Sunday, December 29, 2013

Happy New Year!



2013 has been a fantastic year for me.  It was filled with amazing moments, great trips, and wonderful accomplishments. When I look back I feel extremely lucky to live the life that I do.  But the last few months of the year have had a big impact on me. I hope I remember these moments forever because they have awakened something inside of me.

This time last year, I was asked to be executive producer of TEDxJacksonville and I apprehensively accepted. I was so nervous about taking on the event but am so glad that I did. The event allowed me to see Jacksonville in a new light. It made me fall in love with the city for its flaws and its potential. I also met some amazing people and am so honored to now call them my friends. You all know the quote, “surround yourself with the dreamers and the doers, the believers and thinkers, but most of all, surround yourself with those who see the greatness within you, even when you don’t see it yourself.”  All my TEDxJacksonville team members are a source of inspiration for me because the status quo is never good enough for them. They constantly push me and make me want to do more.

This doesn’t just apply to friends and family. I believe this is also true about people you encounter in passing. I witnessed two demonstrations this week. Garment factory workers were protesting their wages and demanding change. This would have never happened in Cambodia before the age of social media and its power to amplify stories. The poor finally feel they have a voice and that the world is listening. Seeing them fight for what is fair and just was an amazing moment. 

Over the past few weeks, I have developed a friendship with a Cambodian colleague.  Ra is a recent college graduate and is transitioning from a volunteer role to a fulltime position at Aide et Action. He is so excited about the opportunity and the fact that he can help change the status of education in Cambodia.  He asked me to help him with some of his projects because he wants to make them more effective. He doesn’t want to settle for mediocrity and is genuinely passionate about his work. When I get back home, I hope I am as passionate as him about my job. 

On the way back from a field trip this week, I made eye contact with a teenage boy while getting off of a ferry. He had severe scarring on his face and was in old unwashed clothes and torn slippers. His eyes had a look of uncertainty.  I kept thinking about him. I felt guilty because I have everything and he had nothing. I see this every day and am still not sure how to process it.  I moved out to Cambodia to see the challenges of development first hand and it has been a struggle. Today, news spreads like wildfire but sometimes it feels like the wrong news is getting all the attention. How do we keep the plight of others relevant when mainstream news channels choose to focus on reality tv stars and celebrities? 

I want to take these moments with me in 2014 because I want them to continue to push me. Fear is a waste of time and during moments of weakness we allow it to conquer us. The unknown is only the unknown until you try it. I hope each of you tackles something you have always wanted to in this New Year. 


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Arizona Roadtrip: Antelope Canyon, Grand Canyon and Sedona

Arizona had been on my list for a while and I finally got to go in November. Back in May, Jill and I attended a charity event on behalf of PACE and to keep ourselves entertained we participated in the silent auction. We ended up bidding against each other for 2 round trip Southwest Airline tickets. I soon realized that our husbands don’t actually have the vacation time to take another trip with us so I convinced her to take a vacation with me if we won. We ended up winning the tickets and booked a fall trip to Arizona. Jill is great to travel with because she lets me plan everything and only wants to see pictures of our destinations. Our itinerary included Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Grand Canyon, and Sedona. 

Friday
We arrived into Phoenix close to 10 pm and were exhausted. Luckily, the car rental line was short. I had reserved an economy car but our customer service rep strongly recommended a 4x4 so we caved and went with his suggestion. Our hotel was a short drive away and we quickly checked in and went to bed. Around 2 am, someone tried to enter our room. Jill tried to wake me up but I was sound asleep and did not respond to her kicking. She is the responsible one and had put the latch on so our visitor was unable to get in. She got up and looked out the window and once the man saw her, he left. Apparently, the hotel staff did not check us in properly and they thought our room was unoccupied and gave it to another guest. Scary at first but it was fine in the end.

Saturday
We started our trip bright and early at 6am. Our plan was to be in Antelope Canyon for the 12 pm tour because we were told the sunlight is best at this time. We drove through the beautiful state of Arizona for 5 hours and saw huge cacti, gorgeous landscapes and Native American tribes along the way. The cacti outside of Phoenix blew me away because they were gigantic. I don't know why but we were an hour or so ahead of our Google maps arrival time. Not saying we didn't drive a little fast. The drive was also really easy because there were no cars on the road. We arrived at 11 and decided to join the 11:30 tour. It is really easy to miss the entrance so drive slowly on the main road. One thing we did not know was that all the tours led by Native Americans only accepted cash and we were short by about $20. The staff was so kind. They let us go on the tour without paying and told us to come back with the cash at some point during the day. One thing to remember: all Navajo sites require a guide whether you want one or not. 


Antelope Canyon actually has two parts, upper and lower. We visited the upper canyon because online reviews said the lower canyon required climbing and we both did not want to risk anything with our bad backs. We got on a pickup truck with six other people from  Switzerland, France and Thailand and headed into the canyon. We were blown away as soon as we entered. Everyone was oohing and aahing at the narrow passageways. We were 100-130 feet below the ground and it was amazing to look up and see the different shapes. Our guide explained the different formations and their spiritual relevance for the Native Americans. He also warned us about flash flooding in the area. Tourists have been stranded in the past because water comes in quickly and with great pressure. We were lucky to have the canyon to ourselves in the beginning of the tour and really enjoyed the personal stories of our guide. He helped us take beautiful pictures and showed us how water, sand and sunlight affect the canyon. We could not believe the shades of light at every angle and how quickly it all changes. Naturally, we took way too many photos. 

Once our hour was up, we headed into town to look for an ATM and found a Walmart instead. I bought some flaming hot cheetos and was able to get cash back. Snacking led to lunch. The restaurant of choice: Jack in the box. It was my first time and Jill said I had to have the experience. I felt guilty about eating fast food and opted for their healthy rice bowl. I regret the decision because I still don't know what their burgers taste like and there is no Jack in the box in Florida. I guess I will have to go back.



Before heading back to pay our trusting guide, we made a quick detour for Horseshoe Bend. Horseshoe Bend overlooks one of the most spectacular views of the Colorado River. It is located just off of the local highway and again if you go too fast, you might miss the small sign. You have to walk on a dirt road for about 10-15 minutes to reach the sight. Under the desert sun, this can get intense but it is totally worth it once you reach your destination. 



Once we cleared our debt, we started our journey to the Grand Canyon. Our goal was to arrive by sunset. I don’t know why but, outside of Phoenix, we barely saw a car on the road. This led me to stop the car and take pictures on the road with the beautiful backdrop and it really made me feel like I was on a road trip! We arrived at the Grand Canyon about 30 minutes before sunset and got free admission in honor of Veterans Day. We entered from the east entrance of the South Rim and stopped at the visitor center before making our way to Lipon point to see the sun off. The canyon makes you feel so small because it looks like it goes on forever. The canyon was filled with colors from the sunset  and it was amazing to see the shading change in a matter of minutes. 


I had booked us a room in Grand Canyon Village at Bright Angel Lodge. It was about $200 a night but totally worth it if you want to take in the entire South Rim. Our room faced the canyon and was near the shuttle bus stop. It is probably cheaper to stay outside of the park but we didn't want to waste time traveling to and from the hotel. The village is a little community. There is a post office, bank, grocery stores and loads of restaurants. We enjoyed a low key dinner near the lodge and walked along the canyon under the stars before heading to bed. 




Sunday
The shuttle bus system in the park is amazing and so user friendly. Park rangers told us the red route is best for sunrise and so we woke up at 5, bundled up and ran to catch the first shuttle. We decided to catch the sunrise at Hopi Point. I think for me sunrise was even prettier than sunset. Surprisingly, many other people woke up to see it as well. We decided to take advantage of the no car route and walked along the trail for an hour or so before catching the shuttle back to our lodge. This was a great idea because it felt like we had the park all to ourselves. 




After breakfast, we explored art galleries and souvenir shops before heading to the South Kaibab Trail for our hike to the Ooh Aah Point. Jill and I walked at a comfortable pace and took a lot of pictures of the great views. It was great to see the canyon from a different vantage point. Although it was a short trip, we loved the peaceful environment and want to come back to explore the North Rim. I have seen many pictures but the Grand Canyon is truly unbelievable in person and I don't think a picture can really capture its presence.





Our next destination was Sedona and you guessed it...we made it there by sunset. The drive from Grand Canyon to Sedona is also very beautiful. Once you enter Oak Creek Canyon, you begin to see the red rocks all around you. There is something very calming about them. More on that later.  I had booked us a room at the Sky Ranch Lodge. Once we checked in, we realized we had our very own deck with views of the red rocks and our hotel also had a private terrace with great views. It was perfect. I can’t even begin to explain the colors we saw as the sun as was leaving.  We couldn't have been any happier with our trip and everything we had witnessed thus far. To celebrate, we decided to treat ourselves to a delicious dinner at Dahl & Di Luca. The food was ridiculously good. And the service was exemplary. We decided to get our leftovers packed so we could enjoy them at breakfast. It was that good.

Monday
We woke up for sunrise and, as an added bonus, we got to see the red rocks alongside hot air balloons. There was something very soothing about this. I think I was a little emotional  because I knew I would be leaving the country in a week. Once the sun was up, we warmed up our food and enjoyed breakfast on our deck and took in the view. It never got old. 






We kept seeing signs about vortexes and decided to ask the hotel staff about them. Their first response to Jill was, “you know you can’t actually see it right?” They gave us a map of four of the more common vortexes. We decided to hike to the one closest to us, airport mesa.  Vortexes are claimed to be spiritual locations with an energy flow that is perfect for meditation and healing. We didn't necessarily believe this but wanted to experience it nonetheless.  When we got up to the top, we were blown away by the 360 view. It was beautiful no matter where we looked.  We were in awe.  I can’t speak for Jill but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was so serene and really made me forget about everything else in the world. For those wondering about the energy force, we did see twisted tree branches and people claim these are caused by the energy flow.




We wanted to see some up the formations up close so we drove to Red Rock Crossing for views of Cathedral Rock. Their park is great for a walk and a picnic. Afterwards, we drove around town and saw Bell Rock, Teapot, Camel Rock and many others. Before driving back to Phoenix, we really wanted to hike up Devil’s bridge. Our trip was going so smoothly and of course something had to go wrong. Once we checked out and got in the car, the car wouldn't start. We tried a few times and called the car rental company but kept getting their voicemail. Our hotel’s maintenance guy tried to jump start the car and wasn't successful either. Finally, after 45 minutes we decided to move the gear shifter around and voila the car started. We were nervous about driving the car but had no alternatives because the car rental company never called us back. An hour behind schedule, we still decided to pursue devil’s bridge but completely underestimated how much time it would require. First, you definitely need a 4x4 to get close to the start of the hike. Second, once you get to the start of the hike (which is 45 minutes on foot from from the entrance) it is another hour from there. We were nervous about missing our flight so we hitched a ride back to our car and headed to the airport. 


On the way back, Jill convinced me to stop on the highway by the giant cacti and take pictures. Initially, I was nervous about time but decided to give in and I’m glad I did because I really didn't grasp their size until I was next to one. We made it back to the airport with time to spare and were celebrating our great trip when then we got another blow. Southwest wouldn't let us use our tickets because they had apparently expired. We argued and asked for a manager and won in the end but the manager came to our assistance about an hour too late. Our flight left and our best option was to spend the night in Nashville on our own dime. We were disappointed about missing our flight and upset because we could have used the day to hike up Devil’s bridge instead of wasting time in the airport and in Nashville. There was a shuttle waiting for us in Nashville and I was really baffled by the name of the company. I won’t say anything else but include the picture for you.



Tuesday
We arrived back in Jacksonville safe and sound. I really enjoyed exploring Arizona and want to go back out west to visit New Mexico, Montana and Utah. Prior to 2013, I really undervalued America as a travel destination because I did not realize how much there is to see. After visiting five new states and two national parks this year, I have come to realize that America is absolutely beautiful.  

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Staff Retreat to Sihanoukville



It has officially been a month since I moved to Cambodia. At times it is a little hard to believe because it still feels like I just got here. I have been on trips with work every week and that has definitely made the weeks go by much quicker. 

We had our staff retreat this week. The destination was Sihanoukville. We left at 7:30 am on Wednesday morning. Most of the local staff  brought their spouse and children along for the trip. The children were quite entertaining during the journey. Sihanoukville is only 3.5 hours from Phnom Penh. All of the foreigners, including myself were expecting to arrive at the hotel by the afternoon. We actually got there at 5:30pm! What we didn’t know is that Cambodians like to make a thing out of EVERYTHING. It worked out for me because I got to see new sights but it was still a little frustrating. Our first stop was for breakfast. We stopped on the side of the highway and put down some mats for our group of 35. The menu was roasted duck with rice or roasted chicken with rice. I just had some rice because I can't handle meat that early in the morning. 


Our next stop was a holy site for Buddhists. It was a beautiful valley where Buddhists believe a spirit lives. Almost all the locals got off to pray and to take some pictures. Next, we headed to lunch at a resort. A resort in Cambodia does not mean what does in the States. Here a resort implies a hut with hammocks and a stopping point for food. Unfortunately for us, the bridge to our resort was damaged so we took the long way there. This involved an unpaved road, loads of bumps and another 2 hours added to our trip. Lunch included Tom Yum Soup (hot & sour) and roasted chicken.  It was all delicious! The good thing about resorts is that after a meal you are expected to lounge around in the hammocks for forty minutes to an hour. So we did just that before heading to Sihanoukville.
 
After some more bathroom breaks we finally arrived at the hotel  two hours behind schedule so we nixed the team building activities and headed straight to the beach for dinner. This time the menu was seafood fried rice, soup, bbq lamb, squid and beef. This was exactly what we all needed after a long day on the bus. We ended the night with Christmas gifts. Everyone drew a number and the prizes included carry on suitcases, kitchen appliances and cash. I won the top prize of $40! It was a great way to start the retreat.  Anjana’s husband (Ujwal) and sister (Srijana) arrived a little after dinner so I explored afterwards with them.

The next day half the group headed to Koh Rang Island and the other half stayed in Sihanoukville. We left at 8 am and were scheduled to arrive on the island by 10:30 am, so we thought. We actually arrived on the island at 2:00 pm after two stops and a lot of sick people. I threw up as well. It was awful and something I would rather not experience again. The boat captain did not apologize for his deception or the fact that he stopped at another island to drop off tiles for his business. He wanted us to be back on the boat by 3:00 pm. Frustrated and helpless, a few of us took matters into our own hands and paid $13 for a fast boat back to Sihanoukville. This boat left at 4:00pm and gave us a full two hours to enjoy the island. We made the most of it by sleeping on hammocks on the beach and indulging in some hamburger and french fries (I am still not satisfied by the fries here). It only took us forty minutes to get back! Instead of commiserating on our awful day we decided to sit on the beach and take in the beautiful sunset before heading to dinner. It was beautiful and relaxing!


 
For dinner, the entire group headed to a Chinese restaurant and had some shrimp and squid dishes with fried rice. Very fattening but delicious. Afterwards,we all went to a KTV bar, better known as Karaoke. The kids had a blast and some of the adults sang too. I sang My heart will go on with Laetitia and Wanna be with four other girls. We were all pretty tired from our long day so we headed back to the hotel in an hour or so.
I woke up the next morning sore and in pain from all the bouncing I did on the bus and on the boat. We checked out right after breakfast and headed to Ream National Park. I said my goodbyes to Anjana, Srijana and Ujwal because they were heading to Siem Reap from Sihanoukville later in the day. 

Ream is only 35 minutes outside of Sihanoukville and we spent most of our day there. We got there around 9:30am and stopped at a guest house and ordered shrimp, crabs and squid. They had cages outside on the water and after catching our meal they started cooking. Because the meal would take two hours or so, a few of us decided to walk around and explore. Laetitia introduced us to Ream guest house and its peaceful location. We ordered coffee and just sat and took in the view.  





We timed our arrival perfectly with lunch and man was it delicious. I learned how to eat a crab! I thought I knew but I didn’t and had been throwing away so much meat. Again, we ate too much and slept on hammocks afterwards. I don’t understand why people aren’t fat here. We headed home and only made two more stops. Even though we ended up only completing one team building activity, I still feel like I learned a lot about the culture and my colleagues. We arrived shortly after 7pm and my lovely motodap driver was waiting for me.









I woke up on Saturday with a cold, probably because the bus was freezing. Nothing major but annoying because it is 80 degrees outside and I am shivering. I spent all of Saturday in bed and missed a friend’s Christmas dinner. I hope I get better just as quickly as I got sick.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Roadtrip to Nova Scotia


In May of 2009, my best friend and I spent two weeks in Italy. During this trip we met a host of lovely strangers that made our trip memorable. Two of these strangers were Josh and Lauren.  Z and I try to have the local experience as much as possible so when in Rome we asked a Roman to dinner on couch surfing. This Roman, Francesco, brought along three other travelers- Josh, Lauran and Sam. That night was like a night out with good friends, we discussed travel, our backgrounds, and the places we would like to visit in our lifetime. Oh and there was a lot of discussion on Lauren’s infected leg. She ended up going to the ER that night.

Lauren and Josh have been telling us to visit Halifax, Nova Scotia (their home) ever since. The four of us have managed to stay in touch through Facebook and travel has continued to be a hot topic amongst us. This April, Josh finally called us out on never visiting but having the time to visit so many other places. Fair point. With no real reason not to, Z and I looked at our calendars and finally confirmed a trip to Nova Scotia to meet two people we met for one night four years ago. We decided to go on a road trip from Maine because the flights to Halifax were too expensive. 


We met in New York and arrived in Portland together. We landed on a Wednesday night and checked in to a  hotel near the airport. After getting our car the next morning, we headed out for a quick tour of Portland. It started with breakfast at Hot Suppa and then walks along downtown, Fort Allen Park and East End beach. We ended our time in Portland with some delicious gelato from Gorgeous Gelato.  I was amazed at how small and industrial the city was! I don’t know why but I expected it to be a bit larger. 







We wanted to spend the weekend in Halifax so we kept ourselves on a schedule otherwise we would have loved to explore the small towns around Portland and of course all the lighthouses! We drove straight to Acadia National Park and were lucky enough to catch a beautiful sunset and an orange moon. The sight was breathtakingly beautiful! In the beginning we were running back and forth to take photos of the mesmerizing sights but when we realized how crazy we looked, we finally stopped and took in the rare moon sighting. We were happy and hungry and decided to head into Bar Harbor for dinner. Bar Harbor is a town right outside of the park and is usually filled with tourists. We found a place with great atmosphere and of course ordered way too much food. We had 2 lobsters, lobster mac n cheese and mussels. Everything was so good! We arrived at our bed and breakfast fat and happy. 

We had a light breakfast and headed out towards the border. Six more hours to Halifax. Since I was the sole driver, yup he doesn’t have a license, I wanted to break the drive somewhere near the three hour mark. This happened to be near Saint John in New Brunswick. We stopped in the quiet fishing village and had some..you guessed it..lobster. But this time it was in the form of lobster rolls. Equally delicious of course. Recharged and excited to be almost there we headed towards our destination. We passed a lot of beautiful windmills and saw signs of fall around us. Amazingly, there was absolutely no traffic. Driving this distance might sound like a terrible idea but it was actually really calming. 

Since our phones did not work in Canada, we arrived in Halifax a little lost. We had to run into a Tim Horton’s for their wifi so we could get back on track. We arrived shortly thereafter to Josh’s around 5pm! He had planned a jam packed weekend of activities for us so we quickly freshened up before heading out to dinner. Halifax is a very young town, lots of colleges and lots of college kids. I felt like I was back in Birmingham again. Dinner was followed by a house party and then some dancing and last but not least, POUTINE.  We enjoyed everything about this night but the extensive selection of Poutine at Smoke’s left us wanting to try their many many variations. 

The next morning the four of us drove to Peggy’s cove, a beautiful little fishing town. The only reason I was ok skipping the lighthouses in Maine was because I knew I would see Peggy. Even though the lighthouse is the highlight, the town is equally memorable. We headed to the town of Lunenburg next. Josh’s parents still live there and were kind enough to host us. When we arrived, his dad was coming back from grocery shopping and had gotten supplies to make us a home cooked meal. The kindness of strangers continues to leave me speechless.



Josh is very proud to be from Lunenburg and rightfully so. Old town Lunenburg is a UNESCO World Heritage site. He gave us the grand tour which included the major sights and of course places important to Josh. It was so great to hear stories from his childhood and running into people he has known all his life. After seeing the town center, we decided to drive along the coast for the views. Every single turn was beautiful. Nature is the true sight here.




While driving, we spotted the little town of Blue Rocks and were amazed at its sight. We stopped the car and got out to take some photos. Once we were done exploring, we decided to head back home for dinner. And then the real adventure began. On our drive back, we were passing through the street where he grew up and the sun was setting so naturally we decided to park the car to take in the view of the harbor. As I parked, I didn’t realize there was a ditch on the side of the road because it was covered by grass. So our car got stuck. We all got out and tried to push it out without much success. Luckily, this street was also where his aunt, Nancy, lived. We went to pay her a visit and she of course was also really kind. She offered us drinks and her beautiful house while we figured out what to do. The tow company told us 40 mins and that turned into 3 hours and then some.


We invited Nancy to dinner with us and decided to head back home with her. The meal was just what we needed. Steak, shrimp, salad, bread, beans and corn. Mr. Powers definitely went above and beyond to make us feel right at home. We headed back to Nancy’s house after dinner to wait for the tow truck. Luckily, it arrived within 30 minutes and got our little car out successfully and only cost us $20! To celebrate, we headed to a barn party on the harbor. There was a local band and some swing dancing. The vibe was so refreshing and intimate. It was such a great experience and I’m happy we got to see the locals in their natural element. We closed out the night by visiting Josh's old elementary school, Lunenburg Academy, and its cemetery to visit some ghosts.



The next morning, Mr. Powers made us some breakfast. He really is amazing. We packed up and said our goodbyes to him and headed to Mahone Bay, Lauren’s hometown. Mahone Bay is even smaller than Lunenburg. We walked through a local street market and took a coffee break before getting back in the car and heading to Halifax. Our flight home was on Monday morning from Portland and I wanted to be at the border by Sunday evening. Once in Halifax, we said our goodbyes, got some poutine for the road and started our drive.  

While researching for the trip, I came across pictures of Hopewell Rocks and knew that I wanted to see the teapots. We decided to make this our break point. We arrived at 5:05pm and the doors closed at you guessed it, 5:00pm. I was heartbroken. But there were still cars in the parking lot so Z and I crossed over the gate and walked in, not sure if we were breaking any laws but we wanted to at least  attempt to see the teapots. We saw a handful of people and felt reassured. We weren’t sure if it was high tide or low tide and if we would even see anything. You should have seen my face at the end of the hike. I was so excited to see the teapots and could not stop smiling! I was so happy we made it and so happy we tried. We spent a half hour exploring and taking pictures before heading back. 

We made it back to the United States by the evening and slept in a tiny motel near the border. We headed to Portland in the morning and stopped at the famous Bintliff’s for breakfast. My plate of homemade corned beef hash was the perfect way to end the trip. It was such an indulgence and every bite made me appreciate the experience. Z got waffles and eggs and was also happy with his selection. 

Z and I are used to taking one international trip a year and that has become tougher to maintain but this was a great substitute. I am so glad we planned an impromptu trip to meet fellow traveling friends.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Film Festival, Prime Minister & More

Last week really flew by!

December 7th-12th was Cambodia International film festival. Jenny and I went to see two eye opening screenings during the week, though we wish we could have seen more. The first movie was titled, ''A River Changes Course.'' It follows three Cambodian families and their struggles to survive and earn an income. These people were just trying to earn $100 a month and were having difficulty doing so. The second was titled, ''The Missing Picture.'' It won the grand prix award at Cannes film festival this year. The director, Rithy Panh, is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide. His documentary featured clay characters and film footage from the genocide that depicted how his family and two million others died. You should watch it if you have the chance, http://carpetbagger.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/13/rithy-panh-on-the-missing-picture-and-living-with-tragedy/  

Both were very well done but also very depressing. I learned that Cambodians call the Vietnam War ''The American War'' and that the genocide was the aftermath of the war. I also learned that the United States dropped over a half a million ton of bombs over the country in the early 70s, a fact many Americans might not know.These bombs along with the land mines laid by the Khmer Rouge have led Cambodia to have one of the largest disabled populations in the world.


Tuesday was International Human Rights Day. It is a public holiday and a lot of offices were closed, including ours. However, it was also the day the Prime Minister celebrated International Day of Disabilities. Aide et Action was invited to participate in the government sponsored event because we have a few projects aiming to educate and empower kids with disabilities. The Prime Minister spent 15 minutes with us and seemed to be really interested in our organization and the work we do with children. It was refreshing to see a lot of the locals taking an active part in this event.



Aide et Action also held a week long finance workshop this week. Employees from Europe, Asia and Africa came to participate. I did not participate in the workshop but met a few of the participants during one of the sessions. This doesn't happen very often but I met another woman named Sabine! We got to know each other a little bit and she was proud I made the decision to come to Cambodia. She shared that her husband is currently looking after their three kids while she is away for three weeks. She reminded me that there is no reason to feel guilty for following my passion. She also said I was lucky to have found a man that understands and is a modern day husband. I couldn’t agree more!

I met a few more people this week through Jenny and Gareth. Gareth is an old classmate from my Master’s program and he also works with me at Aide et Action. Both have been a great resource. It’s always interesting when you meet new people because one of the first questions you get is, ''how long are you here for?'' The expats that are here long term are a little hesitant to invest in new friendships with people that are going to leave fairly quickly. It is a constant revolving door of people here so I can partially understand their thought process. 

One of the people I met, Jan, arranged for a tour of a local Wat with a former monk. Wat is the khmer name for a pagoda. Jan is from the Czech Republic and works with UNAids. I asked if I could join him on the tour and off we went yesterday with another expat from the Czech Republic. The tour was fascinating! We visited Wat Nearkravaan, the most revered wat in Phnom Penh. We learned about the life of Buddha and the stories about him that are painted on the walls of each temple. We also walked around the compound and learned about the life of a monk. We got to speak with two monks and learn about their daily routine. It was great to have an open dialogue with a local.

I am learning so much and am so thankful to have this experience. I am, however, not enjoying all the mosquito bites. I seem to get a new one each day and if I am lucky maybe four or five in one sitting. Maybe they just like new blood?

On a completely different note, we got the house! We closed on Thursday and Asghar moved in yesterday with the help of our wonderful friends. To celebrate, I bought two paintings for our new home and can't wait to bring a piece of Cambodia back with me. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Ever since I moved to Florida, I have been wanting to go to Puerto Rico because of its proximity and the low ticket prices. So for our one year wedding anniversary, I got us tickets to San Juan. I booked us a room at Casablanca Hotel mainly because we went to Morocco for our honeymoon. The hotel is beautiful and centrally located on Calle Fortaleza in Old San Juan. We rented a car for our trip and driving in San Juan was surprisingly calm and stress free. I was expecting it to be chaotic but it was not intimidating at all. 

We arrived at our hotel around 1pm but our room wasn’t going to be ready until 3pm. We left our bags with reception and headed to a local lunch spot for our first taste of Puerto Rican cuisine. Old San Juan is absolutely beautiful. I must have taken at least a dozen pictures during our two minute walk. The colorful houses and cobblestone streets transport you to another world.  Speaking of cobblestones, if you stare down you will see blue and black stones. All the blue cobblestones are over 300 years old! The black ones are the modern replacements. Back to the food. We got some empanadas and mofongo, a plantain dish that can be stuffed with your choice of protein inside. I opted for chicken. It was delicious! We headed back to the hotel via the scenic route and caught glimpses of the old fort and the sea.

Once were were checked in and refreshed, we headed out for a long walk along the water. We explored Castillo de San Cristobal from the outside and made our way to Santa Maria Magdalena cemetery. The cemetery is nestled between a park, El Morro castle and the ocean and is such a peaceful place. We sat on one of the ledges for a few minutes to appreciate life and the beautiful sunset. Afterwards, we kept wandering through the streets and ended up at the only remaining gate of the city. There used to be six gates which were closed at sunset to protect the residents. We stopped here for an ice cream break and enjoyed the sound of the water.  On our way back to the hotel we spotted a cute laid back pizza place our cousin had recommended. This quaint little restaurant is always busy so we put our name down. The meal was amazing and intimate. Great way to start an anniversary weekend!


 The next morning, we grabbed some quick breakfast and made our way to the fort. We arrived right when the doors were opening and essentially had the place to ourselves. It was the perfect time to explore. We weren’t the only ones trying to beat the crowds. As we approached the dungeon, we spotted a newly married couple taking some wedding shots. Their photographer even insisted on taking some photos for us! It was built in 1783 to protect San Juan from land attacks because the island was the first with water, shelter and supplies for ships en route to the Americas.

After the fort, we got our car and headed to El Yunque. Since Puerto Rico is a US territory, our phones worked wonderfully for navigation. We arrived in around 45 minutes and took the El Yunque trail to the top. Unfortunately, there were a lot of clouds in the afternoon so we barely got to see the panoramic view. A lot of people head to Fajorado for food but we opted for Loiza because it was on the way back to San Juan. The town of Loiza was recommended to us by a local because it has an amazing street food scene and the arepas there are fantastic. 

When we got back to Old San Juan, we noticed it was much busier from the day before. We learned this tends to happen when cruise ships dock. This has its pros and cons. Cons include busy streets, higher prices and a chaotic atmosphere. Pros include live entertainment and street fairs. We walked around and took in some of the live music but retreated fairly quickly to a nearby restaurant for dinner. This time we went with seafood at Tantra.

The crowds made us rethink our plans for the next day. We changed our beach plans and decided to drive to Rincon and spend the day there. Rincon is on the west coast of Puerto Rico and has one of the best beaches and is a surfer town. We were told the drive would take 2 hours but it really took 3. Even though Steps beach was quiet and beautiful, we probably should have spent the day in San Juan because the drive was exhausting.

We quickly forgot how tired we were in anticipation of our anniversary dinner. We made reservations at Marmalade and went with the tasting menu. The meal was out of this world! And the staff made the experience even better! They were very accommodating and made us feel very special on our anniversary.

Our return flight wasn’t until 3 pm so we grabbed some breakfast and decided to check out some art galleries. By this time, the cruise ship had left so the town was quiet again. We decided to take advantage of this by walking along the city walls and taking in the views one last time before checking out of the hotel. On our drive back to the airport, we grabbed lunch at Casita Blanca, a hole in the wall frequented by locals. The neighborhood might be uncomfortable for some but we enjoyed the experience. 

We loved the feeling of being transported to another time.