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I'm coming home

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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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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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for my birthday, I got the alps

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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. 

Wolfie_with_almost_all_the_gear
Hiking_up_the_trail_on_Schneeberg

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

Miriam_and_Sam

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

Sunset_in_the_Austrian_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. 

hot_dog_legging_in_the_austrian_alps
Wolfgang_Sam_walking_down
little_hiker_man
Wolfgang_on_Schneeberg

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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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photos: slovakia trekking

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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

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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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The stuff you don't share on Facebook

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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

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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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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.  

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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

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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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buy back the bombs

Probably one of the hardest things to stomach when traveling as a westerner is seeing, up close, the damage your country did to another. Exhibit A: Laos

During the Vietnam war the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos - equal to a planeload every 8 minutes, for NINE YEARS. This makes Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. To make matters worse, about 30% of these cluster bombs failed to explode, so now a huge chunk of North-Eastern Laos can't be developed until they are removed. Which at the current rate will take, you know, about 800 more years. And the collateral damage will make your head explode, 98% of the victims of these late-to-explode bombs are civilians and 40% are children.

buy back the bombs

Signs like the one above in night markets breaks my heart. How could I begin to apologize for something like this? Or even, why didn't we at least learn about this in school? I know, the skeptics will remind me to not trust the government, yadda yadda. I know. But its still frustrating that I have to travel 8,000 miles to hear the truth about the 'Vietnam' war, even more so since I'm learning the situation in Cambodia is very much the same as Laos. 

These sorts of experiences are what challenges me to to keep questioning our history books and asking questions of other travelers and locals. Traveling serves as a sharp, in-your-face reminder that there are a million perspectives on each war and the more people I talk to, the more the world gets even more gray and complex. 

You can read more about the bombs in Laos and how you can support here

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8 reasons to go to Koh Lanta

1. More than 30 kilometers of coastline looking like this.
There is a beach for everyone. starting on the north end of the island, the beaches are more rasta/hippie and crowded. The further south you go, the quieter and more relaxed they get. We stayed about halfway down, on Klong Nin Bay and loved it! 

2. The Lanta Animal Welfare Clinic
Wykstra and I both love animals and were psyched to support this clinic. They're run almost entirely by volunteers and they take in dogs and cats that have been abused or abandoned and give them the necessary medicine, treatment, and love to get better. We got to take little the little punk Bang-Bang for a walk on the beach. 

All of that lovin' is supported by donations from the nearby Lime Bar. So we went and you know, supported them supporting that. 

3. Motorbike rental for 250 BHT ($8 USD).
You can brap up and down the island, visiting the national forest, get a massage, or check out other beaches and what have you. 

4. The whole bottom part of the island is a national forest. 
With some casual hiking, monkeys erywhere, and views like this.

5. Crabs
They hated me, but will love you, plomise. 

6. SNORKELING
But just a warning: the 4 Islands Tour is a lot of tour and not a lot of snorkeling. maybe you can hire a boat on your own? just don't expect a ton of snorkeling, its a lot of shlepping around from island to island. I'm still including it in this list because its not the fishes fault. 

7. Animals, everywhere
Aside from our usual insects and critters living in our bungalow, we have chickens, cats, and dogs that roam around the island! I love them and they love me and its 100% mutual. 

8. That Thai kindness
I could probably say this about everywhere in rural Thailand, but the Thai people in Koh Lanta were so kind, thoughtful, and generous, with what little they had. Case in point the woman who took in this abandoned little monkey and cared for him (and let us play with him all the time). 

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and we have a trip motto

"Oh hello, yes hi, sawatdee kahh...umm so, the wifi doesn’t seem to be working?"

I’m standing in an internet café, talking to the woman behind the counter. I'm kicked off the wifi for the gazillionth time as my parents and my sister sit 8,000 miles away at their laptops, waiting for me to come back on.

She smiles at me. 

I lift my laptop screen to show her the angry message on the screen, accusing them of not paying their bill. (remember, I'm in an internet cafe) I shrug my shoulders at her, as if to ask again.

Her smile stays genuine; she just blinks and announces, ‘ahhh, yes is a problem!’

I'm embarrassed to say we repeat this charade a few more times before I just agree with her. I mean, she's right, it IS a problem.

I return to my seat and laugh with Wykstra at just how very American I am. I'm so accustomed to getting things when I want, or at least as the customer, being used to being 'always right'. But this is Thailand, not the States, and things don't always work when I want them to. 

At least now I know what to say every time something goes wrong on this trip (i.e. throwing up, getting rashes, missing buses, no climbing ropes in carry ons now? really?) - ahhh yes, is a problem!

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Koh Yao Noi

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Koh Yao Noi

After a few weeks in Tonsai we started hearing about this beautiful island nearby with unpolished, steep limestone to climb and bungalows and food for even cheaper than Tonsai. The best part? We’d get to rent motorbikes to take us to the crag. We’d all been spoiled by the 45-second approaches of Tonsai and were psyched to have adventures on the way to the crag. Rolf, David, and I convinced our new friend Josh to come too and we all said goodbye to our wonderful Rasta friends (photo below) and headed west to Koh Yao Noi. 

Once we arrived, we quickly realized most of the rumors were true. Koh Yao Noi was remote and quiet, a beautiful Thai island untouched by tourism. When we discovered accommodation wasn’t quite as cheap as the rumors, we reminded ourselves its still crazy cheap by western standards and booked a few nights in THE NICEST BUNGALOW OF ALL TIME. Instead of facing west, we faced east and started to lose it over all the beautiful sunrises. The Thai’s here were warm and welcoming, going out of their way to introduce themselves and make sure we were comfortable. The owner of the bungalows, Mr. Leen, even stopped by to say goodnight. The land of smiles, indeed. 

Between the motorbiking and climbing, the next few days were an absolute blast. We brapped our way to the crag by squeezing driver-bag-passenger-bag on our manual trans motorbikes. David and I rode together and he was very kind, pretending not to notice every time I jerked us into the wrong gear. At least half of the approach (let me call it that, its more fun) was on holy-shit-we’re-going-to-die loose gravel, potholes, and steep hills. All made more fun by driving on the left side of the road. Everything went really well until the one night our jankfest of a headlight went out on a blind corner and we went slow-motion into the ditch. 

The climbs were cool too. Instead of the dramatic, red, drippy-looking rock of Tonsai, this limestone was white and more of the wall climbing we were used to. Once we parked our bikes, we hiked the last 15-20 hot minutes to the crag, making us (okay, just me) reconsider all the banana Nutella pancakes and cookies, but it was still so beautiful. Our last day of climbing we ended our side-by-side multipitches on the same pitch and got to see more sea, something I don’t know if I’ll ever tire of. 

David also does a great job of explaining our experience on Koh Yao Noi, check out his blog to read more. 

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