My first WWOOF Experience

If you’ve ever thought that spending time in nature sounded nice, have you checked out WWOOF?

WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and is exactly what the name says. It is an international network of organic farmers, who serve as hosts for eager travelers. It’s a chance to explore a different region/country/continent, practice some language, learn a skill, and develop amazing relationships you’d never expect.

I spent the last two weeks of my spring Eurotrip WWOOFing (yes, it’s a verb) in Basse-Normandy, France.

 

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A map of my route, for reference!

How did I choose a tiny town in Basse-Normandie? Simple. On the WWOOF website (you pay 20 Euro be a member for a year and then you have access to the catalogue of host farms in the country you choose) there is a list of filters including type of activity (IE permaculture, orchard, dairy, eco projects) and length of stay (one week, two weeks, 1 month). I had two weeks to farm; I was interested in orchards and eco projects. So I found La Fermette du Bellefontaine.

 

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A rainy day on La Fermette

La fermette means “little farm,” and that’s exactly what it was: a small scale organic farm owned and operated by a few friends. Each had his and her own plot of land and primary source of income: one is a vegetable gardener, one a seamstress, and my host, the master baker.

 

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For most French people, bread is life. It’s fresh, it’s inexpensive and it’s eaten three times a day. And why wouldn’t you eat it when the grain was grown and harvested three miles away?

As for eco projects, these included a composting toilet (of which I sadly did not take a picture, but I’ll leave that to you to research), an organic sewage system that uses water-loving plants to clean used water, and newspaper insulation. All created by my host out of his desire to “be as autonomous as possible.”

It’s amazing what you can learn when you least expect it, when you enter into a new situation with zero expectations. I left a lot more informed about steps I can take as an individual to reduce my impact and respect our planet. And I had the best cheese of my life.

 

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View of the town from a hilltop! Not pictured: the medieval fortress I climbed to take this photo.

 

 

 

 

The Joys and Pains of Traveling Cheap

“Travel is the only thing you buy that will make you richer.” (Quote courtesy of Chlohemian :))

I am a penny pincher. For the past few months, I’ve been obsessing over how to keep the cost of my upcoming (tomorrow!) trip to Europe as low as possible, since I am technically unemployed. Nothing says bohemian like backpacking on a dime, right?

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Europe trip #1. I had one 6kg backpack, one purse, one pashmina scarf and one pair of sandals. I’ve never traveled lighter, but my toes were definitely cold 🙂

Except that I’m noticing that my desire to cut corners is running into conflict with my desire for little comforts, like beds. For example, on my first trip to Europe, I spent the night before my flight in the Prague airport so as to avoid paying another night in a hostel. It was fine, except that I was cold and uncomfortable and of course didn’t really sleep. I’m not sure I would do that again now.

That being said, the age of convenient, budget travel is upon us. More and more budget airlines are popping up, as are wonderful Airbnbs and hostels offering very affordable rates for accommodation. I spend a lot of time researching budget airlines and ways to “hack” my way into more affordable travel (to the point of obsession. I’m learning there is a limit.  ). Having friends or looking on travel forums for people who know the areas I’ll be travelling to helps a lot, too.

Even though there might be catches or hidden fees here and there, I’m grateful for the flexibility and possibility the age of budget travel has brought me and lots of travelers like me. Here are my favorite travel “hacks” for keeping costs low while being mobile.

1. Budget airlines. OK, OK, I know, you have to pay to choose a seat and you don’t get free food. While I admittedly love airplane food (all the palak paneer I can eat on Air India and free yain adom (red wine) on El Al? Yes, please), you know the cost of food is built into a higher priced ticket. For my trip from Boston to Berlin, I booked through http://www.kiwi.com and found a very cheap one-way ticket. However, food is not free, and it’s a seven hour flight. So I’ll be bringing tea bags and protein bars and hopefully sleeping through most of it, anyway. Also, on most budget airlines, you also have to pay to check a bag, which brings me to to hack #2…

2. Never check a bag. I know it’s hard. I’m going to be stuffing my backpack down to fit the 55 × 40 × 23 cm | 10 kg carry-on dimensions (roughly 22 by 16 by 9 inches and 22 pounds), but I am determined. It helps to wear your heaviest items on the flight and find clothing and toiletries that can pull double, triple, or quadruple duty (I like a pashmina for a scarf, a folded-up pillow, a blanket, a wrap skirt, a shawl, a head-covering, a sarong for the beach, and a towel in a pinch. I also love coconut oil for virtually every hygiene need.) I learned all my packing light tips from the genius behind http://www.onebag.com. I even down-sized my host gifts to fit into 100 ml containers:

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A little taste of home that I’m bringing as a meager thank you to my friends and hosts overseas.

There’s a great adage that goes like this:

“When you’re planning a trip, lay all your clothes and all your money out in front of you. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.”

I’d add that you should bring a rubber sink stopper and some packets of laundry detergent 😉

3. Accommodation. I’m sure this one is really controversial, because everyone has different needs and levels of comfortability. I definitely think that the older I get, the more I gravitate towards private rooms where possible. But my first trip through Europe consisted entirely of budget, dorm-style hostels, and nine times out of ten they were lovely. Occasionally you get roomed with a severe snorer or a smelly alcoholic, but those are rare. You also tend to meet exciting people who are as eager to explore a new city as you and can serve as lovely travel companions. My best tips for surviving dorm-hopping: bring a sleep mask and good ear plugs. Trust me on this. People come in an out at all hours of the night, and while most people are quite polite, you just never know…

By the way, http://www.hostelworld.com is typically my go-to sight for booking. Though recently I booked a private room through hotels.com for a stay in Berlin, and it was cheaper than the listing on hostelworld. I suppose it’s always a good idea to check both places. I also just booked my first room through AirBnB for a one-night layover in Beauvais, France. It seems to be a more controllable, paid version of couchsurfing, which can be hit or miss. My host seems lovely and (bonus) I get to practice my French! More on that later.

4. I’m really going to challenge myself to eat simply. I know this is another area where costs can add up, and I tend to think that because I’m on “vacation” I should get the fancy wine or dessert or nice entree. But, nah. I was speaking with a friend recently about her time in Ireland, and she said this:

“I ate a full Irish breakfast every morning, which was included with my Bed and Breakfast. I’d take brown bread and butter from the spread with me for the afternoon. In the evening I’d have a bowl of fresh fish chowder and a Guinness, and I’d be full.”

Of course, everyone has different eating habits, and I’m not suggesting you go without. But personally I would rather fill up on the views and the scenery than the food. We’ll see how this goes!

Picture Highlights So Far, Again!!
Czech goulash with horseradish and potato dumplings. Another great tip is to eat and drink the local fares, which tend to be more affordable. Though this was before I swore off meat and became allergic to bread!

5. Read, and take advice. This is probably the most obvious “hack,” but it’s more so just common sense. Do your research and ask people who have been there, or who are still there. Personally, I find this kind of research so much more enjoyable than airfare hunting; it’s like my reward after all the other booking stuff is done. I just cracked open an old Fodor’s guide and became immersed in the excitement of my first visit to Paris. Paris! Take notes. Allow yourself to be excited. Then go, be flexible, and drink it all in.

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My favorite part of the planning process: getting pro-tips from seasoned travelers. And yes, I know this book is six years old. Hey, I’m on a budget, remember?

 

At the end of the day, I think the most important tip is to relax and go with it. I woke up this morning remembering, “Whoah! I’m going to Europe tomorrow.” And suddenly, everything else seems like gravy.

Happy planning! What are some of your best tips?

M

What I missed: Travelling and Mental Illness

I cried all the way down the Grand Canyon.

Perhaps you could say I was overwhelmed by natural majesty. But what was probably closer to the truth was this: I had recently quit my job teaching English in Southeast Asia, ended a trans-continental relationship and moved back home, only to realize that everyone I knew had moved away in the five years that I had been gone. So I felt utterly alone as I traipsed down the narrow, winding pathways of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim Kaibab Trail. The tears fell in droves. I wiped snot away with my teeshirt sleeve. I had to stop at every corner and take a breath so that I could continue down alive. This wasn’t the Western adventure I had had in mind.

We were halfway into our week-long road trip west. Me, my older sister Emily and my dad Bill packed up Emily’s Honda civic to move her to her new tech job in San Francisco. None of us had been to the Grand Canyon before and I convinced the team to stop en route. I had visions of donkeys dancing in my head and was eager to spend the day sweating and struggling over cliffs and mountain peaks. When we got there, however, we spent a long time deciding on a plan of action, and I got frustrated. Emily’s dog was with us, and dogs are not allowed inside the Canyon (they’re allowed on the scenic trail up top but cannot go down into the crater). Poor guy. But I wasn’t about to let him ruin my Grand Canyon adventure.

In the midst of our planning and discussing, I took off, almost at a run, feeling like I would burst if I sat still a moment longer. I climbed down part of the outer rim and peered over the edge: fur trees, alabaster stone and birds flying high encompassed me. I breathed it all in. In my mind I went back in time to when I hiked Sde Boker by myself, in a similar situation, feeling so frustrated with life that I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to climb higher and higher until the world ended and I fell off the edge. Evidently, that feeling hasn’t gone away.

I’ve had depression all my life and I know how oppressive it feels. I know it gets worse in times of high stress or drastic change. Turns out, moving overseas and teaching ESL is both.

Have you ever met a lactose intolerant person who loves ice cream? That’s how I feel about travelling. It makes me nauseous, but I love it anyway. Yes, planning a trip can be stressful. Your plans don’t always work out as you’d hoped. It might rain. Your hotel might be completely booked, or worse, non-existent (shout out, Vietnam). Or you might end up shouting at your wonderful family because you had unrealistic expectations of how much hiking you could accomplish in half a day with a tiny dog and an aging father (sorry, Papa).

I lost it at the Grand Canyon because I hadn’t seen anything so beautiful since Myanmar–and I missed that time in my life. Suddenly I wanted freedom, to roam, unattached, transient and visible only to those whom I chose to allow in. I’ve been struggling with accepting the modicum of stability I have now at “home” in the United States.

Upon deciding to move home, I remember thinking that this would be a good idea because it would “stabilize” and “normalize” me. But I think I didn’t give myself enough credit. There is nothing abnormal about working overseas. It all depends on who you ask. As I get older, I realize: people are going to think what they’re going to think. Don’t live your life based on other people’s comments, and don’t apologize for being who you are. Travelling is not infantile, criminal or glamorous. It’s just living, a different way.

 

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The Wonder of Angkor

Today I am disappearing into pictures from Cambodia. It’s cold today, and Memphis finally got some snow (very dusty, powdery stuff). As I reminisce, I realize that I never wrote a post about the Angkor Temples. For something so wondrous, and vast, and well-known, it surprises me that I didn’t blog about this part of my trip. I want to improve my reporting skills, going back in time to report events that already occurred, instead of only writing things down as they happen. I have a lot to learn and improve upon. In Cambodia, and in my processing of experience in Cambodia, I caught myself up in the recent history, the tragedy of genocide, the hatred and the bloodshed. 

Journalist Joel Brinkley attributed a lot of Cambodia’s current, utterly corrupt state of affairs to part of an ancient culture of tribute made to kings, lords, rulers and so on down the line of power. Those in the king’s favor won land, titles and wealth, mostly in the form of commodities like grain, which was always in high demand. Mr. Brinkley argues that this was how Pol Pot (the genocidal leader of the Khmer Rouge party) and his cronies, and how the current leadership “gangs” still function today. He makes a very convincing argument.  But there’s more to ancient Khmer culture than just warlords and cronies. There is magic that exists today, still painstakingly preserved, in northern Cambodia.

 Something major is missing from the current political structure, aside from humane treatment of constituents and fair voting processes. Little regard is left for ancient cultural and religious traditions–at least in the government halls–that helped to grow the Khmer empire into the most expansive kingdom in southeast Asia long ago. The beauty is lost, but thanks to extensive restoration and preservation efforts by the colonial French, the Angkor Temples tower over the Cambodian countryside today, testifying to the sacred wonder of a glorious bygone era.

 Angkor Wat

View of the main temple complex from the lily-padded lake.

























Angkor Wat is the most famous of all the Angkor Temples. Its renown and majesty is comparable to El Castillo, the famous Mayan pyramid, if you’re familiar with Mexican heritage. But Angkor Wat was built to honor a Hindu god. When the empire later converted to Buddhism, new statues were built to honor these gods. If you ever go to Angkor, get a guide for Angkor Wat. The other temple structures are less detailed and far more open, leaving you free to wander at your own leisure. But the stories that are packed into every stone of Angkor Wat demand that you understand them to appreciate the temple’s full worth. There are usually English-speaking guides standing outside the main entrance to the temple, and they wear beige shirts and carry books of photographs. (And if my memory serves me correctly, my guide wore a name badge around his neck as well.) These men are well trained and extremely knowledgeable. You can negotiate a price, but I believe I paid mine $10. He will also take you all the way up to the top of the temple, which allows you to see for miles around and stories below, a breathtaking sight. 

Bayon Temple
Do you see what I see? These sweetly serene faces are carved into the peaks at Bayon temple.




Bayon temple, a little ways away from Angkor Wat, is much 
more open and ruinous. In fact, I think we just wandered in to this one. Bayon has not been as neatly preserved, but that makes for much of the fun. You cN wander in between the half-open hallways and climb up and up until you come to the rooftop. These smiling faces greet you, but don’t let the photo fool you; each one stands several hundred feet high. 

Bayon is part of a long strip of open, ruinous temples where you can wander. Many are just as grand in structure and purpose as Angkor Wat, but not nearly as protected. 

When you hire a tuk-tuk driver, as you must (because the temples are located some 20 km outside of town), ask him to take you to Bayon temple and to wait for you. Take your time, and don’t allow yourself to feel rushed. As a thank you, you can buy him lunch at one of the conveniently located tourist restaurants erected in the fields across the way 🙂
Ta Prohm, aka “The Tomb Raider Temple”




This was my personal favorite. I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie (so did everyone else, probably). Ta Prohm temple’s level of preservation falls below Angkor and Bayon, and for good reason. No where else in the world have I seen nature attack man-made structures so violently and remain such a powerful presence. The root structures of Siemp Riep’s trees have split the bricks of temples during centuries of abandonment, creating a space so magical and other-worldly, you can’t believe your own feelings. Just take a look at some of the effects of mother nature having her way:







Exploring these magnanimous temples, I felt eight years old again, as if I were wandering through the woods behind my house, feet muddy, streams trickling behind me, everything quiet save the crunch of twigs beneath my shoes. Nothing compares to that feeling. If I could, I would spend a week just sitting in these temples, breathing in the ancient mystery, pretending I’m on a quest for a hidden treasure. Who knows, there very well could still be some buried underneath these giant trees, waiting to be unearthed 🙂

References and Further Reading:
https://sacredsites.com/asia/cambodia/angkor_wat.html
http://www.amazon.com/Cambodias-Curse-Modern-History-Troubled/dp/1610391837

Christmas In Vietnam

Typical motorbike traffic in Ho Chi Minh City.
Photo credit:Noemi Agagianian

I’m really sucking at Christmas this year.

Most people in my neighborhood have already finished their Christmas shopping, sent cards and letters, hosted parties, strung lights and cozied up by the fire place at least thrice. I, on the other hand, bought a handful a presents last week that I forgot to wrap, haven’t written a single Christmas card and have forgotten that Christmas lights are a “thing.” But it’s not my fault, I swear.

Last year, I spent Christmas in Vietnam.

While most folks at home were baking pies and watching Christmas specials, I was buying plane tickets and booking hostels, reading up on sites to see and haggling for discounted bus tickets. 

View from the former South Vietnam’s HQ.

After a twelve hour overnight bus from Siem Riep to Bangkok , I flew again from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon. And yes, I refrained from singing “One Night in Bangkok” the whole time!) on December 22, 2014. We arrived late at night and took a taxi-van to our hostel. I had already noted the few Catholic churches in my guidebook, because I like to go to Church on Christmas eve. We passed a few on our way downtown, brightly decorated with blue Christmas lights and little nativity scenes. Maybe Ho Chi Minh city would be a nice place to spend Christmas, after all, I thought!

We spent the next two days touring the city, visiting the War Museum (formerly, and aptly, called the “Museum of American War Crimes”), the former president of South Vietnam’s headquarters, a densely packed textile market, the Cu Chi war tunnels, a few islands in the Mekong Delta, and quite a few coffee shops. Ho Chi Minh city is bustling and couture mix of French architecture, sundry shops, restaurants, opera houses, and markets, all sandwiched in between thousands of motor bikes whizzing around pedestrians and traffic stops.

Typical traffic outside the Cathedral
Photo credit: Noemi Agagianian

On Christmas Eve day, we wandered around the city, drank coffee and took lots of pictures. Like most cities I’ve visited, we ended up walking in circles for several hours until it finally got dark and we got hungry. I was craving Western food, perhaps because of a timely longing for home, so we found a cute little “Italian” shop (though it was Vietnamese owned) that sold everything from curry to pizza to gelato. I ordered a caprese salad, which turned out to be cheddar cheese, basil, sliced tomato and olives, and a pasta dish. My friends ordered curry and a burger. Ho Chi Minh is cosmopolitan that way!

With my capricious caprese salad (forgive the pun..)

After eating our fill, we headed down to the Church for the Christmas Eve service. But we didn’t get far before we started pressing ourselves against the crowds of local residents gathered in the Church courtyard. They weren’t really concerned that a service was happening inside; a sea of red and white Santa costumes in sweaty bodies swam and danced around. Young people laughed, took selfies, and sprayed each other with snow-in-a-can. Snow-in-a-can. It was a big shock. Yet as shocking as all the Santa costumes and snow-in-a-can were to me, I still imagine the sight of three tall American girls was even more shocking to everyone else. People screamed, laughed, took pictures, and sprayed us with lots of fake snow.

One of many little boys out for Christmas Eve
Photo credit: Noemi Agagianian

I was surprised at how many families were out so late at night. In my mind, Christmas means spending time with family in the home, cozied up on the couch, braving the winter weather. Obviously, you don’t need to brave winter weather in a tropical country. Babies, little boys and girls, moms and dads all posed for “groupies” by their motorbikes, laughed, chatted, celebrated.

That Christmas Eve was certainly memorable. I lost my friends, found the Chapel, and got covered in lots of wet foam. But I learned something important: Christmas, and every other American holiday, is not the same anywhere else. In my home in Memphis, Christmas is a big deal. In my family, Christmas has religious significance; it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. But somehow, that message has gotten lost in translation. The message of Christmas that managed to make it to Vietnam was not so much the birth of Jesus Christ or the quiet peace of “Silent Night,” but the red and white costumes, the snow, the jingle bells, and Santa Claus. It was difficult for me to spend my Christmas in a part of that whirlwind; those things were never part of my Christmas. 

Looking back, I see now that spending Christmas in Vietnam taught me to cherish what I hold to be true about Christmas: Christ was born to save the world. Family matters. Peace on Earth cannot be lip service. I understand not everyone feels that way, and that’s fine with me, because as Ani DiFranco said, “I know there is strength in the differences between us.” There is strength in difference, and there is value in celebrations. We become stronger when we can celebrate our own holidays differently. It means we accept that there is more to a day then the presents, or the food, or the way we hold our services.


Merry Christmas, everyone, and Happy Holidays. May you and yours be blessed and joyful, wherever you are in the world and however you decide to celebrate.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Challenge

My new adult-like job has kept my thoroughly busy and happily distracted from the pangs of reverse culture shock I find creeping up at night alone or when attempting (and failing miserably) at small talk with strangers. So I haven’t been blogging consistently like I always intend to, and part of that reason is I think it is more difficult for me to drag myself into exciting situations now that I’m “home” and everything seems “familiar.” I’m becoming lazy and starting to understand the term “binge-watching.” I don’t like those things.

The days are getting shorter, colder, more Northeast USA-like..

I miss the Northeast. And I miss Bangkok. And I miss Europe. And I miss my friends very, very, very much. So I spend a lot of time feeling sad and then starting to feel sorry for myself.

I don’t know what my future holds. I don’t know if I’m ready to call off my travelling or if Memphis is where I need to settle at all. Right now I am enjoying my job, enjoying the crisp fall air and welcoming the sights and smells of Autumn. But I’m a bit anxious about how long that feeling will last. I’m hoping to find deeper attachments inside myself, with God alone.

I started this blog over four years ago, before I had ever been to Israel or even New Jersey. I started it at a time when life felt weightless, bottomless, and oppressively overwhelming all at the same time.

I’m not a good blogger. I don’t use social media all that well, and I suck at online communication. I don’t do a good job of “building my audience,” but I do hope that I can reach whomever stumbles over my words with a dash of humor or, even better, a twinge of understanding. I like writing, like I like travelling and meeting new people, for the connections and the similarities.

That being said, I’m signing up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The challenge is to write a novel in one month, from November 1 to November 30. The goal is to reach 50,000 words. I’m not much of a fiction writer, but I learned to my delight that I can still participate as a Nano “Rebel.” My project therefore will be non-fiction, probably some type of memoir or personal narrative about my travels over the past few years.

I hope this will be a fun way to relive some of those adventures and to really curl up into them again. I’ve been feeling sad lately, and empty, and wishing I had attachments. I’m hoping that this adventure, one happening in my own bedroom, will take me places I yearn to go and teach me new things about life and myself and other people. Those are the best adventures after all.

I’m going to use this blog and the NaNo website to track my progress starting November 1. If you’re a writer, or aspiring to be one like I am, I hope you’ll consider joining me on this crazy quest. If you’ve already been doing NaNoWriMo, I need your help! Find me at nanowrimo.org/participants/mmstanek.

There is no competition here, only good spirits and encouragement to put one foot (or finger, in this case) in front of the other and keep on going! I’ll be “prepping” for the next two weeks, and then the big day starts November 1! I hope you’ll join me! Let me know–I would love to hear from you.

Mel

Post-Grad: Making the Best of The Time You Have

A cliche title, but this is how I feel right now…

And once again, boxes are packed and suitcases are standing in my bedroom. Where I am going this time? It’s tempting to say “nowhere,” but that isn’t true. I’m moving back home.

Such a short sentence carries with it so much weight and societal pressure, doesn’t it?

I’ve been blessed to spend some time with my wonderful college friends this weekend in New Jersey, where I’ve been for the past week, packing boxes, visiting family and tying up loose ends before I move back to Memphis. One of the things we talked a lot about is how odd it is not to have that structure of school looming over us. This time of year is when students move back to campus, start planning their courses and their extra-curriculars, and begin that carousel dance of “what ifs” and wishes for their still mostly ethereal futures.

Only this time, and for the first time (since I graduated college and then went straight to teaching at a university), there is no class schedule to pick! No courses to look forward to, no projects to plan, no books to check out or social events to make. I try and tell myself that I’ll still be as studious, reading for pleasure and edification and cross referencing everything I see on paper. But the truth is, even in the month and a half since I’ve been jobless in America, it’s been really difficult to create any sort of routine that challenges me.

All of my caring older adult friends and family will smile and shrug and say encouraging things like “you don’t need to know what you’re doing forever; you just need to know what you’re doing next.” And this is true, and I’m very grateful for their understanding and support. Yet I’m wondering if this is the part of life, that dreaded post-college part, that people don’t really explain in detail because it’s different for everyone, and maybe uncomfortable as well.

And so I’ve been spending this last week living a bit in nostalgia-land, which I believe every person is entitled to at some points in life. I visited my old college and church, had lots of lunches and coffees and lots of talks, and started going through my old belongings, at which point I realized that I’m a book hoarder. I also discovered this insert from my old environmental biology book, which explains a lot:

A fold out map I found under my bed today.

I also found some old travel pieces from The Inquirer, old essays I wrote for school and lots of notes about random ideas in life. My brain, it seems, has always been running overtime.

One article I had saved was a piece by Rick Steves on the relative simplicity of backpacking in the age of technology, with which I wholeheartedly agree. His last bit of advice was to always keep a travel journal. He observes:

One of my favorite discoveries is that the journal entries I wrote as a scruffy 20-year-old in 1975 still resonate with the…20-year-old American exploring Europe in the 21st century.

I find this encouraging and inspiring. There’s something so liberating and magical about being your own Robinson Crusoe or Sherlock Holmes in a foreign land, even if you can now follow that land on twitter. There’s nothing like being there in person.

And this is why, as a newly jobless post-grad, joining the ranks of the wandering millennials, I feel hopeful about my future. Yes, it is so much more challenging to make things happen now. In college, everything is arranged neatly for you; you have endless options from which to choose. You see your friends all the time. You have access to databases, free Zumba classes, trips to the beach, and all the ice cream you can eat. Those things still exist in life (maybe not the free Zumba); you just have to find them for yourself now.

Look at the map. Look at Rick Steves. We have a whole world still to explore, and even in our own backyard or old college town, we can find uncharted territory. Everything and everyone has a story, and since human beings are naturally curious, it is only fitting that we seek to uncover those stories, no matter where we are physically. If you’re looking for a place to start, try your old journals, essays, or random scraps of paper stuffed under your bed.

🙂

Note:
Rick Steves, “It’s Easier to be a Backpacker,” for the Inquirer, Sunday July 28, 2013. Inquirer.com


An Ode to My Tevas

One of the weird subjects you end up discussing when backpacking are your own feet. Specifically, you talk a lot about footwear. For example, I figured out many years ago that I hate flipflops and would rather go barefoot than wear uncomfortable shoes (which I have done many times). Nothing ruins a trip faster than blistered feet.

The best travel investment I ever made, hands down, was my pair of Teva Women’s Tirra Athletic Sandals (which I have conveniently linked here for you in hopes of getting a kickback from Amazon. Just kidding.) I actually didn’t buy them at Amazon but at a local store in Princeton. I’m sure you can find them at boutique shoe stores and most outdoor stores, too.

The same pair of shoes lasted me through all my hiking in Israel, my fall break in Europe, my walks to class in the US, and all over Southeast Asia until the very last trip I took, to Myanmar, where they finally said “enough.” The stitching between the sole and the ankle strap on the right shoe had unraveled. Even so, I managed to wear them for the remainder of my trip by just velcro-ing the ankle strap around itself. But I decided to leave them at my hostel in Shwan State in order to save room in my backpack. I still think of them there, stuffed in the trash can. It was a very poor ending for a very noble pair of footwear.

I really can’t recommend these shoes highly enough. Many people over the years have asked about them, and I always say how much I love them. We’ve been through a lot together. They are currently in five of my facebook profile pictures. Clearly, I’m obsessed.

So here is one final eulogy to the most comfortable, durable, reliable shoes I’ve ever had. Rest in peace, Tevas.

Dancing with my Tevas in the Golan Heights.

I found you in style, inside a new store
Where brown paper shoe linings littered the floor.
You cost me much more than I then could afford
Yet you tempted me, won me
With cushy, soft soles.

Your velcro and criss-crosses gave me a tan
That’s stayed on my feet through summer and winter,
tatooed shadows reminding me
of hot afternoon climbs.

With socks, you warmed me
in Autumn in Prague.
In water, you carried me
through rocks and through fog.

Up mountains, down valleys,
down cobblestone alleys,
Your grip made me sure
I’d not slip nor unravel.

We spent four long years
foot by side,
we saw ten fine countries,
and a lot of goodbyes.

Till one fine day in May,
your crevices caked with clay,
your velcro delayed
and—riip

Farewell, dear friends,
my trusted travel companions.
I’ll miss your reliability,
your light-weight portability,
your eternal tan-lines.

I hope you enjoy retirement in Myanmar.

With love,
Melanie

PS-Sorry for the stinky feet.

Magical Myanmar

Four months later and I’m writing again. There’s a lot to be said and many apologies to be made but for now I’ll say that I’m home in America almost fully recovered from a nasty parasite and spending quality time with family. I don’t plan to return to Thailand, but I don’t think this is the end of my wanderlust. I’d love to give this blog a makeover and write about travelling even while stateside, but I will need a few boot-camp classes in technology first!

Anyway, I want to write about Myanmar. Myanmar is unlike any other place I’ve been, and I think it was the best time I had. Here’s why: it really does make a difference when you give yourself plenty of time to spend in-country (especially if you’re going to buy a visa anyway). I spent nearly three weeks in Myanmar; I could’ve easily spent four, but I hadn’t planned for four so my money was low, and as it turns out, that timing was perfect. I got infected (>.<) the day before I was scheduled to fly back to Bangkok. 
Here’s what I loved about Myanmar: when you start exploring, you start to feel like you’re stepping back in time or into a fantasy world. There is so much natural beauty in that land, and it feels pristine and untouched. Coupled with an unbelievable history and the strong yet gentle spirits of the locals, and I quickly understood why so many people claimed Myanmar as their favorite stop in Southeast Asia. It’s just different. 

Understandably so. Myanmar (formerly Burma) had been closed off since its 1962 military coup and engulfed in civil war and war crimes for the past 60 years. According to Wikipedia, the military junta official “dissolved” in 2011 (the same year that the Lonely Planet guide was published, incidentally), but things had been loosening since the late 2000s. Still, when I went, there were in fact some ATMs and even whispers of Wifi, but nothing as self-serving as the resorts of Thailand. And that is exactly what I wanted.
Hiking the mountains in northern Shan State. Can you spot the tiny dots in the foreground? Those are houses.
In Myanmar, I hiked above the clouds, learned how to spot green tea plants, met the niece of the last Shan princess to rule in Northern Shan state before the military takeover, walked barefoot over sun-soaked marble temple paths, and climbed a lot of pagodas. A lot of pagodas.
One of the several thousand temples left standing in dusty Bagan.
We also did a self-guided city tour of former capital Yangon (Rangoon) where we spotted old mossy-grown British colonial buildings, the famous Strand Hotel, the old Post hub and other relics from a century long occupation.
Old governmental meeting house built under British occupation in Yangon (formerly Rangoon).
I didn’t really want to leave, but my body and my wallet felt otherwise, and so with a heavy heart and a weak stomach I departed Yangon for Bangkok three weeks after I touched down in Mandalay. I took a total of two fifteen hour overnight buses (with varying degrees of comfort), climbed an ungodly number of steps, and drank about seventy-five cups of green tea. Watch the video below to see how villagers in the Pa’Oh mountains in northern Shan State gather and process hundreds of pounds of tea!! (The video turns direction at one point…sorry about that, but trust me, it’s so cool!)
I miss travelling. Until next time, I’ll relish the pictures, the stories, the teacups and the hand-rolled Burmese cigars. Ahh, the simple life!
With love,
Mel