Why doesn’t anyone believe me? I am Vietnamese.

Why doesn’t anyone believe me? I am Vietnamese.

I grew up as an only child in a Vietnamese household surrounded by a 1980’s American southern town. Learning to speak English when I was at school while learning to speak Vietnamese at home posed plenty of innate challenges like getting an ‘r’ to not sound like a ‘wah’ and an ‘l’ to not sound like a ‘wah’….well, come to think about it, I spent a lot of time trying to not have many things sound like ‘wah.’ To top this off, I was not the stereotypical Asian kid…silky black hair, thin and almond eyes…I was the super-sized version with frizzy hair and wide eyes so I was often asked, “What are you?” As political correctness became more popular, it evolved to, “Where are you from?”

I was constantly asked this. And still am.

After my sarcastic responses that ranged from Conyers (the suburban city on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia where I grew up) to Yemen wore out, I now say Vietnamese with a sigh because I know the response every time will inevitably be, “Really? I would have never guessed.” And 99% of the time, I’m asked this by another Asian (literally, it’s the first thing they say to me after hello) so once I disclose my heritage, I get to hear how they are amazed that I’m Vietnamese because they themselves are Vietnamese and I look like no one in their family and surely I don’t look like anyone else in my family so there must be ‘something else’ in me.  It’s oh so fun.

When I booked my trip to Thailand as my first country in Asia to visit, I mentally prepared myself for this question to be asked of me throughout the entire trip. And since I tend to face my fears or annoyances in full force, I decided to include Vietnam as part of the trip to see if I could get to the root of all this confusion about me. And even more so, I wanted to understand what the fascination was behind always wanting to know which Asiatic country an Asian was from. Maybe it’s to gain a sense of community? That’s my best guess and maybe that’s why it’s never occurred to me to ask the same question because I have never felt like I was part of that community. Well, this is going into a completely separate subject so I digress…

Thailand surprised me. Not once in the week and half that I was there, was I asked where I was from. I even tried to coerce the question out of a few people I talked to by asking how long they lived in Bangkok, whether they enjoyed it etc to pry the question out of them. At first I thought maybe they weren’t interested in knowing more about me, but they would ask a barrage of other questions about my travels and history but not once was I asked where I was from.  In Phuket, I went to a local restaurant and even tried a “well, this is definitely not what I grew up with” to see if I would be asked but again, no questions about my heritage.

Ceremony in Hanoi

In Vietnam, I had the same experience. Time after time, I would talk to a local and not once was I asked that inescapable question. But what I did learn to do was to take full advantage of this, specifically when shopping. Bargaining is widely accepted when looking to purchase something so I would inquire about the price in English and ask any questions in English…and if it was something that I wanted, I would start bargaining in Vietnamese. Jaws dropped every single time I did this and I started my own little competition to see how far I could get someone’s jaw to drop.  The winner was when I saw tonsils.

And this is when I realized the answer to my question: Not one person that I encountered in Vietnam realized I was Vietnamese.

This sums up the range of reactions I would receive when telling someone I am Vietnamese.

After I started speaking in Vietnamese, a few people would then ask me where I was from and again, it was followed by disbelief…and sometimes what I perceived as amazement…but every reaction solidified my acknowledgement that I did not carry whatever traits signify my heritage. I did talk to a few locals in length and learned that they had assumed I was a Westerner and well, a Westerner is a Westerner. It didn’t matter if I was from London or Detroit. They also talked to me about how in Vietnamese culture, it is very important to have a sense of community because in many areas, the community is just like extended family. I suspect this is the same for other Asian countries and it answered my question as to why I’m asked this so much when in America. Maybe they simply wanted to see if I was part of their community.

I thought this experience would bring some sort of enlightenment to my past and why I do certain things that I do…maybe feeling like an outsider all these years is why I want to experience the world to see if there is a place that I would ‘fit in’…maybe this is why there’s some reason I’m never physically attracted to another Asian…maybe this is why I love Asian food because it’s the only thing I can relate to…maybe this is all psychobabble that a therapist would say to me. Because I didn’t have any of these feelings. On the contrary, this experience gave me the most overwhelming sense of fulfillment. I was still an unknown in my own home country and I realized I was absolutely okay with that. I kinda felt like an undercover agent walking around the streets of Hanoi, knowing no one suspected I could understand what they were saying…and I like the fact that I’m a mystery to anyone who tries to guess my heritage because only I (and well, my family) know the real answer. So next time I go get my nails done, at the same salon I’ve been to for the past 5 years, and am asked yet again, “where are you from?” I will say, I am Vietnamese. And you?

Are you a Traveler or a Tourist?

Are you a Traveler or a Tourist?

I once visited Rio de Janeiro with a friend who woke up one morning determined to eat breakfast at Dunkin Donuts.  Dunkin Donuts…really? The first rule I made for myself from the very first day I traveled was to never eat at a U.S. chain restaurant and this included domestic destinations as well. Even if I was stuck in the Sahara desert and had nothing but a McDonald’s to quench my thirst…I would move on like Moses until I found a local watering hole. I travel to experience something different and for me, eating at places that I can have just as easily at home defeats the whole purpose.

After this incident, I started paying more attention to other foreigners wherever I traveled…and became amazed at how many times I would see Americans gathered in a Hooters in Singapore when there was amazing street food and a local bar right next door…or spending hours inside an environmental museum in Iceland but with no plans to visit just one glacier or volcano there….or watching a group walk up to the most gorgeous cliff in Peru, take selfies and then walk away without spending just one second enjoying the view…I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

So I began to ask around…why would you spend time and money to go somewhere and not want to experience everything it has to offer?

Here are some of the responses I received:

“When I go on vacation, I want the comforts of home and food that I’m used to.”

“It’s just easier to find a familiar restaurant because I don’t have to worry about language issues and ordering something I didn’t mean to order.”

“My ideal holiday is to take what I like at home and plop it into a different scenery.”

“I feel safer being surrounded by Americans so prefer to stay in American places.”

“I just wanted to get a good photo for my Instagram feed.”

This sums up the mentality of the perfect tourist. And in my mind, I imagine the perfect tourist wearing a Northface jacket or clearly branded clothing while clutching their guidebook (most likely in their phones these days) in one hand and a digital SLR camera in the other hand… they will respect the local culture and customs but don’t have a desire to partake in it or learn about it….at a restaurant, they are looking down at their phones more than talking to each other or new company…and in landmark destinations, they are exploring it with their Viator tour group and not daring to veer off the beaten path.

This is what I imagine because this is what I’ve been.

puerto vallarta
on the beach in puerto vallarta, mexico

I’ve been this perfect tourist and don’t think there is anything wrong with it and at least it’s helping the local economy. One example of a perfect tourist trip for me was when I went to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico where all I wanted to do was to get away from the stresses of my life at the time and not think about anything. I had to search for a Spanish speaker and swear I saw more Americans than locals. I sat my happy ass on a beach chair every single day and ate whatever the hotel served (still no US restaurants though). I didn’t go visit any local neighborhoods or explore anything outside of our little bubble. I did nothing but relax and it was marvelous. Every once in a while, all I want to do is go decompress and being a tourist is the best way to do this.

But this is not why I travel.

I travel to get out of my comfort zone, experience what is local or native to that area and learn what drives that community and people. 9 out of 10 trips is for this very reason…to open my mind, be immersed in a different culture, volunteer with a group, explore the less-traveled areas…some of my favorite days have been when I’ve gotten myself lost on purpose just to see what was around the bend. I don’t often feel homesick when traveling because the foreign country becomes my home…Duolingo takes a backseat because some of my best language lessons have been during a drunken bar conversation….and I’ve noticed that I don’t spend as much time reading traveling books anymore because I’m focused on creating my own story.  And I never imagined myself being like this…but something happened when I took my first solo trip that brought out this side of me and it’s become my passion. And I’m so thankful it did. But I also know there is still that tourist traveler in me…and maybe I’m writing this as my soliloquy to justify its existence but I’m not ashamed. Nope, not ashamed at all.

So are you a traveler or a tourist? Perhaps you’re like me and you’re a traveler that occasionally moonlights as a tourist. Does it matter? Nah, there’s no wrong way to explore this planet but for me, it’s been useful to realize the difference and just embrace it.  At least that’s what I’m going to keep telling myself.

24 Hours in Tokyo

When you have the option of an 8 hour layover or 24 hours to experience an amazing city…the decision is easy, right? Well, it was an easy decision for me so I took the opportunity to spend 24 hours in Tokyo. But how does a girl make the most of this limited time?

The first thing I did was Google the “must-see” things in Tokyo. Not surprisingly, the list was extensive… museums, parks, restaurants, gardens, shrines, castles, monuments, neighborhoods…in one of the world’s busiest and trendiest cities, it was just too much. And there were plenty of top 10 lists of things to do or see in Tokyo but time was of the essence. I knew it would be a while before a made a trip back, so what did I really want to experience? Food and culture. After a fair amount of research and mapping, I determined the key areas I wanted to see, what was reasonable to get to without spending a lot of time commuting and the foods I wanted to try. Narrowing it down was harder than I expected but here is what I ended up doing during my 24 hour stint in Tokyo:

3pm: Checked into the Granbell Hotel and got settled. I chose to stay in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo as it was central to everything I wanted to see. Also, this was one of the few hotels I could find that had a ‘western-size’ room for a very reasonable price. This doesn’t mean the room was our typical size…this just meant that my bed wasn’t in the same space as my toilet and that I didn’t have to share my toilet. You’ll see further down why I was very very glad I made this decision.

4pm: Went to get fugu into my belly. Japan is probably the only country I would feel comfortable trying this deadly delicacy and walked to Tora-fugu Tei to try it. You can read more about this experience in my previous blog. This was a perfect mid-day snack as it was a light meal and paired wonderfully with some sake.

5:30pm: Caught the metro to Harajuku. First, riding the metro in any city is a great way to experience some local culture. I was amazed at how orderly and quiet everyone was on the train…in fact, throughout the entire city, it was rather astonishing how everyone methodically moved on the streets.

6-8pm: Meandered around Harajuku for a bit. The Harajuku girls were a sight for sore eyes and there were plenty of little stores to peak into, including a cute boutique I was able to get a souvenir for my lady. I could easily see myself spending a night out in this area, but I did not want to be a drunk mess so I caught the metro back to Shibuya.

cat cafe
Cat Cafe in Shibuya

8pm: Experienced a cat café. I’m more of a dog person but I heard so many stories about these cat cafés that I wanted to check it out. And it’s pretty much what it sounds like…a café where you can get some coffee or tea and coax kitties into letting you pet them. You do get some swanky slippers to walk around in and you pay by the amount of time you spend…about 350Yen ($3) later, I had had enough and missed my pup incredibly…he never makes me beg him for cuddles.

Alcatraz E.R.
Alcatraz E.R., Shibuya

8:20pm: Walked to Alcatraz E.R., one of many popular theme restaurants Tokyo is known for. But after lingering outside for a bit, I decided not to go in and admittedly, regret that decision a little bit.

9pm: I was starving, so went to Ichiran for some Tonkutsu ramen. I didn’t realize ramen was such a big thing in Tokyo and it did not disappoint. This restaurant was particularly interesting as it had little booths for each individual diner so was a great choice for going solo. As for the ramen…well, it was certainly a good bowl of noodles. But I’m more a pho gal myself.

10pm: Crossed what is rumored as the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world in the heart of Shibuya. And it was jammed packed full of people but again, I was blown away with how orderly everyone was. Not one person bumped into me and I had at least a couple feet of buffer the entire way. It was like a living oxymoron. Then I walked up to the Starbucks that has a great panoramic view of this intersection while taking in a post-dinner latte.

11:30pm-2:30am: Relaxed at the hotel and made the decision to only take a nap because I wanted to go check out the infamous auction at the Tsukiji fish market, especially since it’s most likely moving to Toyosu in the near future. I just had to experience it at the original location. I went back and forth with this decision because I really wanted to sleep…but when in Tokyo, right?

Tsukiji fish market
In waiting room at Tsukiji fish market

3am: Arrived at the Tsukiji fish market and literally was the 2nd to last person that was allowed in. So it is true…even though the auction doesn’t start until 5am, you do need to get there early. And be prepared to sit on the floor of a small room surrounded by roughly 119 other visitors. I met some fellow travelers and was told about so many other things to see in Tokyo that convinced me that I must return one day.

5:30-7:30am: Experienced the auction (which was everything I imagined it would be…smelly and cold, yelling auctioneers, bells and whistles, and crazy expensive tuna) then walked around the fish market for some sushi breakfast. Yes, Japan is certainly the home of mouth-watering sushi…but, this is where my body apparently had enough. Within an hour after eating, I had to bolt for the nearest bathroom…very similar to what I experienced in Morocco but a bit more painful as I was about to board a 12 hour flight home.

8am-Noon: Went back to the hotel and there’s no delicate way to put this; I pooped my brains out the entire time…and maybe on the flight home too. On a brighter note, I lost all my vacation weight! I’m not condoning getting food poisoning, but at least it has one nice consequence.

Noon-3pm: So this is where my 24 hours came to an end as I headed to the airport to catch my flight home. The train I had a ticket for crashed (I’m still unclear with the situation) so it was a bit stressful trying to figure out how to get to the airport when no one spoke English…but I have to say, everyone I asked for help did seem genuine in trying and I made my flight. I was exhausted, dehydrated, hungry but too scared to try to eat yet ridiculously satisfied with everything I got to experience in Tokyo. Would I do this again in another city if given the chance? Absolutely. As for Tokyo, I came and saw exactly what I wanted but in the end, Tokyo conquered me….but I shall be back.

Confessions of a Female Solo Traveler

Confessions of a Female Solo Traveler

I’m in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by myself and I was just attacked. I followed all the “do’s” that I was supposed to…walked in a well lit area with plenty of pedestrians and cars and kept my eye out for anything strange. I saw him walking towards me and could tell he was inebriated beyond sense…but instead of choosing to cross the street (which I couldn’t have done given the traffic), I chose to walk cautiously pass him.

My gut was right. In the blink of an eye, he grabbed me by my shirt and tried to pull my sling bag off…jibberish came rushing out of my lungs and thankfully strangers came to my rescue. I was left with a bruise on my side, his spit on my face and a couple of cops to console me. This is now the second time I’ve been attacked abroad…and I was much luckier this time around.

Now, safely back at my hotel and a fifth of tequila, I’m wondering…what the hell am I doing here? Traveling solo was never something that I aspired to do.

But after years and years of dreaming about traveling, I finally had the resources – specifically money – to do it but couldn’t get calendars to work with my partner or friends that wanted to travel with me. I had to make a decision: continue to wait until someone could travel with me or do it on my own. I chose the latter because life is just too short to wait.

As an acknowledged introvert, I was pretty anxious about this decision and decided to start small. In 2009, I booked a trip to Seattle where I met up with friends then went solo to Vancouver for a few days. I pumped up the bass in my PT Cruiser rent-a-car and drove across the border, checked into my hotel and did exactly what I wanted to do each day. Whether it was sleeping in or walking in circles through Stanley Park in search of a mysterious totem pole…my agenda was 100% me.

I learned that it didn’t kill me to go to a club alone and I was not the wallflower I had feared I would be. I learned that asking strangers for help was okay and not a sign of incompetence. I learned that it wasn’t the end of the world if I was lost because I was capable of figuring things out on my own. And I think the most important realization I had was that it was indeed, okay for me to be selfish and focus strictly on me.

Since then, I’ve traveled solo all over Latin America, Europe, Asia, Australia, North America and most recently booked a trip to Antarctica. It is liberating. Self-fulfilling. Intoxicating. Extraordinary. It’s pulled the extrovert out from inside of me. It has made me realize my limits and allowed me to meet amazing people across the globe. I’m still addicted even with this incident. And considering that I’ve traveled to more than 300 cities…twice attacked is actually less than the incidents that have occurred to me in my own home city.

But in moments like this, it does get fucking lonely.  I’m in unfamiliar territory and don’t speak the native language. And I could use a hug. Thank goodness for free apps like Whatsapp (A free messaging app that allows you to stay in touch with friends and family over wifi) and now that it’s been a few conversations with familiar people and a couple of drinks later…I know this will not be my last solo venture. As much as I love traveling with my partner or friends…traveling solo continues to open new facets within myself and I’m in love with the experience. So I’m starting to reminisce about other ways I’ve combated loneliness during previous trips…

  • Pretending I’m straight. Ok, I’m not proud of this but when you’re a solo female in a country that is primarily homophobic (and has laws against it), you’re not going to want to emit any rainbow rays. And if I can score a free drink and an ego boost, what’s the harm? But I only do this when I want to experience some night life and there’s no gay options…and I never get drunk because flirting with a guy or two at the bar is one thing…but you have to make sure you stay safe and guarded.
  • But, if I’m in a country where there are gay options and I’m single, one nighters can certainly keep a gal occupied for a night or two. It’s especially fun when you don’t speak the same language so you immediately don’t have to deal with any conversational miscues or having to pretend to care about what they do for a living etc…it’s just pure adulterated enjoyment.
  • Sitting at the bar at a restaurant is the best way to dine alone and if you’re lucky you can get some custom cocktails from the bartender and chat with your fellow solo diners…maybe even make a new friend.
  • Booking a tour at the beginning of the trip. Since I’m a foodie, I gravitate towards the food tours but general city tours will also work. In almost every tour I’ve booked, there’s always another solo traveler and it’s a great way to meet someone who may want to do other things in the city with you…and at the very least, share some encouraging stories to each other.
  • Always keeping a book handy. I love reading, but especially enjoy it when I travel. I’ll find a coffee shop or a good people watching venue…order a drink and sit back and relax. It’s great to overhear conversations too which sometimes leads to meeting new people.

Ok, enough reminiscing. I’m realizing that I don’t have to do these things that often because frankly, it’s rare that I feel lonely when traveling solo. The destination is my friend and the experiences are my connection…and it’s an endless parade of variety to keep me occupied. Because of this, every trip makes me feel like I’m getting closer to understanding who I really am…who I really want to be…and despite this blunder tonight, I know I’ll be okay. Sounds like a pretty damn good relationship to me. Now, I have the rest of this city to explore tomorrow because it’ll be a new and wonderful day. Good night.

From Fugu to Guinea Pig – 5 Strange Delights to Try While Traveling!

From Fugu to Guinea Pig – 5 Strange Delights to Try While Traveling!

I travel to eat.

Being able to experience new cultures, learn about local lifestyles and seeing jaw dropping natural and man-made wonders amongst all the other benefits from traveling are great bonuses but at the end of the day, all I want to do is devour any new cuisine or cocktail a city has to offer. As a consequence, I run (roughly 4-5 miles a day) my ass off in between trips to counteract the glorious calories I’ve ingested during my travels and it’s worth every drop of sweat. I’m often asked, “what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever eaten?” And well, this is my response to that very question.

First, you should know that I grew up in an Asian household and although we live in the U.S., we stuck to the Asian mentality that anything is edible. So while my elementary classmates ate their Captain Crunch cereal and PB&J sandwiches at school, I had rice and tripe with fish sauce packed in my Transformers’ lunch box.

Our family dinners always had rice paired with anything from a good ol’ American ribeye to blood sausage with bitter melon…and celebrating holidays continue to make me laugh when I look at our Thanksgiving day spread of broccoli casserole (thanks Paula Deen!) and turkey next to eggrolls and fried chicken feet.

So it’s hard to say what the craziest thing is that I’ve ever eaten because what is crazy to you may be a normal Wednesday lunch for me.

Instead, here are some of my most interesting eats:

1. Balut

Balut in Hanoi, Vietnam
Balut in Hanoi, Vietnam

This is an Asian delicacy and was often a treat my parents would make for me. As a child, I would gobble up these pre-hatched embryos, slurp the egg juice and wash it down with a nice cold yoohoo. I loved these suckers. But as I grew up and I started to realize exactly what were in these eggs…I mean, the poor little baby duck has feathers and eyes!…I became grossed out and could not stomach them anymore. Then I visited Hanoi, Vietnam where these are available at numerous street vendors so I attempted to revive my childhood delight and I ordered one. That’s as far as I got. One look at the poor little creature and I couldn’t do it so this is one cuisine I will have to consider history that I will not repeat again.

2. Fugu

Who can say no to tasting something that could kill you? Fugu, the Japanese word for pufferfish, is a prized dish commonly offered in Japan and requires expert preparation. In fact, I personally would never try this anywhere else but in Japan because Fugu poisoning is 1200 times stronger than cyanide and in Japan there are super strict regulations to ensure the safety of consumers. It’s not worth the risk to try this dish anywhere else but from the heartland. The risk of human error didn’t dissuade me and as soon as I cleared customs at the Tokyo airport, I went straight to Torafugu Tei in Shibuya, Tokyo to get this pufferfish into my belly.

The classic preparation is sashimi style. Dip these deadly slivers of fugu into some soy sauce and it tastes

Fugu in Tokyo, Japan
Fugu in Tokyo, Japan

like nothing more than a thin chewy piece of latex dipped in soy sauce. I also tried the chargrilled version and poached version but it basically has a semi-tasteless flesh that makes you forget what all the fuss is about…but also makes you thankful to live another bite.

3. Guinea Pig

Guinea Pig in Quito, Ecuador
Guinea Pig in Quito, Ecuador

In many countries, guinea pig is eaten like Americans eat chicken.  Growing up in the states, where guinea pigs were often pets…it was hard for me to stomach the idea of trying this when it was offered to me at a roadside restaurant in Quito, Ecuador. But I realized that I suffer from the mindset of “not wanting to see how the hamburger is made” and that this is just like any other protein source that we eat on a daily basis. And boy was it delicious. Imagine the juiciest pork you’ve ever eaten with that fried chicken skin snap and you’ve got it.

4. Geoduck

Geoduck in Seattle, Washington

My inner teenage self just loves this one. Google any photo of geoduck and you’ll quickly see why. Commonly found on the Pacific coasts, I had my first taste in Seattle, Washington at Taylor Shellfish Oyster Bar. It’s an edible saltwater clam and I had this sashimi style. It was recommended to have this in a clam chowder, but unfortunately I have not been able to try it but I can see why that would be tasty. And it’s pronounced like “gooey duck” which is a fun name all on its own.

5. Gastronomy Cuisine

Molecular gastronomy is a subdiscipline of food science that seeks to investigate the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur in cooking. Its program includes three axes, as cooking was recognized to have three components, which are social, artistic and technical. Thanks Wikipedia!

One of the best restaurants where I’ve been able to experience this cuisine is Central Restaurant in Lima, Peru. I’m a sucker for any food that I can’t wrap my head around…food science is crazy wicked!

yurimaguas aramica
yurimaguas aramica
bahuaja nut
bahuaja nut
yep, these are potatoes
yep, these are potatoes

And I can’t end a post about food without at least one obligatory photo of a cocktail…because a tasty cocktail is the best way to wash down any meal.

"Into the Blue" cocktail at Lava in Reykjavik, Iceland
“Into the Blue” cocktail at Lava in Reykjavik, Iceland

May the Bowel be With You

Never drink the water.

This was the first rule that was drilled into my head when I started traveling. Never drink tap water in any country, even if it’s an industrialized or westernized country. Use bottled water when brushing your teeth. Be careful about eating too many raw fruits or vegetables because they too contain water. I’ve been told to not eat ice cubes. International water bad. Bad bad bad.

For the most part, I have followed this advice as stomach issues are the last thing I want to experience on any trip. I always have bottled water handy and I convince myself that the alcohol kills any issues ice cubes may give me in my margaritas. I was proud of my track record of 19 countries visited without incident.

Then I went to Morocco.

Casandra and I were extremely excited about visiting our first African nation. Armed with basic Arabic phrases (although the majority of locals spoke French – do your research prior to the trip!) we bebopped through Fez…Marrakech…the Sahara…on trucks…in motorcades…on camelbacks….and filled our bellies with the nationally renowned tagine dishes. We ate every variation available with any protein source that the locals recommended. It was oh so delicious. And of course, we both were diligent about drinking only bottled water and ensured the water was boiled in our teas. On the fourth night, we checked into this beautiful riad and began settling in for the night.

Casandra: Ummm…Michelle, do you want to go for a walk?

Michelle: Nah, I’m pretty tired.

Casandra: You sure? Why don’t you go outside for just a little bit? Ok fuck it, I have to use the restroom!

Michelle: What?


<not so silent>

Michelle: Ohhhhh myyyy goodness. Don’t worry, I’ll turn the music up!

Casandra: What the fuck?! My stomach! Turn the music up louder!

I laughed my ass off! I laughed and I laughed. Even Casandra laughed as her ass was glued to the toilet. Poor Casandra had been hit with a stomach bug….and just as I started to sympathize with her, it hit me. Fuck. So I ran to the lobby bathroom since Casandra was still in ours and let my bowels scream. Now, it was a very quiet riad and the bathroom had one of those saloon kind of doors that don’t go all the way to the floor…oh the agony of trying to be quiet but also not giving a fuck. All I wanted was to get the gut wrenching insanity out of my body at whatever the cost. After what seemed like a solid 30 minutes, I completed my expulsions and walked out to find an employee standing right outside the door. Fantastic. Perhaps he thought my innards were about to explode so was on standby to help? Or perhaps he seized the opportunity to record the gringo losing it in their bathroom and hoped to create a viral moment? I was too exhausted to even feel shamed. The only thing I knew at that time was that it wasn’t over. And I was right.

Over the next few days, both Casandra and I couldn’t keep anything down. But as dedicated foodies, we didn’t stop eating. Oh no, we just ensured there was a bathroom nearby at all times and came up with a system so that we could guard the door and keep passerby’s from earshot distance. Even though Casandra and I had known each other more than 14 years by this time…I never felt closer to her until this trip. This must be how war veterans feel with their fellow soldiers…Casandra and I had waged our own Saving Private Ryan kind of opening war scene and we came out knowing that we could travel through anything after Morocco.

Till this day, we still don’t know what caused it. It had to be something we both ate since we ruled out the water factor. Our best guess was that it was a spice that was used in the tagine dishes or maybe it’s because we ate so many of them so we had spice overload. Our next guess is that it could have been all the mint teas we drank and maybe our system wasn’t used to having so much fresh mint. I never would have guessed that after all this time worrying about water, that something completely different would be the one to get me. But the one thing we will never guess about again is whether or not to bring that anti-diarrheal pack. Take our advice and bring it.

Planning to a Fault

I was born a planner.

It’s just how my mind works. So it was natural for me to plan out my first international trip six years ago with Casandra in detail.

Months before departure, we had worked out our flights to Greece, hotel in Athens, transportation and key sites of interests to visit together. But similar to someone who was in the closet, I hid my real plan from her. This included ridiculously detailed lists of every place we would be – addresses and phone numbers, maps to and from these various destinations, directions by car and/or by foot, how long it would take to get to each destination, the best days to do each based on weather and location, cost and hours of operation if applicable…and in some cases even a picture or two to ensure we knew what to look for.

And maybe I compiled all of this in a 3-ring binder.

Now, this was before the rise of the smartphone. That’s my excuse. But even then, I knew my OCD had gotten the better of me and it would surely frighten Casandra to see this side of me.  So I hid these print outs in my backpack and read through them like porn while she was in the shower or away. Once we had done something for the day, I had to check it off my list and start thinking about how we were going to get to the next thing. I just couldn’t help myself.

During our trip to Greece, the only part of our plan that seemed to work out was our hotel. Everything from the flight, to our cabs, to the places we visited all had varying ways of unraveling which we will write about later. And you know what? I loved every single minute of it. When I finally stopped worrying about the how and whens, I was able to just absorb the plethora of moments right in front of me. We still saw everything we wanted to and many things we never imagined because we stumbled upon them after getting lost roaming around. Our best experiences time and time again were the ones we never expected. And isn’t that what life is about? To live it as it comes.

Fast forward to the present and 25+ countries under my belt, and I can’t help but smile when I think of that trip to Greece and how it helped confirm my career choice in life – hint: it lets me plan the hell out of some plans – but more importantly how to leave room in my trip to just travel. So how do I plan a trip today?

Things I always do:

  • Book flights with reasonable departure times and secure a window seat
  • Book lodging prior to landing
  • List out key things I want to see or devour (I love cocktails and a good meal.)
  • Check visa entry requirements
  • Check electrical outlet type/voltage
  • Confirm native language and learn the basic phrases.
  • Confirm currency
  • And yes, I still have a ‘quick list’ printed out just in case wifi doesn’t work that has key addresses and such. But it’s never longer than a page so I don’t have to be ashamed of it.

That 3-ring binder from Greece has been retired to the shelf and serves as a reminder to not suffocate a trip by planning it down to the t – let it breathe…you’ll be amazed at everything you can take in.

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