rekindling my writing

It’s been almost three years since I’ve touched this blog. And even then it had been sporadic. My life has changed a lot. I’ve changed a lot. And now this blog is really for me. It’s been a round couple of years. Rough and amazing and exciting and wonderful. As change always is. At least for me.

I’m not going to try to capture it all in one post. That’s not what this is about anymore. But I do need to write. I miss writing. Not because I’m good at it. (I’m not.) I miss it because it helps me capture and process and reflect. And I’ve been pretty out of touch with myself for a while. Except for the hour I spend in my therapist’s office each week.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but what finally got me sitting here writing was a conversation I had with a guy the other night. We were talking about music and he played a Gregory Alan Isakov song for me called Too Far Away. He asked me what I thought it meant. Being one who likes to have the right answers, even thought I’m pretty sure that’s not what he was looking for, I told him I’d think about it. He joked that I should write him an email with my thoughts on it. And that’s what finally motivated me to sit down to my computer and write something completely unrelated to work or “getting shit done.” (Which is the only kind of writing I’ve done for years, really.)

Even though I wasn’t really planning to write him an email, I have listened to the song about 100 times since then and it’s helped me process some emotions. I think music is such an amazing gift, like any art form, except for me there’s something about music that just helps me feel and see things differently; that helps me get in touch with whatever is going on deep inside; the things I always want to keep deep inside, but need to be let out.

Here are the lyrics from the official website:

hey, how have you been
since you let in
the clouds through your window as it rained

the last time we spoke
you were glued to that telescope
i heard you say it was too far away
was it too far away

me, i’ve been fine
i work most of the time
digging for secrets deep in the ground

a few days ago
they called for that big snow
man, i thought that i would never get warm
did you ever get warm

all inside the rain
we carry what we’re able
among the sewer rats and angels
and all of us in between

before i go
i’ll leave you with this poem
about the galvanized moon and her rings in the rain

For me, this was a conversation between two versions of myself. That’s the short version anyway.

seoul round three

I know there are a number of people who question my love of Seoul, but I love it. Maybe because it was my first Asian city outside of Japan. Maybe it was because when I went for the first time it was magical. Maybe it’s just my love of Korean food. Whatever it was, I fell in love right away, so I was happy to go again when my dear friend, Oliver, told me he was going to be there for work. His wife very kindly gave him the “ok” to head out of the country a few days early so we could meet up and play tourists. And to make the trip even better, I got to stay at my friend Jaclyn’s house and visit with her. It was another amazing trip!

And here are my favorite things to do in Seoul. (These are just in chronological order from this trip.) One quick tip for all attractions: be sure to check what days places are open as there are a lots of things closed on Mondays and some on Sundays and Tuesdays.)

img_7948DMZ/JSA Tour – I did the DMZ tour on my first trip to Seoul and loved it, but I didn’t realize at the time that there was a difference between a tour of the DMZ and a tour of the
JSA. The JSA requires a bit more advance planning (the tours fill up fast) and it’s the only area where you can actually set foot on North Korean soil from South Korea. So, this time I made sure that I got to do a tour of both. It was amazing. And intense. And I highly, highly recommend it. I booked us through a company called Cosmojin and they were fantastic.

 

img_7991

img_7958

View into North Korea

img_7952

img_7946

That little curb between the two buildings is the border between South and North Korea. You can even see a North Korean soldier standing at the top of the steps in from of the large building in the background.  

 

Itaewon – this is a cool little neighborhood that reminds me of a tame Harajuku. Great restaurants and lots of people watching.

img_7995

img_7994

Spicy tofu at Jonny Dumpling. So delicious!

img_8036Nanta – This is a kind of musical / performance art / comedy show. I don’t know how else to describe it, but it’s super fun and equally ridiculous. This was the second time I’ve seen the show, but it was made even better that the first because Oliver got called up on stage and he was perfection. They said no photos, but of course I managed to sneak a few.

Myeong-dong – This is one of two central shopping districts in Seoul. I like this one because it’s not too huge and crazy AND has amazing food stands. Olive made a great partner in food adventures, which is needed you’re going to try everything you want to without wasting a ton of food.

img_8311

img_8117
img_8136

 

Changdeokgung Palace Secret Garden Tour – The palace itself is impressive, but it’s the Secret Garden that really makes this one worth visiting. It’s absolutely stunning. During peak times in the fall and spring it can be difficult to get tickets, so plan ahead. It’s one of my favorite palace/shrine/equivalents in all of Asia.

img_8157

I love doors, especially old ones in gates or walls. This one was so pretty. I wish my photo did it justice.

img_8059

img_8156

img_8066img_8079

The War Memorial of Korea – My friend Heather took me here the first time I went. It’s such an interesting place. And bonus, this time, there was this amazing Korean calligraphy temporary exhibit. There’s a beautiful exhibit of a teardrop made from dog tags that I absolutely love, as well. In addition to this, just around the corner from the museum is this amazing little hole-in-the-wall fish place. We weren’t able to make it because it was closed the day we went, but if you can go, do it!
img_8088
img_8158

Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Nation Folk Museum of Korea – These are basically connected so you can plan to do them both on the same day. This palace is massive. In addition to that, they do a kind of “changing of the guard” which is very fun to see. (I didn’t take any photos of the Museum because we didn’t go there this trip…no time…but you can see my photos from my first trip here.)

img_8167

img_8164

img_8171

How adorable are these munchkins?!

img_8161

Oliver: “I am walking where Psy walked.”

img_8165

 

Janet’s Cooking Studio – I’m sure there are several Korean cooking classes you could choose from, but Oliver and I both loved this experience. Janet is a native Korean who spent much of her life in the U.S. Her English is perfect, as is her knowledge of Korean culture and food. We started with a tour of a local Korean market (we were the only foreigners there) and it was absolutely delightful. We tried some new fruits neither of us had heard of before and then got to taste roasted seaweed fresh out of the roasting machine thing (I have no idea what it’s called). It was so very good! This was followed by cooking five Korean dishes in her darling studio. There were two things from the class that really stood out to me about Janet as an instructor. 1) She adapted the recipes slightly so that we would be able to make them in America. While some people wouldn’t love this, it was nice to know we could recreate these in our respective countries. 2) She was very mindful of our skills and abilities and adapted her teaching based on that. As I love to cook and do it quite a bit, she didn’t spend as much time talking about the basics and she let me flip my Korean pancake (pajeon) which was super fun!

img_8215

img_8295

img_8300

N. Seoul Tower – A total tourist trap, but well worth the views! I took no pictures this time as it was my third trip to the tower.

Insadong – This is another place we didn’t get to this trip, but it’s a great little tourist area where you can get all of your souvenir needs met with lots of yummy treats. There are also a number of great restaurants in there. You can see my pictures of this area here.

Finally, watch a Korean drama. Such an interesting experience. I can’t tell you where to do that because I did it in my friend’s home, but do it. You will not regret it.

img_8301

I think that’s it…for now. This is in no way comprehensive. Just my favorites.

the magical maldives

IMG_0117

Okay, so here goes. I’ve had a few people tell me they’d love a blog post detailing the information about my vacation with my niece to the Maldives, so I’m going to capture it here and try to make it as organized as possible. Also, I’ll include links to my reviews of the resorts eventually (haven’t gotten around to do them yet. I try to review most places on Trip Advisor.

Also, I’m going to qualify this post, though, with one major disclaimer: this was a once in a lifetime trip for me, so while I was not totally “money is no object” about the trip (I’m not made of money and I’m a terrible budgeter), I was also not traveling on the cheap either. And I’d almost say if you tend to be a very frugal traveler, the Maldives is probably not for you.

IMG_0704

Getting there: There are airlines that fly to the Maldives, but from the west coast of the U.S. (which is where I was coming from) I recommend Cathay Pacific (even though that means LAX and I LOATHE LAX). You will fly to Male (airport code MLE) and from there, you’ll have one more leg, either by speed boat or sea plane, depending on where you’re staying. Speedboat is the cheaper option by far, but a sea plane…is a sea plane and it was amazing to see the Maldives from the air. Your resort should arrange this last leg of transportation for you, but you’ll likely pay for it separately. Also, if you’ve got time and/or budget, I’d do a stop over in Hong Kong. You can get the highlights in a couple of days and take care of jet lag at the same time.

Choosing a resort: Most resorts are their own private islands, so you need to do your research and figure out what you want. For me, I had two main criteria. 1) I wanted an over-the-water villa (like I said, once in a lifetime) and 2) it needed to have a reputable dive center. This helped narrow things down quite a bit. Then it was a matter of reading reviews and budgeting. I actually booked three different hotels to hold the rooms while I did more research.* Ultimately, I chose the Sun Siyam Iru Fushi. It used to be a Hilton, apparently. And we did four days (three nights) which was perfect for us.

While this resort required transfer by sea plane (which, as stated is PRICEY), the room itself was significantly cheaper than any other water villa I found at the time AND the resort had an awesome dive center (they actually have a few locations throughout the Maldives. More on the dive center in a bit.

IMG_0048

A few other pointers:

1) Due to our arrival time (10pm) in Male, I booked us at the Maldiva Inn and arranged for an airport transfer. While I could have booked something closer to the airport, I’ve learned through lots of experience that a little distance from the airport generally gets you cleaner and safer rooms for about the same price. Worth the 15-20 minute drive. The airport transfer was $10 each way. While this was necessary due to arrival time in Male, it was super helpful budget wise. We saved a ton on that night and were at the resort around 8:30 am the next morning. We wore our bathing suits on the plane as we planning on not being able to get into our room until the regular check-in time. We were pleasantly surprised as our room was ready around 10:30 am.

2) Food is EXPENSIVE. I’ve talked to other friends who’ve been to the Maldives and read 100s of resort reviews…doesn’t matter where you go, it’s pricey. My advice is to do what we did: book your room with breakfast included. There are all inclusive options and if you really want to not worry about it and you’re going all out, this could be the right option for you. For us, we had breakfast included (and it was good!) and loaded up in the morning. Then we did protein shakes for lunch (yes, I packed protein shakes for every day and two shakers), so the only meal we were paying for separate from the room rate was dinner. And that was still expensive! Just be prepared. For two of us, with a few drinks (even without the alcohol, I’m a firm believe that island vacations necessitate fun beverages) throughout the day and dinner it was around $150-$200 day (we always did dessert…this was vacation after all)! I will say that while the food definitely wasn’t worthy of the pricing had we not been on a remote atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, it was quite very good.

IMG_0202

This lime creme brûlée was amazing!

3) Budget for your activities so there are no surprises. Nothing worse than arriving somewhere and not being prepared. My niece was doing the open water portion of her dive certification and I was accompanying her on all dives, so I priced all of that out so I knew what I’d be spending. I also knew we wouldn’t just want to lay on the beach or by the pool every second we weren’t diving. Our resort had a number of free activities, provided you had experience. I wanted to do paddle boarding (but neither of us had really done it before), so I budgeted for a 30 minute lesson and after that, it was free to use the equipment.

GOPR0368

IMG_0179

4) I unintentionally chose a resort that had an adults only pool. I’m not sure if the resort we chose was especially kid friendly (wasn’t looking for that info), but there were quite a few kids. I’m not opposed to children in theory, but I mostly only have patience for the ones I’m related to when I’m on vacation, so the adults only pool was unexpectedly awesome!

5) For diving (if you’re a diver), because I knew I’d be joining my niece on her open water certification dives, I really didn’t worry too much about specific dive sites. There are probably amazing places that I could have focus our trip around, but with the limitations of a new diver, I just decided to not even research it and assumed the diving would be good wherever we went. Ignorance is bliss and we saw amazing stuff, so I feel really good about that decision.

GOPR0359

GOPR0336

6) We had some extra time between our sea plane arrival back in Male and our flight from Male back to Hong Kong. Our butler (yes, we had a butler) was super helpful and arranged for a tour of Male which was actually really cool. The tour guide didn’t charge us anything, but we paid him $20 for about a 30 minute tour (it’s a small little downtown).

IMG_0078

*I use booking.com for almost all (like 99%) of my hotel booking. I know there are other websites out there (that may be better and or cheaper), but I love their app, I’m happy with the prices, and they have pretty true-to-point reviews. Plus, because I use them so much, I get an additional 10% off frequently and welcome drinks at most hotels. Small thing, but I love it. I also never use the non-refundable booking option. I’ve learned through experience that it’s worth it to me to pay a little more to know I’ve got some flexibility in case my plans change OR I find a different hotel that looks better.

 

saipan (google it)

turtle saipan

So, I turned 37 on Tuesday. And, as has been my tradition recently (two years makes it a tradition, right?) I took a trip. Last year was Burma/Myanmar with Brittany. This year was a little solo trip to Saipan (google it) to go scuba diving and enjoy some warm weather, the beach, and a little taste of America.

IMG_4842

It was a really good trip and the diving was amazing! My dive guide, Harry, was an American who’s been in Saipan almost 20 years. In addition to great diving, I got a lot of great stories about Saipan, it’s history in WWII, and the current state of politics in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. It was fascinating. And some of the best diving I’ve done. If you ever make it to Saipan, I highly recommend diving with his company. And you have to ask him the story behind the name of his company, because it’s pretty cool.

IMG_4886

It was also a much needed break from my crazy busy life and gave me some good time to reflect on the past year, as well as what I want for the year to come. There were a number of little personal epiphanies that took place. Some were a little painful…in the way muscles are sore after you work them hard. So, not a bad pain, but just a “wow, I haven’t worked those muscles in a while” type of pain.

IMG_4876If you’ve never taken a solo vacation, I highly recommend it. I know it sounds kind of scary to some of you. Or maybe you’re just thinking, “What’s the point?” And maybe there wouldn’t be a point for you, but I definitely need these times to just do a little personal inventorying.

And back to the part about it being Saipan. Because it’s an American commonwealth, I got to enjoy a little taste of America, including Diet Coke and Winchell’s. Happy birthday to me!

IMG_4850

And while the trip was over way too soon, I left feeling ready to take on this next year of my life with some good plans and goals to make some needed changes and to continue becoming the person I want to be…and more importantly, the person I think God wants me to be. And what a better reminder of how blessed I am than this little rainbow as seen from my plane when heading back to Japan.

IMG_4890

tokyo marathon 2014

Image

In February (yes, I know it’s April) I ran my second marathon. My friend Caroline came over from New York and we ran it together. If she hadn’t have been coming, I don’t think there’s any way on this earth I would have run. Prior to January, the only training I’d done was the half marathon I ran in Burma/Myanmar…for which I was also incredibly undertrained.

With five weeks to go before the race, I did the best I could to prepare…starting with a 16-miler. Go big or go home, right? My friends, Anne (with whom I’ll be running a marathon this summer in South Africa) and CoyLou joined me for some of my long runs, making them much more enjoyable. And somehow, even with the little training I’d done, I got to the marathon feeling like I was going to survive. And knowing that I’d finish before the cutoff (7 hours from the start time).

It’s an amazing thing to know that your body will be able to complete 26.2 miles, even when you’ve only trained for five weeks. I know I talked about this in my post about running in Burma, but every time I do a long race, I am in awe of what my body can do.

Image

While Caroline had come over to run the marathon with me, we weren’t exactly going to be running together. She’s much faster than I am (she’s a triathlon-ing nut) so we weren’t even starting in the same gates. I’ve never run in such a large race that there were gates, but with approximately 36,000 people running, gates there were. Seriously. 36,000!!!

Image

Caroline and I said goodbye to each other and headed off to our respective gates. The beauty of the Tokyo Marathon is that you have two out and back legs, so there was a chance I’d get to at least say hi to Caroline along the way.

This was the first race I was going to be running with my new toy: a Garmin Forerunner XT. I’d just started to do heart rate training and was excited to try this marathon with a focus not on pace, but on heart rate. Unfortunately, I never got my heart rate monitor working (I was so annoyed…the monitor left me both literally and figuratively chaffed!). Fortunately, I’d done enough HR training that I knew roughly the pace I should be running at the beginning.

I did a pretty good job (I thought) keeping my pacing down so I would burn out. As it turns out, though, while my heart was pretty content, my body was not so much by the end. But the happy news is I had my fastest half split I’ve had in over seven years. And my second fastest ever. I was pretty happy about that, even if the second half was pretty pathetic in terms of pacing.

It was an amazing experience. And what really helped me in those last miles was thinking about how lucky I was, as I saw many, many runners along the way at medical aid stations or stopped along the course nursing calves/shines/ankles/feet, just to be able to finish without having to stop and get medical attention.

The other major help was my darling friend Anne (pictured in the collage below)! When I ran the St. George Marathon almost seven years ago, I was doing it with another darling Anne. She was actually running with me, which was a huge boon! But on top of that, her awesome family had traveled down to St. George to cheer her and, by extension, me on.

If you’ve never run a distance race before, it’s hard to explain the support that comes from those cheering you on…the spectators in Tokyo were awesome, but having Anne there along the way made a HUGE difference! She trekked all over the course and I got to see her four times along the way. Every time was like receiving a little shot of energy! (Unfortunately, I busted my phone in Singapore a few weeks ago and in the transition to a new phone, I lost all of my pictures with Anne. Sad face. )

The last three miles were complete torture. While the marathon course in Tokyo is relatively flat for the most part, the last three miles consist of a series of bridges…bridges that are engineered for strength, and therefore are bowed…which means “hills” for a runner. To add insult to injury (or injury to insult, as it were), somewhere along the way I’d developed what I could tell was a ginormous blister on my right big toe in addition to a shooting pain at the base of my second toe due to the chip being too tightly attached. If I walked, I was okay. If I ran, every step hurt. So, there was a lot of walking.

IMG_1517The last miles of a marathon are also mentally challenging for me because I want so badly to be done that I do my best to force myself to go as fast as I can…but I just can’t go that fast. And it’s so difficult to not just give up. But, somehow I pushed through and the it was over. My goal was to finish under six hours (chip time), which is not fast at all…but was going to be a good finish for me given my lack of training and that I weighed about 20 lbs more than when I ran my last marathon. I came in at 5:58:20.

IMG_1513Of course, with a half split that would have put me in at around 5:30 had I maintained it, I was slightly disappointed, but then I remembered that I had set my goal based on reality and managed to feel pretty awesome about it when I thought, yet again, at how amazing it was that my body could do what it did.

Post marathon, I went through the finishers area and met up with Caroline for the most amazing foot soak ever (I wish every marathon had this!) and then met up with Anne, who was patiently waiting to congratulate me. Because of where the finish is, she wasn’t able to be at the finish line, but it was awesome that she had come all the way out to the end!

IMG_1515

Soaking my feet…this might be how my blister got infected and why I had to see a doctor for antibiotics, but at the time, it was worth it.

And that was that. Marathon #2 on continent #2 completed. And now I’ve begun training for marathon #3 on continent #3 which will happen on June 21st. Not sure what I was thinking signing up for two marathon’s in one year, but now the bug has bitten and the goal is to run a marathon on every continent, culminating in Antarctica in 2017! I’m both terrified and super excited!

IMG_1516

Elevator selfie with our medals after dinner and a movie.