A random post on Facebook tonight reminded me that I’m due to celebrate a very special 10 year anniversary. July 28, 2002.
Only a week before, I had sold nearly all of my possessions and prepared two and a half suitcases for a move to a country I had never stepped foot in. The yard sale was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. And it set the tone for a more simplistic life. One where the layers of complexity were peeled away with each new cultural experience and every moment I settled into a completely new way of life.
My first year was a whirlwind of memories. There were a seas of new faces in not only my students and co-workers, but in all the other foreign teachers who came to the tiny country seeking new adventures, work experience, fun, perhaps even a delay of reality. I easily adapted to my new surroundings and loved my little apartment with the fabulous view of a very handsome mountain. Teaching high school students was often more challenging than any job I had ever held. But warm friendships were formed and I remain in touch with a good handful of the, then seniors who are now 28… some married, some with children.
I was apprehensive to transfer to my new job, but it turned out to be the best decision. It required some effort to get settled in all over again, but the pay off was a new office full of supportive co-workers and the chance to teach the tiniest and cutest kids imaginable. For four years, I danced, sang and gestured to get the English meaning across. I played dodgeball almost every day at lunch. Lunchtime with teachers helped me better understand their language. I made so many new friends, big and small, old and young. I traveled. I listened. I absorbed. I laughed, cried, ate, drank and embraced that amazing culture. Along the way, I shared all the highlights with you.
When the time came for me to leave, I wasn’t ready for the journey to end. But it was clear that this was a chapter in my life and that turning the page would begin a different, yet also exciting adventure. A new story was ready for me. The goodbyes were bitter sweet, the sentiments genuine and special. The friendships were real and celebrated.
There are countless moments that are so easily recalled with great fondness and affection. A word might pop into my head, a photo will catch my eye as the cover of a digital album, or a craving for any number of specialty foods creeps into my belly. In those moments, I pause to honor the memory, remember a face, hear a voice or a laugh. I miss it. I miss that life, that work, those people, that version of me.
Ten years ago on July 28, 2002, I packed my bags and boarded a one-way flight to Japan. And it changed me forever. Surely, that’s something worth celebrating.
I posted this quote on the On The Bright Side Facebook Page earlier today. Since it received lots of likes and comments, I thought I would share this here too.
— USE YOUR EXPERIENCE – In a world obsessed with youth, experience is often undervalued. But your unique experiences are priceless. They give you many advantages. Cherish them. Use them wisely: at work, with your family, in relationships, in planning ahead.
What’s been interesting for me is that since I have returned from an 8 year stint abroad, I find it increasingly difficult to actually talk about the experiences I cherish, the moments that have changed my life forever and made me the person I am today. All that international travel experience is unique and it is priceless… to me. Very few people in the US can relate to living overseas, and in such places like Japan and Vietnam. It’s a shame, really. It’s those experiences I value the most and have made my life full of value.
As I continue to settle into a life in the US, I have taken the time here and there to go through my boxes. I’ve got just a “few” in my parents’ storage shed. My dad would looove for me to take all of them, but I don’t really have the space yet for my high school and college photo albums, those four boxes of books and another handful of what I know are house decor items and treasures from my life of travel.
I do, however, have a couple of boxes which are labeled “office stuffs” by the Vietnamese crew packing my things in Hanoi. I opened one of them last night in search of by zip-lock bag full of markers, highlighters and a wide variety of pens and pencils. In that box happened to be my old calendars. Yes, I still keep a physical, paper, written calendar. Probably always will. Do you save your calendars? I do because I tend to write a lot of notes in margins, write down birthdays and events, sometimes I’ve even use my calendars as daily diaries and have gone through spurts where I write what the day entailed every day. What I love about saving them is that I can be instantly transported to that moment, that time and capture every memory of that day. I love it.
So in one of my calendars, I found this daily mantra that I made up when I lived in Japan. I re-wrote it at the front of my 2008 calendar, in anticipation of my travel adventures that spring. Here’s the mantra:
Today will be a great day. I will listen, speak and act from the goodness of my heart. I will accept others as they are and treat everyone with kindness and compassion.
I think that’s a pretty good daily goal, and so I’m re-writing this on my current calendar, and on my dandy red notebook so that I may express this sentiment everyday. I’m curious what other words of wisdom and delightful memories my calendars will lend me!
What are your daily mantras, affirmations or goals?
The last month or so has provided a lot of travel opportunities for me. Most have been on business, but I did get to squeeze a weekend in there for myself. Traveling in SE Asia has its good points and bad points. Let’s start with the good…In less than an hour I can be in either Vientiane or Luang Prabang, Laos. In two hours, I’m in Bangkok. In just fours hours I can make it as far as Hong Kong or even Japan. Living in this part of the world where a bunch of countries are mushed together has its benefits. It’s one of the reasons I traveled through SE Asia last year. It’s super easy to get from one place to the next. And while there are some general similarities between Asian countries, an hour flight takes you to an entirely different culture. And I love that.
The bad part about this area of the world is that it is still behind more developed areas. Let’s take Vietnam for example…The Hanoi airport would be better off if they leveled the damn thing and put up tents. The building is old, the airline employees are not all that nice and the waiting areas are tired-looking and uncomfortable. Before you even get your boarding pass, you deal with people blatantly cutting in line, people who are standing so close behind you you can feel their breath on your neck (or smell their breath when they cough, as was the case on one travel occasion) and agents who appear that can’t be bothered to do their job. Never mind the ridiculous number of delays the airline experiences and the lack of communication with passengers.
I’ve likened Vietnam Airlines to being one chicken short of a local bus. It is probably the worst airline I’ve traveled with – ever. Not only for the lack of professionalism of the attendants – falling asleep in the jumper seat as the plane is preparing for take-off should not be acceptable in my book – but also for the condition of the planes. On one of my last fights to Saigon, I noticed that the hardware, like plastic coverings on some of the seat fixtures, were missing on several rows. I’m still shocked by how many people on board have probably never flown before. They have no idea that their ticket holds a seat number. Many people sit where they want and get bumped a few times until an attendant explains where their seat is located. Others walk aimlessly through the cabin and don’t know how to find their seat number, never mind figuring out if their seat is an aisle or window. I quite nearly punched a guy who kept pushing me when the row of people in front of me making their way through the plane stopped and he yelled, “Move!”
Vietnam Airlines also has a very strange way of seating people. If a flight is not full, they will clump people together in groups and leave several rows completely empty. As of lately, I’ve been involuntarily seated in the exit rows on most of my flights. I actually don’t like the exit rows. You are not allowed to put your items underneath the seat, and call me crazy, but I’m not willing to put all my belongings out of sight. The seat doesn’t go back, either. I’m not 6’5″ and I don’t think I look particularly helpful or someone who stays calm in an emergency. I have a feeling that in some training course, the reservation staff were told, “The foreigners like the exit rows.” And so now I am getting in the habit of asking to NOT be seated in emergency rows.
It’s kind of funny that everyday I’m learning something new about this country and about working in SE Asia. Everyday poses some challenge. I just never expected that I would learn so much while sitting in a plane so high in the sky!
On the Bright Side,
I just wanted to post a quick note to remind you to have a look at the photos from my recent trip to Luang Prabang. One of the things I love about living and traveling in Asia is the burst of color and the numerous exotic plants you see almost anywhere. A number of photos appear in my album from Laos. Have a look!
Have a look at my photos from Luang Prabang – more than just exotic flowers! Here’s a tease on some of the flowers, though!
The moment we arrived at the restaurant, I realized it had been quite a long time since I had taken a cooking class. It’s been at least the two years since I’ve lived in Vietnam, and so I do believe the last class I took was in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2008…the start of my fabulous travel adventures that year.
Every great cooking class should start with a visit to the local market. I absolutely LOVE markets. They are so fascinating to me. You learn so much about a culture just by watching what happens at the market. You learn what foods are grown in the region and what is imported, what are native species of fish, how food is prepared, what types of flavors or spices go into the food and you learn a lot about hygiene.
What I love to watch is how the people interact. Do they have nice polite conversations? Negotiations on price? A bit of loud commentary on the quality and freshness of the product? At one market in Thailand ages ago, I saw a woman yell at the man who was gutting her fish. I’m pretty sure she thought he was cutting back too much of the meat. In Laos, people were kind, polite and efficient in their shopping.
One little tidbit I enjoyed is that all of the butchers in Laos are women. Our instructor, Joy said that is because the woman were always the butchers…the men hunted and gave the catch to their wife, so they have the most skill at chopping up the animal. Joy says women are quick and precise, and that they make excellent butchers. Makes perfect sense. Why, then, in the US are most butchers men?
Once we left the market, it was off to the countryside, and a lovely, simple space which was perfect for a cooking class. Surrounded by lush gardens, lotus ponds, large fish pools and waterfalls, we set-up our stations and got started. Asian dishes, including Lao food are refreshingly simple…it’s really a matter of having the right and freshest ingredients and the proper tools to achieve the desired dish. In Thailand, we used all organic foods, too and cooked everything in a wok. In Lao, the herbs and spices are similar (chili!!!) but it’s all cooked over a small fire. Even the rice is cooked in a basket in a pot over the charcoal. Somehow, the rudimentary style of preparing food makes it all the more exciting to prepare and cook!
Aside from the chicken-stuffed lemongrass you see pictured here, we also made a sticky rice dip, a soup, fish in banana leaf and coconut rice. The group in our class were all super people, and we marveled at how all of us were using the same ingredients, but each of our dishes came out so totally different. My sticky rice dip, which is like a Lao style salsa, turned out much more Mexican flavored because of my obsession with coriander. Pete didn’t use much if any chili, and so his roasted eggplant dominated the taste in his dip. Our friend Sith, who was participating in his first cooking class, had the most authentic taste – not surprisingly!
My favorite dish we prepared was the stuffed lemongrass. It was fun to make, would certainly impress if served at a dinner party and tasted absolutely divine! Remind me not to let 2 years go by without taking a cooking class. It’s a passion I’ve not tapped into in far too long. I loved the class and remembered why I so favor the flavors of this region of the world!
I love Lao food and the BBQ is no exception. Much in the style of the Korean BBQ, you get a bucket of hot coals, a bowl with boil and grill space, lots of fresh veggies, meats and condiments, chopsticks and chunks of lard to coat the pan. The Beer Lao is a great companion and all this food for all these people, plus a few rounds of Beer Lao costs only $80. That’s for 12 people total! Bargain!