“So, what now?”

Orlando, Florida, USA

One year and six days, seven countries, two jobs and one volunteer position later, I am home with my parents safe and sound in Bay Hill, Orlando, Florida. I made it home on Aug 16.

unnamed-1
Being showered with kisses by my dogs, Bella and Ginger, in my bedroom the evening I arrived
unnamed-5
Dinner with family & friends at the Bay Hill Country Club

“So, what now?” asked almost everyone I’ve seen since I’ve been home. I can’t be annoyed though because I know it’s only out of curiosity and is completely expected.

Short answer: I don’t know but I’m figuring it out.

People always want answers, don’t they? I can’t blame them. I’m one of them. I always want to know what my friends are thinking and where they’re headed next. But for some reason when it comes to ourselves, the question of “What’s next?” is intimidating and scary. We feel like we have to shoot an answer back right away that makes it sound like we have it all planned out. Well, after a year of pretty much “playing it by ear,” and having it work out to be the best year I have ever had, I am so much more comfortable saying “I don’t know.” I have ideas and long-term goals, yes, but when it comes to knowing what my next five years will bring, or heck, even my next five months, I don’t have an answer for you yet. But give me some time and I’ll get back to you on that.

Everyone is in awe of the travels. When you’re traveling, you are ten times more interesting. You have Instagram and Facebook pictures showcasing some of the most beautiful places in the world, you have stories to tell that people at home have only dreamed of, and your cultural knowledge and wisdom are increasing every day. Everybody has admiration for you. But when the adventure ends, what happens? Who are you? Where do you go? Or in other words, how do you manage to get your sh** together? I actually think post-travel is one of the most important and fascinating parts of the whole travel experience. It is a time you get to realize how you’ve changed, view everyday situations and societal habits from a new perspective, and think about what you learned and how you can apply them to life here on out. I imagine that the choices I make and the person I decide to be during this time could have more of an impact on my life than I possibly could’ve predicted. It’s the crossroads and it’s the opportunity to begin again in any direction I choose.

Coming back home, I felt I could do one of two things: go back to my old routines, habits and attitudes I had before I left, or use the lessons and thoughts that came with all my experiences throughout this past year and figure out a way to make myself better because of them. I am still working on it but I truly do believe I am better. I feel calmer, fuller and more appreciative of the simple things. I practice mediation, I think (more) before I speak, I eat better (except for when I’m devouring the foods I’ve missed), I exercise every day, I wake up early and I make time to write reflections like this. I still have plenty to work on and get anxious now and then when I think about the life I want to live and how I’m going to get there but who doesn’t? Above all, I am happy with who I am, what I have and where I’m headed. I feel so elated about the greatness and opportunity in the world and feel I’ve learned the discipline to celebrate it and contribute to it. I think that makes me somewhat successful… or at least it’s a good start.

Since I’ve been back, I’ve spent most days with my Mom and Dad around the house making up for lost time and enjoying each other’s company. But we’ve also managed to get out a bit by meeting up with family friends and taking a short 2-night trip down to our beach condo in Pine Island. I’ve gotten to reunite with my brother and sister-in-law and celebrate all the incredible things happening in their lives. Not only are they expecting a baby in February but my brother has a new job that seems to make him really happy. I’ve gotten to shower my dog Ginger and the new one, Bella, with love. I’ve gotten to reconnect with old friends, from college and from childhood, who are all learning to be adults and starting out their careers. I’ve talked on the phone with family friends and extended family who are all celebrating big life events as well such as sending my cousins to college. And I’ve even had a FaceTime convo with a girl from UF who is just about to begin her own journey to Australia. Through it all, I’ve gotten to share more and more stories about my travels and have gotten to think more and more about where I may be headed.

unnamed-2
Giving my brother and sister-in-law the Thai dress I bought for their soon-to-be little girl

I felt a bit overwhelmed at the beginning of my arrival to Orlando but with every day, I have learned to adjust and find comfort with where I am now. I recently accepted a temporary assignment with Heart of Florida United Way to keep me busy for the next month and am setting myself up here for the time being. It’s not the pristine beaches of the Sunshine Coast or the green mountains of Northern Thailand but it’s home, or as like to think of it, the gateway to the next life adventure. Thanks to my incredibly supportive parents and friends, I can feel at ease during this major transition in my life. More wild ideas are brewing but I’ll save those for another time.

To all those I haven’t gotten to catch up with yet, I am so looking forward to it. I may not be able to give you much about where I’m headed quite yet but ask me where I’ve been and I won’t stop talking.

– Annaleigh

 

 

 

 

Tokyo to USA

Since leaving Thailand, I have been experiencing the thrills and challenges that come with a long journey home. James and I spent our last hours in Phrao and Chiang Mai sharing meals with the friends we’ve made and worked with. The weight of the always bittersweet goodbyes were strong for me but I knew, after over a year of traveling, it was time to go home. We had a few last meals and drinks, and bought a few last souvenirs in Chiang Mai during our last night in Thailand before we flew out to Tokyo on Aug 11.

 Lucky for James and I, we were able to take advantage of my aunt’s retired employment status from American Airlines and decided to fly non-rev (no reservation) back home from one of the airline’s bases in Tokyo. Flying as a non-rev means no guaranteed seat but a huge discount in airline fare. If you know us, you know we wouldn’t dare fly through such a fascinating city and country without stopping to explore. So we booked a couple nights at a hostel ahead a time and got excited for our last hurrah before the USA.

 Everything about Tokyo was interesting and impressive to me. Contrary to what I assumed, it’s not overwhelmingly hectic but rather extremely clean and organized because of the influence of Japanese culture. Of course there’s busy areas with Times Square-esque lights and chain restaurants like in any big city but the amount of cultural restaurants, decorative shrines and healthy everyday habits we noticed gave it a very pleasurable vibe.

 Some of the places we visited and enjoyed included Ueno Park and the famous shrines around the area, Shibuya, Ginza and the Imperial Palace, Ueno City, Tsukiji Fish Market and an area called Asakusa just behind our hostel. Tokyo consisted of an endless amount of neighborhoods, each with their own flare of Japanese culture. The ones we visited were exciting, busy but somehow organized, and beautiful. After visiting so many Buddhist temples in SE Asia, it was interesting to change it up with Japanese architecture. We ate fresh sushi each day, including once at Tsukiji Fish Market, and also tried Ramen, Udon and Japanese BBQ dishes.

Ueno Park, Tokyo, Japan
Ueno Park
Imperial Palace, Tokyo, Japan
The Imperial Palace
Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan
Tsukiji Fish Market
Asakusa, Japan, Sensō-ji Temple
Sensō-ji Temple in Asakusa

The highlight of the weekend was when we hit up the bustling nightlife of Shibuya. We bar-hopped for a bit, stopping in a little underground bar that played music with vinyl records and then the smallest bar I’ve ever been to located in an alley locals call “Drunkards Alley,” before ending up in a bar called Start Bar in search for sake. We didn’t find sake but at Start Bar we discovered a group of drunk Japanese friends and an Aussie who offered us free drinks. We took them up on the offer and hung out for a while, but then ended up paying for our drinks anyway. Turns out the guy offering didn’t exactly run the free drinks offer by the bartender…

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo, Japan
Shibuya Crossing
Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan
Shibuya

 The evening all led up to the main reason we came to Shibuya, which was for a DJ set James and I bought tickets to. The set was at a club called Vent and it was one of the classiest venues I’ve ever been to. There were two different rooms, one with house music and one with popular music. We switched between the two throughout the night and made a few Japanese friends while we were at it. Because it’s Tokyo and nobody sleeps on Saturday nights apparently, we didn’t make it back to our hostel until 7am. Guess that means we did Tokyo right?

 Preparing to fly out of Tokyo was hard for me. It meant the end of the most incredible and eye-opening year of my life, and no more avoiding the craziness of American life. I did what I had to do though and held my head up and set out toward the USA with a positive mindset. I thought about all the family and friends I was soon to return to and all the possibilities ahead of me. I told myself it didn’t have to be the end. It was just the beginning. James and I ended up with premium seats on the flight from Tokyo to LAX too which definitely helped the matter. We soaked up every bit of the luxury.

 Arriving to LAX was another emotional experience. Not only was it the first time James and I stepped back on to American soil for over year but it also meant it was time to not only time to say goodbye to the adventure, but also to each other. After a hard goodbye, James headed home for St. Louis where his parents would be anxiously awaiting him and I hopped in a cab and headed into downtown Los Angeles to stay with my good friend Alexia for a couple nights. I was exhausted but excited to see an American friend again after so long, and see a little bit of LA while I was all the way out there.

 Alexia couldn’t take off work but we had dinner together both nights and got to catch up on current life and reminisce about the college times. She helped me satisfy my cravings by taking me to an authentic Mexican restaurant one night and then In-N-Out the next so I could devour a big, greasy American cheeseburger. I spent Tuesday lying in the sand at Venice Beach and walking to and around Santa Monica. It was a gorgeous day and a wonderful way to come back to America. It’s so great to have friends all over the U.S. who all have their own cities and lifestyles to talk about. It keeps life interesting and of course I love visiting.

El Coyote, Mexican, Los Angeles
El Coyote – where I had my first American meal
Venice Beach, California, USA
Venice Beach

Then came the day to return home to Orlando. It’s a day I’ve thought about a lot through my travels, wondering what it’d be like and when it would happen. I can’t say it came too soon as I’m very aware a year is plenty long but I will say it came abruptly. One week I’m living in a village in rural Thailand and the next I’m back in the bedroom in my hometown, where all the planning began. It will be an adjustment going home to the familiar and stagnant but after all I’ve experienced this year, there’s still nothing more important to me than my family and lifelong friends so if that’s where they are, well then that’s where I’ll go.

For now, I’m looking forward to reunions, creating a new lifestyle in Orlando and figuring out where this crazy life will take me next. Here goes nothing.

 – Annaleigh

Last Days in Thailand

Phrao District, Chiang Mai, Thailand 

Those feelings of nostalgia, sadness and excitement are all setting in as I finish my last week as a Warm Heart volunteer in Phrao, Thailand. When I first set out to be a public relations and fundraising volunteer for WH, I remember thinking it would be a good transition from working random jobs in Australia to getting back into the PR scene in the U.S., while having the chance to serve others and discover a completely new, culturally different place. I was right. But it has meant so much more to me than that.

It really is true that the people you meet ends up being one of the most impactful parts of traveling. The other western volunteers and staff I got to know of course added an enormous amount of fun, comfort and knowledge to my experience but it was the locals who I am most devastated to say goodbye to. They are the ones who will feel worlds away from me when I’m back in America and the ones who also broadened my mind and challenged me the most. Even without being able to have a fluent conversation, I formed bonds with the Thai staff and children at WH as well as the people around Phrao. After two and a half months, James and I find ourselves at a point where we run into many familiar faces at public gatherings and greet our Thai friends with hugs and smiles, just as I would with an old friend at home. Some have sold us coffee enough times that we became friends, some are neighbors in Pradu village and others have driven us through the mountains in their 4x4s. There’s not a lot of conversation we can make with any of them but enough that we have an understanding we enjoy seeing each other and learning from each other.

On Saturday morning, nearly everyone in Phrao District gathered in an open lot in town to listen to government officials from Bangkok speak during a kick-off for a day of planting trees in celebration of the Queen’s birthday coming up. That was when I realized how many friendships and local people we had spent time with during our time here and I was so proud to realize that. It’s a great feeling to feel so part of and welcome in a place that was once so completely foreign. There were famers, village people, business owners, government officials and even hill-tribes present at the gathering. Even Thai people, especially those from Bangkok, were taking pictures with the hill-tribe people since it is not often they come down from the mountain and away from their own cultures and languages. I found it fascinating how drastically different they seemed from the average Thai citizen, although they live only a couple hours away.

hill-tribes, Northern Thailand, Phrao
PJ, the mother of one of the WH children from a hill-tribe, and I posing at the Queen’s birthday gathering in Phrao

After the speakers, we headed up Doi Mon Lan (the mountain James and I got flat tires on previously) with our buddy PJ, one of the Thai staff at WH who has brought us on our best adventures here. People from Phrao were planting along the road up to this mountain and at the peak since the Queen had a summer home at the top. It was a cloudy day so the closer up we got, the harder it was to see below but it was really enjoyable being up in the mountains and feeling the cool air for a change anyway. When we reached the top, there was a crowd of people from Phrao hanging out and enjoying the day together. It was so fun to see how this whole town of people drove up a mountain together to celebrate a special occasion.

IMG_5714

Doi Mon Lan, Phrao, Queen's birthday, Northern Thailand
Pon, our Pradu neighbor, hill-tribe girls and I at the Mon Lan peak

The next day we got back out there and continued exploring the region we’ve gotten to know so well. Just when I didn’t think there’d be anything else for us to see in Phrao, we ended up having an adventurous day with a few new sights under our belts. While riding north of Phrao toward the mountains, we saw a sign for a resort owned by a Phrao woman we had met and promised a visit to. She was ecstatic to see us drive up on our motorbikes and immediately brought us out fresh juice and fruits she had grown in her garden. Khoom Kam Kaew Farm & Resort is a lovely place, situated right between the mountains of Si Lanna National Park in a beautiful and peaceful area. The owner has her own farm animals and garden, where she grows completely organic ingredients. We enjoyed a nice lunch with her chatting about Phrao and learning about her garden. She told us about a temple up the hill so we ventured that way as soon as we were done. What we found seemed to be a pretty over-run temple but a monk caught us roaming around and pointed us down a path in the direction of a beautiful viewpoint over Phrao farm land.

motorbiking, Northern Thailand, Phrao
Motorbiking around Phrao
Khoom Kam Kaew Farm & Resort, Phrao, Northern Thailand
The organic garden at Khoom Kam Kaew Farm & Resort
Phrao, Northern Thailand, temples
The temple up the hill from Khoom Kam Kaew Farm & Resort

Our last stop of the day was the Mae Kon Dam. We weren’t looking for it but a man we passed pointed us in the direction of it when he saw us riding around. It was really beautiful and such a contrast to the scenery we normally see in Thailand. Staring at the view, I felt like I was somewhere in the middle U.S. with rolling hills and lakes. Then some buffalo appeared and made the scene even more picturesque than it already was. We explored the area for a while before we started another lovely ride back to Pradu village.

Mae Kon Dam, Phrao District
Mae Kon Dam

I feel so fortunate to have had the unique and cultural experiences I’ve had here in Phrao. With hardly any other foreigners and a truly beautiful landscape, Phrao and Warm Heart provided a completely raw and authentic Northern Thailand experience for James and I. Not to mention, the kindness and the eagerness of the people to show us around made it surprisingly easy to discover new things and keep busy in such a rural, quiet place. I hope as I make the journey home, I can keep the calmness of this place inside me and remember often the lessons I learned and people who made it so special. I hope I was at least half as beneficial to the Thai villagers and children as they were to me. Thank you, Thailand.

– Annaleigh

 

 

 

Northern Thailand’s Favorite Munchies

Phrao District, Chiang Mai, Thailand 

During my time living in Thailand, I have discovered a whole new array of snacks. One of my favorite activities is walking into 7-Eleven (yes, there’s tons of them here) and picking out a new Thai/Asian snack to try. Some I love, others I vow to never buy again. Below is a list of some of the best and weirdest I have had.

1. Potato Snacks

There’s a large variety of these snacks that come in potato chip bags that are made from potato but aren’t chips. Many have interesting flavors like squid or lobster- very different than your sour cream & onion or BBQ flavors. I actually really enjoy these though and they are always super cheap.

IMG_5181

potato snacks, Thailand, Thai food, Thai market
An array of potato snacks at the Phrao market

2. Kanom Krok (coconut rice pancakes)

A friend bought these once from the village market because she thought they were made with egg. Because they are fried, round and white in the middle, they do resemble a tiny fried egg type of food. However, after one bite you realize the texture is much mushier and squishier than you would expect egg to be. Plus, there is not much flavor but whatever flavor there is, it is definitely not egg. To be honest, I didn’t even know these little treats were made with coconut until I researched what they were. Because of their squishy texture and minimal flavor, I wasn’t a fan but apparently a lot of other people are.

khanom-krok-2-11
Photo: rachelcooksthai.com

3. Mangoes

Mangoes are definitely a Thailand staple. There’s mango flavored everything and plenty of ways to serve it. The most famous and delicious in my opinion is Mango Sticky Rice. Sticky rice is a common food here used for savory meals as well but in this case it is used as a base for mangoes and coconut milk. The combo of sticky rice saturated with coconut milk with mango on the side makes for the perfect dessert.

Mango shakes are another popular item that you can easily find on a street corner or at a street market. It’s just ice and mango (and sometimes sweetener or condensed milk) but the large availability of them here makes them unique to Thailand.

Mango-Sticky-Rice-Wide
Mango Sticky Rice – Photo: angsarap.net

4. Banana Chips

Banana chips are nothing new to much of the world but since being here, I have eaten loads simply because they are sold everywhere and are so fresh. Even in the most rural areas, you can find perfectly crisp and sweet banana chips sold by a market vendor. Why? Probably because you can buy a large bundle of bananas for what’s equivalent to about 70 cents in USD.

banana chips, northern Thailand, Thai food
Banana Chips
bananas, northern Thailand, baht, fruit, Thai food
Bananas at Phrao market

5. Meat Sticks

Along any main road, at the markets and even in the most remote places, you can find a vendor selling cylinders or balls of meat on sticks. It could be pork, chicken, liver, fish, or some kind of animal fat or skin. I don’t know what the ball shape is for except that they may think it looks cool? It’s a weird concept and the meat tastes a bit different but they’re not that bad. You just have to be careful you know what you’re getting. I’ve had them a few times. Sometimes it was fine, like when it was pork for example, but the times I walked away having eaten chicken skin or liver, I was pretty disgusted.

pork, meat sticks, northern Thailand, Thai food, Thai market
Pork sticks

IMG_5222

6. Wafers

Wafers are a frequented snack here. You can find a large variety at 7-Eleven or any local snack shop you go to. There are many sizes, flavors, and coatings, which often gives me a hard time deciding which to choose. One of my favorite ones I’ve tried is the coconut wafers. They are light and simple but have just enough flavor to be delicious. The most common ones are probably chocolate with different coatings. Some have caramel, some have nuts and others just have an outside coating of chocolate.

Phrao, Thailand, wafers, Thai food, Asian snacks
Wafers being sold at Phrao market

7. Fried Foods

People think Americans like fried food but I had never seen so many fried food options until I came here. Walking down the street or through a market, fried banana is probably the most common, aside from the obvious fried chicken. I’ve also seen fried sweet potato, fried meat of every sort, fried dough and just about anything else locals can get their hands on to fry.

fried dough, Thai market, Thai food
Fried dough at Phrao market
fried bananas, Thailand, Thailand market
Fried bananas at Phrao market

8. Mini Cookies

Every market or convenience store I go to, there is an enormous variety of packages of tiny little cookies being sold. Some are simple like chocolate chip, some are knock offs of Oreos and others are original Asian cookies, like the ones below with the name brand “Dewberry” that are Thai-size and have some kind of fruit involved. I’ve tried a bunch of them since they are always so cheap and fun to try. The Dewberry ones have been my favorite from the beginning though. It’s rare that I leave a 7-Eleven without them.

Thailand market, cookies, Thai food
Mini cookies at Pradu village market

IMG_5733

9. Egg

Egg is made frequently and in every shape and form here. Many meals incorporate egg somehow and if they don’t, have no fear because you can always order a fried egg with it for something like 5 baht. You can find a lot of market vendors who sell fried egg with different ingredients mixed in as well.  For example, I once bought some little fried balls that were made of egg and crab once. I added the delicious sauce that came with them on top and those are still one of my favorite market foods I’ve tried.

Thailand-street-food-quail-eggs
Photo: downshiftology.com

10. Banana Leaves 

Anywhere there is food, there is food wrapped up in banana leaves. One of the most popular in northern Thailand is Khao Tom Mud, a snack wrapped in banana leaves with sticky rice, beans and banana inside. I’ve tried a few different foods wrapped in banana leaves and they have all been interesting but not my favorite. None of them have had much flavor to me. It’s like they leave all the flavor and excitement of the snack to the wrapping. It’s also a mystery of what’s inside because if you can’t communicate well with the vendor, you’re in for a surprise.

IMG_5188IMG_5210