Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Insta Recap #11

Over the last few weeks, I gathered a new wind of inspirations that pushed me to post a bit more frequently on Instagram. These past few weeks in Chiang Mai have been a blast; I visited new places, shopped at new markets, and tried some delicious food.

22 was my first birthday celebrated internationally. Like any normal 22 year old would, I dragged my friends to a ladyboy drag show (pun intended!)! To say it was perfect is an understatement: I was completely in my element. Since it was my birthday, I got crowned by a queen, making me a queen for the night!

In Asia, animal cafes, like bunny or cat cafes, are incredibly popular. In Chiang Mai, I went to see what they hype is all about. Visiting an animal café basically entails drinking coffee and playing with animals. Of course, it is important to choose a café that treats the animals with respect.

In Thailand two things abound: fruit markets and motorbikes.

In addition to a plethora of motorbikes, I notice many vintage cars on the streets of Chiang Mai. I loved this tiny red beetle.

In KL, I shopped at the Central Market which sold everything from food to kites to wooden bowls to clothing. Personally, I found this olive and gold tile to be the best part of the Central Market's architecture.

Thai driving: just pile it in the bed of the truck, strap it down, and hope for the best.

Young monks on a sunny Saturday in Chiang Mai.

I hope you enjoyed these little squares of my life in Chiang Mai! Until next time!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Culture club: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

 I visited Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia over a month ago and I'm just now getting around to posting about my first trip around in Southeast Asia. (Alright that is not entirely true, I made a visa run to Vientiane, Laos before I went to KL but that was purely a work trip that consisted of two night bus rides that were less than comfortable, so nothing special to report about that.) With a handful of friends and a backpack, we flew from Chiang Mai to Kuala Lumpur for five days of relaxation.

The Kuala Lumpur including the famous Patronas Towers

KL combines Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, and Islamic influences to form a bustling, culturally diverse city. In different pockets of the city, different cultural influences make their presence known, mixing together peacefully. KL ended up being a city full of firsts due to this melting pot of cultures.

Driving around KL

Of course, we hit up the highlights of KL like the Royal Palace and the Patronas Towers with the help of an open-air bus tour. In a lot of larger cities, they have bus tours that allow riders to hop-on-hop-off at their leisure. Before KL, I never used these services but it was a great way to learn more about the city layout at the beginning of the trip. After riding the bus for two days, we felt like we could navigate more efficiently on our own. This tour also let us see Chinatown, Little India, and a few museums throughout the metropolis.

Outside of the Royal Palace and the KL Tower

In Malaysia, Islam is one of the major religions, making Malaysia my first time visiting an Islamic country. Some of you may not know this, but I took an introductory Arabic language class my senior year at university, so KL offered me my first opportunity to but these incredibly basic skills to the test at the National Mosque and Islamic Arts Museum.

The National Mosque of Malaysia, the Masjid Negara Malaysia in Malay, is a major attraction for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. During my time in Europe, I visited a ton of churches, and the National Mosque was my first expereince touring a mosque anywhere in the world. Like the art nerd that I am, I anticipated making comparisions between these two places of faith. Mosques and Churches have many similaritities: beauty, peacefulness, mindfullness. Of course, the Mosque stuns the viewer, with natural light pouring in through every direction and stained glass in glittering blue and deep yellow geometric patterns in the prayer rooms cast an etheral light over the practitioners. In order to entre the mosque, robes are given to men and women and women are also given a hijab for modesty. While waiting in line to enter the mosque, I observed travelers from all over the world, all of whom were open to learning more about Islam. Not only that, I observed nothing but respect from my fellow travelers in this holy place of worship. Seeing people open to learning about other religions and respectign other cultures gives me hope for a future of acceptance.

Interior of the National Mosque

Inside the National Mosque

To beat the heat, we spent a few hours wandering around the Islamic Arts Museum in KL. Confession: I love wandering around art museums. However, I never actively seek them out when I travel; they just seem to find me. One of the highlights of Islamic art is the use of Arabic script to create beautiful, intricate patterns made out of words. One of the things I did learn in Arabic was how to write and pronounce the Arabic alphabet, so it was exciting to identify a few words in the art.

Not only is there Islamic influence throughout KL but also Indian influences. Prior to coming to Asia, I knew nothing about India or Indian food. For quite a number of meals, Indian food ended up being the closest and cheapest option around. Mexican food has always held the top spot in my heart, but Indian food is gaining ground rapidly to secure a close number two spot. Indian food, both spicy and sweet, is a vegetarian's dream. I loved eating tosai with egg and cheese, dhal, and drinking tea tarik. At all of the Indian places, the food comes served on a compartmentalized metal lunch tray and, for whatever reason, I was smitten with the trays which is probably due to the fact that they looked like cafeteria trays from the 70's and I love anything vintage and nostalgic. Little India served as a sensory feast full of incredible smells, delicious foods, and bright colors abounded.

A delicious Indian dinner

With my friends in Little India--Look at those gorgeous arches!
KL was full of firsts, including being my first tri pin Southeast Asia, like visiting to a mosque, eating Indian food, going into a cave at the Batu caves, and visiting a bird park (birds are a major fear for me--thanks, Hitchcock--so this was a big deal). Let's hope these firsts continue!

Batu Caves

Saturday, August 20, 2016

How wild it was, to let it be: a love letter to travel and my natural state of movement

One of the questions I get most often regarding my travel habits is something along the lines of, "Why do you travel so much? Do you hate America or something?" The answer is simple: travel is my biggest love. (For the record no, I do not "hate America or something.") Ever since I got that first taste of travel from my 2008 trip to China, I have been chasing that illustrious siren's call ever since.

To travel is my fate. Case in point,  I scoured the internet to hear some great minds had to say about the desire to move, see more, and live an adventurous life filled with global exploration. During my search, I read a quote from Wild by Cheryl Strayed that goes, "How wild it was, to let it be" from her book Wild. When I was in Kuala Lumpur, I quickly scanned the free bookshelf at my hostel only to see a copy of Wild with a note scribbled inside by the previous owner about her own love of travel. I was meant to read that quote and then find that book while in Malaysia, just like I am meant to travel, explore, wander.

Scattered throughout my own reasons for loving travel, I included some magical quotes from other adventurous souls about their own wanderlust.

Dear travel,

Thank you for being both a constant companion and something I will spend the rest of my life chasing. I love you travel for the way you make me feel, change me, and teach me.

First and foremost, travel makes me feel closer to the world, like a global citizen, connected to this incredible planet we call earth. No other feeling compares to the sentiment of feeling close to the world. For comparison, this feeling is similar to the one that I, along with many others, get when they spend time in nature. When traveling, I  marvel as the vastness of our world and I remember what a small part of the world I actually embody. But even those small parts of the world make a huge difference. In learning about other people, cultures, and places, I feel a closeness to the world that I cannot express in words.

Travel makes one modest: one sees what a tiny place one occupies in the world--Gustave Flaubert, author

Traveling empowers me. When I search destinations to visit, I often stumble upon articles and tips for female travelers, or articles about why women shouldn't go to certain places alone. While I agree safety should be a top priority for all travelers, not just women, traveling makes me feel like I can do anything. This is a feeling I first had while in Prague on my first ever solo trip.  After this trip, I knew nothing could ever stop me and that I am the only thing standing in my way. When I am sauntering around the globe, I have no one to rely on but myself or a few travel companions. Very quickly, traveling taught me I can handle more than I ever thought I could. I constantly seek this feeling of control and the ability to do anything.

Loving life is easy when you are abroad. Where no one knows you and you hold life in your hands all alone, you are more master of yourself than at any other time.” – Hannah Arendt

Travel teaches me about myself. When I move from place to place, I spend more time than I would like to admit reflecting, journaling, and thinking about life. Each place I visit changes me, and every time I go somewhere new, I become more myself than I was before. Every city, town, place, experience makes me the more complete, whole, and fuels me to continue finding myself.

We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls--Anais Nin, author

I want to do, feel, experience, try, love, and explore anything and everything I can. I want to see what else is out there, what lies beyond my comfort zone, my bubble, my consciousness. One feeling that terrifies me is regret; I want to regret nothing in this life so I take each opportunity that arises to explore. Sometimes it is beautiful, sometimes it isn't, but at the end of the day, I want to have stories that proved that I lived bravely and took advantage of life, the world, and opportunities that surround me to learn, love, live, experience, laugh, cry, and grow. When it all ends, I want to say I used everything I had to live the fullest life I could.

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!”--Hunter S. Thompson, American journalist

Finally, I love to travel because I constantly chase the natural human desire to move. The natural order of the world is one of chaos, motion; that's a scientific notion. So maybe I'm not actually chasing anything, but I'm just following my natural state of being through my constant motion.

For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move--Robert Louis Stevenson, author

I don't think the wanderlust will ever subside and I am totally content with that. I will always have a home and will spend the rest of my life chasing travel, my first, longest, and deepest love.

Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany has the right idea about travel "Keep moving forward and do it yourself."

Until next time!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Insta Recap #10

Long time, no post. To be completely honest, my motivation to blog has been lackluster at best not for a lack of trying. Of course, I have plenty of things to say, I just can't seem to find the words to articulate my thoughts. To get back on the blogging bandwagon, I've decided to bring back my Instagram Recap posts.

Doi Suthep, a Buddhist temple, is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Chiang Mai. Sitting majestically on the top of a mountain, it is certainly a sight to be seen. One of my first weekends in Chiang Mai, I rode on the back of a friend's motorbike up the mountain to see the temple. While visiting, we received a blessing from a monk that involved being hit on the head with a stick, but I'm not complaining; I'll take blessings in any form.

 Doi Suthep

Temples abound in Thailand. While Doi Suthep lies on the top of the mountain, Wat Chedi Luang rests in the center of Chiang Mai. On a sunny afternoon, I ventured with some friends to see the ancient ruins of this Buddhist temple.

Gold Buddha in front of Wat Chedi Luang

While in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, my companions and I spent an afternoon at the Batu Caves, a limestone cave outside of the city dedicated to the Hindu god Lord Murugan. The golden statue in the photo is the largest statue dedicated to Lord Murugan. At the base of the steps, monkeys sit and wait to be fed bananas brought by eager tourists and will come and snatch food right out of the hands of unsuspecting visitors.

All of those steps lead up to the cave!

In Malaysia, Islam is the state religion which means that they have a National Mosque. Throughout the day, the National Mosque has visiting hours where the space is open up for curious tourists. In the time I was at the mosque, I saw dozens of tourists from all over the world enter the mosque, all of them willing to learn about Islam. Naturally, the mosque is completely stunning, with gold and blue stained glass windows and open-air patios letting in rays of the Malaysia sunshine.

Prayer in the National Mosque

Whenever I travel, I drink copious amounts of coffee. In Belgium, I spent hours sipping speculoos lattes in cafes to avoid the rain, and in Chiang Mai I pass quite a bit of time drinking Thai tea or regular lattes. For a Saturday activity, I visited one of the most well-known coffee haunts in Chiang Mai, Mao Coffee. "Mao" in Thai means "drunk" and, as one can imagine, it is known for spiked coffee beverages. The atmosphere in Mao Coffee is aesthetic goals for sure:  wood paneling, wildflowers sprinkled in vases on all the tables, and the perfect coffee shop playlist.

Mao coffee with a brownie cheesecake--it's very difficult to find exceptional baked goods in Thailand, but the cheesecake at Mao Coffee was 10/10!

Hope you all enjoyed a little glimpse into my life in Chiang Mai! Expect more posts to come soon; writing this post has inspired me to continue sharing!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

[A little over] one month in Chiang Mai

Guess who's back? That's right, I'm back traipsing all over the globe, and this time I'm coming to you live from Thailand. In June, I moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand to begin a year of teaching at a Thai school. Since my arrival I've been to Hong Kong, Thailand, and Laos. I've seen some signature Chiang Mai sights like Doi Suthep, a Buddhist temple, and the famous Night Market. Still, there are plenty of things to do over the next year (or so). In the month I've been here, I've learned quite a bit that I thought I would share.

1. Thailand is hot. Of course, I knew Thailand would be toasty, but I never expected constant heat and humidity. I am learning to accept being constantly covered in sweat. However, there is a silver lining; I can tell I'm getting used to the heat when 85 F doesn't seem all that hot. Air con is a gift from above and cannot be taken for granted.

2. Thai desserts are sweet, and often times jiggly. Thai people like their sweets and condensed milk is the sweetener of choice for many drinks, like the signature orange Thai tea, and desserts. Even the bread here is sweet. My first Thai tea was a shock; I couldn't believe how sweet it was, but much like the weather, I quickly adjusted to the sweet drink and now I actually enjoy it quite a bit. Not only are desserts sweet, they often have a jiggly component in the form of JELL-O, jelly, or some other congealed product. Needless to say, jiggly desserts aren't my sweet of choice and likely never will be.

3. Thai's drive on the other side of the road and motorbikes are the transport of choice. In Thailand, drivers drive on the left side of the road while motorbikes weave in and out of the cars, making them the perfect choice to avoid Chiang Mai traffic. Everyone, even babies and children, ride on the backs of motorbikes, some with and some without helmets. In this past month, I've ridden (and driven) a few motorbikes!

Sorry mom!

4. It's true what they say about Thailand being the land of smiles. Everyone is incredibly friendly, warm, and almost constantly smiling.

5. According to my students, I look like Ed Sheeran, the English singer, and appear to be from the North Pole. These were two things I had no idea about, but I'm glad to know for future reference.

6. Taking a 10 hour, overnight van is maybe not the best way to travel. I took a van with two co-workers to go to Laos to get Thai visas and needless to say, I felt like a human pretzel trying to get comfortable in the middle seat. At least the trip was worthwhile.

7. Thai food is delicious and inexpensive. Paying $1-3 for dinner is not unlikely here and the food is incredible. My personal favorites include Pad Thai (typical), coconut curry, and Khao Soi. Finding vegetarian food is a little bit more difficult, even though I learned the word for vegetarian early on. In the quest for good vegetarian food, I've found quite a few delicious spots that serve entirely vegetarian, and mostly vegan, food. The fruit is a whole other story. I could eat just Thai fruit for every meal. The bananas, mangos, pineapples, lychees, watermelons, and dragon fruits have been my personal favorites for far. Not only are they delicious, the fruit is also dirt cheap.
A young Thai coconut, fresh fruit and muesli

8. Temples are abundant, sprinkled throughout the city serving as a nod to the past. I love driving around Chiang Mai and seeing another golden temple glistening in the sun amongst the other buildings.

On the steps leading up to Doi Suthep

9. Thai massages are real and rough. For a one hour Thai massage, the going rate is 200 baht, or roughly $6 which is a far cry from the $60 I pay at home. When you go to a Thai masseuse, you will gaze in awe and wonder at the sheer strength of the thumbs of Thai women. Many of these women could become world-champion thumb wrestlers with thumbs that strong. Thai massages are one of those things that hurt so much that it actually feels good.

0. It's true what they say about Thailand and lady boys; you will see more of them than you think and no one bats an eye seeing a lady boy walking down the street. That kind of acceptance is pretty freaking cool.

11. When it rains in Thailand, it pours. Belgium is a country known for rain, as is Thailand. However, Thai rain is another beast. In Leuven, it would lightly drizzle all day, so no one ever really took notice of the rain. In Thailand, it will be beautiful and sunny all day until the dark clouds roll in at 4 p.m. on the nose. All of the sudden, it downpours and it is not fun to be caught in instant, pouring rain.

12. There are stray dogs everywhere. Some of them are groomed, some of them are scraggly, all of them are cute.

Stay tuned for more updates about school, travel, and everything in between.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Czech me out: a love letter to Prague

Long time, no post. With June being the last month of my stay in Belgium, I decided to step away from the computer and enjoy the last month of my year abroad free from the computer screen. However, I do have one final trip to tell you about. For my final trip I went to Prague, Czech Republic. By myself. And it was the best trip of the entire year!

First and foremost, I decided to venture to Prague since my father's family is Czech and I wanted to see where my ancestors came from. I loved Ireland so much, which is where my mother's family is from, so I knew I needed to get back to my roots once again so to speak.

Even though I did not have a travel companion, that did not stop me from booking that Ryanair flight. Of course, I took more precautions while traveling alone than I normally would if I was with a friend. I took cabs to and from the airport and did not go out late at night by myself. Never once did I feel unsafe and I had a great time being able to do what I wanted when I wanted. I truly enjoyed the freedom and I regret not travelling more by myself throughout the year. Fear got the best of me and when I finally let that go, I found myself forced to meet new people and have a completely unique experience. I met travelers from all over the world and we spent the weekend together in Prague. Even though we just met, we all became fast friends. That is one of the joys of travelling: making new, fast friends all over the world.

Prague is a beautiful city that is completely walkable and very user friendly. Of course, almost every person I encountered spoke a bit of English, so the language barrier was never a problem. Of course, I hit many of the major tourist attractions including the Astronomical Tower, Prague Castle, and I climbed the Bell Tower at St.Vitus Cathedral. Not only was is beautiful, Prague is a very affordable city with a great exchange rate. One euro is roughly 27  Czech crowns and there were plenty of place to exchange currency. After visiting Prague, I wished I had spent more time in the surrounding countries due to the low prices and gorgeous scenery!

The view from the Town Square

View from Prague Castle

I went to a LOT of churches in 10 months and St. Vitus had the most-spectacular stained glass!

 A doorway in Prague's Jewish Quarter

Of course I loved every city I visited during my time abroad but Prague holds a special place in my heart and it always will. Prague will forever be the first place I traveled to alone. Never have I felt more independent and able, something that can be easily squashed by feelings of self doubt. Confidence washed over me in Prague. I made new friends and forced myself out of my comfort zone in a big way. After Prague, I felt more confident than ever. I knew nothing could stop me from having the time of my life and I put myself out there into the world headfirst. Prague, thank you for pushing me out of my comfort zone.

With the famous John Lennon Wall

Thursday, May 28, 2015

9 months down, one to go: 9 small things I will miss about Leuven

Nine months ago, I wrote about my first impressions of Leuven after being here for one month. as of today, I have one month left in Leuven. Thirty days, that's it. Needless to say, ten months goes faster than I ever imagined. I remember writing that first post, finding it unbelievable that I had already been in Leuven for a month. Now, I cannot believe I have but four weeks left in Europe. My heart is heavy and the only adjective that can seen to capture my feelings is bittersweet. On one hand, I will miss Leuven deeply. I'll miss my friends, the Loyola International Nachbar Huis, and jetting all across Europe. On the other hand, I love home and I cannot wait to see my parents and my friends I haven't seen since Christmas. Plus, my siblings are coming home, so I have a lot to look forward to seeing when I return to the United States. Reflecting on having just thirty days left, I realize I will miss so many things. In honor of the nine months I have spent in Leuven, I decided to round up 9 random things I will miss about Leuven.

1. Really good coffee
I admit, before coming to Europe I really didn't drink much coffee. After this year, I grew to enjoy coffee quite a bit and Europe has some really great coffee shops. I am going to miss vanilla latte's from one particular cafe in Leuven. Not that America has bad coffee, but Europe's coffee is pretty spectacular.

2. Mandatory recycling and expensive garbage bags
Bet you didn't think garbage would end up on this list, did ya? Hear me out: I am so much more of the waste I generate when I have to buy garbage bags and I am required to recycle. Plus, the garbage bags for garbage that cannot be recycled is over two euros, so I never want to have garbage that goes into those bags due to their expense. I feel really great being able to recycle so much and I respect Belgium for making citizens recycle and compost food. It is eco-friendly and honestly, it is so simple.

3. Ryanair
Alright, so flying on Ryanair isn't the most comfortable or glamorous, but I cannot complain when it gets me to Prague for 15 euro. I am so deeply going to miss cheap flights that allow me to explore the world on a random weekend. Dear USA, please get Ryanair!

4. Everything in walking (or biking) distance
Everything in Leuven is within walking distance or can be biked. I love being freed from cars and being self-sufficient by powering my transportation myself. Of course, it is ecological which is awesome, but it is also less expensive and honestly nicer than driving and it doesn't take much time at all. Since everything is withing walking distance, I can absolutely do everything I could possibly need to do. Not relying on a car is more convenient and easier and I will miss the simplicity of walking or riding my bike,

5. The farmer's market
On Sunday, nothing in Leuven is open, so the farmer's market becomes quite the event and a ritual I look forward to. I walk to the farmer's market in the morning and come home to cook a beautiful breakfast with my fresh produce before most of the world is even awake. I am sad this ritual will be ending at the end of next month. It is so peaceful and something I look forward to every weekend.

6. Zara down the street
I am obsessed with Zara and I will miss having one to pop into just up the road. My closet will be sad about that, but my wallet will be joyful.

7. The lack of textbooks
This year, I bought one book for college, setting me back a small fifteen euro. At home, I would easily spend ten times that. I will miss not having to buy textbooks and having to lug them around.

8. Cobblestone streets
Cobblestone streets are beautiful and serve as reminders that their were people on this earth before us who fashioned these pathways and there will be people after us who will use the same paths. Plus, walking along a cobblestone street just feels like you are a part of a fairy tale.

9. Dutch
I admit, I don' speak any Dutch but I will miss hearing it everyday. There is something beautiful about hearing another language that reminds me of being an outsider and for whatever reason, I like that. Plus, Dutch has grown on me and now I think it sounds cute when I hear it.

So, there you have it. 9 smalls things out of a million that I will miss about my European home. Can exams be over already so I can enjoy my last month here?