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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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

Giving thanks

Maryland

I’m sitting in the kitchen of the house where I grew up. Around me, I can hear the happy chatter of my mom, dad and brother. I hear the jingle of metal from the tag on Barkley, our old and gorgeous springer spaniel’s collar. I look outside at the naked trees against the bright blue sky.

I’m home. And so grateful to be here, in this beautiful moment.

Only, this isn’t my home anymore. In fact, my home is thousands and thousands of miles away. On the other side of the world, actually.

This Thanksgiving is the last one at my childhood home. It is the last Thanksgiving in Maryland. Next year, my house will be in Delaware. In rooms with no history. No ghosts of my former self to wrap their arms around my memories. This Thanksgiving is also the last with Barkley. He’s been around since 1998. Truthfully, I never expected him to last this long. He’s a good boy, and I know his next life will be even more awesome than this one.

It’s all so hard to comprehend. At times it feels as if the life I have in Chiang Mai is this sweet, sweet dream and any moment I will be awakened and back in America, going through the mundane motions of my previous life. I have two very different realities — my American and my Thai — and sometimes they are hard to separate.

I miss my family when I’m not around them. But, I don’t miss my old life. At all.

My life has changed so much in the past year. From working as the director of communications for a Las Vegas restaurant group to coping with major depression to quitting said job, to uprooting my life and heading to the jungle in Thailand to be an expat. It’s been a wild ride and I am so thankful for every single moment.

Chiang Mai apartment

Not every moment has been easy. There were times when I doubted myself. Times when I missed home and realized that being an expat wasn’t what I thought it would be. But, for the most part, life has been a dream.

So, this Thanksgiving, I want to give thanks to the people in my life. The readers of d travels ’round. You’ve been on quite the journey with me this past year. And, I want to give thanks to the people who have supported me: my family, my friends, the amazing Lek Chailert and the entire staff at Save Elephant Foundation.

I want to give thanks to that damn rooster that caws every morning just before sunrise. And to the tuk tuks that putter down the street in the middle of the night and tell me my baht isn’t enough for the quick ride to my apartment. And to my amazing friends in Chiang Mai who keep me company on those humid nights at old wooden picnic tables and make me laugh. I want to give thanks to the animals — especially Mr. Lucky and my favorite elephants, Medo and Navann. Life is even more fulfilling when there are animals to love, who love you back (even if Mr. Lucky likes to clench my nose between his sharp little teeth).

Finally, I’d like to give thanks to my parents. I know my decision to live abroad isn’t easy. And, Thailand is not close. But, they have always loved me and supported me and encouraged me to follow my dreams.

At the end of the day, I know this one truth above all else: I am incredibly lucky. And, I wake up every morning and go to sleep every night knowing this truth.

So. Thankful.

Asia Blog Expat Life Thailand

When travel sucks

Flight One: Chatty Seatmate Suck

“We’ve just had two days from hell,” an older woman says, hovering over my seat in the bulkhead as I fumble (too late) to get my headphones in my ears. “You just wouldn’t believe what happened to us. First, our flight has issues, then we get stuck on the tarmac, then we get out and have to wait in line, then we get to a hotel, then we have to wake up early and get back to the airport and now …”

Damnit. Damnit. Damnit. I clearly pulled the short straw in seat assignments.

I smile feebly and silently curse the woman standing over me.

“So now, we are on this plane and we don’t even get to sit together. I mean, really!”

Don’t look at me lady. I paid good money for this Economy Plus seat.

“My husband? He has had a hell of a time the past month. See, we thought he had a problem with his testes …”

Whoa. Chatty Seatmate crosses over into TMI Seatmate in a matter of seconds. 

“Oh goodness,” I feign interest as I struggle to hear the announcement from the pilot about our plans to take off from Dulles and head to San Francisco. But Annoying Seatmate continues her diarrhea of the mouth, sparing me no detail of her husband’s examinations (“thank goodness it wasn’t anything terrible”), family troubles (“my annoying bitch of cousin”) and travel complaints (“I hate United”).

By the grace of god, her daughter comes and sits in between us, giving me the perfect chance to put my headphones in my ears and turn my head to look out the window, letting me enjoy my last sunrise on American soil (or above American soil).

Thankfully, she continues her bitchfest to her daughter instead and I tune out, watching out the cabin window as the plane picks up speed and eventually is airborne, flying over America.

I take it all in, trying to imagine what we are flying over and reliving my road trip adventure from two weeks earlier that brought me from west to east.

Funny I am going backwards to go forward.

Sleep grabs me, but I wake up in time to see the brown of the desert below. I’ve flown to Las Vegas enough times to recognize what is below, and I know it’s not the Vegas desert I am looking at, but it is Nevada. Then, we’re over the mountains, then we are descending into San Francisco.

“Glad you made it home safe,” I mutter to the woman in my aisle as we exit the aircraft, then I head to my next gate.

A delayed flight from San Francisco to Beijing

Flight Two: Delayed Flight Suck and Plane Suck

I look at the departures board, squinting to see my Air China flight from SFO to Beijing. Delayed. By an hour. I do a quick calculation in my head: that leaves me (maybe) one hour catch my connection to Bangkok in China. If I miss that flight, I can’t get to Bangkok until the next day, which leaves me missing my other flight on Air Asia getting me into Chiang Mai.

Shit.

So, I go into Fix This Mode. I message Air Asia. I get on the phone with Air China. I call my parents and bitch, bitch, bitch.

“This is such a pain in the ass … I am going to have to rebook tickets if I can’t connect.”

“Then, that’s what will happen,” my mom says into the phone.

“Got to love travel,” my dad jokes.

Air Asia tells me if I miss my flight, even with a certificate saying it was Air China’s fault, I still have to pay to book a new flight. And, Air China tells me they can’t do anything to get me to Chiang Mai should I miss my connection.

As a last resort, I approach the gate agent to ask what they can do since my connection will now be cutting it very close.

“Guess you will just have to run,” the woman shrugs.

Thanks.

Almost two hours late, we finally board the plane.

I sink into the seat. Or attempt to sink into the seat. It’s hard as a rock.

At least there is entertainment on long-haul flights.

Then, I look at the seatback in front of me.

Something is missing on this Air China flight!

There is nothing there. A tray to pull down. No cute little television. Nothing.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

Instead of getting pissed I forked out more than a grand for the flight — because that isn’t going to solve anything at the moment — I pull out some little blue Tylenol PMs and pop them. Goodbye, AmericaTwelve hours later (and with 45 minutes to catch my connection), we land.

The man next to me sits and waits as people from behind us go.

“Sorry,” I say, tapping him lightly on the shoulder and fighting the racing heart pounding in my ears. “I have to catch a flight.”

Flight Three: Security Suck and the Should-Have-Bought-Two-Seats Suck 

Groggy, but awake, I bolt off the plane and am greeted by a shuttle to take us through immigration.

Oh please. Please. Drive. Drive. Drive.

I glance at my phone nervously. 30 minutes. 30 minutes. 30 minutes.

When the doors open, I race through the halls, rounding corners with astonishing speed for someone weighted down not only with a carry on, but also a completely full Pac Safe tote.

I race through an arch that takes my temperature, head to immigration where I am directed to another immigration. When I am finally allowed to pass, I am the first one to get to security.

20 minutes.

I’ve traveled a lot. I know what can stay in my bag and what needs to be taken out. I start to pull out my laptops.

“You have camera?” The security agent asks.

“Yeah,” I say, getting antsy.

“You take it out.”

OK. Fine.

I remove my camera and put it into a bin, along with my laptops, then wait for everything on the other side of security.

The bags move through the belt and stop. Then move a little. Then stop. Then, they come out. Along with a security agent.

“You have chords in here?”

“Yeah,” I say, heat rising in my face.

“No chords.”

What the hell?

I go to open up my bag to take them out, but the agent reaches for it, too. He opens my bag and dumps out my charger for my laptop and my phone. Then, he opens my carry-on and begins to rummage through that. Then, its back through the X-Ray machine.

Anxiety sweeps over my body.

15 minutes.

The bags come out again.

“You have battery?”

“Yeah.”

Again, the agent goes into my carry-on, this time basically dumping the entirety of its contents into bins. Business cards. Make up bag. Journal.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

“Please, please,” I beg. “My flight. I have 10 minutes.”

Four bins go back through the X-Ray machine. I break into a sweat as I watch them examine the screens, looking for who-knows-what. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, four bins come out. My four bins.

“OK,” security tells me as I fight tears, looking at both of my bags, entirely unpacked, sitting in front of me.

I toss everything into them without caring what is where, and run to my gate.

With two minutes to spare, I get onto the plane and sink into my seat. My aisle seat because, even though I had spoken on the phone with Air China and was insured I would have a window, the ticket said otherwise. This time my seatmate takes up nearly my seat and hers.

I pop another Tylenol PM, blow up my neck pillow, arrange myself to fit into a corner of my seat and pray the carts don’t run over my toes, and close my eyes.

The Intermission Suck

I stand, scanning the luggage on the belt once we arrive in Bangkok.

Where’s my bag?

Fortunately, I’m with a few other girls I met in San Francisco who are headed to Elephant Nature Park, too. And, there bags aren’t here.

We survey the carousel a few more times, then look to find a representative from Air China to help us. Of course, there aren’t any. Instead, we are directed to Thai Airlines customer service.

“Try Carousel 7.”

We head there. Nothing.

“Try Carousel 9.”

Again, nothing.

Finally, we are brought into a room where they track our bags.

“Your bag is still in Beijing,” the rep explains to me. “It said it got on an earlier flight, but it did not.”

“How would it get on an earlier flight? Did it get scanned when I landed in San Francisco?”

“Yes.”

“And it was scanned again when I got to China?”

“Yes.”

“Then, how did it get on an earlier flight to Bangkok or how did it say it got on an earlier flight to Bangkok when I arrived with 30 minutes to board my connection?”

“It will be here in a few days.”

“I need it here sooner than that,” I sigh.

I fill out the paperwork and head into the airport to get some food, some wifi and some rest.

As I lay down, at 2 a.m., people begin to crowd around me, talking loudly.

Finally, I decide sleep isn’t going to happen and, when I can, I head over to Air Asia to check in to my final flight.

The final flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Thailand

Flight Four: The No Refund Suck

I stand at the Air Asia counter, trying to explain Air China has misplaced my bag, trying to explain I wanted on refund on the $100 I spent to check a phantom bag.

“Sorry,” the ticketing agent says. “You need to cancel at least four hours before to get a refund.”

“But, you just opened and this only happened five hours ago.”

“Sorry.”

It’s just not worth the fight.

I head to my gate and board the plane.

As we fly over the emerald green mountains of Thailand and begin to descend into Chiang Mai, all of the Suck from the past 30-something hours of traveling dissipates.

I look out onto the land and feel warm. Glowing. Thrilled.

This … this is my new home.

Then, the smile doesn’t leave my face.

When has travel sucked for you?

 

Asia Blog Thailand Travel

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.

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Working as an Au Pair in America

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post written by Stacey Kuyf. of One Travels Far.

I woke up and headed downstairs, hesitating at the doorway to the kitchen. Two kids eyed me warily.

“Hi guys” I said brightly. “How’s it going?”

There was no reply so I stood there awkwardly, waiting for their parents. I felt sweat gather on the back of my neck as I studied them. I hadn’t expected them to be so small. Weren’t four- and five-year olds supposed to be bigger? What if I lost them or something?

I had packed my bags and flown from my hometown in New Zealand to Chicago, Illinois to live with a family that I’d never met. I’d spoken to my host mum once, but I was ready to work as an Au Pair in America.

The Au Pair Program allows young women (and men) to live and work legally in America on a J1 visa for a year, and Au Pairs can then extend their visa for another six, nine or 12 months.

Statue of Liberty

Are you considering being an Au Pair?

There are plenty of reasons heading from home and becoming an Au Pair can be a viable option for traveling.

Host parents pay Au Pairs up to $500 for them to go to college. Because it is a condition on the J1 visa and we have to complete six credits, hosts contribute to this requirement. You can literally do anything-like learning a language, or even taking surf and kayak lessons.

Au pairs are paid $200 USD a week, but we don’t pay for any expenses like rent or food. We also get at least two weeks’ vacation a year-more if our host families go away and don’t need/want us to go with them. We also have to have at least one full weekend off a month (I’m lucky enough to never work weekends). This gives us a great opportunity to explore the United States.

There are subsidized flights to America. One thing that appealed to me when I was thinking about applying was the subsidized flights. While you have to pay for program fees and insurance, knowing that the flight was almost free, and I’d be earning money almost as soon as I arrived definitely influenced my decision.

Au Pairs get to truly immerse themselves in the American culture.  My favorite experiences? Being in town for Halloween, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.

Getting another family. As an Au Pair, you grow close to your host family. They really do become like your little brothers and sisters and we’re there for all of their big moments-losing their first tooth, the first day of school, birthdays, holidays and everything else.

You’ll be surprised how quickly you can form friendships with people who speak another language, and come from a different country to you, and you’ll make some of the best friends of your life.

Haloween in America

 Is it worth it?

I really have had a rollercoaster of a time here, but I wouldn’t change a single moment for anything.

While it was challenging learning how to drive on the right side of the road (I crashed into a parked car two weeks after I arrived), I’m now a pro and I consider myself a bit of a legend when I drive on the highway. I was pretty disorganized before I did this program (mum was also still doing my laundry), and I can now get two kids fed, dressed, and ready for school in under an hour.

I was a slob before I got here but my host dads a neat freak, so I’m now a more considerate slob and I keep the mess to my room. I’m also much better with budgeting and saving my money to travel.

I can deal with tantrums and fistfights without screaming myself, and I’ve even perfected my “look of death” for when the kids misbehave in public.

While it’s definitely tough looking after kids (I now have so much more respect for parents), they really do brighten your day. Last Sunday I came into the kitchen, made some toast and sat beside my little girl. I was hung over, had a cold, and last nights eye-makeup was all over my face.

“Stacey?”

I grunted in her direction.

“You’re beautiful,”  she said.

I laughed.

Since they’re too young to understand sarcasm, I knew she was being sincere. Sometimes kids just know what you need to hear.

I’m leaving my host family in six weeks, and it’s been hard trying to explain to the kids why I can’t stay forever. My little boy told me that I can look after his kids when he grows up so I never have to leave.

I don’t know how I’m going to say goodbye to my two little munchkins, and I’m going to miss them like crazy when I leave. If you’re thinking about being an Au Pair you should definitely do it. It has its ups and downs like any other job, but you’ll never regret taking the opportunity.

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