Day 267: Driving a Motorbike in the Rain

It was cold at the homestay in northern Vietnam. I grabbed a blanket from the empty mattress pad next to me and put it on top of mine. That kept me warm and comfortable through the night. As I ate breakfast, I talked with the three travellers from Holland about medical school and how they needed a break. I told them about my travels and we had a great conversation about finding the right path in life.

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Before we left, two of the women from the house took a picture with me because of my height. They were dressed in beautiful local garments and I tried my best to thank them for their wonderful hospitality and “happy water.”

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Opi instructed us to hit the road, so Ben, Berry, and I strapped our backpacks onto our motorbikes and we were off. It was very foggy and humid outside. It was still cold, so I wore my coat and bike gloves.

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We arrived at Lung Khuy Cave and started hiking to the entrance. The path was at a slight incline and on the side of a mountain. The fog was so thick, it was like walking into a cloud. Very large spider webs perched on top of bushes and looked like floating clouds among the foliage.

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We passed a woman walking down the path with a huge bundle of tree stalks and leaves neatly bound to her back. It must have been three times her size. We had seen this while driving, but it was easier to see just how large the bundles were now that we were closer.

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As we climbed the mountain, it got steeper and steeper and I started to sweat. I took off my coat and tied it around my waist. The path was dirt and then turned into flat stones. However, the fog made the stones wet and slippery. Because they were at a steep angle, I slipped a couple of times, but was able to keep myself from falling. Then the path turned into steps. So many steps.

We arrived at the cave after 40 minutes and had it all to ourselves, which made it peaceful, but also a little creepy. There was a slightly elevated metal path that wrapped around the cave. As we walked through, Opi told us stories about the cave. He pointed to a patch of bright green grass. It started growing when they put lights in that section.

Opi explained that the locals believe there are spirits in the cave because one time a guy and his son broke a stalactite off and took it home. Shortly after, they died in a mysterious way. The cave has only been open to the public since 2015.

As we headed back down the mountain, my right knee was hurting pretty badly. It had been hurting on and off for the last two months, which was really frustrating me. I tried to ignore the pain by talking and distracting myself. Then I realized I was talking a lot. I said, “Opi is probably annoyed with me.” He chimed in, “I like listening. It’s easier for me to understand your accent over the English and European accents.”

We stopped for lunch and as we were walking to our table, I noticed that some women were staring at me. I asked Opi if they were staring because my water bottle was so big. He said, “No, it’s your height.” I smiled and sat down. We ate fried rice with an egg on top and it was delicious.

Before we left our lunch spot, I put my raincover on my backpack because it was slightly misting outside. Right after we started driving, it was full-on raining. I regretted not putting my rain jacket on. My coat was keeping me warm, but it was quickly getting covered in water. It was so cold that I could see my breath.

The water droplets were so tiny that I couldn’t have my visor down. Once the tiny droplets covered it, I lifted it up so that I could see. Rain was getting into my eyes and water dripped from my visor onto my face. I squinted and tried my best to see in the fog. The visibility was poor as we climbed the mountain.

Going down the mountain was slippery, so Opi took it slow. Adding to all of this were trucks racing by. We were all just trying to get to the bottom safely. All I could think about was how cold and wet I was.

When we got back down to the base of the mountain, it was warmer and no longer raining. The roads were still wet, but I was so relieved to have the rain out of my eyes. After passing through some towns, we were back on the flat, main road and stopped to take pictures. I put my rain jacket on because my coat was too wet.

Two French guys and one girl stopped to take pictures too. They had just left Ha Giang and noticed my wet helmet and asked if it was raining. I explained that it was raining up the mountain and they should put on their wet weather gear. I also told them to make sure they down-shift into second gear when climbing the mountain.

Shortly after, we arrived back in Ha Giang. After dropping our backpacks at Opi’s hostel, we drove to a massage place to help our sore muscles. Opi translated for us and we all agreed to do the herbal bath and a massage. I was taken upstairs to a small room with a massage bed. Then the petite woman showed me a door on the other side of the room where a bathtub was. She turned the water on and put herbs inside. She didn’t speak any English, so we had a hard time communicating. I was trying to ask how long I should stay in there, but she didn’t tell me. When I had asked Opi earlier, he said the bath would be around 30 minutes.

The woman left the room. I was uncomfortable undressing because there was just a frosted glass wall between the small room with a bathtub and the massage room. Then there was frosted glass from the massage room to the hallway.

I quickly undressed and did my best to squeeze myself into the small (but tall) tub. I relaxed and was hoping that the herbs would help my muscles. Then after 20 minutes, the woman came into the room. She pointed for me to get out and go to the massage table. I was embarrassed because I was naked in the tub.

I asked her to leave so I could undress, but she wasn’t budging. I motioned for her to leave and she stepped into the other room (on the other side of the frosted glass). I got out and as I dried off, she came back into the room. Frustrated, I tried to cover myself up. She pointed to the massage table and I kept asking if I should put my clothes on.

I was very unclear if I should be dressed or not, so I put my underwear on and climbed on the massage table. The blanket was too tiny to cover most of me, but I did my best. I was on my back like the woman instructed me. She was behind my head and rubbing my shoulders. Then she started to rub my forehead and face.

The pressure the woman used on my forehead was starting to really bother me. I tried my best not to complain and figured she’d move on soon. Except she didn’t. Over and over, she squeezed my forehead. I couldn’t take it anymore and instinctively moved my head, waved my hands and said, “Enough.” She moved back to massaging my shoulders, but it was so forceful, it was painful. Then she was back to the forehead. I had to push her away again.

As the woman painfully pressed into my shoulders, she typed something into her phone on Google translate and showed it to me. Google didn’t translate well and it said something about a man doing it. She also pointed to the door. Confused, I shrugged my shoulders. She kept showing it to me and I said I didn’t want a man doing the massage.

The woman didn’t give up. She kept speaking vietnamese to me and I’d speak English to her. She stopped messaging again to show me her next Google translate. It was something about “a woman massaged her son.” I said I didn’t understand and typed that into the Google translate.

The woman moved around, punching my arms and legs. Then she squeezed my right knee so hard that I immediately pulled it away in pain. I tried telling her “not so hard.” I made a face of pain, hoping to convey that she was pressing too hard. I was baffled as to how a woman so small could have such a tight grip and cause so much pain.

Next, the woman had me turn on my stomach so she could massage my back. It was better, but she still kept talking to me in Vietnamese and I’d explain that I couldn’t understand her. All of a sudden, she left the room. She came back with Opi who was also mostly naked. Opi said, “She wants to know if you think it’s too hard.” Trying to cover myself up, I said, “Yes! It’s too hard.” Opi translated and left the room.

Towards the end of the massage, the petite woman started walking on my back. She held a pole on the ceiling and walked all over me, including the back of my legs and arms. While she was very petite and had soft feet, it was still painful! I couldn’t wait for the massage to be over. Then the women tried to crack my back and I’m not very flexible. She moved my body all around. Once that was complete, the massage was over. The woman breathed heavily and we laughed at the ridiculous situation we were in. She must have thought I was a giant.

I got dressed and met everyone in the lobby. I explained to them that I had the worst massage of my life, how much it hurt, and that we could not communicate. Ben and Berry said their couples’ massage hurt as well. We drove back to the hostel and I was very dramatic in showing how the woman tried to move me around, walked on me, and punched me. We all laughed about it.

Ben and Berry had to catch their bus, so we said our goodbyes. We hoped to meet up again when we were in the middle of Vietnam. It was hard saying goodbye. They are such good people and I really enjoyed their company. I felt better knowing I’d probably see them in a week or so.

Back at the hostel, Opi and I sat on the couch in the lobby and talked about his business. Those of us on the tour all agreed to write him five-star reviews because we all had such an incredible experience. We warned Opi that his business is going to continue to grow because he does a great job at creating a local experience and is such a fun guy to be around. We cautioned him not to grow too fast, or the quality of his tours might suffer.

I told Opi that I had a hard time finding his company on Trip Advisor because it wasn’t showing “motorbike” tour. We searched through the app together to find ways to change the headings.It listed “hop-on/hop-off” and I showed a picture of a bus that is a traditional hop-on/hop-off bus and told him that he should remove it from his heading because it might be confusing people. I also proofread his listing to correct some grammatical errors.

Opi and I had a nice time talking about business, how to succeed, and our future plans. Opi told me that I did a good job driving and he seemed proud of me. He said, “When I was first showing you the bike, your hands were shaking and I was worried. My friends noticed it too. But then you took off and were able to do it.” I laughed because I didn’t realize my hands were shaking.

It was time for dinner and my night bus wouldn’t be arriving for awhile, so I walked down the street and across a bridge. I found a small restaurant and looked at the sign. I saw the same fried rice and egg that I had for lunch. I enjoyed it so much that I bought it again. I asked the woman how much it cost. She didn’t speak much English, so she typed the price on her calculator on her cell phone and showed it to me. That was a frequent tactic that locals used to show the price. They knew the numbers, but didn’t know how to pronounce them. It was a successful way to communicate.

I walked back to the hostel and Opi and Eddie (the other tour guide) were eating in the kitchen. I joined them and we had a shot of happy water. Opi had arranged for my VIP night bus to take me back south and it would be arriving soon.

I had such a great time with them. Even though I couldn’t talk to Eddie much because he didn’t speak Enlgish, his actions told me all I needed to know. He was kind. He was driving behind me on the last day and stopped to pick up my chapstick when he saw that it fell out of my backpack. I was grateful that he grabbed it. When it started raining and it was foggy outside, he pulled up next to me and switched my headlights on. He had a caring and kind soul and I appreciated that.

All of a sudden, the VIP bus arrived early and I had to grab my bags and get on before they left. Opi helped get my bags to the driver. Then Eddie came to the living room with shots of happy water. We all cheered, clinked our glasses, and took the shot. We hugged goodbye and Opi walked me outside to the bus. We hugged again and wished each other well and to stay in touch. I was going to miss Opi – his positive spirit, the good conversations, the goofiness, and friendship.

I got on the bus and the driver asked me to take off my shoes and put them in a plastic bag, so I did. There was one aisle with pods on both sides and two floors. The pods had a reclining padded seat, a small TV, a water bottle and snack, a curtain to the outside and to give privacy to the inside, and a blanket. I was thrilled to have this bus instead of the horrible sleeper bus I traveled in on my way there. This bus only cost about $5.00 more and was definitely worth it. The man instructed me to climb the ladder into the top bunk in the second row.

I laid down and curled up under my blanket. I thought about my time on the Ha Giang Loop. It was incredible. The scenery was magnificent, the motorbike was an adventure, the locals were hospitable, and the people on my tour was a blast! We all became fast friends and bonded really well. Opi created a family-like experience, put safety as a top priority, and tended to all of our needs. I was happy that I chose that tour. As I look back on the month I spent in Vietnam, this tour was definitely the highlight. It was exhilarating, beautiful, and just so much fun! When people ask me what I loved most about Vietnam, I always tell them about this tour and how the Ha Giang Loop should not be missed.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider

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Day 266: The Chinese Border

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 264: Driving a Motorbike Through the Vietnamese Mountains

I woke up in my hotel, packed my bags, and asked the front desk where the nearest ATM was located. The man didn’t speak much English, but gave a few instructions. After walking for seven minutes and not finding the ATM, I asked store owners if they could help. I kept getting led astray and could not find the ATM anywhere. Opi, the tour guide for the motorbike tour called me and asked where I was. I explained that I couldn’t find the ATM (I needed to pay him the final amount of the tour in cash).

Opi explained where the ATM was located, but it was pretty far away. I walked as fast as I could and finally made it. The money in Vietnam is called dong and a bottle of water usually costs $10,000 dong. Most ATMs in Vietnam would let me take out $3,000,000 dong ($130 USD). For some reason, this ATM was only letting me take out $200,000 dong ($8.60 USD). I still had some cash on me, so it would give me enough to pay Opie. However, the ATM gave me small $10,000 bills, which was really annoying.

As I walked back to my hotel, Opi drove up on his motorbike and told me to get on the back. I hopped on and he took me to the hotel, called a taxi for me because of my bags, and drove off. I took the taxi to Opi’s hostel. Opi lived there and no longer rented out the hostel to guests. He allowed me to put my bigger bags in his room and I brought my medium-sized backpack for the things I needed during the four-day motorbike tour.

It seems that I’m always rushed and flustered. I tried to calm myself down, but the morning had already made me anxious. Opi introduced me to the others on the tour: Erik and Melana, and Ben and Berry. We said our hellos and Opi quickly took me outside. He showed me the motorbike that I would be driving and said he needed to make sure I was capable of driving it before we started our path up and down the steep mountains. He handed me elbow and knee pads, and a helmet.

The group, including Opi’s friends, were all watching as I sat on the motorbike and Opi showed me how to change gears. I had driven an automatic bike a few times, most recently on an island in Thailand. This bike, however, was semi-automatic and to shift I had to use a foot pedal. While one foot had to shift, the other foot had to use the back brake. One of the handle bars also had a brake for the front tire. To accelerate, I had to turn the throttle with my hand.

As Opi instructed me, I failed at looking like I knew what I was doing. I saw the look of worry on his face. Then I looked at his friend’s faces, who appeared to think I was crazy. I was late arriving there and didn’t want to hold anybody up, so I tried to convince myself to hurry and just do it. Opi told me to drive down the street, turn down another street, turn around and come back.

I kept hesitating because the motorbikes and cars seem to rush past me on the street. Opi told me to scoot back and he jumped on the bike in front of me. He drove down the street and turned onto another street that wasn’t as crowded. Opi got off the bike and I drove away. I was pleasantly surprised that I could drive it. Shifting with my foot was a challenge because I had to move it to get to the pedal. I succeeded in merging in traffic and making a turn and I made it back to the shop.

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Once we were back, the others put their pads on and strapped their backpacks to the bikes. Opi gave all of us a large bottle of water and secured it to the bike as well. Then I noticed that the others were all riding on the back of a motorbike. I was the only one driving my own bike. I didn’t even realize it was an option to ride on the back of a bike, but I felt proud that I was driving my own.

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Just like that, we were off! We left Ha Giang and headed towards the mountains. Opi led the way with Ben on the back of his bike. He instructed me to follow directly behind him in case there was a problem. It also allowed him to gauge if I was able to keep up. We drove single file and at first the road was flat, which I was grateful for. I was feeling confident and was loving the scenery!

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We drove on the windy road at a good pace, occasionally stopping for pictures. The green fields surrounded the road. The mountains were quickly in front of us as we drove through small towns. Motorbikes with items like over-sized bundles of bamboo and supplies were strapped to them as they zipped by us. Villagers, often women, were carrying the bundles that weren’t being hauled on motorbikes.

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All of a sudden, we started to climb up a steep mountain. The signs read “10% grade,” which is pretty steep. The fog was coming in very thick, making it difficult to see all of the scenery. It was cold outside, but was bearable with a wind jacket. The roads had many large potholes, so I was always very alert and doing my best to avoid them.

The road wound its way up the mountain and I noticed that Opi would honk his high-pitched horn several times as we turned into the curve to warn others that we were coming. The road was narrow, so this was necessary. I was close enough to Opi that I usually didn’t need to honk, but as time went on, I confidently honked my horn too.

Occasionally busses would pass us, which made me a little scared. They were smaller and more narrow than most busses that I had seen, but on the narrow, steep roads, there wasn’t much room to pass. The bus would honk its horn (which sounded like a funny cartoon horn) and we’d all drive as far to the right as possible. It was difficult at times because if I went too far to the right, I’d hit the gravel and get nearer to the edge of the mountain.

We stopped on the side of the mountain to take pictures and to enjoy the view. Opi told me that I was doing a great job at keeping up and driving safely. He and the others told me that I was a “badass” for driving myself. Opi and I decided to take a photo showing our bad-ass selves.

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Opi pointed out the village below and the surrounding mountains. Two of the peaks were nicknamed “breast mountains” because they look like two even breasts. The fog was thick, but we got views of the breast mountains from above and down below.

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We stopped a few times to take pictures. We frequently passed two groups: the British girls I met on the bus getting to Ha Giang and a group of four masculine women who appeared to be in their late 40s to early 50s. They were all riding on the back of the motorbike of guides and we were the only ones wearing protective pads, giving me more confidence in Opi.

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At one point we stopped at a coffee shop that was in a hut on the side of the mountain in the middle of nowhere. It was great to stretch and get a warm drink. I ordered the “Coffee + lots of milk” and sat on the bar that overlooked the scenery. I sat next to the girls from the U.K. and we chatted. They were all traveling solo, but met in a hostel. They hired three guys to drive them on the Ha Giang Loop. They appeared to be in their 20s. One girl, Cherrelle, told me that I was brave to drive on those roads by myself.

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Another girl, Harmeet, told me that she was traveling for a couple of months, but had to get back to London by summertime because she had five weddings to attend. Between bachelorette parties, bridal showers, and weddings, her whole summer was packed.

Once we finished our drinks, we continued to drive up the mountain. The road was very windy as we kept climbing. As we neared the top of the mountain, there were ferns and pine trees. It reminded me of the Pacific Northwest in the U.S.

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Shortly after, we stopped for lunch. We sat outside at a table with umbrellas. As our lunch of shared dishes was being prepared, the guides took breaks. I sat at the table with the others in the group and got to know them:

Melana and Erik – She was 33, had medium-length brown hair, was about 5’7”, and was a physical therapist. Erik was 32, had short brown hair, was about 6’4”, and was a manufacturing engineer. She and Erik were dating and lived in Ohio. Melana has lived in many places, even in Kuwait, and didn’t care for Ohio. She loved to take pictures at various sites of her doing the splits because it had become a tradition. They were on a two-week vacation and were only doing the three day tour, so they’d be with us for two days and then would head back to Ha Giang with their guides.

Ben and Berry – Ben was 33, had short black hair, was about 5’8”, and used to work in IT. Berry was 31, had straight black hair just above her shoulder, was about 5’2”, and used to work in IT on the front end. She was originally from China, moved to Sudan for a couple of years in middle school, and moved to the U.S for college. Ben was originally from Taiwan and moved to the U.S. in high school. In college, Ben and Berry met in their first class on their first day of school. They started dating and have been together ever since (now they’re married)! After college, they moved to New York. They thought it was fun in their 20s, but it became the “same old.” It’s also too expensive to live there. Berry quit her job and Ben went on an eight month sabbatical so they can travel. They rented out their apartment and started traveling the month prior. They spent a week in Taiwan, then went to Hawaii, Thailand, Burma, and now Vietnam.

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Opi and the guides joined us and introduced us to “happy water,” which we’d later realize was homemade rice wine. They poured the clear happy water in small-sized shot glasses and it tasted strong. We took the opportunity to get to know the guides.

Opi was in his early 20s, was around 5’9”, had bleach blonde hair on top, earrings, and an athletic vibe. He was from the area and grew up in a small village. He taught himself English in three months from watching YouTube videos. A couple of years ago, he opened a hostel in Ha Giang, but then the city started putting in bogus rules. He lives there with some friends, but no longer runs it as a hostel. Instead, he started his own company, Ha Giang Roadtrip, to offer motorbike tours. What made his company different than others was that the tour guides were all from local tribes. There is a large company that offers tours, but Opi focuses on homestays and getting off the beaten track. His tours drive the Ha Giang Loop, but also go into side areas that most people don’t know about. Opi was a smart, funny, light-hearted guy who was a blast to be around.

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Opi’s friend Zing was a character! He also recently learned English from YouTube videos and was still practicing. He’d often ask us what a certain word meant and to correct him when his English was incorrect. He was Opi’s “right hand man” and Opi was teaching him how to respond to customers who emailed or texted. He was also being taught how to lead tours on his own as Opi’s business was expanding. Zing was always hilarious, singing Celine Dion’s, “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic. Melana was on the back of his motorbike and he’d sing it for her while driving.

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The other two guides didn’t speak English, so we didn’t get a chance to know them much. Opi told us one of them was his father and we all thought he was joking until days later when we realized he actually was Opi’s father. The final tour guide, Eddie, was Opi’s friend who appeared to be in his early 20s as well.

After lunch, we continued driving and stopped in a small village where Zing was from. They took us into a small bamboo building where women and girls were weaving rugs and all sorts of fabrics. One woman gave us a demonstration of how she uses a wooden machine to help her weave the rug.

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Next, she showed us how she gets a shine to the rug by standing on a flat piece of stone with a circular stone piece beneath. She rocks side to side, allowing the fabric to be smashed between the two with the rocking motions. It takes a lot of hip movements and Zing demonstrated it for us. Melana and Erik gave it a try and said it was difficult.

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After the demonstration and browsing the shop, we continued our journey through the mountains. We saw farmers on the side of the mountains, picking from their fields. I couldn’t believe how they created ledges that were just a few feet long on the side of the mountain to farm. Then they’d create several more, making the side of the mountain look like it has long horizontal steps going down it. They handpicked and planted, carried the crop up to their motorbike, and strapped very large bundles to the back and drove off. Others would strap the bundles to their backs and walk to their home. It made me reflect on what we call “hard work” in the U.S.

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As we reached the top of a mountain, the sun started to peek through the fog and clouds, giving off rays of light as it began to set. We stopped to take pictures and it felt angelic up there. The views were constantly breathtaking with lush greenery on the steep mountain peaks.

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Halfway down the mountain, there was road construction. The entire road turned to loose, medium-sized gravel for about two miles. Opi told me to be careful and not to hit my back brakes too hard because I’d skid. I gripped my handles hard and tried my best to keep control of the bike, but it was difficult. I had to go with the flow without sliding off the side of the mountain. My arms were so tight that they started to ache. It was an intense section, but I made it out successfully without losing control or crashing.

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 Once we were at the bottom, we drove through a small village and arrived at our first home stay. When we got off of our bikes, the others told me that I looked like a professional driving down the gravel road. I felt relieved that maybe I did know what I was doing. Zing told me that I was a “super driver.”

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The homestay was operated by a local family – a young couple with a baby. Right next to the house was a rice field. Opi showed us around and where to sleep. The others had private rooms, which consisted of four walls and a double mattress that was about two inches thick. My mat was in the main room where the guides would sleep. There were several mats and I took one in the corner in hopes of avoiding any snorers. The guides ended up taking mats on the other side of the room, so nobody was directly next to me. We had mosquito nets above our mats and I had a curtain at the end of mine, which was nice.

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While the family cooked us dinner, we got settled and drank some beer. Some of the guides had “happy flower,” which is marajuana from a bong. The downstairs had open walls to the outside, a pool table, and two wooden tables. Our bedrooms were upstairs, which had thin wooden walls. The two bathrooms were also upstairs, but off to the side. We had to walk across a bamboo balcony to get to the bathrooms.

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When dinner was ready, we all ate in the middle of the room upstairs where most of the mats were. They placed a large rug on the floor and we sat in a big circle. Small plates of food were prepared and we ate in a communal style. The food was delicious! The host kept serving happy water and I was feeling slightly drunk. We did the vietnamese “cheers” which consists of shouting several verses:
Một hai ba zô
Hai ba zô
Hai ba uống

In English, it means:
One, two, three, cheers!
Two, three, cheers!
Two, three, drink!

It was a very fun dinner, even if we couldn’t communicate very well with the homeowners. There were universal hand signals, smiles, and thank-yous. The husband kept filling our shot glasses as soon as they were empty. Melana said she struggles using chopsticks when she’s been drinking, so she put her hand over her shot glass. It seemed to be the best way to communicate “no more please.” For dessert, the wife cut a pineapple in a way that impressed us all. The baby was a favorite and we all played with her. I switched my body positions often because my legs kept falling asleep.

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Once dinner was complete, I talked with Ben and Berry about travel planning and how time consuming it is. It felt good to have someone understand what it involves. When I first arrive in a new city, I have to spend time finding things to do and don’t want to miss things that I would love. Then I spend time doing the things, which leaves no time for actually writing. Ben and Berry were vlogging about their travels, but were also very behind. Ben will edit their videos while Berry researches the next city. As we stood in the main room upstairs talking and laughing, the lights were turned off. We assumed this was our cue that we should go to bed.

I grabbed my shower items and went to the bathroom to take a shower. The room had two large windows that were mostly open to the outside. The floor was bamboo, which made me fear that I’d fall through the uneven floor. There was a slab of rock underneath the showerhead, which was helpful because it gave a more sturdy base.

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After my shower, I went to my mat to sleep. I was used to homestays like this because of the adventure tour I did in Thailand. The mat was thin, so my hips hurt a little bit. I turned and woke up a lot to switch sides since I’m a side-sleeper. Overall, I was very happy to be on the tour. I really enjoy seeing areas outside of major cities. I was getting to see small villages and had the opportunity to see how they live. So far, the locals were all very hospitable and friendly.

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Day 263: The Worst Bus Ride of My Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Day 262: Learning about Vietnam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Days 259-260: Food Tour and Exploring Hanoi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 254-255: The Journey to Dive Certification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Day 244-246: City Living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Day 243: Discovering Bangkok, Thailand

I woke up in Bangkok with no idea how I was going to spend my time. I searched on Trip Advisor and signed up for a bike tour. I’ve found it’s always a good way to see a new city because you move faster than walking, but slower than in a car.

It was a night tour to avoid the daytime heat because it gets very hot and humid in Bangkok. I spent the afternoon walking around the neighborhood where I was staying. I ended up near a college and there were young kids in uniforms everywhere. They ate at cafes and bought street food.

The narrow streets were incredibly difficult to navigate. Sometimes the sidewalk was walkable, but often vendors were suddenly on the sidewalk and I’d have to duck below their umbrella or go into the street. Other times, motorbikes were parked on the sidewalks, making it impossible to use. The street was always just inches away. I thought for sure I was going to be hit by a car or a motorbike.

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Bangkok had more cars than Chaing Mai. It felt like New York, except there weren’t any homeless people around. I zigzagged through the streets until I found a sushi restaurant. It had air conditioning, so it felt like a good place to eat.  

After I ate, I realized I needed to head downtown for my bike tour. I ordered a Grab and ten minutes later it arrived. The price was $210 baht ($6.80) and the driver asked if I wanted to take the highway for $50 baht ($1.63) more. I thought he was trying to scam me, so I said the price should only be $210 baht.

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Just after we passed the highway entrance, the traffic on local streets came to a complete stop. The driver told me that it would take an hour on the local streets and half an hour on the highway. I needed to be there in half an hour, so I asked him to take the highway. It took him awhile to get there. Sure enough, before getting on, he had to pay $50 baht at a toll booth. I gave him the $50 baht and was grateful that I arrived just in time.

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There were five of us and a guide on the bike tour. The guide was funny, but he didn’t give a lot of information. It was sunset when we started our ride through extremely narrow alleyways. We had to constantly ring the bells on our bikes to alert people to move.

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We arrived at the river and waited in line to board a ferry. Once it arrived, we carried our bikes on the small boat. The sun was beautiful as it set.

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We arrived at some temples, which were lit up at night. They were so beautiful and there was hardly anybody around. We couldn’t go inside, but I didn’t care because they were so cool to see at night. The guide told us that we’d “see the beauty of the night” and he was right.

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We had some free time to wander around and I talked with some others on the tour. There was a single guy from Bangladesh, a couple from China, and a single girl from Chicago who teaches English in Korea. She was tall and sporty and we talked about how she takes long weekends to travel to nearby places.

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We continued on and this time we rode over the bridge across the river. The guide warned us to watch out for busses because “they are the king of the road.”

We arrived at the flower market, which was mostly marigolds for people to put at the temples. The flowers were beautiful and plentiful. We parked our bikes out front and didn’t lock them up. I asked the guide about it and he said it wasn’t necessary. Sure enough, our bikes were fine when we returned.

Street food vendors were just outside of the flower market. Our guide bought some food for us to try, like pork on a stick and fresh fruit. I tried a tiny bit of a hot sauce and my eyes started watering! It was too hot for me and I grabbed my water.

We continued riding our bikes and stopped at some more temples. They were incredible! The artistic and intricate designs were so unique as the lights highlighted all of the details. We explored on our own and nobody else was around, a rare thing in Bangkok.

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The bike tour finished and I was close to the famous Khao San Road. It’s a street known for its wild antics, backpackers, and a crazy party scene. Khao San Road was more like a wide alleyway with shops, restaurants, bars, and street vendors everywhere. It was packed. I squeezed my way through the vendors selling things like scorpions on a stick. At times, it was tough to get through the crowd.

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One male vendor told me, “You must be from America.” I replied, “I am.” He continued, “How long are you here?” I didn’t answer and kept walking. He didn’t stop, “Why won’t you talk?”

I saw a man with a sign trying to get people to go into a comedy show. He was from Australia and I briefly talked with him. He told me that the show was about to start, I’d get two drinks included in my ticket price, and he promised the show would be hilarious. I enjoy a good comedy show and it was only $6.50 USD, so I said sure. He walked me down a narrow hallway with nobody around. I followed him and asked, “How do I know you’re not trying to lure me somewhere?” He laughed, “You don’t. That’s the fun part.”

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When we arrived at the door, I paid for a ticket and was let inside. It was a small stage and there were only about 20 people there. I enjoyed the show and a couple of guys were funny. When the final guy went on stage, he asked the audience where they were from. There was a man and a woman in their 30s from Germany. The drunk woman loudly informed all of us that they were “sex tourists.”

Bangkok is known for the sex industry. Men can easily pay for sex with any type of woman, “ladyboys” included. I saw a sign on Khao San Road to watch a “ping pong” tournament. I was already warned that those tournaments are where women shoot ping pong balls out of their vaginas.

Hearing the tourists say they were “sex tourists” was disgusting to me. Westerners can go to Thailand and pay little money for sexual services and it made me feel sorry for the women there. It is common that family members will get girls into the industry to help make money. It’s a large business because of western men.

A few weeks later, I would meet a guy from Europe who would tell me that when he was on Koh Tao (a Thai island) the women would lure him into a bar. One time, the women started rubbing his penis and one even unzipped his jeans and pulled his penis out. They told him they could “finish the job” for $50 USD if he followed them to another room. He declined and said he couldn’t believe how bold and forceful the women were. He figured it was a whole scam to get men to buy overpriced drinks in the bar.

After the comedy show, I continued walking down the street, checking out the insanity. The music from the outdoor bars was extremely loud, competing to be heard. Obnoxious, drunk tourists were everywhere and I was getting overwhelmed, so I decided to leave.

I started walking down the street, looking for a good place to call a Grab. It was so crowded everywhere and nowhere for a car to pull over, so I kept walking. After 20 minutes, I finally ordered one. A pink taxi showed up, which confused me since Grab is usually someone’s personal car. I was happy to have experienced Khao San Road, but once was enough for me.

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Days 223-226: Overseas vs Wedding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Day 175: Leaving Whistler with a Bang!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 130-133: Getting Settled in Whistler, Canada

On Halloween morning, I left Vancouver, Washington and drove about four hours to Mount Vernon, Washington to stay the night with my friend Chanell. I arrived in the early evening and enjoyed a delicious crockpot meal that Chanell had prepared. Her adorable children, ages 1 and 3, had carved some pumpkins that were proudly displayed on the front porch.

Once it got dark outside, I tagged along with Chanell, her husband Matt, and the kids to go trick-or-treating. I absolutely love taking kids trick-or-treating. I love the costumes, the fun vibes, and the excitement as kids gather more and more candy. When I was a kid, my dad used to take me and my siblings trick-or-treating, and I was determined to get as much candy as possible. I used a pillow case and because I’m a saver, I would slowly eat my candy over the next year.

It was a foggy night outside, which created the perfect ambiance. Once we were finished and the kids went to bed, Chanell and I stayed up late talking. We talked about how she was doing during her current pregnancy, and what books she was reading. She had a lofty goal of reading two books a month and was on track to achieve it.

After enjoying a relaxing breakfast at Chanell’s house, I continued my drive north towards Whistler, British Columbia. The U.S. and Canada border is only about an hour and a half north of Mount Vernon. I arrived fairly quickly, but I always worry about getting through. The intimidating police officers and border security scare me.

I pulled up to the booth when it was my turn and a young, blonde, girl with a French accent sternly started asking me questions:

Where are you staying?

For how long?

Why did you drive instead of fly?

Do you have friends here?

I was surprised by some of her questions, like asking why I drove my car, because I hadn’t been asked them before. Just then, she received a phone call and closed her window to talk on the phone. I started to worry. Were they calling her because there was a problem?

Thankfully, she opened her window, handed me my passport, and said I was free to go. I drove past high rises in Vancouver and then hit the Sea to Sky highway to Whistler. Whistler is about an hour and a half north of Vancouver and it’s a very scenic drive. It was raining and foggy, however, so I couldn’t see much.

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I arrived at my Airbnb at 4:00 pm, which was a small, recently remodeled condo. It had been remodeled in gray and white with all things IKEA. Lisa, the owner, met me there to let me inside and show me around. I had booked the place for the month, so I’d be there for a while.

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Airbnb on a clear day

Lisa was in her 40s, thin with long blonde hair, pretty and spunky. She was from Melbourne, Australia and said, “I came here 25 years ago for a three month holiday and then I never left.” That seemed to be the story with most of the people in Whistler. We couldn’t get the cable to work and we played around with several wires. Eventually, her friend got on the phone for assistance and we got it to work.

The place was beautiful, but small. It was a studio and the couch converted into the bed. Lisa knew I would be doing a lot of writing so she got me a small wooden folding table and chairs. There was also a great reading nook with windows looking out to the driveway below and a view of gorgeous trees.

I unloaded several bags from my car and then drove to the market to get some groceries. As I walked around the produce section, I noticed several attractive, single men in their late 20s to late 30s. I was pleasantly surprised and thought this could be a great place to be.

The food was extremely expensive and my total came to $275! Thankfully, that was only $209 US dollars. I had to buy things like salt and pepper since the condo was new and didn’t have anything. I loaded my car in the pouring rain. I had a hard time making my way back the few miles in the dark with such little light pollution. I pulled up to the front door and carried all of my bags down to the first floor. Then I had to move my car to the parking lot around a second building and down a hill. I thought, “I’m prepared for a winter in the mountains, right?”

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It was raining the following day and was perfect weather to stay indoors and write. I unpacked some clothes and got settled. It was the first time in four months I could unpack. While the rain was nice writing weather, I was anxiously waiting for the snow. I had a goal of writing while I was cozied up inside my little apartment, watching the snow fall.

The next day I went to a small gym, the Whistler Athletic Club, that was a 15 minute walk down the road. I was able to do a free workout to try it out. It was small and not the nicest, but it had the machines I like to use. At $68 a month, it was also the cheapest.

I spent the day writing and listening to music because that’s part of my process. At 10:15 pm, I heard a knock on my door. I was still in my workout clothes and answered the door.

A short man about 5’7” in his 40s who looked like a serial killer was standing there. He introduced himself as Kelly who was staying in unit 109 for the month while he was there for work. He was doing laundry and accidentally locked his phone inside the room. The laundry room uses a passcode, and everyone has their own code. Kelly told me he knocked on my door because he could hear my music, so he figured I was still awake.

I was slightly worried since he seemed a little strange, but I gave him the paper with my code. He came back a few minutes later and said it didn’t work. He couldn’t message the owner because he didn’t have his phone. I took the paper with my code and followed him to the laundry room. The room is at the other end of the long, windy hallway. I thought, “Is this guy trying to lure me away so he can kill me?”

I tried the code and it wouldn’t work. I texted the maintenance guy since his number was listed on my paper. While we waited for a reply, Kelly told me he’s from Calgary and he was hired as a consultant for a car repair shop that wasn’t doing well. He mentioned that he lived in the U.S. for seven years in many different states. Kelly liked the U.S., but said he doesn’t want to live there. He pointed out that Americans say “uh-huh” all the time, so I pointed out that Canadians say “eh?” all the time.

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Kelly went on, “Here’s the difference in Americans and Canadians: If an American doesn’t like you, they’ll tell you. If a Canadian doesn’t like you, they’ll tell everyone else.” I told Kelly about my drive to Alaska from California. He responded, “People tell me that California has more people than all of Canada, and I’m like ‘You think that’s a good thing!?’”

I had messaged the owner of my unit and she provided another code for me to try. It also didn’t work. Then I noticed the sign on the door listed the hours until 10:00 pm. I told Kelly it’s probably not working because it’s past 10:00 pm. On the way back to my unit, I stopped by Kelly’s unit, where he had left the door open. He ran inside to grab paper and write down the new code we were provided. He messed up the number and said, “Sorry, I have brain damage.”

I went back to my unit and locked the door. I like helping people, but something seemed off about him. I found out from the maintenance guy the following morning that the door codes stop working after 10:00 pm, which is what I had suspected. I had only been there a few days, but it already felt like my own little apartment, dealing with everyday issues like laundry.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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