Day 262: Learning about Vietnam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Day 261: Vietnamese Prison

An old co-worker, Austin, was in Hanoi for the day before flying back to Thailand, so we met for breakfast. I hired Austin a couple of years earlier to work in sales. After earning his Master’s degree, he quit in the spring of 2018 to travel the world for a year. He was in his mid-20s, was about 5’8”, had black hair, and looked a lot like my ex-husband. 

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Austin spent several months in Europe, Egypt, India, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. He needed to leave that day before his visa expired, so he was flying to Thailand for a short time and then planned to go back to Vietnam because he loved it there so much. He was traveling as a backpacker, staying in hostels. He frequently met other travelers and ended up traveling with them for a while. 

Austin originally planned to travel for a year, but it was going so fast that he realized he wanted it to be more like two to three years. After Southeast Asia, he planned to go to Australia to visit his sister who was living in Perth. He also applied for a work visa there because his finances would only last a year, which was coming up soon. 

Austin gave me a lot of good tips on things to do in Vietnam because he had spent the last month there. He told me that when he first arrived, he was lonely and it felt strange traveling solo again because most of his travel was with other travelers he met. Within a short time in Vietnam, he met more travelers and explored with them. 

I was happy to see Austin and to see him enjoying travel so much. He had the right attitude and appreciated the ability to travel. It was funny because we were both managers at Target, but at different times and both worked with my friend Karyn. We both worked at McMaster-Carr and were now traveling the world. We enjoyed talking for a few hours over a delicious breakfast. 

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Austin had to go buy a plane ticket and leave the country that day, so we parted ways. I walked to the HOA Ko Prison. The sign at the entrance said, “A hell on earth in Hanoi set up by French Colonialists, it was also called “a school” by Vietnamese patriotic soldiers (1896-1954), a “Hilton Hanoi” – where the American Pilots lived while they were arrested in the North of Vietnam (1964-1973) and now it is “an attractive destination” by the friends who love peace.” 

There was a special exhibition called “Finding Memories” currently at the prison. The sign described the presentation as recreating “the struggle of the people of Ha Noi and Hai Phong to overcome the pain and loss of war and to achieve victory. It helps those who haven’t experienced wars to learn more through remarkable and humane wartime stories, especially the stories about American pilots in Hanoi-Hilton. 45 years have passed, and the Vietnamese people always bestow the most beautiful appreciation for American Peace-lovers.” 

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The French controlled Vietnam for 100 years and built the prison in 1896. It was one of the biggest and most solid prisons in Indochina. The prison signs describe  the poor conditions that the French created for the Vietnamese people. It was hard to walk through the rooms and cells. Sometimes there were porcelain sculptures in the shapes of bodies to depict what it was like for prisoners. There was also a guillotine on display. 

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A pamphlet provided more information, “Throughout nearly a century under the French occupation (1858-1954), the life of laboring Vietnamese was extremely hard and miserable: shortages of food and clothing and family separations. Not being resigned to losing the country and being enslaved, the Vietnamese rose up against French colonialists and regained national independence and sovereignty.” 

The first part of the pamphlet talks about how the “Vietnamese patriotic and revolutionary fighters” were treated inhumanely by the French. They were tortured, lived in unsanitary conditions, and then killed. I did my best to remember that I was only hearing one side of the story. 

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During the American War (we call it the Vietnam War), they captured hundreds of American soldiers and kept them as prisoners from 1964 to 1973. Sign after sign pointed out how good they were to the Americans. They gave them daily exercise and even let them put up a Christmas tree. They could also send letters home. I tried to keep an open mind and recognize that I was hearing the history from Vietnam, so the story might be different if told by the prisoners. 

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The last section of the prison was devoted to the peace that the U.S. and Vietnam now have. They were proud that they beat the U.S. despite their better technology and said it was because their spirit was stronger. There were pictures of John McCain who spent years there as a Prisoner of War. There were also pictures of recent U.S. and Vietnamese presidents shaking hands and agreeing to peace. 

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As one tour guide would tell me many days later, “The U.S. and Vietnam share a history.” It was hard to imagine the pain that took place at that prison when it was operated by both the French and the Vietnamese. I know people who fought in the Vietnam war and it wasn’t easy for either side. I thought that overall, the prison did a good job of saying just that – most people suffered on both sides while governments fought. 

After the prison, I walked to a cafe and enjoyed a dessert. The sidewalks were packed with motorbikes, so I often had to walk on the street.

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I kept walking and ended up at a festival where streets were closed off. Little kids drove tiny cars around, which was so adorable! Then I came across food stalls, so I ate a crepe-like wrap and sushi rolls that had hotdogs and vegetables inside. There were groups of people singing and playing music, and others creating giant Jenga stacks in a competition. 

I ended up at a theatre that had a water puppet show. I bought a ticket and enjoyed the playful production. People played music on the side of the stage while puppets raced around the pool of water. 

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I walked through a night market on my way back to the hotel. It was packed with people shopping and eating. I wasn’t feeling very good and my throat was still hurting, so I didn’t stay long at the market. After working on my blog, it was bedtime. I had a long day ahead of me the following day and wanted to make sure I was well enough to attend. 

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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.

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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 248-249: Phi Phi Island is One Big Party

I woke up still exhausted from the day before. I needed to apply online for an extended tourist visa for Australia because I planned to go there after Vietnam. I booked my airfare from Vietnam to Melbourne after I was accepted for a house and cat sit in Ballarat, an hour and a half outside of Melbourne.

All Americans need a visa to visit Australia. The standard visa allows you to stay for up to three months, is easy to fill out, and costs around $20. I wanted to stay for six months because I didn’t want to be limited in house sitting. The tourist visa allows you to stay up to 12 months, but I had to confirm over and over that I wouldn’t work or attend school while I was there.

It took me a few hours to fill out the application on my phone, cost $140 USD, and I had to attach a copy of my passport and two months’ worth of bank statements showing that I wouldn’t run out of money. Once I was finished, the confirmation said the average time to process the application was 29 days. My flight was in 35 days. Thankfully, I was approved in three days for a six-month stay.

Once that was finished, I walked to the beach. It was very hot outside: 96 °F with a real feel of 107 °F. I laid on the beach and tried to get a tan. I got into the ocean for a little bit, but my phone and room key were buried in my bag, so I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I got out of the water because it was too stressful.

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I walked around the island, seeing what else was around. The white sand beaches were beautiful and the water was clear. Unique wooden boats were lined up on the shore. As I wandered through the narrow passageways, men wheeling carts full of supplies passed me. They shouted, “beep, beep, beep!” to warn me to move. I ate some fried rice and went back to my hotel.

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After a quick shower, I walked to The Only Bar to meet Harry, Dave, and Charlie from England. I accidentally took the long way there and walked over a mile in the heat and humidity. I shortly became a sweaty mess and my shower seemed pointless.

When I arrived at the outdoor bar, I saw a small dance floor, a DJ, some tables, and a section with foam pads with backrests to sit and lay on. The whole bar looked out to the ocean and the other bars across the island. I ordered a drink and sat on the pad next to my British friends.

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Dave and Charlie came over and gave me a hug. I hadn’t seen them since Chiang Mai. Charlie danced while Dave sat next to me and talked. We caught each other up on our adventures over the last week and a half. Dave started dancing while I met some women who had been sitting with the guys.

Davina was in her 40s, had medium-length blonde curly hair, and was from Wales. She was really friendly and told me that she’s been divorced three times and has two kids who are now grown. She just packed up and left to start traveling solo.

Davina showed me tattoos on her feet. On the inside of one foot it read,”Made in Wales.” On the other foot, it read, “Not in England.” She laughed and said she got tired of people thinking that Wales was in England, not knowing that it is a separate country in The United Kingdom. Davina was proud of her Wales heritage.

A girl named Amie was also sitting on the padded area with the group. She was in here 20s, was very short and petite, had long blonde hair, and was from England. She had been living in Thailand for a year and a half. Amie lived in Phuket, about a three hour ferry ride away, with her Thai boyfriend. She had a bandage over one ear and explained that she had an ear infection. She couldn’t work with the infection, so she decided to take a mini-vacation to Phi Phi Island.

There was another girl there from England traveling solo, but I didn’t talk to her much. Davina thought it was the coolest thing that we were all solo female travelers. She said, “Cheers to female empowerment!” We sat around a circle on the pad and told stories about our travels.

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I noticed that the other customers at the bar were mostly French and German and didn’t speak English. It seemed that all of the English speakers gravitated to one another.

Davina went home to rest, but we agreed to stay in touch and maybe meet up later. Amie and I got along well. She told me that she didn’t think she’d meet any friends because she usually doesn’t get along with other women. She likes genuine people who are down to earth. We laughed and became fast friends.

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Harry had been lying on the mat while Dave and Charlie danced away. I leaned over to Harry and said, “You’re not even going to say hi to me?” He slowly turned his head and said, “I’m pretty out of it right now.” Indeed he was.

After a few hours of hanging out at the bar, I wasn’t feeling very good. I realized the bartenders filled the cups with 50% alcohol and 50% mixer. Amie and I laid there watching the ocean, feeling relaxed. She left at some point to go home, but I didn’t feel like I could walk back, so I stayed there.

I went to use the restroom and felt like I needed to throw up. I was standing at the shared outdoor sink contemplating when a French girl came up to me. She said she only speaks a little bit of Enligsh and asked if I speak French or German. I sighed, “I only speak English.” She mimicked putting her finger down her throat and told me to throw up because I’d feel better. She walked away and came back with a bottle of water, which was so sweet.

Finally after ten minutes of standing there, hoping to throw up, I put my finger down my throat. It was all liquid and I realized I hadn’t eaten dinner, just some fried rice around 4:30 pm, which was lunch and dinner. It was now around 1:00 am. I knew if I didn’t throw up, I wouldn’t make it to the boat the next day.

When I returned to the padded area, the guys were gone. I messaged them and Harry wrote me back saying that they didn’t see me, but they were tired and decided to leave. I laid back down on the foam padding with my head propped up. I needed to rest more and drink water. At 2:00 am, the bar was closing and the lights came on. I got up and wandered through the passageways. The sweet French girl saw me and helped guide me in the correct direction.

On the way back, I saw a stand selling pizza by the slice. I bought a slice and ate it as I walked back to my hotel. It wasn’t very tasty, but it was just what I needed. I felt so hungry and I really wanted the bread.

The next morning, I was supposed to meet the guys at 10:00 am for a private boat tour. I needed to extend my stay one night in order to stay another day. My hotel didn’t have my room available another night, so I had to pack up my stuff and move it to another room upstairs. I felt ok in the morning and I was happy that I threw up and ate pizza.

After switching rooms, I walked down the beach to the restaurant that the guys told me about. Harry mentioned days earlier that they had met some British girls there and they all decided to take the private boat out for the day. It only cost each of us something like $12 USD and we’d have a driver take us around the island to different spots for six hours.

I arrived at the restaurant and Dave was there with the two girls. I didn’t realize they were the two girls that the guys had been dancing with the night before. Nobody introduced us, so I thought they were just random girls at the bar.

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We were waiting for Harry and Charlie to arrive, so I had the chance to order breakfast. The boat was just off shore, but the driver needed some time to wait for the tide to come in before we could leave. I was happy to have the opportunity to eat and get some coffee.

The English girls were nice. They were in their mid-20s and were on vacation for a couple of weeks in Thailand. Laina was tall (around 5’11”), had long dark hair, and was voluptuous. She often talked about herself as being “big,” but she looked good and owned it. She had a lot of confidence and a big personality.

Stevie was slightly shorter than Laina, had medium-length brown hair, was fit, and had a sexual vibe about her. Both of the ladies often posed for pictures with “duck lips.” I felt a little out of place at first, but they ended up being really nice!

Harry and Charlie showed up and ate some breakfast. We also ordered lunch for take-away, so we had something to eat on the boat. When the tide was right, we all boarded the boat. It was a small wooden boat with wooden slats in the middle to sit on. You could also sit at the front of the bow.

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As we rode around the island, I noticed Stevie and Dave were pretty much an item. They often sat together and had a lot of physical contact. Everyone opened some beers that they brought and I couldn’t stomach the thought of more alcohol, so I stuck with water.

The island was incredible! We rode past rock formations and into small alcoves. It looked like something from a movie. The water was a beautiful light turquoise. The driver would stop at a spot and we’d jump into the water, swim to a beach, or snorkel around. We were often the only ones in the little alcoves. At one spot, colorful fish swam next to our boat. I jumped into the water and snorkeled around them.

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We continued driving around the island. Some spots had other boats from larger tour companies. Since our boat was small and we had a personal driver, we were able to go to hidden, secluded areas. At one spot, I swam to shore with Laina. We enjoyed playing with the sand because it was so soft. It didn’t feel like sand, it felt more like powder.

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 I got to know Laina better and I told her that I had been married for ten years, but I was divorced. We had a nice conversation about relationships as we swam back to the boat. She had such a strong self-confidence, I wanted to learn from her. I wasn’t feeling very good because I was getting sea sick. I took some Dramamine to help, but I should have taken it before we got on the boat. I was trying hard not to feel nauseous.

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Halfway through the day, I noticed that my gel nail polish from the manicure I got a few days earlier was peeling off. I said, “Wow, the salt water is destroying my nail polish.” Harry rolled his eyes and said, “That’s such a bird thing to say.” Confused, I asked what he was talking about. He explained that it’s an expression meaning “it’s such a woman thing to say.”

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We continued in the boat and the sun reflected off of the water as it started to set. We pulled into a medium-sized beach where other boats and tourists were enjoying the area. We stayed at this beach longer, so I got my towel and laid out. I dozed off because the Dramamine made me sleepy. After that beach, we drove back to the main part of the island.

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As we got off the boat, Harry said we should make sure to grab all of our trash so the driver doesn’t have to clean up after us. He started collecting trash and handing bags for people to take with them. Harry always bragged that he was not a nice guy – he was a heartbreaker and a womanizer. I said to him, “You always say you’re not a nice guy, but your actions show you are actually a nice guy.” I hope that as Harry gets older, he realizes that being a nice guy is actually an asset. Being a jerk and a womanizer might work while you’re young, but it won’t work as you get older. The Harry I knew was actually a considerate guy who cared and I wanted him to embrace that.

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I walked back to my hotel and showered. Then I met the crew for dinner at a nice outdoor restaurant. Harry really wanted to pick his own fish from a market and this restaurant let you pick your fish from a display of seafood and then they cook it for you. It was a beautiful night and we enjoyed wine. Harry commented that my hair looked more blonde. It tends to get lighter in the sun and a full day on the ocean did lighten it up a bit.

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The six of us had a delightful dinner with sand under our feet. The food was good, but the company was better. Laina and Stevie told us about their life in England and how they’ve been friends for a long time. They’ve had lots of wild adventures and they often go on beach holidays.

After dinner, we walked to an outdoor bar that had lounge cushions on the sand. We got drinks while loud music pumped around us. I told Harry not to fall asleep again (he fell asleep at the bar the night before). We danced around and then I sat on a cushion. I watched people walk by on the beach, dance on sand at our bar and bars next to us, and couples enjoying each other’s company.

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Phi Phi island is definitely a party island. It felt like a place where French and Germans got to escape their winter. Sort of like Cancun for Americans on spring break. I was enjoying the night, but the cushion was so comfortable that I fell asleep! When I woke up and we left the bar, Harry pointed out that I was the one who fell asleep this time. He said, “Typical American. Tell others not to do it and then do it yourself.” Oops.

We all walked back to the hotel where the guys were staying. Their room had three twin beds and a balcony. Harry had to turn back because he accidentally left his shoes at the bar. When we arrived at the hotel, Stevie sat on Dave’s bed and Liana sat on Charlie’s bed. I sat on the bed that was left, Harry’s bed. When Harry arrived, he told me I would need to “relocate,” so he could have his bed. I got up from his bed and stood around while he laid down.

It hurt my feelings because I just wanted a place to sit down. The other guys didn’t tell the girls to move. I tried to ignore it as Harry started to fall asleep. The rest of us drank, ate snacks, and danced around. Laina asked me how old I was and I told her that I just turned 39. She was surprised and said she thought I was maybe 32 because I said I had been married for ten years.

Dave asked me if I wanted a can of jack and coke and I hesitated. I felt bad taking a drink that I didn’t pay for and I wasn’t sure how late I wanted to stay up, which resulted in me being unable to make up my mind. He ended up giving me one and said, “Sometimes you’re really awkward, you know?”

I couldn’t get that comment out of my head. I sat there feeling rejected. I am awkward sometimes. Maybe it was a cultural difference between us because I wasn’t from England. Or maybe I’m just awkward. I tried hard to ignore it, but that combined with Harry telling me to relocate made me feel depressed. I was standing on the balcony with Laina, Stevie, and Dave. In an exaggerated tone, I made a comment to Dave that I didn’t want to be awkward. He immediately said he was joking.

I fought back tears and told him I know sometimes I’m awkward. He explained that he said that because sometimes I don’t accept things from them. I said I’m not used to it because I’m usually the one offering things to people. He felt bad and tried hard to reassure me that we were friends and he was just joking. It was British humor. I knew Dave was a nice guy, but I felt sensitive to the remark.

I finally left just before 6:00 am and walked 15 minutes back to my hotel to get a few hours of sleep. Tears fell down my cheeks as I wondered if I’d be alone forever. Maybe nobody wants to date me because I’m too weird. I was feeling over-emotional and overly sensitive.

Overall, it was a fun day and a fun night. I got to know Laina and Stevie, and we all had a great time together. I’m really happy that I had fun people to hang out with during my time on the island. Going to a party island alone was intimidating. Having friends on the island allowed me to experience the island as it should be. I wouldn’t have been able to go on that boat alone and going to bars alone is not very fun. I will always remember my time on Phi Phi Island as a great time with great friends.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 237-238: Art in Paradise

After nine adventurous days of hiking and biking through the Chiang Mai Province, I was happy to sleep in. My studio apartment was comfortable and quiet. I watched Master of None on Netflix until I realized I needed food other than my protein shake.

I didn’t feel like getting dressed and going out. I just wanted to veg out and relax. I couldn’t find many food options on Apple Maps, so I decided to walk around and find something. I put some clothes on, but didn’t bother with any makeup.

The neighborhood was mostly residential and business, so I walked and walked without finding any restaurants. Finally I found a small cafe in a hotel with good reviews, so I popped inside to take a break.

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The pink and red heart decorations reminded me that it was Valentine’s Day. The place was empty. I ordered a dessert and a blended coffee drink, and sat at the counter facing out to the street. I was glad that I started the trip with a group of people and a guide who taught me about Thailand. It made me feel comfortable to venture out on my own.

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I continued walking down a main street and suddenly arrived at an outdoor market. I perused the stalls and passed restaurants, unable to decide what to eat. Across the street was a huge modern mall called Maya. It was clearly the spot to be.

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I walked into the main entrance and was amazed. A glass elevator welcomed guests and displayed several floors of shopping. I browsed the mall and noticed stores referencing the U.S. called “New York-LA” and “Portland.”

Eventually I found a restaurant that looked appetizing. It was large and modern with English menus. I ordered a pizza and savored the taste. It had been almost two weeks since I had American food and I missed it.

I took my leftover pizza and continued browsing through the mall. I was feeling a little self-conscious because I wasn’t wearing any makeup. It’s strange. When I’m in workout clothes, I don’t mind not having makeup on and I’ll go out in public all sweaty. But if I’m in regular clothes, I feel like I should have some makeup on. I continued anyway because I needed to find a new piece of luggage.

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The cheap $35 suitcase that I purchased from the market when I first arrived in Chiang Mai was horrible. It wasn’t properly designed, so when it was full it would immediately tip forward and fall over. The black plastic feet on the bottom were also coming off, making it even more ridiculous. This was a replacement suitcase after the airplane ruined my duffle bag.

After looking at several luggage stores, I decided on a hard plastic suitcase with a one-year warranty made by American Tourister. Ironically, I had never seen that brand in America. It cost $127 USD, which I thought was a lot for Thailand. I decided to buy it because I would be traveling for many months and needed something sturdy.

Once again, I was dragging an empty suitcase down a sidewalk. There was a college next to the mall, so college students were out and about at a nighttime market. Lights hung overhead and created a romantic atmosphere. I spent the rest of the evening researching how to spend my time in Chiang Mai.

The next day, I took a Grab to Art in Paradise. It’s a 3D art museum where you can insert yourself into the pictures. At the ticket counter, the woman told me, “It’s better to come with a friend.” Yeah, well, I didn’t have any friends with me, so my only option was to go alone.

I knew it was better to go with a friend so someone could take your picture. There weren’t many people there, so I just took pictures of the murals. After I took a couple of pictures, a Chinese couple took a picture for me. It was nice of them to offer, but I didn’t want them to think they had to stay with me the whole time. There is an app that you have to use to get the pictures to turn into video. The couple showed me how to use it, communicating mostly through gestures since they didn’t speak much English.

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As I was waiting for the app to download, the couple continued to explore. All of a sudden, a girl walked up to me and asked if we could take pictures of each other. Tsui was from Taiwan, was petite, and had straight black hair pulled back into a ponytail. She didn’t speak very much English, but it was enough for us to communicate the basics.

As the app finished downloading on my phone, Tsui told me that she was traveling alone and staying in a hostel. She pulled out a binder with typed travel plans in different clear folders. She excitedly explained how lucky she was to meet me because she had made a sign, but was too shy to actually put it up. The typed sign read, “Wanted: Someone to take pictures with at Art in Paradise.”

The sign made me smile. It was perfect. We were both alone and needed someone to take pictures with. The app was working on my phone, but it wasn’t working on Tsui’s phone. We decided to use my phone so we didn’t have to keep switching phones, and I’d give her the pictures at the end.

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The art museum was really neat! Some murals came to life on the app, making it look like it was raining, or like a dinosaur was eating you. The 3D paintings were optical illusions like being on a suspension bridge.

Tsui and I spent the next hour and a half going from painting to painting. She was very good at creating a dramatic scene for her pictures. I wasn’t as good. I was mostly awkward. We laughed our way through the museum.

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Once we hit the end of the museum, we sat at the cafe so Tsui could pick the photos she wanted and transfer them to herself on Facebook Messenger. As we sat there going through the photos, Tsui showed me her binder full of her travel itinerary.

Tsui was going to be in Thailand for nine days and had only been there for two days. During her time, she was going to an elephant sanctuary and riding an ATV. I had been looking at those same tours, but didn’t have anything booked yet. Tsui was impressive with her spreadsheets mapping out her entire trip. She had obviously done a lot of research.

Tsui asked me why I came to Thailand. I told her that I had some friends who had been and they all had wonderful things to say about it. I wanted to see the jungle and it’s also inexpensive. Tsui agreed that the food was inexpensive, but the outdoor activities were not.

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As the photos transferred over the WiFi, Tsui asked if I planned to go to the white temple in Chiang Rai. Because it was a few hours away, I decided not to go. She told me she will come back and go with her boyfriend. Surprised, I asked, “Why didn’t your boyfriend come with you now?” She told me she doesn’t have a boyfriend, but one day she will. Then she’ll go to the white temple with him. Otherwise, she’ll see all of the couples taking beautiful pictures of themselves, which will make her feel so sad. She made me laugh as she described herself taking selfies while couples took “couple pictures.”

The photos were transferred, so Tsui and I parted ways. I was so happy to have met her and I loved that she was also a solo female traveler. A week later, we became Facebook friends. I was getting a pedicure at the time and I saw what she had posted on her page that day. Facebook translated it to the following:

“Before I actually was a little worried about myself. Come here don’t know how to take pictures. Originally made a companion poster. I don’t dare to take it out without being shy.

Brace to this side. I found out there was a drop-alone girl too. I went to invite her to walk with me + take pictures with each other. She’s happy to promise.

Luck to meet her. Good get along, good chat, keep laughing. Also helped me take a bunch of pictures. After the walk, we’re next to the coffee shop. She’ll pass it to me when I finish the photo. How can there be such a lucky thing?”

When I read what Tsui posted, tears came to my eyes. It was such a perfect opportunity for us to meet. We did our best to communicate and she was such a sweet and fun soul. I continued to follow her adventures, watching her zipline, ride an ATV, and go white water rafting. She has an adventurous spirit and I love her zest for life.

After the Art in Paradise museum, I decided to walk two miles to a rooftop bar I found online. The walk would give me an opportunity to see more of the city. The sidewalks are narrow with lots of potholes, making it difficult to navigate. Sometimes fluorescent lights dangle above the alleyway. It also appeared that drinking in public was legal.

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As the sun went down, I came across an outdoor sporting event. There were stands full of fans cheering on all-women teams. I don’t know what sport they were playing, but there was a net in between teams of three. The women would hit the ball with their feet or their head. It was impressive watching what they could do.

I continued to the rooftop bar, following Apple maps. It often took me through alleyways in the back of houses. Clothes were hung out to dry since they don’t have driers there. Motorbikes lined the sidewalks.

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When I arrived at the Oasis bar, there was a dark, steep stairwell leading to the rooftop. At the top there was a small bar, some couches, chairs with pillows, and string lights hanging above. There were a few people there that were all sitting alone. I sat down and ordered a snack and a drink.

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I looked around and noticed the men and women who were sitting alone were all on their phones, but only inches from another person. It was so sad that nobody was talking. We were all solo, why not have a conversation?

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There were a few couples there and one couple arrived after me. They were around 30 years old and sat near me, so I could hear their conversation. He was American and she was Canadian. They talked about life, goals, friends, and family. The guy did most of the talking and then I heard him say, “This is the best first date I’ve ever had. I’ve studied psychology and want my own practice one day. I love that it’s not surface level. I love that you feel comfortable with me.”

The couple seemed cute and were entertaining. I ordered a Grab and went back to my Airbnb. I kept forgetting that the driver’s steering wheel is on the right side of the car and they drive on the left.

I went to bed happy with how my time in Chiang Mai was turning out. Solo travel often brings new people into my life, making it more interesting. Even though I don’t speak Thai, I was able to get by. A lot of people knew some basic English. Other times, I used Google Translate. It was shaping up to be a great city to explore.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 235-236: Joy

It was our final full day of the REI Adventures tour in Thailand. The morning was warm with a cool breeze. Seven of us walked to a nearby village (Nicole, Cathy, Terri, Kristen, Christian, and Neil). We passed a school and continued walking down the dirt road.

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We arrived at the very small village and locals were there to greet us. Several of the women started to put out their hand-made goods in hopes that we’d buy some. As they set up, we walked around the village.

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I was shocked at how basic each house was. Built with thin bamboo walls and floors, the houses were a foot off the ground to withstand flooding. One woman was washing things in a bowl. The village was similar to ones we had stayed in – no plumbing.

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A few of the homes were abandoned. Stray dogs roamed through the streets. We each bought a couple of small items, mostly to help support the villagers. They were so friendly, with big smiles on their faces. Neil walked over to me and gave me a threaded bracket, “You can put this on your backpack to help identify it. I got one for you, Nicole, and myself – the three solo travelers.” It was such a sweet gesture and the bracelet still adorns my backpack.

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As we walked back to our eco lodge, I thought about how grateful I am that we have running water, plumbing, and electricity in the U.S. Even if I end up in a small apartment again one day, I will be grateful for four walls and these amenities. Many people around the world live without them.

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The cooking class was held under the pavilion at the ecolodge. I paired up with Nicole and Cathy. The chef taught us how to cook several meals with fresh food. I’m not the best cook, so I was happy to have Nicole and Cathy. Each meal was delicious and surprisingly easy to prepare.

After the class, we loaded into the vans to drive back to Chaing Mai. I fell asleep during the drive, but after an hour, I was woken by the sudden urge to use the toilet. After attempting (unsuccessfully) to communicate with the driver about stopping to use the restroom, I held it until we arrived at the temple. I made him stop at the entrance where I saw a restroom and literally ran to it.

The temple was beautiful and laden with lots of gold. There was an option to have a conversation with a monk. It’s an opportunity to learn about Buddhism, and for the monks to practice their English. Our group walked around and then boarded the van to head to another temple.

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One van went back to the hotel instead. There were elephant statues around the second temple and it was huge. We walked around outside and learned about some of the history and restoration efforts before going back to the hotel. There was also a sleeping Buddha, which is the second largest in the world (the biggest is in Bangkok).

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After showering for our final farewell dinner, Nicole and I went to the pool and enjoyed some happy-hour drinks. Then we all boarded the vans again for dinner on a riverboat.

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Our group was the only one on the boat. Servers took our drink orders and brought out food before we started to cruise down the river. It was a beautiful night  and a perfect way to end the trip.

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We all had so much fun telling stories about the trip, drinking wine, and telling each other what our plans were for the following days once the trip was complete. We even had karaoke. Scott and Steve sang some songs, which provided great entertainment. Clark gave a beautiful speech, thanking Tri for providing a great tour and giving him our pooled tips as a thank-you.

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My birthday was the next day, so they all sang Happy Birthday to me. It’s funny how 15 complete strangers can spend nine days together. Eating meals together, sleeping in the same room, hiking, biking, and experiencing a new culture together. I think it’s inevitable that people will have moments of not agreeing. I’m sure there are moments that I annoyed people. But in that moment on the riverboat, all I felt was joy.

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Each person had something to contribute and a life story of their own. I loved getting to know each of them. As we drank and listened to karaoke, I could feel tears welling in my eyes and thought, “What a beautiful thing. All of us are forever a part of each other’s story.” I am happy to have gotten to know them and to have spent my first week in Thailand with them. I hope to have made life-long friends during that trip.

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Once diner was finished, we said goodbye to Mimi and Lisa because they had a very early morning flight and would miss breakfast. Mimi is a firecracker, full of life and opinions. She was always very encouraging of my travels and I appreciated her support. Lisa had stories of adventures she’s been on – one where she passed out on a bike trail in Europe and was helicoptered to a hospital! We said our goodbyes and wished each other well.

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It was also time to say goodbye to Tri, our guide. He was a nice guy, taught us a lot, and did a good job handling our different personality types. He worked extremely hard to make sure we were all comfortable, well fed, and safe. He also threw in jokes at random times, keeping us on our toes.

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One of the vans went to the night market. Tien, Nicole, Neil, Scott, Andrea and I all walked around together, enjoying the booths and nightlife. I bought a few items that I thought were small enough to fit in my bag. When we returned, we said goodbye to Neil because he’d leave very early for a flight as well.

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I was sad to say goodbye to Neil. He had told me about his wife who had passed away many years ago and his son. He was retired and had a sense of adventure that I admired. He also had a peaceful, calming, sweet spirit. He was always so genuine and I loved talking with him.

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The next morning, the rest of us (except for Cathy and Terri) ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant. It was the same hotel we stayed at for the first two nights. Nicole suggested that we each say what our favorite part of the trip was. I enjoyed hearing everyone’s perspective. The answers ranged from biking, hiking, getting to see remote villages and rice fields, and of course meeting the people. Clark said everyone has encouraged him and he’s enjoyed hearing about all of their activities and adventures. I agree. Everyone had an impressive, adventurous spirit.

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They all wished me a happy 39th birthday. We hugged goodbye and most people headed to the airport to catch flights home or to other destinations.

I said goodbye to Nancy and Steve. They’re level-headed, outdoorsy, and kind. Steve turned on his cell service, even though he was getting charged for data, to see how far away we were from the temple when I had to suddenly use the restroom. That’s the type of people they both are. He instinctively did what he could to help me.

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Christian and Kristen are one of the cutest couples I’ve met. They support and care for each other, setting a great example of what a healthy relationship looks like. They were so much fun to hang out with and kept me company in the back of the line when hiking.

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Clark and Tien were the comedy duo. They cracked jokes at each other and made all of us laugh many times. Clark kept things light-hearted and enjoyable. He is humble and his wisdom will be cherished. Tien and I had many great conversations about life and understood each other. I was so happy they were along for the trip.

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I got teary-eyed when saying goodbye to Nicole. I couldn’t have asked for a better roommate. She helped me carry my bags at times and gave me her leftover sunscreen because I lost mine. She was always thoughtful, caring, and respectful. I have so many good memories of us laughing as we fell asleep. We have a lot in common and I am honored to call her a friend.

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I put on my swimsuit and headed to the gorgeous  pool. As enticing as it looked, the water was cold! Even though it was hot and humid outside, it was hard to get used to the frigid temperature. The pool wrapped around the middle of the property past the guest rooms. It wasn’t very deep, so I just walked along and enjoyed the vegetation. Then I saw Scott and Andrea doing laps around the pool. We talked for a bit and then they continued to get a few more laps in before check-out.

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Scott and Andrea are smart, athletic, successful people. But they never bragged or made me feel bad for not being as athletic as them. They were kind and generous. They were going to check into another hotel in Chiang Mai and had hired a guide to take them on a trail run in the mountains that was more than 20 kilometers.

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I decided the water was too cold, so I sat at the swim-up bar. I was the only one there. I ordered fruit and ice cream inside of a pineapple and a drink. I was happy that I was celebrating my birthday in Thailand. I got a late check-out for the hotel and enjoyed a bubble bath before finally leaving. I hoped it would help my swollen ankles. They had been painfully swollen since I arrived in Thailand.

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My next place was an Airbnb on the other side of the city. I took a Grab (it’s like Uber) and met the owner of the studio apartment. She gave me the key and I gave her cash since Airbnb mistakenly cancelled my reservation. The apartment was great! It was newly remodeled and had everything I needed. For $23 a night, I couldn’t beat it.

I started some laundry and had to line dry my clothes on the balcony since they don’t have dryers there. I took a brief nap and then met Cathy and Terri for dinner and to explore the night market. I ordered a Grab using their app and the driver was listening to Adele in concert on a built-in tv screen monitor. He was singing along and said he loves Adele. Adele breaks international language barriers – the language of love.

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I was so happy when Cathy gave me my phone charger that I had left in my hotel room. We walked around to several shops on the narrow streets while Cathy searched for deodorant. It was hard to find one she was familiar with. Terri had re-injured a bad ankle and it was very swollen. She was struggling to walk, so we took a taxi to a restaurant.

We sat outside by the river and enjoyed the night. Terri told me about an adventure she had when hiking to base camp on Mount Everest. She was with a group on the day they got the massive earthquake of 7.8 magnitude in 2015, which destroyed most of the area. They were only about two hours from base camp and had just packed up from eating lunch. All of sudden, the earthquake struck, creating an avalanche. A guide grabbed her to try and protect her as the snow came rushing at them.

The avalanche knocked them over, but thankfully they were ok. Many people died that day at base camp and if she had been on schedule, she would have been there. I was fascinated by her story. She explained how it took days to be evacuated and when they finally were, the city below was demolished.

Cathy, Terri, and I talked about our next travel plans. They were headed to the elephant sanctuary the next day. Because it was my birthday, they got two pieces of cake and we all shared. They also paid for my dinner. I was so happy I didn’t have to spend my birthday alone. Every year, I tend to get emotional around my birthday. Maybe it’s because it’s the day before Valentine’s Day, but I tend to get sad. That day I wasn’t sad. I was happy to celebrate with friends and I was excited about my upcoming adventures.

After browsing the night market, I said goodbye to Terri and Cathy. Cathy is responsible and at times can be strict with herself. I loved when I’d see her smile and loosen up. She has a good heart and I was happy to spend time with her. Terri is full of adventure and had a lot of stories of travels around the world.

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If you’re interested in doing the REI Adventures tour, here’s a link to the one that I did. I recommend the tours because they provide all of the food, accommodations, guides, and a lot of the equipment you’ll need. REI Adventures has given me the opportunity to stay in remote places and hike on trails that I simply wouldn’t be able to do on my own.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 233: Kayaking Fiasco

After a few days of hiking in Thailand, we were about to start the biking portion of the tour. The hotel breakfast was sparse and served instant coffee. After grabbing a quick bite to eat, the 15 of us were fitted for our bicycles.

We left the hotel and we were soon riding through rice fields. I was so excited for this part because I had seen pictures online of previous tours riding bikes through the fields and it looked so beautiful and unique. Just like with hiking, I fell to the back of the pack. This time, Neil was often with me. We were in awe of our surroundings and liked to stop and take pictures. Sak, one of the guides, was in the back with us.

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img_1496I loved the symmetry of the squares that bordered sections of the fields. The bright green neon blades of baby rice looked so delicate in the still water. I couldn’t believe how tedious it must be to plant and harvest the rice by hand. Occasionally, we saw workers in the field who would wave and smile.

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img_1523I was grateful that I brought some padded bike shorts as we pedalled along the bumpy dirt roads. The bikes had suspension, which also helped with bumps and potholes. The sun was brightly shining. Riding the bike gave us a nice breeze. After the rice fields, we rode through a forest to kayak on a lake.

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It was close to lunch time and it would take an hour and a half to paddle to a floating restaurant. My roommate Nicole and I shared a kayak and I sat in the back. I was so thrilled because my first REI Adventures trip was to Norway for hiking and kayaking. We kayaked through the fjords for five days, which was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

img_1556The kayak was the “sit on top” type and there wasn’t much room for my long legs so my paddle kept hitting my knees. To avoid this, I had to lift my paddle up higher, which let in more water than usual from the paddle.

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Nicole and I were cruising along in the front. Slowly, it was getting harder and harder to paddle. We started to lose our balance and would tip too far to one side. It freaked me out and I’d overcompensate by going too far the other way. I was confused. What was causing our sudden imbalance?

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Just over halfway to the restaurant, I noticed the water bottle between my legs was floating in water inside the kayak. Concerned, I tried scooping the water out, but it didn’t seem to subside at all. The rolling of my water bottle made it worse, shifting the weight in the kayak. I told Nicole about the water, but she couldn’t see it because she was in front of me. I put my hand behind me and realized that section was full of water too.

A few people noticed something was wrong and paddled towards us. All of a sudden, a slight wave created a huge imbalance. I warned Nicole, “We’re going to flip.” And then we did.

Our kayak overturned, throwing us into the lake. We both quickly grabbed the upside-down kayak. The ones who paddled towards us were quickly there to assist us. Tri, our guide, jumped into the lake to help. He flipped the kayak back over but it was still not empty of water.

I was embarrassed and confused as to what happened. I have been kayaking many times in much rougher waters and have never flipped. Cathy said she noticed water was filling up in the back a while before. Was I too heavy and sinking the kayak?

Tri looked all over the kayak and found that the plug on the bottom that is designed to drain any excess water that gets inside was broken, so water kept getting inside. He let us use his kayak so we could continue to the restaurant and he rode in a boat that was nearby.

It was difficult getting back into the kayak in the middle of a lake, but several others in our group held the kayak steady. I went in the front this time and had more leg room, enabling me to paddle lower and get less water inside.

I felt awful because Nicole was exhausted. When our kayak was sinking with excess water, we had to paddle extra hard. I was trying to get water out while she continued to paddle, so her arms were very tired.

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The sun dried us off a little bit, but thankfully we had swimsuits on under our clothes. When we got on to the restaurant’s platform, people were talking about our fiasco and wondering what happened. I tried to just brush it off as an adventure. But then I heard that Tri did not have his cell phone in a waterproof bag when he jumped in to help us. It wasn’t working and we were worried it was ruined. I felt awful and responsible. Thankfully, days later, it suddenly started working again!

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The floating restaurant had a trampoline and a blow-up slide attached that ended in the water. Christian, Kristen, and Mimi walked along the foam pads and played on the trampoline for awhile. I decided I wanted to try the slide, but nobody was there any longer. We had time before lunch was served, so I decided to go for it.

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Kristen came to assist me with the floating foam pads. I have terrible balance and didn’t think I could make it to the slide by walking across the pads. Instead, I swam over and she helped pull me up to the mat. They had learned the hard way that the slide needed water. We filled up a bottle from the lake and once I climbed the stairs, Kristen handed me the bottle. I poured it down the slide and slid into the lake. It was a blast! I loved it so much, I went down two more times. A few others cheered me on, but they didn’t want to get wet.

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We ate a fresh lunch and relaxed for a little while. To get back to our bikes, we took Long Boats. The small, narrow boats are so close to the water that I sometimes felt the mist. It was a beautifully clear day and the boats were a lot of fun.

Once we were back at our bikes, we changed out of our swimwear and continued biking. After having a break from biking, my butt felt sore and my knee was hurting. Once we started riding again I warmed up a bit.

After leaving the lake, we rode on a closed-off paved street and then down a huge hill. Sak, one the guides, was in the back with me. He’s young and enthusiastic. He said, “You look like a professional.” The day prior, he teased me when I stopped to take pictures. He would playfully say, “Let’s go!” I would respond, “I’m coming, I’m coming!” As we rode across the paved road, I asked him how to say “I’m coming! I’m coming!” in Thai. He taught me and we repeated it dramatically over and over so I could get it just right.

After the huge hill, we were back in the rice fields. Sak told me that the bright green baby rice is there for one month and then it’s moved to another location for another three months before it’s ready. They plant rice twice a year. I asked how much they sell it for and he said it depends on the quality. The rain and sun play a big part. Thailand is one of the world’s biggest rice producers.

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After the rice fields, we rode on a dirt road. Sak and I rode side by side, talking. I asked if he’s ever been to the U.S. and he responded, “Only in my dreams.” “What is it like in your dreams?” I asked. He laughed, “Cold.”

I explained to Sak that only about half of the U.S. gets snow. He’s never seen snow before and curiously asked, “How do you get rid of the snow?” I explained that cities have snow plows, people shovel their driveways, and sometimes things are closed because of snow. In the end, it all melts when spring comes.

We arrived back at the hotel and Sak said, “Thank you for teaching me.” I was enjoying this new found friendship. There were a few people in our group who wanted to ride bikes longer, so they went back out. I had been eyeing the pool and convinced Tien to choose the pool over an extended ride.

When I arrived at the pool, nobody was there. The sun had just set behind the building and the water felt very cold. I didn’t care. The large, clear, clean, pool looked so enticing! There were water features luxuriously spilling into the pool. After days of hiking and biking, I deserved some excess.

Shortly after I arrived, Nancy showed up and did some laps. As she was leaving, Tien showed up. We discovered jets on the side that felt like a back massage. We sat there talking about life.

Tien had worked hard to become a psychiatrist and he was nervous about going into the insurance side of things. He would be starting his new job shortly after returning home. It’s always difficult to start something new and no longer be an expert.

Tien thought it was great that I was traveling for so long and he told me about his previous adventures and desire to travel more. He has a wife and two young children at home, which makes it harder. He understood how I felt before leaving corporate America and he was really encouraging as he supported my decision to travel long-term.

It was getting close to dinner time so we went back to our rooms to shower. After meeting everyone in the lobby, we walked down the dark dirt road to the same restaurant we ate at the night before. We picked up our laundry that we had left and it was all fresh and clean. The dinner was delicious as usual.

On the walk back to the hotel, I talked with Neil. He asked me what are the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far in eight months of travel. I pondered the question, “Hmmm, that’s a tough question.” After thinking about it for a while, I had a few answers.

  • I don’t like doing touristy things. I usually will go to some of the major sights, but I find myself getting bored easily because after awhile, it all looks the same. I was actively working on not going to places because I’m supposed to go, but going to places I wanted to actually see. I’ve realized I prefer to do outdoor activities (like hiking), and I enjoy the local places.
  • I have also learned that I enjoy doing things by myself. At home, I never go alone to a sit-down restaurant or to a movie theatre, but I enjoy being solitary in new cities. Why is that?

Neil was insightful as we discussed the different ways to travel. He said, “That’s always the question. What is the real Thailand?” Thailand is diverse. The mountains and villages are the real Thailand. The touristy spots are the real Thailand. The cities are the real Thailand. The islands are the real Thailand.

I went to bed reflecting on my travels. Neil had posed a great question. There isn’t one thing I can point to as my biggest lesson. There are so many small lessons. I’ve learned things about myself, about cities and countries, and about history. I’ve enjoyed the sites, the outdoor activities, new cultures, and most of all, the people. People are by far nice, caring, helpful, and genuine – all over the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 196-222: Life in Missouri

Once my pounding spinal tap headache was gone, I tried to develop a routine with writing and working out, while figuring out where I’d travel to next. The thing is, I hadn’t been back “home” at my parents house in more than 15 years. My sister, her husband, and two children (aged 11 and 14) were temporarily living in my parents’ basement while they were building a house on some land they had purchased.

My parents have one dog and one cat. I had brought my cat from Los Angeles, who needed to be sequestered for a while because she wasn’t used to being around other animals. My sister brought her three dogs with her (two that are huge). It felt like a small animal farm.

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For my whole adult life, I’ve either lived alone or I’ve lived with one other person (roommate or husband). I’ve never owned a dog. I like to pet and play with dogs, but I do not like to take care of them and I don’t like all of the problems they can create. One day in early January, my brother-in-law’s dog Maximus (a Rottweiler) walked into my room and started to eat one of the only souvenirs I’ve purchased. It was a block of wood from Whistler (my favorite city) that was locally made and said “Wild + Free.” My sister grabbed it from his mouth, but Maximus had already ruined it.

I was extremely upset. I have always valued my personal space and I felt violated. I immediately went on my laptop and started looking at new destinations. I found a hiking and biking tour in Thailand for nine days through REI Adventures. I had gone on an REI Adventures trip to Norway in 2017 and I loved it. The tours are expensive, but they include everything you need except  airfare.

I planned on going to Thailand at some point in my travels, but I was nervous because I’ve never been to Asia and I don’t speak any of the languages. I figured starting with a tour guide would help me to learn the basics and feel more comfortable traveling on my own. I hit the purchase button and waited for confirmation.

A few days later, I received an email that my space was confirmed! I had a couple of weeks to get plane tickets, figure out what I needed to bring, and book some hotels. I spent days researching things like how to get around without a car. Sometimes it felt overwhelming. Knowing I only had a few weeks left in Missouri, I tried to spend my time wisely.

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Logistics

I made a couple of trips to REI to buy some things that would be useful for the trip, like bike shorts and bike gloves. I also had to sort through my backpacks and decide which one would be best to bring.

My California license was expiring and they were requiring me to go into the Department of Motor Vehicles(DMV), the most dreaded place. The California DMV has always taken three hours. They are also notoriously rude and unhelpful. Since I was in Missouri, I couldn’t go to the California DMV, so I decided to get a Missouri license. I’ve also been using my parent’s address since I don’t currently have an address.

I went to the Missouri DMV without an appointment and only waited 20 minutes. I was called up, took a quick eye exam, gave the woman my paperwork, and five minutes later, I was out of there. Missouri may not be as exciting as California, but they are certainly more efficient!

I also needed to switch my car insurance from California to Missouri since my car would be behind while I traveled overseas. I was extremely happy when the price for insurance was half of what I was paying in California. It was so cheap, I was even able to upgrade my coverage for a very small amount.

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Doctor Appointments

My sister Amy is a holistic chiropractor who looks for the root cause of a problem. She has a practice called The Center for Natural Health and patients have seen amazing results from her. She agreed to see me a few times a week in her office, which was very generous. I was finally there long enough for her to get some work done. Amy helped me to start feeling better, so I took her out to dinner as a “thank-you.” I also got a couple more massages from the massage therapist, which were great.

The other nice thing about Missouri is the wait times at doctors’ offices. I was able to get an 8:00 am monday morning appointment at the ophthalmologist with only a week notice. My mom sees the doctor and recommended him. I was still having blurry vision and still didn’t know if I needed to follow up with a neurologist.

The doctor was in his 60s, was friendly, and I told him all about the hole in my retina in June, the fuzzy optical nerves on the scan, and the spinal tap. He turned off the lights and stared into my eyes with a magnifying glass. He confirmed that he saw the hole and the repair that my doctor in Los Angeles had done.

The doctor backed up and said, “Well, the good news is that I don’t think you need to see a neurologist. The bad news is that your eyes are much older than your stated age.” He went on to explain that I have Vitreous Detachment. The vitreous is the gel that fills the back of the eye from the retina. As we age, the gel turns to liquid and millions of fibers break and separate from the retina. The main concern when this happens is the retina will detach.

My vitreous gel has liquified, which is why I got the hole in my retina in June. Thankfully, they caught it before the retina detached and they repaired the hole. Unfortunately, my gel has rapidly turned to fluid and the millions of fiber that have detached have caused a lot of floaters. According to this site, it “usually affects people over age 50, and is very common after age 80.” I was 38 when the doctor was telling me about this.

I was upset because this has been the story of my adulthood, getting diseases that usually affect those decades older than me. It’s also led to frustration as I’ve gone to doctor after doctor because they never suspect that I could have these diseases. For example, I had two parathyroid tumors removed in 2016 after seeing doctors for seven years. Most patients who get them are over 50, and typically over 70.

I asked the doctor what I can do about the floaters. Sometimes it’s not bad and I barely notice them. Other times, I can’t stop thinking about them because I have a hard time seeing without blinking and moving my eyes a lot. The last few months at my job, I had a hard time seeing screens in meetings. The doctor told me there isn’t anything they can do and hopefully over time, they’ll settle towards the bottom or I’ll get used to them.

I was disappointed to hear this, but I was glad that I didn’t need to see a neurologist. On my way out, the doctor said, “If your retina detaches, you need to call me immediately and come in so I can repair it.” I explained to him that I was about to leave for Thailand. He said, “Well, you’ve already had the hole and it’s already liquified so you likely won’t get a detached retina.” Great.

Investment

I had been wanting to invest some of the money from the sale of my house, but hadn’t gotten around to it. I looked at houses in downtown St. Charles, Missouri because there is a cute Main Street and a University there. I thought it would be a great place to put a house on Airbnb. Plus, I had furniture for two bedrooms in my storage unit in Los Angeles. I was paying $240 per month for a small unit because everything is expensive there. This would allow me to stop paying storage fees. Plus, I’d have somewhere to live when I needed it.

To get financing, I sent in all the needed paperwork to a finance guy and within a day, I was approved. I looked a few properties, but there was hardly anything on the market for sale. It was cold and snowy outside, which means people aren’t listing their houses as often.

Before I left, I set some things up so my parents could sign for me if a property came up that I liked. My realtor and friend Trudy, my sister, and my parents have been great at looking at properties for me while I’ve been away. Unfortunately, I haven’t found anything yet.

Family and Friends

I had some time to hang out with family and friends while I was in Missouri. My sister Amy, my mom, and I watched the entire series of Game of Thrones to get ready for the new season. I was able to get some Thailand research done while watching the series and it was great watching it with them. We could talk about things we had missed when we first watched the show and theories about what we thought would happen in the future.

One day the weather was great and we went for a hike with the dogs. Taking four dogs on a hike is a challenge, let me tell you. They battle over who is at the lead. I’ll stick to being a cat owner.

One weekend we got more than a foot of snow! We drove to my sister’s land which was an empty lot and we played around in the snow. I built a snow-woman and Amy built a snowman. My dad built a huge snow fort. I helped to make snowballs so the fort was loaded for battle. It was such a fun time!

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My second cousin Kirsten, her husband, and two young daughters were headed to Nashville from Minnesota and stopped to hang out for a couple of days. Because of the snow, we all hunkered down and relaxed. It was fun getting to know them better. We don’t get to see them a lot outside of weddings and family reunions. This was a chance to spend quality time together.

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My friends Melanie and Laurie met me twice for dinner. We went to youth group together in high school. It was great to catch up without having to rush. Normally, I have such a limited time in Missouri that I don’t get a chance to see people outside of my family. They were encouraging about my upcoming travels and made me laugh as I told them about Tinder.

I went to my brother’s house one night and watched a movie with him and my nephews. I also watched my nephews who are in high school play some video games, which was entertaining for them.

Conclusion

Overall, it was a busy time in Missouri as I worked out at the gym, went to doctor appointments, got things done with my car, and saw family and friends. It was great to unload my car and get it cleaned. I felt prepared for my trip to Thailand and I could stay for 30 days without needing a visa. I planned to go to Vietnam next and stay for 30 days there as well. I wasn’t exactly sure where I’d go after that.

I packed up my duffle bag and small carry-on bag. I also had a medium sized backpack for hiking and biking. I was disappointed that I had so much luggage, but traveling for several months and needing clothes for hot and cold temperatures meant I needed it all. My medications and daily use contacts also took up a lot of space.

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I said my goodbyes and headed to the airport. I was flying to Los Angeles first for two days. I needed to give my tax accountant my documents for the tax year so she could complete them in time for filing in April. It would also give me a chance to see a couple of friends. I spent almost six weeks in Lake Saint Louis and it flew by. It was great to see people, but I was ready for my next adventure!

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 175-178: Reenergizing on the Road

After leaving Whistler, I drove to Vancouver, British Columbia to return some items I bought there that didn’t fit. They only have physical stores in Canada so I wanted to stop by on my way back to the U.S. The store hours were listed until 5:30 pm on Saturdays and I arrived at 5:32 pm because I had to fight Saturday Christmas festivity traffic.

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When I pulled up, the store was completely closed. It was clear they closed at 5:00 pm, which is supposed to be their weekday hours. I needed to keep heading south so I would have to mail my items back. I ended up learning a hard lessons about shipping to Canada; it cost me $47 to mail the package back!

I arrived at my friend Chanell’s house around 7:30 pm and she had a delicious dinner waiting for me in the crockpot. We talked about my time in Whistler and her pregnancy. We ended up staying up late talking as we tend to do.

The next morning, we went out for breakfast now that her morning sickness had improved a bit. I had a great time hanging out with her and couldn’t wait to meet her new daughter.

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After breakfast, I drove about five hours to Hood River, Oregon. It was raining and cool outside. I arrived at my friend Tracey’s house around 6:00 pm. Her newly remodeled kitchen was just about complete so she cooked up a wonderful dinner. I ate with her and her husband and stayed the night.

I felt so fortunate to have Chanell and Tracey in my life. I had stayed with both of them a few times as I drove to Canada and back twice. Each time, they cheerfully hosted me, offering me food, a bed, and friendship. I felt like they were my “Pacific Northwest family.” I am blessed to know them.

The following morning, Tracey and I went to a local cafe for breakfast and as usual, had a great conversation. I needed to continue my drive to make it to St. Louis, Missouri by Christmas. I drove three hours south to Bend, Oregon. I knew I needed to drive much further that day, but I stopped to eat a late lunch and look at places to stay.

My friend Bethany who lives there met me for an hour and we talked about her new house. Bethany, her husband, and two sons had just purchased a home a few miles outside of the city. It was on a large piece of land, so they were getting used to that and slowly moving in.

I booked a hotel in Burns, Oregon, which seemed like one of the only places to stop on my route to Idaho. The drive was dark and flat. I thought I was driving through a desert full of tumbleweeds until I stopped at a rest area. I got out of the car to use the restroom and it was freezing outside! There was snow on the grass and the wind was blowing ceaselessly. The sand and dirt I thought I was seeing was actually snow.

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I booked an old restored hotel on Airbnb – The Historic Central Hotel. The owner read my profile and saw that I had quit my job and was traveling.  She told me I was her hero and upgraded my room for free! She wanted to meet me, but when I arrived at 7:30 pm, nobody was there. I followed the instructions and used a code to get inside the lobby.

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The hotel was adorable, filled with history and remodeled with a slight modern barn feel. I carried my suitcase to the second floor and opened the door to my room. It was set up like a Bed and Breakfast. With my upgraded room, I had my own bathroom!

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I walked around the property checking out the pictures of the remodel that were hanging on the walls. I think there was only one other guest there at the time. I was exhausted from the drive and fell asleep on the bed right away. After an hour or so, I got up, took a shower, and went back to bed.

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The next day I continued driving with the goal of making it to Idaho Falls, Idaho, where my Uncle Steve and his wife Sonia live. It was a six and a half hour drive.

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I drove through Oregon, passing farms and ranches. The ranches had large signs and entrances like I’ve seen in movies. The name of the family ranch would be posted on the large, wooden post before driving down the long gravel driveway to the house.

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I had to drive through most of the state since Idaho Falls is near Wyoming. Idaho was beautiful and full of mountains, lakes, and more farms.

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I drove through Boise, Idaho, which was a little out of the way, but I wanted to see the capital. I drove around for a bit, stopped to grab some lunch, and continued on.

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As I drove, I had a lot of time to think about things. I was feeling down about relationships. As I reflected, I realized I often receive compliments from men, but it never materializes to an actual relationship. I’ve been told I’m intelligent, beautiful, fun, funny, and a great conversationalist.

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It makes me feel like I’m great….but not great enough to date. I’m either not enough or I’m too much. I am going to be me, even if I’m not enough or I’m too much for men. However, I was still feeling lonely and rejected. Maybe it was the online dating apps, but I was feeling like nobody wanted to actually date me. Nobody wanted to put in the effort. Nobody wanted to be exclusive with me.

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I talked with my friend Toni and then my friend Jimmy while I drove. I had been telling Jimmy for awhile that I didn’t want anything serious considering I was married for ten years and I just wanted to meet people to see what I wanted. However, now that it had been a year and a half, I was feeling like I actually did want a real relationship.

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Jimmy understood, but said it would be very difficult to date someone while traveling. He wanted to make sure I didn’t get my hopes up and I knew he was right. I tried the casual thing and I learned a lot about what I want and what I don’t want in a relationship. I still didn’t want the traditional relationship.

I’m afraid of getting bored. I was bored a lot in my marriage while my ex-husband was perfectly fine with the ways things were. I want an interesting relationship where we try new things and have adventures. I want to be surprised and I want to be spontaneous. I want the intimacy and the connection that comes along with an exclusive relationship. I was tired of meeting new people and I was tired of guys who weren’t interested in a relationship beyond casual dating.

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While talking with Jimmy, I got distracted in the dark and made a wrong turn. I ended up going 40 miles out of the way and had to turn around and go back another 40 miles. I didn’t arrive to my uncle’s house until 8:00 pm because of that mistake and I was in a new time zone, which was an hour ahead.

I ate some food and talked with my uncle Steve, his wife Sonia, and her mother, Effie. I had seen my uncle in Denver at the beginning of September for two cousins’ weddings, but I had never been to his house in Idaho. He’s only about 12 years older than me and he’s a funny, caring man.

My uncle Steve is a lead pastor of a small church. They told me about how the church is expanding and the impact they’ve seen God have on people there.

My uncle Steve and Sonia have such wonderful hearts. They talk about the Bible, God, and how we’re all just trying our best. It’s not about following religious principles and being legalistic in following God, it’s about having a relationship with God. They do a lot for people and are wonderful role models.

I told them about how I was feeling about relationships and I was feeling lonely and wanted a partner. They told me about their love story:

They were 32 years old and single. Steve was told by a friend that he wanted to introduce him to a fellow friend, Sonia. Sonia lived in India, where she grew up, and Steve was living in Omaha, Nebraska. They emailed each other for a year, but then it sort of fell off.

A few years later, Steve emailed her again. This time, he was more committed and she noticed something about him had changed. He was more engaged in their conversations. They emailed for a while and then in February 2007, Steve flew to India to met Sonia for the first time. While he was there, he also met a child that he had been sponsoring for years.

While in India, Steve proposed to Sonia. A few months later, Sonia flew to the U.S. to attend my wedding and meet some of our family. We all instantly fell in love with her and her mother. They were sweet, smart, and genuine. We happily welcomed them into our family.

About five months later, they married in India and a month after that, Sonia moved to the U.S. They’ve been married ever since. Steve and Sonia told me about their story because I never really knew how they met. They told me they got to know each other through email, which enabled them to get to know the others’ heart. They were able to focus on who they were.

They laughed. Sonia said, “I probably would have chosen someone shorter and he would have chosen someone taller, but God had a plan for us and his timing is perfect.” My uncle is 6’4” and towers over Sonia.

I loved hearing their story. It gave me hope that love can be unconventional and can be found in unexpected ways. Steve and Sonia are great together and compliment each other. They fell in love across the world from each one another.

I told them about my travels, the people I’d met, and how it felt like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing with my life. They agreed and said they felt I was in God’s path and that amazing things were in store for me.

They understood my desire to have a partner. Steve, Sonia, and Effie prayed with me and I could feel God’s presence. For me, God’s presence and the relationship we have with him is what is important. Not following some rule that the church put into place, created by man. Having this time with them encouraged me and lifted me up. It was just what I needed.

The next morning, Steve and Sonia went to work in their day jobs while I slept in. Effie made me some breakfast and amazing tea from India. I got to know her better as she told me about her life in India before moving to the U.S. a few years ago.

Effie grew up Catholic and converted to more of a nondenominational decades ago. She felt the call to evangelize in India because she witnessed so many people giving their lives to Jesus. She was so passionate while  talking about her calling and her desire to help the community. In the U.S., she said it’s much harder to evangelize because people are closed off and don’t want to talk about God. I felt for her because I could tell it bummed her out. She has such a heart for God and helps out so many people in the community in any way she can.

After breakfast, I drove to Target to get a case of water and continued my drive towards Denver to stay with some other family members. I was so happy to have stayed with my uncle Steve, Sonia, and Effie, even if it was for a short time. They’re the type of people who accept everyone and bring joy to those around them. They provided me with the support and encouragement I needed to keep my chin up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 170-174: Snowshoeing and Snowmobiling

There was snow at the top of Whistler Mountain, so they were finally doing snowshoe tours. I love the snow and having lived in Los Angeles for the last 15 years, I was missing it. I met the group of six (and two tour guides) at the office and we started to put on boots that would be good for hooking the snowshoes onto.

The group consisted of  the following:

  • A married couple in their 50s from Victoria, British Columbia. They were celebrating the wife’s birthday, which was that day.
  • A married couple in their 50s from North Vancouver, British Columbia. They were visiting their daughter who lives there.
  • An Aunt and a niece from Australia. They don’t ski (the mom was out skiing), so they signed up for snowshoeing. The aunt said she figured out what she wants to do with her life in her 50s, which is farming and forestry. It’s never too late to discover this!

We boarded the gondola, which took about 20 minutes to reach the top. Kierra, one of the guides, was in my gondola. She appeared to be in her 20s and was from Australia. She told us that she came to Whistler in 2011 and spent some time there, but then went back to Australia. She just returned for the new season and had a work visa.

Kierra commented on how things have changed a lot since she was first in Whistler years ago. Maybe it was because Vail (a U.S. company) bought them out. She said, “Maybe it’s because the U.S. dollar is worth more than the Canadian dollar, but there are a lot more Americans here now.” I thought that was strange considering I had only met two Americans. I told her I had mostly met Australians. She responded, “That’s because we’re the loudest.”

Kierra also told our group that she noticed the party and drug scene was much more prevalent than it was years ago. Like most people working in Whistler, she commented about the housing situation. Kierra described it as large corporations taking advantage of young people who don’t mind sharing rooms. But as people age, they want their own space.

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We arrived at the top of Whistler Mountain and it was a beautiful, clear day with bright blue skies. We put our snowshoes on and started walking towards a reservoir. The mountain range in the distance was magnificent!

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We passed the ski and snowboard runs with care and once past them, we got to walk on fresh snow. It was deep and took effort. As we walked towards the reservoir, the guides told us to be careful not to step on baby trees that might be just below the snow.

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We walked around the reservoir and took some pictures of Blackholm Mountain. Once we walked around it, we climbed up a small hill. The snow and icicles were picturesque. The sun reflected off the snow and provided some warmth.

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Once at the top of the small hill, we slid on our butts down a little patch that some other people had created. It was a lot of fun! We had to walk back uphill to the gondola to return. As we walked, I talked with the other guide, Annabel.

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Annabel is from northern England. She had been in Whistler for one year and had another year to go. Once her visa expired, she planned on going to Japan and Australia. Annabel told me she was an excellent student in high school, but she decided not to apply for University because she wanted to experience and live in other countries. She said, “My teachers were all surprised, but I think I’m gaining more life lessons these last couple of years than if I were at University.” Annabel said her friends that were currently in University were unhappy and it’s a big party scene. She’s not into partying, so she felt it was better she wasn’t around that.

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I understand Annabel’s situation. As a society, we’ve pushed higher education on everyone even though it may not be the best path for everyone. She was learning a lot about different cultures, had to problem solve on her own, and navigate traveling – skills she wouldn’t learn at University.

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Annabel told me that before coming to Whistler, she was an Au Pair for a family in Spain and had a good experience. However, her next Au Pair position was for a family in Greece for six weeks. The parents were highly successful and had two children around seven and ten years old. The entire family was super fit and healthy, and worked out all of the time. When she arrived, the kids showed her their 6-pack abs and asked to see hers, which she declined.

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Annabel was thin and I was shocked as she told me the seven year old gripped her leg one day,pulled out an inch, and said, “If you lose this much, you’ll be great.” When she would be out in public with the kids, they’d laugh at overweight people. Annabel has overweight family members and was offended. When she told the mother she thought the comments were insulting, the mother said they probably got it from her, but she’d talk with the children.

We arrived at the gondola and started to head back down the mountain. Annabel was in my gondola and told us all how the family in Greece asked her to speak with a London accent because they didn’t like her northern English accent. In Whistler, she used to work at the Four Seasons hotel and watched children in the daycare center. The hotel also asked her to speak with a London accent. She’d only been to London once, so she was still working on eliminating words they asked her not to speak and fine-tuning her inflections. I thought it was rude that they asked her to change how she speaks.

Once we finished the tour, we parted ways. I walked over to Merlin’s Bar and Restaurant and ate a burger. It was almost completely empty, except an older guy next to me training his seeing-eye dog. Before I left, skiers started to come inside because it was getting dark. I loved being in the snow and seeing all the skiers made me want to learn how to ski…One day!

I wanted to stay in Whistler a little longer because the snow was finally in the forecast, but my Airbnb wasn’t available. I booked another Airbnb that was just down the road and was in the same building as the gym I had joined. When I checked out of my Airbnb that had been my home for the last five weeks, the owner, Lisa, stopped by to get the key. She also brought me a bottle of wine as a “thank-you” for putting up with all of the construction in the unit above me.

I loaded my car in the rain, frustrated it wasn’t snow. It had snowed a few days earlier, but the rain was now making all of the snow melt. I was able to check-in at my next Airbnb early. It was also a studio apartment, but this one had a loft for the bedroom. It was on the top floor, which provided great views of a nearby river. However, I had to carry my bags up four flights of stairs.

The next day, it was snowing! It was finally snowing hard, with large flakes. I looked out the balcony window and just watched the snow fall while I enjoyed my breakfast and coffee. It was so beautiful and it was exactly what I had been wanting for over a month. I was able to get cozy inside my apartment and write while watching the snow fall.

The following day, I woke up to a message from a friend asking if I wanted to know what the profit sharing was for the company I used to work for. I knew it would be very high because of the new tax breaks. He told me the amount and it was the most the company has ever given out. It was painful realizing that if I had stayed working there for six more months, I would have received that money.

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I decided to go for a walk. It was snowing, but I could still see where the concrete path went through the woods. It was beautiful. Peaceful, clean, and clear. I walked around a lake and to the train tracks. The snow was deep and I loved smashing my boots through it.

I walked back and continued across the highway to Creekside Village. I watched the skiers and snowboarders going up and down the mountain. I went to the gingerbread house and ordered an apple brown-butter latte. I sat there thinking about the money I lost because I quit my job.

Then I thought about how I’d spent the last six months: the things I’ve experienced, the people I’ve met, and the beauty that I’ve seen. I believe you have to be willing to give up “good” to experience “great.” I gave up my job, house, money, status, and comfort to pursue my dreams. I was happy with my decision. Chasing your dreams is hard and making sacrifices for your dream is harder. But I have faith that it will all be worth it in the end.

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That evening, I took the bus to the village and enjoyed some live music at the Fairmont Chateau. It was much busier now that dead-season was over. There was a holiday party for a healthcare company and I briefly talked with a woman from the party who was at the bar waiting for her drink. Seeing the holiday party reminded me of the holiday parties with my old company and I missed some of my friends.

The next day it was finally time for snowmobiling! I had been wanting to do this for weeks, but due to the lack of snow, they weren’t offering tours. Whistler had received 36” of snow in the last 48 hours (and 72” in the last seven days), so it was very deep.

The van took our group of five about 15 minutes out of town and halfway up a mountain. They had snowmobiles and other summer outdoor treetop activities there, which involved climbing and walking across ropes to various trees. The others in my group were a mom and daughter, and a couple who appeared to be in their 30s.

Our tour guide was from Australia and said he came to Whistler six years ago and never left. Back then, he applied for a visa and received it in seven days. As he showed us a 60 second demonstration on how to use the snowmobiles, he casually included, “Because of the deep powdery snow conditions today, at least one of you will flip. Any questions?”

I hadn’t driven a snowmobile since I was about 12 years old. I had a blast with my brother and dad riding through the Colorado mountains, but that was decades ago. Alarmed, I said, “Excuse me, You said we might flip? What exactly do we do if this happens?”

The tour guide said, “Well, keep your feet inside the foot holders or when it flips to the side, you could break your ankle. Also, if the machine starts to go off the mountain, make sure you jump off. But jump backwards so you don’t fall down the mountain. We don’t care if we lose the machine. We only care if we lose you.”

I thought, “Does this guy think I’m Tom Cruise and I can jump through the air backwards off of my machine and let it go crashing down the mountain?”

The couple was riding on one machine and they were right behind the  guide. The mom and daughter drove their own machines and were behind me. We started out immediately climbing on an old fire road on the side of the mountain.

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There were some tours in the morning, so there was some tracks we could follow and put our blades in. Because it had just snowed and not many people had been on the trails, it was extremely powdery and bumpy. The guide told us to make sure we shifted our weight on the machine on bumps and curves or we wouldn’t be able to turn. He was correct and I had to put my weight into it.

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Halfway up the mountain, we lost the mom and daughter and the guide went back to find them. It turned out that the daughter had flipped to the side. He was able to get her back up and continue driving.

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I was ecstatic as we continued to gain elevation! Giant pine trees covered in snow surrounded us. When there was a break in the trees, we could see the beautiful mountain range.

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Once we arrived at the top, we got off our machines to take pictures. As soon as I stepped unto the snow, I sank almost to my knees! The snow didn’t look that deep so it surprised me. We had a blast playing in the deep snow banks on the side and taking in the view.

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The sun was starting to set as we headed back down. I took off my goggles because they were tinted, which made it harder to see. I could see better without them, but it started to snow and it was getting in my eyes.

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We went much faster going down the mountain and it was a blast! We turned on our headlights and raced down. I loved snowmobiling so much and I decided I want to live in the mountains and own a snowmobile.

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Once we finished, we headed back to the village in Whistler. I was happy that I finally was able to enjoy Whistler’s famous deep snow. While November was the warmest, driest month on record, December ended up receiving the most snow in Whistler history. The lesson? Sometimes periods of drought are followed by periods of blizzards.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider

Days 163-169: Friends in Whistler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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