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solo travel

no for real, let her eat cake

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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

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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

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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.  

Final_day_Triglav_Slovenia

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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this is empathy

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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. 

IMG_0541.JPG

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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