The End of the Journey and New Beginnings

The new year is well under way and my Asia adventure has come to an end. I am now back in Flagstaff and I have been thinking more and more about what kind of year I want it to be. I realize that in my heart I’m just a homebody with a little touch of wanderlust. I love the safety net of the routine and familiar, but on occasion I get a wild idea in my head. I know that for me, aimlessly traveling the world is not a sustainable lifestyle. I think one big lesson from my journey is that sometimes it really is ok to be completely ordinary. Right now I intend to enjoy all the simple things that make my life extraordinary like community, family and every day joyful moments.

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This creature brings so much joy into my life every single day!!

This has, however, been a much needed break for me. I am surprised at how rapidly I had become completely jaded and cynical about my work as an ICU nurse. After only two years in the profession, I was already feeling like my job was at times futile and I was just a part of a machine that wheeled patients in and out on a conveyor belt of misery. I needed to take a step back, get some perspective and think about my options.

Maybe it was the break or all the inspiring medical books I have been reading, but after five months I am feeling more hopeful. Yes, our medical system is broken in a lot of ways. Yes, we make mistakes and sometimes our mistakes hurt the patients who put their trust in us. Yes, the medical field is full of uncertainty. But this is the system we have and until there is something better, the only way to make changes is to get involved. We as nurses have the unique power to stand between the machine and the people. Sometimes more than administering medications or titrating drips, our job is to help our patients retain their humanity in the face of overwhelming adversity. Being down in the trenches of floor nursing makes it hard to remember that, but I want to try. I want to do better. I want to learn from my mistakes, improve my practice and somehow work to make the system better.

In order to accomplish this goal I think I need to find a way to have a better balance. It is pretty hard to feel motivated when you are exhausted all the time from stressful night shifts. It is also hard not to hate your job when it takes away so much from the other things in life that bring you joy. Maybe this just means being more mindful in my work and getting more involved with the medical community. Maybe this means working part time, changing what unit I work in or moving to a different hospital.

Whatever I do with nursing, I want to make some goals to be more mindful and present. I want to remember to be less cynical even when patients are throwing punches and the system is actively trying to make everyone’s job harder. I figure I can either complain and let the situation make me angry, or I can let it go and just try to make things a little better. In the end, I really don’t have much to complain about. I can drink the tap water, have an insulated home with heating in the winter, the air is clean to breathe, I am financially secure and am I am surrounded by the love of friends and family.

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Fun backpacking trip with my sister to Havasupai in February.

 

Sometimes I feel like maybe the Universe has a funny way of telling you things. On my journey back to the States I was prematurely reintroduced to nursing by a medical incident on my flight over the Pacific. Somewhere over Russia, while I was attempting to uncomfortably sleep in my seat, an overhead page went out for anyone medically trained to come to the back of the plane. Myself and another ICU nurse on board headed back to find a passenger slumped on the floor with pale, cool, clammy skin, chest pain and shortness of breath. The flight attendants had already put oxygen on. I felt a weak, slow radial pulse and braced myself for maybe more than I had bargained for. Thankfully, our little patient started to come around with the oxygen. The flight attendants got their on-call MD on the phone and handed us their fairly impressive first aid kit. I pulled the AED out and put it on the floor close by. Have to ward off those evil spirits you know. My new ICU nurse friend gave the patient an aspirin per the on-call MD. The next hour was spent sitting on the floor of the plane taking vital signs and chatting with the flight attendants. If you think nurses have crazy work stories you should talk to a flight attendant sometime! After a while our patient felt well enough to take the oxygen off and went back to their seat. Considering the only thing they had consumed since departing the airport was a little bit of wine, we all concluded it was probably more of a vasovagal episode than an MI. I still hope they see a cardiologist sometime in the near future. As I returned to my own seat my mind ran through the usual lists; discharge concerns and studies I wanted like a STAT EKG, troponins and a cardiology consult. This was the moment I remembered I do love nursing.

Back in Flagstaff I am working on putting my life back together. I forgot how hard re-entry can be! Find a house to live in, get hired back at the hospital, open five months worth of mail, navigate the pitfalls of relationships. For the time being I have ended up in a per diem position in my old ICU and have just started picking up some shifts in the ED. It does feel funny to have landed back where I started especially because I feel like a different person, with different goals and many new lessons learned. But as I was preparing to leave Asia, nothing else made more sense than Flagstaff. It is home, after all, and a good jumping off point for whatever comes next. As for what that is, I’m still not sure.

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Back in my element in the desert Southwest.

It is in my personality to dislike uncertainty. I like to have things planned out. But if this trip taught me anything, it is to be more flexible and more willing to go with the flow. As Matt and Brandy will tell you, I struggled with this the entire time and I’m sure it could be annoying. I’m practicing sitting with the uncertainty and just letting life unfold. Maybe that was the real lesson of driving a scooter in death defying Chinese traffic. Flow like water, embrace the chaos and know that eventually everything will turn out ok.

 

 

 

 

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Back to the Green Climbers Home

Better late than never. Here is the last blog post of my travels in Asia. I have now been back in the United States for about a month, but started writing this in the Shanghai airport on my way back home.

After a short stay in Bangkok, Matt and I headed to Thakhek, Laos for two weeks of climbing resort life. It felt funny to retrace my steps from a year before. I remember feeling so nervous that first time catching the bus to cross the Mekong River into a new country. After four months of travel in Asia it felt easy and straightforward, especially after dealing with cross country travel in China.

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Bangkok skyline at sunset.

On our flight out of Bangkok, we met two other climbers from France. Chloe and Felecian would end up being some of our favorite people at the Climbers Home. After we all figured out we were headed to the same place we shared taxi and tuk tuk rides. Arriving back at the Green Climbers Home felt like a sort of homecoming to me. After all, this is the place that inspired this crazy trip in the first place. It felt like an appropriate last stop on my Asia adventure.

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Funky limestone at Elephant wall.

The next two weeks were spent living the easy life of the Climbers Home. Lazy breakfast was followed by morning climbing. When the sun hit the morning cliffs we would all head back to camp for lunch and a siesta. Maybe we would head out for some evening pitches before sunset. Then it was time for dinner and plenty of Beer Lao before heading to bed early. Early on in our stay we found out that Felecian is a real life professional magician. Some evenings he would entertain Camp 2 with mind blowing impromptu magic shows. I still have no idea how he always finds my card in the deck. We also ran into a bunch of friends from Yangshuo and Li Ming. No matter where you are, the climbing world is small.

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The view from our bungalow at Camp 2.

I jumped back on some old projects and decided to focus my efforts on my favorite 7a called Schwitzerland, which translates to “sweat land” in German. It is a beautiful climb with some powerful and technical moves, but very safe falls. My Yangshuo climbing buddy Caitlin would approve! Matt proceeded to onsight pretty much all of my old projects and then seemed very content to be my belay slave. Thanks boyfriend!

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Scoping out the moves on Schwitzerland while taking a rest. Photo by Matt

On our first rest day, Matt and I headed into town with some new friends Jace and Alex. We spent the afternoon hanging out by the Mekong River and ate a delicious Thai family style dinner. After dark we found a little old tuk tuk driver to drive us the 15 kilometers back to camp who turned out to be the best driver in all of Thakhek. As we rolled out of town he revved the engine and started hauling ass past all the other traffic on the road. He flew through a roundabout causing his passengers to hold on for dear life and started cackling when he saw our expressions in the rear view mirror. As we flew down the highway with our laughing Lao driver I looked out the back of the tuk tuk to see bright stars above us in the sky. Its funny, but I realized that some of the happiest moments of my life have been on that stretch of highway between Thakhek and the Green Climbers Home. There is a sense of freedom in driving out into the limestone karsts at night. As Matt and I always like to say, it feels like you are getting away with something.

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Mekong River sunset.

Back at camp we started climbing with some amazing people from Portland named Chris and Tamara. We spent a couple mornings working on Schwitzerland together and they finally convinced Matt to try some routes at the famous Roof. Sometime during our last week Chris and Tamara were introduced to the game Settlers of Catan. Chris became instantly addicted and there were a couple of days where we all played multiple games. Many mornings and evenings were spent trying to build a civilization with wheat, wood, ore, sheep and bricks. Perhaps my proudest accomplishment of this trip was actually winning a game of Catan! It has never happened before and might never happen again.

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Lunchtime siesta after a round of Catan.

Another afternoon we hitchhiked into town with Tamara and Chris in order to get pizza at an expat run restaurant. I had been there last year and the pizza turned out to be just as good as I remembered! We also had time to visit the market to pick up plenty of fresh fruit and stopped on the highway on our way back to purchase watermelons. I do love fruit in Southeast Asia. It will be one of the things I will miss the most.

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Hitchhiking into town for the day. A surprisingly reliable mode of transport.

On our last full day I finally redpointed Schwitzerland! Last year when I left the Green Climbers Home I had just fallen off the same route and did not feel ready to leave. As we woke up on our final morning this time, I had a deep sense of contentment and completion. I finally felt really ready to go home. We said our goodbyes to new friends and caught a tuk tuk to the bus station. Matt and I parted ways in the Don Mueng airport. He was headed for Korea and Japan while I was headed to a hostel for a night of sleep before catching my flight to Albuquerque. I felt strange to watch my travel buddy walk away and catch a taxi by myself.

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Finally sticking the move! Photo by Matt.

As always, the ending of something is bitter sweet. I’m sure I will start work again and wish I had never left Asia. But as I boarded my flight the next morning I felt ready for what comes next. After all, the adventure isn’t over. I remember talking to my dear friend Becca before leaving on this trip. I was unhappy with life in Flagstaff and I remember saying that I wanted a life of big adventure. She told me that maybe I don’t need big adventures to make life meaningful, but I can be happy with the little adventures that happen every day. I certainly don’t regret uprooting everything for an epic journey, but I think I’m ready to let the little adventures happen. Weekend trips, coffee dates, family gatherings, walks with Juniper and movie nights.

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Green Climbers Home crew. Photo by Matt.

Goodbye Asia. It has been a wild ride!

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Goats and limestone. Photo by Matt

 

Grateful for a Little Island Called Koh Yao Noi

After our plane landed in Phuket, Matt and I caught a taxi to Bang Rong pier and managed to get tickets for the last boat out to Koh Yao Noi for the day. Before boarding the boat, we had time to grab a couple of Singha beers. As we embarked across the Andaman Sea at sunset we cracked the cold beers and enjoyed the feeling of getting away with something. Sabai sabai my friends.

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Once on the island we made our way to Namtok Bungalows. The past two times Matt had visited the island he had stayed in these simple bungalows, which are pretty much open to the elements, have no air conditioning and are surrounded by standing water which breed hordes of mosquitos. Considering Matt’s intense dislike to heat and his legitimately severe reaction to mosquito bites, I was surprised and impressed about this choice. Upon arriving we ate dinner, cranked up a fan in our room and crawled under our mosquito net for the night. Three nights later we ended up having to find accommodations elsewhere because Namtok was full, but I would stay there again in a heartbeat. The relaxed atmosphere and incredibly friendly staff were big selling points.

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Beach life. Photo by Matt.

Our first day on the island was spent exploring so I could get my bearings. We rented motorbikes from Namtok and did a tour around the island stopping on a beautiful beach for lunch and swimming. Lazy hours were spent reading in hammocks and drinking fruit shakes, but it is not in mine or Matt’s personality to lounge on beaches for more than one day at a time. Both of us agree that we would be terrible at vacationing if it weren’t for climbing.

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So, the following morning we jumped on our motorbikes and headed out to the land-access climbing behind Paradise resort. The off-road scooter ride turned out to be pretty epic by my standards. Thank goodness for Molly, Becca, Chase, Artec and the Flagstaff Bike Rev ladies ride!! I don’t think I would have made it without my humble mountain biking experience. Even so, I was terrified most of the way.

Eventually we made it to the resort parking lot. Unfortunately the resort management has banned climbers from walking through resort property to get to the cliffs. As a result, the approach has become an hour-long slog through the mosquito infested jungle. After getting lost only once and sweating enough to soak through our clothes, we made it to Big Tree wall and roped up for a multipitch called Looney Tunes. The route started by climbing between and then above two massive tufas. It then continued up three more pitches with interesting movement and wild features. As with pretty much all multipitches on Big Tree, the descent was tricky because the route was drastically overhung (many also traverse). In order to get back down you have to clip back in to bolts on the way down and then use some serious teamwork to get both climbers back to the next anchor. As we rappelled the last pitch the sky unleashed a torrential tropical downpour. The next couple hours were spent hiking through the muddy, wet jungle and then riding motorbikes up and down slippery, wet hills. I did shed some tears, but later admitted to Matt that I would consider it type 2 fun by morning.

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The very involved approach to Big Tree. Off road scooting, jungle slogging, ladder climbing and sea cliff traversing. Just a little bit of type 2.
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Following up the first pitch of Looney Tunes. Photo by Matt.
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High above the ocean on pitch 3. Photo by Matt.

For dinner that night we stumbled upon a hidden treasure of a restaurant called the Sea Gypsy. It is owned by the sweetest Thai woman on the face of the earth. We would return for many more dinners over the next week. The Sea Gypsy’s favorite joke was to zap mosquitos with her bug zapper and ask us if we wanted barbecue mosquitos for dinner.

New Years Eve was spent taking a little kayak trip out to a beach on a nearby island, swimming in the surf and having a date night. We went out to dinner at a restaurant called La Luna, which is an Italian place run by expats. They make truly delicious thin crust, wood oven pizza. After many months of primarily Asian food, the pizza was welcome relief. A good number of nights were spent there drinking wine, stuffing our faces with cheesy, crispy pizza and indulging in fabulous desserts.

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Oh La Luna. So delicious, so magical. Real wine, cheese and wood oven pizza, yes please!

After New Year’s dinner, Matt and I relaxed in our bungalow until we heard the beginning of celebratory fireworks. We both ran out to the beach across the street and were greeted with a fireworks display on every visible beach. Both above our heads and out across the sea there were brilliant explosions of colorful light.

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Last day of 2017!

So turns out there are some climbing access issues on the island. Climbing used to be a big source of tourism on Koh Yao Noi, but about three years ago the National Park that includes the sea cliff climbing, called Phang-nga, got a new manager. He initiated a complete ban on climbing. From a news article Matt found, the manager’s reason for the climbing ban was that the cliffs were “too steep” and therefore too dangerous. Seriously? We decided to try our luck despite the questionable legality. Climbers are not really known for being the most law-abiding bunch anyway and some Facebook communications with locals were encouraging. The climbing directly behind the resort can be accessed by scooter and hiking, but the real gems of Koh Yao Noi are cliffs only accessible by boat. This is where things get challenging, but after a few more missions to Paradise and finding a large enough climbing crew, we managed to get a boat out to a magical place called Grateful Wall. We spent two afternoons there climbing and swimming.

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Rare photo of Matt climbing by Magali.
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Too hot to climb? Go for a swim!
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The crew scoping out the cliff. Photo by Matt.

Koh Yao Noi ended up being just as magical as Matt described. The climbing, the food, the new friends and the local community were wonderful. The crew at Namtok, some interesting expat characters and our favorite Sea Gypsy made us feel a part of the little community. Favorite places to eat include Kaya and the Sea Gypsy for authentic Thai and La Luna for some incredible pizza.

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Pretty excited to stuff our faces with pizza.

To make things even better, I got a message from my old friend Brock that he and his girlfriend Heather would be coming to Koh Yao Noi in time for us to meet up. I hadn’t seen Brock in years, so it was super special to get to meet up for dinner and beers on the other side of the world. No matter how many times it happens, I am always pleasantly surprised at how small the world can be.

Next and potentially last stop, Bangkok for a day and then back to the Green Climbers Home in Laos! This is the climbing area that started it all, so I’m pretty excited to go back.

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Farewell Koh Yao Noi!

Christmas in Singapore

My last night in Vietnam was spent feeling miserably ill. Matt, being a true gentleman and saint, went on an expedition to purchase Tylenol, which is a total life saver when you have a raging fever and chills. Never again will I blow off the power of antipyretics to alleviate pain.

I awoke the next morning feeling mildly better, but still weak and nauseated. Matt helped me pack up my belongings and brought me bread and bananas for breakfast. We then embarked to the airport to catch our flight to Singapore.

A little backstory as to why we were headed to Singapore. In 2014 Matt went to a conference in Poland and met a Danish man named Mads. He then ended up visiting Mads, his wife Michelle and their sons Elias and Albert in Denmark. Matt’s Danish family then moved to Singapore. So we were headed to the tropics to spend Christmas with them. I had never met the Danes, but I was excited to have Christmas with a family and in a home instead of a hotel room.

We made it to the Singapore airport after our short flight and breezed through the most painless and efficient customs I have EVER encountered. As we picked up our bags Matt spotted a small, blond boy jumping up and down in excitement. That would be Albert. We were greeted on the other side of customs with hugs and an onslaught of excited chatter from the boys. So began our Christmas holiday.

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Michelle, Mads, Elias and Albert in the back doing a goofy slow motion run. Because who can resist being silly when Matt points a gigantic camera lens at you. Photo by Matt

After I had nursed my stomach back to health with ginger ale and bread, the rest of our week was spent enjoying the beautiful city of Singapore with this truly lovely family. I felt so welcomed into their home and warmly included in the Christmas festivities. It was also wonderful to enjoy home cooked meals which included rare delicacies like cheese, butter and bread!

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Marina Bay

One big highlight was visiting the Super Tree Grove in the center of the city. Matt and I had seen the trees featured in an episode of Planet Earth. Turns out they have a special light show in the evening. A little bit crowded due to the holiday, but still beautiful to see.

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Super Trees at night and a really fancy hotel in the background.

Our Danish family celebrates Christmas primarily on Christmas Eve. We spent the morning doing last minute shopping in a few of Singapore’s labyrinth-like malls. Christmas dinner was delicious turkey, mashed potatoes and the most amazing gravy. Traditional dessert was a creamy rice and almond pudding with blackberry sauce. A single whole almond is hidden in the pudding. Whoever gets in is supposed to hide it until all the pudding has been eaten and then they get an extra gift. Elias apparently always wins, and he did find the almond this year, but snuck it to Albert so his little brother could get the almond gift. Before presents could be opened we sang Danish Christmas carols circled around the tree decorated with real candles.

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Real candles on a real tree. I love my New Mexico luminarias, but this is a beautiful tradition too. Photo by Matt.

Albert and Elias had lots of fun laughing at me and Matt as we fumbled our way through unfamiliar words. We then all joined hands and had Albert lead us in a conga line through the house. We went into every room taking sharp turns in a snaking line with everyone laughing. Apparently this is a family tradition for the Danes. Then we all got to open presents! Even though I missed my New Mexico Christmas with luminarias and red chile, it was really fun to learn about someone else’s Christmas traditions.

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Our lovely Danish family! Photo by Matt.

Our Christmas present to the Danes was to take the boys out rock climbing and make dinner with them while Mads and Michelle got to have a date night. We made the long bus trek out to a climbing gym and got the boys all set up for a climbing lesson. It was really fun to watch Elias progress from stomping his feet around like a gumby to climbing up the last few routes gracefully with some more advanced footwork. Albert and I ended up playing a game of add-on at the bouldering wall, each of us trying to challenge the other to go a little higher. Back at home we made quesadillas and fajitas, complete with tomatillo salsa and guacamole. My craving for Mexican food has been ridiculous. Thankfully my stomach was recovered enough at this point to totally stuff my face and smother my plate in heavenly salsa. Matt and I both had a really fun time hanging out with the boys and were happy to see Mads and Michelle come home giggling with smiles on their faces after dinner at a fine cheese-and-wine place in town.

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New Mexican food feast!
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Elias demolishing an impressively overstuffed burrito. Sorry guys, had to have one goofy photo in there!

Singapore was like coming up for air after being submerged in Asia for months. The city is pretty much as Westernized as you can get, but actually much more clean than any city I have ever been to. Matt and I were both blown away by how beautiful the buildings are. I’m not usually impressed by architecture, but in Singapore, every building was unique, beautiful and most included vegetation of some sort. There were roof top gardens, hanging vines and trees in open spaces halfway up sky scrapers.

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Singapore skyline at Marina Bay.

There is a local joke that the national past times in Singapore are shopping and eating. We took full advantage of the local cuisine and enjoyed quite a few amazing meals. Thanks to Mads and Michelle for taking us out to some fantastic dinners!

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My Christmas gift to Matt was a special Eggs Benedict breakfast!

In addition to enjoying the city, I loved getting to meet Mads, Michelle, Albert and Elias. We ended up coordinating our departure from Singapore with their New Years vacation plans to Thailand. We all took the same flight to Phuket. After clearing Thai customs we said goodbye and went our separate ways. I was a little surprised to almost start crying as Matt and I found a cab to take us to our next destination.

Once again, it is the people you meet along the way that make the journey worthwhile. I am so grateful to have spent my Christmas holiday with such a lovely family. It really made being so far away from my home and my actual family a lot easier to bear. I think Matt said it best, “It’s very special to get to pretend I’m part of a family in a far-away land.” I miss my actual family immensely, but am still grateful for this experience in my life. Next Christmas Mom and Dad! I promise!!

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Merry Christmas everyone!!

Next stop is a little island in the Andaman Sea called Koh Yao Noi. Matt has been here twice before on Asia climbing trips and has been raving about it. Excited for some tropical beaches and limestone cliffs!

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Goodbye Singapore!

Vietnam

On December 13, Matt and I finally left China. We packed up our apartment and gave away or sold the few things we had acquired while in the country, including our trusty scooter. Our last morning was spent hanging out with our friends and recovering from a birthday/ goodbye party the night before.

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Brandy putting the finishing touches on French toast cake.

After a brutal day of hungover travel, Matt and I reached our hotel in the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi. We decided to splurge a little and stay in a nicer hotel in the main tourist area of the city. It was absolute heaven to finally lie down in a soft bed after months of sleeping on what felt like a solid board of plywood in China. We spent one full day in Hanoi enjoying the delicious food and relaxing. Following a tip from Brandy, I looked up some Michelin starred restaurants. Matt and I had a relaxing lunch at a French restaurant called La Badiane, which has some amazing French-Asian fusion food.

The next day we set out for Cat Ba Island, which is a four hour journey from Hanoi. Vietnam does not yet have much established climbing, but we wanted to do at least a little while we were in the country. Fortunately, some of our friends from our apartment building in Yangshuo would also be on the island, so we made plans to meet up.

Our first evening and day on Cat Ba Island proved to be a little stressful. Turns out, even if you have been living in China for two months, traveling in Asia can still be difficult. It is funny how you cross an invisible line and all of a sudden you are surrounded by a completely different culture with a new language and writing style. Anyway, we found a decent hotel amidst the swarm of backpackers and tourists, rented scooters, bumbled through getting petrol and made our way out into the mountains to climb in an area called Butterfly Valley. The scooter ride itself proved to be a challenge for me. I had gotten used to driving my heavy and clunky scooter on the flat terrain in Yangshuo. Our drive out to Butterfly Valley turned out be very mountainous with rolling, steep hills. Driving a much lighter scooter up and down narrow, winding paths was a frightening and new experience. I rode the brakes on the downhills and wished desperately that I was riding my mountain bike.

We eventually made it to Butterfly Valley. The climbing area is on land owned by some local farmers who have a deal with the company Asia Outdoors to allow climbers on the cliffs for compensation. The farmers will also make you lunch and have a fridge full of soda and beer for sale. Matt and I sat down to a fresh Vietnamese lunch and then made the short walk across the cow pasture to the cliff. The climbing was decent and it was nice to have a beautiful pasture back drop. We met some new friends at the crag and had beers at the farm house after climbing.

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Butterfly Valley sunset. 

The next day Matt and I got a late start, but eventually made it back out to Butterfly Valley. The scooter ride felt much more manageable this time and even a little fun. We ended up just climbing a two pitch multi pitch complete with minor shenanigans. I made a V1 boulder problem out of Matt in order to climb back from hanging in space to the anchors on the descent. We also watched a farmer wrangle some gigantic fish out of the pond below the cliff for dinner.

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Scenic views and scooters. 

As the sun got low in the sky, Matt and I rode our scooters back towards town to try to find a nice place for sunset beverages. We did find a nice bar with a good view, but unfortunately they were playing some really awful Christmas pop music. Terrible Christmas music and garish decorations seemed to be a theme on the island and unfortunately all over the rest of Asia.

 

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The view was beautiful, even if the ambiance was not. 

The next day, we finally coordinated with our friends Nick, Josh and Matt T. to spend a day climbing out on one of the islands in Ha Long Bay. This bay is a tourist destination famous for its striking limestone formations. Deep water soloing (climbing above deep water without ropes and falling into the water) is one of the biggest attractions, but since it was out of season due to tides, we would have to miss out this time. Our friend Nick is American born Vietnamese and has lived on Cat Ba to work for Asia Outdoors for a few seasons. He hired a guy to take us out to a tiny beach on a basket boat. We spent the afternoon enjoying the mellow climbing and hanging out on the beach with friends.

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Climbing a route called Barefoot Vietnamese overlooking Moody Beach. Photo by Matt.
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Relaxing on the basket boat after a great day of climbing. 

That evening, Nick continued to play tour guide and showed us where to get some amazing street food. Even though Cat Ba is super touristy and the climbing is not world class, hanging out with Nick and Josh made the journey totally worth it.

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Vietnamese coffee = Velvety rocket fuel.

The next few days were spent back in Hanoi. Matt worked a little while I found a yoga studio and explored the town.

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Cute yoga studio and cafe hiding down a dingy alley.

One night we ventured away from the tourist drag to sample some grilled chicken street food. This proved to be yet another bit of amazing beta from Nick. The chicken was grilled to perfection and smothered in sweet sauce. Even the chicken feet were surprisingly good. Dessert was grilled loaves of bread coated in butter and honey. So good! The next night we went for the opposite dining experience and had a fancy dinner back at La Badiane. It was interesting to have dinner sitting on plastic stools in a dark street one night and then being faced with a meal eaten with three forks, two spoons and two knives the next. My parents would not be proud. I’m pretty sure I ate my first course with the wrong spoon. Sorry Dad.

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Some serious cutlery decisions. Chopsticks are by far easier.

On our last morning, we visited Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton. Back when I first told my dad I would be visiting Hanoi he sent me this text: “Never thought I would say this when I was in college, but enjoy your stay in Hanoi.” I didn’t realize the full humor of that statement until I learned a little more about the history of the conflict between Vietnam and the United States. My dad was a student at the Air Force Academy during the Vietnam War, so the fact that I visited this particular prison as a tourist seemed especially impactful to me. I appreciate that I am now able to peacefully visit such an interesting place.

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The infamous Hanoi Hilton.

Matt and I had made plans to hang out with friends on our last night in Hanoi. I wanted to meet up with Trang, a friend from my last climbing trip to Laos, and Matt wanted to hang with Duc, a Vietnamese climber we had met in Yangshuo. We all met at the local climbing gym, VietClimb and were planning on dinner and drinks after. Unfortunately, I began to feel truly terrible on the taxi ride over. I attempted to climb a few routes, but my stomach went into full rebellion. We had to call it an early night, bail on our friends and I spent the next couple of hours curled up on the hotel bed with nausea, fever and chills. So it goes. Maybe one solid bout of stomach flu in Asia is just unavoidable. I am super sad I didn’t get to spend more time with Trang, but I’ll probably still eat the street food anyway.

All things said and done, I enjoyed Vietnam. It is a scenic country with amazing food and friendly people. I would love to return someday for a longer stay. I feel very fortunate that I can now visit this beautiful country when it would have been unheard of for my parent’s generation.

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Ha Long Bay.

Reflections on This Crazy Place Called China

Our time here in China is drawing to a close. Plane tickets are booked, visas have been granted and we are getting ready to depart. I can’t believe that I have been here for two solid months. I remember visiting China in my teens with my family. It was my first experience of traveling outside the USA. I was awestruck at how different life could be in a foreign country. I remember longing to know more about the day-to-day routines of the people I saw as my family was shepherded to tourist sites in big cities. I think that family trip so long ago is what sparked my interest in international travel.

I will admit, China is sometimes ridiculous. I think at some point, if you are here long enough, you see enough crazy things that eventually it all seems pretty normal. But sometimes as we are driving the scooter through traffic, we will realize that it is indeed crazy to have people driving on the wrong side of the street, while someone else disregards the stoplight to speed through an intersection and a pedestrian decides that the best place to walk is in the middle of a lane of traffic. Some things I love, some things I hate and most things I have a love-hate relationship with. So here are some lists of those things that have left an impression on me.

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Karsts along the Li River.

Things I Hate

  • Pollution. It is a real problem here. Inefficient vehicles and electricity powered by coal are not good things.
  • Expect to get second-hand smoke in your face on a daily basis. It’s not rude here to exhale your poisonous cigarette smoke in a crowded place or a full car and smoking is still allowed inside EVERY building.
  • Trash fires. Everything you throw away gets lit on fire eventually. Sometimes the scent of burning plastic blows directly at our apartment or the crag. Breathe it in.
  • They do eat dogs. I’m not talking about it. Just DO NOT go into the meat market by West Street.

Things I Love Hate

  • Chinese traffic. It is entertaining, but dangerous. One night we made it back from climbing with our friend Fast after a particularly harrowing scooter ride. Matt and Fast looked at each other, both of their eyes wide and shook their heads. Fast laughed and said “Wow that was like being in a video game.” The best analogy I have heard is that the traffic here behaves like flowing water. Small things move around big things and even though it looks like chaos, there is a flow to it. As long as you  expect everyone else to cut you off and are ready for pedestrians to either dive out from behind every parked car or suddenly appear in the center lane in your headlights, you should be fine. It is like skiing at a resort during peak season, everyone in front you has the right of way, it is crowded and you should be ready for the no-look-merge from all side streets.
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Matt with our trusty scooter. She might be a noisy beast, but I will miss her.
  • The courtesy honk. If you are driving and need to pass someone or go around a blind corner it is a good idea to honk your horn and let people know “here I come!!” It makes for loud traffic, but has saved my bacon more than once.
  • Our apartment is out in the countryside, so we have a variety of noises that filter in through our windows at night. The creature we have named Lonely Dog, who howls mournfully every night at around 10pm, I do not mind. The rooster who sometimes decides he must begin to crow at 4am, I will kill if I ever find him.
  • Mandarin is not spoken, it is yelled. People here are not quiet. At first it felt like an assault, but after getting used to it, I find it an endearing quality of the Chinese people and especially Chinese climbers.
  • Chinese toilets. It is convenient that our shower drains directly into our toilet on the floor and I do not mind squatting. It does bother me that all public restrooms are inevitably pretty nasty and rarely have toilet paper. Buy tissues and take them everywhere with you.
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Our Chinese style toilet located directly below the shower. 
  • Chinese people rarely touch their food with their hands. This is challenging considering most meat dishes still have bones in there. I have never been good at picking bones clean, but I’m getting better with some practice. The strategy is, if you have a chunk of meat with bones in it, you just put the whole thing in your mouth, tuck the bone in your cheek and chew off the good bits. Then spit out the bone, or use chopstick to take the pieces out of your mouth. When faced with eating pizza or Kentucky Fried Chicken, most Chinese people opt for plastic gloves. I think this behavior is born from not having soap in bathrooms. I would rather wash my hands and be able to lick my fingers, manners be damned.
  • Firecrackers. They are used for every occasion, from newborn babies to funerals. They are loud; the first time I heard them I thought it was gunfire until I remembered I’m not in America. Unfortunately, the normal time to set them off seems to be at around 7am and a good round of machine gun sounding fire crackers can last up to five minutes.

Things I Love

  • Chinese people are extremely community oriented and generosity is a virtue. One of the worst insults in China is to be called stingy. As a result, once you get past being judged as a tourist, people are incredibly helpful, almost to a fault. As a climber, I have never felt so immediately welcomed at the crag. It is never necessary to ask if you can take falls all over someone else’s hanging quickdraws. You should expect Chinese climbers to climb a route with your gear on it without asking first. Sharing gear isn’t even a question, it is just how you do things. If you are eating with a Chinese friend, they will somehow always beat you to paying for the meal. It is considered an offer of friendship to always owe each other money and never keep track of it. They think it is weird that us Westerners put so much effort into splitting the bill so precisely. Even strangers can be overbearingly helpful. On two occasions when I was having a meal by myself and was apparently eating something the wrong way, a Chinese bystander has kindly tried to explain to me the proper way of doing things in rapid Mandarin. I appreciate the effort and the laugh it gave us both.
  • Dogs on scooters. People here have trained their dogs to sit between their legs on the scooter as they drive. One time Matt saw three dogs perched on a scooter as their owner drove through downtown. I have seen a gigantic golden retriever with its tail skimming the asphalt calmly surveying the deadly traffic. It always makes me smile.
  • Chinese motorbike mechanics. Without speaking a word of English they can fix your scooter in 15 minutes for 50RMB. I place great faith in them.
  • The ladies at Gan’s Noodle Shop. The are always kind and patient. One of them slowly reads back the things I order in the hope that someday I will learn how to speak.
  • Chinese food! I will genuinely miss mien tang (noodles in broth), jaozi (steamed dumplings), baozi (steamed buns stuffed with goodness), snoozing dragon eggplant, chao mian (fried noodles), Hong Kong dessert and most of all, late night BBQ smothered in MSG.
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Delicious Hong Kong style dessert.
  • Fresh produce. Local, organic, free range, eating seasonally. All that hippie shit. Just the way things are here.

All things considered, I have had an amazing two months here. I have learned so much about another culture and made some lasting friendships. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to spend a big chunk of time in this wild place that is so different from my home. It was also wonderful to live in the same place as Brandy again, if only for a little while. Of all the things I will miss, the thing that will make me the saddest to leave is our little community of friends over here on the other side of the world.

Goodbye China! It has been a wild ride!

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Matt on the hike out to White Mountain. 

Chinese Thanksgiving, Birthday Dinners and Climbing Projects

As Thanksgiving and my birthday drew closer I started to feel some serious pangs of homesickness. Matt and I were still in Liming and were planning to stay there until November 27. Even though we had a great group of friends and the climbing was wonderful, the cold weather and remoteness was wearing on both of us. Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday and it was killing me to be spending it so far away from my family and my dog. My longing for a Thanksgiving feast was only increased by the monotonous diet of noodles and oily vegetables with rice. There would be no mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie in Liming.

The day before Thanksgiving I was on the verge of tears while texting my family in the United States and my friends back in Yangshuo. Matt, being the problem solver that he is, simply suggested that we buy plane tickets to make it back to Yangshuo in time for the Thanksgiving feast Brandy was preparing. Those of you who know me well are aware that I have a hard time with spontaneity and I have a tendency to stick with my plans even when they make me miserable. Thankfully this is not the case with Matt. Within fifteen minutes we had booked a flight back to Yangshuo and were ready to spend our last day in Liming climbing with our friends.

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The regal beast, Ding Dong, surveying his domain.

We hiked up to the Pillars to climb with Helena, Albin, Anna and Ding Dong. Matt and I lazily climbed a couple pitches. That evening, the Swedes and the Spaniard surprised me with a fruit salad birthday cake complete with lollipop candles. We all headed out for one more dinner and celebrated an amazing climbing trip with new friends.

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Birthday fruit salad! Such a special treat from lovely people.

On Thanksgiving Day, Matt and I began the long journey back to Yangshuo in order to make it back in time for dinner at 7:00. Thankfully our trip went smoothly. Both of us are starting to feel like veterans of navigating cross country travel in China. We arrived at our apartment with plenty of time for a hot shower before dinner.

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Has anyone else noticed that every time you board a plane on the tarmac, EVERYONE just has to pull out their phone for a picture or a selfie? So I touristed hard for a second and joined the other twenty people with their phones out. Goodbye Yunnan Province! It was a blast!

Even though I couldn’t be at home with my family for Thanksgiving, being surrounded by friends and eating an amazing meal prepared by chef Brandy was the next best thing. I don’t have any pictures of Thanksgiving Dinner because I was too busy stuffing my face with mashed potatoes, General Tso’s chicken, green bean casserole, homemade bread and real stuffing. There was even apple crisp, pumpkin pie and whipped cream. Totally worth a spontaneous plane ticket and a day of travel!! The Americans at the table coached our European and Chinese friends on how to stuff oneself and remain comfortable by unbuttoning one’s pants, as is proud Thanksgiving tradition in the USA.

The next day was my birthday. It was cold and rainy outside, but after two weeks of strenuous climbing, I was happy to spend the day in our warm apartment watching Stranger Things Season 2 with Matt. Being lazy feels so luxurious when you have been moving and traveling for weeks on end. We also finally cooked the box of Mac’n Cheese I purchased in Hong Kong and supplement it with real cheese and butter from the secret refrigerator in the back of the “Western Store.” It was a perfect rainy day.

That night we went out for dinner at the best Indian restaurant in town, Ganga Impression, and had dessert at my new favorite spot. I’m not sure what the name of the dessert cafe is, but we have been calling it Hong Kong dessert. Caitlin and her husband Aniu translated the menu, which is all in Chinese. The ordering process is similar to dim sum and the dishes include items like mango mochi, ginger milk custard, tofu pudding and a fabulous dish that has soft peanut butter stuffed rice balls swimming in milk. All of these dishes can be ordered hot, which makes it taste like the warm, Asian equivalent of ice cream. Delicious!!

After the rain stopped, the rest of the week was spent picking some climbing projects. Matt and I are both excited to push ourselves on some harder routes during our last weeks in China.

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Trying hard at Swiss Cheese Wall. Photo by Matt.

We also finally sat down and booked some plane tickets for the rest of our trip. So here is the plan so far. We will be in Yangshuo until December 13. From there we are going to spend a week in Hanoi and do some climbing on Cat Ba Island. We will fly to Singapore in time for Christmas with Matt’s Danish family. New Years will be spent climbing near Phuket in Thailand. From January 9- February 6 we will be in Laos either at the Green Climbers Home or in the general area of Thakhek.

After Laos, I have a feeling I will be ready to return home. Traveling is wonderful and exciting, but it always reminds me to be grateful for the simple things like family and community. As with many things in life, it is a balancing act to find happiness between being a homebody and having incurable wanderlust. I am looking forward to both the adventures ahead and the sense of peace when I eventually head towards home.