trust; fear

Today I climbed, and subsequently jumped off of, a 50-foot rock into crystal clear water in the Gulf of Thailand.

It was thrilling; it was fun; it was one of the coolest things I’ve done.

Getting up there was hard. Lots of climbing and trying not to fall to a scary death. It required trust in myself–something that’s grown stronger over the past few months. Trusting my body in my yoga practice. Trusting my ability to navigate the difficult situations that inevitably arise when traveling. Trusting myself to drive a motorbike 200 km through hills and dirt roads. Trusting my ability to climb mountains, make shit happen, get what I want, and keep myself safe.

This trip has also chipped away at my fears. As a child I was often afraid: afraid to fall, afraid to die, afraid to offend. As a society we are afraid of change, scared to leave our comfortable yet unsatisfying lives in pursuit of the unknown. But I’m not afraid anymore.

So I jumped. Towards my fearless travel partner, towards new friends encouraging and coaching me in their British accents, towards life! The fall was so long that it allowed a good long “oh shit” moment. I crashed hard. It was awesome.

Travel opens your eyes to the world, but it also opens your eyes to your own power. A certain level of caution is healthy, yes. But after this trip I am confident in my abilities to get through whatever life may throw my way. I know that I can achieve whatever the hell I decide that I want. I know what I’m capable of. And I’m not afraid to live. So live I will.

And yes, mom and dad, I promise to make it to Rome in one piece.

Here is an instagrammed picture of an island.

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Go forth and set the world on fire.

tiny moments of joy.

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Traveling is like real life in a lot of ways. Sure, I don’t have a “job” or a “bed” or a normal routine or even a set of keys that jingle with me everywhere I go. But I still wake up in the morning and brush my teeth and struggle with the same anxieties that haunted me back in my old life halfway across the world. I still have good days and bad days. Oh, the good days are great! But I still have days where I feel uncomfortable in my skin, or restless, or annoyed, or sad. I try to make the most of these days–I view them as learning experiences, as hurdles that make the happy times even more profound.

So I’ve stopped expecting this to be a trip untainted by sadness or free from emotional difficulty. I’ve stopped expecting strings of perfect days. And I’ve started savoring the moments of pure, unadulterated joy. Sometimes they’re tiny and insignificant to anyone but me. Sometimes they’re huge life events or revelations or dramatically beautiful landscapes. And sometimes, like yesterday morning, they’re like little presents from God, delicately and deliberately hand wrapped and unexpectedly delivered to my doorstep.

I awoke yesterday in Vientiane, Laos–after a night of freezing under the breeze of a super-powered AC unit–with an hour and a half to spare before leaving for the airport. I wanted to at least get a glimpse of the city (we had less than 24 hours there) as well as a good dose of caffeine, so I happily hurried out of our little ice box and into the city. It’s a lovely place: nothing too exciting, but calm and beautiful and a nice little dose of city after lounging at an organic farm by the Laos riverside for a week. Honestly, it kind of felt like Florida, and I kind of liked it. I wandered to the riverside, turned down a little side street, and ran into the most adorable little cafe I had ever seen. The sign read, “common grounds cafe and bakery playground and kids area”. Of course.

I was greeted by a reasonable level of air conditioning, a friendly and clean aesthetic, and lovely music. The menu was written on the board in multicolored chalk, and tubs of homemade peanut butter were showcased just under a row of perfectly frosted cupcakes. There was local art on the walls. There was espresso. It was like my own tiny little version of paradise. And it was quiet enough to classify my quick breakfast as alone time.

I sat down at a little table, looking out at the street through the front windows and sipping probably the tastiest cappuccino I’d had in months. If I hadn’t been carefully planning how to spend my last few thousand Laos Kip (they had to last me through snack-buying at the airport), I would have ordered five more. Each sip was savored, each bit of foam carefully devoured with consideration of its ratio to coffee and sugar. The multigrain toast with homemade peanut butter and jam (which tasted like it actually had fruit in it!) arrived at the perfect time: late enough for me to savor my first few hits of caffeine while staring wistfully out the window, early enough that I could enjoy my appetizer and main course simultaneously for at least a minute or two until my espresso was no longer. I carefully spread the peanut butter and jam onto the toast, enjoying the fact that I was enjoying such a perfectly kid-friendly treat while seated at an establishment that advertises as a playground. There’s something so comforting about a PB&J, so simple and perfect and reminiscent of your mom serving up a plate of love as you came in from outside (or, uh, up from the TV room).

With a day of travel ahead of me, I knew these precious moments of calm and quiet and peace had to be savored, that the pure enjoyment of being exactly where I was was something special. I drank in that sense of excited gratitude, saying a quick prayer of thanks for this tiny moment of pure joy. Something so fleeting, so meaningless to any passerby, was enough to make my week. Enough to make me look back on my less-than-24 hour trip to what many people have told me is a boring city with nostalgia and appreciation.

Sure, the big moments and the sweeping landscapes and the epic experiences are fun. I’ll certainly be telling my kids about the times that Mariel and I had to run off of a bus in the middle of India in the middle of the night and pee behind a wall because we wouldn’t see a bathroom for hours. Trust me, I’ve got some good stories. But these little bits of happiness that are all my own–these are different types of treasures, the types that are special because of how unremarkable they are. Divine sparks of happiness gifted to us sporadically, which we can only respond to with a smile and a quiet “thank you” and a squeeze of our eyes to stow away the feeling for our own personal records.

how stella got her groove back.

“I think it’s going to be one of the hoy-loyts of your entire trip,” Irish Dave said from behind the check-in counter at Spicy Pai, “just be careful and stay out of the middle of the road on those hairpin turns.”

Right.

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Mariel and I were trying to figure out how to make the 120 kilometer trip to a small village outside of Nai Soi in northern Thailand to visit a village of long necks for the night. (Got all that? Good.) We had missed our 8:30 AM bus (apparently that happens when you attend a face painting party – slash – flash mob the night before your bus leaves) and were considering doing the whole thing on our rented motorbikes. We had only been riding them for three days; we were amateurs at best. But logistically, this seemed the best way to do it, and our trusty and responsible friend Dave assured us the roads were safe and gorgeous, and I couldn’t help but think that this was the type of adventure I’d want to look back on.

So we filled up our tanks, borrowed a map, said our prayers (I had a little chat with St. Christopher), and we were off. Five hours of the most beautiful scenery, lush green and rolling hills, some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I’ve never felt so free. And as always, Dave was right.

It’s been an interesting few weeks. Wrapping up our time in Nepal, jumping a few time zones over to Thailand, adjusting to a new country, new culture, new pace of life. I’ve observed the passing of another year (24!) the passing of a loved one back home (crying over Skype is awkward), and the increasingly swift passing of time as our remaining days tick down towards zero.

I was in a funk for at least a week. After our trek ended, I felt a very distinct lack of purpose, a confusion regarding what it really was that I was doing out here. I felt uninspired by life. Not challenged, not excited. Restless in cities where I couldn’t understand how people spent their time. Restless in a lifestyle of travel when I wasn’t sure what that lifestyle meant or entailed. Over the past few months – in India especially – daily life was so hectic that simply getting through the day and finding things to appreciate brought on a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. So when getting from point a to point b wasn’t a day’s adventure in itself, when the culture of a city wasn’t thrown at me from every angle once I stepped onto the street, the absence of challenge and stimulation created a noticeable void. What to do? How to find meaning in each day? How to shake a funk when your life holds no routine, nothing solid to hold on to but a backpack and love sent through skype and emails and the best travel companion a girl could ask for?

My parents asked me in concerned tones if I’d been writing, the way some parents may check up on their children’s oral hygiene. It was cute. But the answer was no.

And then suddenly I found myself exploring my surroundings on my second day here: wind in my face, new friends in front of me, looking out over the hills to my left, the countryside a contrast of lush green and parched brown. I had finally started to feel alive again here. Pai is the kind of place you plan on visiting for two nights and can’t manage to leave because the community and the lifestyle are so cozy and joyous and relaxing. I couldn’t help but immediately surround myself with kind, loving, happy people who were enjoying life. I learned how to appreciate travel for its own sake, just being in a new place and enjoying what you can and remembering each day that this sucks infinitely less than sitting in a cubicle for eight hours on repeat. I am blessed beyond belief. And I have remembered how to relax. Not only do I feel like myself again, but I feel a lightness and a freedom and a deep optimism that I have missed terribly. I am confident, and I am happy, and I have laughed more here than I have in months. I feel beautiful. Pai brought me back to life and reintroduced me to my best (and favorite) self. To oversimplify and understate, this is a special place. These are special people.

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We are leaving today, jumping on a minibus for a 24 hour journey to Vang Vien, Laos. I’m sad to leave despite my persistent happiness. The goodbyes I have said have been painful and the hugs have been strong. And I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’ll lose this feeling of freedom and joy and liveliness and confidence. I’m afraid I won’t remember it. But all I can do is trust that it’s become a part of me, that the names of all of these people and places are now written on my heart like a constantly evolving mural, that this is not an isolated experience that exists in its own reality but rather one step along my path that I can always look back on.

This is getting wordy, and words seem useless when feelings are so strong. So I’ll end with one fact. The following quote, the last line of possibly my favorite poem, is currently written in henna on my back:

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Risen.

Two years ago, I spent Good Friday preparing (mentally and logistically) for my baptism and confirmation into the Catholic church. My family was with me to celebrate, Easter was just around the corner, and I’d soon be welcomed into the Church where I already felt home. There was a lot of anticipation and there were many emotions. I cried.

Last year, I spent Good Friday walking through Boston as part of a celebration of the Way Of The Cross, processing through the freezing cold city as the stations of the cross were described through scripture. It was April, I had just arrived from sunny North Carolina, and the unexpectedly cold wind cut through me and chilled my bones. I was shivering the whole day. I cried.

This year, I awoke the morning of Good Friday in a small village of long necks (Burmese refugees) in Northern Thailand. Before breakfast, I watched as the men of the village prepared for the next day’s festival. The previous day, they had cut down a tree, stripped its branches, painted it white, and topped it with a bamboo structure to serve as a house for souls. Like the tiniest, holiest tree house you could imagine. As I watched from the other side of the clearing, men heaved and ho-ed and hoisted the trunk upright using a system of branches and rope, a tradition that had clearly been carried through generations and across borders. As the pole finally stood upright, I was blindsided by the reminder that on this day many years ago, a cross was (similarly?) erected to crucify the Son of God. The symbolism knocked the wind out of me and took my breath away. Many miles from a Catholic church, it would have been easy for me to feel far away from my faith on this day, but instead I felt undeniably close. I could barely stand. I cried.

I’m sad to be away from home this Easter. I miss my family and I miss being within driving distance of the closest church. I miss the hymns and the readings and the lengthy Vigil Mass. But I spent the day in a gorgeous place, surrounded by loving and welcoming and vivacious friends. I even got to talk to my dad. And the magnitude of these blessings was not lost on me. It was a good day. I couldn’t stop smiling.

It may take me the rest of my life to begin to understand the mystery that is Easter. But I know the joy it brings me, along with the gifts of love and hope and mercy and life. Today, I celebrated by soaking up the beauty around me and seeing firsthand just how much God loves us. That, and a generous helping of dessert. After all, what is Easter without chocolate?

Happy Easter, y’all! He is risen!

Facts.

Over the past 24 hours, I have:

Gone spelunking. Nobody told me that caves were so damn beautiful. And now I know the difference between stalagmites and stalactites.

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Driven my little self over 200 kilometers on a bike through the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever scene seen. Yes I wore a helmet. Yes it was the best thing I’ve ever done.

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Spent a night with a village of long necks, a Burmese tribe (now refugees) whose women wear long golden coils around their necks, if they so choose. Please google it. I have never felt so welcomed by strangers, or slept in such a remote village, or been so struck by the beauty of cultural tradition.

Cried once because I was on a bumpy road that I did not like. Cried once because I was struck by the occurrence and the meaning of Good Friday. Cried zero times after my camera decided to experience a lens error and cease to function forever (shit happens).

Drunk sweet, milky, instant iced coffee from a can. Have I mentioned I love Thailand? Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it.
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Come back to my home away from home in Pai and watched a gorgeous sunset from what is either a tree house or a bamboo hut. Either way, it’s paradise.

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More to come soon (I promise!)