so it was a nice change of pace from Boracay. I stayed at a Backpackers Guesthouse that was built on stilts right on the water: at hide tide, I could see the water through the slats in my floor; at low tide, there was just moist, stinky earth and garbage below me. I walked around the town my first afternoon there, then just as the sun was setting, I climbed Mt. Tapayas for a panoramic view of the city. This is a popular hill to climb for both locals and visitors, and the people have built a cement staircase with 720-something steps from the bottom to the top.


On the afternoon I arrived to Coron, I climbed up Mt. Tapayas and was lucky enough to catch the sunset across the neighboring islands.


Many homes and other shops/restaurants in Coron are constructed on stilts that are built over the water. The shabby building in the middle is Coron Backpackers Hostel, where I stayed in a private room (it’s much nicer on the inside!!) while I was on the island.

The main reason people go to Coron is for diving. Coron is known for its wreck diving as there is an area with 10-12 sunken World War II Japanese warships a little way off of the island. I had never dived wrecks before so that was my motivation for the trip. I signed up with Rocksteady Divers for a full day of diving that would include three dives, lunch on the boat, and beverages. On diving day, my group consisted of one other man, Graeme from Australia, a local Filipino Divemaster named Ronaldo who would be leading our dives, and me. We couldn’t have asked for a better day–we had a break from the rain so the weather was absolutely perfect all day!

Our first dive of the day was at a place called Barracuda Lake which is very unique in that has both freshwater from the mountains and seawater from an opening deep in the lake that connects to the surrounding ocean. Also, Barracuda Lake in known for its “thermocline,” a change in water temperature based on the varying depths of the lake caused by thermal vents that open into the lake from below. Not only did we have to swim to the island from our boat, then climb over some rickety bridges with our tanks strapped on our backs in order to access the lake, but we also dived without wetsuits–only in T-shirts–because the temperature of the water was up to 38 degrees Celcius (~100 degrees Fahrenheit!!) in some areas and very cold in others. While there was hardly any marine life in the lake besides some catfish here and there, it was an amazing dive. In some places, we could see a film separating the fresh water from the seawater and it was so cool because I could stick my head up across the film layer into the freshwater and my head would be cold while the rest of my body remained below the film in the hot seawater!


Just over the rock wall by the light turquoise water near this island (just 20 minutes from Coron) lies the famous thermocline Barracuda Lake, where we did our first dive of the day.

After that, we had a nice break while we rode out to the dive site of the wrecks. (Breaks are necessary in between dives because they reduce the risk of decompression sickness from being too deep for too long without allowing the body to stabilize with proper oxygen flow.) The first wreck dive was not so good for me as my mask was leaking slightly and for some reason I was very anxious, but it was still interesting to explore a sunken ship.

After lunch on the boat, we went in for the second wreck dive–this time the ship we explored was lying on its side–and it was SO cool! I thought exploring sunken ships would be kind of creepy, but it was actually very interesting because all the marine life under the sea, including corals, giant clams, all kinds of fish, anemones, sea stars, sea horses, sponges, shrimps, crabs, and lobsters, have completely taken over the ships and made them their homes. We swam in and around multiple chambers and explored the dark corners by the light of our flashlights. I was so impressed by how the marine life adapted to the intrusion of gigantic man-made objects and found a way to benefit from it.

Diving day ended up being a blast overall. Graeme was a fun dive partner and I appreciated that he “looked out for me” as he has much more diving experience than I do. I had a great conversation with Ronaldo that day asking about tourism in general and how locals feel about it, how he feels about foreigner dive instructors on the island, and what kinds of issues untrained local “fisherman divers” have from diving unsafely. He reported that the majority of tourists to Coron are European and that Chinese tourists (in general) are the worst divers/swimmers because they kick too much and end up destroying the reef. He said he wishes the foreign dive instructors would have to pay the same taxes and fees that local Filipino instructors and dive masters have to pay (right now, foreigners pay nothing to work on the island). Lastly, he mentioned that local fisherman end up with paralysis from decompression sickness because they go on deep dives for two to three hours at a time searching for lobsters and other seafood; even if they get treated and go back to normal, they immediately start diving again because more fish equal more money and they have to feed their families. Ronaldo was frustrated with the lack of education local fisherman have about diving.


My diving day in Coron entailed good food (fresh fish, veggies, and a Filipino signature dish–chicken adobo over rice), new diving experiences, great company and conversation with my diving partner, Graeme, and our Divemaster, Ronaldo, and loads of fun in a beautiful place. It was a prefect day!

The next morning, when I arrived at the ferry dock to catch the boat to El Nido, I was told, “No boats today. There is a gale warning. Try again tomorrow.” Instead of being disappointed, I actually relished the fact that I was just gifted a free work day where I could lay low and take care of emails, errands, calls, and upcoming travel arrangements. It felt great to be so productive after such a fun day before. I got a boat the following day and was on my way to my next destination!

El Nido, Palawan

The boat trip from Coron to El Nido on the island of Palawan took about 8 hours and was transporting both locals and foreign travelers. The bottom deck had lots of benches, but anyone down there was subject to some serious splashing and a lot of noise from the engine. While many people on the boat either got seasick or very wet, I found a great spot on one of the only benches on the upper deck underneath a sun cover where I enjoyed a quiet, easy ride and could gaze across the crystal cerulean blue waters, wondering just how many ways I could describe all the different shades of blue ocean there are in the Philippines.


After spending nearly 8 hours on a boat trip from Coron to El Nido, Palawan, we were blessed with this sun peeking through the clouds and illuminating the karst island formations across the sea.

El Nido, Palawan is one of the most magical, paradisiacal places that travelers report visiting. A traveler friend of mine was actually the one who suggested that I visit, but unfortunately with my travel delays from bad weather, by the time I arrived to El Nido at 5 PM one afternoon, I pretty much had to gear up to leave the following morning to catch a flight I had already booked days prior from Puerto Princesa to Cebu. (I tried to change the flight, but I had bought it as a “promo” so there were no refunds or changes allowed.)

While I was bummed that I was only going to have 16 hours in El Nido which meant I wouldn’t be able to go on one of the fabulous day tours to see perfect beaches, marvel at limestone cliffs, and kayak around enchanted lagoons with jewel-colored water, I decided that I would be willing to get up before dawn to go on a sunrise hike up the tallest peak in town so I arranged that through my hostel. (I needed to do something while I was there!) I also decided that day that I will just have to go back to the Philippines again to have another shot at some things I missed along the way.

So the “sunrise hike” was a unique experience. I was the only person hiking that morning with one guide, Brandon, and we started walking at 5 AM. When I signed up for the “hike,” I didn’t realize that we would be scaling limestone cliffs in the pitch dark with only the light from my cell phone. And Brandon was in flip-flops! I don’t know if it was the dark, the spiders, the intensity of the climb or a combination of all three, but I was more nervous than I had been on other other activity I had done since I started my trip.

At the first rock, I was like, “Holy moly–that’s a vertical rock. And we’re going up it.” I kept thinking there might be a trail of some sort, but no–it was just limestone rock throughout the forest. After 3 or 4 vertical rocks in a row, I knew that is what we were going to be facing all the way to the top. I wouldn’t call this safe by any means and this type of “tourist activity” would never pass safety standards in a developed/westernized country. Good thing I was in the Philippines!


I snapped most of these photos on the way down from the hike to demonstrate what we were facing IN THE DARK as we hiked up the mountain to catch the sunrise. The bottom right photo was taken at the top and shows how sharp these limestone rocks were. Easily one of my most thrilling adventures during my 4-month trip in SE Asia.

Not much gets my adrenaline going anymore, but this did. I was sweating bullets not more than 10 minutes into the hike and it took us about an hour to get up. By the time we were close, the limestone was becoming razor-sharp, jutting up from the ground toward the sky. “One un-focused move and I’m toast,” I thought. I stepped very cautiously, and all the skills I have acquired over years of indoor climbing–balancing, shifting my weight, keeping my hips close to the wall, staying low when necessary, and carefully calculating each move–totally came into handy. This was an adventure in every sense of the word.

I asked Brandon if people who come on this hike turn around before the top and he pointed out three or four places (right in front of the first couple of vertical rocks that need to be scaled early on during the climb) where people regularly stop and say, “No way. I can’t do that.” I wouldn’t recommend this activity just because of the risk involved. There were a few times when I questioned whether I should move forward. I guess most people do it during the day so that is a little different, but in the dark?? I’ll admit it was a crazy idea. I had no idea what I was signing up for.


A little slice of heaven. The sunrise created cotton candy skies over El Nido Bay, a view that can only be seen from the top of the karst mountain that towers over the tiny town. This view made the pre-dawn hike worth every drop of sweat and every ounce of concern while scaling this rock in the dark.

But watching the sun rise over El Nido Bay was totally worth it. From the light blue and pink hues streaked across the sky before the sun rose to the bright yellow and orange of the sunlight stretching over the vibrantly green cliffs, I felt like I was experiencing a little slice of heaven. At the top of the peak, I was trying to balance taking in the stunning view with processing the experience I had just had where my mind and movements had to be sharper than those cliffs. But I couldn’t “turn off” my mind yet–we still needed to climb down. (More people die climbing down mountains than they do going up; it’s easy to lose focus after the “goal” of reaching the top has been achieved.)


Top: The sun rising from the East as seen from the limestone mountain in El Nido, Palawan. Bottom: Me soaking up the thrill of the hike that got us to this viewpoint of El Nido Bay at dawn.

I didn’t relax until I took my last step out of the forest. I survived!! Wow. What an experience. And we got back to the hostel with just enough time for me to shower, eat breakfast, and catch the 9 AM minivan that would take me to the airport in Puerto Princesa (5-6 hours south on the island of Palawan), where I boarded my flight to Cebu. Although my time in El Nido was brief, everything worked out perfectly.


Initially, I planned on spending my last 4 nights in the Philippines on the island of Cebu, but what I hadn’t realized was that Cebu City was the second largest city in the Philippines which inevitably meant crowded, noisy, hot, busy, and fast-paced. There are a lot of things to do and see in Cebu City and it is the gateway to many other tourist destinations around the island. I found a nice little “permaculture” eco-friendly hotel called the Mayflower Inn (recommended by Lonely Planet) that I checked in to for my stay, and I thought to myself, “Well, I can have some stability here in this nice place for the rest of my time in the Philippines.” And then I slept. And slept. And slept.

I realized that for the past five days in a row, three of those days had been travel days (in transit from one place to another), and I had been up between 4:30 and 6 AM every single day–to catch a boat so I could catch a flight, to go diving, to try and catch another boat (the day the boats weren’t sailing), to finally catch that boat the following day, and then to go on a sunrise hike. I was exhausted and had no motivation to take on a big noisy city or even leave the hotel. And so I didn’t. I spent the entire next day in the hotel and even took a long afternoon nap. I kind of felt like a bad “tourist,” but I needed to veg. My body needed rest.

Cebu City just wasn’t doing it for me so I decided to ditch it and escape to the tiny Malapascua Island just off of Cebu’s northern tip for my last two days…

Malapascua Island

I figured that to end my island-hopping phase, I needed to be somewhere that felt like an island, not a city, and even though waiting at the bus terminal, riding the crowded public bus for over a 5-hour trip, and chasing down the last [affordable] bangka (the Filipino term for a boat) as it was pulling away from the dock after dark took more than half of a day, I was so happy I made the decision to get to this island. I couldn’t have asked for a better last full day in the Philippines.


Using public transportation in the Philippines usually means getting cozy with the locals, as seen here with the random guy who fell asleep and ended up leaning on me and the other guy standing in the isle who couldn’t help his arm from bumping into my head occasionally as we bounced along the 5-hour journey from Cebu City toward Malapascua Island.

Malapascua Island is well-known for being a place where thresher sharks can be seen early in the morning at a particular dive site called Monad Shoal. Most of the dive shops on the island run a 5 AM trip out to this dive site. Even though I was going to be on the island for two nights, I only had one shot to do this dive because I had a flight on the second day and for health/safety reasons related to decompression, there needs to be a buffer period of 24 hours between a dive and a flight. I arrived to the island late on the first night so I rushed off to find a dive shop that was still open and could add me to the trip the following morning. Success. And I settled for some simple, cheap box of a room close by the dive shop just for that night.

Preparing for the early morning dive was neat despite the fact that we were all still half-asleep because we loaded onto the dive boat at twilight and got to see the sunrise from the water. Almost immediately after we submerged, we had our first spotting of a thresher shark just a few meters away from us. We descended further and settled in at relatively shallow spot by a “cleaning station” where we stayed for a while and had sightings of two more thresher sharks! The thresher sharks normally reside very deep in the ocean, from 30 meters and below; however, in the early mornings, they ascend to shallow waters, to between 15 and 25 meters, where there are “cleaning stations” at which small cleaner fish latch on to the sharks and suck off all the bacteria and other junk that has accumulated on their skin.


After spending nearly 8 hours on a boat trip from Coron to El Nido, Palawan, we were blessed with this sun peeking through the clouds and illuminating the karst island formations across the sea.

As we were observing the thresher sharks, a crowd of divers almost instantly appeared along the cleaning station rope boundary. I looked to my right and there were two or three people, then I looked my was left and was shocked by the sight of about 20 new divers all lined up staring in the direction of the cleaning station. I felt like I was at a movie theater and we were all watching a show!

When we started to move, luckily, our dive master was savvy enough to take us in the opposite direction of where that giant crowd was headed and just the three of us witnessed a fourth thresher shark swimming around as well as a white tip reef shark. It was so interesting to note the differences between the two types of shark. The white tip reef shark was smaller, had rough, jagged movements, and looked shark-ish, whereas, the thresher sharks were larger, had bigger, rounder eyes and tail fins that extended upward like cats’ tails, and moved so calmly and gracefully in the water with their tail fins slowly swaying like ribbons above them that they just looked like beautiful, peaceful creatures. It was such an amazing dive and we were so fortunate to see five sharks when on some days, people don’t spot anything!


This is what a thresher shark looks like! (I snapped this photo of a post card I bought.)

After that dive, I had breakfast at a local spot, dropped off my laundry with the same local lady who made my breakfast, then switched lodging to a place just a little way down the bach called Aabana guesthouse (also known as Mike and Diose’s). Mike, a German man, was one of the first people inhabiting Malapascua Island nearly forty years ago and has watched the place boom as his business with his guesthouse has grown steadily. He gave me a great deal for a lovely, spacious room with a porch and hammock and I kind of felt that he was keeping an eye on me in a fatherly sort of way, advising me which parts of the island to steer clear of by myself at night and other such things. I really adored him and his wife and they made my experience feel so personable.


At Aabana Loadge, I stayed on the the lower level of this bungalow and had the porch, hammock, and a beautiful view all to myself. A delightful spot!

My last day in the Philippines was absolutely perfect. Although I had the opportunity to hang out with some new girls I had met, I decided to continue being anti-social instead. I didn’t know I could be so anti-social and love it so much!! (I knew I’d be with friends and family soon enough…) I wrote in my journal, enjoyed sipping on some sweet tea as I swung in the hammock, laid out in the sun on a cute little white sand beach in front of the lodge, strolled Bounty Beach on a postcard hunt, stopped at a place for happy hour to do some writing and much on some snacks, had a very relaxing massage, ate a delicious dinner, and slept like a baby. I was so happy. Everything just worked out. Even when I left the following morning, I had the best luck with the timing of everything transportation-related all the way to the airport.


Pristine blues, greens, and whites are the colors that dominate the natural beauty of the tiny Malapascua Island.

I think I spent more money in 2 weeks in the Philippines than I did in any other country. I know I’ll go back to the Philippines. It is a great place but I hardly scratched the surface and I had to rush through in some places so I did not have the opportunity to dig in. While the people were warm, I didn’t particularly connect to anyone here. It was kind of lonely, actually, not having any of “my people” to go and visit, but I know that is because I wasn’t ever in any place for long enough to form relationships (besides Boracay) and I was very focused on my writing. Also, in the Philippines, I started getting tired. Traveling can be very exhausting sometimes. And while I love everything I have been doing, it is natural to get a lull in energy and motivation. I wasn’t quite ready to come home yet, but I definitely started thinking about it.

TRAVEL TIP: Earplugs. I was almost going to make this one about not bringing rolling luggage to a tiny, perfect, white sand beach island for vacation, but I realize that most people only own rolling luggage, not big backpacks, so I will just have to advise all of you “rolling luggage people” that you WILL be a source of pure entertainment to people like me, barefoot with my bum in the sand and a drink in my hand, laughing as you try to roll those wheels across your paradisiacal beach. It’s a funny sight, just sayin’, so you might as well laugh at yourself, too, when you discover that there really is sand on islands out in the middle of the ocean. Ok. Back to earplugs.

Bring earplugs, several pairs if you can so you have a back up if you lose them. (They are that valuable.) In places like the Philippines, everything is so loud everywhere you go. Annoyance: roosters crowing before the crack of dawn; solution: earplugs. Annoyance: babies screaming or crying non-stop on a plane or a bus; solution: earplugs. Annoyance: loud music blaring from nearby speakers when you’re seeking peace and quiet, trying to work, or reading a book; solution: earplugs. Annoyance: obnoxious boat motors roaring right next to you during a long journey across the sea; solution: earplugs. Annoyance: local lady shouting into her cell phone during a trip in a public van filled with 15 people in close quarters; solution: earplugs. Seriously, I used my earplugs all the time. They are great for when I want to sleep on a plane because plane cabins can be so loud, and I even put in my earplugs one time at a restaurant in Cebu City because the traffic from the street and all the horn-honking was driving me crazy! My earplugs have spared me from a lot of discomfort and will be one of the first items I pack every time I travel from now on.

All my love,

Backpacking Bonus 12: Singapore, The City-State Island Country

Singapore is a city-state and an island and a country–all in one. Singapore is the capital of Singapore. Until I actually visited Singapore, I was under the impression (as many North Americans are, I realized) that Singapore was just a big city in one of the other Asain countries. While it is an island, backpacking and being barefoot on the beach aren’t really the norm here; it’s more like a rolling-luggage, business attire, and top-of-the-line technological device kind of place (similar to Bangkok) with easy access to Starbucks, Burger King, Subway, McDonalds, and 7 Eleven on almost every block. Situated right smack dab in the middle of everything in Southeast Asia, Singapore is in a prime location and has become the main transportation hub for all of Asia, serving as the gateway to practically every country on this side of the globe. Most people are usually just passing through, using the airport only as a stopover before continuing on their way. Oh, and the airport–I could write a whole guidebook just on the fancy-schmancy Singapore airport! It is fully equipped with restaurants, beds, free use of internet on public computers, lounge areas with TVs, orchid and butterfly gardens, and even a rooftop swimming pool.


The Singapore airport has its very own orchid garden and koi pond, among other lavish amenities scattered throughout its three terminals.


Despite the fact that Singapore is an island, backpacks, bikinis, and bare feet are not commonly sighted on its streets; instead there are people in suits with rolling luggage or briefcases heading to work on paved roads and organized transportation systems.

Despite being surrounded by impoverished countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia that are struggling to stimulate and stabilize their economies in spite of rampant governmental corruption, Singapore is actually considered a “first world” country. It has one of the highest GDPs in the world and, thanks to the government, the entire country puts high value on education, sports, the arts, nature, and innovation. Singapore is on the leading edge of both technological and architectural advancement. This place really has its ducks in a row and one could say the people who live here have got it made.


Valued aspects of Singaporean society can be seen on its currency: “Education” on the S$2 bill, “Garden City” on the S$5 bill, “Sports” on the S$10 bill, and “Arts” on the S$50 bill.

A fascinating UTOPIA with its own sets of rules and SYSTEMS in Asia

Because of how expensive everything is here, Singapore isn’t usually on the radar for most backpackers. The currency is Singapore dollars and the exchange rate is $1 US =1.42 Singapore dollars, stacking up nicely against both the Australian dollar and the Canadian dollar, which are about the same rate, if only slightly stronger than Singapore currency. With their budgets in mind, most people traveling in Southeast Asia don’t even think twice about skipping Singapore, especially because it is so small, and if they do go to Singapore, it is often only for a one-nighter due to a layover for a flight. While I wasn’t planning to have a long-term relationship with Singapore, I definitely wanted more than a one-night-stand because I am fascinated by how this country became the way it is and I wanted to dig a little deeper into the inner workings of the place. So I booked 5 nights (still not very long, but enough time to get comfortable with the place).

The very first thing I noticed was how easy and functional the metro train system, called MRT, was. For ~$1.50, it took me only about 45 minutes to get halfway across the country once I left the airport. Singapore is an extremely tiny country with an area of only 694 sq km which a person could drive his car across in only an hour and a half to two hours, but still, the public transportation system was impressively structured and well-organized. It was so easy to get around–almost too easy. On one hand it was a relief because there was practically no stress involved, but on the other hand, I felt like travelers as well as the general public are spoon-fed on a regular basis: the overhead voice on the train AND a light-up map even indicate to people on which side of the train the doors are going to open at the approaching station!


This colorful map of Singapore is a guide showing both the highly organized MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) system as well as some top tourist attractions.

Geographically located very near to the equator, Singapore has a hot and humid climate year-round. Besides some rain in December and January, there are no seasons. The average temperature during the five days I was there was 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This constant steady weather is a contributing factor to the feeling of sameness that permeates the calm, quiet streets of this country that is sometimes referred to as a “bubble” society.

One analogy I’ll render for Singapore is the following: imagine drawing a big line around San Francisco, cutting it off of California (thus making it an island), then calling it a country and letting it have its own government, currency, culture, etc. Imagine the effect that it would have on the rest of California and the attitude that might develop in the people who are “in” or “out” of the San Francisco bubble. I’ll further explore this dynamic later on in this chapter…

When I arrived to Singapore, I didn’t have the best luck finding the place I wanted to stay (it was under construction for remodeling), so I ended up at what I will refer to as a grunge hostel and, and checked in with resolve to find a better spot the following day. I won’t waste space on the details of the “grunge,” but something positive that came out of my stay there was that I made friends with an interesting Indonesian woman named Gokna who was also on a backpacking trip.

Over breakfast the next morning, we discussed how our lifestyles would have to change while we were in Singapore compared to how we had both been living in other countries we had visited. In order to get by on a daily budget within our normal spending limits, we decided that during our time in Singapore, there would be no manicures/pedicures, no massages, no meals at fancy restaurants, we would be staying in hostel dorm rooms as opposed to booking private rooms in guesthouses or hotels, we would seek out as many “free” activities as we could, and there would be absolutely NO shopping. We joked that we could at least drink the tap water so we would save money from not having to buy drinking water!

Later that morning, I made the switch from the grunge hostel to Five Stones Hostel which was really nice and very modern compared to what one would expect for a hostel. The restrooms were even equipped with built-in hairdryers which I considered a luxury as I hadn’t blow-dried my hair in nearly three months by that point! In a five-story building, I stayed in a 10-bed “mixed” dorm room (because all the female-only ones were full) and paid 28 Singaporean dollars (~$20) per night for it. It ended up being all dudes plus me in one room. But I didn’t care about that because everyone was minding their own business and I hardly spent any time in the room–the place to hang out was definitely the hostel lounge! Not only did the lounge have a large kitchen with Ikea mugs, plates, and bowls, plus utensils, tables, a refrigerator, toasters, a microwave, and long countertops (where guests could help themselves to a free breakfast spread in the mornings and coffee and tea anytime), but it also had a relaxing area with cushy couches and pillows, public converter plug strips, a TV with access to a stack of movies/DVDs, free wifi, and a radio that was playing Ryan Seacrest’s Top 40 Countdown over the weekend. I didn’t even feel like I was in Asia.


The lounge at Five Stones Hostel made for a great working space because it was “fully loaded” with sofas, wifi, converter plugs, TV, DVDs, tables, a full kitchen, and even Top 40 hits playing on the radio in the kitchen.

As I walked around the city, I never once encountered people who were bothering me or trying to get my money as a “hand-out.” I didn’t see any beggars with the exception of one crippled guy which led me to believe that these people are not coming from a place of lack. My observations of Singapore by just walking up and down the streets through town was that is it a quiet, peaceful, safe place where people mind their own business. However, everything I saw “on the surface” made me curious about what was underneath and how things got to be the way they are. Luckily, I had the opportunity to dig a little deeper with some local Singaporeans, the first of whom, Stephanie, was a girl I had met at the very beginning of my trip during my very first week in Thailand while I was at S1 hostel in Bangkok. (Facebook is great for keeping in touch with travel strangers!!)


Strolling the streets of Singapore at night was not only safe but also provided some spectacular views such as these skyscrapers dazzling just above the Singapore River.

On my second full day in Singapore, I made plans to meet up with Stephanie for lunch as she offered to introduce me to some of Singapore’s traditional food. We met up at a specified MRT station, then walked together a few blocks to the Maxwell Food Centre, which is a huge “hawker” food area meaning that the place is filled with rows and rows of food and drink stalls serving all kinds of dishes that are prepared on the spot and offered at cheap prices. Stephanie was on a mission to pick the most well-known Singaporean dishes she could find which included an oyster omelet (my least favorite–I couldn’t handle more than a few bites!), fried carrot cake (unlike the sweet dessert that comes to mind, this dish consists of radish cake stir-fried with eggs and preserved radish–it was actually quite tasty despite the squishy texture), and, Singapore’s national dish, chicken rice (boiled or roast chicken served with rice that has been cooked in chicken stock and a variety of sauces–soy sauce, chili sauce, and a sweet sauce–that enhance the flavors; this dish was definitely my favorite, perhaps for its simplicity).


At Maxwell Food Centre, lines of people at each of the neighboring food stalls is typical in the middle of the day; people enjoy their lunches at small open tables set up like a cafeteria.


Left: Stephanie posing with Singapore’s national dish, Chicken Rice–here, drizzled with some savory sauces. Right: Stephanie, about to introduce me to two other Singaporean dishes: fried carrot cake and an oyster omelet.

To top it all off, which there was hardly space for, we had almond-flavored bean curd (soy base) for dessert. I noticed there is a lot of sugar and carbs in the Singaporean diet and in beverages such as bandung, a rose-flavored sugary milk drink that looks like pink medicine but is ridiculously sweet; I passed on the hot pink bandung, but I couldn’t stay away from the bubble milk tea anytime I passed by a stand selling it! Sugar could be consumed on every corner, however, I felt like I did not have easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables while I was on this city-island-country. While I was beyond grateful to Stephanie for guiding me through this local experience, my tummy was totally out of sorts and stayed that way throughout the duration of my time in Singapore.

I was excited about talking to Stephanie about the history and current state of Singapore, and I appreciated that she was so willing to share the local perspective with me. The first time I met her, she had mentioned that the unofficial, but spoken, language of Singapore is English, but that the “official” language–on record, at least–is Malay. This time she went on to explain that Singapore used to be a part of Malaysia, then she shared how and why Singapore became its own country. I was totally impressed by how well-educated she was about the history, government, people, and function of her country! Granted, Singapore is tiny and “young,” having gained independence only 50 years ago in 1965, but still, she knew the low-down. (I supplemented what I learned from Stephanie with additional research on my own as well as information that was shared with me another Singapore resident, Adam, whom I met a few days later.)

Originally developed by the British in the early 1800s, Singapore has always been a region where people from all over the world have flocked to; Britain pretty much lost their stronghold there by the time the second world war was over. By the late 50s and early 60s, many Chinese people were living in Singapore and that was during a time when every nation feared being infiltrated and taken over by Communists so Malaysia was on high alert. A man by the name of Lee Kuan Yew (whom I will refer to as Lee from now on, just like Singaporeans do), came into power as the leader of a socialist party in 1959. Fearing Communism in addition to having conflicting beliefs from Singapore’s new leaders, the Malay Federation kicked Singapore out in 1965. Lee seized the opportunity to turn the region into an industrialized, independent, and successful country.

Lee, who pursued his studies in Europe when he was young, was a brilliant man and a great diplomat. Often referred to as a benevolent dictator, Lee imposed strict rules on the people of Singapore, but despite the tight governmental regulation, everyone seemed to know that he always had the people’s interest at heart. He transformed a struggling, abandoned region into a strong country with a booming economy, an educated population, a very large middle class, and practically no poverty or crime. It is rare that anyone has a chance to build a new country from scratch these days, but by treating the country as if it were a small start-up company in the business world, Lee succeeded in endowing Singapore with the capacity to not only survive, but also thrive on its own.

The population of Singapore consists mostly of Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian–but each race is not equally represented. It is broken down roughly into the following percentages: 76% Chinese, 12% Malay, 9% Indian, and the remaining ~3% Eurasian or “other.” English is the mandatory first language taught in schools.

Referring back to the San Francisco scenario I created earlier in the chapter, can you imagine how California would feel if it kicked San Francisco out, then San Francisco became a raging success of a place and kept all of its wealth to itself? California might try to pull San Francisco back in so it could have access to all the resources that San Francisco had for itself and its small bubble of a society–and the people who are a part of San Francisco wouldn’t really want to share, they probably wouldn’t want to leave, and they might be wary of anyone else to tried to get into their safe, successful society. That is Singapore in a nutshell.


There is a lot of wealth in Singapore which is evident by all the fancy cars up and down the streets, like this yellow Lambourghuini.

Sandwiched between two very large and dominantly Muslim countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore has to stay on its toes in order to maintain its position, status, and safety. Strategically, it keeps strong relationships with both China and the United States, and it carefully monitors who its decision-makers in the government are: there is an extensive screening process so any person who might be associated with someone who could potentially drop an explosive device is forbidden to be in a position of power.

The population of the country is controlled so that a Chinese majority is maintained. Stephanie said, “Singapore needs a healthy amount of Chinese to maintain status.” The way I understood that was regarding both Singapore’s business relationship with China (and tourists from China) as well preventing Malays or Indians to rise to power, posing a threat of being merged back into Malaysia or being taken over by a different country. Stephanie explained that the Chinese population isn’t growing as quickly as the government would like for it to be which is due mostly to the Chinese cultural practice of a “one-child family,” whereas the Indian birth rate is slightly higher, but the Malay birthrate is significantly higher than that of the Chinese. When I asked Adam about this, he further explained that the Singaporean government has an immigration plan, specifically for the Chinese, set in motion for the next several years in order to counter the current changing population trends and maintain that Chinese majority.

Stephanie’s one complaint regarding the influx of Chinese immigrants–and she said she was speaking on behalf of most Singaporeans–was that most of the Chinese come to the country and regard it only as an extension of China, as opposed to seeing it as a country of its own. She said it is frustrating because most of the Chinese immigrants don’t even bother trying to learn English even though it is technically the official language of Singapore.

On that note, I’ll point out that Singapore is very obviously a multiracial and multicultural place and the dynamics of the society reflect that. The government is run like a business and does not allow religion to infiltrate how it functions, however people are free to practice how they like. Religious beliefs are just as diverse as the racial demographics, and there is a high level tolerance among the citizens that each person has his or her own beliefs. As religion does not interfere with Singapore’s “secular” statehood, another conspicuous trend I noticed is that homosexuality is widely accepted and people are very openly gay in public (although people don’t run around in the nude as they do in San Francisco sometimes!). There are so many different people and places, cultures and races in Singapore that it is difficult to discern who is a tourist and who is not.


St. Andrew’s Cathedral is beautifully lit up at night in the center of Singapore’s Colonial District, just blocks away from Muslim mosques and Buddhist temples. Religious tolerance and freedom of practice is a characteristic of society in Singapore.

Another thing that Adam and Stephanie both touched on regarding Singaporean society is that the government has created a “culture of self.” Everyone is expected to take care of their own needs, work hard, and be accountable for themselves. The government isn’t going to bail anyone out of a personal problem or pick anyone up off the ground if he loses his job or isn’t working. While there is a great free healthcare system, there is neither welfare nor pension plans set into place. Citizens have a personal required savings account to which money from their paycheck is automatically transferred and can be used in retirement. These governmental policies have resulted in a country with citizens who are relatively responsible and self-sufficient; however, some downsides include the inevitable development of self-centeredness (a “I worked for my money so it’s mine–why should I share?” attitude) as well as the unfortunate situation of very elderly people still having to work into old age.


Because the government has neither welfare systems nor pension plans, it is normal that elderly people have to continue to work menial jobs into their old age like this man here who cleans tables at the Maxwell Food Centre.

Singapore faces other problems, of course, just as every other country has a set of its own. First of all, Singapore is a small country and an island-country at that, plus its practically perfect society, nearly nonexistent crime, and steady, warm weather are huge draws to attract people to live and work there; consequently, Singapore faces overpopulation issues. What’s the best solution for running out of land? Make more of it, of course! A small area of Singapore is reclaimed land, meaning that the government “filled in” the sea with cement, rocks, clay, dirt, etc. until they had enough land they wanted to expand the country. (Land reclamation is practiced all over the world, especially in swampy areas [like New Orleans], near rivers and coastal areas, and by bays [for example, San Francisco and Alameda].) Another solution to the population growth in Singapore is the creation of housing flats, where many families can exist “vertically” on the same small plot of land. The government assists couples and families with housing subsidies for these flats.


This building is an example of the flats in which many families in Singapore live.

A seasonal climate concern in Singapore is that the city-state becomes shrouded in a heavy haze in September and October due to forest slash-and-burn practices for palm oil in Indonesia. This is a HUGE environmental concern and citizens can only protect their health by wearing face masks out in public or remaining indoors during this time. While out to lunch with Stephanie, some girls she knew were on their lunch break from work and joined us at our table. They were discussing the haze and I laughed when they suggested a solution for it: the government should just build a bubble around Singapore up into the sky so that way Singaporeans could continue to have access to fresh, clean Singaporean air. In that case, Singapore would literally be a bubble society with a physical manifestation of its protected utopia!!


The haze from the slash-and-burn fires in Indonesia was so thick in Singapore in October that it made it difficult to view the sunset from a restaurant on the 55th floor (the top floor) of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel.

Strict laws are enforced by tight governmental regulation. A person will be fined for selling chewing gum, however it is okay for people to chew it (for example, if they acquired it while traveling abroad). No smoking is allowed in most areas, although it is okay to smoke on the street. There are fines for littering. Pornography is illegal, however prostitution is allowed. And the strictest, most heavily enforced law of all: drug trafficking is punishable by death.


In order to maintain a society that is mostly free of crime and violence, Singapore enforces strict laws both on its citizens and visitors. For example, anyone who enters the country get this notice in their passport: “Warning – Death for Drug Traffickers under Singapore Law.”

All of these regulations have been put in place in order to make the country clean, safe, and free. Of course, this level of security and stability offers a very different kind of freedom. People are told what the rules are and they choose to abide by them in exchange for an easy, happy lifestyle. It seems that there is a pre-meditated solution for any possible case scenario that could occur in someone’s daily life. There are instructions and directions posted on signs, walls, and doorways. People don’t really have to think for themselves because everything has already been thought out for them and kindly dictated to them. In one sense, I liked how easy it was to just “be” in Singapore, but on the flip side, I sort of felt like there was a lot of hand-holding going on which doesn’t leave much room for individuality and independence. The society has been trained to trust and listen to the government. Interestingly, the government places a high value on educating its people unlike some of the notorious dictators of history who monopolized education systems in order to brainwash their people; despite the fantastic education they receive, Singaporeans are not likely to buck the system.

Singapore is in a constant state of seeking balance between Asian culture and western culture. It is sort of a blend, but with a young population, I suspect western culture will dominate. The younger generation is admittedly pampered and could easily identify with the traits of “millennials” all over the world. It was their parents who endured through the country’s difficulties and their parents who worked hard for the money that now supports the children–many of whom live at home with their parents until they are married because the housing market is so competitive. While attending sports games or community/art events are popular pastimes for these young people, a lot of the free time activities revolve around shopping and eating, which is indicative of the consumeristic society that Singapore has become. (Consequently, waste management is another issue that the country faces, especially because it is an island, but I won’t get into that here.)


The malls in Singapore began putting up holiday decor by early November in preparation for the Christmas shopping season. (I snapped this photo during my third trip to Singapore that was an overnight layover.)

I noticed in Singapore that people seemed to have a lot of time and resources to dedicate to fashion. I saw people with blue and purple streaks through their hair, pink tips, or partially shaved heads with long hair on the rest of their head. Some people were very creative with their make-up, splashing all colors of eyeshadow on their eyelids or using eyeliner to design unique patterns around their eyes. And then there were the shoes: platform high-tops, neon sneakers, studded boots, and strappy heels. Fashion is a popular avenue that people use to express their individuality here.

For anyone who has seen or read The Hunger Games, the comparison I can make is that Singapore is very much like “the Capital.” In a place where abundance is everywhere and the people are shielded from many of the rest of the world’s problems, their priorities are different. Relationships seem like they are on the surface. I felt like something was missing. It’s not the people’s fault by any means–this is all they know. But I made a strong association between hardship and depth while I was there: where there is no struggle, there is no depth. I am not saying that Singapore’s people don’t have to struggle; they just have a different set of problems from say, citizens of Nigeria, or Syria, or even their next-door-neighbors in Malaysia.


At the Krispy Kreme donut shop inside the Singapore airport, I thought that I had never seen so many different options in my life! This is one example of a society that lives in abundance.

From what I have seen and experienced around the world, in my opinion, Singapore is lucky to have a government that works to provide its people with a great lifestyle, as opposed to having a corruption-riddled government like many other countries like the aforementioned. Some people have compared the system in Singapore to George Orwell’s 1984, acknowledging the sort of “Big Brother” control that the government exercises. However, despite the “kind dictatorship,” nobody can deny the leaps and bounds of progress that Singapore has made socially and economically as a country. While maybe it started as a big experiment, similar to how many start-up businesses begin, Lee implemented a great strategy and it worked. Lee had a successor named Goh Chok Tong who began leading the country in 1990, but he stepped down in 2004 so Lee’s son could takeover and continue on the path that Lee laid for the country…

As I learned about and experienced Singapore, I felt conflicted about all of it. On one hand, I thought, “Isn’t this what every country strives for? A nearly perfect society with a big middle class and a thriving economy? A place where people feel safe and happy and can live their lives however they choose–as long as it is within ‘limits’?” But then I come back to those conditions and rules and I can see how all the systems that need to be adhered to in order to maintain “the bubble” can make things seem robotic, reducing the unpredictability that inevitably comes along with the human condition.

If anyone is familiar with the movie Pleasantville or the book called The Giver (one of my favorites!), by Lois Lowry, you may recall that the perfectly functioning societies were described as black and white, illustrating the lifelessness that seems to become normal in these places where safe, systematic, mundane lifestyles are had by all in exchange for protection from hardship, pain, and even feelings. In both of these plot lines, the challenges to these systems come in the form of color, either as a character or an object–a small change that gradually takes over, ultimately leaving the audience to question the humanity of the systems. While I could go on and on about the parallels between Singapore and The Giver, one big difference is that Singapore is actually a very colorful and vibrant place–not at all black and white.


Singapore is splashed with color in every part of the country. Top: The Elgin Bridge that stretches across the Singapore River is lit in bright rainbow-colored lights each night. Middle: This building in Clarke Quay has all of its window panes painted in bright solid colors. Bottom: These flats in the Colonial District are distinguished by their green, blue, yellow, and red building colors.

After Stephanie and I parted ways that afternoon, I had a call to make and some work to do so I set up shop in an Australian-run Russian bar–the only place around that had functional wifi at the time. It was located in a cute area and walking distance from the Chinatown district. Again, I was reminded of San Francisco by how Singapore has become such a melting pot of cultures within blocks from each other.

Chinatown was everything that could be expected from any other Chinatown: red and gold signs all over, hanging decorations stringed up criss-crossing over the streets, markets, shops, and food stands. After strolling up and down all the streets, I decided to continue my trend of sampling local foods so I opted for some chili crab dumplings. Chili crab is a Singaporean specialty that consists of mud crab cooked in a tomato and chili sauce and it is very tasty!


Chinatown in Singapore is designed with Chinese-style buildings, red and yellow signs and decorations strung above walkways, and busy markets and shops.

While the dumplings were delicious, I still felt like I needed to eat some veggies since I hadn’t really eaten any fresh produce during the entire day. I went on a hunt for affordable vegetables throughout Chinatown and the best I could find was a plate of green beans at a restaurant. Unfortunately, the green beans were practically swimming in peppercorns and hot chilis. One bite and I nearly turned into a fire-breathing dragon! I suffered through that plate, trying to pick out every single spicy thing, determined to eat those veggies and had to order what I was hoping was a milky drink but was actually made from barley. The restaurant staff didn’t know what to do with me: they didn’t speak English well and I could see that my questions, my changing mind (no drink…just kidding–YES, I NEED A BEVERAGE!!), and the fact that I only ordered a plate of green beans and nothing else frustrated and confused them. I was dying and they couldn’t wait to get me out of their restaurant. (At least that’s how I felt!) They even charged my for the wet wipe that was part of the table setting. It was a miserable experience and I left slightly disappointed and relieved to be out of there.


This is the plate of green beans that I suffered through in Chinatown; picking out the chilis and trying to avoid the peppercorns was all I could do to avoid the spice, but it was to practically no avail…

At the end of that day, making it three days in a row by that point, my tummy was not happy. (I didn’t mention my bad decision to eat Burger King as soon as I got off the plane on the first day, but that was the first contributing factor!) It was difficult to find fresh fruits and vegetables in Singapore unless I wanted to order a fancy, expensive salad from a restaurant menu. I didn’t even figure out until a future visit to Singapore that there are many grocery stores, but they are actually underground, on lower levels of some major shopping malls. (No wonder I couldn’t find them!) I was frustrated by this because on multiple occasions, I would walk around craving a fresh fruit smoothie and go searching for a place to buy one, but I didn’t want some smoothie concoction with eight super ingredients and special powders and potions–I just wanted some fresh mango blended with ice and poured in a cup. Simple. But my enthusiasm for my smoothie hunt always dissolved into an unsatisfying abandoned wish.

On the following day as I was walking through the MRT station, I spotted a food place called “Salad Box” and immediately entered to find a beautiful display of fresh salad fixings. I had never been so excited to see shredded carrots, bell peppers, corn, shredded beetroot, tomatoes, kidney beans, and feta cheese!! There were many other ingredients, but those are the ones that decorated my lunch and I was so happy with it that I ate it all in near bliss and almost ordered another one for the road. It was affordable as well, costing less than 10 Singaporean dollars.

Self-proclaimed “The Garden City,” Singapore takes a lot of pride in its gardens and all the greenery that has been deliberately placed or conserved throughout the country. There are plants, bushes, trees, and flowers lining sidewalks and city streets in addition to public parks and gardens. The Singapore Botanic Gardens, named an UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site in 2015, was a “must see” on my list, and, knowing how big the place was, I reserved an entire afternoon and part of that evening to walk through and check out all the different areas which were sectioned off into themed gardens including the gingers, orchid garden, frangipanis, medicinal plants, children’s garden, ferns/cover plants, and fragrant garden, set among acres of trees, grass, and plant-lined pathways.

The place was huge and well-designed. Tropical flowers such as orchids and frangipanis were vibrant with life and color. Families were walking around and playing together on the lawns–some were even picnicking around the symphony stage. (That’s right: there is an outdoor symphony stage at the Botanic Gardens!) People were walking their dogs in the late afternoon and they actually had leashes for their pets! This small lifestyle snapshot was an indicator that Singapore is a great place to raise a family.


Singapore’s famed Botanic Gardens, an UNESCO Cultural Site as of last July, boast acres of lush greenery sprinkled with vibrant flowers such as the hot pink frangipanis (bottom left) and Singapore’s national flower, called Vanda Miss Joaquin (an orchid hybrid, top right), as well as a symphony stage with plenty of lawn space for visitors to relax and enjoy the surroundings.

I stayed at the Botanic Gardens late that day on purpose because the best time to visit the fragrant gardens is after sundown. Here is a fun biology lesson for the day, one I learned during a school trip I took to Ecuador while I was in college and have since been obsessed with sharing every time I get the opportunity: Most plants with white flowers are pollinated by moths. Moths are usually active at night, however, they do not have the best eyesight. Moths are drawn to the light. (Think of how your very own porch lights attract moths at night.) White flower petals reflect more light than any other petal color so naturally they are easier to see at night. In addition, these white flowers emit a strong fragrance in the evening to further assist the moths in discovering the whereabouts of the flowers, thus increasing the chance that the flowers will be pollinated and reproduce. (This is a simplified generalization, but this is what stuck with me from rainforest ecology lessons!) This garden was such a delight to walk through as I sniffed my way through it that evening. Because of their intense aromas, oils from some of these flowers are used in perfumes; for example, oil from the ylang ylang flower is one of the main ingredients in the popular perfume Chanel No. 5. Jasmine and gardenia are also commonly used in commercial fragrances.


Walking through the fragrant garden in the evening was a delightful experience because the the sweet aromas of the ylang ylang (top right) and other white flowers lingered in the air.

Speaking of scents, an observation I made about Singaporeans was that people actually smelled good–and clean–there. This may seem like an odd thing to notice, but after many experiences traveling and living in rural parts of developing countries, I have grown accustomed to unique smells coming from markets, dead animals, strange foods, and even people. They are not all necessarily bad smells, but they are definitely different. I was taken by surprise when I could actually detect scents such as soap, deodorant, perfume, and cologne while I was in public places in Singapore. (The Chinese couple, sitting in the seats across the aisle from me on a plane during my flight to Singapore, who took turns closing their eyes and spraying 5-7 pumps of perfume directly on their heads, in their faces, and around their necks just might have been the catalysts who launched me into fragrance-observation mode.) In any case, I simply added this to the list of identifying characteristics of the lifestyle in a “westernized” society.

After finding my way out of the Botanic Gardens, I headed to the Ion Orchard Mall. Singapore has large shopping centers and malls all over the place so I made it a point to check out several different shopping areas. Not only did the Ion Orchard Mall awe me with its futuristic architecture, innovative layout, and flashing lights, but it also surprised me with the number of high-end designer stores that lined every level: Gucci, Calvin Klein, Swarovski, L’Occitane, Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Aldo, Valentino–you name it! The biggest shocker, however, was that the place was jam-packed with people at 9 o’clock at night on a Saturday in the middle of October. It was ridiculous how busy the place was! Understanding that shopping is a popular pastime in Singapore prevented me from falling over in shock by all of this, though…


Singapore’s Ion Orchard Mall’s technologically-advanced architecture creates a galactic effect that makes the place seem unreal, like from a movie.

When I passed by Sephora that night, I glanced in at the endless selection of makeup and cosmetic products and it made me realize that I hadn’t done my makeup since before I left for my trip and that there was really no reason for me to go into a makeup store because I had no need for it. I thought about how nice it is to not have to worry about makeup: I don’t have to buy it, I don’t have to carry it with me, and I don’t have to spend any time putting it on or taking it off. It was liberating to acknowledge that I (and anyone really) can get by in life with so few necessities. Adding so much “stuff” into our lives can just complicate them sometimes. (Disclaimer: No criticisms here on makeup or wearers of it–there is definitely a time and place.)


Singapore has malls and shopping centers all over the place which has inevitably created a consumerism-based society. Victoria’s Secret and a custom-designed dress shop (top and middle) at the Ion Orchard Mall, and the overwhelming shopping experience with a thousand options for everything at the Mustafa Centre (bottom) in Little India.

Overall, Singapore is an expensive place to both live in and travel through. I bought the most expensive 16 oz. glass of cider in my life here at a restaurant on the roof top of the famed Marina Bay Sands hotel (perhaps I was paying more for the ambience and less for the beverage itself), and to stay at the hotel itself–which consists of three skyscrapers with a “ship” spanning across the top of all three of them, has its own casino, and is walking distance from Gardens by the Bay–costs nearly $1,000 (Singaporean) per night for a room! (Marina Bay Sands is an iconic place for Singapore; there is a lot more interesting information about it on Google.) There were many other factors that led me to compare traveling in Singapore to being in Las Vegas, New York, or even Disneyland because each of those places is also known for having eye-catching inventions, colorful light shows, high-end restaurants and shopping centers, and expensive everything else.


The Marina Bay Sands Hotel, designed with a “ship” spanning across the three hotel towers, is an architectural masterpiece in Singapore.

I thought a lot about what it means to have an easy life versus a simple life while I was here. I do not think that they are one and the same. In Singapore, there is ample opportunity for most people to have an easy life. Having an “easy” life can sometimes pave the way for clutter, noise, and only surface-deep relationships to dominate. I think people who live a simple life discover ways to eliminate most of the noise, “stuff,” and other clutter and drama from their daily lives. Living simply is not the opposite of living easy. It doesn’t equate to having a hard, tortuous path to forge. The difference between living easy and living simply has a lot to do with priorities and choices. I think it is possible to live both an easy life and a simple life at the same time, but if I had to choose, I would pick the simple life as I think it would be richer due to the rawness of it which provides opportunity to struggle, build character, and really learn to connect to other human beings without layers of “stuff”–expectations and other things–blockading the possibility of forming those relationships.

In only five days in Singapore, I collected more friends than I could handle because everyone was so outgoing and looking for other people to do social activities with them. I felt torn between taking time to work on my writing versus researching as much as possible about Singapore (both by exploring the area and talking to people) in those few short days I was there. Then I found myself trying to balance a huge social life! There was a chance I might see Stephanie again, plus there were other new friends from both of the hostels I had been in who expressed interest in hanging out, and lastly, I found out a friend from home was arriving in Singapore the same time I was there and she was trying to meet up with me. It felt like I was back in the States and that feeling stressed me out because I found it difficult to carve out time to write. Dodging time commitments to other people ended up taking a lot of energy, but I managed to balance having nice conversations with new friends with getting that time to myself.

On my last full day in Singapore, I spent some time walking around Little India and I was amazed at how much like India it really was! It was crowded and busy, with throngs of people along the streets, in the markets, and throughout the shopping and food centers. Strong aromas from incense lingered in the air as I passed by shop after shop selling silks and saris. The vendors charmingly called out to passers-by, “We have imported royal silks. Come and have a look!” As I strolled up and down the streets, I kept getting the urge to do the Indian head bob thing; the Indian energy was getting to me and head-bobbing seemed so natural there! On Arab Street (a 10-minute walk away from Little India), there was even a shop called “Aladdin” which was right around the corner from the Sultan Mosque. I felt like I could take a magic carpet ride all around the world while remaining in Singapore the entire time–it seemed that every major culture was represented at least in some small way.


At the end of Arab Street in Singapore stands the majestic Sultan Mosque.


During my jaunt through Little India in Sinagpore, I stopped by one of the hawker stands at the Tekka Food Centre so I could try the popular Indian dish called murtabak, a savory pancake filled with chicken, garlic, onion, and egg. I was also scoping out possible suitors for my college roommate who told me she’s looking for an Indian guy! These guys were on board with my match-making as that is a common thing for India!

For my last night, I planned a usual “date night with myself” and decided to catch the light show at Gardens by the Bay, another heralded national attraction that was planted right along the edge of Marina Bay and is maintained by the government. Gardens by the Bay is a huge public area with plants and flowers arranged into an extensive garden layout, and it is also a great public park for jogging, dog-walking, and family outings, similar in that regard to the Botanic Gardens. There are “flower domes” that are designed as greenhouses, mimicking cloud forests with beautiful tropical flowers and waterfalls on display inside. (There is a small entrance fee for the domes.) A “supertree grove” is a recent addition to the gardens; the supertrees are structures that are man-made in the shape of giant trees, but covered with real plants, ivys, orchids, and bromeliads which make them “living” supertrees with a watering system and all.


Amidst the Gardens by the Bay, there is a great view of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel (top left) and the gardens have tropical flowers with robust colors, such as these red and yellow frangipanis (top right), scattered throughout them. The span of Gardens by the Bay can be seen from the roof top of the MBS Hotel (bottom–flower domes on left, supertree grove on right).

Twice a night, after sundown, there is a 15-minute light show in the supertree grove that is orchestrated to a mash-up of well-known symphonic numbers and Disney songs. Each supertree is adorned with strings of lights that change colors, swirl, and dance to the music. Observers sit at the base of these giant trees to view the show overhead. It really was a sort of magical experience. It reminded me of the ambience that can be experienced at Disneyland while watching Fantasmic across the lake in New Orleans Square or the Fireworks show over the Sleeping Beauty Castle with Tinkerbell dancing in the sky in sync with loud fairytale music. Of course the Disney effect was encouraged as Aladdin’s “Magic Carpet Ride” blared on the overhead speakers followed by The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea.” The light show closed out with The Lion King’s “Circle of Life” as its final number. A video clip of that last past of the show can be seen here: http://youtu.be/ATdLCg43Gqs


The supertree grove comes to life every night creating an Avatar-like grove with bright, colorful lights illuminating these beautiful giants. The two nightly light shows are magical.

That evening, the best seat I found to watch the light show was right next to a gentleman named Andy, from London, who was visiting his son Adam, who lives and works in Singapore. Andy and I got carried away swapping stories until quite a while after the show had ended. I didn’t want to intrude on their father/son time too much, but they invited me to go along with them to continue our conversation over food and drinks at this neat restaurant/bar that Adam knew of with a great view of the MBS Hotel (and the hotel’s laser show) from the terrace where we sat. I was grateful for that time with them because I love good stories and Andy, who has a military background, was full of them! Andy lost his wife just a couple years ago and opened up to me about that experience as well–it was touching to see how much he adored her and still cherishes everything about her. I couldn’t help but appreciate how traveling connects people from all over the world in places and ways no one could ever predict.

Andy’s son, Adam, was the guy I referred to earlier in the chapter who enlightened me on how Singapore is run like a business. Adam has a background in journalism and travel writing, and he has been living in Singapore for six years, working now in consulting for the business world. He was sharp and knew a lot of the ins and outs of the country. There was a lot more that I wanted to pick his brain about, but we didn’t have much time and the attempts to meet up during my following two overnight layovers in Singapore never played out. In any case, he made me well aware of the tactics the country uses to bring attention (and therefore more money) to itself so it can maintain its place as a “top dog” in the world. Both MBS Hotel as well as the “Singapore Skyline” are landmarks that draw people in. (Mostly businesspeople and vacationing tourists, not so many backpackers!!) Hanging out with Andy and Adam was a great way to round off my time in Singapore.


The Singapore Skyline: prominent business skyscrapers to the left, the Singapore Flyer reflected on the river in the middle, and three glowing supertrees from the Gardens by the Bay on the right.

When my five days were up, I felt like it wasn’t enough. I found myself quite intrigued with Singapore and even considering having a long-term relationship with the place. My curiosity was piqued and I wondered how long this perfect society will continue on its trajectory. Is it possible for other countries to achieve the same kind of equilibrium, and will other countries or extremist groups target Singapore and try to bring it down? I realized the answers to these questions will take time to reveal themselves, of course, so I decided not to wonder too hard… By that time, I was itching to get back to some smaller islands where things were generally simpler and I could actually just walk down the road a few minutes to get to the beach. The next country on my radar was the Philippines, a country made up of 7,000 islands, so I was definitely heading in the right direction!

TRAVEL TIP: Because Singapore is so well-known for its airport and most people just spend one night in the place due to an overnight layover, this tip is all about sleeping in airports. I did, in fact, return to Singapore two more times during my journey only because I had overnight layovers and one night I slept in the airport so I have some pointers for comfort, just in case you ever find yourself on a flight that you bought (because it was significantly cheaper than any others) with an overnight layover somewhere.

First of all, you must pack the following items in your carry-on as you will not likely have access to your checked luggage until your final destination: blanket, travel pillow, 1-2 pairs of socks, a pair of pants, a sweatshirt or jacket, something to cover your eyes (scarf/blindfold/bandana/eye cover), and earplugs. (Keep your toothbrush and other desired toiletries with you as well.)

Hopefully you can find a good chair or soft bench to sleep on, but you may end up on the ground somewhere so be prepared for that (depends on the airport!); if you are sleeping on the ground, try to find something to put between you and the floor (like clothing, a sarong, blanket, etc.) as this will help prevent losing your body heat to the cold ground.

When you are ready to go to sleep, get all bundled up–make sure you are warm!! Set an alarm on your phone, turn the ringer volume up (and put it on vibrate as well if you want), and keep it close. I usually hook an arm or a leg around the straps of whatever belongings I have with me and either tuck them against the closest wall or underneath some part of my body just to make sure no one runs off with them while I’m sleeping. If you have post-it’s or other paper, you can write down the time you need to get up and spread the notes around your sleeping area (in case you miss your alarm–some passer-by will know what time to wake you up).

Now you are ready! The most important things are earplugs and an eye cover if you want uninterrupted sleep. Cover your eyes, plug your ears, curl up, have a nice rest, and don’t miss your next flight!

Happy traveling!


Backpacking Bonus 11: Gili Island Hopping

After spending over two and a half weeks in Bali with time running out on my Indonesia visa, I decided to make a move so I could check out the Gili Islands, a chain of three very small islands to the east of Bali (and technically part of the territory of Lombok, the next large island to Bali’s east). My original plan was to spend 10 days on Bali, 10 days for the Gilis, and 10 days on Lombok, but I scratched Lombok from that plan once I hit two weeks in Bali. Why rush things?

Each of the three Gili Islands has its own style and while I had read descriptions about all of them and could have selected just one island that seemed like the best fit for me, they were so close together so I wanted to try each of them out. As I mentioned before, Bali is the only place in Indonesia where Hinduism is practiced; all the other places practice Islam, which is conservative in comparison to Hinduism, but it is much more relaxed in Indonesia than it is in the Middle East. Keeping the change of religion in mind, I tried to stay aware of cultural formalities out of both respect and safety.

THREE separate WORLDS on tiny neighboring islands.

Gili Trawangan

Gili Trawangan, often referred to simply as “Gili T,” is the largest of the three islands and the notorious party island. I didn’t get my hopes up for this one and decided to start with it because I thought I would like it the least. Anyone can walk the perimeter of the island in two to two and a half hours. There is a wide lane–made up of stone, concrete, dirt, or sand at any given stretch of it–that circles the island making it an easy path to follow. Motorized vehicles are actually prohibited on all three of the Gili Islands so the typical modes of transportation include walking, using a bicycle, or taking a ride in a horse-drawn carriage, called a cidomo. There aren’t very many docks and the ones that do exist were built only to accommodate certain types of boats so the majority of the boats just pull up close to shore, often requiring “wet landings,” people having to step into the water to get to the island (especially when the ever-fluctuating tide turns the shores into long stretches of shallow water).

A horse-drawn carriage, called a cidomo, jingles from the bells on the small horse as it trots along the wide, one-lane road around Gili T. (Just past the shores of Gili T, the

A horse-drawn carriage, called a cidomo, jingles from the bells on the small horse as it trots along the wide, one-lane road around Gili T. (Just past the shores of Gili T, the “big island” of Lombok can be seen in the distance.)

As soon as I arrived and walk up to the main strip, I immediately started missing Ubud and Bali in general. The street reeked of stale beer and there were puddles in the lane. Sadly, for exactly the same price, I gave up a hot shower, swimming pool, and fabulous family in Ubud for definitely NOT that on Gili T. In fact, for the first time since I arrived in Asia, I was actually very concerned about having a lock on my door–and even then I didn’t feel all that safe. The locals were friendly, but kind of too friendly for my taste–always trying to find out my plan for the day, then invite themselves along which didn’t fly with me. The vibe on the island was super laid back and many of the local men had wild hair and tattoos. They were the type of guys who might offer you magic mushrooms… Oh, wait–they were offering everyone magic mushrooms!

Magic mushrooms were readily available pretty much everywhere on Gili T. In some cases, they even have special magic mushroom cocktails!

Magic mushrooms were readily available pretty much everywhere on Gili T. In some cases, they even have special magic mushroom cocktails!

The Gilis are famous for their white sand beaches, but the beaches on Gili T are less than inviting because they are dotted with large amounts of small rocks and coral pieces. Between the dirty, littered streets and the beaches that threatened to seriously hurt my feet, the thought of going barefoot as I had in Bali was not the least bit enticing. Besides consuming large amounts of alcohol and illegal substances, other popular activities offered on Gili T include snorkeling, diving, and renting a bicycle to go around the island. I just couldn’t relax much on Gili T so I decided to wait until I got to the other Gilis to pay for any activities. Also, despite public signs requesting that ladies wear more than just their bikinis around the island [when they were not on the beach] out of respect for the local Muslim culture, many female visitors disregarded those requests. I didn’t quite fit with the crowds–actually it was pretty far off–and I spent a lot of time dodging cigarette smoke and dreaming about getting back to Ubud and strategizing on how to work that back into my travel plan.

Everything about Gili T seethed

Everything about Gili T seethed “sex, drugs, and alcohol”–even the ice cream advertisements. This is just what the culture has become there.

I decided to stay for only two nights and used most of my one full day there as a work day and a day to walk around about half of the island to explore. Despite the crowds and the dirty/lazy feel of the place, I have to give Gili T credit for some of its positive assets which include some really nice restaurants and beach clubs right on the water, spectacular sunsets, and some of the freshest and most beautiful seafood that can be found in the ocean. These are the little treasures I indulged in on Gili T and for a couple hours at a time, I almost forgot that I was on Gili T. I would’ve stayed only one night, but I arrived late in the afternoon on the first day, and as luck would have it, the following day would be the full moon–and hence a “Full Moon Party” on the island, of course. The investigative writer in me is always looking for a good story so out of curiosity, I stayed. Plus, I had never actually seen magic mushrooms at work…

A dazzling sunset from Gili T. The

A dazzling sunset from Gili T. The “mountains” in the distance behind which the sun is dipping are actually some of Bali’s volcanoes.

Along the main strip on Gili T, there are stalls and stalls of freshly-caught seafood. I was utterly impressed by the size and beauty of this Painted Spiny Lobster. (Although I would have preferred to see it alive in its underwater habitat.)

Along the main strip on Gili T, there are stalls and stalls of freshly-caught seafood. I was utterly impressed by the size and beauty of this Painted Spiny Lobster. (Although I would have preferred to see it alive in its underwater habitat.)

To my sheer disappointment, the highly anticipated Full Moon Party didn’t provide as much writing material as I wanted. In fact, it was pretty boring. There was loud techno music that people were not even dancing to, a few crowds scattered on the beach, and some local men trying to make friends with drunk girls. I walked down the main drag and and equated the rest of the scene to a typical college party with beer pong and everything. While I have a couple of friends who might have really enjoyed that setting, it didn’t tickle my fancy. And no spying on magic mushroom takers happened either. Bummer. Perhaps I didn’t look hard enough, but I was a little bored, what can I say?

From the shores of Gili T, the full moon shone brightly, lightly up the water and the island itself.

From the shores of Gili T, the full moon shone brightly, lightly up the water and the island itself.

As I got back to the guesthouse just before midnight, the guys who ran the guesthouse and another girl who was staying there were getting ready to go out to start their night of partying and urged me to join them: “Alexa, come with us! It’s the Full Moon Party. Let’s go! C’mon. It’ll be fun.” I politely declined, saying that I already went and was ready for bed. (Plus, I hate it when people call me “Alexa” so I was irritated, especially when I had told him my name multiple times.) Call me a party-pooper, but I double-locked my door that night and made sure I got up nice and early the next morning as I did NOT want to miss the boat. Couldn’t get out of there fast enough…

If only the late-night party-goers could see the adorable local schoolchildren picking up all the rubbish on the beaches from the night before, maybe they would be more cognizant of fiinding garbage cans and not littering so much. Oh, but they were all still sleeping--late night, ya know?

If only the late-night party-goers could see the adorable local schoolchildren picking up all the rubbish on the beaches from the night before, maybe they would be more cognizant of fiinding garbage cans and not littering so much. Oh, but they were all still sleeping–late night, ya know?

Gili Meno

Quite the opposite of Gili T, the island that never sleeps, Gili Meno is so quiet that it is known as the “honeymoon island.” It is the smallest of the three Gilis and has a rustic feel to it. There isn’t much on the island besides some coconut plantations, seaside bungalows, and a handful of restaurants and beach clubs. Because this is a relatively secluded island, the prices of everything on the island are naturally higher than they are in other areas so affordable lodging options for me were few and far between.

Gili Meno is known as

Gili Meno is known as “the honeymoon island;” the businesses and resorts here are prepared to add those extra special touches for newlyweds.

I settled on a simple thatched-roof bungalow about 30 feet from the turquoise water that was softly rolling onto a white sand beach. With basic amenities including a toilet, a shower, a bed, and a porch (and salt, not fresh, water, I later discovered upon showering), creature comforts were definitely lacking, and while I would have appreciated to have a sink or wifi, I just went with it and decided to “unplug” for my entire stay on Gili Meno (which was only one day and night). Although I had electricity, I decided to take a break even from writing so I could have a refresh, get-in-touch-with-nature day–sometimes that is good for raising creativity level up a notch.

I am standing on the porch of my simple seaside bungalow on Gili Meno. With a view like this, what more do you need?

I am standing on the porch of my simple seaside bungalow on Gili Meno. With a view like this, what more do you need?

I rented snorkel gear for ~$3 for the day and headed into the water, but I made the mistake of going in at low tide and spent the majority of time trying not to freak out as I dodged spiny sea urchins clustered together in close proximity to any or all of my limbs at any given time. While it wasn’t the most relaxing activity overall, I did find a few really nice spots with some of the most curious and fearless small fish I have ever seen. They might have just been territorial when I got close, but they didn’t seem to be afraid of approaching me or getting in my face. And the variety of fish species and colors of them just from what I observed snorkeling made me very excited for the diving I had in mind on the next island.

After dropping off my gear, I took off to walk around the island, without my flip-flops this time because the sand was slightly more walkable than that of Gili T (but barely!). I stopped and settled into a quiet little spot with my bum in the sand to watch the sun go down, then continued on my way all the way around back to my bungalow, arriving in the dark with only the bright moonlight guiding my way. The locals or other visitors that I came across on the island mostly kept to themselves, although they would all offer a polite greeting to match mine.

Another breathtaking sunset, this time from Gili Meno looking west toward Gili T.

Another breathtaking sunset, this time from Gili Meno looking west toward Gili T.

For dinner, I stayed close and went to a small restaurant down the road, making myself comfortable in a reclined cushion with a small table right next to the sand. There was hardly anything between me and the water and the moon was still so big and bright and beautiful (because it was the night following the full moon). I felt like I was in a trance and to enhance that feeling, there was a local guy who started serenading the dinner guests with love songs, accompanying himself on guitar. I don’t know how long I stayed there even after I finished eating, but time just didn’t matter. At one point, I almost fell asleep so I finally got up and headed back to my bungalow.

The night after the full moon, it was still pretty full! This was my view (from a distance) as I lounged around eating dinner and relishing the soulful serenades in the background.

The night after the full moon, it was still pretty full! This was my view (from a distance) as I lounged around eating dinner and relishing the soulful serenades in the background.

The full moon (and the handful of days on either end of it) attracts certain fish–and a lot of them–so in the evenings, local fisherman line the beach and throw out their lines in hopes of making a great catch. There were a group of fisherman on the beach when I returned so I watched them for a while; it was high tide so the waves were big and crashing loudly a few feet away from them (and just a few feet farther from me). I couldn’t bear the thought of closing myself off from this magnificent melody of nature by sleeping inside my bungalow, so I grabbed my pillow, pulled down the hammock on the porch, and swung myself asleep outside to the rhythm of the sea. (A big difference from Gili T is that I actually felt safe doing this on Gili Meno.) The next morning, I got on the ferry to make the hop-skip-and-jump over to Gili Air.

The arid climate of Gili Meno results in more resilient flowers like this type (as opposed to brightly colored tropical flowers with paper-thin petals).

The arid climate of Gili Meno results in more resilient flowers like this type (as opposed to brightly colored tropical flowers with paper-thin petals).

Gili Air

Ahh. The Coffeeshop Island. As soon as I stepped off the boat, I knew this island would be my favorite of the three; it is the favorite for most people who visit the Gilis as it seems to be the perfect blend between the other two. However Gili Air is so much more than a mixture of the two other islands as it has developed its own cool vibe. The island is lively and seems to always have something going on, but everything winds down around 10 PM, and the crowds here are active, easygoing, and respectful. While I dubbed it the “coffeeshop island,” it is also the island that seems to have the most dive shops, and consequently, the chilled out diving culture. It’s almost as if coffeeshops and diving go hand-in-hand here.

I've dubbed Gili Air

I’ve dubbed Gili Air “the coffee shop island” exactly for this reason: laidback coffee shops line the shores all around the island. Some of the phrases on the signs at the entrance of this cafe include “Only Coffee, No Wifi,” “Life is Good so Be Easy,” “Enjoy Your Fresh Air,” and “Holiday No Stress.” Yep. That pretty much sums it up.

I planned to stay four nights on Gili Air, and my “hopping” theme continued as I booked an expensive room (expensive for me is anything over $25; this was ~$32) for two nights at “7 Seas Cottages”–only because the hostel dorms were full, then I bounced over to “7 Seas Backpackers Hostel” for my last two nights at only $5/night. It’s not like I needed a fancy room when I was spending all my time outside soaking up everything about the island, plus, by saving money on lodging, I could work a couple dives into my budget.

Being on Gili Air was like this: Imagine getting a great night’s sleep. You wake up naturally in the morning and walk across the street to a restaurant on a white sand beach, then make yourself comfortable in an open bungalow with a table facing the bright blue water, where you enjoy a leisurely breakfast and maybe get a little work done. Then you head back to sunscreen up and collect your sunglasses, hat, beach towel (or sarong), and perhaps a book–equipping yourself with the necessities for spending the next couple hours on the beach or by the pool, soaking up the sun and taking an occasional dip in bathtub-temperature water. In the afternoon, you casually stroll down the road with maybe a fruit smoothie, a coffee, or a fresh coconut, just enjoying the people and activity on the island. By mid- to late afternoon, you’ve wandered far enough around to select the perfect spot for sunset viewing and get comfortable once again on either a beachside bungalow or a brightly colored bean bag in the sand, ordering a snack or a beverage while you wait for the sun to go down. After stopping back at your place for a quick shower and change of clothes, you go out one more time in search of a mellow dinner spot and have many options to choose from, most of which have their tables in the sand by the water’s edge, jazz music (or another set of relaxing tunes) and nice lighting dictating the ambience, and a large selection of fresh seafood and other local fare on the menu. And then you go back for another good night’s sleep.

This is a typical Indonesian breakfast:

This is a typical Indonesian breakfast: “Nasi Goreng,” or fried rice with vegetables and a fried egg on top (often served with a puff cracker), a plate of fruit, and coffee/tea. Very balanced! Oh, yeah–and this is a typical meal time view from the Gilis. Here, on Gili Air, the “big island” of Lombok can be seen in the distance…as well as a snorkeler on the right edge of the photo.

Bungalows lining the beach just for daytime

Bungalows lining the beach just for daytime “relaxers” is a common thing on the Gilis.

That is pretty much how I spent my four days on Gili Air, with the exception of adding a couple dives in the mix. The sun and the fresh air had such an effect on me that I didn’t even bother watching the time–it all blurred together. I ate when I was hungry, walked when I was restless, and went to sleep when I was tired. And I slept like a baby every single night.

Here is yet another sunset picture, but on a tiny island, sunrise and sunset viewing are pretty significant daily events.

Here is yet another sunset picture, but on a tiny island, sunrise and sunset viewing are pretty significant daily events.

Of all the Gilis, Gili Air had the nicest beaches because the sand was softer so they were actually walkable. The water was easily accessible so many people were snorkeling just off the shore at all times of the day. And the sunsets might have even been the best on Gili Air, but I could be biased because I loved the island so much. I thought I was going to stop taking photos of all the sunsets, but I just kept taking more. I couldn’t get enough. And I wasn’t the only one: even the locals on the island paused everyday to gaze across the horizon as the sun put on its show-stopping performance, transforming into a giant red ball as if to say, “Don’t you dare forget me!” and passionately going out with a bang before disappearing from the view of its captivated audience, leaving a lasting impression on all. Brilliant.

A colorful sunset from Gili Air (with Gili Meno in the background).

A colorful sunset from Gili Air (with Gili Meno in the background).

Even after the sun goes down, the after effect of sunset lingers, turning the sky all different shades of purple, pink, and orange as can be seen on Gili Air in this photo.

Even after the sun goes down, the after effect of sunset lingers, turning the sky all different shades of purple, pink, and orange as can be seen on Gili Air in this photo.

For my budget’s sake, I waited to go SCUBA diving until my third day on Gili Air. (I knew once I started, I would be tempted to make it a daily activity!) Originally planning to dive with “7 Seas Dive” just across the street from and associated with my lodging choice, I went over to check out the operation, but wasn’t immediately convinced that that was the spot for me so I kept wandering down the street to see what I could find. (Dive shops are like lodging options–you need to check out a couple to find the right feel and fit for your tastes.) There was a place a little way down called “3W Dive” advertising an Early Morning Dive to a dive spot called Shark Point so I went up to enquire and met a dive instructor named Lise who was so steady and thorough in her explanation of their operation that I immediately signed up. We did paperwork and sizing for my equipment and parted ways with, “See you at 5:30 in the morning!”

Going on an early morning dive meant that we caught the sunrise first of all, but also that we were the only ones on [and in] the water as the other dive shops on the island wouldn’t have their boats out until around nine. Since I had gotten rid of my first-dive rustiness in Pemuteran Bay (in Bali), I felt very relaxed. In addition to that, Lise briefed our group of three divers so well before the dive, making sure all the underwater communication signals were clear and that all of our checkpoints were examined, that I felt extremely comfortable and in really good hands. I had never had such a professional, thorough pre-dive briefing before. Lise was so passionate about marine life and protecting it that it made me appreciate everything just a little bit more. She was all around wonderful.

Photo courtesy of 3W Dive. I did NOT take this picture, but I thought it was a cool shot of the dive boat and our crew on our way out to Shark Point for the Early Morning Dive. At the front of the boat, instructors Lise and Mick are briefing their dive groups on underwater communication and procedures. (Lise is the blond woman, and I am sitting to her left at the table.) I think the photographer is Max, who is the new manager at 3W Dive.

Photo courtesy of 3W Dive. I did NOT take this picture, but I thought it was a cool shot of the dive boat and our crew on our way out to Shark Point for the Early Morning Dive. At the front of the boat, instructors Lise and Mick are briefing their dive groups on underwater communication and procedures. (Lise is the blond woman, and I am sitting to her left at the table.) I think the photographer was Max, who is the new manager at 3W Dive.

So, what did we see under there? Well, to start off, there were gardens upon gardens of healthy coral reef. It was really alive and visible–it looked like underwater flowerbeds lining the hills and valleys of the seafloor. With all the healthy coral came a varied assortment of fish, of course. There were so many different schools of fish–big fish, small fish, yellow fish, catfish! And they mostly lingered within or near the reef, in symbiotic relationships with the other tiny sea creatures. Some of the larger sea life we spotted included a huge Bumphead Parrotfish (which can usually be spotted a lot within a few days before and after a full moon), a Painted Spiny Lobster (like the one I was holding in the market on Gili T), a yellow, territorial Moray Eel, and a handful of turtles, both Hawksbill and Green Sea Turtles. The difference between the two types of turtles is that Green Sea Turtles tend to be large, have a very detailed and ornate shell, and sedate behavior (in other words, they are usually spotted resting or even sleeping); Hawksbill turtles are smaller, have a sort of pointed beak-mouth and a “dirty-looking” brownish shell, and are very active, constantly spotted eating underwater. Despite the fact that we were diving at “shark point,” my group didn’t see any sharks, but this brings up a very good point about diving: nature is unpredictable so it is best to dive with an open mind and a “see what we will see” attitude as opposed to assuming you will spot certain things, then coming back disappointed if you don’t see them.

The following day, I went on another morning dive (but this time, not so early). With Cristiana leading our group this time, three of us went in the water with her for another great underwater experience. This time, even though we were at “manta point” and didn’t see a single sting ray, we did find a baby white tip shark that we hung around and observed for a little while. Most sharks are hardly aggressive at all so there is no need to be afraid of them. We also spotted more turtles, Batfish, Moorish Idols (like Gill, Nemo’s mentor in the fish tank in Finding Nemo), a tiny crab and Pink Squat Lobsters [that look similar to feather stars], a Pineapple Sea Cucumber that was gigantic, and–my favorite fish for this dive–a yellow Majestic Angelfish with a beautiful violet-colored face.

I was so happy that I found “3W Dive” on the island. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. It is the smallest dive shop on the island with one boat and only four instructors, maxing out the dive groups to only 3 divers per instructor. It is a well-run operation with efficient management, professional staff, and great service. There is great attention to detail and they prioritize giving divers a personalized experience. It is owned by a French man, and most of the people who work there are also French (but they all speak English pretty well!). I was so impressed with how tight-knit the “3W Dive” staff is–they are like a family, joking and playing around, but also very open to allowing their guests to be a part of their fun. Dive shop cultures tend to be easygoing in general, but there was something extra special about this group. * If anyone is looking for a dive shop recommendation for Gili Air, this is the spot. You can look them up on TripAdvisor or check out their website: http://www.3wdivegili.com. *

Speaking of culture, the Gili Islands seem to have two very distinct cultures that manage to function side-by-side: the local culture and the “foreigner” culture, which includes all short-term travelers and tourists plus all the non-Indonesian residents who live and work on the islands, running dive shops, restaurants, lodges, etc. The “foreigners” who live and work on the island are mostly French, while the tourist crowd consists of a ton of Australians and Europeans. (In my travels to this area, I have met only a handful of people from the United States; I suppose this is a little far away to take a short vacation.) These two worlds, or cultures, do not blend together well; in fact, it was difficult to tap into the local culture at all.

Just off the shores of Gili Air, a handful of typical boats, found only on the Gilis, can be seen. I don't know exactly what they are called, but many of the local boats have "balancing arms" on their sides and most of the boats are also painted with bright solid colors.

Just off the shores of Gili Air, a handful of typical boats, found only on the Gilis, can be seen. I don’t know exactly what they are called, but many of the local boats have “balancing arms” on their sides and most of the boats are also painted with bright solid colors.

As tourism has picked up on the Gilis, it seems that the local men have a lot more interaction with visitors and are therefore more comfortable with them. On almost every island, the men were so comfortable that they had no problem approaching female visitors, especially solo females, striking up a conversation, and almost immediately inviting themselves along to whatever the person had planned for the day. This happened to me a couple times, but their attempts were never to any avail. In contrast, the women on the island really keep to themselves. With religious roots in Islam, the lifestyle for women is quite subdued, and this can be observed in the most basic form of how they dress: long pants, long-sleeve shirts, and a veil or scarf covering their heads and necks. It’s unbelievable to me how different “the rules” are for men and women! I made a small effort to connect to some of the women, but many of them were not the least bit interested, seemingly untrusting/resentful of me and closed off. (I did meet a really cool, modern young woman at a smoothie shop called Gili Bliss, and, if I could make a prediction, I suspect her dynamic personality and leadership tendencies will influence the changing culture for women on that island.) In any case, the culture here was quite the opposite from Bali’s and I found myself seriously missing my local Balinese lady friends and the [mostly] non-intrusive Balinese men.

The local men on the Gili Islands have a visibly active community, here they are playing volleyball on Gili Air.

The local men on the Gili Islands have a visibly active community, here they are playing volleyball on Gili Air.

While four days is hardly enough time to create relationships, I fared pretty well with the 3W Dive shop crew when I wasn’t by myself. A few other activities I did included walking the perimeter of the island–non-stop, it could take about an hour and a half, but of course, I set up shop [for writing] in a place or two along the way–and, on my last night, having a candlelit dinner date night at a romantic authentic Italian restaurant called “Biba,” right on the water. (Solo date nights have become a habit of mine, usually on the last evening that I am in a place; it’s important to me to pause and reflect on the experiences and relationships that different places have provided me with.) I saw smoked salmon ravioli on the menu and was surprised to discover how much I was craving salmon. The Italian owner described the dish to me: handmade ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese in a tomato cream sauce mixed with pieces of smoked salmon–salmon that he imports from Norway to Java, where he has an Italian friend who smokes the salmon, then ships it to him. Sold. There was a part of me that felt like I should order seafood that came directly from the sea, but after diving and admiring the beauty of the underwater sea creatures, I felt better eating seafood that was more removed from my recent experiences. The dish was delicious!!

This was my last night and final sunset on Gili Air. Left: Perched on a swing for sunset viewing, I took a selfie using my selfie stick. Right: A man nearby who was also watching the sunset (and had seen me playing with my selfie stick) offered to be my photographer and snapped a few pics as the sun was actually going down.

This was my last night and final sunset on Gili Air. Left: Perched on a swing for sunset viewing, I took a selfie using my selfie stick. Right: A man nearby who was also watching the sunset (and had seen me playing with my selfie stick) offered to be my photographer and snapped a few pics as the sun was actually going down.

I had seen Lise on my way to dinner as I passed the dive shop and she had invited me to meet up with them after dinner as that night, they were having a celebration in honor of their manager, Mick, who had just stepped down from the position after three years and was getting ready to depart the island to pursue a new opportunity. So I swung back around after my meal and ended up hanging out with the dive shop “family” for the rest of the night. It wasn’t just the 3W Dive crew, though–it was about 25-30 French people in the “dive circle” all around the island; I was the only person there who didn’t speak French, but Lise included me anyway and allowed me to pick her brain for quite some time.

Lise is a 33-year-old French woman who left her corporate job a few years back, packed up her backpack, and took off traveling. (Perhaps this explains why we connected and could relate to each other so well!) She has been living on Gili Air for three years with her other half (who is also part of the diving world), and it has been their dream to open an Eco-Lodge on the island; they are breaking ground in 2 weeks. I asked her a lot about how they manage their relationships with locals and she explained to me that no matter what they do, they are never going to be accepted into the “local” culture because it comes down to money. While they have two or three close local friends, she explained that most people just end up asking her for money because they assume she has more because she is white. (This is a similar dynamic to what I experienced in Guatemala; it made me grateful that I was living at the same economic level as many people in my town which allowed for the development of deeper relationships; but I would be ignorant to think that I somehow slipped past being branded with the “rich American” stereotype nonetheless.)

Lise continued to tell me about the island and how it is led by a tribal “chief” who handles all the issues that arise. Crime is practically non-existent on the island and there is no police force either. Incidents, if any, are dealt with by the island chief because nobody wants to be involved with the police or justice system from Lombok–that is supposedly a terrible experience. Knowing that it takes time to learn how the local systems function in a given area, Lise and her boyfriend put in the three years on the island that were necessary before they could implement their dream project. When I asked about her survival strategy for blending into the island and being able to build a business there, she said, “Be discreet.” Anything and everything she and her partner do is with a low profile.

In addition to the great conversations I shared with Lise, I also had the opportunity to connect with Mick, also a French guy in his early 30s. I admired the quiet bond he had with some of the local men on the island and how they shared some inside jokes; I think it is easier for a single person to integrate in a local culture than it is for a couple. Mick preferred living in a very simple manner on the “inner island” where it is quiet and he could eat at the local spots and interact with the people at the heart of the island. He told me that it is quieter than ever now because the chief banned dogs from the island as well! There are only cats (except for one dog). As he was preparing for his pending departure, he reflected on some of the things he would miss about the island: the fresh, breathable air on the island because there are no motorized vehicles anywhere, only bicycles and horses pulling carts; the comforting jingle of the bells on the horse carts as they trot by on the road; the geckos in charge of “insect control” in the thatched-roof, open-to-the-air bungalows; and, of course, mango season, which starts in December.

Through Lise’s and Mick’s eyes, I got a glimpse of the inner workings of Gili Air; their perspectives made me appreciate the island even more. Also, they clearly demonstrated that this is how they have chosen to live their lives: people are still living even if they don’t have a 9 to 5 office job; a structured and predictable position working for someone else doesn’t define a person’s life–the options are endless. They both really love what they do. I am so grateful for those precious moments I spent with them and the stimulating conversation we shared. I could’ve stayed longer there, but I could feel the time pressure of my soon-expiring visa for Indonesia so I had to be on my way. As the boat pulled away from Gili Air, I blissfully watched the island disappear, knowing that a tiny piece of my heart would always be there.


Back in Bali once again, I returned to my “home away from home” at Merthayasa 2 Guesthouse in Ubud, and once again, I was greeted with a warm, excited welcome from Wayan and the staff. They got used to me returning and started joking about this being my new home permanently. It was so refreshing to me to return to a place where the local people are so open and friendly. I felt so spoiled at the guesthouse, especially when they started serving me breakfast in my room so I could eat on my balcony and work at the same time (they even started bringing me second servings of fruit and tea). While I was considering returning to Bali for another two weeks after leaving to renew my visa, I ultimately made the decision to move on to a new place from there. And so I spent my last three days in Bali making preparations for the next leg of my journey and paying extra attention to the things and people I loved the most there. I even made it to another Acro Yoga “jam session” and fit in a couple nice visits with some of my Ubud friends, including Wayan, Mona, and Mark.

Back in Ubud, Wayan took me to visit her parents' home, where their dog had new puppies. On the left: Naya is behind the momma dog nursing her puppies; on the right: I am loving on two of the pups.

Back in Ubud, Wayan took me to visit her parents’ home, where their dog had new puppies. On the left: Naya is behind the momma dog nursing her puppies; on the right: I am loving on two of the pups.

When flight day arrived–the same day as my visa was going to expire, I was feeling reluctant. “Ok. Fine. I guess I’ll go now… Only because you’re making me leave.” (That’s what I was expressing toward the Indonesian government in my head!) And it ended up being an emotional departure for me. Leaving Ubud this time, I knew that I wouldn’t be back anytime soon, and while I only spent a total of 15 days at the guesthouse (when I added up all 3 times I was there), I still developed a tight bond with everyone there, especially Wayan. (I didn’t even cry when Allan and I parted ways in Cambodia after 2 1/2 weeks together–but maybe that’s because I know the chance of seeing him again is greater…) So much growth, healing, peace, and love came into my heart while I was in Indonesia so it was only appropriate to recognize that. I sort of felt like a baby bird being pushed out of the nest here. But I know that you can’t stay in incubation forever, as nice, warm, and comfortable as it can be–once you’re ready, it’s time to fly. That day, the flying was literal for me–but there was no denying the transformation that took place during the last 30 days.

In Acro Yoga, this is also a form of

In Acro Yoga, this is also a form of “flying,” which I am demonstrating here in “bird pose” with Jamie as my base.

TRAVEL TIP: This one I got directly from Allan. Snorkel before diving. SCUBA diving can be an expensive hobby so if you are going to engage, you’ll want to get your money’s worth every time. If you are in a place that offers diving, rent some snorkel gear (or use your own) and hop in the water to investigate first. Some things to look for include the state of the reef and marine life (does it look healthy or overrun?), the visibility (rainy season usually results in poor visibility), and the variety of creatures if that is important to you. If your “taste test” impresses you, then go for it–spend the money and enjoy the diving; but if it doesn’t, save your money and stick to snorkeling or choose another appropriate beach activity like swimming, surfing, or sunbathing. After my snorkeling appetizer in Gili Meno, I couldn’t wait to dive from Gili Air, and I was very pleased with my diving experience there.

{Still} Blissfully yours,


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June 2019
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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.


Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.