A Look Back, and a New Start

So, it’s been a while, huh? I’m sure you’ve spent the last two months since I posted rending your garments and tearing out your hair, so I apologize for my absence. Call it a combination of life stuff, work stuff, and writer’s block – but now that we are entering into a new year (2014 already? Didn’t 2013 just happen?) I figured it was time to jump back in to narcissistically expressing my thoughts for the world to read.

I’ve had a weird last few months – nay, a weird last year. Was it really only a few months ago that I was living with my parents? That I was sunning myself on a beach in Thailand? Now I am piecing together a life in Boston, something that is more challenging than one would think.

As is my wont, as I sit on the edge of 2013 I can’t help but look back. And considering it is one of my most documented years, it’s not as difficult as you might think. Let’s jump in, gang.

JANUARY 

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Washington, DC; Virginia; Bangkok, Thailand

FEBRUARY

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Koh Lanta, Thailand; Chiang Mai, Thailand; Vientiane, Laos

MARCH

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Beijing, China; Siem Reap, Cambodia; Kep, Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Chau Doc, Vietnam; Saigon, Vietnam 

APRIL/MAY/JUNE

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Virginia; New Orleans, Louisiana; Emerald Isle, NC

  • I returned to my parents’ home and went quiet for a while as I started job-searching, questioning myself, wondering what I am doing with my life… you know, the usual. It was a pretty fun time for those around me. In reviewing my Facebook timeline it looks like the most exciting thing I did was find my diary from when I was 14. Talk about embarrassing! I also went to the Outer Banks for the bachelorette party of one of my favorite people – everyone loves a rainy beach weekend!
  • In actual exciting news: I traveled to NOLA for the law school graduation of one of my favorite people, with a bunch of my other favorite people coming in from around the country to celebrate! Let’s just say it was an appropriately New Orleans-y weekend.
  • By June, K10 Unemployed became K10 Employed, as I finally convinced someone to hire me, much to the relief of my parents and friends who were sick of my belly-aching.

JULY

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 Charlottesville, Virginia; Boston, Massachusetts

  • After celebrating the wedding of one of my best friends in gorgeous Charlottesville, VA (where both she and the groom went to university), I headed directly off to Boston. Like, I literally said goodbye to my parents on Friday, hitched a ride with two big suitcases to the wedding, flew to Boston on Sunday, and started my new job on Monday.
  • I started my new job with a roar, as I jumped in to their busiest period of the year and worked the first seven straight days I was in Beantown.
  • It wasn’t all work: I was lucky enough to land in the wonderful apartment of two of my favorite people as I apartment-hunted.

AUGUST

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Los Angeles, CA; Boston, MA

  • I kicked off August with a quick trip to LA; while I was namely there to sit in LAX for twelve hours (the less glamorous side of working in international education – seeing off the group flights to faraway countries), I took some time with my coworker to hit up Santa Monica and indulge in some delicious Mexican food.
  • Once I was back, I spent most of August exploring my new home of Boston, from test-driving Italian restaurants all over the city to forming hasty opinions. Mostly, I spent the month in a sublet daydreaming how I would decorate my new apartment in September – the first (semi) permanent place I would live in in over a year.

SEPTEMBER

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Boston, MA; Virginia

  • More Boston explorations as I discovered my locations of choice
  • I capped it off with a trip back to my parents’ home to move more of my possessions and, most importantly, finally be reunited with my kitchen supplies. For those keeping track, I’m still not completely moved out of my parents’. I’ve elected to take the ‘suitcase’ approach which means that every time I go to visit, I come back with two suitcases bulging with my belongings. It’s strangely effective.

OCTOBER

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Boston, MA

NOVEMBER

Boston, MA; Athens, Greece; Thessaloniki, Greece; Virginia

Thessaloniki

  • After six months in the same country, it was high time I broke out my passport again – and this time it was for baby’s first international business trip (unless you count the time I lived abroad for a job). While I spent most of my time in Greece in meetings, I managed to revisit the Acropolis after an absence of eight years, learn how to say ‘cheers’ in Greek, and eat more feta cheese than is advisable.
  • I ended the month with a good old fashioned American Thanksgiving back in Virginia – and yes, brought up more of my belongings.

DECEMBER

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Boston, MA; Virginia

  • By far, my favorite part of moving to Boston has been the fact that my dear friend Katie lived down just the street from me. So imagine my delight when Amanda, aka one of the greatest and most kick-ass friends you could ever meet, finally joined us in The Hub and landed an apartment right across the street! I spent most of December happily ensconced in their (metaphorical) bosoms as we helped Amanda move in, made the obligatory trips to Ikea, and drank a LOT of white wine. I mean, a lot.
  • I finished up 2013 with – you guess it – another trip to Virginia for Christmas! I’ve definitely spent more time in my home state this year than I have in the past seven years of my life. That’ll be it for a couple of months as I’m not slated to return until March – just in time to start enjoying the beautiful weather, with sailing trips and beach bumming in my future.

And so for 2014? I want to take the time for activity. Not just physical activity, but actively doing things instead of passively sitting by. Whether that is indulging in my hobbies (and I do want to keep writing this blog in my life), continuing to grow my friendships, or exploring my home instead of sitting around, this will not be a year for sitting and watching the world go by.

As you read this (if you finished it, that is!) I’m headed back to Boston to celebrate the start of another year with my dear friends. 2013 was the year of K10 Travels, but I do resolve that 2014 will continue to be the year of K10 Explores.

Why I Hate Traveling Solo

I have a secret that I’m a little ashamed to reveal: I hate traveling solo.

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I know that this is 2013 and I am a modern, capable woman, and I can do anything I want by myself without a man or anyone else by my side! Okay, okay, I am capable of traveling solo. In addition to a solo weekend jaunt to Ljubljana in the fall, I also spent five+ weeks in the spring exploring Southeast Asia on my own before hooking up with family for the last few weeks. I didn’t die, suffer any terrible accidents (aside from destroying my  right calf after I crashed my motorbike, the scars from which I still bear today), or even get sick. Probably because I went through three bottles of mozzie spray to ward off dengue fever. Yes, I am physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially capable enough to travel on my own.

Never forget. I know I can't.

Never forget. I know I can’t.

But you guys? I hated it. I don’t know if I have really explored this fully with anyone. It makes me feel a little embarassed to say that it was just something I hated doing. I don’t want to give off the impression that I hate traveling or hated Asia, because neither of which is true. I still have so many travel plans in my future – most immediately South America and hopefully the Balkans soon. I just hate doing it alone.

I’ve read all the treatises about how amazing solo travel is. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want. Eat when and where you want. Spend a day wandering in a museum or reading by a canal or just lying around doing nothing. Get up and go at a moment’s notice. Having once traveled in a group of five friends (which is way too many), I absolutely appreciate that it’s wonderful to not have to run your decisions past anyone else. You can be your own boss.

Top bummer of traveling solo: you have to take awkward selfies ALL THE TIME.

Top bummer of traveling solo: you have to take awkward selfies ALL THE TIME.

But now that I’ve spent so much time on my own, I’ve found it’s just not something I like doing. Besides the obvious benefits of traveling with another person (split costs, a bag-watcher when you go to the bathroom, another mind when you are too mentally drained to figure out logistics), I just like sharing things with others. My ideal travel partners have been family and friends who spend approximately 40% of their time with me exploring the city and the other 60% doing whatever, leaving me to wander alone. I love being able to spend whole afternoons exploring back alleys or reading in a coffee shop in a foreign city, meeting up with loved ones to share stories from our days over dinner. And so my future travel is going to be framed around visiting friends who live abroad or finding like-minded travel partners to come on a grand adventure with me.

Going on an adventure

And you know what? This life is too short to do something I hate just for the sake of appearance (this is also my reasoning behind not eating 100% healthy. It’s not like I WON’T die if I don’t eat that crepe, after all). And so I will continue to travel as often as I can, exactly as I like, and nobody can say a damn thing about it. Unless you want to travel with me, because if I do say so myself, I am an excellent travel buddy.

They can attest. One of my favorite traveling-with-friends trips.

They can attest. One of my favorite traveling-with-friends trips.

K10 Travels By the Numbers!

The end, the end.

After two months, I’m leaving Asia.

Looking at the bigger picture… after 9 months, I’m finally heading back to the U.S. with no plans to leave it.

I spent my multiple hours in airports over the past few days reading through all of my blogs. What struck me most is what I said very early on about why I was writing:

And so, I journey forward. The fear remains, and will remain for quite a while, I suspect. But this is why I write. I need to show myself, when I reach the end of the road, that I may have quivered as I initially stepped foot, but I made it to the end and survived.

Some of my travels:

England…
Scotland…
Slovenia…. and sadly none of Ireland because I was a terrible tourist there.

Let’s delve into some statistics, shall we?

Thailand…

Number of countries in which I stepped foot since August: 10 (United States, England, Scotland, Ireland, Slovenia, Thailand, Laos, China, Cambodia, Vietnam.)

Number of communist countries: 3 (Laos, China, Vietnam) of the 5 that exist (including North Korea and Cuba). As a McCarthy, I don’t know how to feel about that.

Number of beds: 25 (including the times I crashed with someone in the city where I was already living, like the little tramp I am)

Number of plane rides: 24 (Sorry, Earth. I’ll make it up to you…)

Laos…


Number of illnesses/injuries: For an 19th-century disease prone hypochondriac, surprisingly few. I don’t recall getting sick in England or at home, minus a few normal-for-me ear things and some colds. My biggest injury was by far the time I scraped up my leg after crashing a motorbike, which has left me with a pretty awesome scar on half of my calf. This obviously means that the second I’m home, my dengue fever and/or malaria kicks in. I’ve already decided to go to the Naval Hospital if that happens, just to give the lads some practice dealing with a tropical disease. I’m a giver!

Number of times I cried: Let’s just say a few. And a few too many over Skype, including to the Me in Ireland after I had known her for only about three months (what a saint, huh?), to Katie & Amanda after they did something normal and I cried over the normalcy; when I learned the greatest kitty in the world had to go to the big litter box in the sky.

China…



Number of rainy days in England: A gazillion

Number of rainy days in Asia: Maybe 10 minutes total over the two months. When they say “dry season,” that’s apparently not an exaggeration…

Number of guests/travel partners: 7

Number of times I blew out the fuses or lost electricity in the last three months: 6 (In Virginia, China, Laos, Vietnam [10 minutes before I had a Skype interview – THAT was fun] and twice in Cambodia. Two times were my fault. I’ll let you decide which two.)

Amount of DEET I applied in the last two weeks to ward off dengue fever and malaria: Two bottles. I wish I were kidding. That can’t be healthy. I also read that apparently DEET leaves your system through urine, so that’s interesting. And weird to think about.

Cambodia…

Favorite place (in Asia): That’s gonna go to China, by the pure fact that I got to actually do normal people things there like go to trivia night and I didn’t have to worry about how to navigate the city or speak the language. Plus I stayed in plush accommodations. SO I’m taking it out of the running, and putting in a vote for…. Chiang Mai, for the balance of things that I did (some touristy things, like playing with elephants and taking a bike tour; some relaxing things, like hanging by the pool and eating a bunch of cheese; and some “local” things, like going to a great yoga studio a couple of times). Phnom Penh, for how much it surprised me (crazy city with a coffeeshop on every corner and a delicious French restaurant down the street from our hotel – we definitely went back twice). Chau Doc, purely for the luxury hotel. Saigon, for being so Saigon-y. Crazy and loud and vibrant.

Where Do I Want To Return? Besides London, as always? SAIGON! Vietnam!!! I feel sufficiently traveled in the other countries, although I would love to go back to Thailand with an SO and lounge around the islands, but there’s so much more of Vietnam I want to see. Saigon is an awesome city, and one day I would love to come back and take a couple of weeks to finish my plan and travel up to Hanoi. Plus, I first had this drink called sugarcane juice there, that is literally just juice from a sugarcane. That’s it. It puts sweet tea to shame.

Vietnam…

Most important thing I learned: That faking it until you make it actually works. A secret part of me thought I wouldn’t be able to handle working short-term in London. A secret part of me thought I wouldn’t be able to travel solo through Asia. But I jumped right in anyway, faking my confidence and my abilities. Somewhere along the way I realized I wasn’t faking it anymore; I was doing it. And so that is the biggest lesson from K10 Travels I want you to take with you, gentle reader: never try, never know.



From hiking Arthur’s Seat in Scotland to bathing with elephants in Thailand, it’s been a wild year. Thanks for joining me! 🙂
 



 

Snap judgements on Vietnam

It hardly seems real, but I’ve landed in the last country on the K10 travels – Vietnam. I’m leaving a bit earlier, for a number of reasons, so I won’t be going from Saigon to Hanoi as previously planned; instead, my dad and I started south of Saigon, in the Mekong Delta, and hit up HCMC right before heading back. (AAAAH!!!). It’s going to tie with Laos for the country I’m spending the least time in – just about 3.5-4 days, depending on how you count it. (Laos was about 3.5 days, Cambodia was about 11.5 days, China was 8 days, and Thailand got a month and a couple of random days, that saucy minx.)

Since I have so little time here let’s play a game of Judge a Book by its Cover! 
The people in Vietnam: SO NICE and REALLY family-focused. (At least in the south.)
Far and away the friendliest people on my trip have been in southern Vietnam. The first day my dad and I walked down the street of Chau Doc (a tiny town that was our stopping point between Phnom Penh and Saigon), people kept waving at us and shouting HELLO! My suspicious mind assumed they were just touts trying to get us into a boat/motortaxi/taxi – and sometimes they were – but most of the time it was just friendly people and adorable children saying hello. It might have something to do with the fact that as Westerners, we were a bit of an oddity in this small town. Either way, it was lovely.

They are also very, very family-focused. Every time we talked with a Vietnamese person, they would ask almost immediately if I have siblings, why Dad’s wife wasn’t there, etc. We did an awesome street food tour and the lovely owner of one of the carts was very interested in setting me up with her son. Apparently she thought I was very beautiful and that I have the ideal look: very white skin (CHECK!), tall, and a narrow nose. Oh, go on then.

(Side note re: touts: we would also get stopped in the park by people asking if we wanted a shoe shine. We would just look down at our sneakers and go “…what are you going to shine?!” Total mystery.)

My future mother-in-law

Motorbikes are the way to travel
As mentioned, we did a street food tour where we zoomed around on the back of motorbikes through the crazy streets of Saigon. Words can’t describe how crazy traffic is in Saigon. Waiting for a break in the scooters is a losing game; instead, you just walked slowly and steadily across and trust the motorbikes will go around you. (This does NOT work for buses. They will NOT go around you.) Riding around on the back of one was the perfect way to see the city.


Life is lived on the river

At least in the Mekong Delta. We took a speedboat from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc (definitely the way to travel), and as we approached Chau Doc around dinnertime the river was peppered with people cooking over fires, bathing, or just enjoying a twilight swim.

Luxury hotels are truly luxurious
For our stay in Chau Doc, Dad booked a luxury resort (luxury for Vietnam; the prices were what you would pay for a Hampton Inn in the States. Hampton Inns do have great bedding, though. It is indeed like sleeping on a cloud.). This meant we didn’t do much else except soak in the luxury. I spent a full afternoon languishing by the pool that overlooked the river, having food and drinks brought out to me. It’s the kind of place that hires a musician to play in the lobby to set the mood. It has its own pier. I could get used to this.

Vietnam is a-okay with me! 
You guys, I’ve really enjoyed Vietnam. It might be the fact that it is at the very end of my trip and so I’m excited to be going back and looking at travel nostalgically; it might be that the food is great and I spent half my time in this country staying in a luxury hotel; it might be that one time when Dad and I went to cross the street, a police officer immediately hurried over to escort us across and at the end said, “Welcome to Vietnam!” It’s fair to say I am going to try to make my way back here, friends.

Welcome to the Jungle: Glamping in Kep

I woke up at 3.30am, desperately needing to pee (there’s your ladylike lede right there, folks!). I tried squeezing my eyes shut and convincing my bladder it could wait another few hours, but no dice. I carefully untucked the mosquito netting wrapped around my bed, groped around for the flashlight on the floor, and tiptoed across the wide-paneled wooden treehouse down the wobbly stairs slick with rain. After paying a visit to the garden (read: open-aired) bathroom and examining the back of my leg for a possible mosquito bite, I crept back up the stairs and shrieked loudly as a bat – yes, a bat – flew at my face suddenly before veering away. Yes, folks: I went glamping in Cambodia (that’s “glamorous camping,” for those not in the know).

As I type this, I’m sitting in one of those wicker round chair things on our treehouse balcony looking off into the valley as the sun dips lower and birds chirp merrily around me. I have to admit, my life could be worse. 
When my dad first started planning his part of the trip, he immediately booked a treehouse in an “eco-resort” in the seaside town of Kep. Yes, I keep saying treehouse. We are in a bona fide, no-fourth-wall, perched-up-on-stilts, treehouse. I promise you it isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. And that whole eco-lodge thing means that electricity is mostly for lights – no A/C – and WiFi in a non-starter. We decided before arriving to cut our trip short a day, in order to split up our travel to Vietnam over two days. So when we arrived to find our, ahem, rustic accommodations, I was glad we were only staying for a day and a half.

Even though I was eager to leave, I have to admit that all in all it was a pretty relaxing 36 hours. Although we had to endure several bumpy tuk-tuk rides on the very rutted dirt road leading up to the lodge (I can’t even begin to describe how bumpy that road is), we had some enjoyable relaxing time on our balcony, rode in a tuk-tuk through the countryside to a pepper plantation (Kampot pepper, guys, it’s a thing), enjoyed some meals on the sea, and most importantly, sussed out restaurants with WiFi and went crazy.

So the verdict on glamping in Cambodia? Definitely not something I’m eager to do again, but it certainly has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience to kick off my last week abroad.

P.S. Re: my Facebook query a few days ago, I did decide to start taking malaria pills. Can’t tell if I am having wildly hallucinogenic dreams or not; my dreams have certainly been vivid, but I’ve always had pretty vivid dreams. Bummer, huh? But no malaria yet (touch wood!).

The light and the dark of Cambodia

Along with Laos, I knew incredibly little about Cambodia before making the decision to come here. Heck, I couldn’t even pronounce the name of its capital – Phnom Penh – until a couple of months ago. (For the record, it’s Pa-nom Pen.)

To me, Cambodia is a layered country, especially from the point of view of the tourist. Phnom Penh in particular is full of these contrasts around every corner. At first glance, it’s a gorgeous capital city with tree-lined streets set in a friendly grid pattern (thank you, France). The luxury hotels are truly luxurious, with graceful bars, soaring lobbies, and multiple infinity pools by the veranda. 
Dig a little deeper, and you see the rough edges of Phnom Penh, the indications that this is a poor country in a poor region of the world, beset by environmental challenges, diseases, and the ravages of war. Traffic is insane, but most people drive their family of five around on a tiny and cost-efficient motorbike. As you ride through a tuk tuk around the city, you pass streets teeming with food carts and open-air markets, trash and suspicious smells. I finally understand the phrase, “Assault on the senses.”
Then you dig even more, and hit the core of Cambodia, that which darkens its past, colors its present, and defines its future: the Khmer Rouge and the horrors of the 1970s.
I don’t know about you, but I knew nothing about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot except the vague understanding that it was a bad thing somewhere in Asia a while ago, and Pol Pot was referenced once on Gilmore Girls. Before arriving, I tried to read up on that period to have a better idea of what happened. But nothing can prepare you for visiting the sites of tragedy. 
In a nod to the phrase dark tourism, visiting sites where tragedies have occurred has become quite popular, whether for educational purposes or memorial purposes. Two such sites rank as the top attractions in Phnom Penh, despite their sadness: S-21, or the Tuol Sleng Prison, and the Killing Fields. 
You can read more about the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities they committed on your own – I’m certainly not educated enough about them to educate you. What I can share were my thoughts upon visiting these sites. Rather I should say, I wish I could share my thoughts. But all I can summon are brief impressions that profoundly impacted me. 
Things like walking around a school-turned-torture-chamber-and-prison, where the museum curators have posted dozens of walls of pictures of the prisoners. Hundreds of faces stare out at you: some boldly, some accusingly, some with tears in their eyes. All I could think of to whisper was, “I’m sorry.”

Things like the museum exhibitions with pictures of Pol Pot and the other leaders – and their faces have been angrily scratched out by visiting Cambodians over the years.
Things like walking past the two-foot-wide wooden prison cells, the doors swinging open. Touching one of the doors softly and realizing who had touched it in the past.
Things like walking past the groups of visiting Cambodians, from the elderly to schoolkids on a trip to young children. Realizing that these events are entirely in the memories of all Cambodians, that we are only a generation removed. 
And that’s the thing: these atrocities were so recent. Trials for the leaders still haven’t concluded. In 2013! In fact, a big news story today is that one of the leaders who was on trial just died. 
But despite the heartache and the soul-crushing tragedy, Cambodia goes on. It certainly is a place for everyone to visit, if only to learn more about the worst of humanity but how goodness overcomes and marches on.

Next Life

To kick off our tour of Cambodia and Vietnam, my father and I decided to start out big: exploring the temples of Angkor. This massive area in the western part of Cambodia was the original seat of the Khmer empire and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the world’s largest religious monument, and the site of historical and cultural significance in Cambodia and, arguably, in all of Southeast Asia.

We hired a car and a tour guide (I love getting to splash out now that Dad is here. Hello, rose and lemongrass martini.) and set off exploring on Dad’s first full day in country. Just to make sure he would really feel the jetlag, it was – as always in SEA – miserably hot by approximately 11am and a hellish inferno by 1pm.

Despite the oppressive heat, we managed to explore quite a few temples over the two days we had our tour guide. From intricate narrative carvings, to temples of thousand faces overlooking the area, to jungle temples with trees entwined as part of the landscape, to taking in the mass of the famous Angkor Wat, I think it’s safe to say I can call myself a tomb raider. (Fact: Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider was filled over two months in the temples of Angkor. I know this to be true because our guide said this fifty thousand times, and Cambodia in general is fairly obsessed with that fact as well. As Dad and I have not seen that movie, we can neither confirm nor deny.) It’s also safe to say that by the time I get back, I’ll probably have bug spray permanently affixed to my skin. My hypochondria has kicked in big time, you guys.

As we wandered the temples, we also chatted with our guide about his life and experiences. One of the things that struck me the most was how he would often say “Next life!” with regards to a specific experience he had not had. I’m not sure if he was being glib about it, or as a man living in a Buddhist country, referring to a deep-seated religious belief.

Either way, the things he had never experienced but hoped to in his next life, if his karma sticks out, ranged from amusing to thought-provoking.

“Do you get snow in your home town?” [Exclaims over a photo my dad shows him of 3 inches of snow outside the house] “Ooh! I never seen snow! Next life.

“Those apartments over there [really gorgeous three-story townhouses] are very expensive. $11,000 a year! Next life.”

“How long was your flight here? THIRTY HOURS?! Wow! I never take a flight before. Next life.” 

[In response to my dad’s question if he has ever been out of Cambodia, such as to Thailand, which is an easy bus ride away] “No, all my money saved to pay for kids’ schools. I never leave Cambodia. Next life. 

[After asking if we would come back to Cambodia and in response to my dad saying he should come to the United States] “Next life, I will be BORN in the United States!” 

Needless to say, it was a humbling experience. I’m sure I will have more to say about the challenges of being seen as a walking ATM but also about understanding more about the incredible poverty modern-day Cambodians face, on the heels of the horrors the country has experienced so recently. But even this side-comment by the guide had me thinking about both the privilege I have by simple virtue of where I was born, and also the importance of doing what is possible in this life with what I have been given. Considering those things include watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat, I am a lucky girl indeed.

How Kristen Got Her Travel Groove Back

I had heard some pretty scary things about traveling in China: that it was just a really difficult country, that Westerners were stared at relentlessly, that the pollution is enough to literally knock you down.

Despite all that, I made a last-minute decision to skip exploring more of Laos in favor of heading north to Beijing, where I could crash with family for a week. A decision made partly out of loneliness and partly out of the attitude of, “Well, if I don’t go to China now, I’m never going,” turned out to be one of the best choices I’ve made on this trip.

Simply put, China was awesome. I had spent the past five weeks traveling solo – which, in Southeast Asia, is easy to do and there are plenty of people to talk to, but the simple act of having to navigate new cities and figure out places to eat and sort out sleeping arrangements is really exhausting. By this point, I had done it in five different cities in two countries.

By contrast, I think I had the easiest tourist trip to Beijing that anyone has ever had. I stayed in a beautiful, huge apartment with my cousin and his wife and finally experienced a bed that wasn’t Asia-style rock hard. I mean, the floors in the apartment were even heated! AND since they have a DPO box they can get deliveries from Amazon for all their non-perishables – hello, Crispix. Allow me to eat this entire box over the next week.

I even got a welcome gift bag! Chateau Pierson is so classy.

Besides experiencing the comforts of home, I just had a deliciously easy and relaxed week. I didn’t have to make a single restaurant choice, and when I did go out to eat, it was with two people who speak Mandarin. More than that, I got to do exquisitely normal things – after more than a month of every day being exciting but challenging, this was incredible. I went grocery shopping with my cousin (and got to watch him charm the fruit ladies with his Mandarin and as a result get tons of free fruit to munch while we shopped). We went out with his friends and played trivia over pizza and beer. I lazily watched a bunch of (totally legal) movies. And did I mention the heated floors?

And yes – the weather was cold and the pollution pretty terrible, at least for the first few days. My second full day there, the day started at about 520 (the scale to measure Air Quality only goes up to 500, by the way). That afternoon was a bit more clear but SO windy that I think I saw a woman on a bicycle flying by. But the bonus of that wind? It shoved all the pollution out, giving us some gorgeous blue sky days right as the weather warmed up to the 60s.

I managed to do some touristy things, namely the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the Temple of Heaven. But besides that, I just took it supremely easy, indulging in Reese’s Cups, trips to their gym, and a Chinese massage that literally involved hammers (much to my surprise).

It was with reluctance that I left such a comfortable environment. But it was time to head south so I could continue with the final leg of my trip – Pops and Daughter McCarthy take on Cambodia and Vietnam!

My great wall

I sat alone in the cable car and suddenly started to talk out loud to myself. “I have no idea what is happening next, in any facet of my life. All I know is where I have been and where I am right now.” This comes out as almost a nervous chant, a reassurance to myself as I stand on the edge of the abyss. Never before have I felt as aimless, as misdirected. My paths have always been clear. Now all I know is what is right in front of me: the Great Wall of China. 
**
 I pass group after group of tourists on a pilgrimage, as I am. Whether to tick something off the bucket list, learn more about Chinese history, or try to put their own lives and concerns into perspective, we are all dumfounded by the massive amounts of stone and memory in front of us. 
**
 I haven’t been this cold in weeks. I’m bundled in three tops, two pairs of pants, a puffy white coat, a sarong I’ve fashioned into a scarf, a homemade hat, and mismatched globes. But I step on the stone, lay my hands on the wall, and will my shivers (and the memory of past shivers) to temporary stillness. I am here. 
** 
As I walk, I shed item after item of clothing as my mind sinks deeper into reflection. It’s almost required in a place such as this, deep in the Chinese mountainside.
I have my own “great walls.” At this moment, I have those emotional and mental blockades preventing me from reaching through to the other side. Whether these blocks are protecting me or imprisoning me, I don’t know. What is on the other side, I don’t know. 
** 
Now I sit directly on the wall, the mid-day sun warming my knees. It’s an astonishingly clear day: a bit of irony to this clouded mind. I’m sitting on this solid reminder of past, present, and future, as I contemplate my history, stumble through my days, and try to map what’s next.
There is no map. There is not even a cartographer who can assist me. The stretch of stone path in front of me is all I have.

At this point I’m basically just cycling across Asia

I am fully aware that my bicycle tours are just getting ridiculous. After doing a night tour in Bangkok and a half-day tour in Chiang Mai, I figured I would be prepared enough for the big mama of bike tours: a full day, 37 km ride around Vientiane, Laos.  As a side note, 2 out of 3 times on these tours my guide was from Holland. At first I was surprised by the coincidence but considering the Dutch are literally born cycling out of the womb, I guess it’s not so weird.
Obviously that assumption that doing an eight hour tour would be fine was totally false, because I’m Kristen after all, but I did learn some good tidbits about Laos (and myself) throughout this day – even if by the end I was ready to just call a cab.
More templey-goodness and the lives of monks


In Southeast Asia, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a temple or a monk (or is it throw a dead cat? Either way, if you have a dead cat, a temple is nearby). It’s no surprise that I have been to a fair few temples and seen a lotta Buddhas on my bike tours. I also learned that monks only eat twice a day (once early in the morning and once around lunchtime)… FOREVER. Or at least as long as they are monks. That just wouldn’t fit in with my grazer stomach and tendency to pack yum-yums wherever I go. As an example, at this moment I have a package of butter biscuits, a box of crackers, two apples, a muffin, a pack of Thai chocolate wafers and half a bag of M&Ms. All in my bag. At this moment in time.
Of course, there are many reasons why I couldn’t be a Buddhist nun, the least of which being that the sole purpose of the nuns is to serve the monks. Girl’s gotta do her own thang, you know.
Also, there is such a thing as a Buddhist pope. I don’t know if the guide meant the head monk in Laos or what, but this is where he lives.
Thai/Laotian Pranks 


Thailand and Laos are basically full of a bunch of pranksters. This statue is of a famous Lao king or prince or something (my services are available as a tour guide, you guys), on the Mekong River. In Vientiane, the Mekong separates Laos from Thailand – and it’s surprisingly narrow at that point. So this statue is not facing the city, but has its back to the city and is facing Thailand. While I thought at first his outstretched hand meant he just wanted some skin, our guide told us that this is basically like giving the big “F.U.” and the finger to Thailand. In retaliation, a little while ago some Thais snuck up the statue and tried to saw the hand off. This is basically like letting chickens loose on the hallway during senior week. (CHICKENS! IN THE HALLWAY!!!). Or like William and Mary putting a statue of TJ facing away from UVa. I love it.
The eternal question – what to do with all this cement?!
In the 1950s, the U.S. was all over Laos like sticky on rice (sorry) but then decided to pull out, halting a lot of airport construction plans. They left behind a whole mess of concrete meant for an airport. The Laotians took it and decided to build a monument fashioned after the Arc de Triomphe. This baby is called the “Vertical Runway” and, amusingly, a “monster in concrete” – literally on the sign on the side of the monument. Apparently they copied the entry out of the English Lonely Planet book without translating it first. It’s been up there for years.
All the bumpy dirt roads… not great for the bum.
In contrast to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, we rode almost exclusively on dirt roads – meaning bumps, rocks, and holes. All that bumpiness meant a very sore bum the next day. But happy, tired muscles.

DON’T YOU WORRY – more bike tours to come!