Day 258: Arriving in Vietnam

I arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam at 8:30 pm and headed to customs. There was a desk with various forms and I grabbed the one I needed, filled it out, and returned it to the man at the counter. The man instructed me to have a seat and wait for my name to be called. I had applied for and received a visa approval online from the Vietnamese government the week before, but I still had to wait for the final visa.

There were rows of plastic chairs and probably 40 people waiting. I sat down and listened in on nearby conversations. A young couple from Belgium was talking to a European couple about their travel woes. They explained that they flew in from Laos and used a third party company when they applied for their Vietnam visa. The visa didn’t arrive in time (that’s why I went straight to the Vietnamese government website) and Laos wouldn’t allow them on the plane to Vietnam without paying a $100 USD fee for not having the visa.

The young backpackers obviously didn’t have a lot of money, so they were frustrated. While we all waited for our names to be called, the Europeans told the couple that came from Laos that they’d have to pay a fee of $25 USD to get their visa on arrival. I had also read that it had to be U.S. dollars or Vietnamese Dong. The young couple looked frightened as he explained that he only had Laos money and the ATM was not allowing him to take out money. I was fortunate that the ATM gave me Vietnamese Dong.

The young backpacker came back from the counter and said they let him pay in Laos money, but it was the equivalent of $80 USD, not $25. The guy started to vent about the corruption he was experiencing in Southeast Asia. He was told by other backpackers that when they were in a hostel in Bangkok, they were smoking weed in a place where everyone smokes. However, it’s technically illegal and they were busted by the police who told them they had to pay a $600 USD fee or be jailed. It was a lot of money, especially for backpackers.

My name was called and I walked to the counter. I paid $2 USD for them to take a picture of me and add a small printed copy of it to their file. Then I paid the $25 USD fee and walked through customs. When I handed the man my passport, he didn’t say a single word to me. He just looked at his computer and handed my passport and 30-day visa back to me and I was on my way.

After I grabbed my luggage, I stopped at a booth selling SIM cards. I paid $13 USD for a month of 60 GB and walked outside. A taxi driver approached me and offered to give me a ride for 400,000 dong. I wasn’t familiar with their money yet, so I used my currency conversion app (Globe Convert) and realized it was $17 USD.

I pulled up the Grab app and it said the price would be 268,000 dong ($11 USD). After I pointed out the discrepancy, the man said that Grab drivers aren’t allowed to do pickups at the airport. I pushed back once again explaining that the app says they do pickups there. He reluctantly resigned himself and agreed to charge me 200,000 dong ($8.50 USD). The man also said I would need to wait ten minutes to see if there were others who needed a ride.

I agreed to the taxi man’s price and waited while the man asked where I was from. I said “Los Angeles.” The man got excited and said, “Ohhhhhh!!!” Nobody else showed up, so he started to drive me to my hotel. It felt strange driving on the right side of the road. I didn’t realize I had gotten used to driving on the left in Thailand.

It felt cold outside with a temperature of 68 °F (20 °C). After spending a month in the Thai heat, this was a nice reprieve. The first part of the drive from the airport to old town Hanoi had a modern highway, was well maintained, there were trees on the side of the road, and there were more cars than Thailand. Thailand had a lot of motorbikes. The driver often drove in the middle of two lanes, making me nervous. As we got into old town, the motorbikes were everywhere, honking constantly.

The driver pulled over and pointed down a very narrow alleyway, which was the street that my hotel was located down. His minivan wouldn’t fit, so I’d have to be dropped off there. It was sprinkling outside, so thankfully my hotel was just a quick, one-minute walk.

A friend recommended the hotel to me. She told me they treated her like royalty and she loved her stay there a couple of years ago. I walked into the small lobby around 10:45 pm and asked to check in. The man said he couldn’t find my reservation and said perhaps I booked with a different hotel. Then he pointed towards the front door. I insisted that I had a reservation and gave him my reservation number.

The man found my reservation, apologized, and then brought me fruit and tea. He understood it was too late for me to get dinner, so he brought me bread and butter to my room too. The room was very narrow and small, but it was clean and comfortable.

I was exhausted after a full day of travel by ferry and planes. After a shower, I was ready for bed. I turned off the lights, but the light on top of the closet cabinet wouldn’t turn off. It was a light for the closet, but the top had a circle cut out around it, letting the light shine in the room. I grabbed the desk chair and climbed on top to see what was going on. I called reception and tried to explain that the light wouldn’t turn off. The man at reception didn’t understand me, so he hung up and came to my room.

I was in my PJs and let him inside. I explained that the light should be turned off when I close the closet door, but it’s not connecting for some reason. He climbed onto the chair and played around with the wires and switch, but couldn’t get it to turn off. He suggested that I just remove the key card and cut off all of the power to the room.

Frustrated, I explained that if I did that, I couldn’t charge my phone or use the AC. The man stepped back on the chair and disconnected some wires and the light turned off. He said someone from maintenance would repair it the following day and he left.

The next day, I slept in and then worked on my blog. Next, I talked with some family and friends in the U.S. and updated them on my whereabouts. I had no idea what I was going to do in Vietnam, so I spent some time researching on TripAdvisor. At 3:30 pm, I left the hotel to explore and get some food. On my way out of the hotel, the front desk staff said they noticed that I missed the free breakfast. Embarrassed, I explained that I had some writing to do.

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The narrow streets and alleyways in Hanoi were loud. Motorbikes raced by while honking their horns, and street vendors were everywhere. When I arrived at an intersection, I noticed there were stop lights, but they weren’t turned on. It was just a constant free flow of cars and motorbikes. Crossing the street was difficult. I had to make eye contact with the drivers and walk across while bikes zoomed behind and in front of me.

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Motorbikes were often parked on the sidewalk, forcing me to walk into the street. As I continued walking, I came across a beautiful lake. Bright flowers were in bloom all around, groups of people were playing games, and others were going for a stroll. I followed the path around the lake and ended up at a temple. I bought a ticket and went inside. It was a beautiful, small temple.

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I found a restaurant nearby on TripAdvisor with a 5-star rating. I didn’t have a reservation, but they told me that if I was done by 7:00 pm (it was 5:45 pm) I could get a table. It was a romantic, upscale restaurant filled with couples. I paid $26 USD for a three-course meal including wine. The food was delicious and I considered this a treat.

Next to me was a couple in their 20s from the U.K. Their snobbish attitude was apparent when they instructed the waiter that the girl was vegan and clarified, “no butter.” The server confirmed, “vegan?” I thought it was insulting that they assumed he didn’t know what vegan means considering he is a server in a major city.

The waiter mentioned the fish sauce that he’d remove as well before he walked away. Looking concerned, the girl said to the guy, “Wait, so all the food we ate in Thailand…I wonder if it had fish sauce in it?”

The guy responded with what I was thinking, “Yes, I’m sure it did. Especially the pad Thai.”

The girl justified it, “Well, it was vegetarian at least. I don’t eat food when I know it’s not vegan.”

The guy responded, “Yes you do.”

Getting upset, the girl said, “No I don’t. I know a guy that says ‘as long as I don’t know if it has stuff in it, I’m vegan.’ That’s not me.”

The guy laughed, “It is when you’re drinking.”

Dining solo at times is lonely. Other times, it’s entertaining. After enjoying my delicious meal, I chatted with the server, Leah. She told me about herself and how she was learning English. We had a nice conversation, but it was close to 7:00 pm and I had to skedaddle.

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I walked back to my hotel and was enjoying the cooler air. Street vendors were setting up small tables in the middle of the streets. Shirts promoting the meeting with President Trump and Kim Jong-un lined the clothing booths. The two had just met in Hanoi and the t-shirts had their faces outlined with the word “peace.” The city was abuzz and I was excited to see what Vietnam had in store.

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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Days 254-255: The Journey to Dive Certification

I met Birgit at 7:00 am like I promised. I did the mask clearing in the shallow end and then in the deep end. We swam back to the shallow end and I tried the mask removal. I did it, but Birgit wanted me to do it again. She wanted me to be confident and not scared. On the second try, I struggled a little bit. She didn’t feel comfortable doing it in the deep end and our hour was up.

I went to the office while Birgit finished the classroom work with the other girls. While I was waiting to talk with the owner about my options to do a “try dive” that day, I met Gary. He was another instructor there. Gary was petite, around 40 years old, and was from England. He told me that I should buy a mask there because having a good mask makes a big difference. Over time, it would conform to my face and would develop a good seal. After trying a few on, I bought a mask and snorkel.

I signed up for a try-dive on the boat that afternoon. I had some time, so I ate breakfast down the street at the same place I went to the morning the day prior. The waiter came over and said, “Do you want the same? Thank you for coming everyday.”

I walked back to the dive shop and did a quick orientation with the try-dive group. Our instructor was Lewis. He was in his late 20s, had semi-long, curly blonde hair, and was from Scotland. He went over the basics and then we all boarded some pickup trucks that took us to the boat.

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I sat on the top deck of the boat and talked with Michael. He was tall, had brown hair and a beard, appeared to be in his early 30s, and was from Serbia. He was traveling in Thailand for three weeks on a holiday. Once that ended, he was going to work from Chiang Mai. He was a programmer and the company he worked for agreed to let him work remotely for a couple of weeks. This was his first time diving and he was in my group of four for the try-dive. It was Michale’s first time traveling solo and he thought it was fascinating that I had been traveling solo for so long.

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We arrived at our dive spot and I met Frankie, our instructor. He was tall, athletic, had short blonde hair, appeared to be in his mid-20s, and was from England. He was really friendly and helped all of us get our wetsuits and equipment on. I did as I was instructed and used one hand to hold the mask and regular against my face, and the other hand to hold my weight belt in place. Then I jumped off the boat and into the ocean.

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We swam a long way to get to a shallow part of the ocean and then we deflated our BCD’s and descended. We all got into a circle and were asked to do a few simple skills. I found it really difficult to stay down and Frankie had to add some weights to my BCD, for a total of eight weights. Birgit told me that she was very buoyant and I quickly found out that I am too.

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I did all of the skills successfully, even the mask clearing. I found it difficult to stay put though. We briefly swam around the coral, following behind Frankie. The water was fairly warm and it was really clear. We didn’t get a lot of time to explore because we spent so much time doing the skills. We swam back to the boat to go to the next dive site.

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Frankie gave a lot of good reminders, like keeping our hands clasped in front of us so we didn’t use them.  Using just our legs would help with our buoyancy. Once we got back to the boat, they said we could do another dive for $1,000 baht ($32 USD). Three of us said yes. Micheal didn’t want to go because his sinuses were really hurting him after the first dive. The other two people in our group were a German couple in their late 20s.

For the second dive, we used a rope that was anchored in the water to get us to the bottom. This time I knew what I was doing and my breathing was much better, but getting my breathing under control made me sink quickly because I was overweighted. I had to put a few puffs of air in my BCD.

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We swam around, following Frankie. The water was clear, the fish were colorful, and it was fun. I spent a lot of time thinking about my breathing and realized that when I breathed out, I slowly sank. When I breathe in, I slowly rose. We were under the water exploring for 47 minutes. My buoyancy was pretty good, I was horizontal, and I was feeling more confident.

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The dive went really well and Frankie told me that he thought I would have no problems finishing the certification. The problem was timing. I had to catch a flight out of Thailand in two days because my Visa would expire and you can’t fly for 18-24 hours after that much diving.

Diving below the surface of the ocean increases the pressure around you. Nitrogen is absorbed into your body tissues and bloodstream from the air you breath compared to the pressure surrounding you. As you ascend, built up nitrogen becomes little bubbles and leave your body. Flying in a plane too soon after a dive causes the same effects as ascending too quickly. Large nitrogen bubbles go into your bloodstream, creating the bends.

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When I arrived back at the shop, I talked with the manager. He told me that one of my dives that day could count towards my certification. He could arrange for a one-on-one instructor the following day to complete my pool session, the one hour of classroom work on dive planning, taking the exam, and the final three dives. I was surprised that he was able to make this work. I paid for the two extra dives and it was settled.

That evening, Roctopus Dive was having a celebration for those who just completed their various certifications. I was invited to attend as well. The outdoor bar was off of the beach and was mostly filled with dive instructors and their students. When I arrived, Frankie walked over to me and said he would be my one-on-one instructor the next day. He high-fived me saying, “Dream Team!” We got along well, so I was happy about that.

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Birgit was there too. She still had the final two dives with the German girls from my original class the next morning. She was so encouraging as well and it really pumped me up. Birgit told me that she used to be a graphic designer, but spent the last two years getting her Divemaster certification. She wasn’t sure how long she’d keep doing it, but she realized she’s made for warm weather and Estonia is too cold!

Harry, my new British friend, arrived on the island and I told him to come down to meet the team. He was scheduled to start his Open Water 20 the following day with Roctopus Dive. He stopped by and I introduced him to Lewis, who would be his instructor. Harry wanted a good nights’ sleep, so he left shortly after.

I continued talking with people at the bar. I met Frankie’s girlfriend, who was from Boulder, Colorado. She was really nice and we talked all about Colorado because I used to live there. Next, I talked with a girl named Nicole. She was from Norway and was in the middle of her Divemaster training. She was 25, but seemed more mature. I told Nicole about my love of Norway and how I’d like to live there one day. A 34-year-old man from Ireland started talking to us and he was flirting with Nicole. I excused myself from the conversation so they could continue flirting.

I also met Lauren from England. She was in her mid-20’s and had medium-length, blonde hair. She was traveling alone and had just finished her Open Water 20 and wanted to do the advanced course next. She very much wanted a boyfriend because she felt alone on this island full of couples. She told me that she fell for her instructor, Gary, but he didn’t seem to reciprocate. I felt for her. Learning to dive is a very personal experience with your life at stake. It’s easy to develop feelings for your instructors. She was interested in a couple other guys at the bar, but wasn’t having much luck. My heart broke for her broken heart and I understood her feelings. I needed to get some sleep, so I said my goodbyes and drove back to my Airbnb.

The next morning, I met Frankie in the pool for an hour. I needed to do the last few skills before I could move on. Everyone pumped me up the previous day, so I was determined to get through successfully. There were two tips that Frankie gave me that were game-changers for me.

First, Frankie told me to stop lifting my mask up at the top when I was trying to clear it. He showed me how he does it with just one finger. He pressed it in the middle top part of the mask and then blows out of his nose. That’s really all that is needed because the air from the nose slightly opens the bottom of the mask, allowing the water to get out, but not allowing for more water to get in. When I was trying to lift the bottom part of the mask and tilt it back, it was coming off too much and more water would get in.

Second, Frankie told me to tilt my head to the side when I took my mask off. He said the bubbles coming out of my regulator were probably causing me to struggle with water going up my nose. Turning my head to the side made all the difference! As soon as I turned my head, the water didn’t get in because the bubbles weren’t going into my nose.

Frankie made me do the mask clearing and mask removal in the shallow end for 20 seconds instead of 10 seconds to make sure I was comfortable. He told me that I smashed it, which fueled me to keep doing well. Next, we had to do a few skills in the deep end, including the mask removal swim. Frankie told me that he was going to make me swim longer than most people to, again, to make sure I was comfortable. I aced it! I wasn’t in a hurry at all and I had no problems putting my mask back on and clearing the water.

After the hour in the pool, Frankie and I went to an outdoor restaurant on the beach. We studied dive planning while eating breakfast. Then I had to take the exam. I was so nervous because I had to pass. I got 43 out of 45 correct!

Next up, it was time for three dives. We took the pickup trucks to the boat, Frankie briefed me on the plan, and we jumped into the ocean. We swam to a shallow end where I did the mask removal again and a few other skills. I passed those and felt really good. After a quick 30 minute dive, we went back to the boat for another tank of air. Frankie was pumping me up saying things like, “You smashed it! You crushed it! Great job!”

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For the second dive, Frankie told me that we’d swim around the coral and enjoy the dive. There were a few things I had to do, like keep him updated on my air levels. On the way to the surface, he told me that we’d stop at five meters for a safety stop for three minutes. Our watches would tell us when we were at five meters and would begin a three-minute countdown.

When you ascend, the pressure eases and the nitrogen from the compressed air gets absorbed into your tissues. Ascending too fast will reduce the pressure too quickly. A safety stop helps to control the off-gassing. We weren’t deep enough to actually need a safety stop, but I needed to do it for certification. It’s also good practice to do one on every dive.

In addition to the safety stop, I needed to do two more skills where I was either the hero or the victim (air-share). If I was the victim, I would signal that I was out of air, accept Frankie’s spare regulator, and ascend together using his air. Then we’d reverse it and I’d be the hero and give him my spare regulator.

To descend, I didn’t have a rope this time and it took me longer to get down. I was trying, but I’m very buoyant. We swam around and Frankie pointed out fish and beautiful coral. After 25 minutes, we started to ascend to do the safety stop. We patiently waited, but after two minutes I took a deep breath. That breath made me start to ascend and I panicked. I also forgot that as I ascend, the air that was in my BCD expands and I didn’t let it out.

Frankie was angry. He was forcefully pointing for me to get back down. I looked at him like, “I don’t know why I’m ascending.” Then I looked up and realized I was almost at the surface. I looked around to make sure it was safe to surface and then was there. A minute later, Frankie surfaced. He was not happy, “Why did you surface? You were kicking. Now we can’t just enjoy the last dive. We have to do the safety stop and both air-share skills. If you miss the stop on this last dive, I can’t certify you.”

I had made Frankie disappointed in me and I hate disappointing people. I am much more motivated by positive reinforcement than I am negative remarks. I felt like I had let him down. It went from a fun and exciting time to a real drag. Before we got back on the boat, I had to do some surface skills like taking my BCD and tank off and back on again.

I passed those and climbed back on the boat. Then we headed to the next dive site. I was trying not to freak out about the pressure of having to do everything perfectly on the last dive. If I didn’t do them successfully, I couldn’t get certified and all of this would be for nothing.

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Before our last dive, Frankie said I needed to tell him when I was at 120 PSI, we had to do a safety stop, and the two air-share exercises. We jumped into the ocean and started our dive. Things were going well. My buoyancy was good, I was swimming behind Frankie, and keeping my eyes on my air. Frankie excitedly pointed out fish and coral, but I was focused. I told Frankie when I was at 120 PSI and we were able to continue. About 40 minutes into the dive, we slowly started to ascend.

I was so scared that I would start to ascend too quickly and miss the stop. I felt like I couldn’t stop it last time. This time, we stopped at five meters and I controlled my breathing. I made it for three minutes and we ascended. After that, we lowered five meters and did the air-share, ascended, and descended to do the final air-share.

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I completed the skills, but it was hard to be excited because I felt like I let Frankie down. I was also exhausted. It was a long day. Frankie talked about the things we saw and said I didn’t even seem excited. I told him it was hard to be excited when there was so much on the line. We got back on the boat and went back to the dive shop. Frankie told me to meet him at the bar on the beach and we’d log our dives and then I’d be certified.

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We sat on cushions on the sand drinking a beer. Frankie congratulated me, but I felt sad. I have been working hard on expressing myself instead of holding things in, only to cause resentment later. I told Frankie that he really bummed me out when he was yelling at me in the water when I missed the safety stop. I explained that his forceful pointing made me panic even more. It felt like he thought I barely scraped by on getting certified, when earlier he was saying I smashed it.

Frankie apologized and felt bad. He explained that he was stressed out by the other instructors and their impatience. There were several groups on the boat that day, but they didn’t have to do the skills that we had to, which takes more time. He felt pressure from them to hurry up and get on the boat, so we could go to the next site. I understood because I felt the pressure too.

It was a long 10-hour day and we were both exhausted. We ended on good terms and I was really happy that I cleared the air. I wanted to be happy about getting certified and I didn’t want to leave being angry. We hugged and I appreciated all of his efforts. I was able to get a personal one-on-one training and I couldn’t have asked for better instructors.

Birgit was patient, thorough, gave clear instructions, and was encouraging. Frankie gave me tips that changed the game for me, pumped me up, and taught me what I needed to know. I would go on to dive in Vietnam, Western Australia and Queensland Australia. Those dives would highlight for me just how good Birgit, Frankie, and Roctopus Dive are. I haven’t experienced a better group of people or safety standards as I did with this group.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider 
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Day 253: Dive Certification Failure

I drove the scooter to my diving class that started promptly at 8:00 am. Birgit, our instructor, started the class by going over the questions that we had failed on the quizzes on our homework. I wasn’t aware that she could see how many times we failed and which questions we got wrong. Oops. Next, we continued with academics, learning all about the math that goes into it, the different types of oxygen, hand signals, and all of the ways you can die.

I know this is all necessary, but there are so many ways you can die when diving. Not just running out of air, but getting the bends. Initially, I was worried about sharks. After all of the academics, I didn’t even think about sharks. I only cared about all of the science that goes into breathing under several meters of ocean water and how not to die. The number one thing to remember is to “never hold your breath.”

We got an hour break before going into the pool. I went to a restaurant and got some food and then headed back down the street to the dive shop. We put shorty wetsuits on (a one piece short-sleeve shirt and shorts). It was thick and helped with the cold. We got into the shallow end of the pool and put our BCD (vest) with tanks on.

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We had to do a lot of skill tests under the water, but in the shallow end first. We put the regulators in (the piece that goes into your mouth and gives you oxygen) and got on our knees so that we were completely submerged in the water. Birgit would demonstrate a skill and we would each do it one-by-one while she watched us. She always had me go first, which was good because I didn’t have time to overthink anything.

We performed the following skills:

  • Swim in a circle for two minutes straight without touching anything to demonstrate that we could swim.
  • Use hand signals to show that we were out of air, accept the spare regulator on Birgit’s BCD, and switch regulators while still breathing and surfacing.
  • Use hand signals saying we were ok, signal that we wanted to surface, signal that we wanted to go down, etc.

There were about 24 different skills that we had to perform to show Birgit that we could do them with confidence. The hardest one for me was the mask removal. First, we had to demonstrate clearing our masks. We’d pinch the top to get some water inside the mask, than we’d breathe out forcefully through our nose while holding the top sides of our mask, allowing the water to go out the bottom.

I had two problems: 1) I have always plugged my nose when I go under water, so letting water into my mask was causing water to go up my nose. 2) I was lifting my mask up too much, so more water would just come in instead of it emptying.

Birgit assured me that if someone struggles with diving, it’s always the mask removal and clearing part. She encouraged me, was patient, and talked me through it.

I was eventually able to clear the mask, but then I had to do the mask removal. In this skill, we had to remove our mask entirely, keep it off for about three seconds, and then put it back on. It would be full of water, so we’d have to clear the mask. We had to do all of this under water. Because the chlorine would burn our eyes, Birgit said we could close them, which I did.

Once I took my mask off, it felt like water was gushing up my nose. Birgit told me that water would stop going up and it would be fine, but there was something causing me to breathe in bursts. It wasn’t natural for me to close off my nose. I am someone who only breathes through my nose when I sleep. I am not conditioned to not breathe through my nose.

After a few tries, I was able to do the mask clearing and the mask removal. However, because I had struggled with it, Birgit made me do it a few times successfully before she was satisfied. It made sense. In order to certify me, she needed to know that I could do it calmly and not panic. Doing this several times was exhausting, but I completed it.

We took a quick five minute break to use the restrooms and then were back in the pool, but this time it was in the deep end. I had to equalize my ears a few times on the way down. Then we were tasked with doing all of the same skills. They would be back-to-back, without surfacing. Once we passed this part, we’d go into the ocean the next day and do some of the skills there, including the mask removal.

In the deep end, we had to do an additional skill. It would involve taking our mask off, swimming with Birgit so she could guide us with our eyes closed to one end of the pool and back, and then putting our mask on and clearing the water. This time, Birgit had the other girls do the skill before me.

As I watched Birgit guide the other girls one-by-one, I had time to think. I was exhausted. At this point, we had been in the pool for almost five hours, I was hungry, and I was also nauseous. I didn’t take any motion sickness medicine and the motion of the water over several hours was making me feel sick.

My mind wandered, Why am I doing this? I won’t be able to have my mask off that long because water will go up my nose. I won’t be able to clear my mask. If I’m panicked in the pool, I’m going to really panic in the ocean. Do I even want to dive? Am I just doing this because it’s cheaper here and it would be cool to say I did it? Maybe I don’t even like diving. I’ve never even done a ‘try dive.’ I don’t need to do this. I should just give up.

I looked to the surface and contemplated swimming up. Then Birgit came to me and it was my turn to do the mask-removal swim. I took off my mask and almost immediately swam to the surface. Sweet Birgit tried to convince me that I was so close and to return to the bottom, but I told her I needed a break.

I sat on the side of the pool while Birgit finished the last few skills with the other girls. Once they were finished, Birgit asked what I wanted to do. I told her that I couldn’t do it and I wanted to do the “try dive” the next day instead of continuing with the class. Birgit told me that it’s natural to struggle with mask removal and that I was so close to finishing, she didn’t want to see me give up.

I felt defeated. I’ve never quit anything in my life. I was drained and I felt like a loser. Birgit convinced me to meet her from 7:00-8:00 am the next morning before class and we could finish the last few skill exercises in the deep end and if I passed, I could continue with the certification. I thought maybe I’d feel better the next day, so I agreed.

I drove back to my Airbnb, showered, and met Davina at a restaurant for dinner. I met her on Phi Phi Island a few days prior. She’s in her 40s, is from Wales, and was traveling solo. I told Davina about my diving experience, how I thought I couldn’t do it, and felt like a failure. She was so encouraging and told me that I could do it. She is certified to dive and was going to get her advanced certification while on Koh Tao.

Davina and I had a nice dinner by the water. We talked about our previous relationships and dating at our age. It’s not easy and we both had stories (more like nightmares) of trying to find a good man. Davina has kids aged 18 and 23. She talked about them and how she encouraged her daughter to be an independent, strong female. Davina was really encouraging and I’m so happy I had her there to support me and make me feel like less of a failure.

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When I got back to my Airbnb, I did the homework and tried to sleep. I had a difficult time because I knew what awaited me in the morning. I tossed and turned, hoping that I would be able to complete my dive certification.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 251-252: Koh Tao Island

I woke up in my hotel in Krabi, Thailand scratching at bug bites. I wasn’t sure where I got them, but they itched! I booked a package ferry and bus ride to Koh Tao Island from my taxi driver the previous day, so I got picked up from my hotel at 11:30 am and taken to a bus stop.

After enjoying some fried rice at a stand and talking with a guy from France, I got on the bus. It took a few hours to get across the peninsula, where the bus dropped us off at the ferry terminal. When I boarded the ferry, they just stacked suitcases and bags in the front of the inside room.

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I spent some time inside writing for my blog and then I wandered to the top to watch the water. We stopped at two other islands (Koh Samui and Koh PhaNgan) before arriving in Koh Tao. Each island was beautiful and I enjoyed watching the sunset on the water.

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By the time we arrived on Koh Tao, it was dark outside and a cool 86 °F. Getting my bags was a challenge because everyone was trying to find theirs in the chaotic stacks. I got a taxi, which was pretty expensive for Thailand ($13 USD), but they don’t have many cars on the island. We drove just over a mile and arrived at my Airbnb.

I was renting a room from a family. I walked into the downstairs portion and was greeted by a pregnant woman sitting at a desk. Although she didn’t speak much English, the woman directed me outside and up two flights of stairs to my room. Her husband carried my bags and told me that his wife could do my laundry for $6.50 USD. It would take 24 hours because they line-dry clothes. It sounded pretty good to me, so I gave him my dirty clothes.

The family rented out a couple of other  rooms, but I felt like I hit the jackpot. I was on the top floor with incredible views of the island because the house was situated on a hill.

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I walked down the hill to the first restaurant that I saw, which was Italian. It was romantic and the other patrons consisted of couples and groups of girls. This island was not a party island like Phi Phi. I sat alone and ate delicious tuna fish. After I ate, I stopped at a market and bought some bottled water. I huffed and puffed as I carried the six, 1-liter bottles up to my Airbnb.

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The next day, the Airbnb host told me that his brother rents motorbikes next door at his shop. Since I was staying with them, they would rent one to me for four days for only $700 baht ($23 USD). I could park the motorbike in the small dirt section in front of their building and the building next door where they (and several construction workers) were doing renovations.

The brother got me a bike and showed me the basics. He also didn’t speak much English, so it was a challenge. The shop is on the side of a steep hill and the night before I heard a girl crash her motorbike across the street while trying to drive up the entrance to her nice hotel. I ran outside when I heard the noise and saw her boyfriend helping her get up and move the bike. I had to sign a form saying that if I wrecked the bike, I’d have to pay a lot of money.

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I rode a scooter in Italy five years prior, but that’s about it. I loved riding that scooter though and even thought about buying one. I was confident I could drive the scooter, but I wasn’t so confident that I could make it up the steep hill. As I pulled away, I kept stopping, hitting the breaks, and putting my feet back down on the ground because I felt like I was going to fall to the side. You need to put your feet up and onto the bike platform once you start driving for obvious reasons. The problem was that I had to turn the throttle hard to get enough power to go up the hill, which scared me.

The poor owner looked worried as I kept pausing to put my feet back on the ground. My Airbnb hosts and some of the construction men were watching me and the pressure was on. My hosts were encouraging me, saying I could do it. Finally, I gave it enough power, lifted my feet, and took off up the hill. I made it to the top and then the road went back down the other side of the island. It was so beautiful! I was thrilled to be on a motorbike and thought it would be a perfect way for me to get around.

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There was a crazy steep, small dirt path leading up a hill. I paused, unsure if I could go up it. A couple drove down the path and said it would be fine. Then a woman came driving up, past me, and drove up the path. Shortly after, she came back saying it turned into too much dirt and wasn’t suitable for the scooters. As I was waiting to see if she would come back, the owner of the bike came riding up. He wanted to check on me and make sure I was ok. I thought it was nice, but I knew he was also likely concerned about his bike.

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I went back down the hill past my Airbnb and into town. There were a lot more motorbikes and cars, so I drove slowly. Driving on the left wasn’t very hard because the lanes were basic. I drove all around the island and then saw a lookout point with a bar at the top. I pulled over and parked by all of the other scooters. A blonde American girl in her early 20s was getting back to her dirt bike and we chatted. I told her that I was impressed that she was on an actual dirt bike. She said she grew up in the country and was used to them. Then she asked me what I had to leave with the bike rental company. I told her nothing, I just gave them money for the rental. The girl looked worried, saying they took her passport and asked for a $5,000 baht deposit. Once they saw that she had $5,000 baht, they asked for $8,000 baht ($260 USD).

The girl, clearly concerned, looked at her boyfriend when I told her that I didn’t leave a passport or a deposit. However, I explained that I rented from the brother of my Airbnb hosts, so he gave me a deal. It’s one of the nice things about staying in Airbnb’s with locals – they help you out. I told the girl where my place was and warned her because I read online that it’s a common thing they do. They hold your passport and won’t give it back unless you pay a crazy amount of money. Don’t ever give up your passport.

The girl and her boyfriend drove off and I climbed some rock-steps to the top of the lookout point. It was breathtaking! From that spot, I could see two different beaches, one on each side of me. The land jetted out, so the beaches were in coves below me. There was hardly anybody there either. I ordered a watermelon frozen drink and sat down on a mat. It was 83 °F with a real feel of 94 °F and the breeze felt good.

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After my drink, I got back on the bike and ended up at a hotel on the beach. I passed two guys playing pool and asked for a table. It was 2:30 pm and there wasn’t anybody there! I know I often eat at strange times, but I couldn’t believe how empty it was. I ate some food while sitting at the best table right off the water. It was crazy. In Hawaii, places would be much more crowded, and Thailand was a fraction of the cost you’d pay in Hawaii. It was just as beautiful as Hawaii too.

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After I ate, I drove to the dive shop, Roctopus Dive, where I would start my three and a half  day diving certification class. I was getting Open Water 20 certified, which would allow me to dive up to 20 meters anywhere in the world.

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I arrived at the shop to start the orientation. At the last minute, a guy walked in and signed up for the class. Roctopus Dive only trains in groups of four or less and this guy now made five. I was impressed that, at the last minute, the company found another instructor and separated us.

I was in a group with two other girls from Germany. One girl was only 18 years old and the other was 22. They weren’t traveling together though. The 18-year-old was traveling with a friend who was getting her advanced certification, so she thought she would get Open Water 20 certified while she was there. We also had a third girl with us from Germany who was working on her Dive Master certification, so she was in training.

Our instructor was Birgit. She appeared to be in her mid-20s, had long wavy blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and was from Estonia. She was very beautiful and had an athletic build to her short frame. Because everyone except for me was a non-native English speaker, she spoke with a very distinct pronunciation. Birgit had been teaching dive certification for two years and loved it. From the time she was young, she called herself a mermaid.

We were in a small air-conditioned classroom learning “academics.” There was a lot to learn and we were assigned homework that had to be completed before the next morning. Once class was over, I drove back to my Airbnb, walked across the street to the hotel rooftop bar and ate dinner. The place only had a group of three people there and once they left, I was all alone. The view was beautiful and the music was nice.

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After dinner, I went back to my Airbnb and did the homework on my phone. We were provided an app to read through A LOT of information and we had to take (and pass) several quizzes. I was lying on the bed and kept falling asleep. There was so much information and I was struggling to retain it all. I kept failing the quiz on equipment, but it wouldn’t tell me which one I was getting wrong and would change up the questions on the next quiz. It took me a few hours to go through it all and I was exhausted.

I had never dived before, but so many people recommended Koh Tao for certification because of the cost. It cost me $350 USD and I was told it would cost three times that in a place like Australia. I figured I should take advantage of the lower price and the warm, calm water in Thailand. I had no idea what I was in for.

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.

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Day 242: Train Ride to Bangkok

Before I left the U.S., I booked my train ticket from Chaing Mai to Bangkok because I had read that the train can fill up in the busy season. It was early morning and the train would take ten and a half hours to arrive in Bangkok. I was in a hurry leaving my Airbnb and quickly ordered a Grab (similar to Uber).

Halfway into my Grab ride, I realized I still had the key to the apartment. Crap! I messaged the owner and explained that I forgot to put the key in the mailbox in the lobby like I was instructed, but I was now in route to the train station. The owner was kind and brainstormed with me on how I could get the key back. We decided that I would drop it off in the lobby of the hotel across the street from the train station. I had to go there to pick up my tickets anyway.

I arrived at the upscale front desk looking like a disaster. Flustered and out of breath after carrying my bags up the stairs, I frantically told them what happened and asked for an envelope. The two women behind the desk didn’t speak much English, but eventually I was able to use Google Translate to get an envelope. I put the key inside with some money for their trouble, and wrote the owner’s name on the outside. I tried my best to explain to the women that they needed to hold the envelope for the owner, who would pick it up shortly.

I messaged the owner to let them know the key was at the front desk. I was relieved when they messaged back a few hours later saying they were able to pick up the key and thanked me for the money.

I quickly walked across the street, found my train, and boarded like the usual hurricane that I tend to look like when traveling in a hurry. I’ve taken many trains in Europe over the years and I’ve loved them. I’ve found them to be comfortable, spacious, and provide beautiful views of the countryside.

When I boarded the train in Thailand, I couldn’t find space for my suitcase. I’m used to trains having a small section near the doors for large suitcases. There was the typical overhead space, but my suitcase was far too big and heavy to put there. I rolled my suitcase to the other door and there wasn’t space there either. I flagged down a woman who worked there and asked where I should put my suitcase. She shoved it in a small space behind someone’s seat on the end. It seemed to be ok, so I put my backpack above my seat and sat down.

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The train was scheduled to leave at 8:50 am, but it left about ten minutes late. It was full and I was glad that I bought a ticket in the air conditioned car in advance. I looked around and I was one of three non-Asian people. The train carried mostly locals, who seemed puzzled as to why I was there. Across from me was a retired couple from the U.K. After an hour, we chatted for a bit. The man told me that they were traveling for a few weeks around Thailand. I told him about my travels and that Vietnam was my next destination. The couple had gone there six years ago. We talked about the war with America and he recommended that I watch a documentary about its history.

The couple got off the train in a small town, so we wished each other well. The train often stopped in small towns for pick-ups and drop-offs. While the towns are larger than the villages that I visited in the northern mountains, they aren’t nearly as large as Chaing Mai. They were good mid-size cities. The countryside was stunning – all green rolling hills and farmland.

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When I booked the train the month before, I read online that the trains are often delayed. The website warned of not booking a flight within less than five hours after the train was scheduled to arrive. I figured out why. The train would frequently go backwards to make room for an oncoming train. This was often just after we left the station. Sometimes we went backwards or stopped for ten minutes. Other times we went backwards or stopped for at least 20 minutes.

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I went to use the restroom onboard and was extremely disappointed when I saw a squat toilet. I checked the other toilet to see if there was a sit-down toilet in there. Nope, another squat toilet. If you’ve never seen a squat toilet, it is a hole in the ground with a metal plate around it, like a pan. I am tall and cannot squat that low, so I did my best to aim correctly. The train was bumpy and swayed side-to-side, adding to the difficulty. I was grateful that I always carried a small pouch of tissues in my purse and hand sanitizer. I decided I would limit how much I drank in an attempt to avoid having to use the squat toilet again.

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For lunch, the crew came around and served small plastic containers with fish that were like sardines. It was dry and hard to eat. I didn’t want to be rude, so I ate as much as I could. Luckily the rice wasn’t bad. I’m not used to eating fish like that and it made my stomach turn. I ate my protein bar to help fill me up.

Mosquitos flew around the train from time to time. I never heard any announcement for a cafe car and all of the locals had their own food, so I didn’t try to find one. They all seemed to have this ten and a half hour train ride down. The old woman next to me tied a plastic bag to the bar near her and used it as a trash bag. She had lots of snacks and food in plastic containers.

We didn’t talk because she didn’t speak English, but I dropped my snack at one point and she picked it up. I thought she seemed nice. That is until she asked me to move seats. Several hours had gone by and there was now an empty seat across the aisle. I knew someone would eventually get on, but the woman was pointing forcefully, so I moved over.

Sure enough, someone got on the train an hour later and asked for their seat, so I moved back to my seat. The woman got off the train at around 4:30 pm and a chubby guy sat down instead, making me feel squished. I spent most of the time on the train listening to my music and writing on my iPad mini to catch up on my blog.

We arrived in Bangkok two and a half hours late, getting in close to 10:00 pm. I normally like trains, but this train was not enjoyable. I did get to see the countryside, but it was a very long day in a bumpy, mosquito-filled train with not much to eat. I decided trains were not a good option in Thailand.

As I was waiting to get off the train, I was standing in the aisle with my suitcase. A man near me asked, “Where are you from?” I replied, “The U.S.” His face lit up, “Oh! USA baby!!” I laughed. He continued in his limited English, “Trump! I like him. USA number one. That’s how it should be. My sister is married to an American.” I just smiled and nodded and then got off the train.

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I ordered a Grab to my Airbnb. As we drove on the highway, I could see all of the high-rise buildings, which was very different than Chaing Mai. I was sitting in the back seat and looking out the front window watching a guy on a motorbike drive in front of us. All of a sudden, there were emergency lights redirecting traffic. My Grab driver and I watched in horror as the man in front of us zigzagged, swerved, and eventually hit the car coming onto the highway.

We both gasped and were concerned for the driver. There were already emergency personnel there and thankfully he wasn’t going too fast, so we continued on.

I arrived at my Airbnb, which was a four-story narrow house connected to many other houses. I followed the instructions and got the key from the lockbox. The first level looked like a business with glass windows, workout equipment, and random stuff sitting around. I took off my shoes and carried my bags up three flights of stairs. My room was labeled and it appeared several rooms were rented out.

The room was large with a private bathroom and a small balcony. I was happy to have a small kitchenette, even though it was on the balcony. It had air conditioning, a TV with Netflix, and it was a comfortable space. The bed was hard, as was pretty much every bed in Thailand. I was exhausted from the day and went to bed right away. I knew Bangkok was a large city, so I was interested to see how it differed from Chaing Mai.

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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!

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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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Day 73: Misophonia, Glaciers, and a Familiar Face

I flew into Anchorage just after midnight and grabbed an Uber to my Airbnb. My driver was born and raised in Anchorage and said the “winters aren’t that bad.” He loves it there.

My Airbnb was in the basement level of a house and had its own entrance on the side. It was very dark as I carried my luggage down the wide steps that wrapped around the house. It was a little studio with a lot of space. It was much bigger than what I had experienced the previous few weeks. I was bummed I had only booked two days there.

Early the next morning, I took an Uber to Amanda’s house where my car was being kept. I briefly talked to Amanda, but had to leave to make my car appointment at the Subaru dealership to repair my window.

After waiting for two hours, the dealership told me they wouldn’t have the car finished by the time I needed to leave for the glacier tour I signed up for. I took their shuttle to the visitor center to meet the group.

The tour time was changed to an earlier time, which threw off my day, but they assured me I’d be back to the dealership by 6:00 pm to pick up my car. The tour guide, Bill, was originally from Minnesota. He was in his 60s, had a short white beard, and was wearing a beret and driving gloves. He talked in a tight, raspy voice that almost seemed fake.

Bill was on the phone with his boss about filling up the tour, so he accepted a walk-on guest for cash. It was clear that it was the end of the season because they combined the tours and only offered one that day. In our group, there was a guy in his early 30s from Rhode Island, a girl in her early 30s from San Francisco, two girls from Australia in their 20s, a woman in her 60s, and a girl in her late 20s that we picked up 40 minutes outside of Anchorage. I was really surprised to see so many single travelers.

We all got into the van to head towards the first stop: a glacier about an hour south of Anchorage. I sat in the front seat next to Bill. While I was happy to see the beautiful views on the clear day, Bill kept pointing his finger at things right in front of my face. He was also smacking gum, which was driving me insane. The woman in her 60s sitting behind me was also making some sort of strange noise, like she was sucking her spit through her teeth. I absolutely can’t stand noises like this. It invokes a rage inside of me and I’m unable to focus on anything else. It’s a thing, it’s called Misophonia.

Maybe it was the disgusting sounds, or the fact that the woman kept asking stupid questions while talking over Bill, but I was feeling annoyed by the tour. Bill was clearly not a tour guide, he was basically just a driver. I felt that I could have just driven myself to the glacier and the animal park where we were going. However, it was a beautiful day and I had the opportunity to see Turnagain Arm in clear skies and without having to focus on the road. We stopped a couple of times to see some amazing views.

Bill told us that when it’s low tide, the water sinks back so far that muddy quicksand appears, making the area look unfamiliar everyday. When I drove this road from Homer, it was indeed a completely different experience because it was cloudy and high tide.

We were running ahead of schedule so we stopped at a river where people can view salmon. There’s no fishing allowed so the salmon population can grow. I couldn’t believe how big the salmon were!

On the drive, Bill told us that Alaskans eat more ice cream per capita than anywhere else. Alaskans are proud of this – I had heard it from a few people. Bill told us that Alaskans also have more ATVs, planes, boats, and motorcycles than anywhere else.

We made a quick stop to eat lunch on our own at a cafe near the glacier. Shortly after, we were dropped off to board a boat to see the Portage Glacier.

The guide did a good job telling us about the glacier and the geography of the area. The boat crossed the lake full of melted glacier water and there were giant pieces floating around.

As we got closer to the glacier, it started to look bigger and bigger. It was white and blue with a streak of brown down it from all of the eroding debris that gets trapped.

The boat stopped a few times while we waited to see if a piece would break off into the water. While glaciers are melting globally, they are melting the fastest in Alaska.

We didn’t see any pieces break off, but it was a sight to see. It’s crazy to think that the water in the glacier has been frozen for so many years.

Once the boat returned to the dock, we boarded the van and were taken to a wildlife refuge, where we could explore on our own for an hour. It was a large property and I watched the bears feeding, wolves jumping on a roof, and other animals roaming around.

On the way back to Anchorage, the woman behind me opened a bag of Fritos for all of us to smell and of course chomped on them. We saw several police officers that had pulled over fellow travelers. Bill told us the police will pull people over if they’re holding up five or more vehicles because they’re going too slow. I had seen signs telling people to pull over if they’re holding up five cars – it’s the law. That road is a big tourist road and Bill was happy to see them pulling over tourists who were going too slow. Just then, we watched a police car turn on his lights to pull over another car. Bill told us Alaska was short on police, but 100 new recruits just finished training and they were hiring another 100.

Bill dropped me off at the Subaru dealership at 5:45 pm, just in time to pick up my car before they closed. I drove to downtown Anchorage to meet a friend, Amy, who lives there. She was at a storytelling networking event and welcomed me there. This was a group of people who shared their stories as a form of art.

I enjoyed some appetizers while meeting people who had previously shared their stories. One guy worked at Enron and told a story about espionage. Another guy, Eric, worked at AIG during the collapse and moved to Los Angeles to change careers. He was working as an unpaid intern for a movie studio when he decided to sue them because of their unfair practices. They were basically working people full time for free and calling it an internship. Eric won the case against them, but it lost on appeal. However, movie studios now pay for internships out of fear of lawsuits.

Eric went on to law school and became a lawyer. He was supposed to be in Anchorage for a one-year contract, but now he works for the ACLU and has been in Anchorage for three years. They all joke that Anchorage has a way of pulling people into staying longer.

I also met a woman who had told a story about her divorce and sexual discoveries after it. I wished I had been there when they had originally told their stories, but I was happy I got to hear the summaries.

Once the networking event was over, Amy and I went to another restaurant for dinner on the rooftop. It had been 60℉ that day, but as the sun set it started to feel much colder. The sunset was incredible and I was happy that this was how I was spending my last night in Anchorage.

Amy and I used to work together many years ago. She sat across from me in another department and we had some mutual friends. She left the company long before I did, but through Facebook I was able to get to know her better. It was awesome to catch up in person.

After being married for 13 years, Amy got a divorce. It had been three years since the divorce and we bonded over our similarities. Amy is really smart, thoughtful, and friendly. She moved to Anchorage because that is where her ex-husband is from. She’s stayed because it’s grown on her.

It was late and getting cold, so I took Amy home and then went back to my Airbnb to rest. I am so thankful to know people who live all over the world. It’s really encouraging to see a friendly, familiar face in an unfamiliar land.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider

Days 57-58: Denali National Park

It was time for me to check out of my Airbnb and head towards Denali National Park. Living as a nomad has its challenges. I needed some refills on medications and though my doctor overnighted them to my Airbnb, they still hadn’t arrived. The owner said that overnight to Fairbanks takes about three days and she offered to ship them to me in Anchorage once they arrived.

My next motel was in Healy, Alaska. It’s only an hour and a half drive south of Fairbanks and it’s the closest city to Denali National Park. The drive was fairly flat and I missed  driving through British Columbia and the Yukon. But as I got closer to Healy, mountains appeared in the distance.

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I pulled into the deserted gravel parking lot of the Denali Park Hotel (which was actually a motel) around 4:00 pm. The lobby was in an old train car. I asked the girl at the desk what there was to do there and she gave me a map that included some hikes. She told me the motel used to be inside the park until a law was passed prohibiting accommodations inside the park. They relocated, but were able to keep the original name.

I pulled my car in front of my room and unloaded my bags in the cold wind. The motel seemed to be on a raised foundation and it sounded hollow below my feet.

It was an ok motel, but the view from my window was fantastic! A massive, beautifully majestic mountain loomed just outside.

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Despite the view, I was angry that I paid $375 for two nights there. This was the most expensive place I had stayed so far and it felt unfair that they could charge so much just because it was close to Denali. There are a few hotels right outside the entrance to Denali National Park, but they were $300-$700 per night!

There were just a few businesses (grocery store, gas station, restaurant) along the two-lane highway that ran through the tiny town. I went to the small, expensive grocery store and picked up some food. After returning to the motel to eat dinner, I turned on the TV. I watched a classic, Groundhog Day, and relaxed.

The next morning, I prepared for a hike in Denali National Park. Denali mountain is the tallest peak in North America and only 33% of visitors actually see the top of the peak because clouds often roll in. Visitors can only drive 15 miles into the park. To see more, you have to take a guided tour bus. I considered taking one, but they ranged from six-ten hours and I didn’t want to spend my time inside of a bus. I preferred being closer to nature and hiking.

One of the bartenders in Fairbanks told me about an 8-mile hike (roundtrip) that starts at mile 13 of the drive inside. I found the trail entrance pretty easily and there was plenty of parking. The hike started out flat and easy, but within half of a mile, it started to climb.

I was nervous about wildlife, bears in particular, so I kept my eyes peeled. Once I started to climb, the trees became less dense and I had outstanding views! I was really happy that I chose to hike instead of take a bus.

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After about a mile in, I passed two rangers who were taking a break from repairing a section of the trail. After two miles, the elevation gain was noticeable and the cold wind kicked in harder. Without tree cover, my shorts and a t-shirt weren’t going to cut it. I saw a few other people who were wearing pants and coats and probably thought I was crazy.

I took my pants and jacket out of my backpack and put them on. I’d start with my wind/rain jacket first and see how warm it kept me. I also put my gloves on because my hands were starting to hurt from the cold.

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I arrived at the top and the wind was dramatically worse, making it hard to keep from being blown over. The gorgeous rocky mountains full of green trees reminded me of Norway.

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I continued on the trail that went down the other side of the mountain to the parking lot at mile 15 of the road. The hike wasn’t as pretty as the other side and I needed to hike back the way I came to make it to my car, so after a mile I turned around. The total would be six miles with 1,800 ft elevation gain and I was pleased.

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When I came to the peak again, the wind seemed to be even stronger. A woman and her mother asked me if I’d take a picture of them together. I took theirs and they took mine. As they started to hike away, she yelled something to me. She was about 10 feet away from me and I couldn’t hear her. After having her repeat what she said a few times, I realized she was just telling me to have a good hike. The wind was that loud!

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I thought about putting my coat on, but my jacket was better at resisting the wind. It felt like it must be about 35° F. I can only imagine how cold it is when it’s not summertime.

I was happy to get back to my warm motel and to rest. Attempting to be productive, I downloaded pictures from my phone to my PC and got some writing done.

The next morning, I needed to drive to Homer, Alaska. It was 500 miles away (about eight and a half hours of drive time). I knew it was an ambitious day, but I wanted to check out Homer after the bartender told me about it.

The first two hours of the drive was beautiful as it winded alongside Denali National Park. It was raining and the clouds were hovering above. I was told the best place to see the elusive mountain peak is south of the park. I kept my eye out, but I’m not sure if it saw it. It didn’t bother me. The hike inside the park was beautiful enough for me.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 54-55: Locals in Fairbanks

The next day I tried to sleep in but the people above me were incredibly loud, stomping all over the floor. Frustrated, I headed out for a riverboat cruise. When I arrived, there were many buses and lots of people lining up to board the huge boat. One bus had a sign that read Princess Cruises. I asked the woman holding the sign, “Princess Cruises, as in the cruise? How are you in Fairbanks?” The woman explained that they offer a “land and sea” cruise. The passengers take a six-hour bus ride to Fairbanks so they can explore inland.

It was cold and very windy outside, but I sat on the top open-air deck anyway. I love top decks because I get to see so much more and I enjoy the fresh air. I grabbed my free coffee and donut and attempted to eat and drink without spilling all over myself.

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The riverboat cruise had a narrator that shared many interesting facts about Fairbanks. The boat stopped while we watched some dog mushers training their huskies.

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Then the boat came to a village that local natives set up to replicate what their villages looked like many generations ago.

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We disembarked and sat through a few demonstrations and presentations about life in the village and preserving their culture. It was really neat and they did a great job of storytelling.

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Once the riverboat tour finished, I drove to the Alaska Pipeline. There is an area where the pipe is above ground and visitors can see it and read a little about the history. It’s actually pretty fascinating. Spanning 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez with a diameter of 48”, it crosses three mountain ranges and more than 500 rivers and streams. According to the sign, it cost $8 billion to build in 1977, which was the largest privately funded construction project at that time.

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Near the pipeline was a place called Gold Daughters. I arrived just before they closed, but they still let me pan for gold. The business was started by two sisters who appeared to be in their 20s-30s. They were both very pretty women, wearing shirts that read Professional Gold-digger. They are from Alaska and their father was a miner. They teach you how to pan for gold, and then you buy a bag pay dirt (ranging from $20-$100) and whatever gold you find, you can keep.

One of the sisters taught me how to pan properly using some regular dirt. The water was cold and hurt my fingers. While she helped guide me, she asked me if I was there for work. I told her no and explained I was traveling. She lives in Fairbanks from March through September and the rest of the year she lives in Portland with her husband who is a lawyer.

My pay dirt had several little nuggets, which they told me was pretty good because most people just get shavings. We took my gold inside and the other sister showed me keychains and necklaces with little lockets, and explained they could put the gold in one of those. I selected the keychain and my little gold nuggets sat inside the small round locket.

I liked that keychain. A couple months later, I was getting into my car and the locket hit something, the clasp broke open, and my gold nuggets went flying all over my car. They scattered under my seats and spread all over the inside of my console, never to be seen again.

The sisters were really friendly and stayed late to let me finish up. It was time for dinner so I drove to the nearby Silver Gulch Brewery. It was busy so I sat at the bar. The bartender was friendly and recommended the fish and chips, which is what I ordered. To this day, it’s the best fish and chips I’ve ever eaten!

The restaurant filled up and I overheard someone say the wait for a table was 90 minutes. To my right was a couple who have been married for 25 years. We started to talk and I asked what it’s like living in Fairbanks. They said the winters aren’t too bad – it gets to -40 or -50 ℉. Not that bad?!

I talked politics with the couple because I really enjoy hearing perspectives from other parts of the world. They told me Alaska had a big vote coming up in the November election because there was an initiative called Save the Salmon. They told me the campaign was started by a group in Oregon, people who don’t actually live in Alaska. The couple was very upset about the initiative because they described it as limiting for any new development. The couple told me how much locals use the salmon to fish for food and it reminded me of the riverboat cruise and how the natives also fish for salmon all summer, dehydrate them, and feed them to their dogs all winter. Salmon fishing was very  important to their way of life.

The couple went on to tell me how Alaska was very divided because “Anchorage is full of young liberals who want to increase taxes and legalize weed.” They said their utility and tax bill each year is about $20,000 because of how much energy they have to use in the winter months. The younger generations say they’re ok paying income tax, but this couple described what they’re paying already in taxes and utilities and why they need the tax breaks to keep living there. They also said that “three in every five cars on the road now has someone high driving.”

As the couple talked, I realized I was having an allergic reaction to the cider I was drinking. I have severe allergies and had been having random reactions the past few months, something my doctor has been trying to figure out. My chest was in a lot of pain and I didn’t have any Benadryl on me so I asked the bartender for some water and drank a couple of glasses, hoping to flush it out. Thankfully this helped!

The couple left the bar and the restaurant was starting to empty out a bit, so I started talking with the bartender. He is from Pennsylvania and came to Fairbanks for the summer in 2001. He ran out of money so he stayed for the winter, working. That kept happening over and over and he kept getting pulled into staying. He talked about how his wife moved to Idaho while they were dating, but came back because she missed it there. We talked about how hard it is crossing the Canadian border. One time he lost his voice and Canadians gave him a hard time getting through.

I asked him why he likes Fairbanks so much and he said, “In the winter, it becomes less about living, and more about surviving. If someone’s car breaks down on the side of the road, someone will pull over and help. We have to. It’s a community and we’re all in it together – to survive the winter.” I thought that was a nice way to put it and a nice sense of community.

Another bartender came over and gave me tips of things to do in Fairbanks, Denali, and told me I must go to Homer, Alaska. He said, “Homer is what all the postcards of Alaska look like. Go there and go to the Salty Dog Saloon.” I appreciated all of their tips and decided I’d make a trip to Homer before leaving Alaska.

I booked six nights in Fairbanks because I needed to get some things done, like a much-needed oil change, so I spent the next day on errands. Almost two months of traveling meant that I had driven more than 5,000 miles. My passenger side window was giving me problems as well. Ever since Oregon, the window would randomly get stuck, or bounce back down once it hit the top of the door frame. I had spent the last month avoiding opening the window.

Ken at the Subaru dealership smugly said, “Let me show you a trick.” He held down the electronic window buttons at the same time and held them there for about 30 seconds to “reset” them. He ignored me as I told him a reset wouldn’t work because there was something wrong with the mechanism. As I suspected, it didn’t work and frustrated Ken. He said, “Now you’re going to make me look bad because it’s not working.”

I sat in the waiting room while Ken had a mechanic look at my car. It struck me how relaxed I was. Normally, I’d be waiting at the dealership with anxiety, thinking about my to-do list. Or I’d impatiently take an Uber home so I could get some stuff done. Now that my time is much more flexible, I felt at peace just hanging out at the dealership. There is so much freedom living a life that is not “busy.”

Ken walked over and gave me the bad news: a window mechanism was broken and they didn’t have the part in stock. Fairbanks is remote, so the delivery would take seven days to arrive. Since he couldn’t repair my window, Ken offered to give me the $75 oil change for free.

My neck had been hurting for days (probably because of so much driving), so I went to a local chiropractor in a strip mall. When I walked inside, a few men were at a counter across the room and stared at me. I noticed guns hanging everywhere and I slowly backed my way out of the store. Looking up at the sign in confusion, I realized I accidently walked into a gun store, not the chiropractor’s office. I was definitely in Alaska.

When I walked into the correct office, I noticed that the woman behind the counter had a baby strapped to her chest. It took me by surprise because I wasn’t used to seeing people working with their babies in tow. The chiropractor was talkative and helped relieve some of the pain.

On the way out, he followed me to the sidewalk and asked, “Hey, can you give me your honest opinion? What do you think about the receptionist wearing a baby?” I told him that at first I was surprised and figured it’s a smaller, more remote area so maybe that’s how things are done here. I also told him that I have a lot of friends with babies and it’s hard for them to go back to work, hard to find childcare, and it’s difficult to balance both. If an employer is willing to help them out and let them bring their baby into work, I don’t think it’s a problem as long as they’re doing their job. He thanked me for my input and said they’re trying it out to see how it goes.

The chiropractor recommended a restaurant called The Turtle Club so I went there for dinner. It was a nice restaurant, so I sat in the bar area that was more casual. I had a table to myself and it quickly got crowded. I wasn’t feeling well, so once I ate I went back to my Airbnb to take some Emergen-C and rest up.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider