Monday, January 19, 2015

Settling Down

I recently renewed my contract in Hong Kong for another two years and it was a frightening experience for me. I’m a nomad- the idea of two months without visiting a new country is daunting for fuck’s sake. I've got this itch deep down to live big and to adventure and explore and grow and it’s difficult to imagine those things being possible when I am choosing to stay in one place for four years.

At this rate, I will most likely spend my 20s abroad. I’m not so much worried about missing out on that experience back in the States of a being a poor twenty-something with loads of fun roommates and a neighborhood bar and weddings to attend, but it’s just that I thought I would either be in Europe by now, or in NYC getting my PhD. But I ended up in Hong Kong, and now I’m making the choice to remain here for a substantial amount of time.

Look, life here is good; can you blame me? My friends are lovely and kick-ass and super tight, my job is exhausting but exciting, the city is vibrant, safe, and active. There’s not really any one thing I can put my finger on and say, ‘this is why I need to go,’ it’s just that this stupid travel itch wants me to avoid settling like the plague. But maybe someday I am going to want a cute flat with a million bookshelves and be part of a community and have a cabinet full of whiskey and a pet and dinner parties and I just don’t know what I’m going to do with myself when that urge kicks in.

The thing is, I have a feeling that I’m going to be really good at settling down someday. I’m great at setting up a routine of cooking for myself and collecting vintage books and nesting and getting to know all the familiar faces in my neighborhood. My life in Hong Kong suits me for now though, and I still need to visit Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, South Korea, and New Zealand before I can leave Asia. So another two years it is. Cheers, Hong Kong! the meantime, where to next?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Mad Week in Vietnam

I’m ticking off Asian nations one by one, and this winter break Vietnam was next in line. I was lucky enough to travel with two good friends, and we decided to spend a week relaxing in Nha Trang, doing a couple nights in a cheap local hotel, and splurging the last three nights with a stay at Novotel.

We started our trip in lovely Hanoi

I’m more of a hostel traveler myself, but it was pretty fun to stay in a really nice hotel room, ordering room service, lounging by the pool, playing the ukulele on our private seaview balcony, and just generally over-indulging in some ultimate relaxation. I wouldn’t normally stay in a nice hotel on my own, so it was great to be able to share that experience with friends.

 Our balcony view at the Novotel

So, how was Vietnam? Loads of fun, food, and drunken shenanigans mostly. I did manage to get my bag stolen at the beach with my Nikon in it. At this point, I’ve been pick-pocketed so often I leave everything in the hotel room so I got really lucky. The fuckers who snatched my bag may have gotten my camera, but that was it. Money, cards, passport, iPhone, sunglasses, earbuds, etc. was all back in my hotel room. Of course there was the initial feeling of being violated, and becoming suspicious of everyone I encountered in the street for a day or two, but it was a swift recovery. For the record, I heard loads of stories and met many traveler who had been robbed in Nha Trang, so it’s something to keep in mind if you are traveling in Vietnam. Beware the bandits!

At least they didn't get my ukulele...

We did some really cool activities in Nha Trang, like a cooking class and a trip to the mud baths and hot springs. I make a mean mackerel claypot, by the way. I also got to jump off a 7 meter waterfall, which was a highlight of the trip for me. Us three girls also made friends with a trio of Australian soldiers that were willingly along for the ride of late night shisha and tearing up the dance floor at the sleaziest bar in town, which made for some very good photos that were robbed from me in an untimely manner by the dirty beach bandits. Other than said dirty beach bandits, the Vietnamese people were SO friendly and kind. It reminded me of Albania- at first, you think everyone is trying to scam you but then you realize that they are just that nice. Weird.

Feeling fresh after a soak in the mud baths

Hiking around the jungle 

Jumping off a 7 meter waterfall

For me, travel in Asia is all about the food. Taiwan was a blur of beef noodle, street sausage, dumplings, and mango shaved ice. Vietnam was a blur of pho, fresh spring rolls, sugar cane pork, claypot, and pomelo salad. In fact, Vietnam could possibly be the best food country I’ve ever been to. Every meal was an experience, and even the most lackluster run-of-the-mill quick bite on the road was an explosion of flavors. Overall, Vietnam was stupidly cheap, easy to get around, welcoming, and generally awesome. I’ve only been to Hanoi and Nha Trang, so I could easily be convinced to go back and spend more time in Vietnam.

The cooking class at Lanterns in Nha Trang 
was one of my favorite parts of the trip

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Nomad's Nomad by Luke Armstrong

I was super excited to hear recently that my friend Luke wrote a book, because he is one of the best storytellers I know. It’s a collection of short stories about his travels around the world, and Luke’s strong voice and huge personality really shine through. When I say that Luke is a character, I mean it in the best way possible, because it's a character you'd wish you known longer and you always wish you had more time with. It's a character that makes an awesome guide for a series of adventures assembled into a book.

I spent an awesome summer living with these guys, and yes-
Luke, Ray and I went out drinking in these getups one night

I am pretty much constantly anxious to hit the road, and  Luke’s stories about travel were so vivid that it was almost ok that I was reading them while stuck on a public bus on my dreary commute to work. The book had me genuinely laughing out loud as I was reading it. Luke writes about smuggling cigarettes and insects, almost getting arrested in Kenya, getting attacked by a raccoon clearly possessed by a demon, and still has some touching moments along the way. The stories feel like extended blog posts and they whip you around the world, which is appropriate considering Luke writes a really great blog.

I think had anyone else written this book, it would have seemed like fiction, but knowing Luke, it’s all real. This is a guy who hired a mariachi band to follow his friends around on a pub crawl of Antigua, my roommate who used to convince the police to give us a ride home in the back of their trucks when we were too drunk and/or broke to figure out a tuk tuk. Oh, Luke. Luke once made me pretend to be a journalist so we could sneak into a Guatemalan circus so he could flirt with the contortionist. If any of these antics sound exciting to you, check out his book The Nomad’s Nomad over at Amazon. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A White Girl in Hong Kong

The issue of race and dating is a really common topic of conversation amongst my friends here, foreign and Chinese both. From what I've gather, Western girls are at the bottom of the dating totem pole in Hong Kong. It is super rare to see a couple consisting of an Asian male and a white girl, normally it's the other way around (of course there are exceptions). Why is that? I'm going to try to explore the phenomenon that is the 'white dude Asian girl' couple.

I can't count the number of times I've heard that white girls can't compete with Asian girls, because Asian girls are just better. That is such bullshit! It's just that the white guys THINK Asian girls are better. So what's with this 'white guy Asian girl' thing? Why is it even a thing? I think it ultimately comes down to two factors:

1. Racist ideas of what Asian girls are going to be like. There is a mindset that an Asian girlfriend will be more submissive, quiet, loyal, and cutesy. My therapist and I talked about this and she said it's actually a huge problem here- a lot of her white male clients end up in therapy because they thought they married a subservient little Asian girl and can't handle it once she ends up being a full blown personality with her own opinions and desires. Maybe white girls seem more loud, independent, and bossy, but that's probably true of all of Western culture. Asian culture may seem more polite, considerate, and reserved, but that doesn't mean an Asian person isn't an individual with wants and needs.

2. There are more Asian girls. Duh, we are in Hong Kong. Chances are that white dudes and Asian dudes are going to be surrounded by more Asian girls every day.

The reality of the situation is that there are more women than men in Hong Kong. There are 876 men for every 1,000 women!! And truthfully, Hong Kong Chinese women are pretty badass. There are a lot of fiercely independent women with powerful jobs and it is actually affecting the demography of Hong Kong. So many women are career oriented, that birth rates have dropped and Hong Kong has an ageing population. Even the wikipedia article called 'Women in Hong Kong' talks about how Hong Kong women are known for being prominent superwomen.

Another thing I've often heard is white girls complaining is 'I can't compete with that! Asian girls are so petite and beautiful and well put together.' I'd argue that Asian girls' looks have nothing to do with race, but the fact that we live in a big fucking wealthy city. New York City and Buenos Aires are also full of beautiful, fit, high-achieving people, because they are cosmopolitan metropolises, not because of any race living there. The white girls in Hong Kong are incredibly beautiful as well.

An awesome video flipping the Asian girl fetish 
to show a white dude fetish

So, how has this all affected me? In my personal experience, it is harder to date in Hong Kong as a white girl. For a lot of girls, it ultimately means lowering your standards and maybe suffering a confidence crisis. I've been more open-minded about who I date here, and maybe even a little less selective (although that's probably just what happens after living abroad and being exposed to different sorts of people). As a forward and confident lady, whenever I've been rejected I normally shrug it off. I used to genuinely wonder after rejection, 'Why wouldn't he be into me?!' whereas here in Hong Kong, I find myself thinking sometimes, 'Why would he be into me?!'

This is not ok!!! I'm normally self-assured and I know that for the right type of guy who gets my geekiness and maybe wants someone a bit more alternative (pixie cut, tattoos, piercings, curses like a sailor), and doesn't only want to date a twiggy waif, I am a fucking catch. Thinking any guy is out of my league is extremely out of character for me. But after hearing my white male friends talking about how 'yellow is better' constantly and having my Asian girlfriends say they would never want to be a white girl in Hong Kong and being surrounded by dozens of 'white guy Asian girl' couples in the streets, every once in awhile, it creeps in and chips away at my self esteem. But then I remember how unique I am and how comfortable I am in my own skin and how much I love my life here, and I don't waste any more time feeling bad.

In the end, no one is better or worse to date because of their race. They might be more compatible because of their culture, they might have certain physical characteristics you are more attracted to, but they are still an individual who deserves to be appreciated for exactly who they are.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

My Favorite Travel Music

Music can set the tone for a trip. Sometimes if I am feeling sleepy or unmotivated while on the road and I put on the right electro soundtrack, I can pump myself up for a night of fun. Sometimes when I am in a peaceful place and a certain song comes on Genius on my iPod, I can sink to a dark place. There's plenty of music to I listen to at home but wouldn't listen to on the road. I have music for grading/working/studying (Ludovico Einaudi), music for rallying to go out on a Friday night after a long day of work (MIA), dinner party music for friends (Washed Out), lazy Sunday music (Howlin' Wolf), cooking music (Billie Holiday), etc.

And then there is road trip music. What would my basic backpacking soundtrack sound like? It really depends on how I am traveling! Driving my car from Tallahassee to New Orleans is going to garner a different vibe from curling up on a train in Eastern Europe or from whipping around the Andes Mountains on a  rickety bus. Also, it makes a huge difference if I am out in nature vs. in a city setting. Landscape and music can absolutely interact with each other!

My basic criteria for a great travel soundtrack: A twinge of nostalgia, a dash of adventure, a sprinkling of twang and mischief, and whistling and/or clapping garners some bonus points. Also, tambourines.

Here are some examples:

Roadtrip song for a long haul on the highway

Forest song for driving through the woods

Train music for dozing off on the high speed rail

New city music for pulling into an unfamiliar urban landscape

Other travel favorites include: Jenny Lewis, EMA, The Mountain Goats, Sharon Van Etten, Santigold, Lykke Li, First Aid Kit. I made a roadtrip rock playlist over at indieshuffle I want to share, so whether you are about to hit the road and need some good tunes or if you are just lounging around your apartment and want to play some whimsical folksy music, check it out:

Friday, November 21, 2014

No Catcalls in Hong Kong

Catcalling has been all over the internet and media lately, and it occurred to me that what used to be such a huge part of my day to day life in Ecuador doesn't exist in Hong Kong. Men here just don't do it. What's with that? When I first moved here, I thought, 'Did I get ugly? Why aren't men whistling at me or licking their lips in my directions as I walk to grocery store in my sweatpants anymore?!' I learned pretty quickly that it just isn't part of the culture in Hong Kong, or most other major Asian cities.

This shows me that men CAN restrain themselves. Men in Asia get it- catcalling makes women uncomfortable, makes them feel unsafe, and isn't fucking flattering at all. They are universally raised here to be respectful and polite towards the opposite sex, and I've never once had reason to fear a man in Hong Kong, a feeling I got used to in Ecuador. Yes, I said it. I feared men in Ecuador. When a group of men approached me in the street, I would cross the road to avoid the jeers. Drunk strangers would force themselves into my taxi at the end of the night to try to come home with me. Taxi drivers would hit on me aggressively, men would follow me in the streets, approach me and grab me, and it was never-ending.

Ecuador was a blur of unrelenting kissing noises, marriage proposals, lip smacking, and hollers. I'm not saying every girl reacts this way, but it really tore me down and made me feel disgusting. I felt like a piece of meat there. Catcalls are common in the US as well, I had my fair share in Florida.

And then I moved to Hong Kong. Something I realized this week is how unique my living situation is. I live at the dead end of an alley way of auto repair shops. This means that the small alley I have to walk down to get home is filled with packs of sweaty, older mechanics. I would never have moved into this apartment if it were in Ecuador! I wouldn't have felt safe going home, and I can say pretty confidently I would have been harassed every time I came home or left my apartment. It would have been intolerable.

My road of auto repair shops

The mechanics under my building

Instead, it's never occurred to me to feel unsafe on my street. The men on my street politely smile and move out of the way for me. They have held my front door open for me when I come home with groceries. Most of the time they don't even look at me. Young Hong Kong men are the same way. Just another reason to love this city. Why don't men in other places get it? Women DON'T LIKE BEING HOLLERED AT. We don't need to be flattered or reminded that we are desirable because of our looks. We don't care that we have your approval. We weren't looking for it in the first place.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

My Five Most Life Changing Trips

I have spent practically every break I’ve had since 2007 travelling. Winter breaks, spring breaks, Carnaval, long weekends, summers, etc. At this point, I’ve been on a LOT of trips, to say the least. In October I broke 30 countries with my week in Taiwan, which is pretty fucking awesome if I do say so myself! My next planned trips include Vietnam for winter break with some girlfriends, and a stop in Canada next summer for my friends’ wedding.

I thought it would be fun to take a moment and look back, not necessarily at the best trips I’ve done, or the most fun, but the trips that changed me in some way. All trips are an opportunity for growth but some experiences really shake you to your core and settle in your bones, changing you forever. As I was writing up a list of my most life-changing trips, I was trying to limit myself to three, but that didn't work out, so here they are. My five most life-changing trips EVER.

1. First Trip Abroad, Summer 2007
Partners in Crime: Marpessa and Chelsea

This was my first time leaving the United States. I can still remember the sense of excitement in my gut as the plane passed over international waters and eventually landed in Dusseldorf. So THIS is what it feels like to be in a foreign country! Everything was so exotic and magical. I learned a lot on this trip about friendship and socializing, which helped me enormously when I went to university that fall. This trip also confirmed that I needed to live abroad and explore as much of the globe as possible.

Three wild things tearing up Europe 
one beer and boy at a time

2. Backpacking the Balkans, Summer 2009
Partner in Crime: Chris

I grew so much as a traveler on this trip. With no set plans and few reservations booked in advance, this was the summer of going with the flow. I realized how important it was for me to have a partner who was travel compatible as well. The month we spent hopping around various Balkan countries and Greek islands was indescribably perfect. This was the most romantic trip I’ve ever done, and not just because I was young and in love, but everything seemed to fall perfectly into place: dance parties in Santorini hostels, getting invited into Serbian brandy bars after hours, and crashing with local Albanian families and Montenegrin grandmas.

River rafting in Bosnia

Somehow the best picture of us I have from that summer

3. Volunteering in Ecuador, Summer 2010
Partner in Crime: Marpessa and the UBECI crew

My spirit of service all started in the summer of 2010. I spent a month living with a local family and working with the child laborers in the markets of Quito. This was an eye opening experience into the world of poverty and NGOs, and drove me to spend the next summer in Guatemala volunteering for a similar program. I learned a lot about the value of sustainable and ethical non-profits, and was exposed to both the horrors and beauty of life in Latin America.

Marpessa at one of the market programs

Teaching English in Old Town, Quito

4. Birthright Trip to Israel, Summer 2012
Partners in Crime: 40 Jewish Strangers

This trip put me the farthest out of my comfort zone I’ve ever been, but also put me in touch with my heritage and guided me on my path to figuring out my adult identity. Our Birthright group consisted of 40 twenty-something American Jews, seven Israeli soldiers, two staff members (who are now engaged!) and a hot tempered but loveable tour guide. By the end of the trip, our roots ran deep, both with the land and each other. Before the trip I was terrified that I wouldn’t have anything in common with the people on my trip, but I learned quickly not to jump to conclusions and be more open-minded.

Riding camels in the Negev Desert

Our whole group breaking for a photo
during a hot-as-hell hike

5. Scuba Diving Trip in Thailand, October 2013
Partners in Crime: No One!

When I went to Koh Tao for my scuba certification, it was my first extended solo travel trip. I was scared shitless that I would be lonely or it would be dangerous, but in the end I had nothing to worry about. I made friends through my scuba trip, LOVED my little cabana with a beachfront patio, navigated traveling by myself, and felt pretty badass overall. The scuba diving was a ton of fun and I gained a lot of confidence during my week in Thailand.

I'm obviously comfortable in the water :)

My amazing scuba group

Other honorary mentions: My yoga retreat in the Philippines, backpacking Peru with my mom, the Holocaust research trip in Central Europe, an ayahuasca ceremony whilst hitchhiking down the Amazon River on cargo boats, the perfect spring break in Colombia, a summer in Antigua, traveling Ecuador with my brother, and so many more! For this post I limited myself to 5, but of course every trip abroad has a lasting impact in some way.

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