Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy 2015!

Many of you have asked for photos from my time abroad and I have been extremely slow with them. Vermont provided a perfect sanctuary for me to review them all photos at my own pace and I am happy to share them with you.

The week before thanksgiving last year, I decided to drop what I was doing and complete life goal of living in Southeast Asia. I quit my job and moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to volunteer with a Swiss non-profit. It was a life changing experience and one that I will never forget. The two important things that I did learn were that you are powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision. The what ifs can be consuming but once you are doing it, they slowly start to fade away. In different places, survival requires different things, based on the environment. Capacity for survival is the ability to allow yourself to be changed by environment. I learned to live on $300/month and write down every single expense. I learned to survive without an air conditioner in continuous heat waves. 

For me, it was important to leave everything and the comfort of it all in order to learn more about myself and change for the better. As Robin Davidson's friend said in Tracks, "Getting off your butt and actually doing something for yourself is important for all of us. It's important that we leave each other..so that we can come back and swap information about what we've learnt even if what we do changes us and we risk not recognizing each other when we return." 

Cambodia-

Singapore-

Myanmar-

Laos-

Vietnam-

Remember courage is grace under pressure. I wish you a wonderful 2015, one where you have the opportunity to realize your dreams, rediscover your strengths, muster your willpower and rejoice in the simple pleasures that life brings your way.



Sunday, November 23, 2014

What TEDxJacksonville means to me

Many of you have heard me talk about my work with TEDxJacksonville but I don't think everyone understands the role it plays in my life. I was first introduced to TEDxJacksonville in the summer 2012 when a dear friend decided to move to Colorado. Jessica was my saving grace in Jacksonville. I had been a resident for a little over six months and was very unsure if I could call this city my home. I met her before I moved and our friendship made me believe I could make the city mine. She knew that TEDx could serve to be my portal to other likeminded people and help me keep my sanity.

She was right. I joined the organization in its first year, when it was known as TEDxRiversideAvondale. I thought I would get to meet some interesting people and help as needed but I ended up getting immersed as soon as Asghar and I got back from our honeymoon. I met so many dedicated change agents, many who I proudly call friends now. They helped me see the city’s potential. They made me realize that I could get involved and actually be the change I wished to see.

Moving to the bible belt was my choice but I assumed certain things would be a given in a moderately large city like Jacksonville. I thought there would be tolerance and diversity. I thought the city would be open to new ideas and innovations. The reality was different. The city faced many challenges: no human rights ordinance, racism towards a respectable member of the human rights commission, lack of accessible public transportation and a lack of a vibrant downtown, amongst many other things. In many ways it felt like I had gone back in time and the city’s citizens were choosing to live in a bubble and ignore the progress being made in other cities across the country

But it wasn't  just about the city. It was also about me. I didn’t realize what being a change agent really meant. Growing up in New York, I took the city’s policies and amenities for granted. As a teenager, I volunteered at the library and in soup kitchens and assumed that was all that was needed from me. I didn't think about the big picture. I was comfortable with the little I was doing and spending my remaining time with friends and family exploring the city. I wasn’t challenged.

TEDxJacksonville made me realize that leaving my comfort zone was the best thing I could ever do. When there was nobody around for me to spend time with, I actually spent my time figuring out where I could be most useful. I finally got plugged in. I learned about the city and its resources and treasures, its pitfalls and challenges. But teaching myself wasn’t enough. What was I going to do with the information?

I realized that sharing my views and newfound inspiration with other was the best thing I could do. Providing this information in simple and entertaining TEDx events allowed other citizens of Jacksonville to get plugged in and decide where they wanted to help or at the very at least enabled them to learn more on topics of interest and allowed them to make decisions for themselves. It completely takes over my life between the months of August and October and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  It allows me to help brilliant people with powerful ideas have a platform to share them with others. The best part is seeing all 350 audience member leave the live conference feeling hopeful, encouraged and believing they can lead or at least support the change they want to see. 


I have seen myself and my city transform over my three years as Jacksonville's resident. I have witnessed everyday people influence the culture and help challenge the norms. I have seen myself transform into someone who sees the power of ideas and the potential all around me. It is so easy to be a naysayer and assume things will always be difficult to change. But change starts with small shifts and its ripple effects have the power to go beyond what we ever imagined. 

To everyone who sees all the wrong around them, I challenge you to actually do something about it instead of running away from of it or assuming that it isn’t your problem. I promise the feeling of accomplishment afterwards will be unlike anything you have ever experienced. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What is your dream?

I recently attended a conference and got a question that was a pleasant surprise from the usual networking repertoire. Over casual lunch introductions, instead of asking me what I did for a living, I was asked “What is my dream?” Harold and I had never met before and the question initially threw me for a loop but after thinking about it I answered happily. My response led to a 30 minute conversation I will never forget. 

Harold and I spoke about ambitions, dreams, goals and what gets in our way. He reminded me that it is very easy to add up the reasons why we shouldn't do something but when you actually start to believe in yourself by simply charting out the how it can be done, the process can be reassuring and encouraging. 

Harold and his wife decided to quit their jobs in their forties and take their toddlers on an around the world trip a few years back. His friends, family and neighbors thought he was crazy and questioned their decision every step of the way. Once the family of four returned from their trip, the skeptics were now confused, envious and sometimes even encouraged by the journey. They were initially unsupportive because they idea challenged the conventions around which they've built their own lives; learning about Harold's journey pushed them to get out of their comfort zone.

He reminded me that you need to find the people that are motivating and supportive of innovative ideas. Once you do, you will flourish. 

I left our conversation reminded of my experiences pre and post Cambodia.   Some of my friends and family did not know how to process my decision, and encouraged me to make the safest choice. Some think it was a phase and do not quite understand why I did it, but they also wont ask why.  When I saw Harold again at the end of the day, I gave him a big hug because our conversation reminded me to be proud of my decisions and excited for my future.

The next day I heard the story of Robin Davidson and her solo journey in Australia, from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean in 1977. The pictures and anecdotes left me speechless, teary and amazed. Everyone told her she was crazy, would die, would never make it and was wasting her time. She document her journey in a book named “Tracks” and I can’t wait to read it.  Just the snippet I read made me want to fly to Australia to meet her and hear her stories.

In case you were wondering, my response to Harold’s question was “to open a non-profit in South Asia that addresses the cultural challenges related sexual assault” and “to visit a 100 countries in my lifetime."

It is so easy to get immersed in our day to day life that we go from task to task without even thinking about why we do what we do. Passion allows us to keep going while maintaining a positive outlook. Doing things we love is meaningful and rewarding. But we have to have dreams to aspire to, to motivate us and most ultimately to be truly content with the mark we leave on the world. 

If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude- Maya Angelou

Friday, September 26, 2014

Facing Death and Cherishing Family

On Wednesday the 10th, my cousin informed me that my uncle was on his deathbed and could pass any day. I knew I wanted to say goodbye and be there for my cousins. I left Friday morning. Surprisingly, the five-hour drive to Fort Myers was painless and quick. I think because it was the first time in a long time I got to be alone with my thoughts and without the constraints of my calendar.

I arrived at the house at 3pm and realized that I had not actually seen any of the other guests in over two decades. One of the lovely aunties started interrogating me as soon as I arrived in the typical brown fashion asking questions like, who are you? What are you studying? Are you married? Startled and cornered, I answered nervously and looked around for a familiar face. After exchanging long hugs with my cousins, I went and said hi to my uncle. He responded with the biggest smile and it made my day. It was so great to see him react and respond and so sad because I realized how hard this weekend would be for me. Cowardly thing to say, I know, considering I wasn’t the one about to lose a parent.

It became apparent pretty quickly that some of the relatives there were dealing with the situation without actually considering what my uncle or my cousins would want. It was frustrating to watch. Everything from food to laying positions to medical treatment was up for debate. Everyone felt they were right. I don’t know how my cousins handled this for weeks at a time. They have been so brave and I admire their courage. I only hope I can be as strong as them when the time comes.

My uncle was a tenacious man and he wasn’t ready to go yet. The energy in the house revitalized him and he fought to remain with us. We had a great weekend with him, filled with laughter, inappropriate jokes, and delicious food. We even watched his beloved Gators play on tv. The weekend flew by. Sunday came before we knew it and one by one we all left to tend to life’s commitments. 

The following Saturday, September 20th, I got the text. My uncle had passed away peacefully in his sleep. The funeral would be on Sunday. I quickly rearranged my commitments for the weekend and hoped Ahmed could join me this time. When I approached him, I started crying thinking about my cousins and what they were going through. We left as soon as we could but the ride down was very different this time around. Both of us realized we had never actually attended a funeral for a relative or any Muslim funeral for that matter. It was also difficult to acknowledge that one day we may need to say goodbye to our parents.

Sunday morning was tough. Not knowing what lay ahead, we got up, came up with a game plan for the day and did what we know best, helped with logistics. I think, for me, it was a great way to distract myself from facing my emotions. I didn’t want to cry in front of my cousins. I felt I had no right to and so I tried to be an anchor for them. We prayed, said our goodbyes and laid him to rest. We were all so relieved that he was finally free of his pain and suffering and at peace.

Because of work the next morning, we left for Jacksonville right after the funeral. During the ride home, I came to terms with the fact that I need to improve relationship with both my parents. My mom and I speak everyday but I don't give her the time and patience she needs. My dad and I need to work on communicating in general. Life is so short. The things that irritate us or make us angry are fleeting and not worth it. Parents are a blessing despite how wrong we think they always are and we need to cherish every day we have with them. I know this is harder said than done but I am determined.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Remembering 9/11

I was sitting my third period music class listening to classical music when the programming was interrupted to say the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane. The teacher and all of us students were confused by the announcement. And then some of us realized our friend's mom worked in the towers. A few of us started staring at Hannah when she took out her cell phone hoping to reach her mom. But she couldn't because all circuits were busy. 

As I walked to the next class, everyone started comforting Hannah while trying to understand what just happened. And then second plane hit. Hannah was able to get in touch with her mom when we finally reached our Classical Greek class. She made it out ok. Those of us that had phones or beepers started getting messages and there was a calm panic all around. We were finally allowed to go home a few minutes after fourth period started. I remember going to Stefani's home with Zuhair and watching the news unfold on tv. I was shaking and had chills as I watched the towers fall. The three of us sat there with tears in eyes and were stunned by the images in front of us. Not knowing what else to do, I went home. 

That was also the first and only day my mom had to walk from Manhattan into Queens. She worked in midtown but she could see the dark sky and smell the burning towers. She walked from 49th and Madison to the Queensboro bridge and walked over the river with countless other New Yorkers. Once she made it to Queens, a kind man gave her a ride to her brother's home and that is where she heard his story. My uncle worked in lower Manhattan. He saw it happen. He was covered in ash. I remember my mom and him coming together as one that day as they shared their stories. 

It is a day I will never forget and one I never want to forget because it is important to honor the lives of those we lost. A wall in the 9/11 memorial says it best through a quote by Virgil, "No day shall erase you from the memory of time."

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Welcoming The Fall

As I sit here in Charleston enjoying a relaxing weekend, I cant help but be amazed by the fact that September 1st is here. I am looking forward for my favorite season of the year to start but also can't help but wonder, where did the past three months go? My 21-hour journey back to the States from Cambodia, Christina and Nick’s beautiful wedding on June 1 and coming home to Jacksonville, all feel like they happened yesterday.

June was all about processing how I felt. Setting up the house was a therapeutic experience because it helped restart my life. I really tried to sit down everyday and write a memory from my experience abroad, the unique stories that were special to me. I’m proud of myself but I do have to make a conscious effort to remember the lessons I learned. 

July and August were filled with all things TEDxJacksonville. Getting reacquainted and getting our speakers and performers lined up. The team is comprised of amazing individuals. Every time I am around them, I am reminded of how lucky I am to be part of such a great group and and how amazing it is to be able to inspire people through the work we do.

July was all also about networking. Getting myself out there and meeting people I admire and respect in hopes of finding guidance on what I should be doing in Jacksonville. The most enlightening part of this experience was everyone’s kindness. A lot of time women say women are the most difficult to work with but that was not the case for me. I can’t begin to thank all the amazing women that were a part of this process. They took time out to meet with me, to introduce me to one another and to guide me. I came out of the experience with a newfound sense of confidence because of their faith and trust in me.

Because of these meetings, I have been given a few contracts that will keep me intellectually stimulated while allowing me to figure out which career track is best for me.  From this process, I have learned when you really stop to feel and listen, you realize you can actually define what is most important to you professionally and how to acquire it.

I am one lucky girl. I know I have a lot more to accomplish and I cant wait to start ticking off many more things and am glad to be taking it in as it comes. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Laos: Laung Prabang

Sabaidee

Sorry it has taken me so long to document my trip to Luang Prabang. I connected with that city in a really unique way and that led me to want to keep it to myself.  Now that I have been home for 2 months and going over my pictures and my notes, I think it is time to tell you about my trip to Luang Prabang.

A shuttle picked up Nikunj and I for our bus trip from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. A minute into the ride, we realized the bus company was actually only two blocks away from our hotel. Before you judge us for being lazy, I need to remind you about Pi Mai, Laotian New Year. Even though we were in the car, it did not stop the partygoers from spraying us non-stop. When we finally got to the bus, all 10 of us made a run for it because otherwise we were inviting people to drench us with water.

Our bus driver was young and eager to reach our destination as quickly as possible. He opted to take us through a newly opened road through the mountains rather than the traditional 7 hour journey around the mountains. The new road saved us about 3 hours. The constant uphill turns were a bit difficult for our minibus so each time we conquered a hill, we had to get out and let the engine cool down for a few minutes. This wasn’t so bad because the landscape around us was stunning every time.

We reached Luang Prabang around 7pm and headed straight to our hotel. Vangsavath was the perfect choice for us. Even though it wasn’t in the heart of the main strip, it was just the right distance away. They provided a free shuttle to and from the center, free bikes, free breakfast, unlimited tea and coffee and a beautiful zen garden that allowed us to relax whenever we wanted. The mother and son that ran the hotel were also extremely kind and hospitable. After they went over the map of the city with us, we got on the shuttle and headed straight to the local night market.

The night market is where you go to shop and to eat. There is one little side street that is filled with food stalls that appeal to both vegetarians and meat lovers. It is also ridiculously cheap. We grabbed some dinner and ate with tourists and locals on a communal table. It was a perfect way to end the day. We were tired from our earlier hike and wanted to decompress so after a quick walk through the market, we headed back.

We woke up the next morning and were sore all over. Man were we out of shape! We decided to take it easy and just enjoy the day so the plans for the day involved: breakfast and observing the New Year’s celebrations. Sleepy Luang Prabang is anything but quiet during this annual celebration. We saw people dancing and drinking on the street. The young and the old were rejoicing and celebrating the New Year.

We headed to the main square to watch the New Year's parade and had no idea what we were getting ourselves into! Just walking to the strip involved constant buckets of water and super soakers. We were attacked as soon as were arrived and it did not get easier each time more water came our way. We took shelter in a restaurant and observed the parade over lunch. The parade featured prominent locals, monks, Miss Luang Prabang and a lot of festive dancers. Once it was over, we had to brave the crowds again in order to head back to the hotel to change and dry up. I thought I was clever by putting on a poncho but an onlooker ripped it off and said I was cheating! We were so excited to find a taxi and escape the madness.


The next morning, we got up bright and early at 5 am to witness the morning alms ceremony. This is probably the one thing that comes up as the must do in Luang Prabang but for me it was my least favorite part. Everyone comes to see the monks and you could see that they don't actually enjoy the tourists and the cameras in their faces. The onlookers take away from the spiritual ritual. Even though I wasn't in their faces, I still felt guilty for being there. The whole thing only lasts about 15 minutes and thankfully ends quickly.




The best part about this morning was observing the city. It was so quiet and different from how we had seen it over the last 2 days. The UNESCO world heritage site was back to normal. Nikunj and I decided to take advantage of this and walked along the river. I fell in love. It was so beautiful and so peaceful. We went back to the hotel for breakfast and I couldn't get the streets out of my mind so while Nikunj napped, I took a bike and went back to town. I rode from the Mekong to the Nam Khan River and saw the locals getting ready to start their day by setting up their restaurants and shops.  I had read about the old French architecture but was now finally able to see it while witnessing the sunrise. It was a perfect morning.



Once I was done, I headed back and took a nap before our excursion to Kuang Si Falls. The base of the falls was filthy and overcrowded. We instantly regretted our decision and could not understand why the locals would treat a local treasure this way. We decided to hike up in hopes of a better view and cleaner surroundings and I'm so glad that we did. It was a huge difference. We sat at the edge and enjoyed the sounds of the water crashing down. It was such a calming experience.


                                                               

Since we barely had a chance explore the town, we used the next day to do just that. We walked from one end to the tip of the peninsula. During the walk, a postcard outside a coffee shop caught my eye.  The cafe was called Big Tree Cafe and it featured Adri Berger's work. I was so engrossed by his portraits. He actually sat down and explained a lot of it to us which just made the experience a whole lot better.  He had been in Laos for over 7 years and explored most of the country by boat. His shots captured a lot of the local tribes and their customs. Seeing his work made me want to come back to Laos and explore the mountains because it was all so different from anything we had seen on our trip. I didn't buy any of  the portraits but hope to be able to afford one some day soon. I did get a postcard for my postcard wall :)

At the tip of the peninsula, we saw a local fisherman in action. It was such a different fishing experience! He was throwing a net in and pulling it back. So simple but so effective. I was lucky enough to capture him in action.  Next, we visited Xieng Thong temple. It was unlike any other temple I had ever seen. The designs on the exterior walls were really unique and very colorful. 



After that we walked to Tamarind for lunch and lucky for us it was finally open. We had been trying to eat here since we arrived but it was closed for the holidays. The restaurant came highly recommended and after our absolutely delicious lunch, we understood why. I had stuffed chicken with lemongrass accompanied by brown sticky rice and lime juice. It was so tender and flavorful. You need to slowly peel the lemongrass in order to get the chicken out. Nikunj had another one of their popular dishes, papaya salad. It was such a treat. The view didn't hurt either, the restaurant overlooks Nam Khon River.




We decided to keep treating ourselves and got massages next. I don't know if it was brave or stupid on our part to request a traditional massage. Oh my god does it hurt. Each sore spot felt so much worse when they "massage" it. But my body did feel great afterwards. The amount of things that cracked were kind of scary but my pain did disappear for a few days. Since we could barely walk afterwards, we headed back to the hotel for a nap. Vacations are the best specifically because of naps!


In the evening we visited Phu Si, a hill in the middle of the city that houses a temple on top. It has 360 panoramic views of the city and the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately, it was pretty cloudy when we went but the views were still beautiful. I can't imagine how they could get any better. We spent a good hour just staring and admiring the view.

Our last day in Luang Prabang was spent on a boat. We signed up for a three hour boat ride on the Mekong. This is where the pitfalls of traveling in Asia came in to play. Our boat stopped working twice, once on the way to Pak Ou Caves and once on the way back to Luang Prabang. There was absolutely nothing we could do about it. The driver would bang a hammer on the engine in hopes of making it start. We had to wait for other boat drivers to help us and it was really scary to be at the mercy of others. To add to the stress, our flight back to Vientiane was later in the evening so we kept thinking we would miss our flight. In the end it all worked out and it served as a reminder that when in Asia, you just need to go with the flow.

Pak Ou Caves house thousands of Buddha statues from the 16th century til now. They alone aren't worth the boat trip but the landscape makes it worthwhile. We saw elephants, local tribes and lots of fishermen out on the river. It was a very relaxing experience. A lot of people opt to take a boat ride on the Mekong for 2-3 days to really explore the local towns.

I realized that this was the first time in a while I spent 5 full days in a city and it still didn't feel like enough. There is something mystical about the mountains of Laos and I can't wait to go back and see more. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Redefining my Identity

Even though I have been home for seven weeks now, there still seem to be plenty of people to meet and catch up with. I met one such person last week at a local night market that started while I was in Cambodia. He seemed to be pretty progressive and was all about revitalizing downtown. He was even wearing an equality sticker. This guy asked Asghar what he does and after hearing Asghar’s response, he asked me if “I was a lawyer’s wife”. I know he had no ill intentions but I was fuming because his words triggered my insecurities.

When I first moved to Jacksonville, it was extremely important for me to form an identity that does not revolve around my husband. I worked very hard to maintain it but leaving for Cambodia changed that. As soon as I got back, I was back to being just a wife. At least in my mind. 

I bring this story up because my identity has been something I have been struggling with the last few weeks.  I have been spending money without the same discipline I had in Cambodia and feeling guilty about it. I have been earning a paycheck since I was 15 years old and always worked for what I wanted. This is the first time in my life that I have not worked. In Phnom Penh, I wrote down every single one of my expenses in order to stay on track and to keep a record of how much I needed to make ends meet. And now, I am using my husband’s credit card to buy curtains for the house or lunch for myself. I have had friends call me out and say "you are taking this house wife thing too far" or "we need to find you a job because I don't recognize you anymore."

Coming home to no job but a full time volunteer position and a new a house has kept me occupied. I have been busy with projects for the house while having constant meetings for TEDxJacksonville. And I now know that I am much more than just a wife but it does get hard to remember that when you're only accomplishment in a day is setting up a closet at home.

It’s strange to say but this new chapter has been a huge learning experience. I’ve learned that breaks can be a good thing. I actually have the luxury to figure out what I want to do without rushing into something I know I will hate. And I have finally learned that it is ok to depend on your husband financially. The independent woman in me always fought to share the expenses and now I can’t even if I wanted to. It has been a humbling journey and one that has enabled me to be honest with myself.

I needed the break. I needed the time to process everything I saw and felt while I was away. I didn’t want to rush from one experience to the next because I want my last experience to influence whatever comes next.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Impact of Sound

Another week has gone by and I have started to think less deliberately about Cambodia. Now it just hits me at random times when an experience makes me think of parallels from my time in Asia.

Walking is not as common in Jacksonville as I would like, mainly because the city is a large sprawl. However, I decided to walk to a meeting yesterday afternoon because the venue was literally 5 minutes away. Once I started my walk, I realized why most people don’t do it during the day- it is always TOO HOT. Walking in the heat immediately took me back to Cambodia and my daily lunch walks or walks to the market on weekends. Except there they involved a lot of vendors calling at you and you could never walk in peace and quiet. TUK TUK and MOTO became two words I hated hearing because there was just no rhyme or reason behind them. You could literally just get off a tuk tuk and another driver would call at you. This was a common complaint from expats because those of us that are used to saying no thank you had to keep stopping once or twice a minute to say Aw Tay (No Thank you in Khmer).

So now walking in silence in Jacksonville was so strange. I didn’t feel normal. I was craving to hear a honk or a scream or something. And then I felt crazy for wanting sounds we would label as obnoxious. This weird conundrum let me to hastily enter the wrong shop. I ended up in a vapor shop instead of a coffee shop.

This morning at breakfast, the theme of sound came back.  There was a large family with two young children. One of these kids was screaming for fun at 9am. I think most patrons wanted  the parents to do something about this but I loved it. It added “character” for me.

I never thought something as simple as sound would be a part of readjusting back to my life here but I guess you just never know what element is going to stick with you.

Monday, June 16, 2014

What it is Like to be Home

I have been home for three weeks now and it has felt like a roller coaster of emotions. I spent my first week in New York. The first few days were with family and I spent most of those eating, sleeping and recovering from a cold. The reminder of the week was all about helping Christina have the best wedding she could possibly have. It was so much fun watching one of my closest friends get married. There was laughter, there were tears and there was lots of hugging. There was an open bar and a ton of food, including a caviar station. There wasn’t much time to think. And I’m glad there wasn’t because I don’t think I would have known how to process anything around me.

I went from basic to luxury in a matter of days and my mind was perplexed.

After a few days of celebrations with Christina and Nick, Asghar and I headed to Jacksonville together the following Monday. I had seen our home before I left but it felt so foreign to me when I first stepped inside. I didn’t know how to connect with it. I felt overwhelmed and spoiled. Asghar went straight back to work and I spent my days inside our house, my nights catching up with friends over dinners. I didn’t leave the bedroom the first day because I didn’t know what to tackle first and staying in bed seemed like the best option.  Since all my clothes were in boxes, I was dressing out of Asghar’s closet.  Finally, I built up the courage to start working to make this house into our home. And now, after 12 days, it feels like ours.

We put so much time and energy into it this past weekend and that made the world of difference for me and my emotions. WE. Yes, I had been doing things here and there and seeing all the people that I love but something was missing. I felt different and didn't know how to reassume my old life without feeling guilty for all that I have. But when Asghar and I started working together, something just clicked. I remembered how hard we worked to get here. How we have always pushed to achieve our goals. None of which warrants any guilt. And so I have made my peace and look forward to the next opportunity that will allow me to give back to my home, the city of Jacksonville.  

The biggest challenge for me has been my response to the never ending question, “how was your trip?” My instinctive response is always to say it wasn’t a trip, I lived there so you have to be a bit more specific. But I realize that is a mean answer so I usually say, “It was wonderful and life changing.” If someone wants to know more, they can ask but most do not.

I don’t want to forget my experience and I don’t want to talk about it like I was there for charity. I want to carry it with me when I am thinking about how I speak with others and how to spend our money. And most importantly, by remembering there is a whole world out there and my life is one of privileges and freedom that I can’t take for granted.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Cambodia

I have started to think about what I have accomplished and experienced in the past 6 months and the people I have met along the way. What an amazing journey it has been for me!  Today is my last day at work and tomorrow is my last day in Cambodia.

I'd like to introduce you to some of the amazing people that helped shape my time in Cambodia. They enhanced my journey by sharing their stories and personalities with me. They turned what might have been awful experiences into a meaningful memory. They inspired me to grow and showed me how much more there is to learn in this world.


Anjana

Anjana is from Nepal but currently living in the United States. She is one of the kindest people I know. I met her on my first day at work and knowing I didn’t have a place of my own yet, without hesitation she allowed me to stay with her until I could find an apartment. It was wonderful to discover Phnom Penh together during her last few weeks here. I am glad I was able to show her another side of the city.

Jenny

Jenny was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Germany. She was my first ever roommate. I loved coming home to her everyday because it was always so much fun chatting with her about our work and the cultural differences we faced every day. She became my family.

Nikunj

Nikunj is also from Nepal but has lived all over the world and I am many envious of her many passport stamps. We met through Anjana and bonded quickly over our long distance relationships and love for travel. She recently moved back to Nepal but had been living in Cambodia for one year while working for an asset management firm. It was lovely to meet a smart young married woman pursuing her career while also maintaining a long distance relationship with her husband.

Jessica

Jessica is a young and motivated Australian. She is my neighbor at work and makes me laugh every day. She is really passionate about international development and loves food. You hear her say things like, “I can’t be bothered being hungry.” I mean how could you not love her? She also asks a lot of meaningful questions that most 23 year olds don’t ask. She is going places.

Ra

Ra is a recent Cambodian college graduate. Jessica, Ra and I spend a lot of our downtime at work chatting about local affairs.  He has also served as a cultural guide for us, always explaining local customs and traditions.  I have great hopes for Ra because of how dedicated he is to Cambodia. He genuinely wants to change the country for the better and I know he will.

I will miss them and my life here but having said that I am ready to start the next chapter. I feel so lucky to have seen all that I have seen and felt all that I have felt. When I look back to my first week, I remember feeling anxious, depressed and confused. I am now leaving feeling hopeful, excited and grateful.

This experience has allowed me:
  1. To be comfortable with truly being alone. Friends and family are always available but sometimes the time difference requires you to face challenges and emotions alone and that has been an extraordinary experience.
  2. To be able more comfortable with, and even look forward to, spontaneity and happenstance.  As someone who loves lists, I think about planning ahead but I have learned that the future can't always be prepared for. You have to be able to go with the flow and the rhythm of those around you.
  3. To be fiscally responsible. Writing down my daily expenses has really allowed me to see how little is needed to be happy and healthy
  4. To learn so much about Southeast Asia. I had never experienced this part of the world before, and everyday here was an education. I will always remember its beauty and keep for it a special place in my heart.
  5. To put myself out there. It is so easy to stay within your comfort zone but it is eye opening when you step out of it. You learn that a smile and hello go a long way.
I hope I remember these lessons once I am home because they have really allowed me to appreciate life for what it is and how to make the most of it.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Weekend in Kampot

Zuhair arrived on May 2 and with only 3 weeks left in Cambodia, I wanted to explore a new part of it with him. Turns out Nikunj's husband was also in town and she had the same goal in mind as well. She suggested we head to Kampot for the weekend. It is only two and a half hours away and perfect for a weekend getaway.

We left early on Saturday morning and arrived in exactly two and a half hours, which was a refreshing change from Cambodia's constant bus delays. We rented some scooters and made our way to the beautiful digs at Eden’s Eco Lodge. Eden's is off the beaten path from Kampot’s city center, about 15 minutes down a dirt road. There are 8 lodges on the river; none have any electricity or wifi. We only had a hammock, beds, cold shower, and solar lamps. It was simple and forced us to enjoy nature in all its glory. You can choose to close your doors but we opted to leave them open so we could see and hear the river. It was a great way to unwind, catch up and rest.


We opted to get lunch at the lodge and the menu for the day was grilled fish with tamarind sauce. It was so fresh! We digested our food over good conversations on the hammock while waving at the boats that slowly cruised by. Our environment caught up with us and all we wanted to do was take an afternoon siesta which is exactly what we did for almost 2 hours. I can’t remember the last time I slept that well in Cambodia.

We woke up just in time for sunset but unfortunately cloud cover diminished our chances of seeing anything so instead we focused our energy on finding dinner, specifically some of Kep's Crab with Kampot pepper. Luckily, we were pretty resourceful and found exactly what we were looking for and as an added bonus the restaurant was also on the river.

Dinner was delicious, messy and a little unsafe. While attempting to open up my crab, I cut myself twice.  I hope to master the technique one day.  I  also strayed from my technology free existence by using the restaurant's wifi to quickly speak with Asghar, post a picture on instagram and say hi to my mom and Chrissy.

We left dinner stuffed and opted to drive around town for a bit to experience the night life. We stopped at Rusty’s Keyhole for a drink and it reminded us of why we weren’t staying in town. It was filled with tourists and expats and felt like we had entered another world and caused us to leave pretty quickly. The drive back to the lodge was spooky in the dark. We could barely see the road ahead of us. It is amazing to me how quickly things can change in a matter of a few hours.

Upon our return, we saw a tree that looked like it was decorated with Christmas lights. This was known as the firefly tree. For some reason, fireflies flock to this type of tree and do so in large groups. I am almost glad a camera couldn’t capture this moment because it forced us all to take a mental picture. 

The sounds of morning prayers from nearby mosques woke us up the next morning. This area of Kampot has a large Cham Muslim population. After tossing and turning, we finally fell back asleep around 4:45 am only to wake up again at 7 am for breakfast. We thought we were going to drive up to Bokor but decided against it. Instead, we opted to lounge around in the hammocks again. The hammocks were addictive. After an hour or so, we took a local boat across the river to explore the local village and its wat. The boat ride was an adventure of its own. There was a hole in the center of our wooden boat and water was slowly coming in during the ride. The boys squatted in the middle and Nikunj and I sat on the edges. None of us know how to swim and this made the ride a little bit more exciting. 

Drenched in sweat, we got back to the lodge to shower and pack up. We needed to return our scooters by 11 am. On the way back, Nikunj and Aarjan got a flat tire and had to walk their bike for about 15 minutes in the scorching heat. They still managed to meet the deadline though! Their reward was a delicious lunch at a local Chinese noodle place where we had the most amazing noodles.  After resting and hiding from the sun , we finally braved the heat again to catch our bus back to Phnom Penh.

This trip made me really nostalgic about my life in Cambodia and how soon it will all be over. I am really excited to see what the next chapter holds. 


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Why I Love Living Abroad

I love days where I feel connected with the local culture and the people of Cambodia. Tonight was the first time I interacted with Ra, a Khmer colleague, outside of work. Usually expats hang out with one another after work but locals tend go home to their families. But today we invited Ra out with us to catch the sunset and for dinner. It was nice to share our experiences and learn more about each other outside of the professional environment. It was such a great learning experience for all of us. We realized that no matter where we grow up, parents are still the same everywhere. Growing up and gaining our independence was a challenge for all of us and where we were raised did not matter.

A colleague’s wife gave birth today and the office was buzzing with excitement. Ra asked me and another colleague from Australia about the terms associated with pregnancies in the west. We ended up explaining what “being in labor” and what “my water broke” meant. It was hilarious and entertaining but also informative. In Khmer, Ra knew special water came out of a woman.  He just didn’t know what that meant. That’s when we realized even though he was 24 years old, he was very sheltered. Men and women are raised very differently in Khmer culture. Young women might have known about this but the young men wouldn’t because of the conservative nature of their society. 

There is apparently a code of conduct for girls and boys. It is called Cbpab Srei for girls and Cbpab Pros for boys. These two books literally outline the way girls and boys should behave throughout their life.  Men are no longer expected to follow it but women are even though it was banned from schools in 2007. The book of rules encourages total obedience to one’s husband and his happiness. They are also told to deal with any physical abuse that comes their way and wait for their husbands to calm down. Girls are also told to avoid eye contact with elders because eye contact signifies disrespect. In the villages and in some aspects of city life, many people still expect girls to behave this way. I am surprised I never heard of this before. Oh and this shouldn’t come as too much of a shock but these rules were written by a man in the 1800s. 

Society is changing at a pace the conservative members of the community can no longer control. It will be interesting to see how this impacts Cambodia within the next five to ten years. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Laos: Vientiane and Vang Vieng

Nikunj and I went to Laos over Khmer New Year. Many countries in Southeast Asia celebrate New Year’s during this period including Laos, Thailand, Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. We took advantage of our three day vacation by adding two more days and exploring a new country before we leave Cambodia in May.

During this annual three day event, Laotians celebrate the last day of the year on the first day, a neutral day on the second day where no one is believe to age, and the first day of the new year on the third day. The celebrations were not slated to start until Monday but the public started celebrating as soon as the weekend started. In case you were wondering, they were welcoming the year 2557.

Sleepy Laos is north of Cambodia and does not get as many tourists as Thailand or Vietnam but is still considered to be a part of the Southeast Asia travel circuit. The country’s natural beauty is what attracts visitors. It is best enjoyed without an agenda. Everyone has their own impression of each city and some just visit Luang Prabang. I would recommend going with an open mind and forming your own opinion because we ended up loving every city for its own uniqueness and for the first time in a while, I felt like I did not give a country enough time.  Our stops for the week were Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.

Vientiane
Busy with deadlines, we both pushed our luck during Friday evening rush hour traffic and cut it a little too close but luckily our flight was delayed by 45 minutes so everything worked out in the end. We arrived in Vientiane around 8pm and were picked up by our hotel’s shuttle. We decided to stay at Aroon Residence because it provided free shuttles to and from the airport, free breakfast and was centrally located from everything. We were able to walk to the river, the sights and to the restaurants.

On our first night, we explored the main strip and decided to grab dinner at Khop Chai Deu, which literally means thank you very much. This corner restaurant was bustling with energy, live music and was filled with expats and locals. It was the perfect way to immerse ourselves into the local scene.

We spent the next day getting know Vientiane. Our day started at Patuxai, the victory monument. This is a smaller replica of the Arc de Triomphe and is surrounded by a nice park, a fountain and for $.50 you can even go to the top for views of the city. It was too hot to enjoy the grounds but we did climb to the top.

Our next destination was Pha That Luang, a gold covered stupa considered to be most important monument of Laos.  It is also considered to be the center of the city. We did not walk around three times to stay in Buddha’s good graces again because it was too hot. But we did admire its gold from every corner and explored the temples around it.

On our walk back to the hotel, we experienced our first bout of Pi Mai celebrations. Pi Mai is the local name for the three day New Year celebration in Laos. While we were walking, we saw kids attacking each other with water guns and buckets of water and thought it was cute. Well two minutes later two of these kids ran after us and managed to drench our backs with water. This playful incident prepared us for what the next five days would be like.





After a quick escape from the heat, we headed back out. Our first stop was Wat Sisaket, considered the oldest temple in Vientiane because it survived the Thai invasion. The best part about this temple was walking the cloisters around it. They hold thousands of miniature Buddha statues and each hallway was unique in its own way. This is where I realized that Buddha has a variety of hand gestures and each means a different thing.





By the time we finished, we were starving and decided to head to Kung’s CafĂ© for lunch. The restaurant is in the outdoor garden of a family’s home. It took us a few minutes to find it because it is tucked away in a small alley. The wife and mother serve as hostess and cook. The meal was super cheap and very delicious.  It provided a nice escape from the main streets of Vientiane. Rumor has it the restaurant will be moving soon because the neighborhood will be demolished to make way for a new high rise.

Our next stop was Haw Pha Kaew. It was built to serve as the official temple for the Royal Family but was destroyed by the Thais. Its name pays homage to the Emerald Buddha which was stolen and now sits in the Grand Palace of Bangkok. This temple is actually diagonally across from Wat Sisaket but we were too hungry to visit them back to back. 

We tried to visit  the local Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE). Between 1964 and 1973 the United States dropped over two million bombs in Laos, making it one of the most heavily bombed countries in history. A third of these bombs did not detonate and have since been causing casualties across the country. Unfortunately for us, we arrived and found it closed for the New Year.

Exhausted from walking all day, we decided it was best to relax by the river and catch the sunset. We got a tuk tuk, negotiated a price and even managed to get a cheaper price than the one we were quoted for our excursion to Buddha Park the next day. We exchanged numbers and  felt very accomplished to have secured a great deal.                                                          

The riverside area looks pretty similar to the one in Phnom Penh, just smaller. We sat along the edge of the riverwalk to people watch and stare at Thailand across the river. We started to hear music from a nearby restaurant and decided to check it out. We loved that this busy spot was filled with locals and that the band was playing covers of old American songs.  We got a seat on the terrace and had the river and the setting sun as our view. It was a perfect place to unwind after a long day. We noticed everyone getting one particular appetizer and decided to ask the people next to us about it. They said it was a delicious chicken dish and so we got a plate. After about 30 mins, I finally decided to state the obvious. This was not chicken. It didn’t taste bad but it wasn’t chicken. Nikunj and I started laughing and settled on the fact that we just had some sweet and sour fried frogs and were tricked by our neighbors.

The night market takes place every night along the river and luckily, it was right below us. The art was beautiful, the people were kind and the prices were fair. I ended up buying two woodblock prints and a dress for a total of $15. I loved that it wasn’t just for tourists. It was nice to keep seeing the locals and the expats frequent the same places in Vientiane.

After dinner, we walked back to the hotel and asked the concierge to call our tuk tuk driver to confirm our 8am pick up for tomorrow. He said yes, yes and we went to bed. Well the next morning, 8 am came and went and there was no tuk tuk driver. We followed up with the morning receptionist and when he called the tuk tuk driver it turned out last night’s receptionist had cancelled our trip. Lesson learned and we already knew this but this served as a good reminder- yes, yes in Asia never means yes. It usually means they have no idea what you are talking about.

In the end, it ended up working out for us because for an additional $5 we were able to get an air conditioned van instead of a hot tuk tuk. Buddha Park was a strange place. It houses a weird collection of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures but most don’t actually make any sense. And the park provides no context for why things are the way they are so we left very confused.




Vang Vieng
The journey to Vang Vieng was pretty painless and took about three hours. Upon arrival, we were trying to find our hotel and mistakenly asked a local tuk tuk driver for help. He drove us around in a square and we ended up right where we started. He collected $2 for the trip as soon as we sat in his tuk tuk because he knew he was scamming us. Well the hotel was three doors down. We yelled at him and sent a lot of bad karma his way and felt stupid and then let it go because it was only $2.

Our hotel was amazing. We booked a room at Inthira because it was in a great location and looked very cozy. We decided to have dinner at Sanaxay restaurant. We chose it because it was packed with people and everyone looked like they were having a good time.  We ordered Chicken Laap with sticky rice and Tom Yum Soup. Laap is a Laotian staple and I highly recommend it but everything we had was delicious! The group at the table next to us were  visiting from China and invited us to join their party as we were leaving. Nobody spoke English. Their party of 12 kept taking turns to get a picture with us. After a few minutes of laughing and enjoying the randomness of this experience, we decided to say goodbye.


 
We were only in Vang Vieng until 3pm the next day because everyone had described it as a party town. In hindsight, I would have ignored these comments and given myself at least two nights in Vang Vieng because it is absolutely beautiful. Yes, there is tubing on the river. But it is so much more than that. There are amazing caves and great hikes and lots of local villages.  

View from the toll bridge
The next morning was the first day of the New Year and the city had transformed over night! Everyone was on the streets dancing and throwing water at anything that moved. Young, old, foreign and local, it didn’t matter. We strategically walked through the town in hopes of avoiding the water attacks. When we crossed the toll bridge, people in pick up trucks and bikes were getting drenched with buckets of water. Luckily, they spared us because we were on foot. We finally crossed the river and had no idea where we were going but knew we wanted to hike up a mountain. A young boy noticed us and was sweet enough to take us to a path we would have never found on our own. He told us we would reach the top of the mountain within thirty minutes.




I had not been on a hike since I left America and man was I out of shape. But the fact that there was no marked trail (or so we thought) made it worse. We were jumping and climbing up things we probably should not have been and were about to give up when Nikunj spotted a plastic bag on a tree and figured it was the trail. Luckily it was! Our trail markers consisted of plastic bags and really thin strips of orange fabric. We made it to the top one hour and twenty minutes later. If you look at the picture above, we climbed up the mountain on the far left. The view was totally worth the trouble. We could see the surrounding mountains and all of Vang Vieng. It was a little uncomfortable to sit and enjoy the view because of the sharp limestone rocks. We did the best we could to take pictures but left with blisters and bruises.


The hike back down was much easier and we managed to reach the base in a little under forty minutes. It was amazing to have seen a different side of Vang Vieng. We were drenched in sweat and to cope we were requesting kids to throw water at us! During our walk, we discovered a small lunch spot overlooking the river. We grabbed a table and ordered Chicken Laap and enjoyed our remaining hour staring at Vang Vieng's beautiful landscape while watching locals sing and dance to their heart's content. It was absolutely perfect.