I'm coming home

In just under a week I'll be on a plane back to the U.S., ending one of the most incredible years of my life. Trying to sort out a year of memories and experiences is futile, but here are a few things I've already realized: 

The people were even better. I got to meet some of the most playful and generous people on this planet. In the midst of reading about all that is going on in Paris, Beirut, Nepal, and Syria, despite all of the horrific things that have happened, I am still convinced that this world is full of good people. People whose kindness and compassion blew me away. I was given the benefit of a doubt from Vietnamese who suffered in the war. I was invited into someone's home that was the size of my bedroom growing up. I was given couches, equipment, food, directions, hugs, and so much encouragement from strangers. People are incredible and I can only hope to pay it forward someday when I have a home. 

The adventures were way bigger. Last week I ran with (okay, away from) a bull with flaming horns in Spain. I will never forget what it felt like to trek with a 15 kilo pack to 5,416 meters, or to wake up on a mountain in the Austrian Alps the morning of my birthday. I got to climb the longest routes of my life in the Dolomites and Arco, care for 433 wild dogs in Thailand, swim in waterfalls in Laos, jump off a moving train in Prague, compete and actually place in a climbing competition in Kathmandu, trek in the Laotian jungle, the high Tatras, the Alps, and the Himalayas, and volunteer with the most inspiring organization I've seen in a long time in Nepal. 

And the hard times were worse than I imagined. I struggled with being developing country sick, injured, exhausted, more lonely than I've ever felt in my life, and injured again. I've had bed bugs, wiped out on my motorbike, almost drowned in a tunnel in Vietnam, fainted a few times, had a lung infection (maybe altitude sickness, actually?) at altitude, left my purse on a train, slept on the sidewalk, cried every time my tendinitis kept me from climbing, unknowingly hosted generations of lice in my hair for a month, and shit my pants in public...twice. 

Even though there are always going to be more places I want to explore, I couldn't be more ready to see my family and friends again. Truthfully, I can't wait to settle down and have things like a toothbrush cup, mugs, books, a dresser, a bike, a garden, and heaps of chipotle. America, you're beautiful. 

I don't know what's next or where's next yet and that scares me. So don't ask about that yet, just for now join me in saying, holy shit this happened. Thank you for believing that it would happen and for encouraging me along the way. Thank you, thank you, a million times, thank you.

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Trail Journal: Annapurna Circuit

Total cost: $390
Total days: 15 (13 trekking, 2 resting)

Day One: Bulbhule To Bahundanda.
Hours of hiking: three
Elevation gain: 840m to 1310m

Pokhara to Besi Sahar via bus: $3.50, 4 hours. Bus leaves at 6:30 am
Bumpy bus ride winding through jungle and rice terraces. Everything is so green and lush, with moody fog tangling in the hilltops and mountains.
Besi Sahar to Bhulbhule via bus, 1 hour. $2. Leaves every half hour.
Started trek with Emma from Germany and Rodrigo from Brazil. Really nice pair, enjoyed chatting but ate some questionable roadside Dahl Bat that smelled and tasted like urine. Stopped in Bahundanda for the night because we're a little ahead, they continued on. Hot springs here for swimming and washing our funky selves. Water was actually boiling, I could only dip my feet in for a few seconds. We hiked back, ate and I started reading A Walk in the Woods. Seems appropriate. Crazy storm throughout the night, woke my tired butt up it was so violent. 

Day Two: Bahundanda to Chyamche
Hours of hiking: four
Elevation gain: 1310m to 1385m

We got up at 5:30 and left by 7. After about an hour of hiking we reached Bahundanda two, learning a very discouraging fact: there is an upper and a lower section of most villages. We checked in with ACAP and hiked on, running into two Germans who we had met briefly the day before. We then proceeded to run into them again every few hours, in Gharmo and again just before Jagat. The trail is mostly empty so we keep seeing the same people over and over again. It feels like one big, smelly community. It was hot today and we needed to stop a few times to douse ourselves and refill our water in the high rivers (grateful!). The scenery is slowly changing from rice terraces to rivers and waterfalls. It's already the prettiest hike I've ever been on. We stopped for the night in Chyamje and were delighted with a 100 rupee room ($1) and free hot showers. Though it had only been two days since I last showered, I was reaching a new level of rank junkiness due to hiking in full sun. We slept with a beautiful waterfall outside our room and the Nepali constitution was passed, leaving us wondering how locals felt about it. Huge day for Nepal day. 

*Recommendation is to get up even earlier for this day, steep climb in full sun!

Day Three: Chyamche to Danakyu
Hours of hiking: six
Elevation gain: 1385m to 2200m

We got up early today, around 4:45, had breakfast and hit the trail by 6. We had a long, steep climb but luckily made it up before the sun came up. We are seeing so many waterfalls that we've stopped counting. It's insanely beautiful. We hit the village of Tal after a few hours and stopped for second breakfast of coffee and crackers and accidental naps in the sunshine. Life is good. We saw the Germans again! They love their late starts (how German are they, really?) and brunches. We followed the river and kept crossing waterfalls, met a woman who tried to sell us ganja that looked like goat turds, then we met another pair of trekkers, Virginie and Alex. Alex is from Oregon and Virginie is from Belgium. The four of us caught up with the Germans again and made a nice group of six for the day. We hiked through Dharambanda and made it to Donaque, where we got free accommodation but food prices are starting to rise. It had been an eight hour day so we collapsed in bed by 7 pm, after reading and playing chess (we're wild like this). The Germans pushed on to the next village so hopefully we see them again tomorrow. 

Day Four: Danakyu to Dhikur Pokhari
Hours of hiking: eight
Elevation gain: 2,200m to 3,240m

I wish I would have showered. We didn't get out of our teahouse until 7:30 and had an immediate 500 meter climb. I don't know what my deal was but I immediately started to feel light headed, like I was going to faint. I had a big breakfast of muesli, hot milk, apples, two hard-boiled eggs, and coffee. But I felt terrible. Everyone was really patient though and waited for me, Virginie even carried my bag and hers for about 100 meters! What a strong lady. We stopped many times for me and they fed me peanut butter, chocolate, Snickers, and a liter and a half of water and electrolytes. Slowly, eventually, I started to feel better.

After about four hours we made it to Chame, spinning the prayer wheels and talking about everything from most underrated chick flick to Buddhism to siblings to coding websites. The kids we are seeing on the trail are getting cuter and more gremlin-like which is my favorite, with rosy cheeks, wool clothes, and big, unblinking eyes and nose and ear piercings. They're starting to ask for sweets though, which feels tricky because we want to help but a few Snickers is not going to make a long term impact. Tricky stuff. We pushed on past Chame to Daramhsala and then arrived in Bhalbuensa in high spirits because we had finished our day just as it started raining. But when we got to the only teahouse in town, they told us they had rented it all out to the workers building across the street. We begged to sleep on some pallets or the floor, as we were tired and wet, but they didn't budge. At this point it was 3:30 and we hadn't had any lunch and the rain was really coming down, so I got two boiled eggs and everyone had some crackers and we trudged on the last 1.5 hours to Dhikar Pokhari. The hike was beautiful though and we walked along a cut out road along a cliff tracing a river. The last 45 minutes were pretty hard (I keep coughing) but we finally made it. I took my first bucket shower in the dark and we all got Dal Baht. The nights are starting to get colder, I am writing this with three layers on in my sleeping. Looking forward to just five hours tomorrow and then our first rest day!

Day Five: Dhikur Pokhari to Munchi
Hours of hiking: eight
Elevation gain: 3240m to 3500m

Today was hard. It was supposed to be only five hours but it ended up being eight. Getting to Upper Pisang was a quick push up a hill, but then we followed a ridge and started to go back down the back side of the hill, losing too much elevation. I was not feeling well and going down mean that that we had to make that up plus four hundred meters to get to the next village, Ghyaru.

Finally we saw the hill. It was in full sun and pretty steep, about 500 meters of switchbacks to the top. We spread out according to our speeds and I was dead last, wheezing and feeling generally pretty terrible. There were two of the slowest mofackin pumps on the hill and you better believe I sat there and dripped my liter Nalgene back to full. I started this trek with just a simple cold, but these long days have been hitting me hard; it's getting hard to breathe and I am still feeling dizzy. I finally joined the others at the top and the view made me forget my rattling lungs. We had tea, ate crackers, and took some photos before heading on. It was relatively flat after that climb but I was so wrecked I stayed behind the group and wasn't able to ever really catch up. The scenery was beautiful though, we could finally see Annapurna 2 and 4 and before the day was over we saw Annapurna 3 too.

We hiked down this crazy lunar road with about three inches of dust to the village of Munche. We were only an hour away from Manang (where we wanted to spend the night) but I was wheezing and felt really weak so we crashed for the night. I had a hard time sleeping with my sore throat and was up most of the night coughing and feeling generally terrible (poor Max). I finally ran out of medicine, cough syrup, and lozenges so at 1 am I took a hot shower, which loosened my sinuses and soothed my throat enough to let me sleep. 

Day Six: Munche to Manang
Hours of hiking: one
Elevation gain: 3,500m to 3,540m

Today our one, measly goal of trekking the one hour to Manang was hard for me. I slept most of the morning and finally was able to get my hands on some Sudafed from some kind Canadian travelers who heard I was sick. Virginie and Alex hiked to ice lake (1,000 meter climb, no big deal) during the day so Max and I headed to Manang. We accidentally hiked past it, which I took as a good sign that maybe I had a bit more stamina in me. We checked in, ate, bought more medicine and tried to sleep, but I ended up staying up most of the night as my coughing turned into vomiting. 

Day Seven: Rest day in Manang
Max was starting to come down with something too so we decided to have a rest day here. I went to the clinic in town, which was really fortunate timing as they had just opened after the earthquake and I was their first customer. They thought my cold had turned into a bacterial lung infection so they gave me amoxicillin, paracetamol, ibuprofen and the always classic doctor advice of 'don't be stupid'. The bill was a staggering $64 and I reminded myself it would have been so much more in the U.S. and besides, you can't put a price tag on health right? So I started dosing, we watched Seven Years in Tibet in the town cinema (luxury!) and just relaxed the rest of the day. Virginie and Alex are planning on leaving tomorrow to continue the trek, but Max and I will wait it out at least another day. I think he's getting sick too, so together we're pretty gross to be around. 

Day Eight: Rest day in Manang
Last night I thought it was going to be another long night so I ordered a pot of ginger tea but the drugs must be working because I actually fell asleep around midnight. It was wonderful! I'm feeling much better but it seems Max and I have traded places, as he's really sick now. We said goodbye to Alex and Virginie this morning and are planning on just resting and watching movies today. We might need to take another day tomorrow, which is ok because we have so many extra days for this trek, now that we're skipping a side trek we wanted to do, the beautiful and steep Tilicho Lake. Hopefully he feels better soon, but Manang isn't the worst place for resting. We get to look at Annapurna 2, 3, and 4 all day and are even doing laundry and flying through books. Plus there are a bunch of cafes here and we might watch another movie in the cinema, so we're ok for a while. 

Day Nine: Manang to Ghusang
Hours of hiking: one and a half
Elevation gain: 3,540, to 3,930m

I slept through the night! We spent our morning drinking coffee and reading and then headed to Ghusang, only one and a half hours away. Not a bad walk at all, just what we needed to get moving again. Only two guest houses here with comparable pricing so we picked the one with the better view, on the left side of the road. Lots of reading, eating, music listening, and gin rummy to end a nice day. It's feeling incredible to see snowy mountains all around us now. 

Day Ten: Ghusang to Ledar
Hours of hiking: three
3,930m to 4,230m

Our plan is to hike the three hours to Ledar today. I'm nervous because I am not quite at 100% - breathing at this altitude is still tricky. I feel like I can't get a full breath, as if I am inhaling through a straw or something. It's not too far and I don't think it's steep. I took a half pill of altitude sickness pills this morning and I am spitting my stupid lung infection out of my nose and mouth. I am disgusting but hopeful I can kick this today or tomorrow before we make for the pass. We're only hiking 300 meters today, not bad at all. 

...and it wasn't! We stopped in Yak Karkha for lunch and caught up with the cyclists we met at the end of our second or third day. It was fun to chat with them and this English man who had given me a bunch of Paracetamol in Manang. We spent the night in Ledar, our hostel owner was sweet and begged us to stay because her husband was in Manang so she was alone for the night. These Chinese trekkers came and, as usual, our hostel owner was not happy they stayed here. It really does seem like everyone in Asia hates the Chinese. Max and I played gin rummy again and breathing and sleeping seems easy. 

Day Eleven: Ledar to Thorung Phedi
Hours of hiking: three
Elevation gain: 4,230m to 4,540m

Only a three hour day, so we started late, too late actually. It was a beautiful day though, casual walking below clear skies – until we crossed the suspension bridge. Then it was up, up, up. We crossed some sketchy landslides, some that they had repaired already with retaining walls, but others that were pretty narrow with loose rock. We arrived at Thorung Phedi and stayed at the upper teahouse and met Ryan and Rachel, two Peace Corps volunteers who had just finished teaching English in China for the last two years and were taking the slow way home. They told us it was a short walk to high camp so we will join them on their hike tomorrow morning. 

Day Twelve: Thorung Phedi to High Camp
Hours of hiking: one and a half hours
Elevation gain: 4,540m to 4,850m

This walk was short, we gained 300 meters of elevation in just one short kilometer, so it was quite steep. It is getting chillier and the Himalayas are starting to open up; we can see Chulo North and South now. So beautiful. We met Mike and Frannie, the sweet Colorado couple who are on a month-long vacation AND who both rock climb and ski. Ryan and Rachel ski and Max and I climb, so the six of us geeked out hard on gear and stories. It is refreshing being around short term travelers because they were so excited to be here and appreciate everything. Along with Ryan and Rachel, we pretty much spent the afternoon and evening hanging out and chatting about gear, travel, and skiing, which was fun to learn about. 

This high camp was the most expensive on the trail; we ended up spending 1,850 rupees or $18.50 for accommodation, lunch, dinner, and breakfast. Budget for this!

Day Thirteen: High Camp to Muktinath
Hours of hiking: nine
Elevation gain: 4850m to 5416m to 3800m

Today was the biggest day of the whole trek. Max and I woke up at 5:15 am, which was actually late. We had breakfast in the semi dark, packed, and hit the trail by 6:15. Our goal was to get through the pass and back down to Muktinath, meeting everyone at the Bob Marley. Temps were frigid and we were on the trail before the sun was up. Reynaulds was killing my hands and we were approaching 5,400 meters so breathing was extra difficult. My cold still hadn't left me so I was wheezing and spitting stuff up. But eventually the path got a bit more even and the climb wasn't as steep. We somehow made it to the pass in two and a half hours, which was actually quite fast as we had thought it would take four. The pass was beautiful, full of prayer flags and between Thorung and another mountain. It felt so incredible to finally be up there, walking up I was alone and started to glimpse the flags and felt so light and happy, I started smiling to myself like a fool.

The walk down was insane. We descended 1,300 meters and it was beautiful, but man my knees were killing me. It felt amazing to be able to breathe though and the warm air was really nice. We ended the night at the Bob Marley hostel, which felt like the freaking Hilton. It had hot showers with stones on the sides and the ground. I was able to shampoo, condition, and use soap, that beautiful trifecta, the first time that had happened in about nine days. It was incredible. We drank celebratory beers with Rachel, Ryan, Frannie, and Mike. Dinner was luxury; for me delicious Nepali Gnocchi until my stomach hurt. For sure the beta. We also met Ian from Canada and this kind of strange Australian couple, Chelsea and James. They manage a watermelon farm in central Australia and seem to truly hate it. Or at least they hate watermelons and the sun. But they were nice enough and our group hung out until we were delirious with fatigue, mumbled goodnights, and I am going to sleep. 

Day Fourteen: Muktinath to Kagbeni
Hours of hiking: three
Elevation gain: 3800m to 2800m

I woke up so unbelievably sore, more than any other day on the trek. Max, Rachel, Ryan, and I had breakfast, bought some snacks, and headed to Kagbeni. Kagbeni was a bit of a detour, as we were originally going to go to Jomsom but Kagbeni is this old Tibetan village so we wanted to check it out. We set out for what was supposed to be a three hour walk but we stopped for some apples, I learned how to weave on a loom, and we ordered the slowest food order ever. It ended up taking us five hours, which was ok. The environment has changed to arid desert and it looked like southwestern U.S., or so I am told.

Kagbeni is really beautiful, these bright green and red fields suddenly appearing amidst all these brown rocks, this beautiful village tucked into the side of this foothill. We walked through the village and totally surrendered to our Americanism so we went to Yak Donald's for dinner and sleeps. They had lukewarm showers, wifi, and best of all yak cheeseburgers, fries, salad, juice, and beer. 

I am feeling so demotivated. Not in a bad way either, its just that we did the pass so we are all a bit lazy now. Our focus has been building up to the pass and now that we have done it, we are sort of just...walking. 

Day Fifteen: Kagbeni to Jomsom
Hours of hiking: two
Elevation gain: 2800m to 2720m

We started a bit late this morning but it was ok because we only had a two hour day. The trekking today was even more arid desert, like nothing I have ever experienced before. I'm told it looks like the southwestern part of the U.S. We walked in and out of a dried out river beds that wind their way through a long valley corridor, with steep dry rocky foothills on either side and the snowy Annapurnas towering above the whole thing. It was surreal. The wind was very powerful too; well actually two parts wind, one part dust. I've never walked through such a windstorm before, my teeth were coated with sand and the front of my legs were all chalky. 

We finally made it to Jomsom though and it has such a strange feel to it. The town sort of lines the river and as you walk through on either side it feels like you have reached the end of the town, but then suddenly there will be a German pastry shop, then nothing for a half km, then the town starts up again. Our plan was to get to Jomsom and mountain bike back the last part of the circuit, but we found out we couldn't rent bikes like we'd hoped. After a bit of wandering, we learned our options for getting back to Pokhara were now limited to walking (freeish), busing ($14), or flying ($115). Walking was out of the question for me since my friend Kelly will be here in a few days. Ryan and Rachel will be getting jobs soon so they are going to fly. Max and I are cheap, so we will ignore the rumors of the treacherous rides and take two buses back to Pokhara. We ended the night just hanging out, chatting over chapati and curry, about everything from China and gear to how India will not let Max back in, to how excited I am to have a home again. I can't believe the trek is over! I am really happy with how it went overall, though I wish I would have been healthy. 

Day Sixteen: Jomsom to Pokhara
Today started Nepali style with us arriving at the bus stop at 6:30am and the bus meeting us there around 7:30. No big deal, we just kept eating chocolate croissants at the cleverly placed German pastry shop outside the bus stop. The first bus was like a roller coaster and I was grateful for my motion sickness pills. The ride was beautiful, and we got to see the scenery in reverse: rocky outcroppings to jungle, to waterfalls everywhere, to rice terraces. We managed to not throw up (although some people on our bus definitely did) and we made it back to Pokhara in 12 hours. We unwisely did the math and learned it would have been faster to hike the 50 km from Jomsom to Pokhara, but whatever, we made it and nothing separates us from hot showers, pizza, real coffee, and chocolate. 


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no for real, let her eat cake

Juna, Sita, Kamala, the three musketeers. Messy, matted hair. Skinny frames, dirty clothes, huge smiles, 100% sass. I didn't stand a chance.

It was Juna’s birthday today. It was her birthday, and she didn’t even know it until it was almost over. Her Mom, busy with a full time job, seven kids, and no husband, had forgotten. Luckily Juna happened to see a calendar and so my little Nokia phone rang around 7 pm tonight, it's Juna's birthday! Can you come outside?

I opened my door and there they stood, Juna standing in the middle and looking absolutely radiant in her ratty clothes and wild hair. She proudly handed me a piece of chocolate and gave me a hug. 

I stared at this fresh teenager as I remembered my own 13th birthday. I remember preparing my whole family for it, announcing that I would be a teenager soon, so they could no longer call me Elizabeth or Wizzy (don't ask). Now I would answer only to the elegant Liz

But Juna, she almost missed her birthday.

I swear I’ve made every mistake in the book with these three. Their stories have broken my heart a million times. And so I try to make it better by buying them lunches, drinks, cookies, ice cream, and a trip to one of worst places on earth: the zoo. And even as I am doing this, I know it's not sustainable and just creating a dependence on western tourists. So I am starting to meet with their parents and reach out to various NGO's to figure out how to sponsor their schooling from abroad. 

But tonight, I couldn't help myself. The girl had never had her own cake, had no presents, and almost missed her birthday. On the walk to the bakery Juna stopped everyone she could to give them a piece of candy and announce that it was her birthday. If you could have seen that smile. I’ve never seen anyone glow like that.

Happy Birthday, sweet Juna.  

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finding generosity in Nepal

'I would like to invite you to have coffee at my home tonight', she said.

English class had just finished and she stayed after to speak with me. She had a nose ring, brown eyes so warm they could have been maroon, and an affectionate way of grabbing my hand. 

Since I started at Purnaa, she had been helping me with my terrible Nepali pronunciation and I had been teaching her English class. That day we learned how to say our favorite foods in class and when I joked that mine was coffee, she laughed and invited me to her home. Yes, yes, yes, of course I'll come to your home. 

It was raining when we left work, her holding an umbrella over both of us as she offered bits of English along the way.

When we got to her front door, she turned to me sheepishly, 'its only one room' and we walked in. The room was small and cozy, with lights strung along the pink walls, photos of family members everywhere, and two beds side by side that created a narrow path for me to walk down.

I sat across from her 17-year old-daughter as the coffee was brewing and I learned that she was going to university to be a doctor. This is huge anywhere, but it's especially incredible for a woman to get that level of schooling in Nepal. They served me coffee on a tray with sliced apples as they helped me learn more Nepali phrases. Se-yow, apple. Choree, daughter. Amah, mother. Ramro, good.

When her husband came home, they drove me home together. Halfway home, he turned to me and asked if I liked ‘buff’ (buffalo meat). I responded yes, so he pulled over and got out of the car. I kept talking with her, silently wondering what was happening until he got back in the car and handed me a coffee filter filled with grilled buffalo meat and rice from his friend’s food stand. Buff for you!

And so I fought my tears, as I accepted yet another gift from these people who knew more about sharing what they had than I ever will. 

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trekking solo in Slovenia

Mountains are just honest.
— Ueli Steck

This is my first solo trek in the Julian Alps. 

Mt. Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak, runs at 2,864 meters (or 9,296 feet for my American homies), and is shaped like, well, like three heads.  The humbling thing is that the mountain isn’t really that high, especially when I think that I’m now in Nepal, where locals would not even consider such an elevation to be a foothill. That’s not just an assumption, either – a Nepalese man told me, that is not even a foothill. But when you start at 526 meters, you end up gaining around 2,338 meters. That’s a lot of meters for a flatlander like me. But even then, that’s assuming you manage to hike in a relatively straight line. 

Which, I do not. 

I missed the cattle gate marking the beginning of my route and ended up making a giant ‘C’, inefficiently gaining and losing hundreds of meters of elevation throughout the day until I reached the lowest mountain hut, 400 meters below the one where I planned to sleep. It was 6pm, I had hiked twice as long as I expected, been out of water for 2 hours, and I had no idea if they even had room for me since I had no reservation at this hut (pictured below).

Somehow, 37 of the 38 beds were taken and I managed to get the last one. I was really lucky; others who arrived after me had to sleep on tables. I ordered cabbage stew, bread, and a hot cup of tea, silently worrying about the nine hours of hiking the next day. Eighteen hours in two days was more than I’d done with partners and I doubted I had it in me. 

But then I looked up and saw the same four French guys sitting at the next table that I had briefly chatted with on the road near the trailhead that morning. Joining them felt like a relief, as we began to share experiences from our day. They bought me a glass of wine when they heard how lost I had gotten, which made me start to wonder why I had insisted on doing this solo. What did I need to prove? I have some pretty badass friends who have done many solo treks, including six months through the Appalachian Trail. Maybe I just wanted to see what that felt like, to be without company and get to know myself like that. To see what my pace was without other influences, to see where my thoughts drifted with no distractions. Or some sort of hippie junk like that. 

But if this trip is my chance to learn about myself, then I already know that I love being in community. So I asked to join them for their summit bid early the next morning and thankfully, they said yes.  


We woke up early and worked our way up the trail, with the four of them stopping every now and then to make sure I was okay (I’ve learned I’m a slow hiker). They wanted to do the longer variation to the summit, which was cool with me because I already felt better hiking with them. We arrived at Triglavski Dom, the last hut before the via ferrata section. 

They started pulling out harnesses and helmets and as I looked at the summit, I realized it was steeper and more exposed than other via ferratas I’d done. I hadn’t brought my harness or helmet, so we fashioned a harness out of a few slings and carabiners and began working up the last 300 meters to the ridge. The rock was polished, the ridge was sharp, and we lost our footing more than once. I remembered my Slovenian friends telling me that a few people die on the ridge each year as I passed memorials along the way. 

Via Ferrata on ridge toward Triglav Summit

But thankfully we made it, joining another group of psyched trekkers at the summit. Normally it kind of sucks to have to share your summit with a group, but this time it felt less like a crowd of strangers and more like a community of really, really happy people. 

We snapped some photos and booked it out of there as more people started to make their way up. We passed one woman with a guitar strapped to her back and a 70-something man who looked dressed for a family photo, in his sweater vest and pressed slacks. Slovenians are absolutely insane. 

We made it back down to Triglavski Dom, where I left my French friends, as they planned to rest and then do more hiking in the mountains. On my own again, I was struck by how gorgeous these mountains were, these mountains that had seemed so frustrating only the day before. I really began to realize then, that mountains aren’t just beautiful – they’re honest. These beautiful mountains that I was so struck by don't care about me. They don't care how tired or dehydrated or hot or cold I was. Or how embarrassed I was to have missed a gate and turned an 11 hour hike into 18 hours. They have seen plenty of hikers before me and they will continue to see others, long after I left. I think had respected the mountains before this trip, but no where near to the level I do now. The best I can do is make peace with them and hope to continue to exploring. 

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for my birthday, I got the alps

It's taken 29 years, but I finally learned the trick to having an amazing birthday.

  1. Do something really hard the day before, something that you think you can't do.
  2. Wake up the morning of your birthday psyched. You're stronger than you realized. 

For me, that something hard was trekking up Schneeberg, the biggest mountain in lower Austria. The difficult part wasn't so much the hiking as it was carrying a tent, sleeping bags, pads, kitchen stuff, food, water, warm clothes and a 2 year old up. 


Our porter I mean friend, Wolfgang Kronberger, carried up Miriam's bag most of the way, so she could carry this sweet thing. 


Six hours later, we made it in time to pitch a tent, eat dinner, and watch the sun set over the alps. 


The next morning it was birthday hugs and chocolate. We began lazily hiking down, stopping to eat and just relax. We were psyched with what we had done the day before and I was psyched to get some calories back in the form of that fine Austrian chocolate. 


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climbing in the Dolomites

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this is empathy

And you’re traveling by yourself? Aren’t you scared?
— pretty much every taxi driver, server, barista, person sitting by me on a bus or train

Scared? No. Wait, what? Crap. Should I be scared? What do they know that I don't? 

But then that same woman that asked me that question proceed to show me exactly I don't need to be scared, as they ride one extra stop on the bus to make sure I go the right way down the hidden alleyway to find my hostel in Prague.

And then the girl I sit by on the bus to Berlin tells me about BlaBla car, a cheap ride share around Europe, which ends up saving me loads of money. And then she takes out a pen and paper and writes out common German phrases and coaches me through the pronunciation for the rest of the bus ride.

And then in Slovakia I sit across the train from someone who sketches out a map for me with all of the stops on the train from now until my stop, so I won't second guess the Slovakian announcements. 


And then when I miss my bus, this sweet couple change my Czech krona for Euro so I can buy a bus ticket and then brings me tea while I wait three hours for the next bus. 

And a hundred more moments like these, of people pointing out cool cafes, historical buildings, taking me out to dinner, to coffee, giving me rides, and connecting me with friends in other cities. And then several times, friends of those friends (who haven't even met me) let me crash in their apartment for a few days.  

And then I count the times I've sat on a bus in Minneapolis next to a non-English speaker, and helped them practice their English. Or sketched out a map for someone who is lost and doesn't speak the language. Or taken the time to stop what I was doing to help someone find the right bus. Am I even noticing these people?

Someday I will have a home, a job, a car, a normal life. And this trip will just be a memory; a collection of stories and photos. I want to store away all of these sweet little moments, these kind faces that have helped me every inch of this trip. 

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photos: slovakia trekking

Tucked in northern Slovakia are the High Tatras, the second highest mountains range in Europe. The hikes here are beautiful, well-maintained, and lined with wildflowers. My first morning in the Tatra's was spent hiking up a beautiful mountain near our hostel, The Ginger Monkey. The Ginger Monkey is one of those hostels that feel more like your friends cabin, where a rainy day just means hanging out on comfy old couches with endless amounts of tea and the full season of How I Met Your Mother.

Yeah, I'd say I lucked out in coming to Slovakia. 

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why I really love climbing

"We can ask ourselves whether we failed or succeeded, [...]whether we’re tough climbers or weak girls…but at the end of the day, it felt hard as nails and yet we gave it everything we could and well, I think that’s enough." - Hazel Findlay, badass

"This is hard and scary." - me

Give it everything I can? Right, then. My chance to give it everything I could came on one of my last days in SE Asia, after months of climbing and experiencing the highs of (finaalllly) pushing grades and the lows of injuries. My friends and I piled into a boat and headed two hours east toward The Face, a crag that had been built up in my head for months, specifically because of how interesting the rock was and the huge falls people have taken on it. My friends Benny and Ross, two other Asia Outdoors staff, and I were wrapping up our time in Vietnam, so we were psyched to end our time by spending a day on this beautiful crag.

Beautiful indeed. When our boat rounded the corner, our lack of sleep and choppy boat ride (our Vietnamese boat driver, Chu Bien, made us wear lifejackets, which never happens) were quickly forgotten, because suddenly there it was. This stunning, sheer crag rising 45 meters out of the waters of Ha Long Bay was The Face. We get to climb this thing?! Uhhh, OKAY!! We started getting psyched, chatting, and taking photos.  

And then, the closer we drew, the quieter we became, taking in the sheer size of such an inspiring and beautiful rock. 

There are only two bolted climbs on The Face. On the left is License to Climb, an inspiring and sustained 7b (5.12b) with a difficult and chossy 7c (5.12d) extension. Yeahhh, one of those sound way more fun than the other.

And then on the right is THE FACE, the crag's namesake, a 7b+ (5.12c) that starts cruiser and keeps getting steeper and more technical the further you go up. It's about 30 meters tall and the last 5-8 are the most run out and (surprise!) the most difficult. Most of the talk I'd heard about The Face was centered around the top of this climb, that if you don't make it to the anchor you will take a BIG fall. 

Chu Bien pulled the boat up onto a slabby rock and we all hopped off, scrambling up to the base of our warm up, License to Climb. What sort of fantasy world are we in that a 7b is our warm up? Nonetheless, bags were tossed on the deck, ropes were flaked, harnesses were put on and okay Liz you wanna go up first? Oh hell yes. 

My nerves gave way to sheer happiness as License to Climb was as beautiful as I imagined, 20ish meters of small two-finger pockets, side pulls and laybacks, underclings and high, high feet. I began to lose myself in the climb, engaging fully in it to the point that everything around me faded away; afterward I wouldn't remember anything about it. My body took over, the moves linking together naturally until I arrived at the first anchor with only one fall. I lowered off happy, psyched at how fluid it all felt. 

As the sun rose higher in the sky, giving way to higher temps, each person hopped on the route, leaving ample time for our favorite things: mainly eating, lazing in the shade, and watching each other climb. Thom (another Asia Outdoors staff member) and Ross had been here before and had already worked both climbs. But for the rest of us in the group, Benny, myself, and Alaskan couple Shasta (as in the freaking mountain!) and Kelsey, the rock was totally foreign, unlike anything we had ever done before. My friend Gavi described it perfectly - melted crayon, a solid wall full of small pinches and pockets.

The sun was high in the sky by the time we all finished License to Climb and it was getting hot, hot, hot. The day had been awesome but Benny and I were still antsy to try The Face. It was an intimidating lead, but we had to try it before leaving Vietnam. Benny went up first, hanging draws with the hot afternoon sun beating down on him. He looked strong, but since he had already gotten on License to Climb twice, he whipped off about halfway up, exhausted from a long day in the sun. 

...uhh, crap. my turn.

I started up The Face slowly, trying not to think about how much I had imagined this climb. I paced my breathing and took my time to explore holds, lying back to see where the line was going. Every hold looked good but it was easy to get lured off route and all the holds would disappear, leaving me to traverse or even less fun, down climb to get back onto the line. I kept moving up, up, up, the line growing more steep and the holds getting smaller and further apart. Keep breathing, relax, you can do this. 

One of the million reasons I love climbing is exactly this – there isn't anything else in my life that demands every part of me. There is no room for any thought or worry, stress or distraction. There just can't be. Breathe in, grab that side pull, breathe out, high foot. Breathe in, lay back, breathe out, pull up.

And then suddenly I was at the crux, clipping the last bolt and looking up at the anchor, still about 5-8 meters above me. I glanced down to see the rope swaying between my feet and about 100 feet below my feet were my friends, watching and yelling up encouragement.

Okay you have this, be brave. 

I took a deep breath and got my feet up high, using my height to my advantage as I levered my body up. And I landed in a blank spot, with technical and sustained hand holds and very thin foot holds. What the junk, where are the feet? I hesitated, adjusted, hesitated, adjusted. Try it. Just go for it. Come on.

I pulled down with my right hand, got my feet up high, reached up with my left hand and...slipped.

I fell about 10 meters, the biggest fall I have taken in years. Most falls are a blink and it's done, but this time I was able to process what was happening and the position my body was in. Apparently I let a few choice words fly, but I just remember hearing my breath go in and out on the way down. It was such a rush of adrenaline, scary and fun and incredible!

I lowered down to a psyched group, who didn’t even care that I didn’t clip the anchor; they were just happy I tried hard. It's days like this that I feel so grateful for this playful and supportive community of climbers I get to hang out with. Everyone wants each other to succeed, to push ourselves. It's not a competition, we’re friends that love the outdoors and being involved in something so pure and spiritual.

In the end, no one in our group sent The Face that day, but it didn't matter. Because climbing is just a medium to let me be outside, to push myself alongside badass people on inspiring rock in a beautiful bay. Climbing gives me a chance to try things that are hard and scary; to give it everything I can. And climbing lets me drink beers, and that, that is worth being grateful for.

Most (okay, ALL) of the photos on this post were taken by Kelsey Gray, a talented Alaskan professional photographer who just got himself, and his sweet girlfriend Shasta, a bunch of house guests for being so cool (see you two soon)! Check out more of this talented mofo here

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Loving Nam

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The stuff you don't share on Facebook

 The only sunburn I’ve gotten in SE Asia...on my lips. Apparently I didn’t put enough sunscreen on them and they swelled to twice their size. My celeb status just rose to B list. 

The only sunburn I’ve gotten in SE Asia...on my lips. Apparently I didn’t put enough sunscreen on them and they swelled to twice their size. My celeb status just rose to B list. 

"What's your name, where are you from, how long are you traveling? Over and over again. Hostels blasting house music, clichéd graffiti on the walls, drunk travelers trying to out-gypsy each other. Am I really doing five more months of this until I see a familiar face?" 

Its my last night in Bangkok and I'm having dinner with Scott, an old friend and one of the most experienced travelers I know. I admitted to him I was starting to get weary of this lifestyle, tired of Lonely Planet checklists, people 'doing' an entire country, having the same conversations with 20 year olds on their gap year. Scott laughed and told me I was hitting the four-month mark and it was normal. People start to look and sound the same. I’ve met you before, he would think. Slow down, find a place you like, it will get better.

I headed to Cambodia, thinking a change in scenery would help, but the next few days were filled with insane heat and bad luck. My heat rash had spread and with it came a new rash that turned out to be bed bugs. I got the worst sunburn I've gotten in SE Asia...on my lips. I looked like an off-brand Kardashian, but eating spicy food with sunburned lips isn't so sexy. The power was out in Siam Reap so I cooled off throughout the night by hosing myself down with a bum gun (exactly what it sounds like). 

That night as the power came back on, the reports of the earthquake in Nepal came with it. My heart sank as I thought about my two good friends there, Kristen volunteering in Kathmandu and Josh trekking on the Annapurna Circuit. I had a ticket to join them in just a few weeks and had planned on spending five months in Nepal, the longest I was to spend anywhere. As news stories started to gather more information and first hand accounts, the death toll started rising. I began to really panic. The earthquake had been one of the worst in a long time and it had triggered an avalanche on Everest. I reached out to my two friends, our mutual friends, and some family members. I hopped online. Refresh page, refresh page, refresh page. I tried to distract myself by going to the night market in Siam Reap, but was met with the stomach churning mix of drunk, white tourists and Cambodian kids begging for food and something to drink. 

I hopped on a bus and headed south, hoping a sleepy river town would provide the quiet and natural beauty I needed to relax. Why was I here? Traveling for the sake of traveling had lost its novelty. I felt like I was stumbling from city to city, meeting the same people in each hostel, crossing things off a list that I didn’t make or care about. I hate small talk and I found myself repeating the same conversation with everyone I met. Was I going to have these same conversations for the next five months, like some sort of endless networking event?

More than that though, the earthquake in Nepal was a poignant reminder of how short life is – so what was I doing? I have an incredible community at home, so many amazing friends and family that I am so proud to call mine. Did I leave them for a bunch of pretty photos? 

I missed community. Once I realized it, I felt relieved. Of course I missed community. That's what Scott had been saying. And if I get to pick, why not go with one of my favorite types: climbers. Instead of motorbiking my way up the coast of Vietnam like I had planned, I flew all the way to my final destination in the north of Vietnam: Cat Ba Island. I emailed Asia Outdoors, the biggest adventure tourism company on the island, and asked about volunteering as a climbing guide. 

It has been over a month since I showed up here and it has been exactly the antidote I needed to feel like myself again. There is something beautiful and warm about being known. We share rooms, clothes, gear, watch Game of Thrones, push each other on hard sport climbs, sketch out on scary trad, eat, and get drunk together. It's messy and imperfect and just so freaking normal. This was all too good to leave so I renewed my visa and decided to spend a few months here on Cat Ba Island. 

I know I am missing seeing most of the sights I'm supposed to see in Vietnam, but I don't care, because this trip is nothing without community. 


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Vietnam, 40 years after the war

This post is five months late because it took me that long to figure out how to put words to how I felt as an American in Vietnam. 

A few days after arriving in Saigon, I toured an American/Vietnamese war museum and seeing the victims of agent orange was a heartbreaking experience. I chose to do it alone and was glad, as I had the time and space to process the photos and read about the war from the Vietnamese perspective.

You guys, it was horrific. 

The chemicals we sprayed from planes caused the most extreme deformities you can imagine, and it's still affecting children and civilians even 40 years after the war has ended. Though I felt the anti-American propaganda unnecessary and distracting, the photos and the impact of agent orange is entirely real. I left the museum sick to my stomach, having left after watching a video of an 8-year old boy with feet attached to his hips crawl around his bedroom.

The next day I joined an Australian friend on a tour exploring the Cu Chi tunnels about 45 minutes outside of Saigon. I was one of the only American's on the tour, so I felt incredibly self conscious as I boarded the bus. But our guide was wonderful, walking us through the timeline from the Vietnamese perspective, which was so interesting to me as the Vietnam War is so glossed over our American history books.

What most impressed me most though was the grace he gave while speaking about the United States and the American soldiers. He explained that many U.S. soldiers didn't agree with the war and found themselves in a kill or be killed situation. He even talked about the many American soldiers returning home after such a gutting war to a nation that didn't support them. Telling a story about such a traumatic and political war while still creating empathy for both sides was not an easy feat, but one that I felt so grateful for. 

When we arrived at the Cu Chi tunnels, I was beyond amazed at the advanced infrastructure, especially from a nation with so little resources. I could barely fit through most of the openings of the tunnels, which were intentionally sized for petite Vietnamese soldiers. The tunnels were hot (even for Vietnam), tiny, and claustrophobic. I couldn't believe the Viet Cong soldiers lived in them for over 10 years. 

Over the next few months I struggled to process what I had seen. The more research and thought I put into it, the more my my anger settled on our government. And not even in a protest the war kind of a way. We're not the first country to do something really shitty like this, but in order to learn from our mistakes we can't bury them. If we know that history repeats itself, why don’t we as a nation own what we did and educate people on the American/Vietnam war? 

We need to talk about this, about the weapons we chose to fight with, and the effect they had and are still having.  

But while I was processing, I noticed something. The Vietnamese people offered me nothing but lightness and warmth. Wait - they're being so kind. My curiosity led me to some cautious conversations with a few locals about the war, starting with the man pictured playing the guitar. 

My uncle was a medic in that cave on this very island. 
Really? Wow. I can't imagine trying to treat people out of a cave. So how do you feel about Americans now?

Oh I like Americans.
...oh. Well tell me this; looking back on it, how do you feel about it now, are you angry?
No. Just glad it's over. 

Being in a country that we warred for so long could have been an uncomfortable, if not terrible experience. But instead, I benefitted from so many Vietnamese taking the high road, helping to create relationships between a new generation of people. But to be offered this kind of grace was nothing short of inspiring. 

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Babes in Thailand

How do you know you've found a good one? When he flies 8,000 miles across the world to spend two weeks with you. And when he arrives he says things after dinner like, we should get some chocolate tonight. And when I'm tying in to the sharp end, you've got this babe, swift and brave. And when I ask him what we should do tonight, oh I don't care, I just want to hang out with you. All of this following the time he pulled rain pants, a steripen, a solar charger, and tampons out of his bag. Freaking love this guy.

We had our ups and downs. Days filled with brapping around the island in search of chocolate and coffee, reading by the sea, and getting to explore the beautiful limestone rock in Laos together. And we had long travel days, filled with sticky humidity, heavy bags, miscommunications, bad sleep and bad food. 

The best parts though, were the parts we didn’t bring a camera for. That long afternoon spent hiding from the rain in a veggie café, drinking beer and ginger tea while listening to the old rasta hippie owner talk about everything from the Thai political system, to his beliefs in what happens when we die. The mutual excitement over filling our bellies with banana nutella pancakes, psyching out on tufus and stalactites, being lazy in the mornings and little punky gremlins in the evenings. Here are a few of my favorite moments with this sweet dude of mine.

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Must love dogs

The Dog Sanctuary at Elephant Nature Park, home to about 430 dogs. The sanctuary was started in 2011, as a result of the Bangkok floods trapping thousands of dogs on rooftops. Volunteers gathered together and when all was said and done, over 2,000 dogs that were pulled to safety and with a little food, water, and medical treatment they were ready to survive on their own again. But there were about 155 that needed more attention and thus, the Dog Sanctuary of Elephant Nature Park was born. 

Today there are over 430 dogs living in the Dog Sanctuary. That's 430 different personalities and unique and often heartbreaking stories as to how each dog arrived at the sanctuary. I volunteered alongside a group of animal loving hippies from around the world and together we focused our attention on the sickest and most injured dogs, the ones in the Dog Clinic.    

This is Long. Long was found beaten half to death in a bag. He somehow survived but can't control his bladder. He's still the sweetest dog and I wished so much I could have taken him home.

Swooning over Looch, the first dog we got to help re-integrate back into his pack after being in the clinic.  

Gladys never got used to this cone and would ram her head into all the things. 

Lucie and I perfecting the cuddle, cuddle, detick. 

Steel was hit by a motorbike but is too badass to slow down. Put him in this trainer and he freaking runs

Digging his way to Canada

Poor Ahn is passed out after ear surgery. 

We could have hung out with them for hours oh wait, we did. 

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I used to have things

"And we'll arrive at 6:00 am, yes? On a sleeper bus? With beds?"
"Yes, yes, 6 o'clock, yes. Sleeper, yes." 

We're talking to our hostel owners in Vang Vieng. I had met Alex, a cool British dude, in my last hostel and we decided to travel together to Luang Prabang, home of the most beautiful waterfalls you can imagine. We'd both had rough experiences on SE Asian 'sleeper' buses (janky buses with no beds), so we're springing for the more expensive tickets on the sleeper bus, because we are such clever and proactive travelers. 

"Okay, then. 6:00 am arrival on a bus with beds. We'll take two tickets."

Fast forward to that night. Our bus pulls up and we climb on to see two rows of...seats. Okay, so no beds. Whatever, I can sleep sitting up. We settle into watching a few episodes of True Detective and miraculously fall asleep around 1:30 am, heads gently banging back and forth. 

You know how you can get woken up and feel terrible? Like it would have been better to not sleep at all? An hour later Alex is shaking me awake, we have to get off the bus. HUH? It's the middle of the night, what the junk? I look out my window to see our driver tossing my backpack on the dark street. So...we're in Luang Prabang? Uhh yeah, its a few kilometers up the road, Alex explains.

Pounding headache that can't be squeezed out of my temples. Sticky eyelids that keep forgetting to open. Sore back and butt from leaning against the window. 

We start walking toward the dark town, the only ones awake apart from the stray barking dogs. There were only six of us on the bus and each pair seemed to have a different strategy. Two opted to sit on the curb outside a cafe and wait for it to open...in five hours. Two more pounded the pavement, pathetically attempting to wake hostel owners by rattling fences. Its 2:30 am. This is not good.

And then it hits me: this is going to be my first night sleeping on the street. For no reason at all, this cheers me up. Maybe its some sort of right of passage. How could I travel the world and never get to experience this? 

We manage to find a market (pictured right) with a cement ridge partially concealing an elevated sidewalk from view of the street. Concrete below us, backpacks threaded through our arms, we park it for the night. I used to have things, I think. A job. A car. An apartment...huh. Night Alex. Night, Elizabeth. 

We're woken to a broom and man telling us to move. I start singing riff raff, street rat (Aladdin song) as we scramble to our feet exhausted, but proud. We did it. 

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My favorite day in Laos

Swimsuits on, no plans other than to check out the river and find the best (okay, cheapest) cocktail in town. The stuff the best days of traveling are made of. 

We hopped in the river and two local punky kids started splashing us, which quickly turned into a game of chicken. 

After proving how cool we are, a group of girls recruited us to play volleyball. After a few unsuccessful volleys, Charmaine asked, 'futbal?' A dozen smiles and shy nods.  

Oh wait, you're all secretly amazing at this? Of course, of course you are. 

The best day in Laos, bar none. 

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Trekking: A lesson in getting what we paid for

You'll spend three days and two nights in the jungle in the National Park. The first night will be a village home stay, where you'll spend time with locals and eat local food. The next night you'll build your own camp out of materials we will find in the jungle. Your meals of sticky rice will be supplemented with food we collect in the jungle.

I'm in northern Laos, eating up whatever rubbish the trekking salesman behind the counter feels like telling us. Seated next to me are badass Israeli girls Amit, Bar, and Dal, and Dutch dude, Jelte. As I watched the girls negotiate our trekking cost in half (Israeli style!), I immediately knew I liked them. Jelte and I had already bonded in our van ride from hell on the way there (mountain roads + 95 degree heat + pissed off driver - aircon  = all the bad things). So I knew he was down for adventure too. 

And we did have adventure. That adventure meant the surreal feeling of having someone shake your hand, saying 'Hello, I am Namthee, welcome to my village.' It meant a lovely night playing sweet village kids, doing cartwheels, playing wheelbarrow and teaching them hand claps. Words not necessary. And it meant bonding with my new friends, playing dumb games, slipping down muddy river beds, and getting drunk serious over the bonfire. It meant watching our guide make a water bong out of bamboo and tap out beats while making up quirky songs in broken English. 

But other times it meant joining up with another group of 10 trekkers on thin trails, heads to butts style, so our pace slowed significantly. And it meant only going into the National Park when we begged, and even then being snuck in to the edge of it, as we learned our guides hadn't paid the entrance fee. And most importantly for me, it meant not getting to collect our own food or build our own camp, since the language barrier made it no doubt easier for the guides to do it on their own. 

Even still, my memories of this trek are warm. I grew close with the other trekkers, as you do when you are in a make-the-best-of-it type of situation. And besides, its impossible not to respect a guide who can make a water bong out of bamboo. 

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Kuang Si Waterfalls

Kuang Si Waterfalls: bigger, taller, and way more beautiful than I imagined.  


Pro tips:

  • Definitely rent a motorbike instead of taking the tour, not just because its cheaper, but because you can spend as long as you want there. We petered around, exploring different paths that led to huge, beautiful infinity pools and caves. 
  • If you want to see the bears, go early. We thought we'd see them on the way back out and missed them, as they go to sleep around 4pm. 


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ode to the squatties

Yeah sure I may have had dead ants in my toothbrush, a frog in my toilet, and slept on the sidewalk last week, but one of the hardest things I've had to get used to in SE Asia are squatty potties. But I'm proud to tell you that I'm no longer a squatty struggler. 

For those of you who haven't had the wonderful experience of getting low, a squatty potty is supposed to be bomb for at least three reasons:

  1. Health - lowers risk of constipation, hemorrhoids, colon disease, and helps with pelvic floor issues, says the squatty potty makers).
  2. Sanitation - think of how many butts have touched the last toilet you used. 
  3. Efficiency - no one is scrolling through any feeds on these mofos. See ya never bathroom line. 
 It's always best to face the wall to minimize splatter. You get used to it, promise. 

It's always best to face the wall to minimize splatter. You get used to it, promise. 






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