2013: Life-changing moments as an expat

“Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes/Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear/
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes/How do you measure, measure a year?”

— RENT, Jonathan Larson

How do you measure a year?

This year, it was all about defining moments as an expat in Thailand. Moments that changed my life, moments that forever altered my heart, moments that impacted me so greatly they caused me to ache in ways I never thought possible.

It goes beyond measuring things in cups of coffee, sunsets, stolen glances, secret kisses … it is so much more than that.

In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, anything is possible. Everything is possible.

These are the moments that will always be remembered for the impact they had on me in 2013. Some good, some bad, some heart-breaking, but always, always making me the person I am so proud to be today.

1. Everyday is New Year’s Eve. Especially New Year’s Eve.

Any good story starts with New Year’s Eve. As a friend constantly reminds me, in Chiang Mai, everyday is New Year’s Eve, so what better way to begin with saying New Year’s Eve — the real New Year’s Eve — changed everything.

It starts as most NYE’s start, over dinner and drinks. My friend, Megan, is in town to visit me, and we head off to Loi Kroh to grab dinner. As lights twinkle and reminders of New Year’s Eve surround us everywhere we turn on the crowded street, we enjoy dinner and then drinks. My friend, Aaron, joins us and then, after dinner, we head to a bar owned by two Americans.

I’m not a New Year’s fan, so the idea of going out on the night where everything is placed on how much fun you have/how much you drink/who you kiss, makes my stomach turn. But, I’ve got a friend in town, and Aaron wants us to check out the bar, so we go.

I walk in, and it is empty, save for two Americans — the owners. In the dimly lit scarlet bar, the three of us begin to down the white liquor when I meet Ron and Hollywood. They are both from America and have just opened The Playhouse. And, other than Aaron, they are the first American guys I have met in Chiang Mai. I instantly like them both, and while I am there, I spend most of my time with Ron, chatting away about life in Thailand and life in America, and how glad we are we both came here.

He’s pretty awesome.

And, even though we leave the bar, I don’t forget about The Playhouse. There’s something in the back of my head that tells me Ron and Hollywood will both become important people in my life. Even if they don’t know it yet.

2. Rescuing elephants in Cambodia

 Rescuing an elephant in Cambodia

I lay in bed the night before we are due to leave for Phnom Penh, feverish, shaky, praying to some higher power that I don’t have dengue. In the morning, I call my boss and tell her I’m not sure if I can make the trip. But, inside, I am devastated. It’s an elephant rescue. Two elephants being  rescued, and not going crushes me.

“I will come,” I explain, “but if I start to feel worse, I am going to fly back to Chiang Mai. I don’t want to get hospitalized in Cambodia.”

I make the trip, fortunately, and am treated to the most magical eight days of my life.

The journey starts out hard — we land in Phnom Penh and the next morning embark on a day-long drive, where, under the cloak of darkness, we meet up with another team of volunteers who have driven the two elephant trucks into a tiny town along the Mekong. The next morning, we awake early to go to a village in Ratanakiri to take the first elephant from her life of trekking.

A child in a village in Cambodia

We spend the day with the children of the village, playing with them, giving them clothing, watching in awe as they watch us in awe. With so little, these children’s live seem so filled with laughter.

When its time to load the first elephant into the truck, Lauren, a volunteer who I had met the night before, leans into me and whispers, “This is the worst part, they don’t always want to get in the truck.”

But, this elephant? She does. Tempted with bananas, she walks right onto the truck from the pile of dirt. Done.

That night, our team visits the other village with the second elephant we are rescuing. In front of a fire, and sitting on mats covering the earth, with chickens and pigs hovering besides knobby stilts supporting the huts, we dine on home-cooked food as the owners of the elephant swap tales of life. Even though I understand nothing of what they are saying, simply being there, in this little village where a radio provides entertainment and most huts don’t have electricity, I am moved.

In the morning, we are up before the roosters and begin our journey to the sanctuary outside of Siem Reap.

We drive down dirt highways through the interior of the country. Along the roadside, children run from their huts and wave at us and the elephants. We speed through areas of trouble. I ride atop the truck at times, sitting with one of the elephants and Lauren. As the sun begins to set and the fires from the jungle burning around us begin to fill my lungs, I opt to get back in the van.

When we arrive to the sanctuary around 9 p.m., seeing the elephants take their first steps to freedom touches me. Lauren and I hang back, arms wrapped around each others shoulders. Smiling. Yeah, it was entirely worth it.

3. Rescuing Lucky

An elephant rescue in Thailand

Less than a month later, we are back out on the road. This time, it is to rescue Lucky, a circus elephant in need of retirement. At nearly 30, she has been the star of a circus in Surin almost her entire life. She is blind from the spotlights shining in her eyes. We head out to rescue her from Chiang Mai, packing 10 volunteers into a van and driving through the night, stopping at the Cambodian border in the morning, and then arrive to Surin in the mid-afternoon.

We are there for less than two hours. Then, Lucky is loaded onto the truck — again, she goes in without a thought — and we head back to Chiang Mai. My co-worker, Mindy, and I hop onto the truck early in the morning to sit with her. Above us, the stars twinkle. Next to us, Lucky eats her corn stalks, softly emitting a “crunch crunch.”

As the sky begins to lighten, we can see a storm ahead. Mindy and I ignore it … until it starts to pour. Then, soaked to the bone, we get back in the van until lunch. On the last leg to Elephant Nature Park, Lek, Mindy and I climb back up the truck and are with Lucky as we drive into the park.

The rescue of Lucky to Elephant Nature Park

I watch with tears in my eyes from my perch a top the truck as she takes her first steps to freedom and meets the family herd for the first time.

4. Myanmar

It’s actually very difficult for me to write about my time in Myanmar. Not because the words fail me, but because there are stories I just can’t share. I can say this — I was in Myanmar for a week. I met amazing, beautiful locals. I visited the gorgeous Shwedagon Pagoda. I got to be so very close to the royal white elephants. I saw jungles. I explored the Yangon Zoo. And, I left Myanmar feeling absolutely drained, depressed and exhausted in every sense of the word. While I can’t say much, just know it is one of those trips that will stay with me forever.

5. Getting a home

My house in Thailand

“James’ dad,” Wendy heaves into the phone between cries, “he’s passed.”

The death of my friend’s father catapults my life from one of an open book at Smith Residence to one of far more privacy. In a rush to leave, there are no loose ends tied, and a few weeks later, I get a phone call from Mary, who, along with her husband, are the landlords of said house.

“Wendy said you were interested in renting the house,” she explains over the phone. “You want to come and look at it?”

I’m sitting at a local restaurant having a beer with Paula.

“What do I do?” I ask, torn between having the comfortable life at Smith versus being on my own.

She opens her blue eyes wide.

“I think you should do it!”

The next day, Paula and I walk the quick minute down the street from Smith and tour the house. It’s bigger than the condo I lived in when I lived in Vegas, but not nearly as modern. There are no glass windows. There are gaps between the “sky light” and the ceiling. The kitchen is a sink, a refrigerator and a microwave. The burners are out on the patio.

“Yes,” I say to Mary and John while standing in the teak upstairs. “I will take it.”

A few nights later, I stand on the wooden stairs of my new house and take it all in. The patio. The living room. The kitchen. The bedroom. The guest room. They’re mine. All mine.

It gets even better when I bring home a cute little black and white cat, Penelope, from the office, and a month later, get to take the cat I rescued my first few days here, Lucky, home.

I haven’t felt this grown-up in a long time. And, the icing on the cake? It’s my house in Thailand. For the first time in a long time, everything seems to have fallen into perfect place. Until the perfect burns up along with the mountains during burning season.

6. The death of a friend

Adam Bromley and an elephant

A week after I move into my house, I have a house-warming party. The first guests are Paula and my co-workers, Adam, Ter and Lily. We sit on the benches on my patio, sipping rice wine — Adam’s favorite. At some point in the night, we’ve all had a bit to drink, and Adam decides he needs to leave. I give him a hug goodbye and thank him for coming. He leaves his shoes behind.

And, I never see him alive again.

A few days later, I walk into the office when my boss, Lek, stands up and looks at me.

“Adam died.”

I freeze.

No. No. No way.

“What?”

“He died, Diana.”

I sit down in a tattered black chair in front of her desk and bury my head in my hands.

“How?”

“He had an infection and it killed him.”

I just saw him. He was just at my house. His shoes … his shoes are sitting in front of my door.

She comes up behind me and hugs me.

Adam’s death is the first death of a friend in my life. It is the first time I have known what it is like to grieve for someone who isn’t family, but might as well be. Adam is my first friend in Thailand. The first person I can talk to about living here. And now, he’s gone.

I walk through the day as a zombie. And, when I’m not a zombie, I am a wailing, sobbing mess.

This goes on for days. Tears. Smiles. Memories of Adam. I don’t live in a world of sad, but I don’t heal as well as I should either.

7. Songkran

Experience Songkran in Chiang Mai

There are a few things Chiang Mai is known for, one of which is Songkran, or the Thai New Year. For four days, the city is soaked. Literally. Everyone sheds their work faces and puts on huge, enormous smiles as they delight in soaking people with buckets of icy water. It’s a party, and everyone in the city is invited.

We end up camping out at The Playhouse (remember New Year’s Eve? Well, since then Ron, Hollywood and I have become good friends and spend a lot of time together). For days, we dump buckets on people, squirt them with PVC pipes-turned-water weapons. We even hop in a truck and drive around the moat, soaking other trucks and people on the sidelines.

It’s a blissful party and for a few days, all is right with the world as we live in a constant state of being drenched and reliving our youth.

8. The dating game

As a western girl, it is ridiculously hard to meet western guys that actually 1) want a western girl; and 2) are here more than a few nights. So, when I meet a traveler who is cute, funny, charming, of course, I live it up. And, then there is a guy in town whose company I enjoy … until he leaves a few months later.

It reinvigorates me. Gives me a little sparkle of hope that, yes, I can play in this dating game.

But, once I take a look around at the environment I am in, I lose interest. Again. Maybe … it’s ok to just be single and not set deadlines? Slowly, I start to let go of the life I imagined I would have at this point. You know, being married with kids. ‘Cause, let’s be real. This is Thailand. And that just isn’t happening for me here. I embrace it and come to terms with the new life I am living, resetting all of those imaginary goals and deadlines.

9. Realizing I’m destructable

anxiety pills

Photo courtesy Deanslife via Flickr Creative Commons

So, events 6, 7 and 8 all take place over the span of two weeks. Hey, life moves fast here as an expat in Chiang Mai. It is the middle of April, just after Songkran, when I finally come to terms with Adam’s death. And, finally come to terms with my own mortality.

After the evening service for his funeral, I go to see Ron at Playhouse. Suddenly, I can’t see. I can’t breathe. I need to lay down. Then, I need to stand up. I need to puke. I need to cry. I need to freak out.

Hello, anxiety attack.

I have two anxiety attacks over the span of two hours. I’ve never had one in my life, so I think I am dying. Hysterical, I go to Smith and ask the doctor who owns the place, hand tightly gripping Paula’s hand, if I am having a heart attack. If I am going to die like Adam died. He assures me I am fine, tells me to take a Xanax. I do, and in 10 minutes, I have regained composure and am more drugged than anything else.

Paula sleeps on my couch that night because I no longer trust myself.

For months, I teeter on the edge, a little voice in the back of my mind always wondering if I am going to die, or have a panic attack and think I am dying. It is a totally shitty way to live, but I learn to make adjustments.

I (temporarily) cut out caffeine. I pop Xanax (without abusing it, promise). I try to get to the root of my problems, which are a lot deeper than just Adam’s death. I enlist my friend to start a round of acupuncture with me, and slowly, the heart racing subsides. Slowly, my stability returns.

10. A summer of friends

Sri Lanna National Park

It’s July 13, 2013. I’m standing outside of Owen’s Restaurant, looking up at the sky as a barbecue smokes next to me. Inside are Ron, Hollywood, Katie and Andrew. Four of my closest friends here. We’re celebrating my one-year anniversary of being an expat.

I stand there feeling ridiculously blessed. These people, the longest of whom I have only known since New Year’s Eve, have become such a permanent fixture in my life. We spend all of our time together. I’ve learned to lean on them when I have troubles, and cannot imagine my life in Chiang Mai without them in it. We, along with Ae, and Beam, adventure to Sri Lanna together. We share nights at Smith and my house laughing over Sangsom. We have breakfast, lunch and dinner together.

Only, a little more than two weeks later, like most friends in Chiang Mai, they are all leaving. Hollywood is going south for some time, Katie and Andrew are going to Australia to find work, and Ron is going to Israel.

Me? I’m staying here.

The day they leave, I lay in bed and cry. For weeks, my eyes linger on the road we all used to walk down together. I sit at Ae’s bar and remember all of the good times we had there. I’m caught in this fog of ghosts, reliving the moments of the year that made me the most happy.

I’m like an annoying lost puppy who can’t find her way home. I sink. Deep. Hard. Horribly.

11. Israel

A photo from Tel Aviv

I was meant to see Ron in Israel, but you know the saying “the best laid plans …” so, yeah. Instead, I spend most of my time alone, caught deep in that eternal mind fuck I loathe/love. It’s terrible/amazing. It’s the first time in years I’ve had my passport stamped for something other than work, and I don’t even appreciate it. I’m that big of an asshole.

I wander through the early morning in Tel Aviv, eyes open, trying desperately to grasp some new perspective on life. To regain that spark I had when I first arrived in Thailand. To remember to count my blessings. To love what I have. But, I’m so beaten. I’m so worn down by life the past five months. Alone, in Israel, I feel even more alone. I feel guilty for not living up my time there, but know I have to go through the funk to have the fun.

I cry when I get on the airplane and fly over the Mediterranean, over Europe. I cry for the life I had in America, the life I had in Europe, the life I had in Thailand before everyone left.

Yeah, I’m in full-scale self-pity disgustingness. I know it. I try to fight it. But, I’m headed to my Tara — my parent’s home — to get a grip.

12. Home

Delaware's Rehoboth Beach

No words are truer to me than “home is where the heart is.” Since I first left home, Mom always equated my love for home to Scarlett O’Hara and her Tara. Only, this time, home isn’t the home I grew up in. I said “goodbye” to that home after Thanksgiving 2012. Now, they’ve retired and moved to Lewes, Delaware, just outside my childhood vacation spot of Rehoboth Beach.

Over a week, I cry, I laugh, I try to make sense of my life and what I want. Because, to be quite honest, I have no fucking clue. Do I want to stay in Thailand? Do I want to go home? Do I want to travel? Do I want to try living in Europe? There is the pull of elephants and Lek in Thailand, but still …

No. Fucking. Clue.

But, there is something to be said for hugs from Mom and Dad. They reassure me, even when I’m at my worst. For most of my time at home, I cry, to be honest. Being in America is hard for me for so many reasons. It reminds me of the sacrifices I make being an expat. The things I leave behind. But, it also reminds me of the things I have in Chiang Mai, even though I am too depressed to see those things clearly at the time.

The last time I saw my grandpa

The last day — the day before I head to Vegas to reconnect with my former Vegas life — I go to Pennsylvania to see my grandfather. After being in and out of the hospital for months, he is now in a nursing home and aging quickly. We sit together in the little visiting area, as he complains about the food and recounts the same stories my parents have heard over and over again.

It’s the first time I look at him and see an old man, and it guts me. When it is time to say goodbye, I rest my hand on his bony shoulder and hold him. To this day, I remember what that felt like, and even writing this makes me tear up.

I turn back to see him one last time, covered in a blue blanket, and then leave the home and board my flight to Vegas.

13. Turning 34

I’m in Chiang Mai for about two weeks before my birthday. The night before I turn 34, I am with Beam at a bar, enjoying some gourmet beer (it does exist in Chiang Mai, it is just super pricey). We sit together and I open up to Beam about my fears of  being alone forever, my fear of death, my fear of not being able to find the happiness I had when I arrived to Thailand.

“D, you have to realize, you are absolutely perfect just the way you are,” he says to me, smiling. “You can be happy, you just have to let yourself.”

His words stick in my head. I remember being with the shaman in Utah almost two years ago, and how that changed me. And now, his words, they resonate. Perhaps it is because I am just so tired of living in a constant state of unhappy, but really, I think it is because his words finally give me permission to be happy again. To accept exactly who I am, quirks and all.

I. Am. Perfect. Just as I am.

The next day is my birthday, and I give myself the greatest present I could ever give myself — I am honest. I admit my weaknesses. I admit my feelings. I admit I can be happy, it is just a matter of changing my perspective.

Surrounded by new friends and old, we sit together at Smith as I wipe the tears from my eyes and decide it is time to get back to me, and to relish the moments I have in my life — the good and the bad. It’s the best night I’ve had in a long time. Sure, I remember the friends who aren’t there, but then I open my eyes and see all of the friends who are there. All of the people who care about me, and who I am so madly in love with. Justlikethat, my life seems to be back on course.

When my grandfather dies nine days later, it hurts. But, instead of letting it destroy me, I open myself up to the love around me — and there is so much love around me — and I celebrate his life and I celebrate my own.

So, yes, 2013 was one hell of a year. It was fulfilling, heartbreaking, eye-opening … but in the end, I learned the most valuable lesson of all: to love myself. To honor myself. And, if it took all of these moments to figure it out, that’s fine. I wouldn’t trade any of them for the world.

I measure this year through these moments. Moments, where regardless of pain, there was always love somewhere in the mix. So, yeah. I guess I am kind of like Larson and “Rent.” I measure in love.

How do you measure yours?

May 2014 be a blessed year for all of you. Love. With your eyes open. Wide.

This post is dedicated to all those I love, especially Andi and Arnie Edelman, my brother Mike, the memories of my grandfather Louis Lindenbaum and my friend Adam Bromley, Lek Chailert, Darrick Thomson, my Chiang Mai crew/family (you all know who you are), my friends in America,  and the countless animals who have invaded my heart.

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Love, life and loss … again

No one said being an expat is easy. No one said it is all unicorns and rainbows and glitter (damn). In fact, being an expat means missing out on the lives of those who are important to you and not expats. The friends who get married, who have kids, who celebrate happy and mourn loss. It’s about not being with your family in the time of need.

When I am on my career break, I lose my grandmother to ALS. Two days before my scheduled flight home. I fly from Zadar to Frankfurt to Dulles in a veil of grief, my cheeks consistently tear-stained. Her funeral is the day of transit. Being in Croatia, alone, is one of the most heart-breaking things I have ever gone through. There is no one to sit with me, to take my hand, to hold me as I sob.

Losing my grandmother is one of the hardest things of my life. We all know it is coming, but I am so close to being home. So close to seeing her one last time, to holding her soft, wrinkled hand in mine and telling her the final time how much I love her and how grateful I am to have her in my life.

Let me tell you something — losing someone and being so far from home is NEVER easy. It cuts you to the core. It takes your world of security you have created and stabs it you over and over and over until you think you can’t breathe. Thankfully, as an expat (versus solo traveler), the community created is one of the most important things when dealing with grief.

On Wednesday, October 9, I once again experience death. This time, my grandfather passes away. Like his wife, my family knows it is coming.

The e-mails start over the summer. Little updates from my mom informing me he has a heart attack, or has fallen, or he is retaining liquids. Then, they start to get worse. Leaving his apartment and being admitted to the hospital. Moving into a nursing home. I dread opening my e-mails during the summer. Dread the words being written in front of me that something has happened. And, once again, I am thousands and thousands of miles away.

When I return to home to the USA at the beginning of September, it doesn’t look good. My first day with my parents, outlet shopping in Rehoboth, my mom gets a call from my aunt saying he has days.

Days.

I stand in the parking lot watching my mom’s reaction — stoic, prepared — as she relays this information. My mind shoots back to Croatia. To crumbling against the ancient stone wall and sobbing.

I’m not there. I’m here.

I do the only thing I can do. I grab her hand and let the tears fall from my face.

“Thank goodness I am here,” I whisper, choking on my words. “I’d rather be here than anywhere else.”

At first, we plan a trip the next day to Pennsylvania to go and see him. I have a sense of urgency. I have to see him again. I have to say “goodbye.” Then, we get another phone call saying he seems a bit better. He isn’t going to get better. These are still his last days, but he is OK. For now.

Instead, we postpone going to see him until my last day with my family. I fly from Philadelphia, and his nursing home isn’t far from there, so we drive up on a Tuesday morning to go and see him.

The entire drive up, I mentally prepare myself.

It’s time to say goodbye. This is not a “see you soon.” I know this is the last time I will see his twinkling blue eyes look into mine.

When we arrive to the home, he is in a wheelchair, wrapped in a blue blanket. It’s been nearly a year since I last saw him, and in that year, his frame has shrunk. His 91 years have caught up with him.

I walk up, smiling as big as I can, and wrap my arms around him and tell him “hello.”

He asks me briefly about Thailand, asks if I am happy, and then begins to rattle off about the food at the home.

There’s one thing about my papa — he is a picky eater. He likes his soup boiling hot, his meals filled with flavor. This nursing home falls short. Way short.

A few minutes later, after we question what he is eating, he produces a single cookie from his breast pocket in his shirt.

I can’t help but laugh at the adorableness of that one gesture.

Then, it’s time to go. I want to leave, but I don’t. I want to get the pain of letting him go beyond me, but don’t want to actually let him go.

photo 2

When I stand up, I can feel myself tense. I can feel the tears sting my eyes. I can feel myself choke on the words.

I walk up to him and bend down, wrapping my arms around his bony shoulders. I hug him tightly.

“I love you,” I say into his ear. “I love you so much.”

How can I convey 34 years of gratitude for having him in my life without admitting to him I know this will be the last time I see him?

Instead, I manage a “take care of yourself, Papa,” and tell him once more I love him before I have to turn my body from his so he doesn’t see the pain resonating through me. I don’t want him — for even an instance — to think that he is the cause of my tears.

I take one last look, smile and wave, and my parents and I head back to the car and the late summer afternoon in Pennsylvania.

Nearly one month to the day later, I get the message from my mom.

But, I am prepared. I know it is his time to let go and be reunited with my grandma.

That day, I can’t sit still at work. My mom is staying in Pennsylvania, keeping him company. I send him a voicemail, telling him I love him and how grateful I am he is in my life. In the late afternoon, I can’t sit in my room anymore. I can’t sit and wait for the e-mail I know is coming. Instead, I message my friend, Hollywood, and ask him to please meet me for a beer.

He obliges, and we head to a tiny bar on the moat and talk about what has been going on in our lives. I look at my phone — it is nearly 8 a.m. in Pennsylvania and I haven’t heard from my mom yet. I send her off a quick e-mail and then return to the bar.

My phone lights up with a Vox message from Mom.

I look at Hollywood and already know. I excuse myself and listen to the message.

“Hey D,” Mom begins, sounding weary. “I just wanted to let you know I am driving home. I just got a call from my brother, and Papa just passed away …”

I listen to the rest, but don’t. My stomach turns. I can’t see anything anymore because salty tears are overflowing from my eyes.

I knew this was coming and yet it doesn’t stop the pain. At all.

I walk back in the bar and Hollywood knows immediately. He wraps his arms around me as I sob into his shoulders.

“I know, I know,” he says in my ear as I just let go and cry.

I don’t want to be in the bar anymore. I want to be home.

In a daze, I wander back towards my house, making a few calls to friends in town who know what is going on and tell them the story.

Stacy, one of my closest friends here, meets me at Smith. Before I am even up the stairs, her arms are around me as I cry. Then, a few other friends there all take turns hugging me, holding me, offering their condolences. I don’t have to tell anyone there what has happened — they all know.

We sit together at Papa’s, the local hangout for Smith residents and former Smith residents, and I try to wipe my face, but more tears erupt every few minutes.

“Let’s go light a lantern,” Stacy suggests.

“Yeah, I think that is a good idea,” I say, handing her the keys to my house so she can go and get them.

In Thailand, lanterns are lit for many things. In this case, we decide to light one to honor my grandfather’s life and the new “life” he is about to embark upon.

A crew of us go upstairs and prepare the lantern. We light it, but we don’t let it fill up with heat long enough, and when we let it go, it teeters over the edge of the eight-story building and crashes down into a tree, lifts up for a moment, and then hits the street below.

“Did your grandfather like to fly?” A friend asks me.

No. He didn’t. Not at all.

I burst into giggles and explain that after he served in the military, he only flew once more in his life and that he hated flying.

“I guess it makes sense that the lantern didn’t make it,” I offer, and then we decide to light another one.

This time, it does fly.

 photo 1

My friend, Kirsty, holds my hand as I watched the golden flicker of the lantern rise, rise, rise and then fade into the black sky after a few minutes.

“I love you Papa,” I whisper to myself. “Thank you.”

I cry a little more during the night, but am surrounded by people who care. By people who hold my hand. Hug me. Offer their support. It isn’t the first time in Chiang Mai I have felt so connected, so grateful for the people in my life, but it is the first time I am so deeply appreciative and moved by it.

The next morning, I look at Facebook and see Stacy’s status update, along with a photo I posted the night before of the lantern and flame. Her words said it all:

“Something magical happened tonight. Tears fell, but somewhere in the tears magic happened. What was meant to be an amazingly spiritual moment turned into an amazing way for her to say goodbye. We lit the first lantern, and it didn’t float. It fell, and the door guy had to put out the fire. We had a great laugh. We lit the second lantern, and it too started to fall, but as it fell between the power lines, then around the tree, it lifted. It floated, and it went back between the power lines, and around the tree, and up in the sky it went. It went into the stratosphere, and out of sight. She said goodbye. Together with friends and loved ones. It was magic.”

And it was the perfect moment of pure peace. Even when my blood family was on the other side of the world.

In loving memory of Louis Lindenbaum. Thank you for your love and support. I am so blessed to have had you in my life. I love you always. Ruff, ruff. Meow, meow.

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Escape of the Week: Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

It’s 4 a.m., and I am awake in my bed, heart thumping in my chest with excitement, because I know in 30 minutes, my dad will be knocking on my door, telling me to wake-up, and then I will be bounding down our creaky, carpeted steps into the kitchen to pet Flash, our black and white English Springer Spaniel who resembles a small cow, and then with brother and mom in tow, we will pile into the 1987 Ford Taurus wagon and embark on the three hour drive from the DC suburbs to the Eastern Shore.

It’s a ritual I go through my entire childhood. A day or a week at the beach.

I can remember vividly the drive there, the countless “are we there yet?” questions being hurled at my parents in the front seat. The awe of driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The flat expanses of farmland as we headed toward the Atlantic Ocean and Rehoboth Beach.

The Atlantic Ocean at Rehoboth Beach

The sticky salt air when we got out of the car. The McDonald’s breakfasts, the Dollie’s lunches, the Grotto’s Pizza for dinner, followed by cotton candy that turned crunchy and being scared witless as we took the black cart through the Haunted House, and the sadness as I saw the sun sink into the sky atop the Paratrooper ferris wheel.

Rehoboth Beach is one of my fondest memories.

The sunset at Rehoboth Beach

And when my parents decided to sell the house I grew up in last year, I was heart-broken. But, they moved just outside of Rehoboth, and this trip “home,” I am able to relive my innocent youth, packed with Thashers French Fries …

A beach staple, Thrashers French Fries

Cotton candy …

Enjoying cotton candy in Rehoboth Beach

and that gorgeous, humid salt air.

Delaware's Rehoboth Beach

It may not be the sprawling suburbs of Washington, DC, and there may not be a Whole Foods, Target or shopping mall within an hours drive, but this is my new “home” away from “home,” and damnit, it sure is pretty.

In the mornings, we hop in the car, head from Lewes traversing down tiny roads lined with corn fields and old homes to the main street of Rehoboth. With the fresh air blowing off the ocean, we sit on the painted white benches facing sea grass, and beyond, the ocean.

Benches at Rehoboth Beach

It’s magical and whisks me back to being a kid in the flash of a second.

We walk down the boardwalk I remember from my youth being more massive, past the rides, to where the wooden planks end.

The boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach

From there, Dad and I let our toes sink into the sand and the foam from the Atlantic kiss our toes.

Foot prints at the beach in Rehoboth

We walk back towards Grotto Pizza, which always tasted far better as a kid, and to the hotels lining the shore, but not before I stop and marvel at the beauty of the tide lapping along the cliffs of sand.

The Rehoboth shoreline

My parents and I stand on the sand as the sun sinks behind us, casting a pinkish glow over the little main street.

The sunset in Rehoboth

I look back one last time at the popular haunts of my youth, Dolles and Candy Kitchen.

The Dolles at Rehoboth

 

One of many Candy Kitchen's in Rehoboth

By night, we scope out the games.

A game at Rehoboth's boardwalk

Horse racing game in Rehoboth

My favorite boardwalk game in Rehoboth

Then, I take a moment to stand, facing into the darkness of the world to my east, and think of my life as an expat in Thailand, so very far away.

But, in this moment, I am here.

Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

In Rehoboth. Reliving my childhood one Thrasher’s french fry and fluffy piece of sugary spun wisps of cotton candy at a time.

Getting there: From Washington, DC: Take 495 North or South to US-50. Head east on US-50 and cross the Bay Bridge to Route 404. Go east on Rought 404 to Route 16, then east on Route 16 to Route 1. Head south on SR-1 toward Rehoboth and Dewey Beaches. Follow Route 1 for about 20 minutes, then take exit 1A (Rehoboth Beach-Henlopen Acres). Route 1 ends at the boardwalk. Travel time: 2.5 hours

From Philadelphia: Take I-495 to I-95 South, then Route 1 south. Pass Milford, De. and go towards Rehoboth and Dewey Beaches. Take exist 1A and ends at the boardwalk. Travel time: 2 hours.


Directions from Rehoboth.com.

Americas Delaware Destinations

Escape of the Week: Downtown Las Vegas

Downtown Las Vegas has always held a special place in my heart.

I remember the first time I ever went to Vegas, fresh off of my ninth grade year in high school. My father drove us down past Fremont Street and the glittering lights and seeing Vegas Vic welcoming visitors to town with an arm raised. Instantly, I was mesmerized.

A look at Downtown Las Vegas

Then, when I moved to Vegas in 2005, and learn more about the history, particularly of the mob and the town’s earlier days, I became fascinated imagining what my experience in the southwestern town would have been 40 years earlier.

In the years I lived in Vegas, I watched the downtown area be reborn. I watched as the Arts District 18b laid its roots, as local hot spots were born, as the city cleaned up its act and began to embrace the area for what it could be — a burgeoning place for businesses, locals and tourists to all share space.

With Zappos moving in to the old City Hall this month, and my stop there, I noticed a huge change from my last visit: Downtown Las Vegas is alive and oh-so vibrant.

A look at Downtown Las Vegas

There is something so old-school about heading to Fremont Street and seeing the glittering lights beckoning people into the casinos … the ringing of the slots as the machines “dispense” coins.

A look at Downtown Las Vegas

A look at Downtown Las Vegas

A look at Downtown Las Vegas

A look at Downtown Las Vegas

The in-your-face marketing of one of Vegas’ biggest sells: getting wasted …

A look at Downtown Las Vegas

And the neighborhood charm of Fremont East and all of its groovy bars and restaurants (you can read about some of my recommendations here) which have popped up in the past decade.

A look at Downtown Las Vegas

A look at Downtown Las Vegas

A look at Downtown Las Vegas

A look at Downtown Las Vegas

A look at Downtown Las Vegas

In fact, some of my best memories of my life in Vegas center around Downtown and the amazing and beautiful memories created there.

A look at Downtown Las Vegas

Getting there:

From the infamous Las Vegas Strip, simply hop in a cab or bus and head north on Las Vegas Blvd. to downtown. It is a straight shot. If you want to avoid the congestion of The Strip, hop onto I-15 North and exit at either Charleston Blvd. (to check out the awesome arts scene), or take 95 towards downtown and exit at Casino Center. My favorite spots are Fremont East, which is home to Beauty Bar, The Griffin, La Comida, Park on Fremont and other hopping bars and restaurants. Don’t miss Gold Spike. A former casino, today it’s got a sweet bar and fabulous outdoor patio with corn hole and more. To experience Old Vegas, check out the Fremont Street Experience and the casinos there.

What’s your best Vegas experience?

 

Americas Destinations Nevada

Goodbye, Prius

She sits in the lot at CarMax, her dark gray exterior even darker against the overcast winter sky in Maryland.

I blink back tears, then head inside to sign her away.

“Well, this is really easy,” the sales clerk says to me across his desk in the fluorescent lit office. “Just sign here and here, and then we will pay off your loan and give you a check for the difference.”

My mom sits next to me. I turn to her, my brown eyes watery.

“D, this is what you want,” she says, rubbing my leg.

Yes … but …

I take the pen and sign.

Deal. Done.

We walk back out into the nippy air and she’s gone. Gone. Whisked away before I could even let my fingers linger over her smooth body one last time.

I grab for my keys, out of habit, and sign when I realize the key FOB for her is no longer in my possession.

Mom and I pile into her car and sit there for a second.

“You OK?” she asks.

It’s not like I’ve lost something huge. But, my car … she’s gone.

My Toyota Prius

The first day with my car, July 4, 2007.

“Yeah,” I breathe. “I guess … well … now it is final. I’m really an expat when I sell my car.”

Yes, my sweet little Prius that I have loved for five years … gone. Taken into the depths of CarMax, hopefully to reemerge loved by someone who loved her as much as I did, even though I never gave her a name. But, rest assured, the Prius was most definitely a “her.”

For five years, she was my partner in crime. My friend. I’d sit in her comfortable seat, drive along on a soundless ride, challenge myself to use battery power versus the engine. She’s been my faithful companion on two major road trips. But more importantly, she’s seen me on the best and worst days in my life.

As we drive away from the dealer on my last night in Maryland, memories of my car run through my head. Sitting and toying with the little bubble in the steering wheel when the car was parked and I would just sit on my phone, talking through my bluetooth. Singing at the top of my lungs to whatever song would cheer me up. Hauling my life from Las Vegas to Maryland. Driving down Las Vegas Blvd. with travelers packed into my car listening to Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights.” In fact, most songs I hear involve a memory of driving in that car.

Toyota Prius road trip

Road trippin’ in comfort!

I’m not a very materialistic person. I don’t get attached to things easily. But, Prius (OK, we’ll name her that), she was mine. She was the first thing I had ever invested in. The first thing, other than my cats, I was truly responsible for. In a way, she was my real passage into adulthood. Not moving to Vegas, not getting a job, but owning a car.

Drive Toyota Prius

More than 3,000 miles crossing America … thanks to my friend, Prius.

But, at the end of the day, she was expensive. Really, really expensive. And, living in Thailand with no expected return date to the States? Well, there’s is no reason to continue to pay off a loan when I don’t even get to enjoy driving her.

There are times now in Chiang Mai when I will see a Prius drive by, silent in its passing, and I will smile to myself and think of the memories I have of my girl. Then, I look around at where I am and know I made the right decision. Hopefully, little Prius is making someone else as happy as she made me.

Americas Blog Expat Life Maryland Nevada

Goodbye, America

I’m quiet on the drive to Dulles from my house.

I’ve already cried saying goodbye to the pups, and now, staring out the window as the suns rays just begin to kiss the tops of the trees, I hold back tears.

I’m leaving America. I am leaving the life I know.

I don’t take my eyes off of my surroundings as we drive, but my mind wanders back through the past few months. Through my Las Vegas life, my road trip, coming home to spend time with my friends and family in Maryland, my last night in America … moments flash before me as I tuck the memories, the images, into the back of my mind to pull up when I feel my heart ache.

Packing for life as an expat

The original plan is to drop me off at Departures. But now, after an entire day spent sorting and packing and unpacking and sorting and then vacuum packing (and tears), I’ve managed to convince my parents to park the car and head into ticketing with me.

I’m just not ready to say goodbye.

We head to United’s international ticketing counter, hidden on the other side of the ticketing row and I check my 70-pound bag (yes, it’s heavy … I’ve packed everything I could ever want for a year into it), and then slowly, slowly, my mom, dad and I walk to the security check point.

I feel the sobs bubble in my chest, my vision gets blurred with tears.

Just come with me. Just move to Thailand with me.

And, then, I just let go. I don’t care who sees me. I cry. Hard. In the middle of Dulles. Early in the morning. My parents hug me, wrapping their arms around me and squeezing, squeezing, squeezing.

“We’re so proud of you,” they both whisper into my ears. “We love you so much. Go and cherish every moment you have.”

We pull away, exchange looks and laugh/sigh at our state: watery eyes, smiles on our faces.

Celebration and sad at the same time. Bittersweet.

And then, I head through security and begin my exit from America.

Asia Blog Expat Life Maryland Thailand

‘Twas the night before Expat Life

A tuk tuk driver races down the street in Chiang Mai

“You’re moving to Thailand?”

It’s been since February when I knew my future would take me to Thailand and I would become an expat. For nearly five months, my life has been in this stop-wait-move pattern.

Stop. Wait. Move. Stop. Wait. Move.

It gets tiresome after awhile. And severely emotionally draining.

Five months is a long time to know your future is right there, staring at you, banging down the door … and yet there is nothing to do but wait, wait, wait.

In March when I quit my job, I knew Thailand was coming down the pipeline. I just didn’t know when. Then, in April, everything was solidified. I had an offer at Save the Elephant Foundation. For those of you who are new readers, last autumn I spent a week at Elephant Nature Park and fell in love with the organization. In an instant, I knew I wanted my life to take me back to Thailand and back to the elephants.

Then, it was going to get my visa in April. Booking my flight for July 11.

It seemed like another lifetime until that flight.

Then, life became a whirlwind. A poorly-timed (yet awesome) trip to Sweden, followed by a move, followed by a drive across America, followed by two weeks to prepare for my new life.

Never did I pause. Never did I stop to think about … well … anything.

“Aren’t you scared?”

I have no idea how many people asked me that. Whenever I announced my plans, people would stop. They would stretch their eyes wide with a look of disbelief on their faces.

Scared? I am living my dream.

I never gave it much thought beyond knowing I was doing what I wanted to do. I was following my own set of rules.

My response would always be something to the extent of “No. I am not scared. I am excited. I am ready. I want to leave Las Vegas. I want to chase that dream I had back in September and actually use my talents to do something good. Something helpful. Something that will educate people about elephant tourism in Southeast Asia.”

“You’re so brave.”

Throughout all of my travels, that one statement has always echoed in my ears. From my friends. From people who don’t know me.

Brave?

It is really about being brave?

I’ve never thought of myself as brave. I try to steer clear of adventures. The bravest thing I have done is get naked in Sweden and that … well … it’s definitely not the same as jumping from a plane.

I tend to think bravery isn’t really what flows through my blood, but more of a passion. A desire to follow my heart. To live life the way I want. I am not settling for what the American culture tells me to have. Instead, I am going after what I believe in.

 The full moon rises in Maryland

And yet …

Tonight …

After the bags were packed, after my last dinner with my family … that bravery thing kept repeating in my mind.

I’m not brave. I’m not brave.

And then, I stop. I think. Is this being brave? Packing up a life, putting it in storage, saying “see you soon” to everyone I know and love and hopping on a long-haul flight to the opposite side of the world?

I wonder.

Tonight, my brother called me to say he loved me and to wish me luck. As we spoke, suddenly, I was overcome. Tears welled up in my eyes.

There is just so much emotion I haven’t even touched the past few months of my life. So much feeling I packed away because I just couldn’t … couldn’t think about anything but the future.

Be brave, D.

Even a few weeks ago, when I was learning more about my position, I emailed a friend of mine in a slight panic. Know what he told me? “Go. Be brave.”

It’s such a weighted word.

And yet, as I sit in my bed, on my last night living in America, it hits me.

Maybe I am?

I don’t know.

All I do know is I am giving it my all. I am giving myself the best chance I know to live my life with no regrets. To live for the now, and not for the happily ever after.

Am I scared?

I don’t think so.

Right now, there is so much adrenaline. So much happy. So much awe at the chance of possibility I don’t think I am scared.

Am I sad?

YES.

Without a doubt.

I forgot how nice it is to be with family when I lived in Las Vegas because I was so caught up in my life. To be home, to be with the people I love … to spend time with my parents … it makes it so hard to say goodbye.

The plane waits for passengers at Dulles

This is the end of this chapter of my life. From here on out, it is all new. Beautiful. Awesome.

Now, as I type this, I will be on a plane in less than six hours. Embarking on yet another journey.

Fear has never crossed my mind. I have full faith everything will work out exactly as it should.

And yet, I want to cry. To bawl my eyes out. To grab my parents, my brother, my niece, my friends, and make them all come on this journey with me.

But, that’s the thing about life: it’s mine.

I am moving to Thailand.

A year ago, if you asked me where I would be, I would have shrugged my shoulders.

Funny how life changes.

Funny how we adapt.

Here’s to the next chapter. I hope you enjoy the ride.

30 Life Crisis Americas Asia Blog Expat Life Maryland Nevada Thailand