Day 266: The Chinese Border

After we said goodbye to Erik and Melana, we continued our trek through the mountains in northern Vietnam. Ben and Berry rode on the back of the bike of two guides and I continued to drive my own bike. It was colder that day, 48°F (8°C), so I put my coat on instead of my wind jacket. It helped, but the wind still made its way through and made me feel a little cold.

Opi told me I was one of the few people who came prepared for cold temperatures. He said most people on his tour think it’s always hot in Vietnam and they only have shorts and t-shirts. I explained that a friend who had been to Vietnam in February told me it was cold in the north (especially the mountains) and warm in the south. Since I knew I was going to be there in March, I prepared for both warm and cold weather. I was happy that I had my extra luggage that day.

The mountains seemed to go on forever. They were steep, sharp, and unlike any mountains I had seen before. They were lush and beautiful. Everytime we passed people, they waved and smiled. Sometimes the kids would try to high-five us as we drove by.

We were headed to the border with China and as we got closer, I saw a few disturbing sights. When we turned a corner, I saw a cat that had been tortured. His head was up against a rock with a stick sticking out of his head. Then, a motorbike going the opposite direction of us had a crate attached to the back that was full of puppies. When we stopped at the border, I asked Opi, “Were the puppies in the back of that crate for people to sell and eat?” Opi looked sad and said, “Yes. Some small villages in China still eat dog and they trade with some villages in the north of Vietnam. It’s illegal in Vietnam, but because they’re close to the border, it still happens.”

Berry and I were on the verge of tears. She thought the cat was just laying on the rock until we explained that it had been tortured. We agreed that it was becoming a sad day in Vietnam.

We parked our motorbikes and walked towards the border. There was a fence and a large opening, but there wasn’t anybody guarding it. Warning signs of landmines were posted and Opi told us that some landmines are still buried from the wars with China.

He told us not to step even a foot across the border because the Chinese are known to hide out and if someone steps across, they’ll arrest them. At the time, China was holding several American and Candian tourists, accusing them of being spies because of the trade war.

We took pictures at the landmarker and I chose not to cross the border. Berry is originally from China and has dual citizenship. We saw merchants on the other side with items they were selling in a van. It was in the middle of nowhere, but I guess they were there to trade with Vietnam. Berry confidently walked across the border and over to the van. After talking to them for five minutes, she came back and said they were there selling items they had made.

We continued driving and Opi took us to a gazebo. First, we had to drive through a small village and then went on a very small concrete path that had very little guard rails. I definitely wouldn’t have known about this area on my own. When we arrived at the parking lot, several flights of stairs took us to the gazebo overlooking the valley below. We were the only people around.

Opi pointed out the mountain across from us and the river below that separated the two mountains. He said across the river was China. Just then, Berry’s phone welcomed her to China, thinking she was there because we were so close. Her phone changed to a Chinesse network and she said, “Let’s test it.” She tried to pull up Facebook, Instagram, and Google and all three were blocked.

I couldn’t believe it. I always heard things are restricted in China, but I’ve never actually experienced it. I asked why they are restricted and Berry explained it’s because the government doesn’t want people influenced. They have similar websites, but they’re regulated by the government. I felt very grateful to live in the U.S. where freedom of speech is expected (even though it’s often under attack).

We continued driving and passed kids walking with garden tools. They were guiding some cows and goats. The oldest kid who appeared to be around nine years old held a beer in his hand. Berry pointed it out and it just added to our list of sad sights that day.

We took pictures and enjoyed the scenery. However, as we drove through the small town to get back to the main road, we saw stray dogs that were in poor health. We also saw a woman walking a pig on a leash. It was so different than the U.S. where dogs are on leashes and pigs are in pens.

For lunch, we stopped at a restaurant on the side of the mountain. Ben broke out his drone and we tried over and over to get a shot with all of us jumping at the same time. We failed because of the delay of the camera, but we had a fun time trying.

Our next stop was the King’s Palace. The palace is on display for tourists and there were tour busses in the parking lot. The palace was owned by a Hmong King who made 20 tons of opium each year. The palace was protected from bombs by the mountain. In 2004, they opened it to the public. Some of the extended family members still live nearby. It took seven years to build and it looked like places I’ve seen in movies. It was worn and empty, but had several square courtyards inside without roofs.

The king had three wives, but the second wife was never pictured because she only birthed girls. We walked through all the rooms and saw guns on display that people could grab. Opi picked one up and showed us how they used the holes to fire from. The doorways were so short that I had to duck.

We continued our drive and stopped at a lookout point with an incredible view of the road that snakes its way through and around the mountain. We were on the main road where small tour busses go, so there was a parking lot there. Usually we just pulled to the side of the road to take pictures because most of the time the roads weren’t that busy.

As we took pictures, a boy who appeared to be around eight years old grabbed a cigarette from Opi. Opi just stared at the kid in surprise and watched as the kid lit the cigarette and started smoking. The boy was wearing extremely worn out, dirty clothes and his body was covered in dirt. He casually sat on the half wall smoking and sharing the cigarette with some younger boys.

Then we saw young girls who also appeared to be around eight years old, but they were dressed in beautiful, clean clothes. They were wearing way too much makeup and held flowers that they were trying to sell. The girls were beautiful.

Opi told us not to give the kids any money because they stop going to school and do this instead. Tourists will stop and take pictures of them and in return they’ll give them money or candy. They think they’re helping, but it is why the parents have their kids do this instead of going to school. They can make more money for the family from tourists. Opi told us that in the peak season, they can make $45 USD a day. The average salary in Vietnam is $200-$250 USD per month.

The boy smoking pulled out a kitkat and ate it as he watched for tour buses. We asked Opi if we could take pictures and he said we could. We just shouldn’t give them anything. All of a sudden, a tour bus was coming up the windy road. The kids all got so excited, but the bus kept driving by and the kids got bummed out.

It was heartbreaking. These kids didn’t know any better and their parents were incentivized to have their kids do this. In Thailand, their theory was not to give money to homeless because it teaches bad behaviors. They don’t have many homeless people, so maybe their theory works. It saddened me to think that westerners were creating these behaviors, thinking they were helping.

We drove down the windy road and it almost made me dizzy from going left to right over and over again. It started to get foggy and colder. We stopped briefly for pictures and Opi and Eddie looked freezing and uncomfortable.

We made a stop in a small town for some coffee and yogurt with fruit. It was always nice to take a quick break.

By the time we arrived at our homestay, it was 6:30 pm and it was almost dark. This time, there were other travellers staying there too. Ben and Berry had a room to themselves and I was assigned a mat in the large room that was shared. They had a curtain separating the large room into smaller rooms and had doors to the balcony that were separated, so it felt like my own room. That is until I could hear others next to me talking. They were speaking Dutch, so I couldn’t understand them. My little room had three mattresses and mosquito nets. The mattress and the bathrooms were pretty nice.

For dinner, we met in a downstairs room that was indoors. There wasn’t any heat though, so it felt freezing in there. I kept my coat on until enough happy water (rice wine) warmed me up. The family who owned the house was a young couple with a little girl around four years old. There were also some older women and their husbands who helped cook and clean. We all ate as one big family.

Across from the dinner table were three travellers with another group of guides. They were from Holland and were on day one of the four-day tour. Our guides all knew each other, so they chatted. The Holland travellers (husband, wife, and friend) were in their early to mid-20s, and all had blonde hair. All three of them((Jelle, Malou, and Hanna) were in medical school and had some time off. They were spending five weeks in Vietnam on holiday. Jelle was driving his own bike, but Malou and Hanna were riding on the back of bikes.

We all agreed that the roads were crazy and bumpy. Ben, Berry, and I told them what to expect since they were only on day one. They were going the opposite direction that we were going. We all had such a fun time talking, eating, and drinking happy water. The happy water was always in a reused water bottle and it flowed freely into our little shot glasses. Ben, Berry, and I warned the Holland travellers about the happy water and how much they’d end up drinking. We started enjoying the happy water so much that we’d call regular water “sad water.”

After dinner, the generous hosts surprised Malou with a birthday cake. I was thrilled! Berry turned to me and laughed, “You finally get your cake!” After enjoying the delicious cake, the guides busted out their karaoke microphone. There was an app on their phones that connected the wireless microphone and amplified the sound.

We all had a blast singing songs and being silly. We realized we needed to have Zing involved in karaoke because he promised us we’d do it and he’d sing “My Heart Will Go On,” but the night before he was too tired. Melana, Erik, and Zing had made it back to Ha Giang and Zing was waiting with them to make sure they made it safely on the night bus. We Facetimed them through Facebook messenger video call and sang the song for them. They sang along while people stared at them on the sidewalk. It was so fun and the perfect way to say goodbye before they boarded their bus.

Berry and I stood up and sung “I Just Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Huston. We laughed, danced, and had such a fun time. Berry was so fun and sweet that I was really enjoying our friendship. We goofed around and took shots together celebrating our last night together in the North.

The party started to move outside and we asked Opi what he was doing on his phone. He showed us Tik Tok and Ben, Berry, and I all made a funny video with Opi for the social media platform. We weren’t familiar with Tik Tok, so afterwards we asked him about it. It turned out he had a crazy high amount of followers. We said, “Wait, so you’re famous?” He humbly laughed it off, but we weren’t surprised because Opi is a funny, creative guy.

It was cold outside and getting late. I took a shower and went to bed before I ended up with a hangover. I went to bed with a smile on my face. I loved that people from so many different cultures could be comfortable around each other and have so much fun together. It’s moments like this that make me realize why I love traveling.

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Day 263: The Worst Bus Ride of My Life

It was time to checkout of my hotel in Hanoi and head north to Ha Giang. I talked with a woman at the reception desk about the best way to get there because it was a six-hour bus ride away. I asked her about the 10:00 am bus and taking a taxi to get to the main station. I found a site online that said the seats were recliner seats and it was not a sleeper bus. I also read that the sleeper buses were very uncomfortable. I wanted to get some writing done, so a seat would be better than a sleeper bus.

The woman told me that I’d be better off taking the 11:00 am bus because she could get them to pick me up. Going to the main bus station would be backtracking. I explained that I needed to get there by 5:00 pm and she assured me that I would. After eating breakfast, I brought my bags to the lobby.

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At 11:08 am, I asked the woman at reception, “I thought the bus left at 11:00 am?” She replied, “Yes.” Finally, at 11:30 am, a van picked me up. It was small and the back didn’t have much space for luggage. There were three guys in the back from Europe. I sat in the front seat with my duffel bag on my lap. Next, we picked up three British girls and there was no space for their giant backpacks, so they had to put them on their laps. They said the tight van quarters were “mental.”

At 12:15 pm, we arrived at the bus station and were instructed to board the bus. We put our luggage in the lower portion of the bus. I was extremely upset when I saw that the bus was a sleeper bus. There were three rows of sleeper “seats” that consisted of slightly reclined seats on the floor with a metal container where you were supposed to put your legs and feet. There were two narrow walkways and it was already halfway full. There were also metal bars around each sleeper seat that were holding up a second level.

The driver instructed me to take off my shoes and assigned a seat in the middle of the first floor. It was extremely narrow and made for people shorter than 5’2”. Being 6’1”, it was laughable. The problem is that I had to put my legs into the metal container. Since they wouldn’t fit, I had to sit with my legs bent and my knees practically in my face.

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The British girls were behind me and felt bad for me. They could barely fit and knew it was even worse for me. The bus filled up and we were off. I desperately didn’t want to take this bus for six hours, but at that point, I didn’t have an option. The British girls pointed to a guy above them on the second story who had a blanket over him. They thought he might be masterbating. I cringed.

The bus smelled of body odor and farts. People shouted on their phones, watched videos on their phones without headphones, and the driver constantly honked his horn. There was not a restroom on the bus, so I tried not to drink too much water. There wasn’t any air flow near me and I was miserable.

If I stretched my legs, my butt was halfway up the reclined seat and my head would hit the top floor. I found that I could turn to my left side and at least then my legs weren’t bent in my face. However, the metal bar was painful. I put my blanket on the bar which helped a little bit.

After two hours, we stopped at a remote store that also had a restroom. I got off the bus, not knowing how long we had there. The restroom was a squat toilet and didn’t have toilet paper. I was very grateful that I always carried Kleenex with me throughout Southeast Asia. There wasn’t any soap, which was common, so I used my hand sanitizer.

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I bought a small bag of puffed chips and a cup of popcorn. I got back on the bus and climbed to my seat. I couldn’t help but notice that we picked up another six people who didn’t have seats. They sat in the two aisles and two of them decided to sit directly next to me, shoulder to shoulder. This meant I couldn’t turn my legs to the side. It was also absurd that two decided to smash me in instead of sitting near our metal feet containers.

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I asked the man on my left if he could scoot up a little so I could turn my legs to the side, but he didn’t understand me. I called a worker over and asked him to tell them to move. He didn’t speak English either. I tried to use Google Translate, but I lost cell service. I used my arms to motion, showing them scooting up. That worked and he had the men move up a little. It was enough for me to turn my legs to the side. I couldn’t stretch my legs, however, because the men were in the aisle.

I tried to take a nap, but my legs kept losing circulation because of the metal bars. I shifted to try to get the blood flow back. We made several random stops on the side of the road to let people off the bus. To pass the time, I wrote for my blog on my phone and listened to music. When it got dark outside, colored lights came on like it was a nightclub.

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We arrived in Ha Giang at 6:40 pm. I was supposed to meet with the motorbike tour guide that afternoon, but with the delay I had to reschedule to later that night. I stood in the parking lot and tried to find a Grab. They were all busy, so my request wouldn’t go through. A guy standing nearby who appeared to be a taxi driver said he would take me for 50,000 dong ($2.15 USD). I tried to explain to him that all I had was one 10,000 bill and 500,000 bills and needed change. I used Google Translate and he agreed to give me change, but it took five minutes for us to understand each other.

Once I got into the car, I realized there was not a taxi sign on the car and I got nervous. Then I thought about how he talked with some guys as he left the parking lot. Are they kidnapping me?

Thankfully, I arrived safe and sound at my hotel. The man at the front desk didn’t speak English, so he couldn’t answer any of my questions about the WiFi, breakfast, or how to turn on the lights. He just pointed to the elevator. The hallway on my floor was dark and I had to turn on the lights. These are the moments that make traveling as a solo female scary.

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I walked down the street and ate dinner. The town was small, but had a decent amount of shops. I went back to my hotel and met Opie, my motorbike tour guide. I signed up for a four-day tour around the mountains in the north that would begin the following day. Opie was in his early 20s, around 5’9”, had bleach-blonde hair on top, had earrings, an athletic vibe, and was really nice.

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Opie wanted to make sure I knew how to drive the motorbike because it was semi-automatic and I would need to shift with my foot. I looked it over and said I think I could do it. He told me that I could store my belongings at his hostel the next day and just bring my backpack on the tour.

I went back to my room to repack so that I had what I needed for the tour. The BBC was on TV and they were showing live footage of the Brexit deal with Theresea May in Parliament. I found it very interesting because even though they were obviously angry, they still had respect for each other. In the U.S., it seems as though we’ve lost all respect for the opposing party. I enjoyed seeing how another country conducted their politics.

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Day 262: Learning about Vietnam

When I arrived at my hotel lobby, I intended to grab a quick breakfast, but my tour guide showed up early. The hotel staff, being concerned about my breakfast, made me an omelet to-go. As I walked to the van with my tour guide, Trung, he said, “Vietnamese don’t like empty stomachs.”

The tour would take us a few hours northeast to Ha Long Bay for the day. I sat next to Trung while we picked up the others. He appeared to be in his late 40s and was talkative. He told me that his father was a photographer for the communist government and he hoped that Trung would take over and save the world. Trung told me, “I don’t want to be friends with the computer. I’d rather be friends with you guys.”

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Trung was from Hanoi and he loved the city. He explained that families live together and keep adding floors to the house when the family expands. He said, “If one family member goes to Ho Chi Minh City, it’s very sad because they’ll have nobody. They’ll be on their own.” Trung didn’t seem to like Ho Chi Minh City in the south. He said Hanoi in the north takes care of homeless people, but the south doesn’t, so they have a lot of homelessness.

Once we picked up all of our passengers, Trung continued to talk to the group about Vietnam. He told us that HIV is a huge problem for the country, with 50 new cases each day. He pointed out their red-light district, where sex workers charge for services by the hour. Trung said that because people live with lots of family members, they don’t have a lot of privacy, so many go to the red-light district for prostitution and drugs. He warned us to watch out for needles on the street because they could be infected.

We passed Samsung City, which is a compound developed and owned by Samsung. There are 130,000 people living and working there. It’s so big that they have their own schools and hospitals, and they have to take a bus to get to other buildings. Trung told us that it’s mostly run and operated by the Koreans. There are half a million Koreans in Hanoi.

Trung told us that Vietnam and Singapore are the most expensive places to buy a car. Vietnam tries to control the number of cars sold, so there is a 250% tax on cars. If everyone owned a car, the streets would all be in gridlock. The country has 97 million people and more than 60 million motorbikes. Trung told us, “You could bring your car from the U.S. that you paid $10,000 USD for and sell it here for $30,000 USD.”

Vietnam has a large population considering the size of their land. Four million Vietnamese live outside of Vietnam, with the majority in the U.S, France, and Australia. Trung told us about the corruption with the police in Vietnam. He said, “The cops here are rich. They are not rich in the U.S.” He explained that the cops will pull you over and you will be forced to pay them to stay out of jail. They have a term called “umbrella,” which is when you know someone in the government who can get you off. In return, you’ll need to give them the most expensive lobster and whatever items you sell or make.

Trung pointed out the relatively safety of Vietnam and the fact that they don’t have bombings or terrorists; however, he said they have problems with China, Laos, and Cambodia (their surrounding countries).

In China, they have a shortage of women, so men go across the border to remote towns in the north of Vietnam and tell women they will marry them, give them children, a job, and a good life. These women are so isolated that they believe them. When they get to China, they’re sold into prostitution and work for free. If someone is caught trafficking five or more women, it’s a death sentence. Trung told us that they used to shoot people for $.50 each, but since 2015, they instituted lethal injection. It now costs $10,000 each. Trung said, “I prefer the bullet. Save the money for the people.”

The problem with Laos is the drugs that come from the Golden Triangle (borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar). Technically the law states that if you have more than six grams, it’s a death sentence, but people with money can buy their way out. This has allowed a lot of drugs to get into Vietnam.

The problem with Cambodia is the gambling. There is gambling in Vietnam, but only foreigners are allowed to partake. Trung said that Vietnamese people love to gamble, so they go across the border to Cambodia. They end up losing a lot of money and borrowing from the casino. Eventually, they lose enough that they have to sell their kidney for $5,000. Then rich Chinese come and buy it for $40,000. Trung told us that there are five million kidneys for sale there.

I was thoroughly enjoying learning about Vietnam, but then we stopped at a pearl palace. We had some time to browse and buy jewelry. They have a huge pearl industry there and I bought a pair of earrings. Shortly after the pearl store, we arrived at the boat that would take us through HaLong Bay. We were seated at tables for lunch. We joined another group, but there was still only about 30 people on our tour.

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I was seated with Joanne and her parents. They were from Singapore and welcomed me into their family. Joanne appeared to be in her 30s and was very pretty. She worked in hotel sales and had been working for a Thai company for the last eight months, but planned to start a new job when she returned from holiday. The Thai company was too “old school” and once the top boss said yes, there was no arguing. Joanne’s parents have been to the U.S. and enjoyed their visit, but it was close to 30 years ago.

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The boat cruised through Ha Long Bay, which was incredible! Large rock formations were spread out all over the place. There are thousands of rock islands that vary in size. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is nothing built on the rock islands, most likely because they are steep cliffs.

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We were served various fish dishes to share. I had a hard time eating some of them, like octopus. We arrived at a rock island, climbed a lot of stairs, and looked around inside a cave. The cave had a very large main room and it was just our group there. During the war, they used it as a make-shift hospital. Hospitals were often targets, so this allowed them to treat patients without the threat of bombs. Trung told us that during their rainy season, tourists have to take their shoes off because the cave starts to fill with water.

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We took the boat to another area that had a large pontoon platform to get into smaller boats. The smaller boats would take people through an archway, into a circular area, and then back to the pontoon. There were a lot of boats that had dropped off large groups of people. It was maddening to watch the chaos as people tried to line up to get on various small boats. Most of the tourists were from China. They tend to travel in very large groups and they don’t follow lines when waiting for something, so Trung was frustrated. He told us, “We welcome westerners and all the Chinese show up. We don’t welcome them, they just come. If we stop welcoming westerners, the Chinese will stop coming.”

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We got into small boats and a local rowed us through the archway and into the circular area. It was a short boat ride, but it was fun. We got back to our boat and were served fruit and coffee on the top deck. It would take about an hour to get back to the port and the boat weaved its way through the islands as the sun started to set.

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I talked with Joanne while enjoying some fruit. She was really sweet and we shared our contact information because I had a 24-hour layover in Singapore on my way to Australia and we hoped to meet up. Joanne planned to do some volunteer work in Fiji for several months. She had a very empathetic heart.

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The views of Ha Long Bay were beautiful and I was happy that I had the chance to visit. Joanne and I had to say goodbye once the boat docked because we were in separate vans.

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On the way back, Trung asked me if I had a man at home and was traveling without him, or if he was at the hotel. I said, “I’m divorced. I’m traveling alone.” Trung excitedly said, “Oh! You’re forever free?!” I responded, “Yup.” Trung was married for 13 years and had two kids, but he and his wife ended up getting a divorce. He told me that after ten years, you just get so bored of seeing the same person over and over. Early on in their relationship, they partied and had fun, but not anymore. They had an amicable split in the end.

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Trung dropped me off at my hotel and I walked down the street to eat Bun Cha. It was my favorite dish on the food tour, but this restaurant wasn’t very good. Next to me was a young couple smacking on their food so loud that it was driving me crazy. It seemed that many people in Vietnam were on a mission to eat as loud as possible. I ate as quickly as I could and went back to my hotel. After working on my blog, I was off to bed. The next day I would be leaving for a motorbike tour in the northern mountains for four days and I couldn’t wait.

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Days 259-260: Food Tour and Exploring Hanoi

I skipped breakfast at the hotel again because it ended at 9:30 am and I wanted to be hungry for a food tour that I signed up for. When I walked through the lobby, the staff pointed out that I missed breakfast again and said the next morning they’d give me a wake-up call. I appreciated their concern, but I was hoping that staying in a hotel instead of an Airbnb would give me some privacy. It appeared that the hotel staff were very concerned about my food intake.

The food tour guide, Minh, met me in the lobby. She was 27, had glasses, her hair was in a ponytail, and she was short. She told me to grab a jacket because it might get chilly. I followed her instructions and then we walked to a hotel to pick up a guy. Minh told me about the city as we walked. She was cute and grabbed my arm when crossing the street to make sure I followed her. She was petite, but fierce. She crossed those streets like they were nothing. Minh asked me what it’s like traveling alone as a female. She told me that she likes to travel with friends, but she thought I was brave to travel alone.

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We arrived at a hotel and Jake was waiting to join the tour. He was 26, lived in Los Angeles and Boston, was tall with brown hair, and was in medical school. He was doing an internship in Thailand and he was only in Hanoi for the weekend to explore.

We took a taxi to the next hotel and picked up Michiel. He was from Holland and was only 18 years old. He was around 5’9”, was thin, had light brown hair, a nose ring, and an earring. He was taking a gap year before college, which is common there. His friends weren’t traveling on their gap year, so he was traveling solo for a few months. Jake asked Michiel how his parents feel about him traveling alone. He explained that his parents said he couldn’t take a gap year if he didn’t travel. Michiel pointed out all that he’s learned and and that traveling solo has forced him to do things for himself. I was impressed that he was traveling internationally by himself at 18. I don’t think I would have had the courage to do that at such a young age. At age 20, I drove from Missouri to Colorado by myself and visited family and friends. But going overseas and exploring on your own is a whole different story. Michiel was mature, smart, and fun. It was great seeing him out there exploring the world.

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The four of us walked to our first destination. When crossing the street, Minh told us, “Just be confident.” She held up her hand and we crossed with her. The three of us were all scared to cross the street, so we followed her closely. We went to several food stalls and small restaurants down alleyways eating donuts, egg and dill patties, rice pancakes, soup, meat, ice cream, and (my favorite) egg coffee.

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As we sat at a miniature table, we got to know each other better. Michiel was staying in hostels and explained that they’re mostly great, but sometimes he gets to one where nobody talks and he gets lonely. Jake confirmed traveling solo can be lonely for him at times too. It made me feel better that they also experienced loneliness.

Jake told us about the things he was learning in Thailand. He was in a smaller village just north of Bangkok. One time there was a man who had a spinal injury and his muscles were completely frozen. The local doctors did acupuncture on him and Jake watched as the muscles loosened and the man could move around again. I was happy that Jake was learning both western and eastern medicine because I think it’ll make him a better doctor.

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Minh was from a small town, but she moved to Hanoi when she was eight years old. She told us that the government took homes from the wealthy and gave them to the poor. Because of this, houses have seven to ten families living in them and they all share a kitchen and bathrooms. Most homes have a business on the ground floor (like a restaurant) and they all live in the floors above.

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The government charges taxes based on the width of the house, so everyone builds very narrow houses that are very deep and tall. The houses were sometimes so narrow that I could almost touch my arms on both walls. The houses were packed in side-by-side and sometimes trees grow right in the middle of courtyards, making their way up the house.

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We continued eating at the various food stalls around the city. Minh took us to a cart that the woman carries on her shoulders everyday using a wooden pole across her shoulders. She sets up in front of a bar that is closed until the evening and serves food during the day. There were tiny plastic stools just six inches off the ground for customers. A few men were sitting on the stools eating and one told us that we need to try it if we wanted to “see the real Vietnam.”

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We went to our last stop for egg coffee and sat at a small table. Egg coffee is whipped egg (mostly egg whites) that fills half the coffee cup. The whipped part is sweet and once you stir it, it tastes like a creamy, sweet latte. They started making it many years ago because they couldn’t afford milk or cream.

All of a sudden, my stomach was very upset. I raced to the single-use restroom and wasn’t feeling well. After our coffee, I was luckily feeling a bit better. We walked around for a bit and then said goodbye. We were all extremely stuffed and wanted to take a nap.

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On my walk back to my hotel, I stopped for a manicure for $12 USD. The salon also offered a Swedish massage for $17 USD an hour. I agreed to the massage and was taken upstairs. There were a few tables very close together with sheer curtains around them. The woman made me uncomfortable as she stood there while I undressed. I laid under the blanket and hoped nobody else came in.

After my massage, I rested at my hotel. I still didn’t feel very good and spent time talking on the phone and working on my blog.

The next morning, the hotel staff made good on their promise and gave me a wake-up call for breakfast at 9:00 am. I ordered a banana pancake and beef noodle soup. I love the soup, but it is hard to eat onions in the morning. I went back to my room and researched while resting since I still wasn’t feeling well. My throat had been hurting for the last day and I didn’t want to push myself too hard.

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In the afternoon, I talked with the girl at the front desk and she gave me tips on what to do. It was hotter outside – around 70 °F (21 °C). I walked around and made it to the famous train tracks. They’re famous because houses, shops, and restaurants are lined up extremely close to the tracks. Trains still use the tracks, which makes it crazy that people are actively walking on them.

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I ordered a banana coffee at a shop and sat against the wall on a small ledge. I enjoyed watching the people in the lively area. Tourists posed for pictures in the middle of the tracks creating their (not very) unique pictures. I talked with a young couple from the U.K. and took their first picture together in eight months.

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I walked to the Citadel, which is a huge complex. I didn’t learn much about it because I wasn’t on a tour, but I walked around enjoying the structure, narrow and steep stairs, beautiful flowers, and jets.

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In the evening, I walked to a theater and saw an acrobat show where they did all sorts of gymnastics using large bamboo. Once that was finished, I enjoyed a drink at a rooftop bar while looking at the skyline. I used the time to search for day tours of HaLong Bay. Once I got back to the hotel, the girl at the front booked a tour for me.

Sometimes it feels overwhelming going to a large city not having researched what to do. I often struggle with feeling like I’ll miss out if I don’t constantly do something. I’m learning to let that go and be ok with relaxing a little bit. It’s still a struggle, but I consciously try to have some downtime.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 256-257: Final Days in Thailand

Once I completed my dive certification, I needed to figure out how I was going to leave the island to catch a flight to Vietnam. Down the street from the dive shop was a hotel that also booked ferries and flights. I spent the next two hours reviewing my options. Weeks earlier I booked a flight from Phuket to Vietnam with a layover in Bangkok. When I booked the flight, I didn’t know I would be going to Koh Tao.

Phuket was now in the opposite direction and would take a full day to get there by ferry and bus. The nearest airport was on another island, Koh Samui, which was a two-three hour ferry ride away. I planned on taking the overnight ferry and bus to Bangkok and pick up my flight there from the layover. The woman at the hotel told me that the ferry that left that night in a few hours was their crappy one with uncomfortable cramped beds that were all in the same room. The thought of having to pack my bags and spend an overnight on a crappy ferry and then a long bus ride after several exhausting days getting my dive certification sounded like torture.

I was still in my swimsuit and all I wanted to do was rest. I had two problems: 1) My flight was already booked. 2) My visa was expiring the following day. The woman at the hotel was very helpful and connected me to AirAsia just to make sure I could actually get on the flight if I didn’t start in Phuket and joined in Bangkok. Unfortunately, their customer service is awful. They told me that if I didn’t get on the plane in Phuket, my ticket was invalid and I couldn’t get on in Bangkok. Even if I made it to Phuket, I couldn’t fly that soon after so much diving.

I decided to just forget about the plane ticket and lose the $135 that I paid. I extended my Airbnb by another day and searched for plane tickets from Koh Samui and Chumphon. The only options for flights had me leaving Thailand one day after my visa expired because of long layovers in Bangkok. I searched online and found that most likely, I’d just need to pay a fee and it would be fine, especially if it was just a day.

Once I had things booked, I decided to enjoy the rest of my time in Thailand. I met Davina for dinner because she was still on the island. She told me about her life back in Wales. She was a nurse and as long as she worked once every six months, she could continue in that career. Once her 15-year-old daughter moved in with her ex-husband, he took her to court for child support (even though she never received any when she had custody). She made a lot more money than him and decided to sell everything and spend nine months in a van touring Europe. Davina then went back to Wales and worked for a few months to save up money and then started traveling again – this time to New Zealand, Australia, and Thailand.

I completely understood Davina and was happy she found a way to live life on her terms. I also made a lot more money than my ex-husband and it cost me financially when I filed for divorce. Thank goodness we didn’t have kids. I have many female friends who have had to pay child support to their husbands who either didn’t make much money or didn’t work at all. It’s an awful feeling to watch the money you worked so hard for disappear.

Davina and I talked about how it is to date at our age. I swiped through Tinder with her to show her people in the area. It was awesome to chat, laugh, and have some company for the evening. Davina was starting to feel sick and had to move her advanced diving class back a few days and she’d end up not completing the dive class.

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The next day, I tried to ignore the construction banging next door because I desperately wanted to sleep in. I spent some time editing my blog and making a video. Then, I took my motorbike to the other side of the island. After walking down several stairs, I ended up at a restaurant where I enjoyed a happy hour two-for-one drinks. The views were incredible and I was trying to soak it all up before I left the following day.

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I continued driving my motorbike around in the sun. I ended up back at the lookout point I had found a few days prior. I enjoyed a refreshing coconut drink and then a beer as I watched the sun set. The sunsets on Koh Tao are some of the most magnificent ones that I’ve ever seen.

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I drove to Siree Beach and ate dinner at a busy restaurant with cushions on the floor with low tables. My fish wasn’t good and my legs started to hurt from sitting like that. I didn’t want to spend my last night in Thailand alone and a guy from Tinder had messaged me. He wanted to hang out a couple nights earlier, but I went to dinner with Davina instead. That night, he said he’d be off work at 11:00 pm and we could meet for a drink. He was from France, was 33, and was there for a few months helping a friend with a restaurant.

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Harry, my British friend, was eating at a nearby restaurant after finishing his homework for his dive class. I joined him, but got there as he was finishing his meal. We had some beers, but he didn’t want to stay up late because of the early-morning dive class. I enjoyed Harry’s company. I saw a lot of potential in him, but told him that he needed to mature a bit. Harry told me that he had matured a lot in the last couple of years. Before, he had no morals. His parents divorced when he was 12 and probably contributed to his behavior.

Harry told me that before he went to Australia solo two years prior, he didn’t do anything for himself and was pretty spoiled. We talked about how traveling solo makes you wiser and makes you have different priorities. In London, Harry would wear very expensive outfits, but in Thailand he just wore t-shirts. I thought it was great that Harry was taking on solo travel, especially at his age. I’m not sure that I would have been able to handle it at age 23.

Harry said he’d stay with me until my date was available. However, at 11:00 pm, the restaurant wouldn’t serve beer unless we went to the bar, so Harry decided to leave and get some rest for his class. After finishing my beer, I walked around while messaging the guy from France. He said he was cleaning up and we were trying to figure out where to meet. Then he stopped messaging, so I walked to a small outdoor bar.

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I sat at the bar and talked to a guy from Denmark who was extremely wasted. He ordered shots for his friends and then didn’t have the money to pay, so he denied that he ordered them. After accidentally knocking over his drink, he left with his friends. Next, I talked with a guy from Sweden who works on a cruise ship in Norway. He works for 22 days straight and then has 22 days off.

The bartenders were a couple who owned the bar. The guy was from Germany and had long blonde hair pulled back on top and shaved on the bottom. He was tall, had lip rings, and seemed smart. The bar had a board on the wall next to me showing how many shots were bought and consumed by each country. I took a shot for the USA and saw that some guy from Alaska took an insane amount of shots over a few days to try and get us to win. We came in third place in the first round and were making good progress in the current round.

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There were 18-year-olds from Europe dancing at the bar to the upbeat music and it was a fun night. The owner of the bar gave me a lot of tips for Australia because he spent a year there. He told me not to miss Tasmania because it was his favorite part. He came to Thailand eight months prior to get his dive master certification, but realized he could make more money running a bar. The guy wrote down things for me to see and do on my phone, so I wouldn’t forget. His girlfriend didn’t seem very happy about it. I went back to my Airbnb and was happy that the French guy ghosted me. I had a great night without him. He messaged me the next day saying he fell asleep and apologized.

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I packed my bags and checked out of my Airbnb. I stood in line to check in at the ferry station and ran into Michael from Serbia. I had met him during my “try dive” a few days prior. We sat together on the ferry until he got off at Koh Pha-ngan. I was taking the ferry to Koh Sumai. I asked Michael if Serbia was safe to travel to as a foreigner. He said it was and he gets asked that all of the time. He explained that they haven’t had a war since the 90s. The US was bombing them for “political reasons,” he explained. Michael said they tend to have wars every 30 years and it’s coming up to 30 years without war. He said, “Come visit while you can!”

Michael’s company was letting him work remotely for two weeks after his holiday, but it was an exception. He’s a leader at his company, so they weren’t going to let him do it full time. It was great talking with him, but we had to say goodbye. I continued on the ferry and fell asleep.

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When the ferry arrived in Koh Samui, I took an hour van ride to the airport. At the VietJet Air counter, the guy asked to see my visa for Vietnam. I showed him my preapproval letter in my email, but he had me print it. He also made me show him my plane ticket out of Vietnam before I could board the plane.

When I arrived to customs, there were large signs on the walls saying that if you overstay your visa, even by one day, you could be jailed. I started to panic. I did not want to be jailed in Thailand. When I got to the man and showed him my passport, he asked why I overstayed by a day. I explained that I couldn’t fly because of diving and missed my flight. He told me I needed to pay the fee, which was $500 baht for each day ($16 USD). I was grateful that he didn’t put a red stamp in my passport, which I read would decline re-entry.

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My SIM card ran out because it expired after 30 days. I was trying to book a hotel in Vietnam using WIFI, but it wasn’t letting me connect. It was time to board the plane, so I walked outside and climbed the stairs. When we arrived in Bangkok, there were three of us marked as “quick transfer” because we had a connection to Vietnam. A woman met us as we got off the plane and escorted us to a van that took us across the tarmac. The woman explained that our bag might not make it, but it would be put on the next flight. Great.

After being dropped off, we had to walk all the way through a long hallway, up the escalator, and back through security. Then we walked to our gate. They looked at my passport and made me show my visa again. Thankfully, the flight was running 20 minutes late, so I connected to the WiFi and booked my hotel. As we boarded the plane, a man backed up and accidentally rolled his suitcase over my bruised toe, making me wince in pain.

I was on the plane to Vietnam and was happy that I wasn’t jailed for overstaying my visa. I reflected on my month in Thailand. I hiked and biked in the jungles with REI Adventures and some really awesome people. I explored cities and temples. I ate some delicious new food. I swam in clear, warm waters and learned how to dive. I watched some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. The best part is all of the people I met. Even though I was traveling solo, I was rarely alone. I met people who made my time in Thailand such a special place to visit. I look back on my time there with nothing but fond memories.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 244-246: City Living

Miley, my Airbnb host, gave me a ride to the Sky Train which would take me to the Siam Center, a mall in Bangkok. Miley was tall, had red circular glasses, and a confident stature. She appeared to be in her late 20s and was in charge of the Airbnbs in her family home. I got in the front seat of her car and turned around to meet her family.

Miley’s mother and grandmother were in the back, so we said hello to each other. Then they said something in Thai, which I couldn’t understand. I looked at Miley for help and she said, “They think you’re very brave to be traveling alone. They think it’s great.” I smiled, “Oh, well tell them I said thank you!”

Miley dropped me off at the Sky Train station and gave me instructions for how to use it. I climbed a few flights of stairs, bought a ticket at the ticket booth, and followed the ticket booth operator’s instructions on where to stand to get the correct train to the mall.

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The Sky Train is an elevated metro system and provides some amazing views of the city. I wanted to ride it and I read online that the malls in Bangkok are something special to see. It made sense to take the train to the mall. It wasn’t very crowded, it was new and clean, and it reminded me of England. In Thailand, they drive on the left, say “mind the gap” when getting on and off the train, and “mind your hands.” In Chiang Mai, a local told me they had a strong presence from England decades ago, so they have replicated a lot of the Brittish culture.

The Siam Center was huge! I first started to look around the outside covered area and found a small shop selling a “pancake cup,” which is a cup of mini-pancakes, strawberries, and cream. I ate a cup while enjoying the small air conditioned section. I continued walking and noticed shops had very narrow stores with glass doors. The doors allowed for air conditioning and they only had to cool off a very small section. What it created, however, were small store booths that looked like little jail cells.

I continued walking around, but the heat and humidity were making me uncomfortable. I found a restaurant with air conditioning and ordered a chicken with egg. After that, I went to the main indoor section, Siam Paragon. The multilevel glass windows made it look regal and expensive.

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I used the toilet and it included a container of disinfectant that you could use to wipe your seat. Bathrooms (or toilets as they say) are very inconsistent in Thailand. Most are run down, or only have squat toilets, don’t have toilet paper and instead have a spray nozzle attached for you to use to wash yourself, and no soap. But there are also high-end places like this mall where the toilets are fancy – they included toilet paper and the spray nozzle, soap, and were incredibly clean. This bathroom was cleaner and nicer than most bathrooms in the U.S.

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I continued walking around and couldn’t believe how amazing this mall was! The floors shined from the marble, sculptures hung from the ceiling, and I could look up and see seven stories! Most stores were priced similar to an average store in the mall in the U.S. There were also high-end stores like Chanel, Bvlgari, Cartier, and Rolex.

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This mall had everything you needed: furniture stores, hair salons, investments banks, a bowling alley, a boxing gym, a movie theater, a food court, lounges, and car dealerships with actual cars inside! I watched as children in school uniforms worked on homework in the food court and it appeared people spent many hours there.

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I was exhausted from walking around so much and even though there was air conditioning, I was still a little warm. I read online that the movie theater there is a “must see,” so I headed to the very top floor and found it. I talked with the girl at the counter because I was confused about the theatre options. She talked me into the higher-end theater that came with a small ice cream, a latte, a small bottle of water, and a lounge recliner seat. It cost $32 USD, which I thought was a lot, but I wanted some down time.

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I walked into the VIP lounge and was treated like royalty. While they got my ice cream, latte, water, and the popcorn that I ordered for $5 USD, I went to use the toilet. It was the most fancy toilet I’ve ever seen! I had my own little room that was covered in marble. The toilet lid opened itself when I approached. The seat was heated, it washed me, and then flushed itself. As soon as I left my little room, which included a personal sink and cloth washcloth, a housekeeping woman immediately went in to make sure it was perfect for the next guest.

I got to my theater and it was dark, so a man walked me to my seat using a flashlight. My seat was a large double seater for couples. There were only two other people in the theatre and they were a few rows up from me.

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I watched the movie, The Favourite, about Queen Anne. The movie was in English, but it had Thai subtitles. I enjoyed the movie and the pampering was nice.

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When the movie finished it was dark outside. I walked through the mall some more and eventually left. I walked towards a rooftop bar,  checking out the shops and nightlife around me. It reminded me of New York City because of its size and high-rise buildings, but the walkways, stairs, and bridges reminded me of Las Vegas.

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There didn’t seem to be any trash cans around on the street corner like I’m used to. When I had trash from a water bottle or snack wrapper, I just put it in my purse until I could find a trash can. The strange thing is that they don’t have a lot of litter around. I also noticed another big difference than the U.S. Maybe it was just where I was walking (near a high-end mall), but I didn’t see any homeless people. I saw only one disabled man laying on the street asking for money. In the U.S., homelessness has become an epidemic for many cities.

I walked just over two miles and arrived at a rooftop bar that I found online. It provided incredible views of the majority of the city. I paid for the view in the price of the drinks ($12 USD each). I enjoyed some appetizers and cocktails while enjoying the evening. I didn’t run into many tourists, especially Americans, during most of my time in Thailand. But in touristy places like the rooftop bar, I could hear American accents.

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I took a Grab to my Airbnb and slept in the next morning. I was feeling extremely tired. I lounged around, updating my blog and creating a video. It takes much longer than you’d expect to do all of this.

I needed to eat more than a protein shake, so I wandered around my local neighborhood. On the way out, I met Miley’s mom. She didn’t speak much English, but she was really welcoming. Miley’s family always had a smile on their faces.

I ate Americanized chicken for dinner, but it was not good. As I walked around, I saw a nail salon behind the glass windows, so I stopped in. They didn’t speak English, but a customer translated and told me to come back in 20 minutes. I enjoyed some ice cream and made my way back.

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The manicure wasn’t done very well because the girl didn’t do much cuticle work. They had gel polish though, which I couldn’t find in Chiang Mai. The girl then worked on my feet while another girl and a guy just hung out talking in Thai. She saw that my big toe on my left foot was bruised under the nail and she kept asking me something in Thai. I kept telling her I don’t speak Thai.

Then the girl who was just hanging out used her phone and Google Translate. It said, “nail figure” and I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t know what that meant. Then she typed “are you hurt?” I shrugged again, “I guess so.” I didn’t know where I got that bruise, but it hurt, especially when she dug under it.

As I sat there getting my nails done, I played on Facebook and saw that the girl, Tsui, who I met in Chiang Mai at the Art Museum posted a sweet message to her account about the time we spent together. Tears came to my eyes as I read it. Seeing her post made me smile and I was grateful that I had this opportunity, even though it was tiring at times.

The next morning, I took Miley’s advice and took a Grab to Nonthaburi Pier. When I arrived, I searched for the long tail boats. I read online that the boats were a really fun way to get to the island that I was going to. There were a few different men with long tail boats and one approached me. He told me it would cost $400 Baht ($13 USD) for a round trip.

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The driver’s name was Pet and he helped me get  into the small boat without tipping over. I sat on two wooden boards in the middle, just in front of Pet. The boat was so close to the water that when we took off, water was splashing up on the sides. I didn’t get wet though and it was a really fun ride! The wind was a nice reprieve from the heat and humidity.

Pet stopped a couple of times for me to take pictures. We rode up the river, passing under a huge modern bridge, small houses that were right off the river on stilts, and statues.

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I climbed off the boat when we arrived to Ko Kret, a man-made island. Pet told me to be back there in two hours and he would pick me up. The island is still in the craziness of Bangkok and they offer a weekend market. I perused the stalls of interesting foods, occasionally buying some to try. I resisted the temptation to buy anything else. It was over 100 °F outside and walking around in the humidity made me sweat like crazy.

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After two hours, I returned to the spot Pet had dropped me off and thankfully he was there waiting. The boat ride was just as fun getting back. Once I got back, I took a Grab to another weekend market that is well known in Bangkok, the Chatuchak Weekend Market.  

The market had so many stalls that it felt a little overwhelming. Some stalls were in the sun, while others were under a shared roof. With no air conditioning, it made it difficult to spend much time there. The vendors sold everything from clothes, food, and household items to essential oils. I mostly purchased cold beverages.

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In the maze of shops, I found a tiny room with sliding glass doors with air conditioning and just enough space for five people to sit down for a massage. I paid $6.50 USD for a 45-minute foot, neck, and back massage.

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The massage was good, but the woman was really digging into my foot. Two minutes after walking away, the top of my right foot was hurting so bad that I started to limp. I forgot that a bad massage is worse than no massage.

The Sky Train was nearby, so I bought a ticket and stood in line for the Siam Center. It was taking a while for the train to arrive and then a man came by and said it was broken, but should be up soon. After 20 minutes, the station was packed. I squeezed my way inside and made it the Siam Center.

I had a coupon for a 15 minute massage that was part of the movie theater package I purchased days before. I sat in the cool, comfortable plush chair while the woman painfully massaged my neck and shoulders.

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After the massage, I walked a few blocks to the Hard Rock Cafe to buy a shot glass (I collect them). My limp was more pronounced now, making me look funny. When I arrived hot, sweaty, and limping, the woman told me that they had a happy hour special – two for one drinks. That sounded appealing, so I sat down and enjoyed mojitos and a salad. Nothing makes you look more pathetic eating alone at a restaurant than enjoying two drinks at the same time.

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After Hard Rock, I walked around for what seemed like an eternity, trying to find a Boots pharmacy. I finally found it at the bottom level of the food court of the huge mall. I asked a pharmacist for help with my toe nail. I told him that maybe it wasn’t a bruise under the nail, maybe it was a fungus. I also needed an antihistamine cream for some bug bites. The pharmacist was helpful, but it turned out it was just a huge bruise under my toenail and the antifungal cream didn’t help any.

To get back to my Airbnb, I was going to order a Grab, but there was nowhere for them to pull up. The Tuk Tuk drivers offered a ride for $20 USD and didn’t know where I was going. A Grab would cost me around $4 USD, so I kept walking.

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The busy streets were insane. At one point, I needed to cross a large intersection, but they don’t use crosswalks. I waited for five minutes with a large group of people. The cars didn’t stop. Multiple lanes of motorbikes, cars, Tuk Tuks, and busses raced by. Eventually, some people started to cross. I took advantage of their numbers and joined them. It was wild! We formed a group and slowly crossed while vehicles passed in front and behind us. The stop lights have a digital display that counts down how long until it changes colors, mostly starting from 40 seconds. That helped to know when the light was going to change.

I continued walking while attempting to find a place where a driver could pick me up. It was like the Las Vegas Strip – multiple lanes with a divider in the middle of the street. I passed “love massage” places and lots of tourists. Finally, after a mile of walking, I ordered a Grab. When the driver pulled up, it was on the opposite side of the street.

I had waited 15 minutes for him to arrive in the traffic and I knew there was no way that he could get to me. I took a deep breath and ran across the multiple lanes as fast as I could. I got to the divider and once it was clear, I ran across those lanes to my driver.

Bangkok is an exhausting city. I am glad I was able to see and experience it, but the crowds, heat, humidity, traffic, and overall insanity made me want to get out. I was headed to Phuket the next day, and I decided I needed to spend some time relaxing on the islands for the next few days.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 230: Villages in Thailand

On the third day of the REI Adventures tour, we were able to enjoy the delicious breakfast buffet at the hotel. Right after I sat down to eat, I received a notification from Airbnb that my studio apartment I had booked once the tour ended was cancelled. Confused, I logged on to see what the problem was.

I messaged the owner and let her know that my reservation was cancelled by mistake through Airbnb. The home owner and I agreed that I would just pay her cash when I arrived and she’d keep the apartment available for me. I was happy because the price for my stay in this apartment was only $23 a night.

Dealing with Airbnb and the homeowner meant I had to frantically scarf my food down and ignore my roommate, Nicole. We had to be at the vans ready to go, so I didn’t have much time. Thankfully, I was able to get it resolved and get to the vans.

We left the hotel and drove towards the mountains to visit hill tribe villages. The roads in Thailand are often bumpy and windy. I get carsick if I try to read in the car. Sometimes if my head is turned sideways looking at someone talking, I will start to get nauseous. The best place to sit for motion sickness is the first row because you get less bumps there. Unfortunately, there were several people in our group who also get motion sickness, so I sat in the back.

My roommate Nicole also gets carsick. We were in the van for a couple of hours and Nicole and I were talking to each other in the backseat. She told me about her travels and hiking various famous mountains. Her accomplishments were impressive, but she was humble. We talked for awhile, until we both needed to look out the window to attempt to alleviate the nausea. I took a dramamine in hopes that the motion sickness would subside.

When we arrived to the villages, our guide, Tri, talked to us about the general life in a village. The area we were visiting was a combination of many different tribes. They built this area to showcase a mini-village of each tribe, their customs, and their people.

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Tri stood in front of a large painting of the king of Thailand. He told us there are six main tribes in Thailand and they are mostly in the mountainous northern and western parts of the country. Generally speaking, the women work harder than men. When a family gives birth to a girl, they are very happy because she’ll bring in money from the husband. She’ll also work harder both in the fields and in the home, while the men will take opium and sleep in the fields.

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We wandered through the streets and saw several different tribes selling hand-made items. The tribespeople weren’t pushy though. They just casually stood near their booth and would tell us the price of an item if we pointed at it.

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We saw some women weaving fabrics, while others proudly displayed their products. One tribe is known for their long necks. They put rings around their neck and keep adding to it in hopes that their necks will stretch. I bought a couple of items, mostly to support their efforts.

Once we finished exploring the villages, we stopped at an outdoor market on our way to lunch and were given ten minutes to browse. There were fresh vegetables and even fried insects – beetles, crickets, you name it! I declined trying one and kept walking.

I was walking alone and a vendor asked me, “Where are you from?” I replied, “America.” He got very excited, “Oooooh! USA! Super Power!” I smiled and slowly kept walking. He continued and mentioned how tall I am and then asked, “You married?” “No”, I replied. “Ooooh, are you alone?” As I walked away, I told him I was with a group.

For lunch, we went to a restaurant that sat right off of a river where people on rafts raced through the rapids. We ate family-style, but this time the vegetarians asked Tri not to be separated because it didn’t allow them time to talk with the non-vegetarians. We each had our own plate of pad Thai, which was delicious!

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I sat next to Scott and Andrea, who are from Minnesota. Scott works as an industrial engineer and Andrea works as a physical therapist. They told us how cold Minnesota was when they left and how a huge snow storm was sweeping the area. They were happy to have escaped it.

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Once lunch was finished, we began a hike to the village where we’d stay the night. It was hot and humid. This hike would take more than three hours and involved a lot of climbing.

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The thick forest was unforgiving. The dense vegetation often brushed up against my legs. I was sweating profusely in the extraordinary humidity. When I sweat too much, I need to take salt pills so I don’t lose too much salt. About 30% of people are salty sweaters. The group was moving so fast, I was struggling to keep up. I didn’t have time to take my pills. In addition, the Dramamine made me feel tired.

I was in the back with Christian and Kristen. I felt bad and hoped I wasn’t keeping them from the rest of the group. Kristen assured me that she also likes little breaks – we were soul sisters. We would often stop for 60 seconds just to take a breather. There was another guide, Sak, in the back with us. The four of us had a fun time looking around at the Jurassic-sized leaves and learning from Sak. He told us that when bamboo dies, it sprouts a flower. Just one flower it’s entire life and only when it is about to die.

The rest of the group would stop every 20 minutes or so to let us all catch up. Those of us in the middle and the back would arrive, and within one minute, we were off again.

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I felt my heart pounding and realized I should have taken my salt pills. Once my electrolytes are out of balance, I can feel it in places like my heart.

While the hike was challenging, it was also beautiful! We were the only ones on the  trail. Finally, we arrived towards the top and were rewarded with incredible views. The sun was just starting to set and was giving off splendid rays of light.

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This fueled me to get to the homestay. As we approached the small village, I couldn’t believe people lived there. It was extremely remote, steep, and the dirt road was in terrible condition.

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Our homestay was with a local family who had a large main room filled with 15 pads to sleep on. Each thin pad had a mosquito net above it. The floor was made of thin pieces of bamboo and I was afraid I would fall through, so I stuck to walking near the main wooden beam down the middle.

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I’m sensitive to people snoring so I asked that I be on the end and not near any snorers. I brought earplugs, but the sound of snoring is usually so loud they only slightly work. I had my iPod shuttle just in case.

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It was evening and there was only one shower available. It was outside in a small concrete building that was not completely enclosed, letting the cold air inside. They don’t have electricity so we were warned the water would be cold. People made a verbal list of who would take a shower next. I was number four on the list until some of the women decided to make another list and I was bumped towards the bottom.

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The sun was quickly setting and we were desperate to get a shower in before it was dark since there wasn’t a light in there. When it was my turn, it was almost dark, so I brought my headlamp inside to see my shampoo and soap. I knew the water would be cold, but I didn’t expect it to be freezing. A thin stream of water forcefully came shooting out! I gasped for air and almost started to hyperventilate from the harsh cold. I showered as quickly as I could.

To use the toilet, there were two small rooms in the same concrete building. Because they don’t have plumbing, there is a pot full of water next to the toilet. Once you’re done using the toilet, you have to scoop the water with a bowl and dump it inside the toilet, which slowly drains it. You have to put a few bowls of water in order to get it to fully go away. Behind the toilets were pigs, which you could hear while you took care of business.

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As we all showered and drank some beers, the guides and homeowners cooked our dinner. On the rough dirt street, young children drove by on motorbikes, often 2-3 per bike. Stray dogs also roamed around and we were instructed not to touch them as many of them carry disease.

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There were a few people who didn’t get showers because they didn’t want to shower in the dark. Dinner was ready and there were a couple of dim lights hanging above the table. As we sat down to eat, Clark gave a nice speech. After a tiring day of hiking, it was nice to have some time to unwind.

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After dinner, we enjoyed the stars above with the complete absence of light pollution. The village was celebrating the Chinese New Year, so the occasional firework went off. Tri told us that families will kill one of their pigs and eat it over the next three days and basically have a party the whole three days.

Once the sun fell, it got much colder. After star gazing, we all headed to bed. I put my earplugs in, but I kept waking up because I needed to use the toilet. Of course. This never happens when I’m inside of a house. But if I go camping or have the toilet outside, I suddenly have to go. I tried to ignore it because it sounded like rain was pouring down outside. I wondered if it was flooding. I didn’t want to put my glasses and shoes on and slip through the mud.

Then suddenly I realized maybe it was wind and not rain. I listened intently and realized I didn’t hear anything hitting the roof, so it must be wind rushing through the trees. I reluctantly put my glasses on, walked down the entire room following the beam with the light from my cell phone. I put my shoes on that were sitting outside by the front door steps and made my way to the toilet. Sure enough, it was extremely high winds, not rain.

I returned to my bed and went back to sleep. At 4:40 am, roosters started to crow. The sound was deafening so I tried to smash my head into my pillow. It didn’t work. I put my headphones on and played music on my iPod shuffle. We were warned about those roosters and they weren’t kidding. The roosters crowed for the next several hours. The thin bamboo walls did nothing for soundproofing.

Steve had noise cancelling headphones, but he still heard the roosters. He joked the next morning that if a company can create the ultimate soundproof headphones, their slogan should be “Strong enough to combat roosters.” I also found out the next morning that Mimi fell into Steve and Andrea when she went outside to use the toilet. Having 15 people sleep in the same room only inches apart makes for an interesting night.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 228-229: Overcoming Fears? Maybe Not…

I arrived at the hotel and met the 15 people who I would be spending the next nine days with through REI Adventures. My taxi was late getting to my previous hotel to pick me up, so I arrived about ten minutes late. Everyone was fit and standing in the lobby of the outdoor/indoor hotel. The guide, Tri, was giving the group an overview of what the week would look like. I met everyone so quickly, I couldn’t remember who came with who or anybody’s name.

The two vans would be leaving soon to take us to our first destination for the afternoon. While we briefly waited, a girl walked up to me and said, “Hi, you must be my roommate. I’m Nicole.”

We were both solo travelers and neither of us paid the $600 single supplement fee, so we were roomed together. Nicole was 44, but looked like she was in her early 30s. She had brown hair, a sweet smile, and was very athletic. She lived in Denver, Colorado and worked from home as a project manager.

It would take me two days to learn everyone’s names and remember where they were all from, but here they are!

Nancy and Steve: Married couple in their 50s who live in North Carolina

Andrea and Scott: Married couple in their 40s who live in Minnesota

Christian and Kristen: Married couple in their early 30s who live in Washington

Terri and Cathy: Two women friends in their 50s who live in California

Mimi and Lisa: Two women friends in their 50s who also live in California

Tien and Clark: Friends Tien (in his 40s) and Clark (in his early 60s) who live in New Mexico

Neil: Man in his 60s who also lives in Washington

Nicole: Woman in her 40s who lives in Colorado

We boarded the two ten-passenger vans and drove to Wat Suan Dok Temple. I sat in the front row of one of the vans, next to Cathy and Clark. We talked and got to know each other. It was clear that there were different personalities on this trip.

We arrived at the temple and had to climb up 300 steps. I was wearing mid-length jeans that made it an uncomfortable journey to the top. To get into the temple, women need to have their shoulders and knees covered. I was wearing a tank top, so I was provided a short-sleeve shirt to wear while I was inside.

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Our guide, Tri, had been leading tours for several years. He was short, had black hair, and had a huge, welcoming smile. His English was pretty good, but sometimes we struggled to understand each other.

The temple was outdoors and I was sweating in the sun. We had to take off our shoes and leave them outside. The stone floor was warm on my feet and I didn’t like walking around barefoot. We huddled around statues as Tri told us about the stories behind them. Thailand is predominantly Buddhist. I was starting to get overwhelmed after 30 minutes. It was a lot of information to take in and the heat wasn’t helping.

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The temple was full of tourists. With a group of 15, it was difficult to navigate through the crowd. At one point, I accidentally lost the group and the people behind me were now lost with me. Clark teased me because he had been following me. Oops. We eventually found the rest of the group and then headed back down the 300 steps.

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We ate lunch at an outdoor restaurant. All of our meals would be shared family-style. There were five vegetarians, so Tri asked that they sit together to make sharing easier. During lunch, I was able to talk to a few people and tell them about my travels. They were surprised to hear that I had been traveling for seven months and they enthusiastically asked me questions.

Nancy works at an REI store, which is a separate division of REI Adventures. Her khaki clothes gave her an outdoorsy look. It seemed to make sense that she’d work there. She knows a lot about the outdoors, so I’m sure she is super helpful to customers. Her husband, Steve, works as an engineer and is also into the outdoors. He struck me as responsible and smart.

After lunch, we went back to the hotel to check-in and clean up a bit. The hotel was a beautiful resort that had a lot of green trees and impeccable landscaping. It had soft, comfortable beds.

For dinner, we boarded the vans again and went to a restaurant. Because it was Chinese New Year, Tri gave us the option of going to an outdoor market to check out some festivities. Some people in the group had just flown in that morning, so they were exhausted and opted to go back to the hotel. A few of us went to the market.

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It turned out to be the market I had visited the day prior. Now that it was nighttime, it was packed! It was difficult not to get separated from the others. We watched some festivities on a stage and walked around the booths.

After walking around a little bit, we decided to go back to the hotel and get some rest. The next day would be our first hike and ziplining. I was excited for hiking, but less excited about ziplining.

We ate breakfast at the hotel, which had an incredible buffet spread, and left for our hike. We drove to a small village of wooden houses precariously built on a steep hillside on the side of a mountain and started our hike.

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Once we passed the houses, we started to climb on a trail through the forest. It was warm outside, but there was a cool breeze. I quickly fell to the back of the group. Ascending is harder for me because it’s hard to catch my breath. My slow heartbeat starts beating too fast and I need small, 30-second breaks.

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I was in the back with Christian and Kristen. They’re the young married couple from Washington (Seattle). Christian works for REI Adventures and does the planning part before people leave for the trip so they’re all prepared. He had been working there for less than a year and really liked it. He wanted to make it clear he was just on vacation and wasn’t working.

Kristen worked in admissions at a university in Seattle. She was so sweet and friendly and also wanted little breaks, so we stuck together. They are one of those couples that is really cute together because they are both kind and thoughtful.

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The trail was narrow and not very well maintained. Trees and bushes often overtook the trail. The dense forest was beautiful and I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t more humid. It was “cool season” for them and being in the mountains made it much cooler than the rest of Thailand. Thailand has three seasons: Cool, Hot, and Rainy.

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We arrived at a beautiful waterfall where we took pictures and ate snacks. I took a picture with Nicole, my roommate. She was hiking at the front of the group because she’s very athletic.

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After our snack, we continued climbing. There were a few bridges, which were ladders laid down with some fences, that we had a cross. One bridge was more a swing-type bridge.

At times, the trail was steep and narrow on the side of the mountain. Tri said once during the rainy season, a guest slipped and slid down the side. She ended up being ok, but was cut up. I was grateful it wasn’t raining.

After several miles of hiking, we went to a beautiful outdoor restaurant for lunch. Most places in Thailand are outdoors, which makes for a very relaxing atmosphere.

During lunch, I talked with Tien. He’s a psychiatrist, but was going to start a new job soon working in more of the administration side of a healthcare company. He was married with two young kids. Tien had a subtle sense of humor. We talked about my travels and his job throughout lunch.

I also talked with Clark. I told him about my solo travels and some of the things I need to be aware of as a solo female. He said, “You’d be hard to kidnap.” I asked why and he replied “Because of your attitude. You don’t seem like a victim.”

After lunch, it was time for ziplining. We drove five minutes to Flight of the Gibbon. We were fitted with gear and weighed because they have weight limits. Because our group was so large, we split into two. My group had the following: Clark, Tien, Scott, Andrea, Mimi and Lisa.

Clark and I were both nervous. He’s tall and extremely fit. He does a lot of trail running behind his house in New Mexico and can be pretty hardcore with his workouts, but ziplining didn’t appeal to him very much.

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We jumped off the platform one by one. To stop, this zipline company doesn’t use brakes. The zipline in Canada that I had gone on a few months prior had a brake system. Instead, you have to raise your legs when you’re coming into the treetop platform and the guide will help stop you before you smash into the tree. I was nervous about this because on the zipline in Canada, I kept inadvertently turning around, so I always went backwards. This time I needed to make sure I didn’t turn or I wouldn’t know when to raise my feet.

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The zipline has 14 lines, which is a lot. The two other places I’ve ziplined only had six to seven lines. I zipped across, tightly holding my harness. I could not relax because I kept thinking I’d be too heavy and I’d fall. What if the safety standards haven’t been met? I tried to convince myself thousands of people do this and I’d be fine.

Once I landed on a tree platform, the guide would hook my harness onto a cable wrapped around the tree. This was necessary because the platforms were very high into the tree with very limited space for standing. The seven of us would pile on, hugging the tree as we waited for everyone to finish. A couple of times, there were still people on the tiny platform from a group in front of us. I worried there were too many people on the platforms, but at least we were clipped to the tree.

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We continued zipping through the forest, and each time I was scared. I just wanted to get done with it. The trees were beautiful, but I just couldn’t shake the fear. The local guides sometimes did crazy things like pulling on the line when someone was on it, making the person bounce. On one line, they recommended we go “Superman” style where our face would go first, facing the ground. Then we’d have to climb up a rope net. I just did the regular line instead of that contraption.

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Most people were really enjoying the adventure, even if they questioned some of the safety standards. Clark, on the other hand, was like me. I couldn’t tell if he was joking at first because he’s a big jokester, but he was just as frightened as me. Fourteen lines is a lot and it was starting to weigh on him. He knew there was no way out – we had to complete the lines. At one point, he turned to me, “I’m emotionally exhausted. I’m serious. I have nothing left to give.” I knew exactly how he felt.

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Halfway through, we came to a section where we had to rappel down from high above on the tree platform. I’ve never repelled before and having to rely on the guides lowering me down was not comforting. I knew I had no other option to get down. I sat down and tried to get myself to go through the small square hole in the platform. I told the guy to go slow and said I just want to get home alive.

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We continued on several more lines until we were finally done. The final line was to rappel down again. This time I enjoyed it. The guide lowered me slower than others, which made me feel better. Once we were done, I was relieved.

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A few months later, Scott came across an article about that zipline, Flight of the Gibbon. A 25-year-old Canadian tourist was on those same lines two months later and fell to his death. He was halfway through one of the lines when “the lock on his body harness and the main line broke.” His girlfriend watched as he fell and I can only imagine the horror they both felt. My heart breaks for them.

Reading about that accident and the history of accidents at that zipline made me incredibly grateful we were all safe. I recognize that many thousands of people have been on those lines and have not gotten injured. However, the company has had other accidents and even deaths over the years. From my own experience, I can say the safety standards were poor. Pulling on lines to make people bounce around was not safe. The company is currently shut down for an investigation. REI Adventures has discontinued using that operator and instead of zip lining, people will now meet elephants. I think that’s a great alternative and I’m happy they are always looking out for the safety of their members. I can confidently say that was my last zipline adventure!

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 223-226: Overseas vs Wedding

When I arrived in Los Angeles, I picked up my rental car and drove towards my old workplace to meet a friend for happy hour. Jimmy and I used to go to happy hour at Geezers, so we met there like old times. We had a great time catching up over some drinks.

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I was staying the night at my friend Trisha’s house, but my friend Debbie had the key to my storage unit. It was late and they were in bed, so I picked up the key from Debbie’s mailbox and drove to Trisha’s house.

I’ve picked Trisha up from her house several times, but I’d never actually been inside. She has two children in grade school and they were all in bed. Her son Hunter was letting me use his bedroom while he was in Trisha’s room. Trisha left me instructions on how to get inside, which felt like a typical Airbnb for me.

I walked inside and looked for pictures on the wall so I knew it was her apartment. I was up late that night because I had to do some updates to my blog. The next morning, I drove back to Debbie’s house because I had the wrong key. After getting the key, I drove to my storage unit to get some paperwork from the sale of my house. Once I had that, I drove to Torrance to give all the documents to my tax accountant. This all reminded me just how spread out Los Angeles really is.

Once that was complete, I went to my friend Carey’s hair salon in Long Beach to get a haircut and highlights done. Then it was off to Debbie’s house for lunch. After that, I went to the bank because they did not properly add my beneficiary to my accounts. They don’t have locations in Missouri, so I needed to do it while I was in California. Having a life in multiple states 2,000 miles apart is complicated.

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After making a quick stop at Target to get some things, I headed back to Trisha’s house. We quickly got ready and drove to El Segundo to meet my friend Toni for dinner. It was great catching up and having a “girls night out.”  After swinging by REI to get a battery pack, we went to another place for drinks.

Once Trisha and I got back to her place, Trisha tried to help me fix my duffle bag. It was a new bag and I only used it as a backup bag while traveling the last six months. The baggage handlers at the airport somehow bent one of the bars on the bottom, preventing the handle from extending. I’m too tall to hold the loop on the side and it was too heavy to carry. But no matter what we tried, we couldn’t fix it.

The next morning, Trisha and I went to a restaurant for breakfast and then I drove to the airport to drop off my rental car and catch my flight to Thailand. As I drove to the airport, I realized my ex-husband was getting married that day. I had seen a few weeks earlier that my ex-sister-in-law was tagged at his fiance’s wedding shower with a hashtag of their wedding date. It was strange seeing a picture with my ex-mother-in-law, grandmother-in-law, and two sister-in-laws in a group picture with Aaron’s soon-to-be wife. I have those same pictures with them.

It was a strange feeling knowing he was getting married less than two years after our divorce. I had ended the marriage because of his lies, but it still felt strange. It felt strange because he kept telling me he didn’t want the divorce, he loved me, and had no interest in dating. And before the divorce was final, he was on Tinder dating his first match, who he was now marrying.

I reflected on the symbolism. He was getting married on the same day that I was heading overseas. He would make the same vows to her as he made to me. They would likely be blissfully happy that day, sharing their love with their family and friends – just as he did with me. I have those same pictures with him – cutting the cake, dancing, and committing to each other.

I remember on my wedding day I felt panicked. I was in the little waiting room with my dad as we waited for the wedding party to walk down the aisle under a large tree at a golf course. My dad and I would drive up on a golf cart. I remember feeling worried – was I making the right decision? I convinced myself it was just nerves. But deep down, I remember thinking, “this is forever” and feeling slightly panicked.

After the ceremony, the best man told me he watched a large vein in my forehead pound with blood during the ceremony. Nerves, I told him. We had a great day and people told me for years that it was one of the funnest times they’ve had at a wedding. It was a great day. If only it were all true. If only I had married the person I thought I was marrying.

I don’t feel jealous or envious of Aaron getting married. I’m happy he’s moved on and that he’ll be just fine. But it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s a strange feeling. It’s hard to put into words.

I don’t mean to be cynical about marriage, but I have a hard time believing people will be together forever. Vows are said with good intentions. People intend to be with the other person until “death do us part.” But the reality is more like “I promise to be with you unless you…”

I know what you’re thinking, “You have to fully commit for it to work out.” But the truth is that you cannot control your spouse and the things they will and will not do. When I hear vows now, I have a lot of hope for couples, but I also know it wouldn’t be unheard of for them to divorce and fall in love with someone else. It all seems so fleeting.

While Aaron prepared for his big day, I headed to the airport. I was happy with where my life was going. When I filed for divorce I still loved him, but I knew he wasn’t good for me. I had stood up for myself in a marriage built on lies, confronted many of my fears, followed my heart, and was living the life I believe I’m meant to live. It was poetic that I was leaving on his wedding day.

LAX is one of the world’s worst airports, but the international terminal is slightly better with better food and shopping options. It’s also less crowded.

I was flying with Japan Airlines for the first time. The plane had two seats, an aisle, four seats, an aisle, and two more seats. I got an aisle seat to the right of the plane. The girl next to me at the window looked to be in her early 20s and seemed to be with the two people in front of us. She didn’t get up to use the restroom the entire 12-hour flight to Osaka!

During the long flight, everyone was quiet and respectful. We left around noon so I wasn’t tired. Instead, I watched free movies on the screen in front of me. I used my Bose headphones so it felt like I was in a movie theater. After a movie, I’d do some writing for my blog on my iPad mini and keyboard that I brought. Once I was tired of writing, I’d watch another movie.

When the flight attendant brought dinner, I was amazed! It was all free and delicious!

  • Chicken and mashed potatoes
  • Salad
  • Quinoa
  • Fruit
  • Noodles
  • Miso soup
  • Bread
  • Green Tea
  • Water
  • Wine
  • Ice Cream
  • Warm towel

I got up a few times to stretch and use the restroom. There were toothbrushes in there for people to take and use, which I thought was a nice touch. The flight attendants would go down the aisles from time to time selling items from a catalogue. The homemade looking signs declared, “Some unique items you can only buy here.”

I was only able to sleep for about 45 minutes on the plane. We arrived at Osaka close to 1:00 am Los Angeles time, but it was 6:00 pm there. I was astonished by the toilets! I’ve always heard that Japan has fancy, complicated toilets and they weren’t lying. I had a private stall with a whole slew of buttons. I pressed the music button and whimsical music played. I wish the U.S. would get on board with these awesome additions.

I walked around looking for a place to eat, although I wasn’t sure if I was overeating or not eating enough on the plane. It seemed like they kept serving food, but with the time change, I had no idea if I should be eating or not. A friend recommended a place there, but after searching and searching I couldn’t find it.

I had a six hour layover there and I asked the security guard about the restaurant and he told me it was located outside of security. I asked if I could just go outside of security for the shops and restaurants and come back in and he told me that I couldn’t. There were hardly any shops or restaurants in the section I was in.

I felt like I was walking around in circles as I ate some bad sushi and visited the couple of shops. Finally, I found a table ledge with computers and space for people to put a laptop. Nobody was over there. I was writing, but as the night went on, I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I was literally falling asleep at my keyboard.

Finally, it was time to board the plane to Bangkok, Thailand. It was a six-hour flight and I was looking forward to getting some sleep. When they scanned my ticket, a buzzer went off and they pulled me aside. My duffle bag was sitting there, wide open. They said somehow it was broken in transit. The entire lock and both zippers on top were completely broken off!

My items were almost falling out. The attendants told me they would wrap it in two big garbage bags and tape it all around. I asked that they please wrap it tightly so things don’t spill out. I was so frustrated as I boarded the plane.

I was only able to sleep for a little more than an hour. My body was completely off kilter with the time changes. I watched some movies until we arrived in Bangkok. I had a four and a half hour layover.

The airport is huge, with very long terminals. I walked for what seemed like forever to my next gate. I ate a donut and got some coffee. The time went fast and it was time to board my next flight to Chiang Mai. It would be an hour and a half flight and this is where the real adventure would begin!

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 175: Leaving Whistler with a Bang!

After spending six weeks in Whistler, it was time to leave. As I packed, I reflected on my time there and all the things I did:

  • I wrote a lot, oftentimes sitting in a reading nook, peering out the window. A few times, I was able to watch the snow fall.

I settled in, bought groceries and cooked. I even joined a gym while I was there.

  • I watched fall transition to winter, and enjoyed taking in all of the changes during walks in the forest and around town.

I took the bus to town and got to know some locals. I even took advantage of locals’ only discounts!

  • I cleared more than eight inches of snow off my car a few times, drove in the snow, and scraped ice off my gas tank so I could add gas.
  • I met a few guys. Each one helped me learn what I want and don’t want in a relationship.
  • I sat at bars alone, often times listening to live music. Sometimes I felt lonely, but I made myself get out and about anyway.
  • I attended a wine festival and a film festival.
  • I went snowshoeing and snowmobiling.

I did a beer tour tour, a nightclub crawl, and went to a vodka freezer.

  • I went to game nights, pub trivia, and bar bingo.
  • I made several new friends.

I very much enjoyed my time in Whistler and could see myself living there someday. I don’t get that vibe often with places. I don’t know where I’ll end up living, but Whistler is on my list of possibilities.

Before I left Whistler, I wanted to give a letter to Josh, who I had met right after Thanksgiving. When I dropped Josh off after spending 16 hours together, I didn’t know his last name or phone number and I had hoped he would reach out to me. I was 99% sure I’d never hear from him, which made me bummed. I wrote him a letter telling him how I felt because I’m tired of living life afraid – afraid to be me, afraid of rejection, and afraid of being vulnerable. I knew he worked at a fine dining Italian restaurant, but I couldn’t remember which one so I held onto the letter until I could figure it out. Before I left town, I planned on walking into his restaurant, handing him the letter, and walking out.

When I got sushi with my new friend Brittany, she connected me to a Whistler Facebook group. I found Josh on the group and felt relieved that I at least knew his last name and had a way of contacting him. One night at bar bingo, my new friend Saya convinced me to send Josh a message on Facebook. I thought I had seen him at the bar, but the guy disappeared. After a few drinks, I decided it was a good idea.

Of course, my message was lame (what did you expect?) and I said, “Are you around?” This was after not seeing or talking to him for two weeks. I had become accustomed to guys either not responding, responding very late, or responding in a disrespectful way after online dating. I was pleasantly surprised when he wrote back within 15 minutes. We conversed about the weather and how the snow was great. He said now that it was snowing, he was waking up very early every morning to ski. He told me which restaurant he worked at, so I was happy that I could give him my letter.

It was my last day in Whistler and after snowmobiling, I showered, ate dinner, and prepared to leave my Airbnb to surprise Josh with the letter. I was extremely nervous.

“He will probably think I’m a weirdo.”

“What if I become the laughing stock of his friends?”

My friends back home all thought I was crazy. Their response was always the same – if he was interested in you, he would have contacted you. He just wanted to have a fun night and you’ll never hear from him again. That’s how men are. I could hear the tone in their messages as they told me I’m such a hopeless romantic and that this likely would end with a broken heart. I didn’t care.

I knew logically they made sense. It was likely that he never wanted to know me past the night we met. But my instinct kept telling me that he was different. He wasn’t a jerk, he was actually a caring individual. I spent many hours getting to know him, and he didn’t act like other guys. He was tender, he was real, and he had a good heart. I didn’t blame him for not contacting me. It was a strange situation. I was traveling and was only there temporarily. Nobody wants to do long distance, so I didn’t blame him for that. I just needed him to know that I cared and that our time meant something to me, even if that meant I’d be rejected.

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I had a few shots of vodka in preparation for going to the restaurant where he worked. I arrived around 10:20 pm and couldn’t get myself to walk inside. It’s a fine dining restaurant. It’s not like I could just walk in and find him in a sea of people enjoying their fancy meals. I also didn’t want to ask for him because then his coworkers would all wonder what was going on.

I saw a second door that led to a hotel that was connected and went through it. I used the restroom, trying to convince myself that I had the strength and the nerve. People always tell me I’m the bravest person they know – I can assure you that does not apply to the romance department.

Sweating, I managed to get myself into the side door that was by the bar. There was not a single person at the bar, so I asked the bartender if the bar was open. He said it was and got me a menu. The section to my left was crowded with tables full of people enjoying dinner. Behind me, there were lounge tables and some dinner tables, but they were mostly empty.

The bartenders were all from France and were so friendly that it helped to calm my nerves. That, or the vodka was settling in. I ordered a drink and texted my friends. Kristina, who was from Germany, came down within 15 minutes and sat with me at the bar. I slowly turned around, looking to see if I could find Josh. I didn’t know if he was working that night, but it was my last shot.

Kristina and I talked all about her life in Germany. She told me about how she thought Canada would be a lot like the U.K., but she found that is not at all the case. She described German people as being very straight forward, but in Canada, they consider it rude. I told her it’s because Canadians are known for being very nice.

I was enjoying Kristina’s company. At some point, I thought I saw the back of Josh walk by me twice. He was headed the other direction so he only saw my back. I was also trying to cover my face with my hair. I told Kristina about my letter and my dilemma.

At just past 11:00 pm, two servers who were running the bar after the bartenders left said they needed to close out our tabs. I panicked and told Kirstina to stall. We slowly paid and I messaged Josh, asking him to come to the bar. He wasn’t responding and after a few minutes, our bill was closed.

Kristina, being a straight-forward German, asked the servers, “Is Josh here?” The girls looked at each other and one said, “I think he just left.” The other chimed in, “Yeah, he was helping a large party and once they were done, he went home. He just left.” Kristina immediately said, “Can we give you something to give to him?”

Panicked, I said, “No, it’s ok.” The sweet servers enthusiastically said, “Yeah! We can give him something.” Kristina tried to grab the letter from my hand and I tried to shove it back into my purse as I quietly told her, “It’s fine. I’ll message him.” The servers, trying to be helpful, said, “We can tell you his schedule tomorrow.” I assured them it was fine and that I’d message him.

Kristina and I walked outside and met our friends Saya and Misato from Japan, who had just arrived after getting off of work. We brainstormed as to what I should do. I wanted to just run away. Kristina reminded me that I wanted to tell him how I felt and I came there to give him the letter, so I should do it. She told me I could give the letter to her and she’d go back the next day and give it him. I gave her the letter and we all decided to go have a drink at Brickworks bar.

They all thought the idea of writing a letter and giving it to Josh was romantic and they gave an “awe…”. I explained to them what my brother used to say many years ago, “If the person likes you back, they’re flattered. If they don’t like you back, it’s stalking.” I think he’s right. I had no idea if Josh would consider this romantic or consider me a stalker.

As we sat at Brickworks, Josh messaged me back and said he was in bed after skiing and working all day. I told him it was my last night in Whistler and there was something I wanted to give him. He said he would come back out, but he was too exhausted. He asked when I was leaving the following day and said he could meet me to say goodbye.

I was happy that he offered to meet me. I told him once I checked out of my Airbnb, I was going to the holiday market at one of the hotels, and then I needed to head south by around 2:00 pm. He said he’d keep me posted because he would be skiing early in the day and then had to work that evening, but he thought he’d have some time to meet me in the village to say goodbye.

My new friends and I had a great time talking over some wine. I played some classic American songs on the jukebox and we talked about relationships, what it was like in their home countries, and how much fun we’d had together. They are amazing people with warm hearts, and they were so encouraging. I felt lucky to have met them and figured I’d go visit their countries once they were back there. They walked me to the bus station and we hugged goodbye.

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The next day, I checked out of my Airbnb and drove to the winter market at the hotel. Misato met me there and we looked around at the locally made items. It was much smaller than we anticipated, so we walked through the village. Misato hadn’t been in Whistler very long and was working a lot, so she didn’t have a lot of time to shop around yet. It was a great time because we got to know each other better now that it wasn’t in a loud bar or while we were playing a board game.

Josh messaged me at 1:00 pm saying he was about to do his last run and he’d be done by 2:00 pm. Then at 2:00 pm, he was done and asked where to meet me. Misato and I had just finished shopping and were by the Pangea Pod hotel, which is a hostel. They have a nice restaurant on the second floor overlooking the village. We went inside and I told Josh to meet me there.

When we walked inside, Brittany, my friend from the beer tours, was there to get people to sign up for the tours. It was perfect because I hadn’t gotten a chance to say goodbye to her. We talked for a bit and then Misato and I went to the bar to order some coffee while Brittany was at her table with promotional material. I was incredibly nervous and this time didn’t have alcohol to help give me courage.

As I was looking at the menu, Josh tapped me on my left shoulder. I turned around and he had a big smile on his face. I was awkward of course and messed up giving him a hug. He was in his ski gear, took off his jacket, and sat down. I was pleasantly surprised because I wondered if he’d just message me saying he was downstairs and ask me to come outside to give him whatever I had to give him. Or maybe he’d come upstairs, but quickly leave.

I introduced him to Misato and she ordered coffee, talking with the bartender. I was turned towards Josh, talking. We talked about the ski conditions and how amazing the snow had been the last two weeks. Within about ten minutes, Misato had to go to work so she hugged me goodbye. Ten minutes later, Brittany came over and hugged me goodbye because she had to leave.

I continued to talk to Josh over the next hour. I kept thinking he was probably about to leave at any moment. After 40 minutes, the bartender asked if I wanted to order anything (I never ordered my coffee) and I said no because I thought Josh was about to leave. To my surprise, he ordered an espresso.

We continued to talk and I told him about my snowshoeing and snowmobiling experiences. As he told me about skiing, he was enthusiastic and never made me feel awkward. I enjoyed talking with him and it was reassuring that we could still have great conservations, even without any alcohol. It reminded me why I liked him in the first place. He was so easy to talk to and I was attracted to him.

After an hour, Josh said he needed to go because he had to change for work. I told him I needed to get headed south to make it to Mount Vernon, Washington that evening to stay the night with a friend. We put on our coats, walked down the stairs, and went outside. He gave me directions on how to get back to my car and then he gave me a hug.

As we hugged, I reached into my purse to grab the letter. I had printed it at the library and put it in an envelope. I was terrified about how he’d react, but he came out to say goodbye and I was reminded that I like him. I could also run away right after I gave it to him.

At the end of the hug, I pulled the folded envelope out of my purse and said, “Just don’t make fun of me.” Josh looked down, took the letter, and looked up with a huge smile on his face. He immediately gave me another hug. I felt relieved that he didn’t make me feel like a weirdo. We said goodbye and went our separate ways.

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I drove to Washington feeling amazing. I had conquered a tremendous fear. I let myself be vulnerable, even if it meant embarrassing myself. I trusted my instincts and they were right. Josh wasn’t a jerk and he didn’t make me feel like it was a pity goodbye. He seemed happy and being able to see and talk with him again confirmed what I believed about him.

I know I can’t control the future. I can’t make someone like me. I am a hopeless romantic and I desperately want life to be like the great books and movies where big gestures happen and anything is possible. They say that you should “be the change you want to see.” Well, I want to see people letting themselves be vulnerable. I want to see people taking risks in life. I want to see people express themselves to those they care about. So, I decided to start with me. I can’t expect someone else to treat me that way if I’m not willing to do the same.

I knew I probably wouldn’t hear from Josh for at least a few days. I was feeling happy and content that I was able to say goodbye in person and give him the letter.  Now it was in his hands.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 163-169: Friends in Whistler

I met Brittany during a nightclub crawl and a daytime brewery tour. We agreed to have some sushi over lunch one day. She’s 30, fit, and has long dark hair. When I arrived, Brittany was already sitting at a table so I joined her there. I couldn’t help but notice the green painting on the wall by our table. It was the same painting that Josh (a guy I had meet the week prior) had waited for two weeks to have added to his snowboard and ended up living in Whistler.

Brittany told me about the separation with her husband. They had been together for eight years and married for about three of those years. They had been separated for awhile, but hadn’t gotten around to filing. In Canada, you have to be legally separated for 12 months before you can file for divorce.

Brittany realized they were more friends than romantic partners. She is still friends with her ex, and even invited him and his new girlfriend over for dinner. She said one of the reasons it ended was because he was so into rock climbing that it became an obsession. I understand the feeling of drifting apart and feeling like you’re just friends.

While enjoying some sake and sushi, Brittany and I talked about how neither of us wanted to have kids if our marriage wasn’t strong and in a good place. I told her about the lies that my ex-husband told me over the years and she listened intently saying, “It’s like a Dr. Phil episode!” It was nice having a friend to hang out with. Brittany had to go to work so we parted ways.

A few days later, I saw there was a trivia night at a local pub and I asked Saya if she wanted to go with me. Saya is from Japan, is in her early 30s, snowboards, and was in Whistler for a one-year working visa. I had met her at game night at the library. I was able to snag a table right by the stage. The place was packed with teams.

Saya brought her friend, Boram, who was also from Japan. We had a great time attempting to answer the trivia questions and drinking some beer. There were a few categories and we struggled the most on the music category. We didn’t do very well with our answers, but I used the excuse that it was because none of us were from Canada.

The next night, a local bar was hosting Bingo. I met Saya and her friend Serena there. It was packed and we waited in line in the cold for 30 minutes before we could get inside. We were able to snag a tall table that had a couple of guys getting ready to leave. We missed the first round, but we were able to join in the second round.

A few of Saya’s friends joined us, like Misato. I had met her at game night at the library as well. She’s in her late 20s, from Japan, and was also there for a one-year work visa. I talked with her about dating apps because we had both tried Tinder. We agreed it was fun, but often times frustrating. We drank wine and had a great time hoping we’d win something. The girls even made some amazing origami out of old score cards!

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There was another game night a week later at the library, so I went there again. This would be the third and final game night I’d be able to attend before leaving Whistler. This time, I was playing with Saya, Misato, Kristina, and a new girl, Lucy.

At 6’5”, Lucy was very tall, had blonde hair, and was in her early 30s. She had visited Canada 10 years prior and loved it. This time, she had a two-year work visa. However, she said she was missing her boyfriend in France and didn’t want to stay for two years. Kristina was not happy about this and said, “It’s not fair. We can only get one year visas and you get a two a year visa and don’t even use it.”

The five of us played a train game called Ticket to Ride. We were all learning so it was slow going at first. I thought I was doing pretty well, but once it ended and we calculated points, I was not even close to winning.

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On another night, I wanted to go to Bingo night at Tapley’s bar. It would be the last one I could attend because I would be leaving in a few days. Saya and Misato met me at the entrance and we only had to wait a few minutes before we got inside. However, once we got inside, it was packed! We looked around for a table or any spot where could share a table.

As we searched around, a guy said we could use his table. He had offered it to two other guys as well and they scooted over to make room for us. The tall, rectangular table had a few bar stools and there was a ledge where two people could sit on one side of the table. Misato and Saya sat there and I stood at the corner.

The guy, Trevor, who originally offered the table to us was on the opposite side of the table and called me over. He was very tall, had an average build, had brown hair, and was 37. I was not physically attracted to him. He asked me my name and then gestured towards Misato and Saya saying, “Are you their tour guide?” Offended, I said, “Excuse me? They’re my friends.” I already didn’t like this arrogant guy who thought he owned the place, but I needed the table.

We got score cards and talked with the two other guys. They were from Vancouver, but were in Whistler for work. They were friendly to talk with and were respectful. Trevor on the other hand, was a jerk. He kept putting his arm on my back and then would slowly run it across my butt. He gave me one of the other guy’s bar stool and made that guy stand. I figured maybe the touching would be better if I was sitting down.

I was wrong – he started to rub my leg, going up my thigh. Multiple times, I pushed his hand away, made a face, and started turning my body against him. I could only turn so far and he continued to touch me on my back and leg. At one point after I moved his hand off of my leg, he asked, “Is it ok that I’m touching your leg?” I replied, “No,” but it didn’t stop him.

Over the next hour and a half, Trevor told me that he’s from Whistler and works in drywall for multimillion dollar homes. One of the guys at our table won a game and got a free pitcher of beer for our table. The place was loud and busy, and our table was close to a register with a server station. Trevor knew all of the servers and kept calling them over for different things. He was making it clear he was an important, well-connected person. Then Trevor casually mentioned that he can’t leave Canada. I asked why and he quickly said, “I was sent to prison after tying some people up in their home.”

Trevor called a waitress over and ordered some drinks as if nothing had happened. Once the server left, I said, “I’m sorry, what did you say? You tied people up?” He told the story, “Well, I was 19-years old and me and my buddy were breaking into houses in Whistler to steal stuff. When we got into one house, we saw there was a husband and a wife and we didn’t know they were home. So we tied them up. You know, what else are you going to do? Well, it turns out that they had set off their alarm and the cops caught us. I spent four years in prison and now I’m not allowed to leave Canada.”

I stared at Trevor in disbelief and disgust at his casual telling of the story. I said, “You broke into their home and tied them up?” He responded, “Yeah, whatever, I was only 19. I’m very successful now.” He went on to describe how his mother is wealthy and owns a lot of hotels in the area, but he assured me he doesn’t take her money and earns his own.

Trevor won bingo and got a ski hat that said “Whis Life” on it. He immediately gave it to me and I like hats, so I put it on. He said, “Wow, you were pretty before, but you’re even prettier with that hat on.” I cringed. Misato and Saya couldn’t hear a lot of what Trevor was saying and they were talking with the other two guys. But they could tell by my body language that I was not enjoying him. At one point when Trevor left the table, I leaned over to Saya and told her he was a creep. She agreed.

For 20 minutes, Trevor kept saying he was going to leave and go to some exclusive place. He wanted me to go with him and I kept telling him no, I was staying with my friends. He made me put his phone number in my phone and send him a text message. He said I’d have to text him so I could get inside, otherwise the line would be too long. To get rid of him, I kept telling him I’d meet up with him after bingo. He kept pressing me to leave right then and then he said he thought we should just have sex. I declined his offer and kept trying to focus on Bingo.

I kept pushing him away from me and wondered why he wasn’t picking up on my very obvious body language that I was not interested. I also wondered why I was putting up with it and not just telling him off. It’s strange. Even in the moment, I thought, “Why don’t I walk away from this guy?” But I needed his table because there was nowhere else to go. He also knew all of the servers there. He was tall, domineering, and aggressive. It’s astonishing how much power a man can hold over a woman, treat her poorly, and get away with it. But no matter what I did or said, he wouldn’t stop touching me.

Finally, Trevor left. Shortly after, the other two guys left. After the last game, Misato went home because her throat was hurting. Saya and I decided to walk to Brickworks so we could actually hear each other talk.

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We talked about relationships and she told me about her ex-boyfriend who she hiked with in New Zealand. He was Australian and they looked like a really cute couple. But they fought a lot and it didn’t work out. I could tell that she was still hurt by the breakup and I completely understood. She’s a snowboarder and an active, adventurous person. It’s hard to find someone who sets your heart on fire and who has similar interests.

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Saya and I had more drinks and had a really fun time. Then I walked through the village with her until I had to take a different path to the bus stop, and we hugged goodbye. The friends I had made in Whistler were genuine, adventurous, friendly, and open. I think Whistler attracts a certain type and I felt like “my people” were there. They had left their home country or home city to explore the world on their own. I have a lot of respect for them and felt profoundly grateful for their friendship.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 95: Train Wreck and Suspension Bridge

I checked out of my Airbnb and sat in the parking lot to book my next place in Vancouver. I didn’t get the chance to visit the Capilano Suspension Bridge last time I was there, so I was heading back to see it. Before leaving Whistler, I wanted to see a literal train wreck.

I found the trail online, but the directions were confusing because there were two ways to get there. I ended up off the side of the main road on a small gravel shoulder. I found a small trail with a sign stating that I could hike at my own risk.

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I was wearing jeans, my hair was down, and I was carrying a purse. I wasn’t prepared to hike because I thought it would be a quick walk to the train cars. The trail I was on was steep and in a wooded area. It was a shorter distance than the flat path from a parking lot, but it was definitely more of a hike. I wished I had a hair tie as my sweaty hair stuck to my neck in the humidity.

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I arrived to a set of train tracks and just after I crossed, I saw the damaged train cars. In 1956, a train derailed on a section of the track that was undergoing construction and had a speed limit of 15 MPH. The freight train was going 35 MPH when it crashed. Three cars were wedged in the narrow canyon and a local logging company brought their equipment to the site to assist with the clean up efforts. According to a sign posted at the site, “Five of the derailed boxcars were salvageable, but the remaining seven were too damaged to save. Those seven boxcars were stripped of useful material and dragged out of the way, which was the quickest way to get trains back on schedule.”

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To access the train cars, people had to walk down the unsafe track, so the city created a trail. They also added a bridge over the Cheakamus River so people could safely access the site. I accidentally took the non-approved way to the site.

There was just a handful of people walking around taking pictures, so the area felt isolated and eerie. Spray paint covered the rusty cars and the metal was dented and bent.

This was just one more reason why I loved Whistler. There are so many unique places to discover. The giant train cars were fascinating to explore.

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I hiked back to my car and headed towards Vancouver. It was a beautiful, sunny day. When I drove up there from Vancouver a week earlier, it was a cloudy, rainy day and I couldn’t see much. This time, I could for miles and miles.

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I stopped a couple of times to take in the view. Lush, green mountain tops with the occasional snow-pack covered the mountains in the distance.

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As I got closer to Vancouver, I could see the ocean to my right. The sun glistened off the water. The Sea to Sky Highway was appropriately named.

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I arrived to the Capilano Suspension Bridge about two hours before they closed. That would be enough time to explore, but I’d have to hurry. The bridge is 460 feet long and 230 feet above the Capilano River.

I briefly joined a free tour with a guide and a few people, but he was taking too long so I ventured off on my own to explore. During my brief time with the guide I learned that the bridge was originally built in 1889 by George Grant Mackay because he wanted to hunt on the other side of the river. In 1903, the bridge was replaced with wire cables. The bridge was sold a couple of times and was completely rebuilt in 1956.

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In 1983, the bridge was sold to Nancy Stibbard, the current owner. In 2004, Nancy opened Treetop Adventures: seven footbridges suspended between old-growth Douglas Fir trees. The guide told us that the bridge was originally purchased for $6,000 and is now worth 7.2 billion dollars!

I arrived at the bridge and was terrified to cross it, but I had to in order to get to the tree top bridges. I stepped onto the bridge that was sturdy, but also shaky. It’s a long, scary walk to the other side. When people passed me, the bridge would sway to the left and right several inches, making me feel like it would flip over. I gripped the side railing as hard as I could and tried not to look directly down to the raging river. I told myself that thousands of people walk across this bridge everyday and they all survived.

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I happily made it to the other side and started to explore the wooden path that wound through the giant trees. I came to a section that overlooked the river where  people throw coins onto a large boulder to make a wish. I contributed and made my wish (can’t tell you what it was or it won’t come true!)

The last thing to see on that side of the bridge were the tree-bridges. This is a series of rope and wooden bridges that take you from treehouse to treehouse.

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Even though I was high off the ground, I was loving it! I felt stable enough that I didn’t feel like I’d fall. It reminded me of my favorite Star Wars movie – the one with Ewoks. Me and my sister used to have stuffed Ewoks growing up and I loved playing with mine. He was my buddy that I carried around. Walking across the trees took me to the Forest Moon of Endor (home of the Ewoks).

Once I finished with the tree-bridges, I walked across the main suspension bridge to get back to the other side. This time there was less people on it, so it wasn’t as shaky.

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Next to the bridge on that side was a walkway attached to the rock wall. It jetted off the side and I walked across it. I walked quickly and had to keep telling myself I would be fine. The drop below was terrifying!

I finished my adventure right as the bridge was closing. I only planned on staying in Vancouver one night because the following day I was taking the ferry to Vancouver Island. I knew I wouldn’t get there until late and I would leave in the morning, so I booked one of the cheapest rooms I saw for $34.

I ate near the house so I wouldn’t have to go back out once I checked in. The neighborhood wasn’t very nice and I was getting a little worried about my choice. I parked on the street and arrived at the Airbnb around 8:00 pm. It was dark outside and I followed the instructions to get inside, which said the front door is left unlocked.

I was renting a room with a shared bathroom. The owner lives there and the living room and kitchen are not shared. He rents out several rooms so he keeps the front door unlocked, but each room has its own key.

In the foyer was a rental room to the right and stairs leading upstairs. The rest of the main floor was closed off. I walked up the stairs with my bags and two men in their 30s were talking in the living room near a massage table. I tried to open the door to my room, room three, but it was locked. The key was supposed to be left in the door for me. I asked one of the guys who was wearing a robe if he was the owner and he said he was. I explained my door was locked. He checked and said, “Hm, they must have taken your room. Here, just take room four. It’s better anyway.”

Room four was right next to room three. I opened the door and there was a box spring and a mattress on the floor with a comforter. The plain room had a small desk and a tv on a simple stand. The walls had smear marks on them like someone tried to wipe them down, and nails were left where pictures once hung. It smelled of weed and spices, and it was hot. I opened the window since there wasn’t air conditioning and the noise from the metro came roaring inside.

I went back to my car to get some things, like my small fan. Once I was back inside my room, I heard the owner talking to another guest, “Hey! It’s a girl so you can put the moves on her.” The guest laughed and replied, “No, that’s the Colombians.” WTF, I have no idea what that meant. Of course they were surprised. No sane single woman would be staying in this bachelor pad.

I waited to use the shower until I thought everyone was asleep because I wasn’t about to leave my locked room. The bathroom was right next to my room and I used it first to assess if anyone was still awake. As I came out, a guy from downstairs peaked his head up, “Do you know how to use the shower? I couldn’t get it to work.”

I looked and noticed it had the same set up at an Airbnb I stayed at while I was in Anchorage. I showed him how to use it and he was grateful. I had to wait for him to shower and then I showered.

I went to bed feeling creeped out. This was one of those times traveling as a solo female can be scary. I made a choice to spend as little money as I could find on Airbnb and I definitely got what I paid for. Just like crossing the bridge earlier that day, I told myself I would be fine. This was a day of positive self talk!

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 78-79: Camping on a Ferry

I arrived to the ferry terminal later than I should have, around 8:00 am. No matter how hard I try, I am often running slightly late for anything that requires me to wake up early. I was waved on to the ferry shortly after I arrived and they asked me to parallel park in a very tight space. I was successful and the guy guiding me said, “Perfect, wow!” You can’t live in Los Angeles for 15 years and not know how to parallel park.

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I grabbed my backpack and headed to the deck of the ferry. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw there were only a handful of people up there. I found a good lawn chair and dragged it to the window, right at the start of the solarium. The solarium is a partially covered area with heat lamps. Being at the edge, I could have the views and some heat from the lamps.

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There were two girls slowly waking up near me. One was wearing a George Washington sweatshirt and looked upset at having to wake up for the stop. It was a two hour stop in Haines to off-load and reload people (they were getting off at that stop). The girls had just finished the Klondike relay race and were exhausted.

I blew up my thermarest sleeping pad and got my sleeping bag out so people knew that chair was taken. Once I was all set up, I enthusiastically walked over to the uncovered deck and was attempting to take a selfie. A man walked over and offered to take my photo.

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Ralph is from Boulder, Colorado and is retired. He was thin and had short gray hair. Ralph was traveling in a van that he retrofitted so he and his friend could sleep in it. They drove through Montana, Banff, Alaska, and now back through Canada. They were doing a lot of fishing on their travels. I told Ralph that I was awed by the drive from Haines Junction to Haines and he said he thought it was more beautiful than driving through Banff.

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Ralph told me about life in Boulder and how Google set up a small shop there, which has caused the cost of housing to increase. He said there are times when he goes for a hike in the evening and a cohort of 12-15 people will be climbing up the mountain after work, sometimes with their Google badge still on.

Ralph and I talked about our travels and why we chose to sleep outside. When taking this ferry, people can pay for a room (would have cost about $200) or people can sleep anywhere inside or outside. The ferry is very basic and so are the rooms. It’s definitely not a cruise ship. There is one restaurant onboard open during breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There is a small movie room that plays movies a few times a day. But that’s all there is.

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The inside does have a couple of large rooms with chairs to watch the views. People who choose to sleep inside put their sleeping bag in between the rows of chairs, which is what Ralph’s friend was doing. As long as they’re not blocking the aisle, they can sleep anywhere.

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On the outside of the ferry, you can set up a tent on the deck or just sleep on one of the lawn chairs under the heaters. I was planning on doing the tent until the man I met while flying to Denver recommended that I shouldn’t bother with a tent. I’m glad I took his advice. Because it was the end of the season, there weren’t any other tents and I still felt like I had privacy.

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After talking with Ralph for a bit, I headed to the restaurant to eat some breakfast. I was almost finished eating when Ralph showed up with his tray of food and joined me. Shortly after, the ferry pulled away from the dock and we were on our way.

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Ralph told me he’s been to Alaska eight times. Sometimes he’s flown, other times he’s driven. He’s gone with his wife, and once with his daughters. For this trip in his newly renovated van, he and his friend had been eating the salmon they caught. This was his first meal in three weeks that was “eating out.”

Ralph’s friend Dave joined us at the end of breakfast and Ralph introduced me. He laughed, “She’s retired too.” Dave just finished taking a shower and they told me when they were in Valdez, they took advantage of showers at the public pool.

I told the men that I was thrilled to be on the ferry because it felt so fun and so basic. I liked that it didn’t have a lot of amenities like cruise ships have. There aren’t any distractions – we could sit back and enjoy the scenery. They told me, “You’re too young to cruise. They have casinos, and shows, and it’s too flashy.”

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Ralph and Dave used to be mechanical engineers at IBM and knew of “the big yellow book” that the industrial company I worked for during the last 11 years produced every year.

After breakfast, I walked around the ferry to see what else was there. I walked past the reclining room, which gave people a nice, relaxing way to watch the world go by.

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I was surprised that I still had cell service. I called my cousin Misty and we were able to catch up while I sat on the deck watching the mountains. It was incredible. Mountains were on both sides of the ferry and didn’t seem like they’d stop anytime soon.

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For lunch, I ate my leftover pizza in an empty room that used to be the bar. The ferry was stopped in Juneau for more loading and unloading. There was a guy sitting near me who was a maintenance technician for the ferries. He was getting to Juneau as a stopping point to board another ferry that was delayed. He explained to me that the city of Juneau is 13 miles away from where the ship docks, so it wouldn’t be worth it for me to get off. He pointed out that cruise ships get the spots close to downtown.

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The man told me the ferries closed the bars about two years ago because they said they didn’t make any money. He didn’t believe them because a friend of his said he’d make $900 on a 36-hour ferry ride. They closed the gift shop at that time too.

The man told me I might see some whales. He explained that the ferries try their best to avoid pods so they don’t kill them, but one had died from a ferry recently. He angrily pointed out that cruise ships just go right through pods of whales and don’t care if they are killed. Ferries at least try and avoid them.

The man got off the ship and I took a nap in the warm sun on the deck under the solarium. Once I felt rested, I went back to the deserted bar and wrote a blog post for my next entry. After that, I ate dinner at the restaurant, watched a movie “Geo Storm,” which was terrible movie, washed my face, and headed to bed.

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I slept surprisingly well thanks to my sleeping pad. My sleeping bag and the nearby heat lamps kept me warm as I listened to the waves and the engine. Occasionally the ferry would stop in some city and make a few announcements, which woke me up.

The sun started rising around 5:00-6:00 am. A loud, rude, woman came to the deck asking for a lighter so she could smoke. When no one had one, she said, “You guys are backpackers? In tents? And none of you have a lighter? What year were you born?”

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For breakfast, I found Ralph and Dave in the restaurant and joined them. We took our time eating and having great conversations ranging from the work they used to do as engineers, the fires they encountered in British Columbia, the giant salmon they caught and ate, and how the human population is decreasing. We talked about how the birth rate is low in most countries. People aren’t dying much any more like they used to, so the there’s still a lot of people. But what happens in a few decades when the low rate has been going on for so long?

I told them about an article I read pointing out people in Japan don’t want to get married and aren’t having kids (or even interested in having sex). It’s so bad, the government has stepped in and spent lots of money arranging social events trying to get people to date.

We talked about border crossings and Ralph said that years ago he was crossing into Canada in an old Subaru and looked like a hippy. He was pulled over and his whole car was searched for over an hour until he was released.

I was loving the conversations with these men and was happy I met new friends to keep me company. The ferry arrived at Ketchikan, which is where they were getting off. Ralph went to the deck to grab his backpack while Dave and I watched some seaplanes. He nostalgically told me he’d be a pilot in another life. He said when Ralph was 24, he flew a plane from Colorado to Fairbanks.

I hugged Ralph goodbye and felt honored to have met them. Intelligent, adventurous, and kind men. After they disembarked, I decided to walk into town during the quick stop. I only made it to Safeway, where I bought some lunch and brought it back to the ferry.

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I spent the afternoon writing some more, watching “Only The Brave,” which made me cry, and sitting on the deck enjoying the views. I watched the sunset just before we arrived to Prince Rupert around 9:00 pm. It started to drizzle and get very cold. I was thankful that the weather had been amazing up until that point.

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I drove my car off the ferry and had to go through customs since I was now back in Canada. Thankfully, it was painless. I arrived at my 2-star hotel in Prince Rupert in the dark, exhausted and in need of a shower.

The hotel was gross and I thought it was ironic that the ferry was more clean and comfortable. The ferry definitely lived up to all of the hype!

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 75: Hiking on a Glacier

I woke up to the sound of rain against the roof of my tiny, rustic cabin. I cringed at the thought of getting out of my warm sleeping bag to the bitter cold air and rain, so I decided to play on my phone with the small amount of battery I had left. I reached for my glasses on the floor beside the box spring I was laying on and realized they were almost frozen. It was painful to put them on my face. I had tried to charge my phone with my solar charger, but it was too cold and the phone wouldn’t charge.

I played on my phone for about an hour and heard the rain stop. I threw my coat over my thermals and braved the cold so I could go to the bathroom. Looking across the small river, I noticed the clouds and mist had rolled in, creating an eerie feel.

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My quick venture outside left me feeling very cold, so I jumped back into my mummy sleeping bag and walked around the cabin with it wrapped around me as I dug through my backpack for breakfast options.

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I was elated when I discovered I had a powdered Starbucks vanilla latte packet. I used my Jetboil to make the latte and sat on the porch enjoying the view.

I ate a poptart for breakfast and packed up my gear. With my paid admission, I could stay there all day and hike Matanuska glacier. Once packed up, I drove about a mile to the parking lot. The natives own the rights to the glacier, but Bill (whom I had met the day before) owns the access rights. There is some sort of guidance on the first mile of the glacier.

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People are able to hike the glacier by themselves or they can book a tour where a guide will walk them to other areas, like the ice caves. They’ll also provide crampons for your shoes. I decided not to do a tour because it was expensive. I’ve also hiked on a glacier in Norway and didn’t feel it would be all that different. Plus, I could still hike it on my own to the main areas.

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The first section of the hike was sandy and muddy. Certain sections had metal grates or wooden pieces of boards to help stabilize the ground so people don’t sink. There was a “path” for people to follow, which was basically just scattered orange cones here and there.

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I started the hike and was trying not to sink. About ten minutes into the hike, I ran into Keenan, the guy who I had talked with the night before about camping. He was leading a handful of people on a tour. He stopped to talk to me and asked how my night was. I told him it was super cold, but the views made it all worth it. He replied, “Right on!”

I continued hiking, mesmerized by the still pools of water, gray sand, and ice slowly popping through. I started to head towards the ice caves, but a tour guide warned me not to go that direction without crampons. I found the trail again and continued.

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I came across an area with a crevasse that I needed to cross in order to continue. It was a pretty large gap and not having crampons made me nervous. I watched as a girl struggled to cross, squatting down because she was too scared to make the leap. Her friends on the other side were trying to convince her to jump. I walked further down and found an area that I thought was safer and crossed there.

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The ground was deceptive. It was gray from the dirt, but was actually ice. I got closer to the main body of the glacier and got worried that I would slip. After about 30 minutes of hiking, I made it to the top and the stopping point. To go further, you needed to be on the other side with crampons. It was incredible to see such a majestic glacier. The blue and white colors intertwined with streaks of brown dirt. It looked fake and it was hard to fully comprehend the size and scope of it.

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After taking in the views, I hiked back to my car. As I got closer, I ran into Keenan again. This time he was leading a new group to go out to the glacier. I asked him, “Don’t you get tired of doing these?” He replied, “No man, it’s something different every time! Are you sticking around for the day?” I told him I needed to keep driving north so I could catch a ferry back to Canada.

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When I got back to the parking lot, Bill had just pulled up with a bus full of people who were getting ready to take tours. I stopped outside of the driver’s side window to talk with him. He said, “It’s a good thing you had the cabin last night with all the rain. Kept you and your stuff dry.” I was indeed happy to have that cabin.

When I got to my car, I plugged my phone in so I could book a hostel in Tok. I had stayed there on my way to Alaska and I would go right through there again. I enjoyed my stay the first time so I booked a room to ensure it would be available.

The drive was beautiful as the fall colors were making their way into the forest. It was only September 6th, but yellow, red, and orange were starting to sweep the trees and bushes. I pulled over to take some pictures of the lakes that made perfect mirrors of the mountains.

I pulled into the hostel’s gravel parking lot around dinner time. I had booked one of the rooms that had two twin beds because it was cheaper than the private room with one twin bed and a bathroom (the one I stayed in previously). However, while I was booking it online, two guys were booking it in person. Because of the double booking, I got my old room again for the same price!

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I put my bags inside my room and two German guys who were staying in the room with two twin beds were about to make dinner. They told me they had salmon, vegetables, and rice, and I was welcome to join them. I hadn’t eaten dinner so I joined them in the kitchen while they cooked.

The guys were from a small town two and half hours from Munich. Flo was 29 years old and studied civil engineering (which is different than how the US describes it). He worked as a mechanic for a bit and wanted to stay with the company since they had good benefits, so he had recently accepted a role as a Safety Engineer/Manager and said, “Nobody likes you in this role.” Flo’s uncle moved to Prince George, Canada 40 years ago and raised his family there on a farm. Flo has visited them a couple of times, but this time he wanted to explore Alaska.

Julian was 30 years old and was a tax accountant. He worked at his dad’s company, which had about nine employees. He works with private citizens and small businesses and explained, “Taxes are complicated.”

The guys get six weeks of paid vacation a year. If people in the US received as much vacation as Europe or Australia, maybe we wouldn’t have to quit our jobs to travel.

Flo and Julian were taking two and half weeks to explore Alaska and started in Whitehorse, Canada. They looked into renting an RV, but it would cost them $4,500 euros, plus additional fees for going into the US and driving on gravel roads. That’s part of the reason I didn’t do an RV. It’s incredibly expensive to rent them, you still have to pay for hookups, can’t park it anywhere you’d like, and I didn’t want to attempt to drive it by myself.

Instead, the guys were staying in a tent they bought at Canadian Tire and said they didn’t realize it would be so cold already. Staying at the hostel was a treat for them. They were following a guide book and were heading to Valdez the next day.

The salmon that they pulled out of the cooler was caught by a guy at a campground they stayed at. They bought it off of him and did a great job cooking it. The three of us sat down to eat dinner like we were a family.

Shelley, the owner of the hostel stopped by to say hello and told me that her brother (who she had wanted me to go on a date with) couldn’t get his plane ready in time to take me on a ride. She said she’d stop by and pick me up in the morning because she wanted me to meet a friend of hers who lived in a log cabin that her husband had built. I agreed to go with her the following day.

Flo and Julian told me about life in Germany. They learn another language at ten years old. A lot of people choose to learn French and their president said learning French was a great way for them to mend their relationship with France after being at war with them for many years. Flo said, “In 100 years, I don’t think there will be any wars or issues between Germany and France. We know each other’s languages and we’re close now.”

Hearing Flo and Julian talk about their view of Alaska was hilarious! They rented a Malibu and thought it was too full of plastic. They joked, “Good thing it’s not hot here or else the plastic would all melt.” They were shocked at how many Alaskans drove trucks. They described Alaskan men as having “beards, stains on their shirts, hunting, fishing, shooting, and have a crack in their windshield.” They thought it took a special person to live in Alaska.

As we were eating dinner, two woman came in to stay in the private room with a double bed. They were about 50 and 70 years old and one was dragging in an oxygen tank. The women were worried about the noise, but we couldn’t hear it once they closed the door.

We finished dinner and I washed the dishes while they dried and put them away. They asked that I help them with some English words. “What is the word for a female cousin?” they asked. I laughed and told them, “female cousin.” One of them said “snorkeling” instead of “snoring” and we all laughed.

I took a much needed shower after spending the night in a cabin with no water. I was happy to have a bed again in a heated room. It was so great to meet Flo and Julian. They were generous with their food and were very hospitable. Each day brought new people into my life and it’s much richer because of it.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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