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A little less than a year ago I departed the United States via Los Angeles International Airport. With an already grungy backpack and 10 month’s savings in tow, I was off to explore countries about which I knew nothing. I dreamed of pristine turquoise beaches, daunting limestone cliffs, rice paddies, and splattered glow in the dark paint at a Full Moon Party. I thought my Tom’s would be my number one trekking companions and I’d wear out my long black skirt with daily temple hopping. I planned on being gone 7 months and graciously dished out an allowance for one month in each country.

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I was right about all those dreams and thoughts and plans. But I was also wrong.

There’s a certain beauty in having no plans. What to some may have seemed like wasted days on the beach were not; there were fresh fruit smoothies, good talks on the beach, golden sunsets, and giggling late night skinny dipping sessions. Other days I sat in my hostel bed curled up reading a good book, and sometimes I just laid there soaking up the treasured air conditioning. I stayed in cities longer than expected to meet with friends and left cities sooner than anticipated to escape less desirable company. I jumped on busses and trains and vans uncertain I was the going in the intended direction and with no concern about when I’d arrive. I had to stop and slap myself when I had anxiety about where to go next because having the world at your feet is certainly not the worst problem. I extended my trip and decided to live in a small Thai town, and with a click of a button had no return date in sight. I never made it to Laos or Indonesia and did only a quick stint in Malaysia. I didn’t climb a volcano or learn to surf or make it to many of those pristine temples on the front of the guide books. That time was spent in places with people I had come to love because, really, what’s a good talk on the beach, a golden sunset, and a late night skinny dip without them?

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Backpacking thought Asia fulfilled for me the kind of dreams I didn’t even know I had.

Of course Southeast Asia was beaches and temples and elephants, but it was much more. It was the moments that took my breath away, made my jaw drop, my heart smile and cry, and sit and wonder “am I really here?” It was that first exhilarating motorbike ride and everyone thereafter; grabbing the warm body in front of me half worried we would crash and arriving safely, wondering why I was ever scared. It was saying yes to things like eating a snake heart and realizing life’s best moments are when you stop thinking about it and just do it. It was my Thai grandmother who didn’t need to share a language to let me know I was loved and the kids who thought I was a superstar despite butchering The Star Spangled Banner. It was a magnificent sunset after a long day of traveling and the feeling of being 30 metres underwater and looking up to see you’re surrounded beauty. It was that long trek where I cursed the rain and wobbly paths only to be rewarded with sore shins and images of grandeur I couldn’t have conjured up in dreams. It was having complete strangers invite me to a wedding in rural Cambodia and rejoicing in the moment together as if I was family. It was the sadness in seeing eight year olds on the street begging for money and those even younger sleeping on the beach at 2am. It was learning about Cambodia’s horrific past and the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War and seeing the kindness and forgiveness they’d granted to those who’d wronged them. It was the Filipino people during the typhoon, staying up all night to watch over us, and the palpable sense of community I awoke to as they cleaned up the wreckage the next day.

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The people I met from Southeast Asia were exceptional at smiling, superior at forgiving, remarkable at accepting. They never judged and didn’t waste moments on worry, spent more time with family and built strong relationships with neighbors. They were people that loved hard and weren’t afraid to show it and people whose years of hard aches and troubles haven’t seemed to wear on their kindness.

So above all– above riding elephants and lying with tigers and swimming amongst fish, above the beaches and the sunsets and the limestone cliffs– these are the best memories I’ve brought home with me.

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Ye Peng Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Before I left for my trip to Southeast Asia, there were a few images I associated with my upcoming travels. One was a photo of long tail boats sitting on the water’s edge on Railay Beach, Thailand, the other was of thousands of lanterns being let off into the night’s sky in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The former, I found, was an easy sight to find along the way, but the latter, unfortunately, happened to take place at a festival during the middle of November. I was disappointed because, as you may remember, I was supposed to return home in August. But when I made the decision to extend my trip, the first thing I did was look up the date of the lantern festival and book a hostel.

I returned to Thailand on the 15th of November via the Philippines and immediately made my way to the north on a night train. Now a seasoned professional at sleeping on a third class bench on the train, I enjoyed a good night’s sleep before having to take two busses, a tricycle, and a songthaew before eventually arriving at my accommodation.

That Saturday evening Mojito Garden 2, the hostel I was at, arranged transportation for the 60+ people staying there to go to the first night’s celebration called Ye Peng. It was a 40 minutes drive out to a University, where vendors sold everything from small to extra large lanterns, to pork balls, sugary juices, and Dim Sum. The venue was crowded, and as the sun went down revelry began prematurely lighting their lanterns and letting them off into the pink sunset. The main stage house the official ceremony and was led by dozens of monks clothed in burnt orange robes. For an hour, they chanted sacred prayers as we watched and payed our respects. Around 8pm, we were instructed to light our lanterns together and begin sending them off. The effect was unimaginable; it was the vision of a galaxy or the milky way– but so close I could nearly touch it.

The most incredibly part of Ye Peng was the sheer fact that 10 months into my trip, I could still experience new moments that take my breath away.

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Tip of the Hat/ Wag of the Finger: Philippines

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I need to preface this post by insisting I really enjoyed my month in the Philippines. That being said, there are so many ridiculous, anxiety laden things here that led to the following onset of ailments:

Increased heart rate
Anxiety
Confusion
Spontaneous combustion
Wanting to poke someone in the eye with a chopstick

First, let me begin with a big wag of my finger at Filipino buses. On first inspection, there seems to be nothing wrong with them; the buses are spacious enough to fit both ass cheeks, sturdy enough to make it to the next location, and cheap enough to accommodate my wallet. The problem first became apparent when I realized they operate on Filipino Time. It is similar to Thai time and the “no worries, no rush” attitude, but far, far worse. The sphere in which time functions here is not on any scale known to man. Remember when you were four years old, perhaps on a family vacation, and an hour in you’d ask, “Are we thereeeeee yetttt mooooooommmm???” It’s like that, except I’m now a semi-capable 25 year old woman who knows how to read a clock, understands the force of nature that is traffic, yet have become convinced on more than one occassion that perhaps we are driving in circles and I missed my stop. In the Philippines not only does no one care when the bus will arrive or depart, no one actually knows. Who is to blame for this? Well, that’s what I found out when my 3 hour bus journey turned into a 5 1/2 hour shuttle of starvation and eventual thirst. Unlike Thailand in which humans are picked up at actual bus stations, in the Philippines a bus will pick up literally anyone and everyone standing on the side of the road waving it down. Initially it was funny, like, “huh, won’t this be annoying if they do it the whole ride north?” No joke, that is exactly what happened. Literally every 50 metres the bus would slam on the brakes and pick someone up only to stop a minute and a half later to drop another passenger off. I had pretty much decided by hour five I would never arrive at my destination and decided to have a good laugh about it, which was perfect timing as a very obese man hopped on, sat right next to me on an already crowded row of seats, and got off 30 metres later. REALLY?!? The straw that broke the camel’s back was the “not-free-at-all airport shuttle” taking me from Manila’s domestic arrivals to the international terminal. The shuttle not only took 40 MINUTES, causing me to nearly miss my flight, but has lead me to believe once and for all that I have been part of some sick joke whilst in the Philippines. Let’s just say any inclination I ever had to use public transportation when I return home has vanished.

As much as I despise the bus transport in the Philippines, it always becomes worth it upon first look at their gorgeous beaches. The biggest tip of my hat goes to the moment I stepped foot on White Beach on the tiny island of Boracay. I’d taken an overnight boat from a port south of Manila and arrived in Caticlan at sunrise. It was before 8am when I stepped foot on the beach, backpack and greasy hair in tow. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky; I don’t think I’d ever seen such blue water on my life. The best part was the absence of people, which I came to find was an anomaly about three hours later, as I recreationally people watched large groups of Chinese tourists participate in jumping pictures.

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My absolute favorite thing about the Philippines is that the country starts celebrating Christmas on September 1st. Sure there’s a quick nod to Halloween, but with no Thanksgiving to bother with, there’s apparently little reason to not spend a third of the year revving up to a holiday. I first came upon this merry little fact my second day in Manila. Kirsten and I went to the grocery store to grab a few items for dinner and Jingle Bells came on. I found it amusing but thought it was a fluke; twelve songs later I had to know, so I grabbed a clerk and asked why this music was being played in the middle of October to which he replied with a wink, “We started celebrating last month! It’s the Philippines, we’re advanced!” Though I doubted the country was that advanced, I fully accepted the practice of mid-year yuletide and became unfazed by the litany of Christmas trees, ornaments, sparkling lights, gift wrap, and Santas throughout the country. When taking the van from El Nido to Puerto Princesa the other day, a man from Manila began grilling me on my life story and upcoming plans. After what felt like an eternity he asked when I would return to America, to which I replied by breaking out in song, “I’llllll be homeeeee for Chritmasssss, youuuu can count on meeee…..” which was convenient and apparently an appropriate response because the conversation ended there.
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To get back to things I highly dislike, I’d like to bring up a little something called “terminal fees.” Shame, shame, and more shame on you! Terminal fees is a fancy word for “we would like to charge you for something absurd.” I first encountered these fees when my night boat from Manila arrived at the Caticlan port; from what I’d read online, to get to my final destination of Borocay, I would simply take a short, ten minute ride on a small passenger boat. Ah, but that would be too easy, wouldn’t it? As I exited the night boat, I was immediately directed outside the terminal, where I was led by signs to then come back to the terminal to purchase my next boat ticket. I approached the first counter and paid my 30 pesos for the ride- fair enough. The second counter demanded 50 pesos for an environmental fee- sure, I guess I like the environment. Lastly, I come to the third counter that insisted I fork over 100 pesos as a terminal fee- not cool, and is that even a thing!? Lest you forget I was already in the terminal area five minutes prior! The woman handed me a piece of paper to prove I had paid, where I then walked 3 feet and a third of it was ripped off, and finally, walked another 2 feet and another third was taken. In those 7 feet, nothing of importance took place; these employees were just scattered at random intervals to to rip paper. I was displeased but assumed that once inside my pricey fee would at least allow me to use the restroom. Nope, that cost money too. Another instance took place at the airport; we had already paid for our tickets and in Kirsten’s case, baggage fees, and had grabbed our boarding passes to go wait for our flight. There was, however, a hallway we had to go through where we found ourselves being charged 200 pesos as a terminal fee. This airport was literally the size of my house, and the so called “terminal” that deserved this so called fee had no more that 50 rickety metal seats to sit and wait on. Obviously the only way to get to the flight was through that hallway, so we paid and once more came upon airport employees spaced out randomly to rip up a ticket we had received moments earlier. This was more than over employing, it was a waste of paper! My entire month in the Philippines was made up of inane moments like this, which you can probably imagine drove me crazy and cost a great deal, so for that, a wag of my finger goes to terminal fees.
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Discos may just be my favorite thing about the Philippines. Not the 70’s style disco you slightly older folk may be thinking of (although dance moves from that generation are certainly allowed) but town parties. From what I found, discos typically take place every Saturday evening as well as on holidays during the week. My first experience at a disco was on Halloween in Malapascua. Kristen and I, being the committed Americans we are, made sure to actively participate in the holiday by painting our faces ala Dias de Los Meurtos. As we headed to a bar for happy hour, we stopped to paint the faces of little ones playing on boats near the shore; an hour later, there were three dozen cats, pirates, puppies, and zombies roaming the beach thanks to us. After a few drinks at the bar, and an incident in which a very drunk person decided to urinate at the table we were all sat at, a consensus was reached that it was time to head to the disco. The disco was held in the center of the town village on the basketball court, complete with strobe lights and locals aged 3-80+. Since I love old people, I knew right away this was my kind of party. I also love kids, but unfortunately for me, my face makeup terrified the majority of them. One little girl was so scared she screamed every time she saw me and hid behind her mother. At some point a couple hours later, due to what can only be explained by half my makeup melting off my face, said child and I became best friends.
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The final wag of my finger goes to the locals who tried to sell me things on the beach. I get it, you need to make money and I really do understand, but there’s a time and place for everything. The moment I arrive at my destination and awkwardly wriggle off a tricycle? Not the time to sell me a tricycle ride. In what instance does that make sense?! I’ve done a lot of questionable things in Asia but getting on and off a tricycle at random locations is not something I casually partake in. The same logic goes for the following situations:

– selling me sunglasses when I’m wearing a pair already
– offering me a sail boat ride as I get on a sail boat
– insisting I get a massage whilst I am already receiving one
– attempting to get me to go to a buffet while I am eating dinner
– trying to get me to go to a waterfall when a typhoon is about to hit (excuse me, what?!)

All of this makes very little sense to me, yet time and time again it happened. But as with all things in Asia that have defied my logic, I made sure to come up with a strategy to cope with the insanity. In this instance, I decided to insist “I hated” everything that was offered to me. Sunset cruises over translucent turquoise waters? Hate them. Fake RayBans that happen to look just like the real thing for a fraction of the cost? Completely below my standards, hate ’em. Delicious all you can eat buffet on the white sand beach? NEVER. Bracelets? Ohhhh, I justhate bracelets. In the end, this strategy did absolutely nothing to drive anyone away and merely added a bit of amusement to my day, which is really all I can ask for.

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Weathering Typhoon Yolanda in El Nido, Philippines

It was nearly my third week in the Philippines when I arrived with my friend Kirsten in El Nido. Two days prior we had been on the small island of Malapascua, Cebu, diving with thresher sharks, celebrating Halloween with the locals, and trying to capture the gorgeous sunsets on camera to no avail. A boat, van, and short one hour flight later, we arrived on the western most province of Palawan, fond memories and tanned physiques in tow. The next day, it was a bumpy, uncomfortable 8 hour journey to our destination in the north, El Nido.
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The next morning (Wednesday) lent no ominous sign to impending catastrophe as Kirsten and I kayaked around the perfectly turquoise waters and watched the sun set over the hundreds of lush islands and rigid limestone cliffs surrounding the small town. In passing, the owner of our guesthouse mentioned a typhoon was coming the next day; it was big, he said, but they got storms all the time and it wouldn’t go by us anyways.

By the next afternoon (Thursday), the typhoon he spoke of hadn’t shown up, but through almost constant chatter with other backpackers, we realized it was certainly on its way and gaining momentum. Kirsten and I, along with Michelle from Australia and Emily from England, spent the evening on storm watch looking up news articles and updates, trying to figure out which way Typhoon Yolanda was headed. We read about what constitutes storm surge warnings and what we could expect various distances from the eye of the storm. I learned that a typhoon is categorically the same as a hurricane and a cyclone; the names are changed dependent on the area in the world in which it occurs. By the time we went to bed, we were getting details from friends we had met in the Philippines who were facing immediate evacuation.
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When we woke Friday morning, only a few things were amiss; anyone who did not know Yolanda was on her way wouldn’t have noticed a thing. Our guesthouse was putting up tarps to shield the upstairs rooms from the wind and rain. Kirsten and I were moved to a different building that was connected to a generator that would supply electricity if the power went out. Where there had been hundred of boats moored off the shore before, there were now only a few sprinkled about, ready to be moved and spared the brunt of the storm. The girls and I had breakfast then stockpiled supplies- water, bananas, bread, and sandwiches for lunch and dinner. We came back to our guesthouse and watched movies beginning in the early evening, checking the Internet as often as we could to see the progression of Typhoon Yolanda. Before our power, internet, and water went out, we knew the eye was set to hit a few hundred kilometres north of us, and that Northern Palawan had signal 4 warning.

(Warnings range from 1-5. A higher warning implies you are closer to the eye of the storm and at greater risk of experiencing a storm surge, which brings strong, heaving hitting waves that can be as high as a second story and flood anything and everything close to the shoreline)
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The brunt of the storm hit El Nido around 8pm-2am from what I experienced and was agreed upon by locals. When I went to bed at 11pm it was incredibly windy and rainy, though the pitch blackness outside lent to only a vague awareness of how strong it was. I awoke at 1am to the sound of the wind battering the trees and tin roofed houses and peaked outside my window to watch, only to see the owners and a brother-in-law awake with their flashlight making sure, as they told me the next morning, “everyone was safe and we were there in case of an emergency situation.”

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They stayed awake all night, as did most other locals as I came to find out. When the girls and I woke up the next morning around 8am, we came to find nearly the entire town up and bustling to clean up the mess. El Nido, much in thanks to the mountains flanking the town, was spared both casualties and extreme damage. We walked to the shore to find the sand had been pushed up the at least 25 feet. Mounds of sand now filled beach front restaurants and we were told that around 9pm, the water had reached the ceilings of the first floor. I was impressed by the fact that everyone was doing something, be it picking up debris that had washed up, moving trees, or shoveling sand out of buildings. The spirit in which I found Filipinos working together as a community was unprecedented; yes, a typhoon hit, but families still need to be fed and business was to continue as usual as soon as possible.
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I didn’t need to see the news to know that El Nido was lucky to receive very minimal damage. The proximity to the eye of the storm and fact that its sat so near to the shore were certainly factors that could’ve led to greater damage. Just days before, I was in Malapascua. A couple extra beach days or a flight booked a bit later and I would’ve had a completely altered experience. Seeing the news once power and signal were working again was frightening and heartbreaking. When an international crisis happens, you generally always feel so far from it, so removed. But in this case I was present for Typhoon Yolanda, and yet still felt slightly removed from the horror of it all. Of course I experienced the Typhoon, but it comes nothing close to the wrath cities like Tacloban, Malapascua, Coron, and many others experienced. In a country made up of 7,001 islands, and in a storm that hit the eastern most point almost 14 hours before it hit the western most, it’s difficult to feel that this is all the same place.

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My friends and I have generously received many worried emails, but please know we are more than okay. I’m in a place with clean water, clothes on my back, and where I had McDonalds for dinner. I have a roof over my head and wifi to update my blog. There are, however, many cities in the Philippines that have been devastated. It is horror enough that so many have already perished during the storm, but it would be a greater shame to allow survivors to die because of lack of food and clean water. As of yesterday, Coron, an island about 300 km north of El Nido, only had two days supply of rice left to distribute to residents. In Tacloban, those that are lucky are sleeping in tents, though most others are taking refuge wherever they can, be it a half crumpled shelter. If you would like to donate to a relief fundi urge you to do so. A list of nternational relief organizations can be found here.

*If you would like to donate to a direct source, please read below. I met Jeff in Thailand while he was doing his dive masters and he has been residing in the Philippines for some time now. Any donation to his PayPal will immediately help those in need.*

In the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation, 2.5 million people in the Philippines are in need of emergency food assistance. They need lots of help. We are going to rent a van and buy food, water, building supplies, and drive up to Northern Cebu and help out w the relief. If anyone wants to donate you can PayPal jeffbmaher@yahoo.com and I will personally send you a receipt of goods purchased for relief and will also hand deliver myself. If you need to send money in an other form of payment please email me. The Filipino peso is 42 to 1 US dollar so your money goes a very long way. 1000 Pesos is $24 US Dollars. Any donation is greatly appreciated. We will be doing our first relief effort in 48 hours so immediate donations are greatly appreciated. We will also be doing a second relief effort the end of next week so if you need to wait that is okay too. Thank you so much for your help and support. We will be posting pictures, supplies being delivered, and progress along the way.

*If you are on Facebook, you can click here for updates.*

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Blonde and Blonder Get Shipwrecked in El Nido, Philippines

I decided today was the perfect day to combine my favorite and least favorite thing in the world– kayaking and day drinking. I used to like kayaking, and by kayaking I mean letting my dad or some other appointed adult shepherd me around while I lay basking in the sun counting down the minutes until they provided me with a CapriSun and some sour cream and onion Pringles. Around 13 or 15 or some other age in which I was clearly unprepared for solo kayaking, I went to Hawaii with my family. We went on a tour one morning to go snorkel with sea turtles and it was decided that I should shuttle my own vessel. Not pleased, but still willing to oblige as I didn’t want to share a double with either of my brothers. What happened it the next hour can only be described as literal kaYACKING. All the turtles in the world would not make up for a seemingly fun recreational activity making me so sick. And so it was, every time since that I’ve kayaked, I’ve gotten close to either getting eaten by a whale or getting caught in a current convinced I will drown despite my exceptional swimming skills and life jacket. Day drinking is a different story because day drinking is never not good. Sure, you may end up puking your brains out or getting lost on the way to Little Caesars, but it’s okay because eventually you will get to Little Caesars and by the time you do your stomach will be so empty you will be able to eat an entire $5 pepperoni pizza.

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It was obviously risky to involve myself in kayaking again, but the prospect at drinking rum at noon in crystal blue waters in the Philippines had me convinced. Like the experts we are, Kirsten and I gathered supplies for our tandem kayak and stockpiled as such:

1 large water
1 coke
2 bags of ice
1 90 peso($2.25) bottle of “rhum”
1 bag of pretzels
2 dumb blondes

We arrived at the guesthouse we had planned to rent our kayak from and were led to shore by the owner. Everything seemed to be going great, which was unusual and clearly an ominous sign towards the future. We set up our bar area in the back of the kayak, a somewhat novice execution but still manageable considering we would be in the middle of the Pacific.

Two guesthouse employees then attempted to push us off the shore, which would have been great if there were no waves and we were both in the kayak. Our vessel came back and smacked me in the shin but I shrugged it off, my dignity still at capacity. Kirsten jumped on and I insisted the men push us past the waves, where I would gracefully jump in and begin rowing away. Only one of those thing happened. Kirsten jumped on and they pushed us past the waves, where I then threw the upper half of my body on the kayak and proceed to flail like a beached whale on crack. I can’t be sure, because I obviously wasn’t watching myself and was too busy trying not to be the first person to drown whilst ass up on a kayak, but I would imagine it was the least lady like thing I’ve done in a while.

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After wriggling myself onto the the boat, we were off. I swore early on in the journey to maintain a 9:1 ratio- 9 minutes of absolutely no effort to every 1 minute spent exerting energy. The kayak gods were in my favor as the wind pushed us far out to sea; I poured some cocktails and made Kirsten improvise her best “HELP!!! We are stuck and need assistance!” act.

Seventeen minutes into kayaking we totaled our number of pit stop breaks at 10. Statistically, this pleased me. I was feeling tanner and my arm muscles were protruding slightly more so than they were when we had first set sail. We saw another kayaker approaching.

“Ahoy, asshole!” I yelled.
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No response.

“Ahoy! Ye want some booze, matey??” as I gestured the chugging of alcohol with my arms, a skill I am more than capable of after studying two years of sign language.

As the man mumbled something about having to kayak to a far off destination, I kept my wits about me by reminding myself that kayaking is about the journey, not the destination, and secretly hoping that he got really thirsty later and wished he had “rhum.”

Still putting in absolutely no effort to actual row, we managed to turn the corner round a giant limestone cliff, only to find a deserted beach in the distance. We maneuvered for nearly 40 seconds before the current started bringing us into this seemingly idealic paradise. Around the same time I began dreaming of butterlies and rainbows and bottomless mimosas, I saw it. A huge wave crashed on the shore and I heard Kirsten screaming.

“OHHHH SHIT! WE’RE NEXT!”

One second I’m reminiscing about champagne and orange juice and the next I’m being lifted up by a huge wave headed twenty miles an hour onto shore.

“To infinity and beyond!” is what I would’ve said if I wasn’t scared shitless. I looked to the side of the kayak, ready to bail, and accepting that this would probably hurt. But then, by some miracle, we sped forward to shore and landed gracefully. I, of course, was not graceful what with my cursing and such, which leads me to ask: if a lady curses on a deserted island and no one is there to hear it, did it ever happen? Exactly.

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Once on shore and slightly more drunk, Kirsten and I both wondered how we would get ourselves back on the kayak and in the ocean without being toppled by the waves. We had both already experienced the manner in which I conducted myself on shore earlier and knew I would fare no better drunker and without help.

“We’ll just have to go with Plan B, I guess. The B obviously stands for booze. We will wait it out and live on this little island with our cocktails and pretzels until the booze kicks in and we figure out how to get out,” I said.

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In the meantime, I lapsed into survivor mode. This mode can really only be achieved by watching at least a dozen seasons of Survivor and in turn, purchasing a souvenir spandex tube top at the age of ten. My first plan of action was to make a bathing suit out of leaves. It seems silly, yes, given I already had a bikini on, but this couture leaf outfit was to be for hunting and gathering occasions only. It’s truly a testament to my outdoor skills that I was able to fashion something slightly above acceptable in less than a half hour.

(Photo not available at this time due to possible holes in said leaf outfit)

We had been on our island about an hour (in hindsight it was likely only 12 minutes) when Kirsten and I saw some snorkelers coming close to us. With the most annoying flag down skills at our disposal, we convincingly reeled them in like fish on a line. Our new friends, five Filipino men from El Nido who a drunken Kirsten referred to as “our native friends,” were scared of us at first, but once we proffered up a half bottle of “rhum” they were quite keen. They all varied in age, but when I found out one boy was 17, I made sure to peer pressure him to drink more alcohol than the others. I assumed he was on a sort of Ferris Beuller’s Day Off kind of gig and being the nice person I am, wanted to be sure it was one for the books.

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Eventually, after showing us their loot of shells, having a photoshoot, and involving myself in a conversation about how majestic the ocean was only to realize they had no idea what I was talking about, Kirsten and I decided to set off. We had to have the kayak back by 5pm and knew that with our limited skill set, rowing and/or convincing someone to tow us back would take at least an hour. “Our native friends” successfully pushed blonde and blonder out into the ocean and we were off. We quickly realized we would not be towed back and instead lowered our octaves and began grunting, shouting, and counting off in sets of 60 paddles. I imagine it as a combination of doing crossfit and having a nurse count to ten while giving childbirth.

After what seemed like hours of paddling through gale force winds, Kirsten and I made it back to land, only to have me get off the kayak by straddling it where I then got knocked over by a wave and landed flat on my face.

It was 3:15pm.

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10 Things I Learned in Manila (mostly non-educational version)

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1. There are yellow cabs and white cabs at the airport. For some unknown reason, the white ones are purportedly “better” but can only be found at the departures gate. They are also supposed to be cheaper because they run on meters, but the first one I got into ripped me off and dropped me at a gas station where there was a man selling live pet fish and another who called after me, “OHHHH. America. Obama…my nig$;!. Oh, sorry, I mean uh, African nig&$.”
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2. The smallest coin here has a hole in it. I’ve only received it in change once and find it to be nearly useless, except in the case of crafting petite necklaces. Cultured necklaces, that is. I also woke up after a night of drinking with a bunch of Hong Kong money and repeatedly tried to pay with it until I realized I should really stop and figure out what Filipino money looks like. I am curious how I got that money; one can only assume I went to Hong Kong after the midget boxing.

3. Speaking of midget boxing, it’s real and it’s in Manila. My friend Kirsten was the referee and apparently they don’t actually hit each other so it’s truly all for show. There is also a midget themed restaurant in Boracay with a bunch of gollum and Lord of the Ring cutouts poking out behind bushes. The fascination here is quite strange, really.
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4. Jeepenees are the cheapest way to get around the city. I would compare them to city busses, but in this case, there is a bit more personal choice when it comes to their route. They are basically outfitted in anyway that will garner them attention, be it a superman theme to something reminiscent of a 1980’s strip club. I like to sit in the front of Jeepenees so I can talk to the drivers (and obviously have extra leg room) and convince them to let me drive their car. After driving a tuktuk in Cambodia I feel pretty invincible. So far, I haven’t driven one, but one guy did let me honk the horn and I made up a real nifty tune while I was at it, so I’m relatively happy.

5. Tricycles are another way to get around the city. Basically, it looks like a side car attached to a motorbike. Each one, like the Jeepenees, is decorated depending on the owner’s preference. Most are adorned with their family name, or the names of the driver’s children. From what I’m told, many Filipinos work abroad and send the money to their families back home. With that money, they buy a tricycle or Jeepenee, and put their names on it to show who they love, respect, and are hard at work for.
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6. There’s an old town called Intramuros and it’s behind a giant wall. I either got lost here and didn’t find what I should’ve been looking for, or the brochures with all the pictures lied. The highlight of my trip there was as follows:

A lady sweeping gravel on the pavement onto more gravel. I think she was trying to clean the asphalt but I can’t be sure. I watched her for a long time.
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7. Manila is a strange mixture of old and brand spanking new. There are tin roofed houses housing families of 7 that literally share a wall with what is probably the largest McDonald’s I’ve ever seen in my life. This can be seen all over the city– houses on top of garbage filled sewers, rabid dogs running around, children begging for money, and then, suddenly, you pass a Starbucks, followed by KFC and Dunkin Donuts.

8. One way streets are really a fun thing I like to call “go whatever fucking way you want.” Chicken fights might be a subtler description, but cursing allows me to portray the absurdity of the situation.
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9. I should not be allowed to try to open things with my teeth. This doesn’t have anything to do with Manila, I realize, but I’ve run out of historical things to share with you. Basically, I tried to open a ketchup packet in a taxi one day and it ACCIDENTLY squirted all over the taxi driver’s face. I didn’t think the package would open with that much force, but apparently I just don’t know my own strength these days.
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10. Allowing a bartender to convince you to buy 20 shots for 200 pesos ($5) is a bad idea. To be honest, he didn’t really have to convince me, but semantics, people. I’m assuming playing with said shots in a drinking game meant for beer and allowing the bartender to put different unknown spirits into each one and then mix them up was also a poor idea, but at that point I was going with the flow since that’s just the kinda girl I am.
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Saying Goodbye to Phrae, Thailand

This past week, I finished up my teaching job in Phrae, Northern Thailand. I originally decided to teach for a variety of reason– to make money to keep traveling, to learn more about Thai culture, and to try something new and challenge myself. My experience with both the kids and the entire community exceeded my expectations. Here are a few things I’ve learned while being there that I want everyone to know:

Thailand is Kind- I have met some of the most caring, giving, and thoughtful people while living in Phrae. It doesn’t matter if you a visiting for a week, a month, or a year, as long as you are in Thailand, you are their guest. It makes no difference that you can finally find the supermarket and order food so it isn’t too hot– you will always be taken care of. I ended up with a Thai grandma that showered me with the best hugs in the world, multiple second moms that helped me with everything from visa details to finding a great place to eat, and many many surrogate children who never stopped making me feel like the most loved person in the world.

Thailand is Honest- it took a while to get used to or understand, but Thais are extremely honest. While it is sometimes quite blunt, ie: “the fat one didn’t turn in his paper,” it is refreshing. In America bluntness and honesty seem to go hand in hand with being rude and unthoughtful. Here, it is what it is. “Thailand, no secret,” is what one of our co teachers would say. A child is called fat because they are extremely overweight. There’s absolutely no judgment in their statements, no mockery, no trying to hurt someone.

Thailand is Accepting- one of the things I love the most about Thailand is how accepting the people are and how little it seems to matter when someone is different or unique. My coworkers and I often discussed how open the kids are with their sexuality. It wasn’t a rare occurrence to hear a student talk about his friend and say, “teachaaa part girl part boy” or some form of it. The kids never treated another poorly for being something on the spectrum other than straight. I guess it may not even be fair to call them “accepting,” because there is nothing to accept. The kids don’t care either way and love each other for who they are. They get along because they enjoy playing soccer together at recess or trading Eugio cards.

Thailand is Giving- the week before we left was met with lots and lots of parties. When other teacher friends in nearby towns noted they had had zero parties, we liked to tell them Wat Metang Kerawas was the “biggest party school in Thailand.” I mean we had our end of the year party on the top floor of the cities highest building…that’s 7 stories up, people! The farangs weren’t even there three minutes before we had a huge bottle of whiskey and chasers delivered to our table, which is always appreciated. Anyways, gift giving is a lot of fun here. The retirement assembly brought quite the variety of gift, from fans to paintings to patio furniture. It was a riot. Our kids absolutely showered us with gifts the last day. I can’t be sure what they were supposed to be, but I received several giant popsicle stick pieces of artwork, along with flowers, stuffed animals, and hoards of card with varying “I love you teachaaa phrases.”

Teaching in Thailand is something I can’t recommend enough. There is no better way to get to know a culture deeply than to live there and involve yourself in the community. I am so grateful for the people I have met along the way, and I know I will certainly be back someday.

Below are a few photos from our “party school’s” last few celebrations.

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9 Months in Asia

I can’t believe I’ve been in Southeast Asia almost 9 months now. It’s amazing how much you can truly live when you

make radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt. So many people live with unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there’s no more joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty. -Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

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Katie and Leah Get an Extreme Makeover

As you may be well aware, I have slowly but surely been making the transition into becoming Thai. I can count to 999 and string together a variety of insults fit for nearly any occasion in my now native language. When I’m not concocting a plan to eat Western food, I’m indulging in a plethora of carbohydrated, sugary Thai dishes and rounding that off with a Hong Tong coke. I’ve got a pork ball lady, a beer guy, a salad lady, a chicken breast guy, a chicken tender lady, a spring roll lady, and a cantaloupe guy because when you’re Thai, you understand the fact that you’ll have to go seven different places to get what you need for dinner.

Leah has been teaching in Thailand far longer than I have, so by default she is far superior in her Thai ways. Somewhere out there in the world is a photo of Leah’s pinky fingernail that she grew out a rather disgusting amount. She claims “it’s a very Thai thing to do” and while I cannot be sure if that is true, I can appreciate her commitment to becoming Thai.

Saturday afternoon Leah and I decided, on a whim, to stop in at the photo shop down the street from our apartment. We poked our heads around, looked at some photo albums, and through some unspoken agreement, came to the conclusion that our lives would be completely unfulfilled if we didn’t do a traditional Thai photo shoot.

Mr. Chong, our new photographer, grabbed a business card and wrote down a name and phone number.

“Tomorrow. 11am,” he said. “Ask for Coco Valentine. You’ll pick your outfits and discuss hairstyle options.”

The next morning, with slight hangovers and our most demanding diva attitudes in tow, we set off to find our stylist. I didn’t know what we were in for, but was somewhat certain with a stylist named Coco Valentine it was bound to exceed expectations.
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My inspiration.

We found Coco’s dress shop about a kilometer away from our apartment, and walked in to find tons of beautiful wedding gowns and traditional Thai dressage. We thumbed through a few books looking at “styles” and managed to swiftly point out we wanted to look like “Northern Thai Princesses with lots and lots of gold jewelry.” Really, the gaudier the better.

On Monday evening we arrived at the studio to begin our transformation from commoners to Thai royalty. Honestly, it was all very Princess Diana–minus the English bit. Coco sat me down first to do my hair and makeup. There are some things you need to know about Thailand when it comes to the beauty department: the more blush the better, the whiter the makeup the more beautiful, and the farther away your drawn on eyebrows are from your actual brows the more Thai you become. With this is mind, the metamorphosis began. After watching, giggling with glee, and secretly hoping for the brightest pink lipstick to be applied to her, it was Leah’s turn. Around this time, our photographer put on traditional Northern music to “start to build emotion” and since we are models, we were totally into it.

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Let’s all take a moment to appreciate Leah’s reaction when she first saw herself.

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Next, we were dressed in elaborate Lanna (Northern style Thai people) outfits. The best part of this was not having to move at all. If I were a celebrity or princess or whatever I wouldn’t really want to be in Star Magazine or on Perez Hilton, but I now know I’m 100% okay with not having to dress myself. When I dress myself at home I usually make a huge mess and can’t find my belt. In this instance, I made no mess and Coco gave me a chunky, gold belt to wear. After adding bracelets, necklaces, belts, and lots of gold head adornments, our stylist asked if it was too heavy for us.

“No, we have strong necks.”

“Yeah. We do neck exercises.”

Professionals, obviously.

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Finally, it was time to take photos. I’ll let the final photos speak for themselves, as our inner Thai is clearly shining through and just tell you– this was the best day ever. And I’ll never forget it. (Neither will my mom. She should really clean and dust off that mantel to prepare and my brothers should just accept they will never boot me off it.)

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I like everything about airbrushing. Everything.

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Looking off into my distant future. Jk. Thinking about cheeseburgers.

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You can stand under my umbrella.

A Beerday and a Beer Bong

It all started on a Thursday. I’d known for weeks about the trip to Chiang Mai to celebrate my co worker Leah’s birthday, and had always kinda assumed it would be a Hong Tong bucket themed event, but had yet to bring the party planning to fruition. Of course I doubted whether it was “mature” to throw a party centered around buckets, and it certainly would’ve been easier to find decorations for a princess or Spider-Man birthday, but I’m the reincarnation of Martha Stewart so it’s okay. Anyways, off I went on a Thursday evening, ready to party plan my ass off.
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I made it to the 20 baht store intending to buy a bucket. Later I planned to decorate it in some kitschy way that implied this bucket was to be used only for copious consumption of Hong Tong red bull cokes. I could’ve left then but I got distracted and here’s what I bought:

Bucket
Funnel
Tape
Mug
Burglar Mask

I get it, the mask doesn’t make much sense. But I had never had a burglar mask before, and it was maroon, and I knew it would someday come in handy. Plus, there were four other masks and I (wrongly) assumed all my friends would go buy one once they saw how cool mine was. (Side note: it has not “come in handy” yet and I’ve yet to figure out how to properly align it on my face. am I supposed to be able to breathe?! Where does my nose go?)

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The funnel and the tape became necessary once I realized I could successfully build a beer bong. Never for a second did I question the fact that it would be the greatest birthday present of all time. Beer bongs are never not fun, and I knew I would benefit greatly as it is truly the gift that keeps on giving.
Somewhere along the way I found a picture of Courtney Cox and Adele and attached them to sticks so they could come party with us. Courtney only made the cut because I didn’t want Adele to feel left out and her hair looked really nice and classy.

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On Friday afternoon, following a day at work in which I managed to watch the Justin Bieber Baby music video with the kids no less than seven times, my coworkers and I packed up and headed to the bus station. Aaron, Alyssa, Kyle, Brandon, Leah, Adele, Courtney, and I indulged in some adult beverages on the way and managed to argue rather consistently about the rules of car games meant for 6 year olds. Around hour three, we came to the conclusion that it was only right to do a beer bong or five on the bus. Not for fun or anything, just to make sure it worked properly. I never really had aspirations to drink beer out of a funnel on a pitch black bus headed to Chiang Mai, but I guess some of life’s far off dreams are ones we aren’t quite ready to admit to ourselves.
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Once off the bus, the group of us headed to Mosquito Garden (the hostel formerly known as Mojito Garden) to drop our bags off. Since we no longer understood any other way to consume beer, we continued doing beer bongs on the songthaew. You’re probably feeling bad for any other person forced to ride with us, but don’t. It was one older gentleman, and he declined our incredibly gracious offer to drink with us; given the poor judgement on his part, I’d say he was Canadian because I just can’t accept the fact that any red blooded American would say no.
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At dinner, our group met up with Will and Ronny, and together we formed teams to do a “scavenger hunt.” Basically we had created a list of entirely stupid things to do; the team that accomplished the most of them won. Below is a list of some of the more entertaining moments that came from it:

Switching pants with my new English mate- okay, he wasn’t really my “mate,” but I thought if I used his jargon impressively we could be friends and maybe he’d even buy me one of those vulgar embroidered bracelets all the Thais sell at Zoe’s. Update: he didn’t want to be friends

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Kyler, A-Ron, and Ronny kissed, like, three or four ladyboys- the pictures that have since surfaced show they really enjoyed it

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Convinced a group of Thai men to do beer bongs- as if spreading the knowledge of the beer bong isn’t on everyone’s bucket list. Also, went better than when I tried to buy the beer bong supplies and did charades to explain what I was going for. That must’ve been confusing, but I blame the language barrier and assume if the shopkeeper understood, he would’ve found me much more amusing

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Serenaded people with the Thai National Anthem- this happens almost all the time now as is only impressive to Thais so I’m unsure as to why it becomes a good idea around other farangs

Wet T-shirt contest- less of a contest, more just throwing water at each other. Also, definitely not part of the scavenger hunt

Joining (getting invited by?) the band to sing on stage- this one was all Leah. One second we’re singing “Rape Me” (side note: the Thai band once played this song four times in a row upon request; requests are not taken lightly here) and the next second I’m walking back to sit down and I get tapped on the shoulder only to turn around and find Leah on stage with the microphone beginning the next song. It was one of the most incredible (drunk) performances of all time and in proper rockstar fashion there was a beer bong taken during the interlude. To be honest, the only thing that could’ve been improved was the choreography. Her arm was pointed behind her body and I momentarily thought it must be dislocated to move in such a fashion. But alas, it was not, so she will sing again.

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Saturday morning brought your typically variety of hangovers but by two o’clock, the group was rallied and ready to really begin the day. We started with a delicious lunch and a few cocktails, and soon after, rationalized another bar stop in order to “check out the area.” By six it had become a full fledged bar crawl, which coincidentally happens to be one of my favorite pastimes. All things considered, besides shotgunning beers in a telephone booth, things stayed generally sane. Around eight the majority of the group decided to go home and shower (it’s not going to keep the smell of booze coming out your pores, GUYS) and Leah and I kept party rocking (pushing our one beer around in a tiny shopping cart looking for water and crackers and Redbull). Unfortunately, the group was not quite able to pull itself together and all meet up again, which makes morning after stories all the more entertaining.
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Example: In the morning we were unable to find Brandon. My guess was that he had been thrown in jail; not that I really believed it was true, but I thought it would be mostly funny and a little not funny. I also considered the possibility that he was lost and wandering around the streets if Chiang Mai, because stranger things have happened, people. And it would’ve been funny. After waiting for him to show up for a while, Kyler called Brandon only to find out he was but 20 feet away locked IN a room at the hostel. Now, I’m going to let that one soak in a bit. Locked IN. Yeah, I’m worried about him too. But I suppose it’s only fair at this time to mention I injured (it wasn’t REALLY broken) a door at the hostel because I couldn’t figure out whether to push or pull it. It happens to the best of us?

The weekend ended with Leah, Alyssa, and I going to the fanciest grocery store in all of Chiang Mai. And I bought refried beans, which means it was literally the best weekend ever.