Vientiane, Laos

Y’all, I’ve made progress with my biking skills! Two years ago I almost had a panic attack while trying to bike ride in Phnom Penh.  Although I eventually enjoyed that experience, I ended up not bike riding in Vietnam (days later) or Thailand (a year later).

Time heals all wounds (or makes a person foolish all over again) because I found myself renting a raggedy rusted bike for 10,000 kip and cycling around Vientiane like I was getting paid to do it. I pedaled furiously as a woman on a motorcyle led me to the Patuxai Arch, biked (and walked) my way up to Pha That Luang, and coasted past my earlier misgivings. By the time I returned the bike to the hostel, I was coated in enough dust to fill an hourglass and knew that I would be smelling car exhaust in my sleep.

Yet. It. Was. Glorious.

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Luang Prabang, Laos: The Honeymoon with Myself Begins

If Luang Prabang was a man, I would marry him after only three full days of dating with no prenup. As soon as my van rolled to a stop, I couldn’t help but think Oh, I’m going to like it here. Maybe it was the smell of firewood perfuming the air as people heated dishes on traditional cookstoves or the small roads with slow moving traffic. Whatever it was, I could feel my spirit shift.

As usual, the end of the semester was stressful. I was fruitlessly running back and forth to the US Embassy, working until 6:00, 7:00, or 8:00 grading essays, going to the doctor because I thought I contracted a ringworm (thankfully, it wasn’t), and Go-Jeking food like I didn’t have a fully functioning kitchen (well, almost fully functioning. My oven is useless).

I was regretting my decision to fly out the first Saturday after school ended until my feet touched the winding pavement in Luang Prabang. Originally, I was so tired I wasn’t even going to venture out for dinner. I ended up walking to the Night Market, exchanging money at a roadside stall and eating a delicious traditional dinner at 3 Nagas.

There’s something about unwrapping a banana leaf to access my food that gets me every time. It’s a small but joyous act.

Luang Prabang was the beginning of a honeymoon with myself. I’ve traveled to eight countries solo, but this was the first time I felt day after day like a place was seducing me in the best possible way. From small teapots to wooden shutters to sunny crisp days, I felt loved, safe, and at peace. I got lost while biking around the town (I would manage to not be able to follow the mighty Mekong from one destination to another), popped into wats that dotted the town, and sipped wine that a 70+ year old Swiss man surreptitiously slipped to me in a restaurant because “Life is too short to drink bad wine.” According to him, all the wine in the restaurant was subpar. He had a bottle in his backpack in case just such a thing would occur.

As a teacher, I honor all who are prepared like this Swiss man.

A former French colony, I enjoyed a croissant that was so good it caused me to tear up and a daily basket of warm bread with pineapple, tomato and/or banana and mint jam. There were scones to be scarfed savored, creamy pumpkin soups to enjoy, lemon tarts to rejoice over, crepes with homemade chocolate to relish, fish to…the list goes on and on.

Of course, Lao food is a must. Though I’ve taken cooking courses in New York City, Peru, Indonesia, and Thailand, the best cooking class of my life was in Luang Prabang. Sign up with Tamarind to cook and eat in a gorgeous open kitchen. While there, I tried buffalo for the first time and left with new friends as well as a cookbook (included in the class cost).

Trips to a nearby waterfall are popular, but I said no. I preferred to wander in the small city. I took early morning outdoor yoga classes, watched the Tak Bat (which has so many tourists taking pictures–myself included–I felt bad for the monks. I wouldn’t want to have flashing lights in my face every morning), chatted with other travelers over Bite Mes at the Icon Klub, cruised down the Mekong at sunset, shopped, and luxuriated in the blessing that was, and is, my life. I was back in my hotel room by 11:30 every night. There’s actually a curfew in the city (according to my hotel), so everything shuts down by 10:30.

Laotian people are friendly but more reserved (shy even) than other Southeast Asian ethnicities. Where Indonesians would stare at me with no shame even if I caught them looking at me, Laotians would avert their eyes embarrassed. Where Vietnamese street hawkers plied me with their wares and one woman put all ten fingers in my hair, a Lao woman in one shop told me to come back after thinking about it more and no one touched my hair.

Laotians are laid back and sweet people despite a horrific history. What I learned about that history will be shared in a future post.

Until then, I’ll keep honeymooning with myself.

The Gili Islands: Indonesia’s Response to Jakarta

 

As I continue to reflect on the travel I’ve done since moving to this region of the world, I can’t help but think about my trip to the Gili Islands. Where Jakarta is chaotic, the Gilis are calm. Jakarta screams while the Gilis whisper, and for this reason I really enjoyed my time while there.

My first year in Indonesia, I decided to do a yoga retreat during the March break.  A married couple that I befriended at work loved diving off of Gili Air and I, well, just loved the beach. Still do.

Gili Trawangan (aka Gili T), where I stayed, is known as the party island. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a partier. I have to convince myself to go out and actually liked that Luang Prabang, Laos had a 11:30 PM curfew.

I say all this because it was very easy to avoid the party scene in Gili T. Ignore the middle-aged man who asks if you want to buy shrooms every day at the same corner and explore the island instead. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Take a yoga class or two at Gili Yoga. Most days, I took two classes. One of my favorite memories in Indonesia is sitting on the wooden platform after a class and listening to the call to prayer. Glor-i-ous.
  • Eat, sleep, read, repeat on the beach.While at Gili T, I (foolishly) attempted to walk around the entire island in the heat of the day. When the heat got the best of me, I ended up stopping at Pink Coco and camping out. The food was good and the staff extremely friendly. It was a nice place to watch the sunset too.
  • Rent a rusty bike and circle the entire island. Cars are not allowed on the island, so that made the experience all the better (There are horse-drawn carts to get around, but I felt bad for the animals. Some were clearly overworked).  At points, I had to push my bike through the sand, but it was a beautiful way to spend the day.
  • Snorkel or scuba dive. The Gilis is a diving destination. Coral bleaching, pollution, and tourism are definitely damaging the wildlife. That being said, I’m so glad I snorkeled. I saw my first turtle there. As someone who loves the ocean but will only get in water up to my neck, another traveler I befriended had to convince me to snorkel. I’m so, so glad I did.
  • Island hop to Gili Air and/or Gili Meno. One day I took the ferry over to visit my co-workers on Gili Air. Again, I rode a bike and had a wonderful time cycling around, being near the ocean, and eating. In March 2016, one-way fare cost 40,000 Rp (roughly 3 USD). The ferry left twice a day.
  • Visit the Sama Sama reggae bar for live music. I have to be honest, I’m beyond tired of seeing Bob Marley murals and buildings decorated with red, green, yellow, and black whenever I go to a beach locale. As a Black woman with two-strand twists that are often mistaken for locs, I had locals come up to me soooo excited. Some asked me how I did my hair (and I laughed inside at the signs that promised to start locs for people). Still, if you want live music…it’s there.

What are your must-dos or want to dos when on an island vacation? Would you ever consider a yoga retreat?

 

10 Tips for First Time Solo Travelers Going Abroad

The New York Times just ran a piece titled “New Tools and Tours for Solo Travelers” and I am here for it.

As I type this in Luang Prabang, Laos, I’m propped up all by my lonesome in a bed that is large enough to fit me, another adult, and my two nieces (I have to be thankful for this moment because just this summer my scared of the dark nieces were determined to crowd into my childhood bed, fall asleep, and then proceed to destroy my sleep with swinging elbows. It was payback for how wild a sleeper I was when little.).

Since moving to Southeast Asia, I’ve visited Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, and parts of Indonesia as a solo traveler. I’ve done everything from 24 hour extended layovers to three-week sojourners. Now that one of my best friends is planning some solo time, I’ve decided to outline my thought process when planning and enjoying a solo trip.

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Pulau Macan: One Island in Indonesia’s Thousand Islands

 

Pulau Macan

Since I’m now down to my last six months of living abroad, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about the trips I’ve taken.

One of my favorite sojourns was to Pulau Macan (also known as Tiger Island) my first year in Indonesia. A part of the country’s Thousand Islands, I went with a friend and co-worker during a long weekend. Though meeting at Ancol, the launching point, was stressful and boarding what looked like an overpacked boat was worrisome, I truly enjoyed Pulau Macan.

The water around Jakarta is polluted, which is putting it mildly. It was (and still is) the only time in my life where I’ve seen water as black as my hair (not because of sediment) and an actual trash line that served as an uncomfortable reminder as to how “convenience” is killing the planet.

Once the boat’s blades were detangled from the trash and we were speeding across the ocean, I felt as if a centrifugal force was launching me from the megalopolis and into paradise.

 

 

 

 

Pulau Macan’s entire perimeter can be traversed on foot in less than ten minutes. Besides the quiet that came with smallness (and considerate travelers who were also visiting at the same time), there were simple yet delectable meals, a weak connection to force me off of my phone, blue starfish, my great friend from work, two amazing Malaysian women to chat with, and the ocean. What else could I need?

If ever around Jakarta, I would highly recommend spending even one night out there. If that’s not possible, let the pictures below serve as a quick travel journey for you.

Bullet Journals R Us

Back in July, I decided to start a bullet journal (or what I like to call a dot journal to my friend’s chagrin). Various events sparked this decision:

 

1.) My ridiculously creative sister-in-law told me about the dot bullet journal and showed me hers.

2.)  My eldest niece is a craft maniac and extremely introverted. I’ve decided to work on my own crafting skills as a way for us to spend quality time together without feeling a need to keep a conversation going. She’s not always one for much talking, so I better learn other ways to communicate with her. Quickly.

3.) A former professor of mine who traveled who traveled around Indonesia when she was 20-something (but is now retired) encouraged me to journal as much as I could about this time in my life.

Since this will be my fifth and final year living abroad, I’m trying to capture the beauty and annoyances in my life.

So far, I’ve made two mini vision boards in my dot journal. I adore the habits tracker (item #13 in the BuzzFeed article I linked above) and even started following some bullet journal devotees on Instagram.

A significant chunk of my bullet journal is dedicated to gratitude. When the political riots broke out while I was living in Venezuela, I had to focus on little things to make me happy. As a way to wrap up my final year overseas, I’m returning to that. Consequently, I’ll be posting about trips I’ve taken since moving to Asia that  have made me richer in terms of memories and experiences. Please stay tuned for that!

On another note, do you keep a journal? If so, what tips do you have for being consistent with your writing?

Hurricane Harvey is A Hard Reset

I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. As I’ve written about before on this blog, the diversity that surrounded me as a child and teenager was the best education I could’ve ever received.

Last month, Hurricane Harvey came and devastated my city. I followed the news while far away in Jakarta and, naturally, worried about my parents.

I feel beyond blessed because my parents did not lose their lives or their homes. The worst that happened was that my father’s car got flooded out when attempting to drive in the city before all of the waters receded.

At least one subdivision zoned to my former high school had to be evacuated, but my little neck of the woods didn’t experience any flood damage even after the reservoirs were opened to prevent the dams from bursting.

Hurricane Harvey has been the computer technician who gave my outlook on life a hard reset. I still get upset with work drama and have visions of being a healthier person, but a huge part of me just doesn’t care anymore.

Someone says something that annoys me? I get peeved but think My family’s still OK though. 

My hair’s being its normal self and not wanting to cooperate? My family’s still OK though.

My family’s still OK though.

My city will have to rebuild, but as long as I can rebuild with my mom and dad the rest of life’s drama will be like the floodwater: something that has to return to its source (re: the ocean and/or the negative X factor in my life) and leave me the hell alone.

My new goal for the remainder of this year and beyond is to really let go of the bitterness I’ve carried concerning people and/or institutions that I think have hurt me. I recently had two painful sessions where a physical therapist of sorts massaged/pounded out all of the knots in my muscles.

I had no idea I was carrying that much tension in my body.

The release made me want to cry. It also made me vow to let stuff go because the body will tell on me even if my lips don’t.

So, Hurricane Harvey, you’ve forced me to take a hard look in the mirror. I want to change for the better, and I may just document some of that journey here.