‘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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‘Growth and Grace’ takes flight

I hope to use this place to document my ‘goods’ and reflect on my ‘painful’…not for any reason other than, I believe in the power of storytelling–that it might resonate, that it might encourage, that it might bring peace. So, while I know I’ll have plenty of ‘goods’ to look forward to and have a memory box FULL of ‘amazing’s’ [reminiscent blog posts on which to come]…for context’s sake, let me just admit a few of not-so-beautiful things…

If you read this or this, you might have picked up on the fact that I’ve done some hurting lately. This past year has challenged me like none before. Sure, I’m only 26 [or am I 27? For the life of me, I cannot remember….a ridiculously perfect demonstration of my chaos these days]. But I’d bet money that I’ve lived a lot more life than most 90-year-olds. In some very good ways, and in some very painful ways.

While I’m no stranger to tear-inspiring moments, I’ve cried a lot in 2014. I’ve had cancer and been cheated on and had my family broken and watched not one, but two parents fight cancer–all in the last 5 years, mind you. But nothing, not one of those life-altering experiences holds a flame to this past year. The sparkle that once dazzled my heart and ring finger all the same, was put to rest. Not in a mutual kind of way either…the way that feels so surreal and paralyzing that one whole calendar year later and I still think it must be a dream. A dream that I’d still like to wake up from…I just know I won’t.

So I’m forced to make new dreams, I guess.

Here’s where ‘growth and grace’ really takes flight–literally.

My new dream is to learn to be okay. To be alone and quiet and still and calm. To have nobody and nothing and realize I’m still somebody who has everything. To breathe. To rest. To cry. To give myself grace when I cry too long. But to grow with each inhale and steady my heart with each exhale. I want to do yoga with the sunrise and walk along the beach at sunset. I want to fuel my body with new and interesting foods and sip wine from grapes grown on foreign soil. I want to grow closer to God and feel him guide my movements. I want to smile and know that it’s radiating from the inside. I just want to heal.

My dream for this year, this new year, is very simple. I want to feel like me again.

So, I’m going on a trip. For 6 months or 9 months or somewhere in between.

No, I don’t have every bit of it planned…probably not even half of it. I’m not sure when I’ll run out of money or how long this will feel fun. I’m not sure where I’ll stay in Bali or how to read a menu in Vietnam. I don’t know how long I’ll stay in Italy or if Germany will still feel nostalgic. I don’t know how I’ll get from Norway to Spain. But I do know that I feel more at peace over this decision than I’ve felt in a whole year. Maybe a whole 26 years..[maybe a whole 27?]. I’m doing this.

The way I figure, I know how to do the things I know how to do. I know how to make friends and find good deals. I know to dream big, but keep my safety net. I know that I want to see the Christmas Markets in Austria, but if I need to come home early for some momma time, then that’s okay too.

For the other things, I suppose I’ll just figure it out. No hostel mishap or losing my camera or flight delays compare to the confusion I’ve already felt. That, I’m certain of. So in that way, I’m guaranteed to win–already guaranteed growth.

I’m going on a trip around the world, not to run away or ‘find myself.’ In fact, I very much know who I am. I’m going on a trip around the world to bring perspective to my pain and solitude for my questions. I don’t have all the answers. But by God’s grace, I hope I’ll have a few more when I come home.

And yes. I’m smiling right now just thinking about how long I’ll stay in Italy and how I’ll figure out how to read a menu in Vietnamese.

Here’s to small wins, big gains and huge travels.

Here’s to ‘growth and grace.’