To end the year right, I set out on a four day hut-to-hut skiing journey in Monts-Valin National Park, Quebec, Canada. I really wasn't sure what to expect. I've never done anything like this and was a little apprehensive about potential hypothermia and ski injuries in the backcountry. Luckily, I had seven really positive, fearless adventurers to help push me through. The first two days proved to be challenging. Our friend fell ill with a fever, both of my ski poles snapped in two, we clawed our way up intense hills, and hiked in the dark with only the light from our headlamps to show us the way. Spirits were low as we thought we might have to turn back on the third day. Fortunately, our friend made a full recovery and a park ranger was kind enough to bring us new equipment. With everyone in good health and my broken ski poles replaced, the crew's morale was at a high for the last two days. We slid down hills, wrote notes in fresh powder, caught snowflakes on our tongues, and stood atop the frozen lake pictured below in awe of the peaks we had just descended from. All was right in our little world.
Tucked away in Franklin, West Virginia is a small sport climbing area. Just a few hours from Washington, D.C., it's perfect for a quick getaway into the woods. Although we had a cabin that lent itself to all of our car camping desires, we pitched our tents in the back along the South Branch Potomac River. Good friends, tough climbs, roaring campfires, and pomegranate pancakes are just a few of the things that made this weekend so wonderful.
Over sixty percent of Vermont's population live in rural areas. A small state with a lot to offer, we covered a lot of ground in a just a short weekend. We began our journey in Burlington, admiring the small city feel and purchasing locally sourced maple syrup and cheese, of course. We then spent a leisurely day following route 100 down the east side of the Green Mountains, which gave us the opportunity to run around cornfields, hike to peaks during light hail storms, and capture the big sky.
A road trip to Maine with one ultimate destination planned: Acadia National Park. Our open schedules allowed us to head north with no definitive plans. We'd stop off in Newport, Boston, Kennebunk, Portland, and NYC to get a full dose of the coast. Only on the east coast can you wake up in a National Park, stop off at a brewery for lunch, run into freezing water at a random beach, take a cliff walk around massive mansions, and head out on the town for a nightcap in one very long, very fun day. I admire the western U.S. for its peaks and vastness, but the east will always have my heart for its variety, agility, and memories made.
My last day in Vietnam was happily spent on the water. A morning practicing headstands and playing around on paddle boards left me feeling like a child again. An afternoon kayaking around the bay in low tide and stopping off at an island shrine left me feeling content. I was lucky enough to have knowledgeable, fun, and interesting guides who inspired me with their stories of leaving their home countries in pursuit of the lifestyle they wanted. The bay has a powerful pull on those who visit. It allowed me to open myself up to another world and to take in everything that was offered through these experiences in such a short amount of time. I know it will not be the last time I visit Asia.
I arrived in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam with surprising ease. A sleeper bus to a taxi, taxi to a ferry, ferry to a bus. It sounds like a lot, but it was worth it to get to a place like this. I stepped off the bus into Cat Ba Town, an incredible little town on the south end of Cat Ba Island that acts as a gateway to the bay filled with floating villages and fishing boats.
I immediately booked a two-day, overnight tour with Asia Outdoors, a company I had read about before ever leaving the states. The first day we departed into the bay and sailed passed giant limestone karsts erupting out of the teal green waters. Some were spotted lightly with green foliage while others look like mini jungles.
After anchoring in a cove, we took a long boat to Moody Island. I was giddy with excitement as I was about to do what I came to Vietnam to do, rock climb. I couldn't wait to try new routes and a new rock surface. The jagged limestone provided more hand and foot holds but left us with some additional scrapes and bruises. The incredible view of the bay was our reward for climbing 40+ feet to the top of the routes. When I wasn't climbing, I collected shells, snapped photos, and took solitude in the quiet beach.
I had heard about the bioluminescent plankton that can be activated when disturbed in the bay. After anchoring in open water, we hopped into kayaks and paddled toward the karsts. Hugging them closely at the base, I looked up in awe of these massive formations. It was surreal and humbling to feel so small next to them. I stuck my paddle in and pushed it back and forth, illuminating the plankton like glitter in the black water. Later, I'd jump off the boat into the bay and watch the tiny plankton light up and glide off my arms as I raised them out of the water. I laid on the top deck, dreaming of the next day on the bay as the boat rocked me to sleep under an orange moon, surrounded by immense shadows.
We ascended into The City of Mist to touch the clouds. I was referred to Tuong, a guide in Sapa, Vietnam, by a friend of mine. Tuong had been a guide for many years and although as young as I was, I left all inhibitions behind as I hopped on the back of his motorbike to tour Sapa's incredible landscape. The beauty here is truly remarkable. Mountains jut up from the earth untamed. Rice paddy fields filled with water from irrigation dot the landscape by the hundreds like glass stairs leading to the heavens.
For the first time in a long time I felt like I was truly living in the moment. Taking in the sites and sounds. We passed corn crops, rose and artichoke flower fields, and tea plantations. Water buffalo walked along the road with their owners and dogs roamed free. Teenagers washed their motorbikes at the base of a waterfall. Big orange butterflies fluttered right passed me. Any time we zoomed by a villager with their eyes heavy set on me, I simply smiled and they quickly returned a warm, friendly smile back.
We stopped at a small restaurant in the Hmong village for lunch and in another village that is farther away from the city and from tourists. The man who's house Tuong showed us built it himself over the last 20 years. You could see the effort in the beautiful wooden doors. But upon entry, it was apparent how extremely poor they were. Beds scattered along one big, open room. Hard concrete floors. A large boulder in the middle of the room that they had no choice but to build around. Nonetheless, our host was smiling and graciously poured us all a cup of tea. We finished the day by sitting on little plastic stools with our guides, sharing rice cake and cheersing with our first bia hoi, fresh Vietnamese brewed beer.
It's funny how quickly your perspective of a place can change. The first day in Sapa, I had felt unwelcome and estranged in this foreign land. Today, I was revived and in awe. I wrote this journal in my head as I rode on the back of the bike, wind in my face. This is what I love about traveling, you question everything you know about yourself, about the world, about other people. It's hard and there's a lot of improvising, but you learn to listen to your gut and to let go and embrace whatever comes at you. If I was ever looking for inspiration, well I think I may have almost found it.
A two-day overnight trek in northern Thailand left me speechless. I met Chai, the guide and a native Karen tribe member and we began our trek into the jungle and to the Karen village. We hiked about an hour and a half passed rice paddy fields and lush landscapes. The mountains are breathtaking. Although in his 50s, Chai was a strong and youthful soul whose eyes tightened and lit up when a smile spread across his face. He taught us about the native flora and fauna, like one plant that crumbles into a red "paint" when you rub it between your fingers. The villagers used to use it to dye their clothes. He also taught us games the children play and I thought back to how similar life around the world can be when you're young.
During our trek we passed sections of jungle where orange robes were tied around various trees. Buddhist monks mark the trees as sacred in hopes of bringing an end to deforestation in northern Thailand. We stopped for lunch at a waterfall and took a dip. Another 90 minutes put us through a couple villages, a school, and finally to our home for the night. I was astonished. The view was amazing, overlooking rice fields and mountains.
I helped Chai and our host prepare dinner. I stirred vegetables in a large wok over an open flame while the sun set in front of us. I slept in the open air underneath a mosquito net and fell asleep to the sound of frogs and insects buzzing.
Awaken to roosters and a gorgeous sunrise. Our host served us pancakes and fresh papaya. They showed us how to extract rice with a wooden mill operated by one's own foot. After that, the woman of the home puts the rice on a bamboo mat and filters it through. It was almost rhythmic in sound--the wood banging, the rice crunching, the sifting on the mat.
We ended the tour with an hour-long ride on a bamboo raft down the Wang River. It was quiet and calm. I let the sun warm my face and the water wash up around me.
I had the opportunity to participate in the Elephant Owner for a Day program at Patara in Chiang Mai. Elephants are one of my favorite animals because of how similar they are to people. They show emotion, they mourn the dead, they value community. In one of my many daydreams, I quit my job and head to Africa to work on conservation for this amazing species. Now I had the opportunity to actually get an introduction in how to care for elephants. I was debriefed about the organization and the elephants and was assigned an elephant and their respective trainer. The gorgeous creature I was paired up with was named Metit. She had a young calf that stuck by us the whole time. I learned how to identify when an elephant is healthy and happy: flapping ears, wagging tail, "tears" coming from their eyes, sweat from their toes, a dirty side from where they've slept for only four hours a night.
I learned some necessary commands in Thai that I'd later use to feed and praise them. As I was feeding Metit from an overflowing basket of bananas, sugar cane, and tamarind, her son kept sticking his nose in and grabbing some goodies for himself.
We trekked through the jungle together and came to a little river where I'd bathe Metit and have lunch. Metit was a bit of a trouble maker, going off path a couple times to grab some grasses on the side. The elephants really seemed to love the bathing, laying on their side and putting their heads down just as a dog would do when you're rubbing them.
Next was my turn to wash off. I hopped in a small water pool underneath a waterfall and let the sweat and dirt run off me while I watched the elephants play about in the river. It was a really wonderful experience and something I'll never forget. As dirty, intimidating, and sometimes ridiculous as it seemed, this was one of those moments I was able to connect with the country, the trainers, and the elephants who were gentle and playful.
Among this incredible day, one of the highlights was actually on the ride to and from the camp, where our driver, Sun, told us his story of growing up in the Karen tribe. This is the only hill tribe in Thailand that specializes in working with elephants. He shared his life with me. He told me about getting married, about how his father used to own an opium farm and became addicted to amphetamines and when the government made it illegal, his family was left with nothing. That's when he decided to go to school and get a job with Patara. His wife is pregnant and once she gives birth, they will return to the tribe. They still use the barter system.
It's moments like this I search for. The Thai people are so open and friendly, they want to share their story with you. Life is completely different in this country, but still they are the most warm, helpful, and cheerful people.
I awoke on a sleeper train headed to northern Thailand. Outside the window lush jungle and bamboo huts passed by. Moments like this give me the greatest appreciation and a realization of exactly where I am in the world at that moment.
A woman appeared in the doorway with breakfast -- rice soup. At first I thought it was an odd thing to eat in the morning, not to mention it's ~100 degrees. But I knew I'd be eating rice three times a day for the next two weeks and I embraced it. Rice is a staple here, when locals ask each other how they are doing, it translates to "have you eaten rice yet?"
Arrival in Chiang Mai, another day for exploration around a foreign city. You don't have to walk far before you stumble upon a temple and take a detour to explore. Entering the temples and wats gave me a feeling of tranquility. Maybe it was the quietness, maybe it was the fact that it was exotic, maybe it was the giant Buddhas smirking at me. Whatever the reason, I was overcome with peace. I sat in each one, staring up at the mosaics and flowers that adorned each altar.
That night I took a Thai cooking class. My guide and head chef, Pham (pronounced palm), led a field trip to the local market where he taught about the local fruits and vegetables. We collected the items we'd need for the menu and walked to our cooking venue.
Pham then proceeded to teach me how to whip up four delicious Thai courses: pad Thai, hot and sour soup, red chicken curry, and mango sticky rice. Pham had a fantastic sense of humor and told us about his life. He spent a brief time as a monk in order to study philosophy and English. From there he decided to become a chef in a small restaurant, and eventually made his way as an instructor at Smart Cook. The people here are very kind and welcoming. They want to share their life with you, and I'm all ears.