Pittsburgh

My first day in Moria (a refugee camp in Greece, last December) I met a boy from Afghanistan named Aryan. He was my age, and saw quickly how overwhelmed I was - trying to get all these adult men to listen to me while I shouted, trying to set up tents before it started pouring rain. He helped me translate and helped me carry things back and forth, up and down the hill. He had come over on the boat with a friend. Leaving his family behind. 

He followed me around that night, helping me speak to people who spoke no English. He could speak four languages, and as we walked, he told me poems in Farsi and then translated them into English. He tried to teach me words in Farsi, and I would say them, laughing, and then promptly forget them when he quizzed me 30 seconds later. As I heard people speak the language throughout the next month I was there, I wished so much that I could also speak it, also help in that way - and the beauty of those poems stuck with me.

I got a little annoyed with Aryan a couple days later, because I was stressed and trying to do things and he kept telling me I should stop, I should eat, I should rest.. "You don't get to tell me what to do," I remembered saying to him finally, exasperated. And he had told me how to find him on Facebook, but the next day he left and I didn't get to say bye and I was never able to find his Facebook, after all.

I think about him often - this boy who was so kind to me that could speak poems in different languages, who left almost everyone he knew at home in hopes of getting to Germany. I'm sure I'll never see him again, never know if he managed to cross the border, if he got there.

But his gift to me was that he left me with this desire to learn the language. And so in coming to Pitt, in looking at schools for social work, one thing I kept wanting to know was, "Can I also learn Farsi here?" And at Pitt, I can. My teacher is this hilarious, super put-together older woman from Iran. There are only maybe 12 of us in the class, and almost everyone is a heritage student - meaning they are taking the class because one of their parents is Persian. I have been so overwhelmed (in a good way) with it all week, especially since she told us we would learn to read and write first. And I have been struggling, with these new characters that are unlike anything I've tried to read before. But all my teacher has been saying all week to us is "Do not drop this class. You will learn. It takes time. It's ok. Stay with me." 

And today when I sat down with my homework, all of a sudden, I had this moment when things just started to make sense - I squealed out loud, sitting outside by myself. The characters made sense, I knew what sounds they made, I knew which word was which and what they meant. I was actually reading the characters on my paper, saying them out loud. And then one of my Facebook friends shared a post and the girl's name was written in Farsi and I looked at it and was like "oh my god, I can read that, I know what sounds those make and I know what her name is!!" 

And right now I'm at this random coffee house in Pittsburgh that also has a bar and I'm doing my homework and this is my Saturday night and I'm remembering all of these experiences that have somehow led me up to this point and life just seems like magic. And that is all. <3

Hong Kong, China

Because at 23 years of age, this is what I look like. Unedited, little wrinkles and breakouts and all. And for the first time ever in my life, I really, truly like it. 

I bought this scarf in the Thailand airport and took this picture to show Eric what it looks like (we have different flights home.) Woke up at 4:30. Currently on a layover in Hong Kong. Alternating between reading news about the DNC convention, and getting too worked up about the entire election to even be able to focus. My stomach sickness has healed but now I have a cold, so I'm congested, plus I have my period. But I'm welcoming it. Welcoming this time of month; so synchronistic with how I'm feeling right now. Integrating, letting everything go, starting anew. Welcoming feeling sick which allows me to zone out and just be in my own head for a bit. Even welcoming this 16 hour flight ahead of me. It's so weird to have this trip coming to an end. It barely feels like any time has passed, and yet, as always, I feel different.

Railay, Krabi, Thailand

I have shared personal things before, but I have not shared about this. It makes me uncomfortable, really. But it is a story. And I don't think I can continually write about other parts of my life and not this one. 

This is honest, this is raw, it is full of truth. It is painful and beautiful and joyful and so hard because my relationship has been all of those things. 

Terms we use to describe things are so definitive. So box-like. "But are you dating?" People say. "Well, you're either in a relationship or you're not. It can't just change all the time." 

My relationship has been fluid the way the rest of the things in the world are fluid. The way other people's relationships are fluid. The way people cheat on each other and never tell anyone, staying together. The way people date people but secretly love others. The way people get married. The way people get divorced. 

My story is the story of two people who are so different but so much the same. Who love one another in the unconditional way you love family members but who are too interested in separate things to be capable of staying together. 

It has been one of the biggest heartbreaks of my 23-year-old life to be forced to learn that love is sometimes just not enough. 

And I am difficult. I change my mind all the time. I never want to be around. I want to travel the entire world and move here and move there and open a business and then sell it and then be convinced I'll go back to school at 3 different places before I settle on a fourth. I meet new people and get excited. I can't sit still, but I've wanted to. 

I've dated other people in between, but I always return back to Eric. 

I've been in love with Eric since I was in 10th grade, and he was in 8th, maybe before but definitely after he snuck into my room one night and we kissed. He was my brother's best friend, someone my mom told me to stay away from after I confessed my love for him, because "he's Damon's friend, not yours." And so it began then, this back and forth, this always returning to what has been the only constant, consistent thing in my life. 

And then finally, a year after Damon's accident, we started dating. Nobody understood it, but I could not have been happier. It was magic, it was perfect, it was everything that books and movies describe as true love happily ever after.

But we started to grow up. We both changed. I changed a lot. And we grew in different directions. But our love somehow, inexplicably, still stayed the same. 

"I love you," one of us will say to the other. "I don't know why, but I do." 

How is it one of the cruel parts of life that a person I love so unbelievably much, is not someone I can be happy with?

I love this person. This person who shows me all of himself. Who loves me more than anything in the world. He is so patient, so kind, so gentle, when I am the opposite. We are both so silly, so comfortable with each other. We understand one another. 

And we've been through a lot. We've been through me deciding on a whim to end things 3 times, either because I found someone who suddenly felt more interesting or because I felt like I had changed too much. We've shared the same tragedy. We've been through family deaths, divorce. We've been through me going on trips and being uncommunicative and him betraying me in the worst way possible because there were emotional needs of his not being met. 

And I found strength and unconditional love in going back again and again and working through things together and watching us both mature and really believing every time that this time it would work, this time it must. 

I don't believe this is unhealthy. I don't believe it's a bad pattern. Maybe it is for some people, in some instances, where people are abusive or yell and scream at each other or treat each other badly, but that wasn't ever us. 

I think humans are conditioned to believe that this is an unhealthy thing, returning back to someone. Or still loving someone that we leave. So we shame people who do it, shame people who stay with someone who's cheated on them, shame people who break up and get back together. We talk as if we can ignore all biology and act like the only "right" way to do a relationship is to have there be a man and woman who date, have only a few insignificant problems, get married, stay together, and live happily ever after. In a box. 

And whose relationship is actually like that? No one I know, to be sure. Why can't we be with lots of people that make us happy, in our own way, whatever that is for us, when it feels right?

And so to me it is just this heartbreaking thing that there is this person existing who I love with literally all of my heart that I cannot be with because we have such separate ideas of what we value, what we want to do, how we want our lives to go. 

Why, life? Why do you do that?

So I have some people looking and saying "why are you even dating" and some people saying "wow you're in Thailand you must have the perfect life." As people do. And really it is both things. Because yes we are in Thailand and it is amazing. And at the same time it is overshadowed by the fact that we will come home and I will go away to school and Eric will go back to work and he will be happy doing what he likes to do and being where he likes to be and I will be happy going the other way, not able or stable enough to give my full attention to another person right now. Part of me wants to. But part of me can't. And the part of me that can't has been growing stronger, and is now much louder. 

The reality is just that now is not the time for it to work. Maybe it will never work. And yet I cannot imagine this person not being in my life. And we are away together in Thailand. And we are not dating. And all of those things have to coexist at once. 

ps. yes, Eric is okay with me posting this.

Railay, Krabi, Thailand

(July 23) 

This island is maybe the most stunning place I have ever been in my entire life. I have never been anywhere like it. We are at this beautiful hotel, I'm living off of spring rolls and watermelon smoothies, and the water is clear and warm. The ocean is right outside our hotel, and the other side of the island (where the beach is a little nicer) is a 5 minute walk away, down a little sandy path that leads through tiki huts and restaurants with local food. It's low season, so we've lucked out with the weather (apparently it rained all last week), and the island is so quiet - there are barely any people here and nothing is crowded. 

Mostly we've been pretty lazy, and we both got so sunburnt yesterday! But today we went rock climbing. Krabi is famous for its climbing. It was absolutely incredible to climb these huge limestone cliffs on a beach and look out over the ocean. We climbed for a few hours, then hiked up into this cave, and then rappelled down the side before we went to eat lunch. I had overestimated how in shape I am after being away for so long lol and I was too exhausted to finish the full day. But we had a guide all to ourselves, so they are letting us do the second half of the day tomorrow ☺️☺️☺️

Also at one point when we were climbing we heard all these noises from behind us. Everyone turned around, and literally no less than 20 monkeys were sitting in the tree and then charged at us and the climbing wall ALL AT ONCE. Like they planned it. I had been just about to take their picture but one of them rushed right at me and was not afraid of me at all!!! Monkeys are actually scary! Then they climbed up the ropes on the wall all the way to the top and sat there. So funny to watch the people on the wall handle that. All of the guides started throwing sticks at them until they left. 

It's been a really nice way to end my trip to just stay in one spot and relax for a while after so much running from place to place. We have two more days here, then back to Bangkok and then we fly home 😕 time has completely flown by for me. 

Will write more in a couple days... 😚

Chiang Mai, Thailand

(July 19) Prepare yourself for a million pictures of elephants ☺️☺️☺️

So I'll spare you the gross details but after a month of being away and eating everything imaginable I guess it was only a matter of time before I got sick. I was up most of last night, felt super nauseous this morning. I've been telling Eric for the past few days that I just haven't felt completely right so I think it's been building for a bit. Maybe something I ate or something I picked up a few days ago. So this morning we were running really late to go on our elephant trip and he was like are you sure you still want to go?? And of course because I am stubborn and don't want something annoying like my stomach to stop me from seeing elephants I said yes I do. 

So we had an hour and a half bus ride to Elephant Nature Park. I chose this park specifically because I knew they treated elephants really well - it's a sanctuary. What I didn't expect was that we watched a video on the way down of the ways elephants get treated elsewhere. I know most people know the circus is bad for animals, but how bad? The elephants are treated absolutely awfully; chained up in order to break their spirit so they will "perform" and do what the trainers want. 

The thing is, elephants have feelings like people. They feel love, they have close friends, they get jealous and depressed. They have the most amazing social lives with other elephants. They form families, even with elephants they aren't related to. The one picture of the two elephants close together is two girl elephants who are dating!!! They locked trunks and "kissed" and I was too busy being absolutely astonished so I missed the photo opportunity. They literally cry tears and we saw one crying because she was happy that we were feeding her. 

Trainers purposely ruin an elephant's mental health so that they can force them to do things they naturally wouldn't - this includes everything from painting, to playing soccer, to being ridden on. None of those things are healthy for an elephant. Riding elephants isn't illegal in Thailand because so much money is made from it. But it is HORRIBLE for the elephants. I talked to two people before I came who were like "oh you can ride elephants there!" And I said I heard that's bad for them and they shrugged and were like "yeah but you can still do it."

We saw people riding elephants in other parks we passed and not only does it affect the elephants mentally, but it injures them physically too. They aren't built to carry weight on their backs. This is a shitty thing to do; it's not "cool." Don't EVER do it. 

Our guide's name was Noi and I loved her. She told me that the elephants are not given to the park, as I had kind of imagined in my happy ideal world. People from the park use the money we pay to do tours and they go around to circuses and other entertainment companies (there are many in Thailand) and buy the elephants that are injured and need help. Because these companies still force injured elephants to work. 

This elephant Eric and I are standing with, like many of the elephants there, is blind. She's 80 years old!!! Elephants can become blind for a number of reasons. One of them is being forced to walk in the street and having car lights flash in their eyes. Another elephant we were with had a broken leg from a car hitting her (before she came to the park.) Many of them had scars from being beaten. 

Noi explained to us how elephants all love the baby elephants so much that they fight to steal the baby away from the other elephants. So when a baby is young, it's kept in a secluded area with its family until it gets stronger. The baby in the picture is only 3 months old. You can't really see, but there were 3 other elephants with her. The mother, the sister, and the elephant the family had appointed as the nanny. I'm not kidding. This nanny elephant came alone to the park 8 years ago and had no family to belong to. She had/has a lot of mental issues but started to want to care for all the babies. She's been the nanny to a few different baby elephants now. This family accepted her into their family. 

I literally am typing this and still cannot get over the cuteness factor of all of it. 

I will say though that all is not as amazing as it seems at a place like this. We were all on the bus and were waiting outside Noi's house for all of 5 minutes while we picked her up. I'm not sure if that's how it usually works or if she should have been at the office. When she got on the bus she apologized for being late and started to explain about how her baby was sick and her eyes got all teary and I might have been the only one who really noticed because I was sitting up front. I immediately had this gut reaction of wanting to be like, "go back inside and be with your baby. You don't have to give a tour today." But I told her it was okay and that we didn't mind. 

Maybe it was because of my expression that she came up to me later while we were walking and apologized again for being late. I told her that no one even noticed she was late because we didn't know how the tour worked. But she told me that the company will tell her she can't work now for 3, 5, or sometimes even 7 days to punish her for being late. She told me that the company is nice to elephants but it isn't nice to its employees. She's been working there for 8 years, and she wants to stay because it's so close to her home and it would be hard to start somewhere new and she needs the money so her baby can go to school. So she said she closes her eyes to a lot of things. She kept saying things and then telling me to "shh" as we walked by other people from the park. Later on she showed me the picture of her baby boy who was in the hospital last night. He had an oxygen mask on his face. He's been having health issues the past few weeks and she doesn't know what's wrong, and last night it started up again. She also has a 10 year old daughter. She started tearing up again as she told me and I hugged her. 

It was just a bit of a reality check for me to know that even a place that seems so happy, is so kind to animals, still might not really be that great. I imagine this is because of the tourism industry; how much it relies on tourists to survive. And so maybe this leads to worse conditions for the employees, who are Thai. I don't know. Just something else to think about. 

My stomach is still a mess and after reading things online it seems it'll probably stay this way for a few more days. It could definitely be worse - other than running to the bathroom every so often and feeling pretty wiped out and sometimes nauseous I'm really fine. I basically napped from the time we got back until now so I feel a little bad for Eric, although apparently he went out on his own for a bit while I was sleeping (I didn't notice.)

I think that if everything works out, tomorrow will be our last day in Chiang Mai and we'll take an overnight bus somewhere else tomorrow night. Have to figure it out in the morning

Bangkok/Chiang Mai, Thailand

It's so weird to get used to one country and then have to start all over again (in a way, at least) in a new one. Especially when I fell so much in love with Vietnam.

On top of that, Bangkok is a crazy loud huge city that I felt so overwhelmed by! Eric was so excited to get here (and also a little bit tired after 30+ hours of flying). Our first night was spent eating street food in a super popular backpacker area where techno music was absolutely blasting - we couldn't even hear ourselves speak. We spent just one day in the city yesterday and walked around Wat Phra Kaeo (the temple of the emerald Buddha) and the grand palace. 

It is super interesting to me to be in a Buddhist country. There are signs everywhere reminding tourists that they show respect to the Buddha. The Buddha is NOT used as tattoos or for decoration. It's so opposite of how it's used in western culture. So if you're using the Buddha in this way, you aren't honoring their culture, you're insulting it. (Cultural appropriation, ahem).

It's also a bit surreal in that everyone puts their hands in prayer and bows to you and there are little altars everywhere and you have to take your shoes off inside places and there are rules of respect like you can't put your feet up on things (something I have to constantly remind myself not to do.) 

It was also 97 degrees yesterday. And I brought a scarf to cover my shoulders for the temple, but a woman told me even that wasn't polite, so I had to borrow a shirt from them to wear over my outfit instead. So I was basically dripping in sweat and exhausted and had a pounding headache - the heat does not work so well for me. We went to a market and then to eat somewhere where nobody spoke any English at all and I had the best soup ever. Thailand for sure makes the best soups. 

Anyway this morning we flew north to Chiang Mai so I am once again surrounded by mountains which makes me much happier. We walked around this huge market and then had a tuk tuk (open air taxi) driver take us to the other side of town and then we walked back. We stopped and got massages too. 

THEN for one of my favorite things that has happened yet all trip!!! We took a Thai cooking class. This one was special because the woman who taught it is Akha, which is one of the indigenous tribes that live around Thailand. There are 12 tribes, which all used to form one community even though they spoke different languages, and she told me that Thailand didn't actually exist until after World War II. She said that no powerful country was that interested in conquering Thailand because they don't have anything special - no oil, etc. She said the word Thai means "free," and that the word Thailand translates to "the land free of the white man." Just think about that for a moment. 

Also super interesting to me was that the Thai language only has 800 words!! Languages have become so fascinating to me on this trip. She explained how the tone of each word is different, so the same word spoken in 5 different tones would mean 5 different things. 

We also actually talked about cooking haha and she was so amazing. We got to make 8 Thai dishes and 3 Akha dishes. I was honestly so distracted and immersed in the cooking and eating that I didn't think to take pictures until more than halfway through and even then I kept forgetting!!! Which is a good sign I suppose. 

Then she gave us a recipe book and a packet of dried herbs that might be hard to find in the States. I am extremely happy about this. I really had such a great time.

If you've been following these posts you might be curious as to how it is to have Eric here now. To keep this totally honest, it is interesting and challenging to all of a sudden have someone else with me after spending the last month by myself. It's wonderful in a lot of ways, but it's definitely different. I really, really, really enjoy traveling alone. And so to suddenly have to start explaining my actions or why we should or can't go here and trying to decide what we should do and to think about Eric having a good time when I'm really exhausted and just want to take a nap is a little bit difficult at times. I also tend to wander really slowly and aimlessly around places and don't necessarily care how many things I see which is challenging for someone who wants a direction and a goal and a plan. It's super fun to have someone to share experiences with. But is not quite the same experience for sure. Just different :)

Tomorrow we are off to play with the elephants.......... Stay tuned

Saigon, Vietnam

The only thing I remember learning about the Vietnam War in school is that America has won every war we've ever fought, except Vietnam, which we didn't lose, we just kind of left. We talked more about the hippie generation and protests against the war. The topic always felt a bit hushed, and I think it made Vietnam more intriguing to me. What really happened there? Why does everybody hate communism so much? What is communism and why is it so terrible that we fought wars over it? What is this place, this country where the people were such strong fighters and where we couldn't figure out how to fight in their jungles?

So I bought a big book, which I haven't finished yet. But it's a little bit surreal to be reading the history while also physically being in the places it's talking about - like a story has been brought to life. 

The tour I did the other day was a tour of the DMZ (demilitarized zone) with a Vietnam War veteran. He actually fought with the US, for the south. We went and saw different places where fighting took place. The pictures of the tunnels are where people in one village dug a huge area underground where they slept at night. They lived in tiny tunnels for 6 years, trying to protect themselves from US bombs. The picture of me on the bridge is a picture with one foot in the north of Vietnam, one foot in the south. There are still unexploded bombs in that entire area of Vietnam, so you need to have a guide with you. 

I also went to a prison in Hanoi, built by the French for Vietnamese prisoners, then later used by the Vietnamese to imprison US soldiers. You may have heard in the last election about John McCain being a prisoner - that's where he was held. 

But what really drove all of this home for me was visiting the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. 

The museums in Vietnam are blatant. They are in your face. They have graphic photos that would not be displayed elsewhere, some so graphic I did not want to photograph them. This museum tells their side of the story, although it sources a lot of its material from US media at the same time. 

So many photos. Photos of children, bleeding, dying everywhere. Photos of soldiers. Photos of innocent civilians, dead. These journalists were not afraid, in this war. They were up close to everything. 

I cried seeing the babies. I cried looking at photos of US soldiers, trying to imagine a boy my age, my friends, in that brutal role, being forced to kill others. I cried seeing photos of people torturing one another. There is a photo of a US army vehicle dragging two Vietnamese prisoners along behind it, that was their method of death. 

I tried to think of the things you would need to tell yourself to justify treating other people that way. The way you would have to view other people as different, as less than you, as stupid, as people you were better than and couldn't understand. 

And I really cried looking at the entire section on agent orange. I imagined it being sprayed on the beautiful rainforests everywhere, leaves falling off all the trees, dying. I tried to imagine whose idea was this? Who wanted to kill the entire rainforest to make it easier to fight? Who said yes, this is a good idea, let's do it? Why were we fighting this war again?

This chemical produced deformities in people that I didn't even know could happen. And it didn't just happen to those people. It happened to their children. It happened to their CHILDREN'S CHILDREN, two entire generations later. That chemical still affects and kills families in Vietnam today, so many years later. How is that possible?? That humans did something that terrible? 

We literally got involved in this war - started this war - because we didn't like the way Vietnam was going to govern itself. 

And so, millions of people died, brutally, on both sides, pretty much for no reason at all. 

I tried to imagine how it felt for Vietnam, this country that was constantly plagued by war, trying to be taken over and ruled, or at least taken advantage of, by other countries. For some Vietnamese, it wasn't even about defending Communism. It was about their sense of nationalism, about them loving their country. About wanting these foreign people out of their country, out of their business. 

And you know what makes it a million, billion times worse????

This hasn't stopped. 

It would be one thing if this had all happened so many years ago, we had all learned from it, and decided it would never happen again. But it didn't. This still happens in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Libya, in Iraq. This happens all over the fucking world by "better" countries trying to control "lesser" countries, for one reason or another. We still go to war, we still drop these huge senseless bombs on schools, on innocent children, on civilians. We try to kill people to prove a point. "America is the most powerful country in the world!!!!!" People say. "Bomb them all!!"

How can you look at all this violence and think it is okay? How can you explain it away?

There is something I admire about the northern Vietnamese in this situation. Their willingness to keep fighting, to suffer as many losses as it would take, to not let anyone else tell them what to do. To stand up for themselves. 

The Vietnamese, at least, were not going into places where they were not wanted, trying to "do the right thing" with violence. 

And yet, unfortunately for the Vietnamese, America lost the war, but America got to move on. Vietnam suffered so much that their economy was totally destroyed, they basically had to rebuild from scratch, they still have unexploded bombs that go off and kill people, and the chemicals from the war still affect them. It is no wonder so many older Vietnamese have a sort of "hardened" look to them. Why some might not like westerners, why we get scammed so much. How could you fault them for that?

Likewise, refugees fleeing war today will never be able to go home. Their homes as they knew them were destroyed. People they loved were killed. And if you educate yourself on the actual history of the Middle East, you can see how we (along with some other countries) created this conflict. 

Why doesn't it stop? Is all of this violence ever going to stop? 

And what are you actually doing to stop it?

Saigon, Vietnam

(July 15) So today... I was with two friends and we got into a taxi that took us back to our hostel. It was supposed to cost around 60 dong (the equivalent of $3.) When we got near the hostel, the taxi driver stopped the car and told us we owed him 640 dong. 

We told him no, no over and over, and one of my friends gave him 100 which he quickly switched and pretended was a 10. She gave him another 100, and he switched it again. She caught on and said no. He was really angry and kept saying "600, 600." 

I tried to open my door and realized that we were totally locked in the car. He had shaved down the door locks so we were not. Able. To open any of the doors. He started driving away with us locked in the car. We all started screaming at him and banging on the windows. He kept repeating "600" and was so mad. We were terrified, but I don't think he expected us to fight back that much and since there were people around and we weren't giving in and I think my next step would have been to actually attack him, he finally unlocked the doors, screamed "fuck you," and sped away. 

Still shaking, we realized we had gotten in a fake "safe" taxi. Meaning it was a recommended company to take, but it was the wrong color. We didn't know they could be different colors and had only looked at the logo. 

I have never considered that somebody could tamper with a car so that you are not able to get out of it. I will always look for that from now on. 

We are totally fine, don't worry, but just a good thing to be aware of. I don't think he would have been violent, but it was really scary. Always be aware!!!

Saigon, Vietnam

(July 14th) 

Instead of writing a long post this time (one is coming) I am going to make a list that encompasses my discoveries of the past few days:

1. Uber works in foreign countries. Uber also won't scam you. Duh.

2. The best part of traveling alone is that you can wake up in the morning and say "I feel like I should leave here today," for no logical reason, totally changing your plans last minute. And you don't have to explain that to anyone.

3. It is possible, in fact, to take a 13 hour overnight bus, book a full day tour that starts the same time the bus is supposed to arrive, and make it there on time. And then take a flight somewhere else that same night. You'll also be extremely exhausted. 

4. Sometimes, when your clothes are muddy, damp, they smell, and you've been sweating and sleeping in the same outfit for the past 3 days, it is worth it to pay $12 for someone else to do your laundry. 

5. Apparently, sometimes I actually need and appreciate the comforts of home (surprise!) I will admit that bacon and French toast instead of rice for breakfast was more than a little bit enjoyable. 

6. On that note, don't order a burger in Vietnam. 

7. When your lunch costs $9 instead of $1 you get to eat it in a place that's like a spa and you get treated as if you were a billionaire. They put my napkin on my lap for me...

8. There is a certain satisfaction that comes from being in a country long enough to understand when someone is ripping you off. Even when it's the manager of your hostel who's trying to charge you double for a taxi. And especially when you use your Vietnamese phone number to call somewhere else and have them pick you up, for the correct price. 

9. Sometimes, the difference between cultures is extremely frustrating, more so if you are hungry and tired. Especially when people are pushing and shoving and repeatedly cutting in front of all the lines, talking very loudly, and when giving other people no personal space is the norm. And that can be really challenging. And you are a guest in someone else's country, so you have absolutely no right to react to that. 

10. While having a big mark on your head is barely looked at twice up north, it won't fade as soon as it's supposed to and people everywhere else will stare at you. People will also noticeably be not as friendly, especially Westerners. This is an uncomfortable discovery for many reasons. 

ALSO this soup is the BEST thing I have eaten in all of Vietnam and it's so good that I've had it twice within the past 24 hours. And it costs approx $1.50

July 13

Something hit me today when I realized that the number one thing I value most in the world is my freedom. My ability to come and go as I please. My ability to say whatever I want, to do whatever I want, to be whoever I want. Without that freedom I honestly do not know how I could survive.

And I realized that so many people all over the world do. Not. Have. That freedom. 

In fact, I'd say the majority of people don't have that freedom, not completely, whether it's because of where they live or where they come from or what they look like or who they love or who they are. 

What are you going to do with your freedom, if you have it?

Someone asked me not long ago what advice I would offer to him, someone younger than me, still in college. This question made me think for a long time. I ended up writing to him afterward. 

"Don't waste your privilege," I said. "Whether you like it or not, as a white boy from America, you can do and say things that other people wouldn't get away with. You can use that to your advantage, to the advantage of others. So don't keep quiet. Use your privilege to help others that can't have it."

It's why I speak up when I see someone treated badly, in situations where I "should" be quiet, where someone makes a comment they shouldn't, when someone is being blatantly rude. Maybe people won't like me if I speak up. There are so many people who are not in a position to help themselves. 

You know? I could sneak past a guard at a refugee camp to hand someone food, and I think I have a responsibility to do that, because if I got caught all I have to do is apologize and giggle and maybe cry. The actual risk of me getting in trouble is very small. Opportunities like that, no matter on what scale, exist daily. 

I do not have to worry about being killed for speaking up, for myself or someone else. 

I think the best way to "reject" that privilege is to own it instead and use it for all that we're worth. Be responsible for it. Be aware of it, as best you can. Don't use it selfishly, unconsciously - use it for the benefit of other people. 

If you have this privilege, a privilege you didn't work or ask for, that was handed to you at birth - what are you going to do with it?????

I hope it is not wasted.

Sapa, Vietnam

I'm filthy. I have tan lines on my feet I'm not sure are from mud or my sandals. There's dirt under my fingernails that I've given up on trying to remove. My only shower in 5 days has been in a waterfall, where I haven't used shampoo for fear of contaminating the water. My version of doing laundry is hanging sweaty clothes up to dry and shaking them out before I put them back on. The mud I've taken to going barefoot in is the ground people and animals share alike.

My wrists are overloaded with bracelets. My favorite white shirt has been dyed dark with indigo. I've drank way too much rice wine, let people prepare my food with their hands, swallowed water I shouldn't have.

"Vien-jow." Sister. "Doo-noo." Brother. I can count past a thousand. I can say hello, how are you, I'm full, thank you. I had an exciting moment this morning when I realized that "dieh" was water, so "dieh-ja" was waterfall. I think I know more words in Hmong than I know in any other language.

Pieces of my heart are left everywhere when I travel, not every place that I go, but with some people and in some cities, some mountains and towns. Vietnam already holds the most pieces; Sapa holds a big one. I love the mountains. I love the mountains so much. And I love the family I have spent the past 4 days with.

My heart broke a little bit when I was walking into town with May, on our way to get motorbikes, when she stopped suddenly and said, "Soong." (her 6-year-old.) "He asked me this morning to come and get him from the waterfall before you left so he could say bye. I forgot." I didn't even know he had told her that. We were already too far gone.

It broke some more when May's eyes teared up as she hugged me bye, as she and her husband sat with me in town for an hour and waited for my bus, making sure I was on it before they would leave me. It broke more when she told me that yesterday (on a hike with other tourists) she was excited to come home because "I knew Ma was there." (me.) "Today," she said, "my heart is really sad to go back."

And it continues to break as I think of everything that's happened. How I've opened. Stories from her friends, how one woman's mother had 14 children but only 7 survived. People I've met. Being convinced to take more and more shots of "happy water." (again, even though I learned my lesson from last time, I couldn't be rude). May dying my shirt this morning, asking me if I wanted to learn how they embroider their clothes. Patiently sitting with me, taking out my stitches, until I was capable of doing it by myself. Making me pancakes and literally laughing at me when I used a fork to cut them into pieces, reaching over instead and putting banana slices and sugar on top and rolling it up into a burrito and putting it into my hands. "My mom would have yelled at me for doing that when I was little," I said.

The kindness of her husband as he cooked and served each meal, filling my bowl with more rice even when I protested. His English not quite as good as hers, but his quiet role in the family just as strong of a presence. The sweetness of her boys, the little one saying "you? Waterfall? You? Lunch?"

My shock when May told me that she didn't even learn to speak English until 10 years ago, when she was in a village where tourists came. That she struggled to learn, because she never learned how to read or write in any language. So every English word she learned had to be stored in her head. Her frustration at not being able to read the emails in her account another visitor set up for her. Her appreciation in having them read to her. Her joy in talking about every person she remembers that's visited.

She had already given me bracelets, and I had bought even more of them from her, so she couldn't give me another one as a goodbye present, she said. I was sitting outside when she came out and asked me if it was ever cold where I lived. Yes, I said, in the winter it snows. She presented two cloths from behind her back and told me to choose one, and then wrapped it around my head and told me to look at my phone to see what I looked like (the first picture). This keeps you warm in the winter, she said. When it is cold here it keeps me warm.

I'm sad. I'm so happy, but I'm overwhelmingly sad. I don't want to leave Sapa, but I felt like it was time. I have 4 more days in Vietnam. I never ever want to leave Vietnam.

(This post will make more sense if you read the one from a couple days ago. And that one makes some really important points so please read it if you haven't)

Sapa, Vietnam

Rice wine. A drink that is deceiving in its name. Made from rice and water, the process takes a long time and creates a drink that smells like straight vodka.. With a hint of rice. Not so much fun when you are convinced to take 14 shots of it in a row and then you puke it up (me.) But very much fun when everyone around the table is telling you to "boo-coh" (switch) glasses with them and then holds up their glasses yelling "joocuh!" (cheers). And so much fun when you are drunkenly laughing, hearing stories, attempting to learn a brand new language. Writing notes down in language that doesn't make much sense the next day.

Names are one syllable here, mostly just sounds, at least to my ears. So May has changed my name from Demetra to "Ma" (coming from Dema), and that's what everyone calls me.

We walk forever. On slippery mud that gets impossibly slippery when it rains, up and down and over mountains. The children run by in rubber sandals, sometimes rubber boots. Always more equipped to handle the terrain than tourists. Village to village requires hours of walking between each. Lucky people drive motorbikes.

Water buffalo turn over in the mud, happily chewing the grass. The purpose of these buffalo is to work the rice fields. Dogs, chickens, goats, pigs, cats, everywhere. They roam freely. When an animal is killed people eat the whole thing, sometimes taking shots of the blood.

There are 4 different tribes around, speaking different languages but sharing Vietnamese. They are friendly to one another.

Yesterday I was led by May's 6-year old boy, "Soon," after she got a call and had to go pick someone up from Sapa town. She told him directions and I was told to follow him. He showed me the way home, he took a knife half his size and chopped wood and made a fire and made us lunch. He made me noodle soup and rice, and we ate together, and he cleaned up my dishes. Then he looked at me and said "you waterfall?" And I nodded, and so I got my bathing suit and he showed me the way to the waterfall where I was able to shower. There's no running water at May's house, no sink. There is one tiny pipe on the entire property and that fills up the water used to flush the toilet. They bathe in the waterfall. I was so happy to be in the cold water in these mountains, to watch the dirt and sweat run off of me. Then this little boy led me back to the house, where we ate dinner made partially from leaves we picked while hiking. May did my hair the way she does hers and she showed me the way they get rid of headaches, by putting hot ashes in a buffalo horn and pressing it on my forehead, creating a mark that will be there for days.

May didn't go to school because her village was too small to have a school. (I wrote previously that she learned Vietnamese in school - I misunderstood.) Her boys go to school because this village does have a school. There is one school for ages 5-10 and another school from 10-15. These schools are free, but very few go to school after the age of 15 unless they have the money to do so.

People here grow their own rice and eat their own rice harvest. They don't sell it. Rice is eaten for breakfast lunch and dinner. They supplement with plants and sometimes meat too. They can go into the market in Sapa town (a 40 minute drive, or a 5 hour walk, because of the mountains) or they get meat from killing one of their own animals, which from what I understand happens on special occasions.

They make clothes from hemp which is such a beautiful and crazy laborious process that I cannot imagine possessing the patience necessary to create them. So many steps, everything takes so long. Every new year new clothes must be made. It takes them all year, and on the new year they wear the new outfit for 3 days. They follow Chinese New Year, with the moon.

May gave birth at home. She has 3 boys, one 6, one 9, one 12. One of her friends gave birth alone in the mountains in the rain, shielded by a rock, because the baby came early.

Nothing is washed. Things that are washed are washed in the water I'm not supposed to drink. Everything is shared. It's okay.

What has struck me the most is the way we tend to view these people as so different, so removed from us, so "other." This experience has been completely different than my experience last week. Last week, in a home owned by an Australian man, we talked about the tribes as if they were very different from us, not really understandable. We talked as if we really admired what they did, but they were something to be observed. We didn't quite know how to react to the calls of "buy something, buy something from me." We did not know.

Staying with a family has removed me from the role of observer, slowly, harshly, but it's happening. It's hard when like yesterday morning I was so hungover, so nauseous, too hot, sick of rice, and was thinking that maybe I'm not built for this, it's fun but maybe I'll just stay the night and go back to a hostel more geared toward westerners. Somewhere I can shower, where everything isn't totally unsanitary, where I can tend to myself and feel more comfortable.

But I didn't do that. And as I adjust to the outhouse and the squat toilets and the little tiny table and plastic chairs and people touching my food with their chopsticks or hands and stepping in buffalo poop and the words of the language begin to make more sense to me I realize that we honestly, really, we are all the same.

I think very strongly that a big problem comes from this reaction of seeing others that live differently as non-understandable. And I do not even mean this in a sense of thinking, they are different, they're beneath me. I actually mean it also and more so in a sense of appropriation. Of taking parts of people's natural lives and thinking they're cool things we can add to our own lives, exotic items and ideas we would never come up with. It would be like me visiting Sapa and buying something and taking it home and saying, wow, look, people from the TRIBES made this, yes real people from the tribes and I saw them. Do you see the difference? It's the way we look at things. It is so different than me being here and buying and being given bracelets and appreciating them as part of this culture that I am trying to understand, to be a part of. Thank you for being willing to give these beautiful things to me, I say. Things from here are not souvineers we take home and say look, these people still exist, wow. Rather, they are memories of people who just grow up naturally living different lives than us but this is their culture and they are still the same people as us, not any better or any worse. They have the same feelings and desires, they laugh at the same things. They are just as intelligent. They just have their own culture and way of being. Other people's cultures are not something to be taken and looked at as a cool addition to our lives that's so much better than the way we live, just the same as it would be rotten to look down on it in any way.

And I think of this as I picture going to India and telling somebody there oh I taught yoga, I know all about it, I've worn bindis on my forehead. I think of what it would feel like to meet the shaman from May's village and say oh yeah, I'm a shaman too, I took an expensive training before. These aren't things that are so much better than our own ancestry, our own cultures that we need to steal from others to feel more interesting or authentic. These are just ways that people live. This is natural, there is no saying "ugh these people live so close to the earth this is way better than stupid America" just as there is no saying "why don't these people want to be more modern." There is no need to feel sorry for them just as there is no need to admire them. They just exist. They just are.

In a time where there is so much separation and violence happening in America I think it is of utmost importance that we recognize that people being different doesn't mean anything besides just that. It doesn't mean we cannot understand them. It doesn't mean we get to take parts of their cultures for ourselves, and not recognize their humanity. We need to stop talking about other groups of people as "other" and not like we are. It is good to call attention to the issues that need help - just like "black lives matter" is a very necessary statement while "all lives matter" doesn't cut it. But we need to be able to help other groups of people without seeing them as innately different. It's like when I was in Greece and there were other volunteers helping refugees but still talking about them as if they were people less than us that had to be helped. No. There is no group of people that is less than any other. There are groups of people who are treated differently than others.

I am staying here for a few more days because it is teaching me a lot about myself and a lot about the world. But mostly what it is teaching me is that the people that live here are not any different than me. They do different things, have different beliefs. But they are the same. We are the same. And that to view them as exotic or so far removed from who I am would be very, very wrong.

Sapa, Vietnam

(July 9) My lapse in updates has not been for lack of stories but rather because my wifi connection/service is pretty nonexistent at the moment. (This morning I walked 30 minutes to get water, and this is the closest place that has wifi.)

I'm staying with a local family from one of the villages in Sapa. Yesterday we walked pretty much all day and saw the prettiest views. And yes, that is a weed field in that picture - they make their clothes from hemp! I learned how they turn the hemp into cloth and got to try it out :). The plants in the barrels are the indigo that they use to make the dye - hopefully we get to try that today too. There are 3 girls from Canada also staying where I am. Last night we hung out with the family and some of their friends. It was so much fun. We were laughing so hard, learning words in their local language. They also fed us way too much food and then had us take shot after shot of the rice wine (which they call "happy water") that they make. It's part of their culture to switch glasses with another person at the table to share, drink each other's shot, and then give the glasses back. The woman whose family I'm staying with is named May. She's part of the Black mong people. She is absolutely hilarious. She speaks the mong language, Vietnamese, English, and bits of Chinese, French, and Spanish. The Vietnamese she learned in school. Her English, which is really good, she learned totally from tourists. Which is so crazy to me.

Basically I got probably the most drunk I have been since high school and am still feeling it this morning. So I am still alive and everything is great and today we are going on another walk to see other tribes but I am also very hungover (which I find kind of funny.) Feeling a little better now that I got my water and some bread.

I'll post a longer update once I have a steadier connection somewhere and my brain doesn't feel like mush. Lol

Hanoi, Vietnam

I've been super tired all day today.

It was raining the first half of the day. I spent a few hours editing my website (you should check it out if you haven't yet! This post isn't on there yet because I don't feel like going back on the computer) and then decided to go to this bookstore I have been wanting to go to since last week.

I had a kind of strange experience on my way there. It was raining, and I was planning on just taking a taxi, but then a man with a motorbike stopped me and asked if I wanted a ride (a very frequent occurrence here.) Mostly I have been too afraid to get on the motorbikes - I definitely don't trust myself driving one, and I have a hard time trusting anyone else driving me. I also have this need to cling very closely to the person in front of me otherwise I feel like I'm going to fall off, which has made for some awkward experiences. Haha I've only actually gotten on one 3 times, for short distances, and from people I knew.

Anyway so I'm standing there telling this man where I want to go, because a motorbike is cheaper than a taxi (we're talking like 1 dollar instead of 2), and he asked and I figured why not. But this man was with a bunch of other men on motorbikes, and while he was holding my phone, asking the others about where I was going, one of the men off to the side widened his eyes at me and shook his head. He did it over and over, tilting his head toward the man with my phone, and then looking at me and clearly saying no, no. I really didn't get it, didn't know why this man didn't want me to go with the other, but that was enough for me. I giggled a bit and reached for my phone and said something about the rain and how I just didn't want to get wet and would take the taxi instead. And I left. It was totally fine. It was just kind of a strange occurrence.

I did end up finding a taxi and went to the bookstore, which was so cute and exactly what I wanted. It was mostly used books. I found a big book that breaks down the entire history of the Vietnam war, which is what I was looking for. I sat in the bookstore for a long time just enjoying the quiet and the smells of old books and looking through things. When I was leaving, as I was buying my book, the man asked me if I lived in Hanoi. I really really really wanted to say, "yes."

I walked back from the bookstore because the sun had come out again. I do not think there is any way better than walking to really get to know a place. I guess with a motorbike or car you can still see things, but it's not the same. You can't stop every 5 seconds to interact or wonder about what you're looking at. This walk was perfect because I hadn't been in that direction yet and I stumbled upon this market, food everywhere. I crossed paths with a tour too and heard the guy telling them that the people aren't actually allowed to set up in the middle of the street like they are in the one picture. He said as soon as law enforcement comes, everyone takes their stuff and runs. I find that so funny.

One of my favorite things about Hanoi is that they honestly sell particular things on particular streets. Apparently the streets are actually named after what's being sold on them ("silk st," etc) which doesn't help me because I don't read Vietnamese. But it's so entertaining to walk down a street of all the same item. There's a street where people sell just dried herbs. A street with clothes. A street with army clothes. A street with plastic boxes. A street with dried fish. A street with pet goldfish in little jars. I'm not making this up - I just love it. It's like, the exact same item for an entire street in a row, and it makes no sense to me. I don't know how anyone decides who to buy from.

I'm so exhausted for no reason really but I'm staying another night in Hanoi and then tomorrow night will take the bus back to Sapa. Everyone I meet is like, "why are you going back if you've already been there? Why don't you go south?"

I don't know the answer to that question except for that it's just what I feel like I want to do.

I want to spend months in this country. I could stay here for so long. And I've only even explored the tip of it

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

(July 4) This is such a typical thing for me to do that I am still laughing at myself.

So two nights ago (the night I forgot my bag) the bus dropped me off at 2:30 am in the middle of Hai Phong. Luckily I had met a bunch of Dutch people trying to get to the same place as me, so there was a group of 8 of us stranded there. We had quite the interesting night as we had to figure out how to get to the port, where the first boat didn't leave until 7 am. Local people were already setting up for the day's markets (so early!!!) so we ended up sitting on plastic chairs on the side of the road, talking and drinking beer until the sun came up. Lol

So needless to say when I finally got here yesterday I was exhausted. I basically spent the rest of the day being moody. There were some good parts - I met a few guys from New York and ate lunch with them, and I laid on a pretty beach for a while, but I was so tired and really having a hard time. Plus the town I'm in is super touristy and is a place where Vietnamese people come for vacation, so while most of this island is wild jungle, the strip I'm staying on is neon lights and very beach-town ish. Which is difficult for me to deal with.

I was planning on doing this deep water soloing tour on the 5th but moved it to today so I could leave here earlier - I just wanted to leave tomorrow morning and keep going south, trying to see as many things as I could.

But of course that is not the way my life ever works out.

Long story short, I met a bunch of cool people on my tour today and had so much fun being in the water all day that I decided I'll stay here a few more days. And then I met someone who can hopefully set me up with something really cool and therefore ... I might go back to Sapa. ☺️ And basically say oh well to my original plans for the next two weeks. Maybe!!!! I'm still having trouble deciding what to do.

But I feel pretty good about this and can't wait to see what happens next :)

Sapa, Vietnam

(July 3rd) 

(I tried to post this last night but my service wasn't good enough)

"This is fine" has been the phrase I have been repeating constantly in my head this trip.

"This is fine," when the bathroom floor is covered in water and there's no toilet paper and it smells. "This is fine," when I order pho to go because my bus leaves in 5 minutes and I'm given it in a plastic cup that literally starts melting so the soup runs out of the bottom. "This is fine," when the lights on the overnight bus aren't turning off and Vietnamese is blasting over the speakers. "This is fine," when I'm given ice in my drink but I'm not really supposed to be drinking the water. "This is fine" when I'm overheated in the back of a packed van and we're swerving into the other lane to pass people and I'm feeling nauseous.

I repeat "this is fine" to myself as a reminder. Usually it works pretty well.

Today it was almost not fine when I realized that I left the bag I had just gotten to carry the gorgeous hand-embroidered blanket I had just bought behind at the last bus station. I hid it under the chair so no one would steal it... And then promptly forgot it when my bus was leaving because I couldn't see it, either.

I bought a really expensive water bottle to filter my water for this trip. I left that behind on the bus two days ago. That, "fine" worked for. But this blanket I could not let go of that easily.

The bus driver spoke no English. No one around me spoke both English and Vietnamese. The girl who had fixed my bus ticket did but we had left there 3 different buses ago.

I tried to motion with my hands to the bus driver to explain what had happened - we were only 15 minutes or so away from the place he picked us up from. He held up the number 8 with his fingers. He was telling me our next bus didn't leave for an hour. There was no way he understood what I meant. And then he drove away.

I felt for sure it was lost. No way did he know what I meant, and even if he did, no way would he find my bag. When our next bus pulled up early, I tried to explain the same thing to this driver, who also didn't speak any English. He told me, "8."

Frustrated and feeling helpless, I pulled out my phone and typed "I forgot my bag at the last station" into google translate, knocked on the window again, and showed him my phone. "Ah," he said. I took out my bus ticket which hopefully said something about where I got it from on it and gave it to him. He pulled out his phone and spoke for a while, and then he smiled. He gave me a thumbs up.

I typed, "how will he know which one is mine?" And gave it to him again.

He again gave me a thumbs up.

Then he shut the window.

I decided to just give up. He seemed like he understood me, but there was no way someone could find my bag in a bus station full of other people's backpacks and know it was mine. I had a little bit of hope, but decided I'd just let it go.

Half an hour later......... The same man pulled up with a second bus load of people.... Holding my bag.

I still don't know how that happened.

______________________

One of the things about traveling by yourself is that you have no one else to rely on and so you are forced to rely only on your intuition. It gets stronger and you learn to listen better. Your intuition tells you where to stay, where to go next, who to talk to, what to do.

It's such a weird feeling not to try to logically figure things out. Because in a new country, where most people don't speak your language well and you don't know how things work, you just can't. Logic doesn't work anymore. And yet things just happen and everything works out.

You're never really alone. I never fail to meet someone who is doing the same thing I'm doing, which helps a lot, even just to clarify how I'm getting where I'm going or to split a taxi so it's cheaper.

I got to Sapa super early yesterday morning. Instead of a hostel in town, I had found a homestay just outside of it. The trails to trek around Sapa left from this man's backyard, eliminating the need to hire a guide. Since it was his house, it had such a nice comfortable feeling to it (and was the cleanest place I've been thus far.) I met another girl who was on her own while I was eating breakfast there, and we decided to hike together. I for sure would have gotten totally lost on my own so it was really good that it was the two of us.

We walked for over 8 miles, up hills, into villages, just seeing everything we possibly could in one day. These are all of my pictures. These are the villages of the local tribes. The women follow you around, hands stained blue from the indigo dye, telling you, "buy something, buy something."

We got back to the house later, totally exhausted. I showered for the first time in a few days. I paid for them to do my laundry, and was rewarded with clothes that smelled sweet and no longer like mold, so that was wonderful. We ate dinner with everyone staying there, so maybe around 15 of us from all over the world. And then a few of the girls sat on the couch and watched a movie together. It was really exactly what I needed - I felt so at home. Then we went up to bed and our beds had been covered in mosquito nets, making me feel like I was sleeping in a little girl's princess bed. It was perfect.

Today I was so tired and basically laid in the hammock staring at the mountains all morning until it was time to get my taxi. The man at my hostel had informed me of a shorter (albeit more complicated) way to get where I wanted to go next.

I had a few hours walking around town before the bus left, which was where I bought my blanket, and a bunch of other little things. I had to buy another smaller backpack once I realized that things weren't going to fit in my actual backpack for much longer. I ate a piece of the local corn, which was such a strange and different texture. Then I took a van, a bus, and another bus, and now I am on another overnight bus (which, strangely, I love) to Hai Phong, with my final destination (after I manage to figure out the boat situation) being Cat Ba island, where I'll be the next few days.

I could have stayed in Sapa for weeks. Unfortunately I don't have weeks, right now. But I left Sapa with the feeling that I will definitely be back. I love this country.