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travel fails

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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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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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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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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Travel Fails: where are all the Thai people?

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Travel Fails: where are all the Thai people?

Picture this: you’re 12 hours in to a 16 hour travel day. You’re sweaty, unshowered (obviously), and sweating in a hot van packed thigh-to-sweaty-thigh with other backpackers. The bus driver starts walking down the aisle asking for everyone’s final destination. Though the bus is headed to Krabi, your final destination is Tonsai Bay, the climbing mecca is SE Asia. The bus driver says she can take you to Tonsai, but it’ll cost you an additional $20. You reluctantly agree and as soon as the driver walks away, you overhear the people behind you decline saying, ‘we’ll figure it out, thanks’. You ask them what they’re planning to do? and they respond with the obvious: what the Thai’s do. They ask ‘where are all the Thai people? How do they get from Krabi to Tonsai?’ and this spurred the first of many lessons I’ll learn on this trip. If I’m surrounded by tourists, there is a good chance I’m overpaying. 

We found out later it costs closer to $4 to get from Krabi to Tonsai. Lesson learned.

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