Saturday, September 24, 2011

If you love Craigslist as much as I do...

then hopefully you will be as thrilled as I was to learn my newly discovered trick....the Craigslist helper!
The truth is, we are moving in less than a month, which means that this is the perfect opportunity for me to look for new treasures on Craigslist.  But to be perfectly honest,  I am always looking for fabulous Craigslist finds, whether I'm moving or not.  In fact, I search Craigslist just as much, if not more, as I surf Facebook, so really moving is just an excuse for me to do it openly.  And now that you know about my secret craigslist obsession, I want to let you in on another: the Craigslist Search Helper for Safari.  After adding this amazing gadget to my browser, now when I search on Craigslist, I can see pictures of items without even clicking on the link.  This makes my Craigslist time all the more productive and since installing, I have already discovered some astounding things I probably wouldn't have had the time or patience to find before.  This installment brings Craigslist to a whole new level.  In fact, I thought about keeping this little secret all to myself, but I knew it was just too good to share.  If you like perusing Craigslist as much as I do, I strongly encourage you to download the helper and I hope you enjoy the hunt!  I know I will.

Get your craigslist helper here...Craigslist search helper for firefox, chrome and safari

Friday, September 9, 2011

Hoi An - An Unexpected Highlight

Hoi An is the reason we travel the way we do.  It is the reason that for almost two full months, we rarely planned our time more than one day in advance.  It is the reason all we carried was a photocopied guide book, two empty calendars and one trusty mechanical pencil that helped us to fill in the boxes as we traveled north, east, south and west.  Without expecting it, these calendars became some of our most valuable possessions.  Not because we would have been lost without them, but because they were a constant reminder that we were 100% unscheduled, unplanned and absolutely free for an entire summer.  It wasn't until I started looking at these calendars, (where the only days that were filled in were the ones in my past) that I realized just how much of my daily life is dedicated to looking at calendars where the weeks ahead are already full.  This is a habit I now hope to break.  Nothing feels more freeing than recognizing the true potential of your future, and trust me when I say, the feeling is almost addictive.  It was not uncommon for us to take out our calendars over long bus trips, just to look at them because we knew doing so would make us giggle like nothing else. Unfolding those homemade papers gave us goosebumps, staring at the blank boxes gave us freedom and reading what we had filled in gave us pride and gratitude.  Now, as I read over them with nostalgic eyes, different places stand out for different reasons, and Hoi An is a place that resonates with me today.  Hoi An is one of those special places that we probably would have missed had we chosen to plan out our trip before hand.  But because the road before us was blank, we made the last minute decision to stop there and make it our home for a few days.  (Thank you Peter).  While we didn't do much while we were there, we did exactly as we pleased, and life was good.  We soaked in the culture of the Marble Mountains.  We spent two full days submerged in a swimming pool.  We drank fresh beer by the glass at sunset.  We strolled through the markets and haggled for fruit.  We walked aimlessly down the cobblestone streets and lantern lit bridges.  We met amazingly worldly people. We shared delicious food and insightful conversations.  We  enjoyed our time with them immensely.  Our eyes were open to the world around us and all the while we were fully conscious of the fact that everything we were experiencing could not have happened if we weren't open to it in the first place.  All of this was the direct result of a blank piece of paper.  Literally, it was all thanks to nothing.

This was our first sleeper bus experience in Southeast Asia.  We took this bus to Hoi An from Hanoi.  An interesting experience to say the least.  We slept in these little sleeper pods all night and they were very comfortable.  Despite the fact that we had to negotiate for our seats hardcore, this was the best sleeper bus experience we had our whole trip. 
Fresh beer, no preservatives, and 20 cents a glass.  Amazing.
The hotel we stayed in was amazing.  Rooms here were as cheap as $12 total.  Needless to say, we couldn't have been happier (or any cooler for that matter - it was so hot)!

The Marble Mountains

A very happy Buddha (Andy's favorite).

This view of this chamber as you walk in is absolutely breathtaking.
  It was not what we expected.  

The spiritual nature of this chamber is undeniable.  The buddha within was not the largest we had seen, but it was the most powerful one we encountered.  We spent a long time just sitting on a bench inside this chamber simply in awe of the Buddha's vast presence.  Everyone around us was praying.  It was a very peaceful experience.
One night we met up with our friends, Lenny, Liz and Jack.  We went out for dinner at this restaurant by the river where the owner serves a notorious 6 course meal and all the customer can specify is if they want meat, fish or vegetable.  It was one of the most expensive meals I think any of us had while traveling (costing almost $10 each), but it was definitely a meal worth splurging on and we had a wonderful time sharing our stories and getting to know each other.  
We enjoyed our dinner so much we ended up staying until closing time.  The owner had to kick us out, but even while doing so, he was in such high spirits,  he even had time to pose for a picture.
Jack took this photo of Me and Andy while we drank beers on the sidewalk outside a bar.  To get there we rode motorbikes in the middle of the night through the shut down streets of Hoi An (one of my favorite memories still).  When we arrived, we decided to take matters into our own hands and make our own outdoor seating area.  We laughed on the empty streets and took a series of unposed pictures. Everything was perfect.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

An Introspective Homecoming

We are officially back in New York and after six weeks of backpacking throughout Southeast Asia, I have returned a changed person.  To be perfectly honest, I really had no expectation of changing.  Which, in retrospect, is evidence enough that change is exactly what I needed.  Even while it was happening I wasn't truly aware of it.  In the past, I have had the privilege of traveling through a lot of Central and South America and some of those trips lasted almost a month.  So going into this trip, I knew what I was getting myself into.  I knew what culture shock was.  Or at least I thought I did.  However, this trip proved to be different, and particularly due to timing, it proved to be more life changing than any that have come before it.  Although it wasn't until our second day back in the states that I could even begin to comprehend it.

As of this moment, I am a little more than half way through documenting our trip on this blog.  Without a doubt I will finish blogging the entire thing, not only because it is one of the best ways for me to share our travels with our family and friends, but as it turns out, it is an extremely therapuetic practice for myself.  With complete and utter un-intention, my travel posts have somehow evolved into a deeply personal method that allows me to remember and reflect on all that I have experienced.  Truth be told, if I don't finish, I don't think I will fully process it all and that idea alone scares me like nothing else.  So for now, I need to take a break from the posts of destination highlights and write something different.  Something slightly more personal.  Something on the subject of homecoming.  A subject that brings to light everything from passion, to conflict, to purpose, to personal growth and to will.  All I can say is that this is a post that needed to be written and it needed to be written now.  It is a time sensitive issue, purely a state of mind and 100% reflective.  I have a sneaking suspision that there is an expiration date attached to my awakened mentality and because of it's fleeting nature, all I want to do is capture it in a jar and keep it in my possession forever.

Yet the question remains:  How can I possibly put the spectrum of emotions that I am feeling into words, let alone string them along to make sense?  It is almost inevitable that when you return from a long trip, one of the most commonly asked questions you're faced with is, "How does it feel to be home?"  Even while in transport back to the states, I knew I would be confronted by this question, but I didn't yet know how it would feel.  Now that I'm here, I am experiencing how it feels, but finding it difficult to articulate.  While I don't think I've been very successful in answering this question to most, I have realized that behind some of my responses (or even mere reactions) are the true underlying answers.

Sometimes I stammer because there are no words to describe the paradox of wanting to be here and there at the same time, or wanting to be the me that was there here.  Sometimes I give one word answers because it's easier to convey how amazing it is to see everyone I love, than it is to explain how I feel more at home with them than I do sitting on my own couch in my own home.  Sometimes I sigh and then smile and laugh because I feel relieved to know that I am growing into the person I vowed I would become and because finding myself feels like paradise.  And sometimes I cry because I feel more human than I have in a very long time.  Some of my tears are a direct result of the vast amount of love, compassion, and pure happiness I have recently endured, and some of them come from a place where I fear that the mentality I have gained will discreetly slip away if I don't make life changing efforts to maintain it.  I don't know what it is specifically that I have seen, experienced, questioned, or conquered that has made me feel this way, but I do know that this trip has challenged me to my core and has left the word "priority" resonating in my head.   I've come to a much needed and unexpected turning point in my life; a gift of insight has been bestowed upon me so that I may re-prioritize myself, and what doesn't help to define a person, if not for their priorities?  I know who I am and who I want to be, but I also know that this type of personal growth takes an immense amount of strong will and outside support to sustain.

Like I said, it wasn't until our second day back that I felt like an altered version of myself.  Walking side-by-side with Andy to the farmers market, I finally met my realization. I stopped in my tracks, turned to him and confessed, "If I don't continue to take trips like this, I know I am not going to like the person I become."  I believe in this statement wholeheartedly, but it is the most personal statement I could possibly make.  I don't want to give off the opinion that in order to feel fulfilled one must travel the world or that taking a long trip will change your life just because this one happened to change mine.  This post and that culmination is the conclusion of me taking a risk and experiencing a passion of mine at a pivotal point in my life; a passion that happens to be ignited by traveling to a new world from one that feels all too familiar.

"Buy the ticket, take the ride."  - Hunter S. Thompson.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Cruise in Ha Long Bay - Our Vacation from a Vacation

Yes, that's exactly what this was...a vacation from a vacation. Well, at least that's what I like to call it.

For three days and two nights we decided to abandon the backpacker lifestyle and live all inclusively on a little cruiser inside of Ha Long Bay. While it was one of the most indulgent things we did on our trip, it luckily was worth every penny (I've heard horror stories from other travelers) and I understand whole heartedly why Ha Long Bay is nominated to be one of the seven wonders of the world. Everything about it is magical and mysterious, from the thousands of limestone islets to the tranquil emerald waters they jet out from.

Just being there makes you feel slightly whimsical, like you've stumbled into a pirate's secret cove and there's a hidden treasure to be found. It is indeed a breathtaking place and the sight of it alone causes you to marvel at the way in which our world is formed. But behind this wondrous bay is a story that cannot help but captivate you while you are in the presence of these vast karsts.  Legend has it that long ago, during a war with Chinese invaders, the gods sent down a family of dragons to help defend the Vietnamese. To help fight off the Chinese, the dragons spit jade and jewels into the sea, forming the limestone islands to protect the land (now known as Vietnam) and the people. Now it is believed that the mother dragon dwells in Ha Long Bay, while her children live in the bays surrounding. Now I know it's just a tale, but I swear, when you're there, this story really does resonate with you. That's just how miraculous this place really is.

Our cruiser (also known as a "junk") had around eight cabins, a dining room and a top deck that was perfect for lounging.  During our days, we visited Surprise Cave (the best one to see), kayaked around islands and through caves, toured a fishing village, an oyster farm, a beach, and hiked one of the limestone formations. At night, we took a cooking class, lounged on the top deck, swam in the turquoise waters, sang karaoke and even went fishing for squid (although we never caught any). All in all, it was an excellent mini-vacation, but what made it even better was the amazing group of people we got luckily grouped with. From the very beginning we were quite the loud bunch, which is not surprising considering our group was a mix of Australians and Americans. I can't remember a time when laughs didn't fill the air, and all of our sit down meals felt like big family occasions. Yes, we got to do incredible things on this cruise, but I honestly don't think we would have had as great a time as we did had we not met Angela and her girls, the Baker boys, Matty, Paul and Chu. Sometimes, it's not where you are or what you do that matters. It's who you're with. And this time I was truly blessed to be with some of the nicest people I've ever met traveling, along with the man of my dreams by my side.

We hiked/climbed to the top of one of the limestone mountains from the beach you can see below us.
Of course it started raining the moment we got to the top, which made for a very slippery descent, but it was still worth it.  It always is.  

On our first day, we went kayaking around a lot of the islands.  I did very little work (I'm not really a lover of Kayaking), but Andy was amazing.  Kayaking in front of us are the Baker Boys, a father and son traveling together from Australia who are both so kind and so sweet.  It was an honor to meet them.  

We went kayaking through this cave on the first day and I thought it was so cool until...

...our 2nd day when we kayaked pretty much on our own.  Of course we went straight for the smallest, darkest caves we could find.  Without our headlamp on we were in wading in complete and utter darkness listening to the snickering bats above us, but with our headlamp on, we could see them flying all over the place.  Sometimes right in between us.  There were definitely moments where I thought our kayak was going to tip due to us trying to avoid being hit by a bat, but lucky for us it didn't.
This is "Surprise Cave" or "Amazing Cave" and once you walk through all 3 chambers you understand how it got it's name.  It feels like you are no place a person has ever been before, like where the movie, "Journey to the Center of the Earth" was filmed.  It is astonishing and absolutely humongous.  

Our "cruise" ship.
This is where we ate all of our family meals.  
Our cabin.
The captain let me drive the boat.  Literally, within moments of me taking over, we were already heading straight for an island.  He tried to explain to me how to steer it, but in Vietnamese, his directions didn't do me much good.
A little relaxing on the top deck before dinner.  
One of the most fun things we did (in my opinion) was jump off the top deck of the boat into the water.  The pictures don't really do it justice, but that top deck is about 40 feet high.  IT IS HIGH!  I stalled for a long time before I finally jumped (my fear of heights had slightly paralyzed me), but I finally did it and it was AWESOME.  You don't hit the water as soon as you expect to and it is exhilarating.

Cooking Class 101:  How to Make Spring Rolls.
Angela is coaching Andy as he rolls his first spring roll.
Dinner time!  
Boy did Ocean (our guide) like Karaoke.  ESPECIALLY Brittany Spears!
But Ocean wasn't the only one who got into it....
We were slightly rushed when taking this picture so Peter and I snuck in by the back.  Sadly, not everyone made this group shot, but these are some of the special people who made our Ha Long Bay Cruise so worthwhile!

I felt blessed not only to have been there, but to have been there with Andy.
Being in an enchanting place with an enchanting person is a very powerful thing.  

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Hustle and Bustle of Hanoi (and all the Charm in Between)

This is what I will always picture when I think of Hanoi. It was our first stop in Vietnam and I will admit, coming from Laos, we were a little culture shocked when we first arrived. Motorbikes whizzed by our faces and incessant honking filled the air. Fortunately, it didn't take long for us to adjust and before the sun set, we were enjoying noodle soup and a cold beer curbside in the Old Quarter. But to say Hanoi is fast paced is an understatement, culture shocked or not. It is the type of place you would believe the tazmanian devil is from, that is, if the tazmanian devil rode a motorbike.

We were flabbergasted by the number of motorbikes we saw and how they navigated intersections with ease and without road rage. Crossing the street became the first (and most) important skill to learn. The secret was to KEEP walking and let the bikes do the work, as hard as it may be. In fact, it's easy to see how the whole city of Hanoi is the type of place that can pass you by in a blur if you let it, but it's also easy to see it's charm if you're open to it. On our first night there we went down to beer corner for a sidewalk beer and some traffic watching. Mid sip, I noticed something missing. It was my flip flop. When I looked down I realized my flip flop was not only in the hands of a Vietnamese man, but it was already almost fully mended with a new sole glued to the bottom. Believe me, my $2 Old Navy flip flops did not need mending. Without hesitating, I grabbed it out of his hands and ripped off the rubber he had already adhered to the bottom. With hand gestures and smiles he tried to convince me my flip flops were worth fixing, but I kindly declined. Then, together, we chuckled genuinely and he went on his way. Many may find this annoying or even aggressive, but I chose to find it charming, and the charm of Hanoi is everywhere if you know where to look... It's in all the women who cook noodle soup on the side of the road. (I swear, they would feed you forever if you let them. One woman even fed Andy herbal tea upon hearing him sniffle). It's in the little plastic stools we sat in each night (even though we broke two of them). It's in the polite manner in which drivers honk (yes, honking here is polite) and it's in all the haggling games the people play. And boy do they play a lot of games...

Another game! Standing on a street corner one moment, wearing this the next. Literally, in an instant, this woman dressed Andy up in her getup and then tried to get us to buy some fruit. Lucky for her we were hungry. Lucky for me, Andy haggled the whole time forgetting he was still wearing her hat. This was the perfect game for picture taking.

Location:Hanoi, Vietnam