Two ferries, one plane and three trains (one that boarded a ferry itself), were my modes of transportation these past two weeks. Since Natalie left Helsinki, I have been traveling solo. In the past two weeks I explored a part of the world I only imagined, and now it seems my dreams have come true. I’ve seen Finland, Sweden, Denmark and now I’m in Amsterdam!
I walked the streets of Helsinki and saw the cathedral and visited the stalls in Market Square.
When I arrive in Stockholm I celebrate Midsummer, a holiday second only to Christmas. I find myself at Skansen, an open air museum in the center of the city with thousands of other locals and visitors. It is an amusement park with cultural history along with an aquarium, zoo and so much more.
In Copenhagen I found the famous Little Mermaid statue and also took a stroll a long Nyhavn Harbor.
The beauty is amazing and I am loving the weather. The average temperature has ranged from the high 50’s to the mid 70’s. There might have been one day in the 80’s in Stockholm and I was warned to be careful with how hot it would be, ha ha. I received reports from my family in Alabama that temperatures have reached 100 degrees already. I have to say I am pretty happy where I am right now. That’s not to say that there is not a rainy day or two, but those days are perfect for visiting a museum or reading a book.
If you asked me one year ago, let alone six months ago if I would travel abroad by myself I would have said “I would love to think that I could, but I don’t think I would.” Well, that has all changed in the past month. Part of the appeal to being part of The Great Enlivening was that I would be with two other people, two amazing women with a sense of adventure and the means to take time off from life to explore the world. Though we had not been through all the same life experiences, we all felt a need for something new and different.
Both Rachel and Natalie took this time as a source for healing, but for me, I believe it has been a way to break out of my shell. There have been so many firsts on this trip, the biggest by far is spending almost a month traveling around Europe solo. I left all the stability of a good job with benefits and a family that loves and supports me for – uncertainty. But with that uncertainty comes the chance for growth that I think I needed for a long time. I believe that I have grown up these last four months. I was pushed from my comfort zone and put myself in situations that I am not always comfortable with.
I love getting out and experiencing this amazing world that we live in, but usually I have someone with me. My sister or brother are the usual suspects who accompany me. Now I have taken day excursions alone on trips or flown solo to visit friends in different cities, but never a weekend let alone 4 weeks without knowing a single soul.
So I have had to put my smile to good use and meet people, strike up conversations with random strangers, like in a line at the Rijksmusuem in Amsterdam that lasted about two hours. It was worth it to see two Rembrandt paintings that have not been seen in public since 1956. Also I got into the museum for free since it was opening day, hence the queue.
Or trying to figure out the quirks of an electric stove at the hostel in Copenhagen. I have learned that backpackers are some of the friendliest travelers, always willing to lend a hand or tell you the tricks and quirks of kitchen appliances. Who knew a morning tutorial would lead to an evening at a Biergarten with a fellow American and an Aussie.
I have had my days when I miss Rachel and Natalie. I pass a cafe and imagine the three of us sitting outside enjoying a glass of wine and sharing our thoughts on our day or our experiences in the past. But I know that their departures and my decision to stay are no coincidence. I truly believe that God was preparing me for this adventure by myself. I don’t think I would have had the confidence to travel alone from the start. I am also reassured by the amount of people I have met throughout this journey who are traveling alone as well. There is a certain amount of freedom that you are allowed because of it.
My journey is not finished yet and I know I still have more to learn. But I do know that I have grown through this Great Enlivinging. I am stronger than I think and can do much more than I ever imagined. I know that these are facts that I must take with me on my next adventure in life. What am I going to do when I get back to the States? But luckily I am not quite there yet, I still have a little time to see the world and find out more about myself.
I slowly smile as I look through the ferry windows and into the Helsinki harbor. I never expected to be in Finland, but then again, that’s kind of the theme of this trip. It’s hard to believe that tomorrow morning I’ll be on a plane to Los Angeles. I feel like this journey just started, yet at the same time, I feel completely ready to go home.
Rachel left us a few weeks ago, and since then, Katy and I have had some amazing adventures. We spent a week in Paris where we wandered the beautiful streets…
Visited with my college roomie, Renee…
Gained some culture…
Watched the opening game of the 2016 Euro’s (that’s soccer for all you Americans out there) from the Eiffel Tower Fan Zone…
And after many years, caught up with my old Annapolis friends Lisa and Elle Wells!
After France, we made our way to Berlin, Germany, where we took in the sites…
And studied the history.
After that, we headed to Tallinn, Estonia – one of my last stops on this journey. Coming to the end of this adventure made me contemplate the beginning, when I was so uncertain about the future and the world was yet to be explored.
Before I left on this Great Enlivening, I stood in the living room of my home in Virginia and prayed for the season ahead. I asked God to bless Rachel and I, to show us what steps to take, and to help us navigate the uncertainties ahead. When I finished my prayer I turned around and noticed one of Rachel’s signs in the living room that I’d never paid attention to before. It said “It all starts and ends with family.”
And that’s exactly how the journey began – with a month-long road trip to visit family and friends. And as poetically as only God can orchestrate, that’s how it ended.
After Berlin, Katy and I travelled to Estonia to see my cousin, Eve, graduate from her Masters in Cyber Security program.
My sister, Katie, Eve and I grew up together in Salisbury, MD. Katie and I like to joke that Eve is “our” little sis. We all had dinner together on Sundays, went to the same high school, and played for the same volleyball team. So it seemed fitting that I would spend my last few days on this Great Enlivening with Eve. Since nine months ago, I started this journey with my sister, Katie.
The differences between life today and life then seem unreal. When I started this trip, I was a ship adrift. I was lost in a sea of uncertainty, insecurity and broken heartedness.
Looking back on that season, all I desired was to be the strong, brave and confident woman who God created me to be. But just wishing to be different doesn’t make you different. So even though I didn’t feel ready, I jumped into this Great Enlivening anyway.
Lots of people were skeptical about this journey. Some were incredibly supportive. And others were outright against it. And I don’t blame the naysayers one bit. We live in a world and a country that values ‘the plan.’ And when you’re a smart and successful 31-year-old, it doesn’t make sense to trade in your life for a backpack and a one-way ticket. But sometimes, getting lost in this world is the best way to find out where you’re supposed to be.
So that’s what I did. I pushed past the boundaries of my comfort zone and experienced the world. Luckily, God gave me two amazing women to travel with. And we all laughed, cried and grew together. It’s safe to say that I am forever changed for the better by this experience. Now, instead of wishing to be stronger, braver and more confident – I am those things.
So to answer the popular question – what’s your ‘plan’ now? The truth is, that I don’t know. I spent a lot of my life making plans, some that came true and some that never will. And what the next season of my life looks like is trust, not blueprints. Trusting that God will lead me to the people I need to meet, the places I need to go and the future I’m supposed to embrace.
Sure, I have ideas about the next steps, and I have hopes and dreams for the future. But right now, what I have is a lighter heart, an emptier bank account and a shorter bucket list. Oh yeah, and a one-way ticket to California, where I get to see my amazing family who I’ve missed so much.
I may not have the next three years mapped out, but this Great Enlivening has shown me that that’s not what I need. Up until now, I spent the majority of my life striving to be everything I aspired to be and have everything I thought would make me happy. I achieved a lot, but at the end of the day I still wasn’t fulfilled. It wasn’t until I packed up and left it all behind that I found out what this life is all about.
So what does this mean for The Great Enlivening?
Katy continues to travel and will post about her amazing adventures.
Rachel is busy reconnecting with her niece and nephews in Louisiana…
But for me, it’s the end of this season. It’s time for a new adventure. I don’t know what it will look like or where it will take me, but I have no doubt that it will be more beautiful than I can imagine.
So thank you to everyone who read this blog, who wrote to us, who prayed for us and who supported our journey!
If you’d like to stay in touch (and I hope you do!), you can follow me on Instagram @nataliesactthree
-Natalie Hunter, signing off 🙂
On a trip of firsts, this is my first time flying across an ocean solo. And while I feel a twinge of sadness leaving Natalie and Katy in Europe, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is calling me home.
The flight map displayed on the screen in front of me shows a long green line from Istanbul, Turkey to Atlanta.
I left Spain last night and flew from Rota to Barcelona landing just after midnight. My plan was to sleep in the airport and thanks to a yoga mat, neck pillow and a sleep sheet, it was a pretty impressive make-shift bed (if I say so myself), though still not really comfortable.
I donned my trusty eye mask and earplugs hoping for some good shut eye, but a few hours later I awoke to the sound of voices nearby. At 3:37 a.m. people were already lined up to check in for the 6 a.m. flight from Barcelona to Istanbul.
Despite my casual approach to travel these days, there are many others who clearly take the “arrive two hours prior to an international flight” advice seriously.
Four hours later I was in Turkey. And nearly four hours after that I boarded this flight back to the States. Staring at the world map, it’s hard to comprehend that only a year ago visiting far off places like South America, Australia and Asia seemed like a dream. And now, in just seven months I’ve completely circumnavigated the globe.
Of course, it didn’t happen overnight or effortlessly. It took months of hard work, research, planning and organizing to deconstruct the life I had built in Virginia and handle all of my physical stuff before Natalie and I embarked across the country for a three-month stint in Mexico. We started writing and called our blog, “The Great Enlivening,” because we hoped and believed our journey, wherever it led us, would be just that.
With nothing but a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires, Argentina, a backpack and a two-night hostel reservation, we left America on February 6, 2016, not knowing what exactly this adventure would look like, but confident we were supposed to be on it.
Since then, I’ve visited 15 countries and traveled thousands of miles by dozens of flights, taxi rides, buses, trains and two rental cars. I’ve stayed in countless hostels and hotels and converted currency more times than I care to remember. I’ve gathered an impressive collection of passport stamps, contracted two parasites and improved my language skills as I immersed myself in unique cultures around the world.
I’ve climbed mountains like Machu Picchu…
Gone scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef…
Enjoyed exquisite food…
A LOT of food…
Practiced yoga like never before…
Visited with long time friends…
And traveled with two incredible women with whom I not only shared these experiences, but also my heart.
It’s taken me a long time to get here. But I don’t mean 35,000 feet over Port-Cartier, Canada, where I currently am. I mean here.
For the first few months of the trip, I spent a good amount of time looking back at my life. There were unanswered questions I was still wrestling with. Why did my marriage end? What could I or should have I done differently? Where was God’s will in all of this, and how did mine line up with His?
Through lots of prayer, journaling, and hours of heart-to-heart conversations with Natalie, I gained clarity. Sometimes God gave me a fresh perspective and the ability to see things through His eyes. Other times, He encouraged me to consider different questions all together. And on a few occasions I felt Him asking me to let go and accept that there were some questions I might never have concrete answers for (at least on this side of Heaven) and that it was okay. That I would be okay.
During this time, He also brought to my attention several hidden wounds in my heart I didn’t even know were there. God walked me through those too, helping me to heal, grow stronger and open myself up to the possibility of loving again.
Through a completely divine appointment, He even sent a special person to guide me through this process. To this amazing man (you know who you are), thank you for being so genuine and caring with my tender heart. You’ve reminded me that marvelous men exist, that an open heart is a wonderful thing, and that the right man will want to fight for, cherish and protect it.
But during this season, despite some romance, God made it clear that it wasn’t time to be looking for a husband.
It was time to explore the world around me, to “see beyond” what I could see with my eyes. Sometimes it was rethinking my philosophy on life and the expectations I and others have placed on it. Sometimes it was considering the unique ways people live in other places and finding the best practices to adopt from those. But more often than not, it was peering into the eyes and the souls of those I met and discovering that despite differences in age, religion, race and socio-economic status, deep down we are very similar. We’re all human beings on this journey called life and we all share the same innate desire to be loved.
As my focus turned outward, God was birthing something within me: A renewed dream of being an instrument to inspire others to live a truly enlivened life. A desire to become the best version of myself and help others do the same. A longing to follow wherever He may lead and live for His glory.
And God was also helping me synthesize some of the lessons I’d been learning along the way, like:
- There’s no such thing as a “normal life” and I don’t want to live one anyway
- Sometimes it’s okay and really good to NOT have a plan
- Happiness is an inside job
- Life is short, an invaluable gift, and at the same time, not that serious
- Where I am in the world isn’t nearly as important as who I’m with
- Living presently, passionately and loving deeply is the recipe for a beautiful life
- Every person has unimaginable potential within
These, of course, are just a few highlights. I could write a book about my experiences traveling the world and how it changed me. How I am physically darker (thanks Spain for the tan) but Spiritually so much lighter. How according to my bank account, I am poorer, and yet, my life is so much richer. How I am still “single” but I have more love in my heart than ever before.
Maybe one day I will write and publish that book, or I’ll be a famous speaker. Perhaps I’ll be a wife and mother. Or maybe I’ll live abroad in a big city, or end up in small town America.
Honestly, I don’t know what my life will look like in one month, much less one year or a decade. But I know that it’s time for me to head home and see my family. God has been whispering that in my heart for several weeks and He finally told me the time is now. That what needed to happen on this trip has prepared me for whatever is to come. That while I’m not still traveling with Natalie and Katy (who are currently loving life in France), this isn’t the end of of the Great Enlivening for me, it’s just the beginning of a new chapter.
I’ve learned living a truly enlivened life doesn’t require exploring foreign countries, but continuing to explore my heart and what God is showing me. That it’s not dependent on where I am but who I am. That it’s not about what I have but what I share with others.
I imagine one day I’ll look back and tell my kids and grandkids about this year of my life. I’ll show them pictures of unbelievable places and recount the story about how I left everything behind to find out what the world had to offer.
But what I want them to understand is that this Great Enlivening ended being much more than a trip around the world. That it was a deeply Spiritual pilgrimage that challenged me to think differently, act differently and love intentionally. And how ultimately, what I ended up finding was not only myself, but how to truly live.
As we drive form Madrid to Sevilla I’m overwhelmed by what I see, fields of sunflowers all over the rolling hills of the Spanish countryside. I smile every time I see more of them, but it is pretty difficult to take a good picture of them as Felipe coasts down the road.
While in Spain we decided to rent a car because it was less expensive than train tickets and it allows us to see more of this amazing country. Natalie has named our new ride Felipe, who is an upgrade from our last car Frida, because he has a bit more room, a built in GPS and an audio hook-up so we can rock out to our favorite tunes. But there’s a reason Natalie choose a male name for Felipe: he has the typical traits of a man in a car on a road trip. He’s a bit vague when giving us directions, when he gets us lost he does not admit it, he’ll just blurt out more directions and tries to forget about how turned around we are. But we forgive him and make it to all of our destinations without too much trouble.
I think I can say that for all three of us it is wonderful to be in Europe, and Spain has been a fantastic first destination. Asia was amazing and I know we all learned so much, but there is a comfort level here that is nice. Both Rachel and Natalie are enjoying speaking Spanish again; I myself have not spoken any in about 10 years, but it is coming back to me. I remember certain words and try to work them into conversations. Luckily most people in Spain speak way more English than I speak Spanish.
When we arrive in Madrid I can feel that something is different here. For one thing, the weather is amazing. We left behind 90+ degrees and traded them in for 70 degrees. The sun doesn’t set here till about 9:45p.m. which can really throw your body off. Time change, a long day of traveling from Bangkok to Madrid via Moscow and late sunsets can add up to a messed up sleep schedule. I think it took me two nights to get adjusted.
On our first day we join a group from our hostel for a walking tour around the older parts of the city. We walked to the palace, cathedral, past numerous statues of kings and so many wonderful places. Our tour guide Viviana showed us some of her favorite spots, like a café famous for its churros con chocolate…YUM
As we walk around the city there seems to be a sense of joy. There are so many cafes and restuarants with outside seating either on the sidewalks or flowing into the squares. Everyone has a coffee or glass of wine with a smile on their face. I don’t think it is just the alcohol consumption at all hours of the day, I think there is truly an appreciation of life here.
The ability to not work yourself to death, but to make time to spend with family and friends. They take 2 hour lunches and siestas, have tapas around 5p.m or 6p.m. followed by a nap and finally around 10p.m. they go out for dinner. This does not even include the young crowd that goes out around 2 a.m.! Let me tell you, this 30 something year old was not ready for the nightlife here.
We loved our time in Madrid but it was time to begin the road trip to Sevilla. We honestly didn’t know what to expect but everyone has told us that it is one of the best cities in Spain. Though we only have one night there, we plan on making the most of it! After checking into the hostel we ask the woman at the front desk where we should go if we only have one night; she pulls out a large map and circle two options.
We freshen up and begin to walk through the crowded streets. As we come upon a square our ears our filled with music. I am not sure what the occasion is but there are bars lining the square and a stage at the end with groups dancing the flamenco. What a lovely treat in the city where it was created. We make our way to the restaurant and have a wonderful meal enjoying all that surrounds us.
Rachel and I go on a walking tour the next day and we fall in live with the city. This 3000-year-old city has so much to tell its visitors. The architecture alone shows you the history of who has lived here and their influences; from the Romans, Muslims and finally as a Christian kingdom in the 13th century.
We not only see so many beautiful sites but also ourselves become a part of its story. Rachel acts out the part of Carmen in our guides story telling and I danced the Sevillana, a folk dance similar to the flamenco. Experiencing the culture this way only brings you closer to the people and I am so thankful that we are able to join in the celebration of this wonderful city.
Our trip continues and we have the opportunity to visit friends that will be in Europe this summer, the first one being Marina in Rota, Spain. We are treated to a wonderful weekend at her home, which for 3 girls traveling for 3-4 months it is truly a gift. We are welcomed with open arms and treated not only as friends but family. Rota is a small costal city on the southwest tip of Spain where locals are seen waving at others as they walk down the street to the market or coffee shop.
And visiting the coffee shop on a Saturday morning was an adventure. All you see are cups and saucers floating around with plates of toasted bread heading to tables. This we have leaned is the typical Spanish breakfast. Natalie has become a Spanish coffee-ordering expert and enjoys savoring the experience outside the café.
It’s scenes like this that make me love the Spanish culture. Like getting coffee here, you go to the café, order and then sit and enjoy it there. It’s not getting a ‘to-go cup’ as you’re running out the door. They take the time to enjoy not only the taste but also the people that surround them.
While attending mass on Sunday the priest’s words seemed to capture these thoughts. He spoke that the way of the Lord is the way of life and that we should never forget to look at all the joy in the world. There will always be sorrow and difficulties but not to forget the joy. He ended saying that if we go through life with faith and joy there is nothing to worry about. So that is my plan, to look for the joy in all that surrounds me, even on the tough days. I think that my life will be all the better for it and maybe I can bring joy to those around me.
It’s sweltering. Ninety-five degrees with 80% humidity means Natalie, Katy and I are sweating just standing outside. So, when we don our 30-ish pound backpacks and start walking from the train station to our hostel, it’s less than a minute before we’re dripping.
We’ve just flown from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Bangkok, Thailand. Here we have a short 20 hour layover till we head to Madrid, Spain via Moscow in the morning. It’s going to be a long 48-hrs and we’re already tired, but luckily the hostel we booked is nearby.
“The email said it’s close, right across from the station,” Katy tells us.
I’ve learned the word “close” is a relative term when traveling. It could mean five minutes or five miles depending on who you’re talking to. But in this case, luck is on our side and close means about 50 meters.
“That’s it, right there!” I announce, spotting the hostel sign just across the street. Thank God. My back is aching from the backpack, my stomach hurts (thanks to parasite number two on this trip), and I’m starting to feel overheated and nauseous.
We make our way across the street, and before entering the hostel, we remove our shoes. After more than a month in Asia, we’re used to this standard, cultural norm.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel much cooler inside than out, but at least we’ve made it and we can take off our packs. After nearly 4 months of international traveling, we’re also used to this standard, travel drill. What used to seem novel and exciting is now easily described in a 13-step process we must complete anytime we change our location from one country to another.
- Packing our stuff – this is getting more and more difficult as we buy new clothes, are given gifts and accumulate souvenirs along the way
- Checking out of our hostel
- Getting to the airport – this could be via taxi, train, walking or (in the case of Cambodia) a motorized buggy also known as a Tuk-Tuk
- Checking into our flight – these days we’re so causal about international traveling that we often don’t remember what airline we’re flying on until we arrive at the airport
- Going through security – this process varies from country to country but inevitably involves a metal detector, pulling out my laptop from my overly-stuffed daypack, ditching or downing my water and removing my jewelry
- Boarding our flight
- Flying from Country A to Country B – this could range from a non-stop flight to one with 2 or more stops and can take anywhere from 1 to 20 hours
- Going through customs – sometimes this takes 10 minutes, other times an hour. Sometimes the agent is friendly and welcomes you. Sometimes you get grilled about your travel plans or you simply get no eye contact and no response when you “hello,” or “thank you”
- Picking up our bags – amazingly not one has been lost or stolen this entire time (knock on wood)
- Withdrawing money and converting any foreign currency we no longer need – turns out money exchanges don’t take coins so we all have a wide variety of change from around the globe
- Getting to our next hostel (see #3)
- Checking into our new hostel – this always includes filling out forms, showing our passports and paying in advance
- Unpacking our stuff – much less time consuming than packing but still a mental puzzle as to where to put things since most hostel rooms are small, have multiple bunkbeds and there aren’t any closets or drawers
The routine is far from glamorous and always takes more time and energy to complete than we think it will or want it to. And on this particular day, with the heat and feeling pretty lousy, I’m over it.
I’m wondering if maybe my emotions are indicating that it’s time to wrap up this Great Enlivening. But just as I start daydreaming about a less transient life, one without backpacks, shower shoes and checking for bedbugs, I’m interrupted by a chipper voice behind me.
“Hello and welcome!” says a bright-eyed woman with a broad smile “Please, please, sit down,” she says ushering us over to the table and chairs before rushing to a fridge to get us each a cool bottle of water.
She appears to be a few years older than us, but she’s moving at light speed with lots of energy and even more enthusiasm. In less than five minutes she’s checked us in, settled our individual payments, prepared a special herbal tea for each of us, offered us Thai cookies and shown us a laminated sheet with all the key words and phrases we need to know to navigate this new country.
With keys and the wifi password, we are just about to hoist our bags and climb up the stairs to our room, when she makes one final comment.
“Tonight there is a special Thai market, it’s for locals but very good for you to see….will help you understand more this country. If you want, I go with you.”
She has all the eagerness of a kid on Christmas and there’s no way we can say no. We agree to meet her at 6 p.m. and she’s thrilled.
Once in our room, we can’t stop gushing about how incredibly nice and hospitable this woman is. Fastest check in ever! Free food and drink!? An offer to be our personal tour guide?!? For the record, this is NOT the typical response when checking into a hostel and we’re not entirely sure this woman isn’t some sort of mythical unicorn of sorts.
But her energy was so infectious, her desire to serve so selfless and genuine that it’s a unanimous consensus. Unicorn or not, we love her.
After a brief rest, we venture into the city for a few hours to get lunch and explore a bit. Of course I had to get Pad Thai in Thailand!
We return back to the hostel and at 6 p.m. we head downstairs to meet our escort for the evening. “How long does it take by train to get there?” I ask.
“Oh, you can’t take a train,” she explains, “But I will drive us in my car.”
This woman continues to amaze me. And then I realize that I don’t even know her name.
Over the course of the 20 minute drive, we learn that Ja bought and opened this hostel a year ago because she loves traveling and wants to help those who come to her country. But this isn’t her full-time job, she also works 6 days a week as a pharmacist.
After refusing to let us pay for parking, Ja leads us to the market and through a cacophony of sights, smells, shops and seemingly thousands of people.
Turns out that true Thai markets are pretty cool.
On the outskirts is the only place not packed with people. And apparently you can buy all sorts of stuff…
Like sunglasses available for purchase out of the side of a truck…
Life-size statues of Elvis. Doesn’t Katy look good with the King?
And you can even buy a huge shrimp pillow. Because everyone needs one of those.
The street art was amazing…
And they had some cool old cars too!
After two hours we had fully experienced an authentic Thai market.
“Thank you so much!” I gush as we get out of Ja’s car back at the hostel. “You’re such a lovely host and this has been such a special evening!”
Ja smiles and explains that making her guests feel welcome and giving them a taste of Thailand is her pleasure. And I know it is.
Unfortunately, Natalie missed the market because she wasn’t feeling well, but we all sat down and enjoyed a nice meal in the hostel kitchen. Ja made sure we had everything we needed and wished us well on our travels as we would be leaving early the next morning.
As I laid in bed and reflected on our day, I thought of Ja. How her kindness and generosity had blessed each of us. How meeting and spending time with her had made our day so much brighter and richer.
The truth is, what Ja gave us was much more than tea, cookies, and a tour of a Thai market. What she shared with us was herself and the very best part of it. She shared her joy, her passions, her time, her knowledge, her love, without counting the cost or asking for anything in return.
I know this is what God asks each of us to do. To give the gift of ourselves to others. And I also know that I don’t always do this. Sometimes I’m just selfish or I think I don’t have anything of value to offer anyone else. Sometimes I’m just so consumed with my own agenda and 13-step routine that I fail to notice who’s around me and how I can bless them.
But every now and then I live wholeheartedly. I focus on others. I do what I can to meet their needs. I use my God-given gifts to make their lives better – even if it’s just to make someone laugh or speak an encouraging word. I think of my time with the Cambodian Children’s House of Peace and how pouring into their staff and kids enriched my life in the most beautiful way.
While I hope I had the same effect on them as Ja had on us, I know that when I’m being the best version of myself, I feel really good. I feel fully alive and that my life has deep meaning and purpose.
Nearly four months into this trip, I’ve learned that sometimes what I think will enliven me, does the opposite. And that sometimes what I think will drain me or cost too much is the very thing that enlivens me the most.
I’m not sure I’ll ever see Ja again, but meeting her inspired me. My prayer is that I allow God to use me in the same way as I travel and continue this Great Enlivening.
“Do you sing?” Srey Mom asks me expectantly.
“Yes! I love to sing.” I tell her.
She gets a big smile on her face and runs into her bedroom. She comes back with a guitar and asks, “Will you sing for me?”
“Ok…” I reply hesitantly, “What can you play?”
“Blank Space!” She exclaims.
During our travels I’ve discovered one, universally true fact – everyone loves Taylor Swift. Even kids in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
I laugh a little bit, and say “alright, let’s do it!” Then the two of us start belting out the lyrics to Blank Space while Srey Mom plays the guitar.
One week ago, I had no idea that I would be here. And by “here” I mean Cambodia. When we left Bali, Indonesia we traveled for a few days to Singapore, a small country on the edge of Malaysia. It’s known for being pristine, expensive and a bit severe. For example, it’s illegal to chew gum in Singapore, because someone might spit it out on the street and leave an unintended blemish on the city’s stepford-ish facade. If you do happen to commit the aforementioned crime, the punishment can range from a $300 fine to 24 strokes with a cane. That’s right, you can be caned.
But all of those intense rules seem to work, because the city itself is gorgeous. There are hundreds of glistening buildings, a huge waterfront area and the world’s only “SuperTree Grove.”
But after three days in Singapore, we knew it was time to move on. The only question was – to where? From Singapore, we could go literally anywhere in Southeast Asia. We debated between Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. There are amazing sites to see in each of these countries, but something just didn’t feel right.
Rachel and I have been backpacking for nearly four months, and Katie for almost three. And while this journey is a once in a lifetime experience, I’m getting a little… tired. Tired of packing up my backpack, tired of flying to new cities, tired of figuring out new train systems, and tired of not having simple pleasures like popcorn and scissors (seriously, try to cut something without scissors, you’ll see what I mean!).
After talking to the girls, it became obvious that we were all feeling the same way and were craving a different type of experience. So we submitted our plans to God and asked Him to open doors to let us serve in some way. A few web-searches later, I found an orphanage in Cambodia that needed volunteers!
I coordinated with their director, and we booked a plane ticket from Singapore to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for the same night. Cambodia wasn’t even on our radar, so we showed up knowing… NOTHING.
During our first few days in Phnom Penh, we learned a lot about the country. First, we learned that the primary means of transportation is by Tuk Tuk. Basically a scooter with a cart pulled behind it. We also learned that there are no traffic laws in Cambodia. You can drive the wrong way on the wrong side of the road and no one cares.
During our first few days in Cambodia, I was immediately struck by the drastic economic disparity in the country. I mean, I saw a cart pulled by oxen parked next to a new, fully loaded Range Rover in Phnom Penh. At first glance, it seems like the middle class doesn’t exist here. People are either extremely poor or extremely wealthy.
The cause of this is tied to the country’s history. In 1975, a Communist Dictator named Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia. Like most dictators, he had a plan to create his own “Utopian” society. In his mind the key to his success was to eliminate all traces of Capitalism by replacing the “city dwellers” with the “old people” who farmed and lived in the countryside.
In order to implement his plan for a perfect society, Pol Pot ordered the secret slaughter of an estimated three million Cambodians. The population of the country was eight million at the time. On the outskirts of Phnom Penh, there’s a place called the “Killing Fields.” It’s a compound where “prisoners” were taken to be executed during Pol Pot’s reign. Shovels, hoes, hammers and bamboo sticks were used to kill men, women and children from Cambodian cities. Now, with over 20,000 remains, this site is one of the largest mass graves in the world.
As we walked through the site, we listened to an audio tour detailing the history of the genocide and resulting civil war. We followed pathways through the graves and eerily stepped over human bones that were surfacing through the dirt. Nearly 40% of the Cambodian population was killed during Pol Pot’s reign. It’s a horrifying reality that the country is still recovering from.
Every Cambodian life was touched by the genocide and the twenty-year civil war that followed. Because of broken families and financial corruption one of the major issues in Cambodia, and especially Siem Reap, is the overpopulation of children.
And that’s why we’re here.
We’re volunteering with the Cambodian Children’s House of Peace or “Santeheap” in Khmer, which means “Peace.” It’s a non-governmental organization that provides a peaceful home and opportunities for children who wouldn’t have them otherwise. This morning we taught English and played with local children whose parents can’t afford to send them to school.
The children are so sweet and thankful to learn. But the most amazing part of this experience is seeing how God knows our strengths and sends us exactly where we’re needed. After meeting with the Director of the orphanage yesterday, it became clear that we he really needed was help with a fundraising strategy, website maintenance and financial planning. Things that Rachel, Katy and I are pretty good at!
Though we’re only here for a short time, it’s my hope is that we’ll have a lasting impact on the lives of these children. And by using our strengths, God can work through us to help this organization impact more children’s lives. I never expected Cambodia, but as I look at Srey Mom, laughing and singing, this is exactly where I want to be. We don’t speak much of the same language, but it doesn’t really matter. Besides, some things are just universal… like love, peace, and Taylor Swift.
If you’d like to learn more about the Cambodian Children’s House of Peace, or make a donation, please visit their website: http://www.santepheap.org or Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/santepheap.org/.
We sit at the table in our villa outside Seminyak Village and try to make plans for the next day. Are we going to the monkey forest or maybe just to a sea temple? We are also trying to decide if we should leave Bali for Singapore in 2 days or in 6 days.
I am ready to move on, so I vote for 2 days, and all three of us start researching that timeline. So we sit at the table and search for flights. Rachel is trying to figure out if we can just change the date on our existing flight, a large task itself trying to create an account online and then wait in line to chat with someone. After a series of dropped calls and websites timing out we decide to call it a night. We will attack this situation in the morning either before or after our sight seeing.
I wake up the next day and have a feeling in my stomach, I think it is just hunger pains because all I had for dinner last night was a PB&J…yes I made one in Bali. Sometimes you just want something simple. I shower, get dressed and even put on a little powder on my face. I walk out to the kitchen and make breakfast. Some hot tea, one piece of toast and scramble some eggs. We have a little deli, Bali Deli, just a short walk away that has allowed us to buy some comforts. But we do have to cross one of the busiest streets in the area while dodging cars and even worse, scooters.
Scooters are the main transportation on the island and it seems like there are no rules. They drive wherever the want, in between cars and even on the sidewalk. If they can squeeze through it they will drive there.
As I finish making my eggs I begin to realize that these are not hunger pains and I get that all too familiar feeling that I am not well, I think I am going to pass out. I leave my food right where it is and go to my bathroom. Luckily the villa we are staying at has three bedrooms each with their own bathroom attached.
I will not go into details but I quickly realize that I am down for the count. I see my reflection in the mirror and I am pale, worse than normal given that I have gotten a little tan if I do say so myself. My lips have no color and all I can do is make it to the bed still wearing my dress I had picked out for the day. I send a text to Natalie and Rachel letting them know that I am out for the day. Rachel comes in to check on me and says she is not feeling awesome either.
Well there go all my plans, and if you ask my family I am a planner when it comes to trips. I usually am the navigator sitting shotgun with my dad on road trips. Before GPS I had the big atlas ready and would help him pick the best route and look out for the next interstate to take.
As I have gotten older and technology has advanced I have become the family travel agent. I enjoy looking up fun things to do in cities we are visiting, picking the hotels and even restaurants with local flare to eat at. My siblings and I have made at least one trip together a year for the last several ranging from Charlotte, NC for a soccer game, Orlando, FL to run marathons at Disney World and to our biggest adventure, a trip to London and Ireland. Through all these adventures I have been the planner and things generally go well.
But today things are not going my way. I am in bed all day not getting much into my system accept some water and a little bread. The others decide everything was not working last night and the fact that I am in bed, maybe tomorrow is not the best day to leave. They book a villa in Ubud until our previously scheduled departure date. I have enjoyed Bali but I will be honest, I could take it or leave it. Bali is known for its abundance of surfing and yoga, and I do neither. And as I have mentioned before I have fair skin so l have a limited amount of time where I can layout by the pool or beach. But I want to enjoy this time I have here, who knows if I will ever have another chance to come back.
So as we are riding in the van on our 2-hour journey to Ubud I think about planning. I wonder if this part of the trip is to help me realize that sometimes things do not go as we plan. This could be said for so many different aspects of life. An event gets rained out; you don’t get a job you wanted or so many other examples. I myself had planned to be married with a couple of kids by my early thirties, but that hasn’t happened. I just have to remind myself that all things happen for a reason and we usually don’t get an outlined itinerary of what our life will be like. But I do know that I am able to be on this trip because of the life that I do have and because I don’t have certain obligations keeping me to one place. I know I am truly lucky. So, since I am in the land of yoga, I might as well take some classes.
I go to a beginner’s class and even to a salsa class. I love to dance and I felt like I was in a rehearsal studio on Dancing with the Stars. But minus me being a star and also a lack of male partners. But I am having fun and trying to let go. I have even had a ride on a scooter into town. It was scary at first but once I relaxed it was actually really enjoyable. But I don’t think that will be my main mode of transportation for the remainder of the trip.
At the pool today I was sitting with Natalie and I had a visitor, a dragonfly landed on my shoulder and stayed with me for a couple of minutes. I researched dragonflies and founds that they have a very short life span, so they don’t have a lot of time to waste. So a visit from one means that they have something very important to tell you. They represent the reminder to stay present in the moment and not to stress out. Also they could be a representation of the need for change in one’s life.
Well if that is not a summery of the last 2 months of my life I don’t know what is. Traveling has a way of making you focus on being present and enjoying all that surrounds you. I have an amazing opportunity to see and experience so many things. I just need to remind myself to not take things for granted and if my plan does not go exactly the way I thought, that is fine. There must be something else that I was meant to see or somewhere else I was meant to be. And I am okay with that. Besides staying a week longer in Bali allowed me to make a new friend, Sam.
I know a total of five words in Japanese: Good morning, hello, thank you, yes and no. And yet, I decide that getting my hair cut and colored in a country where I cannot communicate is a good idea.
It all started when Natalie and I went for a much, let me repeat, MUCH needed pedicure. After three months on the road, let’s just say our feet were “rough.” When we could no longer stand their dilapidated condition, we ventured out in search of a nail place.
We walked down the street perpendicular to our hostel in Tokyo, careful to cross at the crosswalk only when the indicator turned green. We’ve learned that abiding by rules and conformity is highly valued in this culture.
Besides not seeing a single person jaywalk in the week I’ve been here, I’ve discovered that the Japanese people don’t show their toes, wear shoes inside or use sunglasses. And they don’t talk loudly, demonstrate any type of aggression or eat and drink in public.
But they do like super advanced toilets that are smarter than some computers…
and they love their bakeries and sweets!
I can’t say I’ve abided by all of these societal norms, especially wearing sunglasses…
…But I’ve tried really hard…especially eating the donuts!
And I’ve really enjoyed learning more about this unique culture, like at the Sumo Food Festival we attended.
Whether it’s little ladies singing and dancing at the festival (check out the video below)…
Experimenting with new foods…
Visiting incredible palaces, temples and shrines…
Or simply experiencing the packed trains and streets…
I can honestly say I’ve never been to any place like this before!
And as luck would have it, in our search for a pedicure, Natalie and I stumbled upon an upscale hair and nail salon a few blocks from our hostel.
There we met, Uto and Kana, a lovely Japanese couple who own and manage the place.
They wowed us with their hospitality and impeccable service despite the difficult language barrier. And can I just say that my feet haven’t looked this good in a LONG time!
Feeling much more feminine with our freshly polished toes, Natalie made a bold leap of faith and decided to schedule a haircut for the next day. After three months without a trim, we both needed a cut, but truth be told, I was waiting to see how her hair turned out before I booked an appointment.
Some 24 hours later, Natalie returned to our hostel with a fabulous new do and it was settled, I was going to do the same.
The next night I went in and after Uto shaped up and finished straightening my hair, in broken English he looked at the top of my head and commented, “High here,” he said, pointing to the 2 inch section of slightly lighter hair growing from my roots. “Dark here,” he said, pointing to the hair a few inches below. “And high here again,” he said, pointing to the remainder of my hair.
I nodded my head and then he looked at me puzzled before asking, “Why?”
The long, back story is that I’ve been going to the same hair stylist, Diana, for the last 11 years. And as I’ve gotten older, this unwanted phenomenon called grey hair has happened upon me. It’s not too bad, mostly in a small patch around the crown of my head and a few stragglers here and there, but enough to be noticeable without treatment. So, for the last few years, I’ve had Diana simply “spot treat” these greys with a little bit of color.
When I left Virginia she sent me off with a small amount of professional hair color – enough for two applications that lasted me right up until January. But by the time I reached Columbia in March, I needed a major touch up. Afraid to try a random boxed color, I went to a salon and had some stylists apply color only on my roots to hide the grey.
The problem is that when they selected the color, they chose one that matched the end of my hair, not my roots, hence the lighter “ring” around the top of my head.
Uto pulls out a book with swatches of hair colors. “Here is 5,” he says, pointing to the color that matches my roots.
“Here is….uh….9,” he explains, holding the lighter swatch next to the ends of my hair.
With slow English and lots of hand signals, I try to explain about my last dye experience and I think he gets it.
“My hair is just a lot lighter at the ends because of the sun,” I say.
Uto looks at me blankly.
I point up the sky and make motions that are supposed to mimic sun rays coming down from heaven.
“The sun??” he asks incredulously. “No color?”
“Nope, just the sun.”
His mouth drops open. Apparently Japanese hair doesn’t react to sunlight in the same way, and the fact that mine has lightened four shades naturally because of it amazes him.
“Wow!” he exclaims, marveling closely at the strands.
I smile at his enthusiasm and imagine how he’d react if he saw my tan lines. While there are parts of me that are quite fair, thanks to olive skin, I can pick up color easily and the end of each summer the stark contrast makes it look like I’m wearing a white bikini.
“Can you fix it?” I ask tentatively, pointing to the lighter section around my roots.
He nods and we schedule another appointment the following day.
We decide to go with the level 5, darker color as this is what my stylist in Virginia always used. What I failed to remember is that she only applied it to a few strands here and there, not all of my roots, like Uto does.
After a shampoo, he and Kana tag team my hair with two blowdryers while I finish making a list of the top 10 things they need to do and see on their trip to New York City in December.
Once dry, I discover that the usually lightest hair around my face has really soaked up the color.
“You like?” he asks.
“Yes…” I lie before I add, “it’s…so much darker.”
Japanese people are incredibly polite and I don’t want to hurt his feelings. He smiles broadly, beaming with pride.
They polish my hair with the flat iron and by the time we leave, we’re snapping photos and exchanging hugs.
I love the cut and style, but it’s not till the next morning that I really start to have some regret over the color. I’m not used to seeing such dark hair framing my face and after going back and forth for an hour, I decide to return to see if they can add a few highlights in the front.
Uto and Kana are completely understanding and agree to squeeze me in. “I do very fast!” he assures me.
A short while later I’ve got some strategically placed foil and the guarantee that it’ll just be 10 minutes.
But Uto is busy and it’s not till 25 minutes later that he returns to check my hair.
I hear him gasp softly, refold the foil quickly so I can’t see and and immediately go over to mix something together.
This can’t be good, I think to myself.
He has me sit in the shampooing chair and after a wash I can feel and smell him putting something on the front of my hair…no doubt something to darken whatever color my highlights have turned.
Dear God, please don’t let me come out with streaked hair, I pray silently.
As I sit there waiting for the color to take I remember how in my 20’s I used to get highlights regularly and apply self-tanner to mimic what the sun was supposed to do to my body. But it was never quite right. It either didn’t look natural, left me orange or simply smelling funny.
Now in my 30’s I’ve decided to go “natural” (with the exception of hiding some grey hair). I allow the sun to do what only the sun can do – lighten the dark areas and darken the light ones. I like to think it makes me more beautiful, more balanced and healthier.
And then it dawns on me that the same could be said about the “Son.”
When I spend time with Jesus, I am changed for the better. The darkness in my heart is lightened. I become a more beautiful person on the inside and much more balanced and healthy in every sense.
That doesn’t mean that I’m always aware of what needs the light. Kinda like how my darkest hairs are the ones in the back of my head, underneath the surface, sometimes the darkest places in my heart are the ones that aren’t visible to me or others. But God knows they are there and if I give Him permission, he wants to lighten those too.
As it turns out, Uto is able to tone down the highlights to an acceptable level, but I’ve learned my lesson: quick fixes don’t work and nothing can substitute for natural sunlight.
The same can be said about my soul. There’s no special prayer or overnight solution to spiritual health and nothing has the same affect as “Son-light.” It’s only through consistent, intentional time with Jesus that I’ll become the person He created me to be – one who radiates the light of Christ in every single area of her life.
And that’s what I’m committed to and desire the most. After all, in the end, it doesn’t matter one bit what my hair looks like. It matters what my heart looks like.
“Ok, I think we switch trains in Nishikujo and then catch the line for Osaka-Shin, and then we catch the bullet train… I think.” Katy says cautiously.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned since arriving in Japan a few days ago, it’s that the train systems are a bit complicated. Especially when you don’t understand or speak ANY Japanese. Well that’s not true. We each know two words – Konnichiwa (Hello) and Arigato (Thank You). And you’d be surprised how far this can take you!
Today, we’re traveling from Osaka to Hiroshima. A trip that would take about five hours by car, but thanks to a combination of subways, streetcars and the infamous “bullet train” we should be there in about two and a half.
It looks like Katy’s directions are right-on, because somehow we manage to flawlessly make our first three transfers and soon we’re riding the bullet to Hiroshima.
“I’m really not sure what to expect.” I say to the girls as we pull into Hiroshima station. All I know about Hiroshima is that this was the site of the first atomic bombing in human history – an event that sparked the end of a war and the beginning of an international arms race.
A few minutes later, we exit the train and walk out of the station. Soon, we’re at our first tourist site, the “A-Dome.” The A-Dome used to be the cultural exhibition center of Hiroshima in the 1940’s. It had a bright blue-green dome and was one of the city’s main landmarks. But today, it’s the only building in Hiroshima that was preserved to look exactly like it did on the day of the bombing.
Today, Hiroshima is a bustling Japanese city, with crowded streets lined with storefronts and restaurants. So as I stare up at the melted iron of the A-Dome, I try to imagine the entire city in this state. And it’s nearly impossible. I can’t fathom how in the blink of an eye, the entire landscape of a city could be decimated. But it can, and it was.
We walk a little further through Peace Memorial Park and end up at the museum. We pay our 200 Yen (about $1.75) and enter the exhibition. The first room details the events of the bombing on August 6, 1945. Pictures showcase the ruined buildings and the people with melted and tattered clothing.
In the next room I see a melted lunchbox, and read the story on the plaque –
Shigeru Orimen was exposed to the bomb at his building demolition site 600 meters from the hypocenter. He was 13. When he failed to come home, his mother Shigeko went into the city to look for him. She walked all around the city. At dawn on the third day, she saw the body of a child curled in fetal position. Because the name “Orimen” was carved into the lunch box he was still clutching to his stomach, she knew the charred body was Shigeru. There was a hole in the lunchbox and the contents had been burned to coal.
The room is filled with similar stories and fragments of lives lost. A melted tricycle, water bottle, and pocket watch all show the grizzly reality of that day. It’s a somber place to visit, especially as an American, but I’m glad we came.
As I leave the exhibition, I see a notebook against the wall and a sign asking guests to write their impressions of the museum inside. I open the book and it falls to a page where someone has written “Are the Japanese still angry about the bombing?” And below there are several answers, but one catches my eye. It says, “No, we keep forgiving.”
When I read this, I’m struck by a thought – forgiveness is a process. Simple, yes, but I never thought of it that way before. Forgiveness isn’t a “one and done” phenomenon. It’s continual. I experienced that first-hand recently. Sometimes I think I’ve mastered this “forgiveness business” and then someone sends me an email or forgets my birthday and BAM – I’m right back where I started.
I used to beat myself up about this. I used to think that when things continued to bother me it meant that I wasn’t forgiving in the “right way.” But forgiveness is a process. It doesn’t make the hurt go away, and it doesn’t take life back to “normal,” but it lets you move on.
Hiroshima was never the same after that August day, but they chose to keep forgiving. The same is true of my heart. It’s not the same as it once was, but it’s a city ready to be rebuilt. And while it took many years and tears to get to this place, here I am – an American, standing in Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan. Still remembering the past, but finding peace in the present.
I turn to a blank page in the notebook, and think about what to write. That’s when I remember the Japanese Garden Wishing Tree I saw in Buenos Aires, Argentina three months ago. I pulled a wish from the tree and it said “Pax. Amor. Felicidad.” Peace. Love. Happiness.
So that’s what I write.
We leave the museum and walk by the eternal flame. It’s always burning in memory of the 140,000 lives lost from the bombing. Because that’s just it – forgiving isn’t forgetting. It’s moving forward. And if Hiroshima can do that, so can I.
As I fly through the air, I look up and see a blanket of clouds and it takes me back to being a child and my idea of heaven. I thought that when we die we would be up in the clouds enjoying eternity there with God and all of our loved ones.
But seeing this view also makes me think that this is a very small plane, and there are so many possibilities of what may happen during this 2 hour flight from Airlie Beach to Cairns. The day before we departed from a 2-day/2-night sailing trip and now somehow we are flying on a chartered plane.
We never know what each day has to offer and when our last might be. I am in a small 10-seat plane and it easily could have a malfunction or issue as we go through bits of turbulence.
We could have to make an emergency landing or heaven forbid crash. As all of these thoughts run through my head I realize that I want to make every day count, I want to thank God for all my blessings and not live a life in fear.
Hi. I’m Katy. And I joined this Great Enlivening about five weeks ago.
To give you a little background on myself I was born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama. I went to school in Mobile, AL, at a small Jesuit college and then returned to Montgomery and have lived and worked there for over 10 years. I have an amazing family and wonderful friends but I feel there has always been something missing.
I feel like I have lived most of my life in a state of fear, fear of someone not liking me, fear of taking a chance and making a big mistake or even the fear of ending up by myself with no one to share this life with. But as I have gotten older I realized that I have no guarantees in life about how long I will be here; I want to let go of all the fear and do the things I thought were not possible – like traveling the world.
I traveled overseas in the past but never for this extended time or without a plan. Don’t get me wrong, I have not abandoned all caution, there are some things that I know I have to maintain. For example, I am of Irish decent and have fair skin, which requires a good amount of shielding from the sun. I have tried to stay protected but when you are in the water on a sailboat there are not too many shady spots.
As you can guess I left our two-day adventure with a couple of red areas, but that is what aloe is for. We had an amazing time on the Broomstick, the fastest lady in The Whitsunday Islands.
While on the boat we had the opportunity to help sail the ship, go to one of the best beaches in the world, Whitehaven Beach, and snorkel.
But that was not enough for Rachel, Natalie and myself, we decided to take things up a notch and sign up for scuba diving. We were surrounded by the Great Barrier Reef and figured that if we’re here we might as well go for it – go big or go home, right? Then we realized that out of 25 people on the boat we were the only three that signed up.
So when the hour came to board the small inflated raft to take us to the dive boat it started to hit us. We received about 10 minutes worth of instructions, signed our lives away and were suited up with a rather heavy tank of oxygen and told to go overboard. With two practice maneuvers with our instructor, nicknamed “muscles” by our captain Rob, we were swimming out to our dive spot. That’s when fear creeps in, the idea we were about to dive down and not be able to quickly swim back to the surface if we freak out.
Panic sets in and I see Rachel and Natalie discussing the idea of not going 12 meters, lets just go down maybe half that distance. We tell our dive instructor that we are not comfortable with diving far and he agrees to our ideas. Now we just have to actually press the button to deflate our vests and sink into the water. I am not going to lie, I was scared and was not sure how I would react. It took about a good 5-10 minutes for me to relax and actually enjoy being down with the coral and fish. It was a brand new experience being so far from the water surface, I had to remind myself to breath normally, don’t take so many deep breaths and make sure I pop my ears so they don’t explode.
Those may seem like simple tasks, things we do everyday without even a thought, but for me in that instance it was so important and not easily accomplished. If you ask any of us I believe we would say that we enjoyed the experience and are happy we did it, but would we do it again? Not any time soon. But for me this is just one way I am escaping my old life and breaking out, trying to not let the fear rule my decisions and take advantage of all the opportunities God has given to me.
I resurface from my thoughts and once again clouds surround us, I know that all I can do is hope and trust in Charlotte, our pilot, that everything will be clear on the other side and we will emerge to a open blue sky.
Its just like life, we don’t know what tomorrow or the next year will hold but I believe that God has a plan and will see me through. In my life I always associate songs with certain time periods or even specific days. My theme song for this trip is Coldplay’s “Adventure of a Lifetime.” As I listen to it the words speak to me “Everything you want’s a dream away, under this pressure, under this weight we are diamonds taking shape.” I believe that there are so many people that live their lives with dreams that never become reality. I want to make the most of my life and I know that this is where I belong right now. Traveling the world with two amazing women, taking in all different cultures, seeing things I only dreamed of and knowing that I will never be the same.
How did this happen? It’s only been three days. I’m leaning against the lamppost and listening to a random street performer strum his guitar and sing lyrics that I swear are written for me.
“When the truth keeps searching for your heart…words that will never leave. Don’t say it unless you mean it…”
I close my eyes and though I’m in the middle of a crowded market, I feel as though I’m somehow floating ten feet in the air. There’s an unprecedented fullness in my heart that I didn’t know was possible. I breathe deeply as a contented smile pulls at the corners of my mouth. Goosebumps wash over my body in the most delightful way.
I know the three words this guy is singing about, and as crazy as it seems, I’m ready to say them. All the telltale signs are there. Rationality is out of the window. Nothing bothers me. I find myself laughing at things that usually annoy me and the mundane seems magical. I’m not really interested in food or sleep yet somehow I wake up each morning with supernatural energy and stamina for the day. It’s like being on a drug.
Yep. I’m in love….
With Sydney, Australia.
If someone asked me “why?” I would probably feel compelled to give a list of reasons:
1. It’s a runner’s dream with long jogs available through parks, botanical gardens and along the beautiful harbor
2. There are incredible beaches, like the one we visited in Bondi
3. Art museums here are free and feature stunning pieces
4. The Sydney Opera House and performances (we went to the symphony there) are exquisite
5. The food is delectable and you can pretty much have any ethnicity/type you want…including Irish tea and scones …YUM!
6. Every person I’ve encountered so far has been absolutely lovely, especially the cajun couple I met because he was wearing an LSU hat…GEAUX TIGERS! 🙂
7. Aussie men are hot. I mean, flat out HOT. (Remember Aussies Hugh Jackman and Liam Hemsworth?)
8. There are street markets, artists performing and always something to do or buy around the city…like my new lemon quartz ring!
10. There is an energy pulsing in this place that is absolutely invigorating
But the truth is that beyond all the tangible and logical reasons why I adore Sydney, there is just something “special” about this place that I can’t quite define but has completely intoxicated me. It’s something I’ve never felt before and certainly wasn’t expecting.
In fact, when we first arrived in Australia, I wasn’t interested in staying more than a week. Just enough time to see some highlights and move on. But 72 hours later, I don’t want to leave Sydney…at least anytime soon.
I open my eyes to make sure I can still see Natalie and Katy. They’re busy shopping for handmade cards at a booth nearby, so I allow myself to slip back in the moment.
“I’ve been guarded underneath this heavy load. And a doubter, a cynic and I’ve been cold. But now you’ve warmed me like a gentle rising sun…”
The truth of these lyrics bring unexpected tears to my eyes. I’ve been so afraid to open my heart. So scared of getting hurt again.
I’ve been jaded and questioned if being in love is even real…or possible for me. But here I am in love. And while I can’t marry a city, the way I feel about it gives me hope for the way I might one day feel about a man.
I close my eyes and imagine meeting that special someone. The unexpected attraction, the first time our eyes meet. How we’ll smile at each other. How being around him will make me a little nervous. How eager we’ll be to get to know each other. How it will feel when he holds my hand. Hugs me. Kisses me…
It all seems so effortless. So carefree. So exciting. Yes, I’m ready for this, I think.
It’s a week later and I’m enjoying my last full day in Sydney. It’s not the big clear blue sky I love, but despite the clouds I venture to the beach. The tide is fierce and though I am brave enough to get in the chilly water, I’m too nervous to go out too far. The waves are crashing with such force that they hurt and I have to work to keep myself standing. They’ve knocked me over a few times, nearly stolen my bikini bottoms and flooded my nose and mouth with salty water that burns in the back of my throat.
After returning to my room I decide to go for one last long run in Sydney. The usual path I take each morning is different at dusk. I can’t see the vivid flowers anymore, just dark outlines and a lot of shadows as I jog to the Opera House. I have to be careful not to trip and the extra vigilance makes the experience much more challenging.
When I arrive at the harbor I pause to admire the view at night and reflect on my love affair with Sydney.
I still think this is the most incredible place I’ve ever been, but I don’t feel giddy and intoxicated anymore. I’ve grown to appreciate this city not just for all the things I like and they way it makes me happy, but also for it’s not so stellar conditions, like packed trains on Sundays, the stormy weather, sometimes violent waves and dark nights that chill me to the bone. This too is Sydney. And this too is love.
When I think about my Mr. Wonderful (wherever and whoever he is), I imagine falling in love will be the same. At first I’ll be head over heels and captivated by everything amazing he has going for him. But eventually over time, I’ll come to know his flaws and shortcomings and he mine. The novelty of our relationship will wear off and that’s when I have to decide whether or not to transition from “being in love” to “loving.” The former is an emotion, a feeling. The later is a choice.
I’ve learned firsthand that the words “I love you” are easy to say, but they don’t mean much if they aren’t based on action. On sacrifice.
I know that this kind of real love will challenge me, require hard work, sometimes cost me more than I think I can give, but also give me more than I ever imagined.
As I write this, I’m looking out at the Sydney skyline and listening to the song that evoked such emotion in my heart at the market a week ago. “Don’t say it unless you mean it,” Mark Wilinson sings. He’s right. These words mean too much to be thrown out carelessly. To be written in a card or typed in a text message but never lived out.
I’ve heard “I love you” from a few men in my life but looking back I think maybe it was just “I’m in love with you.” That’s not a bad start, but in the end I want more. So, I’m going to make sure that I differentiate between the two. That the next time I think about saying those three words I really mean it. Because when I one day hear “I love you” from that special man, I want him to mean it too.
Once upon a time in 2013, Frida was born in a Nissan Factory in Japan. When she was only a young carling, she boarded a boat and went to a far away land called New Zealand.
When she arrived, she was adopted by a rental car company in Auckland. Frida was happy with her life, she liked meeting the tourists and business travelers and taking them to different places around the city.
But as the years went on, Frida started to feel a bit bored. She was tired of driving the same old roads to the same old places. She yearned for something new… something exciting.
Then one sunny day in 2016, three girls from the United States, Natalie, Katy and Rachel, arrived in Auckland. It was early in the morning, but the girls were laughing and dancing and seemed so excited to be in New Zealand!
But Frida was a little worried… because Americans have a hard time driving on the left side of the road, while sitting on the right side of the car. But after a few minor mistakes – turning on the windshield wipers instead of the blinker, and constantly going to the wrong “driver’s” side of the car – the girls got the hang of driving Frida. And Frida was hopeful that the adventure she longed for had finally arrived.
When they left Auckland, their first stop was a town called Rotorua. Here, they visited a beautiful lake with black swans and walked through a park with natural hot springs and geysers. In the park, they found out why the town is called ROTorua – because everything smells like rotting eggs. Ick.
From here, they journeyed to the city of Napier. Napier is an art-deco style town that sits on the East Coast of the North Island. The girls decided to go for a run along the beach with their new friends, Clem and Franck, before leaving for Wellington.
Of course, they did make a few pit stops along the way…
Then they arrived in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. Here they enjoyed beautiful views, museums, yoga on the beach and even a little karaoke!
When the time came to leave Wellington, the girls told Frida that they were all going to the South Island on a Ferry. Frida couldn’t believe it! She hadn’t been on a boat since she was a little carling coming to New Zealand for the first time.
Frida loved being on the boat, but was even more excited to see the South Island. She heard that it was the most beautiful place in all of New Zealand. So they drove from Picton to Nelson and started to see the amazing scenery.
After Nelson, they cut through a mountain pass and headed to Christchurch. Navigating the mountain pass was a little tricky, because Frida’s engine only has four cylinders! But what she lacks in power, she makes up for in style. And after struggling up a few hills, they made it to Christchurch. Here the girls ran into a friend named Rose, who they met in Wellington. What a small world!
The girls spent Easter in Christchurch, before heading to the West Coast.
Once they reached the West Coast, they all stayed in a little town called Greymouth for a few days. In Greymouth, they hiked the pancake rocks, zip-lined off a cliff, tubed down a river, and even spelunked a few caves!
After this, the girls were pretty tired and needed a little R&R. So they drove back across the island to go to the home of Natalie’s favorite wine – Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.
But sadly, after this, it was time to return to the North Island. When they arrived, the girls were feeling outdoorsy, so they decided to stop in Tongariro to hike “The Crossing.” At least, that was the plan… but the sky decided to pour and pour and forced the girls to head to Taupo early.
In Taupo, the girls hiked to the bluest water they’ve ever seen at a place called Huka Falls!
After Taupo, the girls set the GPS for Auckland, and that’s when Frida started to get sad. She knew that this trip was almost over, and that she would be back to her regular life soon. But on the way back, the girls started blasting Justin Beiber’s “Sorry” and car dancing like fools. They even started a “car dancing battle” with the car next door… that they won, of course.
So when she dropped the girls off at the airport, Frida expected feel really blue. But instead, she just smiled and honked when she drove away, thankful for the fun times they had together. Because in the end, Frida realized that it’s better to feel a little sad when the adventure is over, than to never embark on it in the first place.