Category Archives: Travel

Happy Father’s Day

This past weekend was Father’s Day, my first without my dad. As I viewed the many posts on Facebook of Father’s Day adventures, lunches, BBQ’s and gifts my mind traveled back to the many Father’s Days with my own dad. Most likely he would have spent much of the early summer day out in the yard mowing the lawn or digging up my mom’s flowerbeds. He would have shared some conversation and laughs with our neighbor and his best bud, Richard, clad in his white tank-top and jean shorts, high white socks and his beat up sneakers. My older siblings would have come home for the evening to share one of his favorite home-cooked meals while idly chatting at the dining room table about this and that. Earlier that day I would have helped make the cake we silently devoured for dessert (and that night he would have let me sneak another piece without my mom’s knowledge). Immediately after dessert he would have moved to his favorite place in the house, his recliner. Here is where he would have opened cards, mine would have either been personally selected at the local Woolworths or possibly handmade with a portrait of my dad and an overabundance of hearts. The gift from me was most likely a mesh baseball cap or an oversized coffee mug with “World’s Greatest Dad” bedazzled across the front in bright, bold letters.IMG_9420
I can still see him smiling and even feel his wet kiss on my cheek as he thanked me for his goodies. We may have even sat around the living room together to hunker down for a movie, his choosing of course because the TV was always his domain. Within 30 minutes the loud raucous of his snoring would cue us to be able to change the channel to our liking although as soon as we did he would magically wake up and tell us to change it back.

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These memories belong to a young girl, the young me. Now they are blurred and run together like a melted box of crayolas and it is difficult to determine where one ends and another begins. For the past 25 years, Father’s Day interactions have simply been a phone call, usually a surprise as he never remembered that it was his special day (lucky for him in case I happened to forget!) As I scrolled through more and more pictures and posts of fathers and daughters a myriad of feelings coursed through me:

Sadness that he is gone and despite the mere simplicity of a phone call, it was one that I looked forward to making just to hear his voice.

Guilt that maybe I didn’t call enough, write enough or visit enough.

Appreciation for who he was and who he helped shape me to be.

Love.

I began to wonder how I could possibly acknowledge my dad in a way that would make him smile and, if he were here, plant a sloppy kiss on my cheek like he did when I was a girl. Every time I look back and picture him in my mind he is always in the same place; in his hometown of La Piedad. This is where all of my memories of the past 25 years are so it seems apropos to share this piece of him. I know he would like that. IMG_7823

This small town in the state Michoacán means nothing to most people, just a tiny pin on the map of the world. Nothing distinguishes it from the other small Mexican towns, yet for me, this town is where my father took his first breath of life and it is where I whispered my final goodbyes as he was laid to eternal rest with his parents and his brothers and sisters gone before him. It is where he chose to spend the rest of his living years, far from his own children and it is where, as a young girl of just fifteen, I traveled on my own for the first time to try to piece together the mystery that was and still is my father. It wasn’t until this most recent visit that it started to become clear. For the first time in over 20 years of visiting, I saw La Piedad for what it was; my father’s home.

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El Rancho-has been in the family for years and is where most of the family fiestas take place. It also happens to be right next door to my dad’s house.

I can recall my first visit as if it were last week. It was frightening! The dusty roads void of any street signs leading lines of cars and trucks every which way, each seeming to hold more passengers than the one before it while blaring both their horns and the brassy instruments of mariachi music. The uneven sidewalks meandering this way and that way sometimes abruptly disappearing and other times leading absolutely nowhere. The outer walls of the countless shops and homes riddled with graffiti of all kinds and colors.DSC_0907 Dogs of all shapes and sizes wandering the streets and sidewalks paying no attention to the people they share them with, plopping down to rest wherever they feel the urge. People everywhere; walking to and fro, resting here and there and always, always talking amongst themselves. Families, immediate and extended, sharing meals together, resting in the plaza, shopping, talking, and always interacting. Friends gather laughing, drinking, hanging out on doorsteps or plastic chairs in front of their homes.  Doors open signaling a message that all are welcome…one grand fiesta where all are invited.

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The Plaza where many gather at all times of the day. Almost all towns have a central plaza where the main church is located. Here it is Señor de la Piedad.

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I remember taking this all in and wondering, “What on earth does he like about this place?” The modern conveniences I was so used to were nowhere to be seen. Where were the drive-thrus? The coffee shops? THE MALL?? Countless times I found myself hiding behind the shelter of my dad, tuning out the chatter I couldn’t understand and longing for the familiarity of home. I put in little effort to establish relationships with my tios, tias and countless primos because I was too apprehensive of the language barrier. If only I could go back and give my younger self some advice; tell her to open her eyes and not just look, but to actually see.

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However, this last visit was different. I did not have my dad to hide behind and instead my eyes were open. I listened to the chatter and instead of a language I couldn’t understand I heard family comforting one another, laughing with each other, embracing, accepting and loving. This time I actually saw it because I was a part of it.  I found myself spiraling through my rolodex of memories to replay them, but this new knowledge made everything change.  All of the fiestas at El Rancho where family would come together from near and far, the women putting the finishing touches on the homemade tamales, tacos and pozole while the men’s chatter became louder with each shot of tequila. Soon all the kids and most of the adults became engaged in a family fútbol or volleyball game.   As I look back, the awkwardness is gone and in its place is an understanding. I see my dad amongst his family surrounded by his “familiar”.  He is happy. These people, all of them, are the people that understood why this was his home.  They are his roots and his branches and they knew him more than I ever could.

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Circa 1992-my first fiesta at el rancho. Just a few of the women in our family.
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…and the men. Tequila not pictured.

I made a recent promise, to myself and to the part of my dad that I know still watches over me, that I will stay connected to his hometown and maybe, someday, it can become almost as familiar to me as it was for him.  That I will continue to walk the streets of La Piedad and see it’s true inner beauty. That regardless of language I will listen to the chatter of my family and interact to understand them and the man they knew as their uncle, cousin and friend.  For it is through them that I will hear his voice and his laughter the loudest and where I will continue to see him in the eyes and smiles of mi familia.

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In Loving Memory
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Siem Reap, Cambodia: A Love Story

Throughout my travels I have discovered that it isn’t just people that have souls anymore…places do too. The various countries, cities, villages and towns that I have encountered these past couple of years have their own character; their own voice and I have truly enjoyed meeting each and every one of them. IMG_7276.JPGHowever, there are certain places in which a connection is instantaneously made…just as there is with the various people that come in and out of our lives.   Some we only remember on occasion, a memory triggered by a casual conversation or revisiting certain places; however, others we think of daily and we have a strong desire to keep them close as long as we can. I have met a soul mate in Siem Reap, Cambodia and my experience there has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I will not be able to articulate my feelings or my experience in perfect detail so bear with me as I fumble my way through.

Some might say, IMG_7270.JPG“Yes, Angkor Wat is beautiful, isn’t it?” But in all honesty, it wasn’t the magnificence and grandeur of this UNESCO site that stole my heart. It was the people. For a country still raw with its too recent history of war, genocide, bloodshed and chaos, the people are the warmest, kindest, most hospitable people you will ever meet. They live a simple life albeit one of corruption and poverty, hard work and adversity, yet their smiles are the friendliest, most sincere I have ever seen. I loved everyone I met…even the Khmer ladies running their shops relentlessly asking me to buy their goods. “You buy from me pretty lady. What you like? We have something for you. What color you like? You buy from me and I give you special price only for yoooouuuuu.” Despite the continuous rant, I never actually felt a lot of pressure to buy; no one physically pulling me into their shop as I have experienced in other places.  After a while it was pretty easy to ignore and I actually welcomed the constant stream of various voices as Mom and I shopped our way through the streets and markets. 

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Meet Son.  

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He was our tuk-tuk driver during our stay in Siem Reap and my absolute favorite person I met on this adventure.  My apologies for the faceless picture as this, regrettably, is all I took despite the lasting impression he left on me. He has the warmest eyes and the most genuine smile with a just a hint of shyness to it.  Each morning he greeted us with a “hello” that seemed to really say “it’s good to see you again.” Maybe it was the generous tips I gave him after each ride (shhhh, don’t tell Mom), but I think he was genuinely pleased to see us just as we were to see him. One morning I woke extra early to venture through one of the temples on my own before the crowds and the heat arrived. When I stepped out of the hotel, Son was already waiting for me and greeted me with his sweet smile. It was an overcast morning and a gentle rain fell as we cruised through town and then into the forested area of the ruins.   As early as it was, the streets were already bustling with the daily activities of its inhabitants and I watched it all from the carriage of the tuk-tuk knowing I was in safe hands with Son at the wheel. We parked just outside the temple I was visiting that morning. Son told me he’d be there waiting for me when I returned. I told him I’d be a couple of hours and he gave an all-knowing nod as if he already knew this was a special place that would need time to explore.  I took my time wandering through, mesmerized and in awe of the magnificence of it all and relishing in the quiet as only a few other visitors had arrived at that point. When the crowds started to arrive it was my cue to head back.  I’d had my time and slightly regretted not waking just a bit earlier to have more of it to myself. Oh we’ll, I can’t be too greedy.

I found my way back to where Son had dropped me off. Quickly scanning the area,  a slight worry crept in as I didn’t see him straight away. Several tuk-tuk drivers called to me and I just shook my head knowing that I would find Son soon enough. Gone was the quiet, empty open area I knew from arrival and in its place was the hustle and bustle of locals and tourists milling about; shopping, selling fruits and other goods.  Luckily, it didn’t take too long to spot him.

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Not Son, but a similar picture…

He sat tucked away in the shade, sitting in the carriage of his tuk-tuk with his bare feet propped up and his arms lazily crossed across his chest.  He hadn’t seen me yet and in that moment I paused and simply watched him.  A gentle smile was penciled on his face.  His gaze was towards the temple, but I could tell  he wasn’t really looking at it; just lost in his own thoughts. Maybe he was thinking of how amazing the morning weather was as the heat and humidity had not crept in just yet or maybe he was thinking of the pretty girl he had his eye on and how he planned to get her attention the next time they met. Whatever it was, he was at peace and it warmed my heart to see him that way.  The moment didn’t last long as he noticed me standing there and quickly slipped his feet back in his shoes and jumped out of the carriage.  I wanted nothing more than to just join him that way…to sit with him in that peaceful state in the back of his tuk-tuk and talk casually about what had been on his mind when I so rudely interrupted him. I also wish I had snapped a picture as I don’t feel my words can adequately describe the moment, but as it is, I didn’t. The picture is in my mind and will be with me always. I don’t know anything about Son’s life, but can presume that it can’t be too easy on a daily basis, but whatever was on his mind, he was able to leave the harshness of the real world behind him…. even if for just a moment.

In the short time we were in Siem Reap, we learned of several NGO organizations that are working hard to empower the people of Cambodia. One of these was the Phare Circus. This organization trains young kids and provides them with skills and jobs. Not only is this a fantastic organization, but the show was amazing! Mom and I were on pins and needles as these youngsters performed some incredible acrobatic feats. I can’t recommend this enough (check out www.pharecambodiancircus.org to learn more!).IMG_7422.JPGIMG_7429.JPG

I also had a wonderful time spending money at Claycult Beads. This organization provides jobs for many Cambodian women as they do every step of the process, literally every step. And the beads…oh my…absolutely beautiful! The young guy helping us actually had to take me to an ATM…on his scooter (you’ve seen my video of the traffic, right?)! The owner/founder is Australian and will have some of the beadwork up on etsy soon.IMG_6791

From the hotel staff to the children on the street, Cambodians are innately hospitable and kind people.  I fell in love with almost every person I met and will remember them always. 

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How many Cambodians does it take to find the bead shop?
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Mau, our chef.
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Our guide…he didn’t talk much, but sure was a cutie!

Onto Ankor Wat…

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The entire park is quite massive (about 400 square kilomteres) and the various temples range from 600 to 1300 years old. They are the remains of the different capitols of the Khmer Empire and the area was the center of the Khmer kingdom for several centuries. Mom and I really only had two days to explore the park, but I think you could spend a couple of weeks and still not see it all. We even read that they are still uncovering historic sites and will for years to come. The main temple, Angkor Wat, is massive and was built to honor the Hindu God, Vishnu…although you can see evidence of changes that were made to make it a Buddhist temple somewhere in the 14th or 15th century. A moat and an exterior wall surround its impressive entrance and its walls are covered with various reliefs and carvings that all have some meaning.   Although this wasn’t my favorite temple, it was definitely the most popular and the luxuries that it once provided are still very evident.

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Everyone has heard of Tomb Raider. I am not ashamed to admit that I have not seen the movie…although I might now just because of visiting Ta Prohm where it was filmed. This temple is actually in shambles because of the species of trees that inhabit the area. Although it makes for an awesome atmosphere with the trees growing out of the temple itself, the conservation of the temple is a controversial one as these trees are actually destroying the temple. This site was incredibly beautiful and I actually liked that it was left in the same condition in which it was found. Of course, this temple and all of Angkor Wat became much more popular after the movie.

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My favorite was Bayon Temple. It was built as a Buddhist temple around 1200AD. This temple is supposed to represent the intersection of heaven and earth. There are 54 towers thought to represent the 54 days of the lunar calendar and each tower has four faces that symbolize the four states of Buddhism; charity, compassion, sympathy and equanimity. This was the temple in which I explored on my own. Its architecture has a sense of mystery, power and tranquility all blended together. I loved it.IMG_7524.JPG

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Cambodia definitely left its mark on my heart. I can’t wait to go back…and maybe someday I will call it my home away from home.

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To see the other 300+ pics from Siem Reap, CLICK HERE

From the ocean to the mountains…

Nostalgia is so bittersweet.  I just got home from our high school music concert and while listening to the choral ensemble a flood of some of my best memories swept over me.  I loved every moment of my high school singing career and am so thankful for those years and all of the wonderful people I met along the way. Image

Onto current day adventures…

Last week I had the pleasure of experiencing the best school field trip of my life!! After last year’s trip to the East Coast with 30 8th graders, the worst bout of anxiety and the most annoying tour guide, I swore off travelling with students once and for all.  Obviously that didn’t last very long.

ASIJ’s end of the year field trip for 7th graders is 3 days on the Izu Peninsula where they get to surf, kayak, explore tide pools, snorkel and simply have a blast.  The good thing is that teachers get to do all of those things too!! Each session had a max of 30 students with about eight teacher chaperones.  I stayed for two sessions, which came out to a full school week.  The weather was absolutely perfect; sunny and in the low-mid 70’s the entire time.  I couldn’t have asked for anything better!  Now before you get extremely jealous keep in mind that I had to share a somewhat rustic cabin with 4-6 teenage girls….

Naw…I’d still be jealous too… J

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The view from my cabin.

Izu is a peninsula located about a 4 hour drive south of Tokyo.  It is known mainly for its onsen/hot springs, which are highly valued all over Japan.  However, it’s pristine beaches and great weather attracts just as many people.  Maybe because it was still May, but the area was not crowded at all.  The beaches were basically empty despite the perfect weather and the town itself was pretty quiet.  I guess my comparison is the beaches in San Diego which are guaranteed to be flooded with people if the weather is nice…and usually even if it isn’t.

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The last hour of the drive to the town of Shimoda (which is where Commodore Perry’s black ships landed in 1854) is winding and somewhat sickening, but the views are amazing with lush green mountains, valleys, springs and waterfalls throughout.  Then, finally, as we came around the last bend, I could see it, our final destination….a 7-11 convenie.  Yes, ok, but beyond that…the blue-green expanse of the great Pacific. YES!  I admit, I may have been a little more excited that the students on the bus were just as distracted by the ocean views as I was and ceased their awful singing than I was about seeing the ocean myself, but hey, I see it as a win-win.

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Awesome winding highway…only in Japan!
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Beautiful mountain views

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The guy on the left is in his early 60’s! He was a professional kayaker (whatever that means) and now runs his own shop in Izu. Not a bad gig…

My favorite part of the trip was the sea kayaking. IMG_1286 The first day was windy and the water was quite rough which made it difficult to get past the breakers, but we all managed.  At one point, as another teacher and I were idly chatting while waiting for some students to catch up, I mysteriously fell out of my kayak! I honestly don’t know what happened, but joked that Kevin flipped my kayak and I pretty much stuck to that story the rest of the week! The second time out on the kayak was much calmer and our guides took us to some caves to explore.  The kids (and teachers) loved this!  It was a perfect day to be on the sea and I kept telling myself, “I’m at work…I’m at work!”, but it just wasn’t registering. IMG_1267

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The tide pool was quite incredible as well.  Starfish, crabs, urchins, sea cucumbers, sea hairs and many more sea creatures littered the tide pool for our entertainment.  Watching the students become excited when they discovered a new creature was a pleasure to see.  I think I was the most excited when we came across the baby octopus!

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OCTOPUS!! He got stuck in the low tide so we had to try to get him to deeper water.
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These are all little hermit crabs. They were everywhere!
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Mr. Crab
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Mrs. Starfish
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Sea Hair…my favorite! Some of these were HUGE. This one is a good size, as you can see compared to my foot, but definitely not the biggest.
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Chittons
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Anemone

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I returned from Izu on Friday night and Saturday morning took off again.  This time in the opposite direction to a lake in the mountains to wish a fellow teacher bon voyage as she is leaving ASIJ to teach in Prague next year.  We had many laughs as we played charades, “tell me about yours” and our version of “catch a phrase”.  After many bottles of wine things started to get somewhat viscous; f-bombs were being thrown around like scat in a monkey pen and mock arguments over the rules got a little heated until we were all reminded time and again that no one was keeping score!  All in good humor though.

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View out my window of the fish ponds.
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My room. Ryokans are traditional Japanese hotels with tatami and futon. A lot have an onsen (like this one) and you can walk around in your yukata during your entire stay if you wish.

Our group was the only inhabitants of the ryokan where we stayed.  It was actually a trout farm/ryokan/onsen all in one.  Our dinner Saturday night and breakfast Sunday morning was amazing.  Fresh sashimi, grilled fish, a variety of local vegetables and even roasted locusts.  Yes, I said locusts.  Now, my rule in Japan has been to try as much as I can and I’ve only refused on a couple of items.  I am proud to say that I did try one of the locusts. I probably won’t eat one again…but I did try it.  Tasted like nothing really, but the crunch was rather disturbing. I wish I would have taken pictures of the meals because it was quite an amazing spread.  Oh well, I just have to go back.

Sunday we went on a nice walk up in the mountain.  My dumbass only brought my sandals since I quickly transferred some items from my Izu bag into an overnight bag and forgot to bring any tennis shoes.  I’m a dumbass because there is still snow in the mountains.  Yes, I hiked in the snow with sandals.  Like the locusts, I can say I did it, but probably don’t need to repeat that experience.

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Mountain stream
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You can’t see them, but the Japanese Alps are in the background
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Our crew. Jane is to my right and I hope to visit her next summer in Prague. She is a lovely person and will be missed…
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Lunch at a pizza shop. I tried a blueberry pizza. It tasted like cheese and blueberries. Go figure.
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Dumb. Ass.
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…but worth it!
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Beautiful!

Needless to say this week back at school was a bit tiring, but all worth it.  I can’t believe that only three weeks of school remain! Wow-this first year went by so fast!  Literally on the last day of school I am off to Thailand and Bali.  I can’t wait!

Thanks for reading and I truly miss you all.  Be on the lookout…I have a few more posts coming.

Xoxox

K