The Beginning and the End

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Looking out over the Bay of Biscayne, waiting in excited anticipation for hurricane Isaac to make his fateful mark in Southeast Florida, I find myself coming to the inevitable realization that summer vacation will come to a screeching halt in a week’s time.

Mother Nature has sent an ominously clear message that it’s time to put the brakes on this whirlwind summer…message received! She knows I should wind down, get some rest, and recharge my batteries for the long school year ahead. After all, Mother knows best. But, Father Time says I still have one more week to make the most of what has been one unforgettable ride. Tic toc…

This summer has been an incredible journey if ever there was one. Eighteen flights and three continents in just two months was nothing short of, well, crazy. Winding the clock back to June, when summer was a wide open door with infinite possibilities, the end wasn’t given even the slightest nod. I had two whole months…forever, really…to relax, explore, sleep in, to do everything or absolutely nothing. So, there I sat in my living room with a glass of wine after the last day of school, travel docs and itineraries and important contact information fanned out on the table in front of me. Suddenly what had been an idealized vacation months down the road was now laid out before me, passport and visas and suitcases and all. And I was going to do all of this alone? It’s a good thing I had that glass of wine.
Alone being the operative word here, I felt downright paralyzed with fear at times at the thought of traveling thousands of miles to the far reaches of the globe without Jeff. You see, I’m not exactly the most sensible passenger. Who would be there to reassure me that the plane wasn’t going down after every bump and thump on board? I felt sorry for my unfortunate future seat companions. But when put to the test, it turns out I have memorized Jeff’s explanation of the science behind aviation and aerodynamics and that no plane has ever gone down due to turbulence. I played this recording over and over in my mind because as it turns out, most of my flights were some of the most turbulent I have ever flown.
Surviving all eighteen flights alone (and I say surviving purposefully), has rewarded me with a liberating sense of empowerment. I was able to go home for the first time in years during the summer months and spend quality time with loved ones. Exploring the bewildering rustic beauty of only a small part of Southeast Asia was just the tip of the iceberg. Once back in Barcelona, Anne, Alex, and I repeatedly asked the question, “Why does Asia have to be so far away!?” Despite the distance, I know there will be more far-flung odysseys in the not so far future.
My greatest take-away from this summer’s odyssey cannot be defined by one single event or place, but rather a culmination of what the past two months have come to stand for. Love, passion, curiosity, excitement, and a little bit of fear; these are the emotions that drove me to make a plan and stand for it even if I wanted to back out…even if the last thing I wanted was to board another flight. Two months is all the time in the world to make something happen, but the clock is ticking ever closer to September 3 which means I’ve got a little bit of time left to make the most of Summer 2012.
Tic toc…tic toc…

Xin Chao from Vietnam!

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Lush, vibrant, diverse, enthralling, natural, authentic, and downright HOT. After eight days in Vietnam I have to admit I’m smitten, but it didn’t come easily. Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, which is actually still called Saigon in the core districts, was anything but inviting. A miscommunication in the planning stages left us without arranged transportation to the hotel from the airport and neither Melissa, Lindsay, nor myself had the address on hand.
Broken communication in Spanish can usually get you by, but with the Vietnamese it is a lost cause. You’re left gesturing, slowing your speech, employing an elementary vocabulary that not one single taxi driver can understand. In a city where motorbikes rule, traveling by taxi feels like you’re something like an awkward whale swimming in a sea full of darting, synchronized fish. This was the scene; motorbikes, loaded down with four family members plus cargo, zipping through city streets and coming and going in all directions. Forget road rules. In Saigon it’s a free for all, and somehow it works. Thus was our first twenty minutes; doubting we’d ever make it to our hotel to meet up with our group, yet completely enthralled by the chaos around us.

Saigon by and large has not been my favorite city, but luckily for me it was only a jumping off point for the Mekong Delta to the south. This is the Vietnam I had pictured. Lush verdant jungles of bamboo, thick palms and several species of banana trees create a maze of canals and hidden villages. We checked into our homestay, which was a thatch-roofed, bamboo bungalow canopied by the dense jungle. Mao, our fearless leader, led us through the jungle villages by bicycle, an experience that soared to the top of my “Top 10” list. We also explored the canals by boat, stopping to watch locals make coconut candies and to try the local rice and snake wines. Ick! That night all 16 of us helped to prepare a traditional meal. We chopped, rolled, stuffed, battered, and fried in the “kitchen” bungalow with our leaders and several drinks in hand. Another “Top 10”  experience.

Heading north by first class sleeper train (by Vietnamese standards) made for a lousy night’s sleep. Vietnamese people are far shorter than me, and so, too, are the beds. It’s ok though, because for the first time since Bangkok we were going to take root in Nha Trang for two nights. I could see plenty of beach naps in my future. We booked a boat excursion on the first day, which included snorkeling in the South China Sea and a fresh seafood lunch on board. Our second day was a dedicated beach day, and we did it right. Thatched umbrellas, loungers, and fresh fruit cocktails…THIS is what we had been waiting for. Nha Trang was nothing special and not unlike any other touristic coastal town, but it was the perfect stopover before boarding our sleeper train to Hoi An.

No visit to Vietnam would be complete without a visit to Hoi An. This town is the sole reason why I am falling in love with this country. Once a major trading port controlled by the French, Hoi An has old western world charm alongside traditional influences of the Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese. To put it simply, it is positively enchanting. The people are warm and inviting and the food is by far the best we’ve had so far. I found myself walking the streets completely absorbed in the atmosphere, not realizing I had left my friends far behind. By day Hoi An is a shopping Mecca where vendors tempt you with custom made clothing and shoes. One nod of the head and a creative eye sealed the deal for Melissa, Lindsay and myself. A two-day designing and tailoring bender became alarmingly addictive and wholly satisfying. Dangerous!! By night, Hoi An comes alive under the warm glow of thousands of paper lanterns in a rainbow of colors. This is when locals take to the streets to enjoy a hearty meal with relatives and friends as tourists, like myself, take aim with their cameras to try to encapsulate the magic happening around them. 

I found myself reliving the town through photos during our four hour bus ride to Hue today and feeling pangs of sadness as we pulled further and further away.

Where rice paddies meet the sea