Note to self: when in shelter-at-home, do not, I repeat, do not leave your cell phone plugged into the charger 23 out of 24 hours in a day!! Why? Because just maybe your battery will overheat, expand, and cause your phone case to separate. Then you must purchase a new phone, which isn’t always a bad thing, but one I hadn’t planned on. So, I purchased a new phone, now I had to sync the phones. Do I really want to transfer all 22,000+ photos to my new phone? Not only that, but in the process, I discovered that not only had I backed up to OneDrive and Xiaomi Cloud, but also to Google Plus. Well, I haven’t seen some of these pictures in years. Do you know how many hours you can waste looking at old photos? Let me just say, it is a good thing we were on lockdown because I don’t want to admit the amount of time spent. What wonderful travel memories they brought back. Having been to 37 countries, I started thinking about my favorite places I have visited and made a top ten list. Looking at my top ten list it included countries, cities, places, and moments. I didn’t think it was a particularly good list combining whole countries with cities and some places. Then, I realized that my list mostly comes down to the memories or moments that were made in these countries, cities, and places. Where in the world are my top ten? I couldn’t decide on a definite number one. Of 2 places, which many of you can guess, Paris and Bali are neck and neck. I have started saying, “Paris is my heart and Bali is my soul”. Starting with Paris, since I am currently in Europe, followed by Bali and then the rest of my list in no certain order, I’ll tell you why they are on my list.
Ahhhh, Paris the city that stole my heart. They (who the hell are “they”? But you know what I mean) say you never forget your first time in Paris. My first time began like this… “It was our first evening in Paris. Night was falling as we entered the metro. Rain was in the forecast, so I had our umbrella. We were headed to a wine taste. A light drizzle met us as we exited the metro station. The sounds of the city and the glow of the streetlamps surrounded us. As we tried to get our bearings, he spotted a street vendor selling crepes. Huddled under our umbrella, sharing a warm crepe… Paris in the rain…I was in love. Was I in love with the city, the man, or the moment? Probably, all three.
As cliché as it is, from “Midnight in Paris”, there is something about Paris in the rain and you never do forget your first visit to Paris. Many more trips to Paris and a short time living there, Paris and more specifically, Montmartre, has my heart. You can read more about my love affair with Paris here.
Bali you are my soul. It is interesting while living in China, I learned the Chinese word for Paris is Bālí. Also, while living in Paris, I met a girl at a café. She told me about her dream of moving to Bali. I promised if she made the move, I would come to visit. It seems these 2 worlds were destined to collide. She moved from Paris to Bali and I planned a trip. Arriving in Bali, I spent several days in Ubud, more specifically Peliatan, before going to visit my friend. I found a random homestay with a local family and my soul was stolen. They included me in their Balinese traditions, took me to special places on the island, and even took me to a Balinese wedding.
Their friend, Made, drove me 2 hours to take one photo at the now Instagram famous, Lempuyang, or the Gate to Heaven. Before leaving Peliatan, they asked me to return in a few months for a special ceremony that takes place once every 3 years in their community, a Ngaben or Cremation Ceremony. Ketut’s mother would be cremated and I would join the family in the celebration of her life and the ceremony sending her to the next life. Those few short days I spent with them learning about Balinese culture and traditions, I knew I would return. I did return that August for the cremation. I spent 8 days going to Temple and experiencing the Hindu religion firsthand. I was with the family at 2 am when we exhumed the body for cremation. Each day sucked me in deeper and I knew my next visit would be for an extended period. When I arrived back in Bali July of 2019, it would be for 4 months. I again stayed at Kenari House which I consider my Balinese home. I also spent 6 weeks volunteering at a Balinese school for special needs children. Although I feel at home in most places I visit or live, I cannot explain the way I feel in Bali. I feel as if I was meant to be there. I’m thankful my worlds collided.
Currently living in Warsaw, Poland, I plan to return to Paris as soon as possible after coronavirus restrictions open Europe to travel. After my time in Poland is up and no, I don’t know when that will be, I plan to return to Bali for another extended period. I need to keep my heart and soul in balance. “Om Santih, Santih, Santih, Om”, I wish you peace in body, speech and mind…until we meet again. You can read more about my Bali life here.
No certain order, the rest of the list…
Lake Placid, New York…this may seem like a strange choice, but it is a place where my adult life revisited a trip of my childhood. We were taking about 2.5 weeks and traveling from Warren, Ohio through Pittsburgh on to Philadelphia, New York, Boston through a small town in Vermont, and a visit to Lake Placid before heading back to Ohio. This was a great road trip, but 2 things stuck with me. First, visiting friends in a small town outside Burlington, Vermont, I experienced darkness, as in nighttime, like I have never seen. It recalled the Eagles song, “Peaceful Easy Feeling” talking about a billion stars in the sky. It really seemed like there were a billion stars in the sky, but what stood out, even more, was the silence. The only way I can explain it is that the silence was deafening. The deafening silence and a billion stars made for a night I will never forget, but on to Lake Placid. I was probably 10 years old the first time I visited Lake Placid with my parents and younger brother. I remember being fascinated by “snow” in the summer (homemade but put out on the streets as an attraction). We hiked up Whiteface Mountain and took obligatory elevation photo. Revisiting as an adult brought back all the memories. The “snow” in the summer was still on the street and we made the hike up so I could recreate the obligatory photo at elevation 4867 ft. It is great recreating memories of your childhood, but even better when you can make new ones at the same time. It had started to drizzle (can you tell I love rain?). When we came down the mountain, we stopped at a bar that was doing prime rib outside on a grill…the aroma overtook us and soon we were sharing a bottle of pinot grigio and eating prime rib sandwiches before returning to our hotel on Mirror Lake and our hot tub. I can’t explain why certain trips, when you have taken 100’s, are embedded in your heart, soul, and mind, but this was one of them, so it makes my top ten list.
Talk about seeing a billion stars in the sky…Majorca/Mallorca, Spain, the largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean where we spent nearly 3 weeks. Palma, the Island’s capital is known for its beaches and is a popular tourist destination for Europeans.
We stayed in a small village across the island called Fornalutx. No cars could get into the village, so you had to park on the outskirts. It was a village of stone streets and stairs. Our home for the visit was a 400-year-old stone house. Our bedroom was open-air room on the top of the house and was the “drying room”. Fornalutux was tucked in a valley and we didn’t see the sun between the mountains until almost 10 am. We would then wander to the center of the village and sip our café con leche and watch the locals go about their business. We took day trips around the island visiting Valldemossa where Chopin met George Sands and they became lovers. My worlds often seem to collide, as I am now living in Chopin’s home country of Poland but visited his home in Mallorca. After Chopin and Sands’s visit, the locals fearing tuberculosis burned most of the furniture and rooms as Chopin had been ill with “a cold”. The museum in Valldemossa has letters, manuscripts, his Majorcan piano as well as Chopin’s death mask and a lock of his hair. We often walked to the nearby village of Soller and caught the tram to the bowl-shaped Port de Soller where we sipped sangria on the sea. Cala Deia became a favorite spot. We had to hike down a small trail to the sea. We lunched on cheese, olives, bread, and wine and then swam naked in the sea. We visited Banyalbutar and Cap de Formentor where we drove and finally had to hike the rest of the way up to the remains of a medieval fortress. But by far, the most memorable night was on the outskirts of Fornalutx. Restaurants don’t start serving dinner until 9pm. We bought a giant pan of paella grabbed some box wine and headed up the mountain. Spread our blankets, ate paella, got drunk on wine, and lay and looked at the billion stars in the sky until near daybreak.
As long as my head is in the stars, we may as well go to “the rooftop of the world”….Tibet! Since I have been a young girl, I have had a dream of meeting the Dalai Lama and seeing Tibet. Now I realize the Dalai Lama is in India and not Tibet, but when you live in China, you can at least realize the Tibet portion of your dream. While living in Hunan Provence, I decided this would be the best time to go to Tibet. Thank goodness I did a little research before I just jumped on a train to Lhasa. An individual cannot enter and tour Tibet independently. You must book a tour through a registered Tibetan Tour Operator. Not being one that usually does tours, I had no choice and found one that had an itinerary that matched my wish list. 2 things were important to me, first, an overnight on Mount Everest Base Camp and second, I wanted to end up in Kathmandu, Nepal. These criteria being met, I left Changning in Hunan Province where I had been living and working and headed to Guangzhou for a sort 3-day holiday before the long haul to Tibet. I chose to travel by train as I read that it is easier to acclimatize to the altitude by train versus flying to Lhasa. I boarded the train in Guangzhou for a 9-hour train ride to Chongqing. This is where the trains to Tibet start in this part of China. I decided to spend one night in Chongqing because the next leg of my journey would be 44 hours on a sleeper train, slowly climbing to nearly 5000 meters ( 16,404 ft) in the mountains before descending to 3,656 ( 11,900 ft) the altitude of Lhasa. The berths were equipped with oxygen and as we ascended, oxygen was automatically pumped in. Honestly, the trip was not that bad, and I would probably do it again should the opportunity present itself. Arriving in Lhasa, the train is met by armed guards to which you much show your passport, China visa, and Tibet travel permit. Then you are escorted to immigration and met by your tour guide. I had arrived 2 days before our official tour began so I could have some independent time in Lhasa. Although nearly everyone had cell phones and homes had satellite dishes, I felt like I was in the land that time forgot. I wandered around Lhasa. I saw the Potala Palace, monasteries, temples, and even met some locals. Before I knew it, it was time to start the official tour. I soon met the 9 other people I would be spending the next week with. I’m not going to get into the whole once in a lifetime trip but just tell you about the defining moment that will forever stick with me. I will say, there was a bond created between our group that was amazing and I’m happy to say has led to friendships to this day. The defining moment for me was base camp Mount Everest or Qomolangma as it is known in Tibetan.
We arrived just before sunset. Sadly, the peak of the mighty mountain was under cloud cover. We got settled in our tent, I was rooming with George and Phillipe, who I had become quite close with during our time together and a French couple who had also hung out with us during most of the trip. It was nice being just the 5 of us in our tent. We were still getting settled in when we heard a bit of a ruckus outside. Dropping everything we went to see what was causing the commotion. I got outside and everyone was looking toward the peak of Everest. The skies had opened, and we witnessed the sun setting on that magnificent summit that has claimed the lives of so many, so many who are still buried in her breast. All I could do was look to the sky and cry. I turned to George and Phillipe and we all knew we were witnessing something amazing. The peak of Mount Everest, a glowing orange triangle bathed in the setting sun. They gave me a squeeze and we just stared in silence. I don’t think I will ever forget how I felt at that moment in time. Later, early morning, maybe about 4am I woke and stepped out of our warm tent into the brisk air and could not believe I was here on the mighty mountain. I was once again filled with awe as I stared up at the shining moon amongst what looked like a billion stars. If you don’t believe in God or a higher being, you might start here. You can read my Mount Everest story here.
Where to next? How about Vietnam. So far, all my choices have had kind of an Ah-Ha moment that defines them. I can’t say that I have an ah-ha moment for Vietnam. I just know I am drawn to the entire country, its people, its beauty, its cuisine. I’ve only been to Vietnam 4 times, but each experience has been amazing. My first visit was only to Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. The second time was HCMC and the outlying areas. The third, I started in Hanoi and traveled north to the border of China, stopping in very rural homestays in villages of 400 people with livestock living under the stilted homes. The last time I was there, I spent 3 weeks and traveled from HCMC to HoiAn. I kind of fell in love with HoiAn. Of course, HoiAn is charming on its own, but I meet a young girl who had a homestay next to the one I was in. I wandered over one evening for dinner as they also had a bar/restaurant. I was the only one there and Sen chatted most of the evening with me telling me about her family. Her father had made all the furniture for the homestay out of bamboo and by hand. He also fished the river from early morning until near sunset. Before I left to return to my homestay for the evening, she invited me to take a tour on the river the following evening. She said her father would take us. I didn’t want to impose on her father, but she was insistent and the next afternoon, I found myself climbing into a small wooden riverboat at sunset. Even after working/fishing the river and then selling his catch at the market, Sen’s father proudly and happily toured me up and down the river for well over an hour. Sen and I keep contact and I hope to see her and her family again sometime in the future. How can I talk about Vietnam and not mention my addiction, my crack…PHO. I discovered it on my first trip but became a bit more addicted to every visit and I think I ate it EVERY.SINGLE.DAY during my last visit. Living now in Warsaw, I found a Pho Shop and eat it at least a couple times a week. As much as I love my pho, it is truly the people you meet along the way that create the moments/memories you take with you.
In China, there are 2 holidays that are extended holidays, Chinese New Year, and Mid-Autumn Festival. Living in China makes for easy travel around SE Asia. I decided to take advantage of this, one year during Mid-Autumn Festival and tick a bucket list item…Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Having just been back in the states, I mentioned my whirlwind plans to travel from Thailand to Cambodia and finally Vietnam. People often tell you they want to join you on your travels, but few do. This time, I had a friend from the states meet me in Bangkok and we toured Angkor Wat together.
I chose a rural village outside of Siem Reap for our accommodations. It was definitely rural, and we had also arrived during the rainy season. So rainy, the local children were swimming in the ditches which had also turned the road into a giant pond. The rain, however, changed my plans of watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat, but it didn’t deter us from visiting the temple site.
Our host arranged a tuk-tuk to pick us up and escort us to the site. He called his tuk-tuk our BMW. We did have to wade up the road in knee-deep water, which the children were swimming in, to arrive at our “BMW”. 90 degrees and humid we started out in the earlyish morning to the “city of temples”, Angkor. Angkor Wat was built during the Khmer Empire at the beginning of the 12th century. It is a UNESCO Heritage Site and the largest religious monument in the world. Originally a Hindu complex built for Vishnu, it later became Buddhist and went back and forth for centuries. It is now predominantly Buddhist and you can bump into monks around the complex. We also visited Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm (used in the film Tomb Raiders), but Angkor Wat was awe-inspiring. I guess maybe I am drawn to Eastern religions, but places like this I feel in my soul. During the Cambodian Civil War in the 70s, the temple did not sustain much damage aside from the visible bullet holes you see today. Although I have seen the movie “The Killing Fields”, I had forgotten what horrors took place on Cambodian soil. Under the Khmer Rouge Regime (1975-1979) which took over after the end of the Cambodian Civil War (1970-1975), it is believed that 1.7 -2.5 million people out of a 1975 population of 8 million were killed and buried in what is now known as Cambodian Genocide. The experience of seeing Angkor Wat did not disappoint and easily makes my top 10 list.
The Western world commonly associates “Transylvania” with vampires thanks to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. Transylvania is a region in central Romania known for medieval towns, mountains, and castles. It was also the birthplace of my significant other at the time, Tom’s grandparents. Since we were already going to Europe for a transatlantic cruise, we decided to spend a week pre-cruise and tour Transylvania. Right from the start, I should have known this would be a trip to remember. Flying out of New York, through Paris and on to Bucharest, we checked our luggage together, but upon arrival in Bucharest, my luggage was left in Paris. Our travels were looping us from Bucharest through Sibiu, Sebes, Sinaia, Sighisoara, Vinerea, Miklosvar, Brasov, and back to Bucharest. My luggage didn’t make it to Bucharest before we were scheduled to leave, they would send it to Sebes which had a small airport and I could pick it up there. Long story short, that never happened and I traveled Romania for 8 days with what I had in my carry-on, some of Tom’s t-shirts and the 1 shirt Air France provided me. In Sibiu and Sebes, we wandered the streets, visited cemeteries, and ate the local food. In Sinaia, we visited the German neo-renaissance Peles Castle which is now a museum. Sighisoara, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the home of Vlad III the Impaler, prince of Wallachia and inspiration for the fictional Count Dracula.
In Miklosvar we stayed in a guest house of Count Tibor Kalnoky dating back to the 1800s and furnished with local antiques. We visited the city of Brasov which consists of 5 villages, one being Bran. Bran is home to Bran Castle. Because Bran Castle is the only castle in all of Transylvania that fits Bram Stoker’s description of Dracula’s Castle, it is known throughout the world as Dracula’s Castle. These were all wonderful experiences, but the one that stands out the most (well other than the 2 times Tom got pulled over by the Police…thankfully with the name Craciun we somehow worked our way out of the situations) is the visit to Vinerea.
When we arrived in Vinerea, it was truly going back in time. Families were traveling by horse and cart and the village was just getting running water to the homes. Up until then, everyone had a well for their needs. Of course, no one spoke English and Tom knew like 3 words in Romanian, but after showing them his name was Craciun (which means Christmas and is a somewhat common name) someone ran off to the school and brought back one of the teachers who spoke basic English. We had an address that we hoped was the home of Tom’s grandfather. Laura, from the school, led us to the home of Ana and Maria. When they answered the door and Laura explained who we were their faces lit up and they took Tom by the arm and led him to 2 photos which they excitedly dusted off. One was a photo that Tom’s parents had taken when they visited in the 60s (?) and the other was a photo of Tom’s grandfather. We had indeed found his home and these ladies were Tom’s cousins. It was a very emotional visit with a few tears being shed. They invited us to stay but we could only spend the day. We did share some homemade wine they were making from the grapes they grew. Even though it wasn’t my relatives, it easily makes my top ten list. I received a message from Laura after Tom passed from coronavirus and it brought back all the memories of our time in Transylvania.
8 down and 2 to go…Xiashan, China a rural village not even on a map. My first “home” in China and the place that is nearest and dearest to my heart. I really didn’t know what to expect when I decided to move to China to teach English. I knew I wanted to stand on the Great Wall. I knew I wanted to see the Terracotta Warriors. I knew I wanted to visit Tibet. What I didn’t know was that a 6-month stint would turn into 4 years and that small village of Xiashan would be the reason. When I first arrived in China, I spent 2 weeks in Beijing for training. During those 2 weeks, I ticked my first bucket list item when we visited the GWC….a magnificent experience! Along with training for teaching English, we had classes on Chinese culture and traditions, including some basic Mandarin. We even had tai chi lessons and a dumpling-making class. At the end of the 2 weeks, I boarded a train along with 2 others who would also be going to Xiashan. The train took us as far as Weifang and then a car took us to Xiashan about 1 hour away. We arrived in the evening, after being treated to a fabulous dinner, we were taken to our apartment and settled in. Waking the next morning, we were met by a representative for the school who would also be our liaison. Alina took us to get something to eat, took us to the school, and showed us around the village…at least we had a nice supermarket. We learned we were an hour and 20 minutes by bus from Weifang which is a fairly large city. We really were in the middle of nowhere. During these next 5.5 months, I fell in love with Xiashan. I loved going to the local market, even if they did slaughter the sheep right on the street or kill the chicken for your dinner right outside the restaurant. Other than a few trips to Weifang, I only left Xiashan once to travel to Inner Mongolia and the Gobi Desert during Mid-Autumn Festival or Golden Week. I didn’t realize how much I loved my life in the village until my contract was over. I wanted to stay on, but my visa was only good for 6 months and I had to return to the USA if I wanted to get another Visa, which I did. Sadly, by the time I would return, they would have had to replace me. Thankfully, they let me keep my things at my apartment until I could return and move to the next teaching assignment in Hunan Provence. I would return just as Chinese New Year was kicking off. Alina excitedly invited me to her family’s home in the countryside, an even smaller village than Xiashan. I would stay at their home and eat a traditional Chinese New Year Dinner. This ended up being one of my most memorable experiences during my time in China. CNY fell at the beginning of February and it is quite cold this time of year in this part of China. Alina picked me up by scooter and it took about 20 minutes to get to her simple home. When I say simple, it is because their home had no running water.
Her mother got water from a well/pump. She boiled the water over a coal-fueled “stove”. She filled several thermos bottles with the hot water. This water would be used for tea and washing. In the morning she would prepare a washbasin with hot water for Alina and me to bathe. The main room of the house served as an eating area and also where her parents slept.
They slept on a concrete slab that was heated by a small coal “furnace” from which a pipe ran through the wall and under their bed heating the concrete. On top of this were mats were they not only slept, but we gathered to watch television. Yes, they had electricity and satellite. A couch and a table and chairs were also in this room as it was the warmest in the house. Alina and I shared a bed in her room with plenty of quilts to keep us warm through the night. So, I am 50+ at this point in my life. Sometimes nature calls in the night. With no indoor plumbing, I had to get up, find my shoes, and find my way outside to a concrete wall, behind which was a hole in the ground to do our business. After you finished, you had to get water from the barrel and flush the “toilet”. The paper goes in a bin, never ever flush TP in China. The morning of Chinese New Year, we woke, and after we bathed, her mom had made baozi for our breakfast. These are the most delicious pork filled steamed buns you will ever eat. She then told Alina to take me and show me around the village as she was making the preparations for our feast. What a feast it was. Her brother came home and that evening we watched the festivities on TV and feasted on more food than you can imagine. At midnight there were firecrackers and we ate dumplings. Other than Alina, her family spoke no English, but we spent the evening laughing, smiling, eating, and celebrating. A defining moment in my China Life. An experience I will never forget! A family who did not know me had never seen a foreigner (a first for her parents), and lived a simple life was proud to share their home, their life, their traditions, and their culture with me.
Finally….if you have made it this far, I commend you. Maybe I should have chosen my top 5, but I don’t know if I could have made the cut at 5. I can’t talk about places that have shaped my life without listing my hometown in my top ten list…Warren, Ohio. Why? Warren, Ohio helped make me and shape me into the person I am today. Not only my family but friends and most importantly the teachers I had in Warren City Schools. I grew up on a small dead-end street that most people never heard of with my parents, an aunt who lived with us, and a younger brother, Mark. I’ve traveled to 37 countries and seen more than most people in a lifetime, but that younger brother gave me the most amazing moment of my life on January 9, 2020.
My parents and aunt gave me not only love and values, but they gave me wings to fly. I played little league and learned to bowl. We had a tree fort and always had friends sleeping over. A neighborhood where we were all family. From showing movies on a building at the end of the street to riding bikes and catching lightning bugs…moments…moments of my life. I get angry when people put down Warren, Ohio. As many times as I say the “world is my home”, Warren is my hometown and I am proud of it. There are too many people who have touched my life and supported my journey to name everyone. The friends who open their homes to me when I blow into town for a few short days. The ones who pick me up at the airport and come bearing Sunrise Pizza. The ones who send me off with care packages. The ones who have a special gathering to welcome me back for the time being. The ones who laugh because I do something stupid and must cancel dinner plans. The ones who day drink because I’m on holiday. The new friends I just met on my last trip home made me feel like I have known them for a lifetime. The teachers who gave me a love of geography, history, and English which pushed me to experience this wonderful world first-hand. It really is the people you meet along the way…..thank you all for following my journey, for your support and most of all your love. I remain Warren Proud!