American boys in Norway

By about the second hour of snow-drenched Nikes and steep climbs, I knew this was going to be a tough hike. It was really cold, yes, but if we kept moving, it was bearable. It was really long, yes, but if we focused on the beauty around us rather than the hours left, it was justified. It was really insane to hike Norway without proper boots, yes, but if I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, maybe I could convince myself that I could keep up with the boys.

Trolltunga was indeed a troll and a half. A total beast. Not steeper than Mailbox, but long as hell, bitingly cold and a mental challenge. The end was the sweetest reward though. The end was insane…

22 kilometers. 10 hours. 4 bum knees. 4 American boys. 1 American girl. 1 Norwegian girl. 1 insane day for the memory books.

My cousins have always had such a sweet spot in my life and Kory is no exception. He’s fun as hell, generous to a near fault and hilarious as they come. And he made a heavy hike feel light and full [[equal parts him stealing my bag on the hills and cracking usual Kory jokes]]. He shared guy-time with me and he probably doesn’t even know how good it felt to be surrounded by some American boyish charm.IMG_0774 I spent about a week with four American boys in Norway and OH did I learn about American boys in Norway… IMG_0666 We hiked… IMG_0730 We road-tripped…IMG_0775 We danced…IMG_0800 For a blip in Norway time, we just did life light on our feet, full of a thirst for adventure and a ‘dance until the sun comes up’ spirit. Literally. We danced until the sun came up [[sure, it goes down at 1am and comes up at 3am on a Norway summer night, but still!].

I learned that Kory’s the fearless one who picks up Norwegian gals on the side of the street. I learned that Alex is the one to trust behind the wheel and that gals of all nations recognize how gorgeous he is. I learned that Tyler can dance like nobody’s business and might rival me in his napping abilities. And I learned that Jared laughs at them all, now that he’s found himself a gem.

I learned a lot about these boys, whether they know it or not. And boy did it feel good to spend some time with some good ole boys.

It’s about time, Greece

How funny that I’ve been thinking this week ‘gosh; I’m 2 countries behind on blogging.’ Behind. Timelines. Pressure. For what?

And then, just as I’m sitting down to write, here comes Greece in the news. Timing is funny, huh? I bet Greece could use a little love today, and so against my initial concern with timeliness, timing is perfect.

I recently spent some time in Mykonos, Greece with an old friend. And oh, how precious that time was.

My Le and I ferried over to Mykonos from Athens and four hours on the loveliest of ferries flew by as we caught up on life…the new career moves, the heart growth, the travels and the postcard love.

We grabbed our little Smart Car [[aka golf cart, aka no car I will EVER own]], finagled our luggage in to the nonexistent trunk and clunked off to our Greek Villa.

We were met with a strange, albeit rather stereotypical vision of Greece. Fiery, booming, passionate words, lots of hand gestures and an accusatory exchange between our host, Sotiris, and a couple of patrons about a little mishap… It was big and loud and very well could have uprooted our entire plan, had we not fallen in love with the charming blue shutters, the stone masoned walls, the sweeping sea view and the never-ending salty breeze that made the flowers dance around our front patio.

Greek Villa

And so we came to love Sotiris and the quiet little island of Mykonos just as such.

My Le and I slowed down in Mykonos. Something I’m proud of us former DC PR gals for knowing how to do. For a quick story within a story: once upon a time My Le was my boss. She, like our new Greek friend, is a fiery, passionate boss. No time for excuses or poor quality work is what makes her a rockstar professional. We’re the kind of Type-A’ers who need to schedule in ‘slow down time.’ It’s clearly something I’ve been studying up on for months, so was in awe of how easily My Le slid into island life right along with me.IMG_0620

We spent our days sleeping in; eating Greek yogurt and muesli in the soft morning glow on the porch; driving windows-down on the Smart Car through winding dirt road switch-backs; and tanning ourselves silly at our favorite little beach suite—Panormos.

And then there’s the food….ohhh, that Greek food. Tzatziki and gyros and salads and baklava and moussaka. I mean, it’s a garlic-lover’s dream.

And the shopping…yall know it’s not my love-language, but I did absolutely love wandering the windy blue and white streets admiring the precious local gems and people watching. And so we did it on repeat each evening before dinner.

My Le scored big time, with white flowy dresses and the softest silks. And I even treated myself to a rare souvenir….it’s something I’ve been wanting for months, since before I even left home…something small and delicate and beautiful. But I think the timing just hadn’t been right yet. I hadn’t found the right one and perhaps I wasn’t ready to slide anything back on to that bruised ring finger… But I found it in Mykonos. It’s something that will remind me of Greece every time I look down at my left hand. And something to remind me that while I don’t wear that one ring anymore, I have a new one that I love. It’s rose gold…and so maybe a light reminder that it’s ok to see the world first through a rose lens. It’s hopeful. I like hopeful.

So Greece, if you’re listening. Thank you for bringing me the gift of slowed down, quiet time with a friend. Thank you for bringing me the gift of rose-colored hope. Thank you for reminding me that while timing often feels cruel, we’re always, always, right where we’re supposed to be, when we’re supposed to be there, with the right gifts right at our finger tips. Here’s wishing the same for you, Greek friends.

Greek Windmills

Vineyard rains and cherry crumble

More than the breathtaking views [[truly, I sometimes forget to breathe while gazing out at those snow-capped mountain peaks and lush valley fields]]; more than the viticulture lessons that I’m soaking up like a sponge; more than unabashed puppy kisses, rich Italian food, and the joy of watching the cherry tree ripen with each passing day, the last three weeks have given me the gift of solitude and connection.

Some might scoff at the idea of going on ‘vacation’ and purposefully plopping down on the middle of a mountain–no nightlife, no shops, no restaurants, no beach, no civilization, really. But for a country girl at heart–a heart who needs some work– these may have been some of the most abundant few weeks of my whole sabbatical. It’s given me what I craved while I was still at my buzzing office desk in the Seattle metropolis. It’s given me distance from the buzz, time to reflect, space to work on me and the reignited desire to reconnect my body, mind and spirit. Cheesy? Sure; I usually am. True? Yup. No. Doubt.

I’ve spent my days in a slow but unfixed routine…

I wake up to the sound of the birds, not honking cars…

I sip on coffee and savour breakfast while reading the Bible or catching up on EastLake, rather than scarfing down as much caffeine as possible while cursing the HOV lane traffic that shouldn’t be…

I practice yoga without any expectations or distractions or raced agenda. Slow flow. Slow breaths. Strong holds…

I wander out into the vines to work with my hands and nature, where my mind is free to go wherever it needs to go, without an over-saturated calendar of conference calls and decks…

It’s there that I think about God. I pray. A lot. More than I’ve ever prayed before. Maybe it’s that at halfway up the Alps I feel a little bit closer to His house? Maybe it’s the quiet that guides my heart there? Maybe it’s that I saw a snake a few weeks ago and that just screams ‘pray?’ Regardless, real, raw, prayers have been said on the side of this mountain…

It’s there that I think about boys. Boys and men. The difference between the two. The one who broke my heart. The ones who’ve filled my time. The one I think about now. The one I pray for…

It’s there that I think about my family and my friends who feel like family. I do miss them. Four months is a total blink of an eye. No time at all. But it’s enough time to miss Jessica’s graduation and Papa’s health scares and Val’s wedding planning and one girlfriend’s mama-hood announcement. It’s enough time to ‘miss’ in general. And that I do. So hard…

It’s there that I think about what’s next [[such a contradiction to my ‘be present’ prayer that I pray every day]]. Sure, Greece is next week. And then Norway. But what’s next, once I hit American soil? Where do I want to be? Why do I want to be there? How do I want to spend my time? Who should I surround myself with? So many questions. So many ideas. So few conclusions. And thus the prayer repeats…

Sometimes at the end of the day, those rains sweep in over the valley so quickly I can’t even make it back to the house before getting soaked to the bone. And so sometimes I just stay put and let the rain fall on my face.

And then when I’m too cold and wet to bear anymore, I head inside and make homemade cherry crumble.

True Life: I Live on an Italian Vineyard

This trip has been four months chock full of dreamy, surprising and delightful, but I may have found the trump card here in northern Italy.

There’s this travel secret called Help Exchange [[there are others too, WWOOF & Work Away included]]. Why it’s such a secret, I have no idea, cause it’d have been about the coolest way to spend a college summer or 4 that I could think of. [[Get ON it, Joey, Phillip, Jess & Catie!]]. Truly, it might be the greatest thing invented since wine.

In a nutshell, travelers can apply to go volunteer with hosts from around the world who need any range of help–from feeding baby goats on a farm in Australia to working on a yacht in the Med, to sous-cheffing it up at an organic cooking school in Turkey. In exchange, hosts offer a range of comforts, mostly including lodging and food. It’s pretty much a win-win, no matter how you slice it, though I suppose the richness of the experience largely depends on the host / help match.

But with a little bit of luck finally on my side, I hit the HelpX gold mine of all gold mines on my FIRST try.

Yall, I live on a vineyard. THIS vineyard:vineyard

For at least the next few weeks. I live and work and play and eat and drink on a vineyard with the loveliest Italian couple and their incredible amount of pups. Twenty years ago, Paolo and Marisa bought this little chunk of land nestled in the northern Italian Alps looking out over the Valtellina Wine Valley. They built a gorgeous home, expanded the vineyard and created a total haven up here in nature. A haven which they now graciously share with me.

From my new favorite coffee / wine perch, depending on the time of day, I have an unobstructed view of their sloping vineyard, the valley and river down below, the snow-capped peaks, almost Switzerland and absolutely heaven.coffee perch

It’s perfect timing too, cause the last few weeks have been filled with an unquenchable need to be productive. I know, that sounds crazy… ‘just relax and enjoy the dream you’re living right now,’ they say. For the most part I have, don’t get me wrong. But after four months of relative ‘downtime,’ it was time to entertain my Type-A for a bit.

And here, I find my balance.

I unpacked my suitcase for the first time. I have a room and bathroom to myself, thanks to my generous host family. I get to put my hands to work while I let my mind wander. I have ELEVEN gigantic and gorgeous playmates [[oh, as if Paolo and Marissa aren’t busy enough tending to 4000 bottles of annual wine-worth-of-vineyard AND working full-time, they’re also European champion Bernese Mountain Dog breeders…real life?!]].

I get to be in a kitchen again [[oh, how travel makes me miss this novelty]]. But I don’t get [[nor want]] to be the boss chef, cause Paolo may as well have his own cooking show too. Then we sit together, with that heavenly view, a heaping plate of authentic local cuisine, a glass of red harvested from the grapes not 10 yards away from our table [[10 yards, but 4 years prior]], and they entertain my incessant questions about wine making.food

Around the table, I’ve learned all about the year-round labor of love that producing my favorite good requires. And in June, it’s vine-perfecting-time here at the estate, so I spend my ‘help’ time surrounded by baby grapes, with Michael Buble blaring, the sun tingling my skin, all the while making the vines do what they’re supposed to do and scolding the unruly.IMG_0273-0

What a life metaphor, huh? Unruly as things feel at time, with a little focused TLC, all things grow straighter, stronger and more fruitful.

Raising my coffee cup / wine glass to THAT, from my vineyard home in Italia today, friends.IMG_0292-0

Drinkin Memories in London Town

‘So, tell me about your day,’ suggested my lovely [[and holy gorgeous]] Aussie-living-in-the UK-host, Justin, after a busy day in London Town.

‘Well, we started with a private tour of London with Jerry in a ‘Temme Taxi;’ saw the changing of the guard; shopped Savile Row where we oogled over fine suits and finer men; had lunch at the Wolseley and capped off a lovely day with a glass of red and a puff of a Cuban at a sleek cigar lounge on top of the Mayfair.’

‘Umm….you’re not ‘backpacking’ this week are you?’

Fair point, well made, sir. Though backpack is always in tow, I retired my barefoot and sandy, for a plush English week with two of my very favorite people on the planet.

If there’s anything I love more than huge vacations with my people, it’d be the Kull Wedding, circa 2010.Kull Wedding

So in true Anne fashion, I suggested we celebrate the 5 year anny BIG…like, dump your beautiful towhead boys off with Granny for the week, fly economy and let’s celebrate in England. And in true Kristen fashion, the sweet experience of it all trumped the investment. And in true Mark fashion, we did it bigger than Anne and Kristen would have ever dreamt up.

So when Justin asks me again, how we spent Sunday in London, it went something like this…

‘Well, today we shopped Oxford Street [[and by ‘shop’ I mean I played Kristen’s dressing room bitch—that was a first, hey Kristen?!]]; had High Tea at the Grovesnor House where we munched on perfect little sammies and sipped proper English Breakfast tea for as long as our hearts desired; we drooled over the biggest and baddest bourbon collection in all of the UK, at which we sipped the BEST Old Fashioneds ever [[outside of Mr. McCoy’s boat, of course]]. Then, with an Old Fashioned disguised in a coffee cup in tow [[cause why WOULDN’T you]], we goofed off in Hyde Park, before dinner reservations at Nobu [[arguably the best sushi joint in the world]].’

The rest of the week didn’t slow down either…not in pace or fancy or laughs or drinks…

We toured the Tower of London, during which Mark made jokes on jokes about his own crown jewels. #Basic. We ate way too many delicious meals—burgers and pizza and gin—cause in London, gin is sometimes a meal. We had a Big Ben photo shoot, obviously. We wandered Borough Markets. We even had a sleepover at The Soho [[If I track baby #3 back to this night, I swear I will celebrate all subsequent Kull anniversaries in exotic locations by myself…]].

And oh my gosh, we pub crawled…

But is ‘pub-crawl’ really even an appropriate term for such a history lesson? I mean we literally sipped beers in the same seats with the same views that Churchill and Orwell and countless others sipped… Really, we were just drinkin memories. Memories that I’ll sip on for as long as we teach Churchill in the history books.

That week in London, much like my week at Derby last year, brought generosity to life. These people are my sweetest people, chock full of my sweetest memories.

And tonight, as I’m scrolling through my camera roll of the Kull Anniversary in London, I’ll smile and raise a glass to lasting love, to my cousins that are first and foremost some of my best friends and to the countless memories we drank up across the pond.

Cheers, loves.

Hyde Park

Top 10 in Paradise

Ben keeps yelling at me for not keepin a minute-by-minute recap of our travels. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not to mean we haven’t done anything blog-worthy…In fact, quite the opposite. Sometimes, the travel smiles pile up so high I don’t even know where to start. But for the sake of appeasing the diva, here we go…A special guest edition of the top ten things about our last ten days in paradise—written by Anne, smartass inserts by Ben:

First off, I would like to say that I have not been yelling at Anne for the above mentioned paragraph. I was promised a guest blog and was never given the opportunity until now. That is all.

1. Monkey business: As mentioned in postcard love, we found this authentic Greek shack out on the beach on Koh Lanta one morning. I ate slowly, savoring each bite of my gyro and was not-so-secretly stoked to package up the leftovers I intentionally saved for our afternoon at the beach.

Is it just me or does Anne describe everything with so much detail that it doesn’t seem real? I have never described food and/or eating like that. Food is simply nutrition that my body needs; therefore I eat it as quickly as possible without ever tasting it.

gyroWe motorbiked to the southern tip of the island, leftovers in hand, climbed some rocky cliffs to snap some of the coolest pictures to date and wandered back down to the secluded strip of white powder to set up shop for the afternoon. We walked the beach, took a break to swing, floated in the gentle waves, soaked rays…

…all of the usual beach things until I thought ‘ok. It’s finally time. It’s been an appropriate distance since breakfast. I’m goin in for the gyro.’ Apparently this jerk of a monkey was in perfect concerto with me and beat me to the punches. Homeboy sat there with a gnarly cleft-lip-intensified-growl and chowed down on my precious leftovers. You know what, I can’t even write about this anymore…#TooSoon

I was dozing off and heard what could only be described as machine-gun thunder (the monkey rapidly swinging his arms at the plastic to-go bag as if he wasn’t smart enough to use his opposable thumb and simply untie the bow-knot that Anne tied. Shortly after the ‘Garth Brooks Thunder Rolling’ I heard what I swore was a 10-year old girl crying… Little did I know, it was coming from Anne as if a tear was literally about to roll down her cheek.

2. The beach: Yes, we’re in the midst of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It’s honestly a honeymooner’s dream. But we also saw THE beach….You know, Leo’s beach [[insert Dad-bod jokes here]]. We ‘balled out’ for an afternoon in Koh Phi Phi and hired a private long boat. First stop after a dreamy tear through that sparkly deep blue: Maya Beach. Yes. It is as beautiful as it looks on the big screen. No, we did not get shot at by doping farmers. No, we didn’t even want to pay the 200 Baht to touch shore on the Hollywood-famed sand. But we did find a perfect [[and free of charge]] side spot to adore it all from. Leo wasn’t there in all his cushy glory, but I’d say that glorious day was fit for any celeb.

I honestly don’t know where Anne gets these descriptions from?! All I know is we, like everyone else, got on a loud long-tail boat (not ballin) and rode to this gorgeous bay filled with speedboats and other long-tails. Sure, if there wasn’t a million other tourist in the water and on THE beach is would have been the closest thing to heaven. However, it was the opposite. Hundreds of people who couldn’t swim and had to wear lifejackets as well as trash on the beach (so much for that 200 baht each person pays to keep the beaches clean). I realized when we rode elephants that Anne is either captivated by the simplest things or I am a pessimist.

3. Sunsets: Before I got my phone stolen in Cambo, I’d estimate about 65% of my photo library were sunsets. I just love em. You know the best kind? The kind over water. Our favorite sunset-gawking-perch was from atop the Banana Bar in Koh Phi Phi. I mean can you really think of anything better than an unobstructed view straight up to heaven, with those pinks and oranges streaked across God’s canvas, all the while waves rolling in between the huge limestone book ends, Bob Marley crooning and a spiked watermelon juice in hand? Yeah. I think not. That’s about as good as it gets.

Yea, both the Banana Bar and sunsets were pretty amazing. Did Anne and I just agree on something?!10985418_490803407752110_7239139954878360735_n

4. Cool dinners: Thanks to Lucia and Breezy, Thai food is my favorite. Thanks to me, Ben now thinks ‘it’s not bad’ [[omg, drop the cool-dude-exterior and rave about something, for once, dangit Ben! It’s awesome. Just admit it]]. So we’re in Thailand and that’s all I eat. Curry on curry on curry. But the places we pick to enjoy said dishes is one of my favorite bits about this trip. My absolute favorite? Time of Lime. A fixed six course menu is sometimes the way to go. Gets you outside your instinctual order. A cozy little lantern lit spot right on the beach. A view of the sunset that faded into the green glow of nighttime squid fishing boat lights. A cool glass of rose. A lemongrass margarita. Thai chicken soup. Cashew chicken. Massaman curry. Fish cakes. Barbequed prawns. Chocolate mousse. Yup. Pure decadence. And worth every single one of the $18-ish spent. The flavors, the view, the music, the light green glow…it was perhaps the definition of ‘cool.’

Don’t get me wrong, Thai food isn’t that bad! But I’m a meat and potatoes kind of guy. And did I mention I eat my food so fast that I don’t even taste it? That’s right. Pad thai, Massaman curry, all of it just goes down the pipe into the belly to feed this machine we call our body. The green lights casted off of the squid fishing boats is captivating. But Anne’s obsession with going night squid fishing is borderline crazy. We drove around on a 100 degree day on a moped looking for boats at the pier to ask if they would take us… Anne was driving at the time too (insert female driving joke here)

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5. R&R from R&R: I know. I know. R&R? On vacation? I see the irony. But sometimes, when your travel buddy turns 27 in Thailand, you have to trade in the $10 digs and just go all out and find the sweetest 4-star-resort you can afford and go there and be on the beach and get massages and shower outside on the private patio and just ya know, ‘treat yoself.’ A treat it was. Former hotel snob for the birthday win. At least I thought so. Ben’s still all: ‘it’s not bad.’

There is something that I would like to discuss on this point – Anne’s inability to surprise me. First, she told me about a nice hotel she booked for my birthday; she wouldn’t tell me the price. Therefore, Inspector Gadget (me) dug around. Hmm, what would Anne use to book the hotel? How about hotels.com… Simply searched the hotels name, found the total price, divided by two, and had what each of our shares was. Anne forgets that I’m basically James Bond (with the jaw line of Channing Tatum). I knew something was up one day when she took a plate full of bread from the buffet back to the room to “feed the ducks”.. Yea. Ok. I found a spot on the beach and Anne came out 20 minutes later with a mountain of PB&Js. While I probably didn’t act as enthusiastic as she wished, it was a nice gesture. She needs to realize I’m a guy. No emotions shown and don’t get giddy over small things. Maybe her BFFFL Kara would have jumped up and hugged her, but not me. I have a masculine reputation to uphold.1512817_491039057728545_4280086661759996529_n

6. Parrot fish: Mom made me stow a receipt in my wallet about 5 years ago with a rundown on my medical history. It’s still there—“Do not scuba dive. Your lung capacity sucks, thanks to 6 months of poison” or something to that effect… But Ben put his PADI cert to use to do some pretty sweet underwater exploring. From the surface and a snorkel mask, I did get to soak up some of my fave parrot fish, though. There! Take that, chemotherapy.

Diving in Thailand is way better than the only other place I’ve gone – Beaver Lake, Arkansas. I have done 8 dives, 1 of which is a night dive! My favorite dive was a ship on the sea floor about 25 meters down. This ship had a lot of history, but was purposely put in the ocean to serve as an artificial reef for divers and researchers. It’s hard to explain the rush in skydiving and the serenity in scubadiving. Water covers more of our Earth than land. It’s an amazing experience to witness a whole nother society free of vehicles, cell phones, and over-paid athletes/celebrities. The simplicity of marine life and Thai life go hand-in-hand. It’s about food and shelter. Your life gets put into perspective when the guy you’re renting a moped from sleeps behind his store on a wooden platform with a blanket covering him and piece of wood to protect him from the rain. No A/C. No kitchen. No bathroom. Just a piece of damn wood… That just got deep.

7. Fisherman pants: While shopping is neither of our favorite pastimes, we have folded on a few occasions for local gems and / or local knock-offs. We’re now the proud owners of cheap iphone accessories, matching ‘Same same, but different’ tanks and the infamous fisherman pants. Ben bought said pants for a yoga sesh that didn’t happen, but they’ve been a source of much entertainment…from the YouTube videos that taught him to properly tie the 5 foot circumference waist band to the time they dyed all of his white shirts pink in the wash…I hope he struts those pants at home and laughs all over again.

Best. Purchase. Ever. These things weren’t the easiest to tie at first, but they’ve become one of the most comfortable things I’ve worn this entire trip. Anne wanted some after wearing them on the elephant. She’s actually jealous that she doesn’t have a pair!10411892_10204820497645287_39229084963662216_n

8. Google it: Did Nepal’s earthquakes send aftershocks that shook Phi Phi with a quake and tidal wave warning just days before we arrived? Is the ‘kup’ or ‘kah’ [[aka masculine or feminine]] pronoun clasped to the end of a word based on the speaker or recipient? Do we need a visa for Malaysia? How many islands ARE there off the coast of Thailand? Oh my gosh, we ask so many questions every day but the answer is always the same ‘it’s worth a Google.’ The problem is, half the time we don’t have internet, so our Google backlog is significant at present. We should really start writing down our q’s, Ben. Side note: please answer in the comments below if you have intel on any of the above.

The only answer I have for the above is that you do not need a visa for Malaysia, they pretty much give you 90 days upon arrival. Other than that, I think you shorted us. I have roughly 10 more questions that we never Googled. I love learning new things every day, but this trip I’ve been drinking from a fire hose. Too much information, too little a time.

9. Princess massages: Ben slips and calls me a ‘princess’ sometimes [[not in a nice way, either]] and it pisses me off. I’m a lot of things, but ‘princess’ I am not. Howeeevvverrrrr, I do love me a massage once in a while. Thai massage? Even better. It’s basically half massage, half someone conducting yoga with your body without you having to try. I love it. Ben’s a little baby trapped in a rigid man’s body and cannot deal. He still goes with me though and opts for the much more ‘princess’ a la carte.

A) Princess is an understatement when it comes to adjectives for Anne. She is a typical American girl. Hairdryer, hand sanitizer, and hates bugs. Plus, she’s almost too nice! When girls use the words ‘doll’ or ‘love’ after every sentence when talking to another female traveler, I don’t know if its fake or a secret code girls use. I cant stand being called a doll or love, but maybe girls take it differently? And FYI – Thai massages are like paying for a 60-minute torture session. I had a 90 pound Thai woman beat me up and I paid her for it! No thanks!

10. Fire: This. I just still can’t even.

The fire show was awesome the first time we saw it. I could see Anne’s eyes glazed over and I don’t think I saw her blink once. But once was cool enough for me. The second time we stumbled upon a fire show it was around several dozen inebriated college-aged kids. I hadn’t been drinking (we all know the sober guy feeling = the worst) so I was ready to bounce after 2 minutes. Anne, however, could have stayed all night watching kerosene lit objects twirl in the air. No one likes a Debby downer, but I am used to the single life where I do what I want and don’t worry about affecting anyone else. Signs that a serious relationship is definitely not in my near future!

So yes, we’ve been busy stackin up travel smiles off the west coast of Thailand. Happy, Ben?!

No

Then you prob never will be, love. Drops mic.

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Dancin with fire

Maybe it was the unbeatable sunset view atop a Bob-Marley-vibed bar looking out over the Andaman Sea earlier that evening…sunsetMaybe it was that Ben and I’d shared a few buckets of margaritas and a pile of pretty-dang-good-for-Thailand Mexican-food…

Maybe it was that we’ve been island hopping for a week now and the slow pace of Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi life were finally soaking in…

island hoppingWhatever it was, Sunday night, I was in absolute awe.

We capped off our first night in Phi Phi with a glass of wine [[a Mai Tai for the stud]] and picked a seat on the beach. When the first local took the stage, dipped his gear in lighter fluid and then grazed it through the flame, my jaw hit the sand. And I didn’t bother to pick it up for the next hour…

These small, albeit chiseled, guys danced with fire on a stage on a beach on an island in the middle of nowhere. They flung flaming poi and batons through the air faster than I could comprehend. The dark of the night mixed with the light of the fire [[and ok, fine, the encouragement from a glass of red]] just had me hooked.  The danger and unknown of it all was absolutely, utterly beautiful.

fire dancingMost of the time, it was a precise art…an obvious culmination of years of practice, maybe even gifted to them through their lineage. Most of the time it was perfection. But some of the times, they’d mis-judge a toss and drop a flaming poi in the sand. They’d just smile, sink to the stage and pump out a few push-ups, get up, wipe the sand from their hands and get on with it…picking right back up to the beat of the music, as if they never missed the chorus. It just looked like growth and grace.

And it made me wanna dance with fire…

So then of course, all of my sentimental cheesy starts oozing together with the wine and the awe and then all of the metaphors start screaming at me…I AM playing with fire… kind of…

I mean I left home and my career and all of my comforts to come gallivant around the world for an undefined amount of time, for arguably fluffy, but important reasons. To my former ‘type-A’ self, that’s pretty fire-dancing-esque…

I could run out of money in Europe and have to figure out how to get home…

My bags could fall off the roof of the speed boat this afternoon and I’d be left with only the clothes on my back…

I could get food poisoning from the meat that sits out at the markets for hours on end, and have to stumble through a medical conversation with a foreign physician…

Honestly, anything could happen.

But it seems worth it. Dancing with fire is therapeutic and invigorating and inspiring.

Those boys didn’t mean to get all metaphorical on me. And certainly Ben didn’t know my jaw on the sand meant all these crazy things were running through my mind, but something clicked on that beach for me…

I love seeing people dare to be different… dare to live a little outside the box…dare to do what makes them happy…dare to make people smile… dare to try a little harder at the risk of failing…dare to forgive your dropped balls and do it all over again…

Find your fire, people…and then go on and dance. I dare you.

Wish you were here, from Chiang Mai

If there was one person in the world I could have had with us in Chiang Mai this week, it’d be the girl with the elephant tattoo on the back of her neck…

I always think of my little Lucia when I see elephants. She loves the things. Like LOVES them, loves them. Almost as much as I love her. So if you account for sleeping time, Loosh was on my mind for approximately 70 hours this week. Everywhere I turned, an elephant shirt, an elephant necklace, an elephant satchel. Four days of colorful elephant everything.

Then yesterday, there was a real elephant. Three big elephants and one baby elephant, to be exact. And if anyone could have smiled harder than I did, it would have been Lucia.

I struggled at first, as I’m sure Lucia would have, to wrap my head around the ethics of the whole thing…is this animal cruelty? Are the elephants treated nicely? Is this just a glorified zoo? If I visit a park or sanctuary, do I want to ride one as well? If so, which one?

Hours upon hours of research turned up a particular gem—Elephant Discovery Chiang Mai—and from what I could tell, it was a total haven for these big beauties. Their mahouts revered them. There were no chains, no hooks, no pens, no riding rickshaws. Just elephants and their human friends living harmoniously in the dense bush about 2 hours outside of Chiang Mai. If Lucia could have seen the way the people and elephants alike smiled, I think she would have approved too.

This is how you do a day at Elephant Discovery Chiang Mai. This is how you make an elephant lover like Loosh smile so dang hard…

First you hop in the back of a 4 wheel drive with the A-team [[hello fellow Americans!]], windows down, Paw, our guide, singing lead to every Bob Marley, Maroon 5 and Shakira song from the last decade. Drive for two hours through the northern Thai switchbacks, with a coffee bubble tea in hand, and swoon over Paw’s incessant giggle.

When you arrive at the humble park, the small family of elephants will greet you like an old friend. You’ll be overwhelmed and slightly timid at first, but as the gentle beings sway back and forth and bat their pretty brown eyes at you, it all just melts… And you start to realize that this day is going to leave an elephant sized stamp on your life’s memory book.

You’ll learn about the village’s tradition of raising elephants. And the sad truths about some of the more circus-like attractions closer to the city [[#CountryGirlForLife]].

You’ll get buddied up with an elephant like our 37-year-old Campot and you’ll become her new bestie with a little banana-lovin.

CampotThen, oh my gosh, Lucia, you get.to.bathe.the.elephants… Not like you grab a hose and spray them down in some superficial line-up…but you walk them down to the river and they lay down in the warm water for a good scrub. It is probably the coolest thing you’ll ever do…

Until the babe squirts water on you and you feel like you’re in some Nat-Geo-Jungle-Book medley of a dream…then THAT’S the coolest

squirts

The trek through the winding, tree-draped river and alongside the rice paddies and up steep jungle banks is only made more amazing by the fact that a multi-ton beast is gliding along underneath your groin-straining-straddle.

Lunch is served in a hut. We aren’t convinced that it wasn’t KFC Original Recipe tied up in banana leaves. But when the baby comes to clear the dishes, you don’t give a flying crap about the authenticity of lunch.

Babe

In fact…

with a view like this…

view

and a new friend like this…

friends

and a weird friend like this…

weird

…nobody cares what the lunch recipe was, cause the whole thing was the perfect recipe for a perfect smile-inducing kind of day.

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One that I so desperately wish I could have shared with little Lucia baby.

perfect

‘What the hell is a Pagoda?’

If you know me at all, you know that two of my very favorite things to do are suggesting vacas and inviting people to visit me. Genuine as these suggestions always are, I’ve learned the hard way to not believe an RSVP till I see it. I guess years of Army-brat-hood instilled a tiny bit of cynicism in me…cause not everyone is gonna come visit you. And certainly, not everyone is gonna drop everything to do a massive vaca. Sometimes it’s just easier to not get your hopes up…

But yall, last week, these little suggestive worlds collided when an Arkansan proved me wrong on both accords.

I think our convo went something like this:

Ben: ‘Hey! I get out of the Army in April, where are you gonna be?’

Anne: ‘Probably hanging out in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand! Wanna join?’

Ben: ‘Yup. I’ll do it.’

Anne: [[thinking, but not saying… ‘yeah RIGHT’]]

He did it. Ben Trouble, as he’s formally called in my world, proved me wrong and met me in Saigon last week. So far, we’ve spent some days doing a lot and some days doing absolutely nothing but lie on the beach with a spiked watermelon juice in hand. All of those days have made me laugh though…

For example…

  • We both seem to be a bit directionally challenged in Vietnam. Whether it was trying to find the Cho Ben Thanh Market in Saigon during our first hour of travel, attempting to motorbike to the most movie-esque beach ever in Phu Quoc, or just hunting down a mini-mart, Vietnamese road signs have bested us so far. Luckily, Ben didn’t get lost in the Cu Chi Tunnels though. About 100 degrees hot, 1 meter tall and far too few inches wide, my claustrophobic butt was NOT climbing down into those tunnels, but I was still sweatin bullets hoping Ben made it out alive and didn’t get lost in the labyrinth of a Vietcong underground fighting city. He made it out, albeit sweaty and cramped. And we haven’t lost each other or our bags yet, so losing track of time and destinations is actually just a funny and welcomed part of the adventure.
  • Ben gets hit on by more men in Vietnam than I do. Yes you read that right. The Vietnamese men loooove them some Ben Trouble. Maybe it’s the twang. Probably the broad stance. Definitely the beard. Men are falling all over this little Arkansan and it makes me giggle every.single.time. The other night, while in transit between the Mekong Delta and a little piece of paradise off the southern tip of Vietnam, we found ourselves at a local restaurant for a delicious Hot Pot dinner. As the ONLY westerners in this packed joint, we felt a little circus-like to say the least. After all eyes on us for the evening, we got up to wait for a taxi when a small group of slightly inebriated locals walked up to get a closer look. They all just shook Ben’s hand and say ‘you so handsome’ and then they shook my hand and say ‘oh, congratulations!’ It is probably the definition of hilarious.
  • Then there are just the moments on moments on moments that prove, without a shadow of a doubt that we are indeed NOT in Arkansas anymore. Culture shock is always a funny thing. But its kind of funnier with Ben. From the Vietnam American War Museum in Saigon [[which is a humbling and horrific dose of recent history]], to the floating markets in the Mekong Delta; from the motorbike traffic insanity, to our new water buffalo friend on Unicorn Island; from a honeybee farm, rice noodle-making compounds and coconut candy making factory, to the live ocean creatures that they season, splice and dice right in front of you at the night markets for dinner, we’ve shoved a WHOLE lot of culture into a mere 7 days. Some of it could easily overwhelm, unless you soak it up and laugh it off instead. Case in point: our new friend and host in Phu Quoc pointed us to the ocean-facing Pagoda up the road and shooed us off for a visit. I hopped on the back of the bike and we tore off. About three minutes into the trek, Ben turns to me and yells ‘what the hell is a Pagoda?!’

So perfect. We definitely don’t know what we’re doing over here half of the time. But ALL of the time, we’re soaking it up and laughing.

Wanna join??

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Wish you were here, from Hoi An

The pretty little blue eyed blonde waved me over to the seat she saved for me at the Dulles Town Center food court. I stripped my winter jacket, but kept my hat on—reluctant to reveal my nearly bald and pretty pudgy, sick gnome-ish self.

I don’t remember exactly what we talked about that afternoon, but I do remember the card she handed me at the end of our visit. Well wishes from my All Girl crew covered the spread, but the one signature that really stood out was Vals.

‘Can’t wait to live together next semester!’ it read. That tiny sentence made me cry all the way home in my tiny little cabrio convertible. But for once, it was not because I felt like a wad of cancer, but rather because I knew without a doubt, that I would make up for lost time with Valerie Voorhies.

We spent the next three years doing just that…We drove our matching Cabrios to the beach for hand stand contests and tan-soakin. We hosted family dinners with our sisters from other misters and brothers from other mothers. We poured diet V8 and rum into our bubba kegs and set up shop at the pool for hours on end. We went to Chicago to visit boys we met on spring break. We line-danced our boots off at the Bull most Thursday nights. We drove to Key West and bought matching seashell rings. She picked me up from my check-ups at Moffitt Cancer Center and I drove her drunk ass home from Tias. Yes, for all of that and more, Val helped me make up for a cancer-ridden-lost-semester, tenfold.

While Val and I haven’t shared an apartment number, let alone a zip code, in years, our friendship continues to stand the test of time and distance. As I type this, it’s still yesterday in Richmond, Virginia and Val is literally on the other side of the world. But today, I longed for Val to be here with me in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Hoi An is full of life and color and easy livin—just like Val Val. There’s a beautiful beach up the road where cabanas and drinks flow abundantly. There are lanterns draped across every street that light up the night in a soft glow, just like the lanterns have on every balcony Val’s ever furnished. And there are tailors that will hand create any piece of clothing you can dream up.

Today, I dreamed up a pretty special piece of clothing and that, more than anything else, is why I longed for Val today. This morning, while I stood in the little tailor shop getting measured, sifting through hundreds of fabric swatches and sketching a Pinterest-mock-up with the designer, it sunk in… we’re not in college anymore and my little ValVal is growing up and getting married.

Val’s probably sleeping right now. But if I could genie up any dream today, it would be to bang down her door, throw her pillows on the floor and push her out of bed [[as she did to me on many-a-night when she needed a wingman at the hottest baseball party]] and I’d make that girl be right here by my side today…

We’d have rented bicycles, grabbed a token iced coffee to-go and pedaled over to Violet where–my fave tailor in town–where we’d design that special dress together. We’d have celebrated toes in the water, ass in the sand-style with a tequila sunrise in hand, [[because celebrating Val is the only reason on the planet that I would voluntarily drink tequila]]. I’d have laughed at her vomit-esque reaction to the slaughtered pigs hanging from bamboo at the corner shop. We’d have showered off the sand and thrown on dresses that show off our tan lines and found a sweet little café that overlooks the lantern-lit riverwalk.

We’d spend the evening reminiscing on our true loves and our losers who taught us what true love is not; on the Corey Smith concerts [[in both a real venue and our kitchen]]; on T-Flatts addictions and the time she threw my sandwich out the sun roof on I75.

So many memories from yesterday, so many dreams for tomorrow all wrapped up in one little dress in a little World Heritage protected town on the Vietnam coast.

One little dress that I’ll wear on the special night that my pretty little blue-eyed blonde friend again waves me over to the seat she saved for me at her table.

Raising a tequila sunrise to you tonight, ValVal, and so wishing you were here. I’ll save you a seat.

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