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Happy Birthday Pete!!!

I’m blogging from Sapa today, as I am up here to celebrate Pete’s 40th birthday!  Woo hoo!!!!  We’ll be having lunch soon and then head over to his new project, Hmong Mountain Retreat. We’ll have a party tonight and head back to Hanoi on the overnight train on Thursday.

Of all of the things I’ve gained in Vietnam (experience, weight, patience, etc.) one of my favorites is my dear friend Pete.  We met when I traveled here in 2008 and have had frequent visits since I moved here.   One of my favorite people in the world, I’m so delighted to escape the heat of Hanoi and celebrate this milestone with my amazing friend.

Love you Pete!  Happy Birthday!!!

Gift of Giving

It always sounds a little weird for me to say, but I employ a maid.  It’s pretty much the norm here in Vietnam, but it’s the first time in my life that I’ve had hired help.  Hien comes to my house two days a week.  She helps me keep things tidy, does my laundry and occasionally my grocery shopping.  Even though I am a single gal and not particularly messy, my work schedule doesn’t really allow me the time to do these things.  I have only Sundays off, and the last thing I want to do on my one day of rest is laundry!  I’m super grateful for Hien’s help.

In my first apartment (the one that leaked really bad), she came to my house just once per week and I paid her 500,000 VN Dong per month.  When I moved to my current home, I increased her salary to 750,000 VN Dong, as she could come twice a week, for a bit more than half a day’s work.  I moved one year ago, and while I did give her a 13 month salary bonus for TET in February, Hien brought up the topic of providing her with a raise.

I knew before we negotiated that I would give her a raise, but I wanted to help her understand, too, that I am not made of money and that while I appreciate her services, having her help is a luxury for me.  I could do these things for myself, I just choose to have her assistance.  I also explained to her that if I gave her a raise, I hoped that she could think ahead (always a challenge in this country!) and make sure there was always milk in the fridge and that the bed sheets just get automatically washed on Friday.  I usually leave her notes, but I’m a creature of habit, so there are some things I like to have done, which should be common knowledge by now.

She understood that with the raise, it meant just a wee bit more initiative on her part.  I asked her how much more she wanted.  She requested only 100,000 or 150,000 VND more.  So I told her that I would be generous and would help her out a bit and give her now 1,000,000 VND per month.  This is about $13 USD more than she makes now, and a total of about/just over $50 per month, depending on the exchange rate.  You would have thought I actually was giving her hundreds of dollars more.  She was so happy and promised that she would never ask for a raise again.

I wanted to make sure that Hien knew that I valued and appreciated her.  Even though her job has not become more difficult or she’s working longer hours, it felt good to give her a raise.  It was the right thing to do.

5th graders rock!

I have an idea.  I think that we should create a global counsel of fifth graders.  This counsel should be elected not by adults, but by the fifth graders of every country.  This counsel would be in charge of solving all of the world’s problems and disasters.  The enthusiasm for which this counsel would attack the globe’s challenges, the creative solutions for which they would dream up and the smiles on their faces when they deliver their decisions would simply make Earth a much, much better place to live!

In addition to seeing my former students, I was scheduled to teach at Fujioka Elementary School during my vacation.  Many teachers expressed regret for scheduling “work” during my visit. I must say that teaching English never felt like work to me, so I was delighted to have the chance to go back to the classroom again!  I first taught a sixth grade class, and since they have just started their sixth grade year, they are still sweet and young and cute.  But when those fifth graders marched in, I was in heaven!  They are just bundles of positive energy, full of jokes, smiles, laughter and a rare eagerness to express themselves in English. (See the video below to catch a big of their spirit!)

I taught with Okamura Sensei who was a homeroom teacher during our elementary English program.  She’s a lovely lady who really inspires her students to learn English.  She put together a very simple lesson plan, one which provided the class with plenty of opportunity for one-on-one time with the special guest (me!).  Boys and girls who raised their hands high shouting, “Me, please” “Yes, me” would quickly turn shy once they reached the front of the class and looked at my blue eyes.  Their voices would soften, and many of their tiny little hands were wet with perspiration. It’s important to remember how few chances these kids have to speak directly with a foreigner.  It’s a big deal for them, and I am always sensitive to how nervous they get. And I’m always so proud when they make it through the conversation!

After we practiced self-introductions and had some q&a time (mostly “Do you like ~” because that was easiest for them to remember), we played Simon Says.  Usually this game is used for practicing the names of body parts.  But students at this age are so competitive.  If I said “Touch your ears,” any student who did so would have to sit down and they would be “out” of the game. Very cut throat!  The last five students standing got a prize…wither a colorful folder or my business card.  You’d be surprised how many chose the business card!

I’m so passionate about 11 year olds.  What an amazing age group!  They are so positive and peppy and they are SO MUCH FUN!!!  I wish I could do that everyday of my life!!! It was refreshing to re-live it for a brief moment!


These are a few super cute 5th grade girls who were very eager to chat and shake hands and give hugs.  They were so sweet and adorable!

If I won the lottery…

I couldn’t help but notice THIS ARTICLE in the news about the store clerk who won the $258.5 million dollar powerball jackpot.  While I might consider some dental work myself (and heck, why not go to Disneyland?) I certainly would NOT keep my job!

Shaw said he needed a few days to decide whether he will keep his minimum-wage job at the store where he has worked for just three weeks.

There is no question that I would take the money in one lump sum.

He also plans to seek advice “from people who know about money” about whether to take the jackpot in 30 payments over 29 years or the lump-sum amount of $124,875,122.

But after I quit my job and got my big fat check, I would do almost exactly what I’ve been doing for the last eight years.  I’d travel travel travel.  I would simply plan to explore every corner of the world possible and soak up as much knowledge and as many life experiences as humanly possible.  And I’d do it wearing my jeans, black t-shirt and flip flops!

I might buy a house or two in the places I really like.  I might even buy my own plane so I don’t have to go through strenuous security checks and customs.  I would certainly treat my friends and family to vacations.  And within all of that, I would more often volunteer my time where needed.  I’d help out along the way and give back as much as I could.

What would you do if you won the lottery? How would you spend your money?


The big 4-0

I remember being 29 and getting ready for work one morning.  In my bright yellow bathroom on Bentley Avenue in Los Angeles, I was putting on my mascara.  I looked at myself, the tears started to well and I said out loud, “Oh my God, I’m going to be 30!”  For some reason I was terrified.

My 30’s turned out to be pretty damn good.  I spread my wings when I moved to Japan, and without a doubt, those five years in Shizuoka made for the best chapter of my life.  I was fulfilled on so many levels.  The last three years of my 30‘s have been full of transition and constant change… returning to San Diego, getting caught up with family and friends, taking off on world travel and then searching for the next step in my career before heading to Vietnam.  Obviously, 39 has been a crazy year filled with both minor and major adjustments.

I’m not sure that I have yet welcomed this next decade with open arms.  I haven’t had that moment in the mirror where it has really sunk in that I am now 40.  I have had several moments in the mirror recently where I thought about a neck lift and a nose job, about getting pregnant by some handsome stranger just to move along Project Shanna, but I don’t think that that means 40 has sunk in.  Does it?

What I hope is that this decade is kind.  I hope to find my dude, perhaps have a child (Project Shanna 2009 has rolled over into 2010).  It would be nice to share my life with someone and have a family of my own. (My parents would be thrilled with this idea, too!)  I’d like to continue to explore new and fantastic corners of the world.  I am an adventurer at heart and I don’t yet feel settled.  Although I’m not sure how well that goes with the project.  I guess at 40 – I want it all, damn it!

I hope I worry a lot less about what people think of me.  I’m overly considerate and too concerned about others.  While I always want to be a kind and giving person, I’m tired of sacrificing myself for everyone else.  I need to get a healthy dose of selfishness.  I need to be kinder to me.  I have to take care of myself first and foremost.

I suppose that my lack of worry that I’m 40 is a bit of an indication that I am on the right track headed into this phase of life.  The fact that I haven’t had that “Oh my God” moment may actually be the sign that it has sunk in and I am accepting this.  Besides, aren’t we as young as we feel?

I’ve often said that my ideal age is 28.  That was the year I traveled to Italy, my first solo travel. That trip changed my life and that year was just a fantastic year for me.  But with all the life experiences I’ve gained since then, I don’t identify as closely to 28 as I once did.  In turning 40, I was looking for quotes about the milestone and I found this one – I’m not 40!  I’m 18 with 22 years of experience! And you know what?  Bingo!  That’s how I feel!  So here’s to 18 and letting the counter on the years of experience continue to roll over.  Bring it on!


Looking back to look forward

When you live abroad for a good chunk of time, coming home for a visit can bring about a flood of emotions.  I love seeing my family and friends, but I always feel a bit like a stranger or even a foreigner in my own country. Living without has been my m.o. this last year and so stepping into a life full of excess always feels a little awkward. That and all of those drug commercials on TV. What the heck?   Of course one visit to Target usually helps me get past my judgement on these superficialities as I can happily stock up on really necessary stuff like flavored coffee and a cabinet’s worth of hair products. And after my first cheeseburger at InNOut, I can sort of fall back into the American way of life. (OK I tease. That’s not going to happen anytime soon, but I do enjoy my vacations home!)

Vietnam is also a country and experience which is hard to describe to people without sounding completely negative.  Everyday of my life is filled with a multitude of small to complex challenges.  And this past year was a rough year of transition for me.  Vacation came at a really good time.  I needed to refresh and refill.

During my holiday, one of my favorite friends I’ve visited with is one of my oldest and dearest, Holly.  The best way to describe how I feel when I visit with her and her family is NORMAL.  Not a very exciting word, but at the heart of the emotion, I simply feel like ME.  And remembering where I come from and the person that I am, having a good chat and a laugh with a friend I’ve known forever is really good medicine for a wounded soul.  2009 was a rough year for us both and I am grateful to have the chance to jump these hurdles together.  We should never forget who we are and how far in life we’ve come.  Thanks for the reminder, Holly.  Love you oodles!


Rock climbing 101

The intention was to go out to Halong Bay for a site inspection for a program we want to add on our tour.  The result was me strapped up in climbing gear, reaching the end of the rope with a big smile on my face.

Onslo greeted me at the pier and after hopping on the second boat, we veered in a direction where most boats don’t go.  The smaller boat allowed us to get much closer to the cliffs which jet out of the water in the most extraordinary formations.  Arms length away, I could easily see why this would be a climber’s playground of paradise.

After navigating through the floating village, we reached the beautiful cove where the team was set up and enthusiasts were getting intimately familiar with the limestone’s nooks and crannies, navigating higher for a spectacular view.  A few minutes later, I was strapped up and Onslo was giving me a basic lesson and teaching me the commands, reminding me to relax and breathe.

When I was a little girl, our home had a nice big tree in the front yard which I just loved to climb. The one in the back was fun too, but the higher branches weren’t so sturdy and I just never gained the affection for that tree as I did for the one in the front yard.  There was this one branch in particular which forked at one point, creating a perfect chair for me and the perfect arm rest.  I’d get all cozy in that nook and hang out there for hours, me and the tree.

I tried to be that little girl for a few moments while climbing this massive rock, the girl who had no cares or worries, no reason to climb up, just the wherewithal that I could and it was fun to do so.  And with that enthusiasm, I climbed the first bit of the cliff pretty easily, although enjoyed the reassurance from Onslo, who’s calm and encouraging voice served as super motivation to keep moving.

Then I got stuck.  There was a bit of a round boulder which had just enough of a curve outward that I couldn’t see my feet.  And so I couldn’t figure out which foot to step up with, nor where to put it.  Onslo could see that I was “in a moment” and reminded me to breathe, that I was safe and even if I totally let go, I wouldn’t fall and that I just needed to turn my body to the right and step up, that I had to trust that my right foot would find something to push off of.  A few minutes past and I finally sucked up enough courage to do so.  My muscles at that point were a bit shaky, as well as my nerves, as I had gone way past my comfort zone in physicality and in height.

I’m stubborn, though, and I was not about to quit.  And so I silenced the “What are you doing?” voice in my head and finished the route, reaching the top of the rope and taking Onslo’s advice to admire the view. Woo hoo!

The rest of the inspection included a tour of the island, some nature walking, and another view of adventurous people climbing up really big rocks.  Separate from the work stuff, I was glad to get in touch with the little girl in me to never had fears, who never questioned why, who just skipped out the front door, and randomly, for no reason at all, jumped up in her favorite tree, swung over branches and pushed her way higher to hang out in “her” spot.  My muscles may hate me today for the torture they received on that rock, but I’m so delighted with my experience, I just can’t stop smiling.  It was a GREAT day!


Part of the adventure is the journey through Halong Bay. Here’s a shot of two men who live in one of the numerous floating villages. Fascinating to think of that lifestyle!



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