Sapa: Forests, Fields, and Family

When I started planning this adventure back in March, one of the things on my must-do list was a trip to Sapa. I had seen pictures from friends who had traveled here, and it just looked majestic. So, when the forecast was set to rain the entire time I was there, I was bummed, and wondering if I should still continue with my trek.

Almost as an answer, it seemed as though the world conspired against me as I was on my way to the train station. My taxi was late and charged me too much, the train company lost my ticket, and it started to pour. Visibly distraught, I was comforted by a woman from Dallas who realized I just needed a hug. Just when I was about to give up, the manager came to get me and gave me and told me to hop on his motorbike. Were we biking to Sapa? I was definitely not prepared for that. What ensued was a quick ride in the rain straight to my train car. As raindrops were falling on my head, I realized what was happening, and I just laughed. I’ve learned to expect the unexpected in Vietnam.

Once aboard the train, I met the two women who I shared my compartment with. They were both from Taiwan and around my age. One of them had even lived in Colorado!! Small world! The train ride was slow, rickety, and loud, but I still slept like a rock. This whole traveling thing is tiring!

Upon getting to Lao Cai, I boarded an hour long bus, or 15 passenger van, to Sapa, where went to the Sapa O’Chau* office. I had found this NGO thanks to the Lonely Planet book. They are an organization completely owned and run by local minority people (who from the looks of it were no older than 22) and they sponsor a high school through their tour service. At their office, I was greeted by cinnamon tea and hot breakfast. My Sapa journey was quickly looking up.

It was at breakfast that I met Nina, from Germany, and Vroni, from Austria. We quickly hit it off and Vroni and I spent time talking about the wonderful city that is Vienna. I may have to make that my next trip… Ich vermisse Wien! They were going on a different trek, but we are following a similar path down south. I hope I meet up with them again!!

Around 9:00, I met my guide, May, and the two other people I would be traveling with, Zach and Konstantin, two recent grads from the US. We set off by foot through Sapa Town (passing the water buffalo that were in the middle of the city) and then we were off on our trek!

May is from the Red Dao minority in Sapa, one of 6 minority groups who live in this region. She met us in her traditional costume that she made herself, and spent one year making!! May encouraged us to ask her anything about her culture because she knows everything, which was so true. May just started leading tours 5 months ago, and she has only been speaking English for 7 months, which absolutely floored me. She taught herself, and was eager to learn and ask us for help. She also speaks her local language, Vietnamese, other local languages, and a little French.

The Red Dao is a patriarchal society, and May is from a village of about 3,000 people. Weddings are a very big deal in Red Dao culture, taking about 3 days and over 1,000 people attend. May is recently engaged and will get married in October. However, as is custom, she did not get to choose her husband and did not meet him until they got engaged. She is now living with his family, as is also custom. The arranged marriage custom was so interesting to learn about because I have such strong feelings about being an independent woman and what that means in the US. Most girls get married young (14-16) in Red Dao culture, so May is older at 21. I definitely found it hard to not impose my beliefs on another culture, and this reconciliation of the two ideas has been eye-opening.

As a part of the wedding ceremony, she has to make costumes for herself, her husband, and her mother in law. These costumes are incredibly intricate and take over a year! Women begin to sew at age 7 in Red Dao communities and spend a lot of their time sewing. Many of the women that we passed or women at the homestay were constantly sewing during any free time. In addition to sewing, women help with the daily life in the villages, cooking, going up on the mountain and feeding animals, gathering herbs for medicine, fishing, planting and harvesting rice, and many other activities. Most of what the Red Dao consumed are cultivated by the community. Children in the community go to school, but most do not get degrees, so getting jobs outside of the community is hard. Right now, May’s sister is the only person going to university in the village (though May has a desire to go as well).

On our trek, we hiked down into the valley through the rice fields. Much of the first part of the trek was completely downhill, rocky, and very wet. Sapa O’Chau provided us rain boots, and I am so glad I took them. With the rain boots and the poncho I had a nice tourist chic look going on, but was I glad I did. Hiking along the rice paddies was really slippery, and I almost fell a few time’s. It gave me an incredible appreciation for the hard work that the farmers do in Sapa. I was initially concerned that we’d have fog all day, but we still got amazing views of the rice paddies and mountains. The fog just added to the atmospheric grandeur.

Along the way, we passed through many small villages. One village was a Hmong village, another minority group that has different customs, traditions, and language than the Red Dao. All of the communities use indigo for clothing, and we saw a man making indigo dye as we passed. May explained how they get the indigo that color and the process by which the dye is created. When people are making dye, their skin is dyed a deep blue, and it often stays that color for months.

Throughout the trek, we passed many water buffalo, pigs, chickens, and dogs. The animals just roam freely, but everyone knows which animal is theirs. I’m not quite sure how they keep track of all of them. May said her mom has over 100 pigs and she can look at them and know that they are hers.

We had lunch in the village of Ta Phin, which means big flat. Our lunch was a delicious meal of rice, steamed chicken and vegetables, cabbage, egg, and spring rolls. Though a simple meal, it was warm and filling, which is just what I needed mid-trek.

As we set off again after lunch, we were followed by a group of young girls trying to get us to buy from them. May explained that this is a problem for the minority cultures. Children will follow tourists and ask them to buy things, and if they do, they won’t go to school. Instead it is better to give them supplies or fruit.

May explained many of the customs surrounding their costumes. Everyone has a slightly different costume based on what they like, but there are some symbols that everyone uses like rice, pine trees, and chicken feet.

When we finally made it to the village, May took us to her parents house. The house is very simple, but very spacious. In the main room, there is one stove (a hole in the ground with wood planks) that is used during winter to warm the house, the main room also had a temple dedicated to the family’s ancestors. Red Dao are not religious, but they pray for their ancestors. The next room we saw was the kitchen where there were many big pots and pans, a large wok looking stove used for making rice wine, and a small stove for cooking. Sitting over the stove, we met May’s grandmother, who was drying toilet paper. Why? I’m not sure, but why not? She was an absolute riot. As one of the older women in the village, she does not speak English, but sitting there drying her toilet paper, she had a lot to say. I wish I could understand her, because she was so full of life and energy! We also saw the bedroom, which consists of one bed shared by all 6 members of the family. May’s house has been used by 4 generations, which is a long time for houses in the area. They made the house themselves using wood from the forest. During recreation time, women stay in the kitchen and men sit in the main room. In the past, men and women used to eat separately, but now they eat together thanks to tourism and being exposed to new customs.

After touring May’s house, we went to or homestay across the street, owned by May’s cousin. We had a few hours to relax in the serenity and peacefulness of Ta Phin. After the business of Hanoi, the nature and stillness of Ta Phin was idyllic. In Ta Phin, there is a cave that members of the community hid in during the war. The Vietnamese government would not let them fight, so most of the community stayed in the cave.

During our rest time, May and her family members taught me and the women staying with May’s family how to sew. For anyone who knows me well, they will know that I’m not great at crafts and I don’t t have patience. This was no exception. The stitching, though relatively simple, was complicated for me and took a finesse that I do not possess. After a few failed attempts, May finished my bracelet for me, and it is beautiful.

Dinner that night was in our homestay with The adults of May’s family. Similar to lunch, we had rice, pork and vegetables, steamed morning glory with garlic, flash-fried fish (yummmmm), potatoes, beans, and spring rolls. It was all amazing. Simple flavors, but beyond delicious. Everything we had, down to the cooking oil from trees, was from the community. May explained that meat is eaten at special occasions, but most meals are rice and vegetables. Eating with the whole family was quite the experience. It was loud, vibrant, and full of love. Though we didn’t speak the same language, it was easy to communicate. When the rice wine was poured (and poured again and again), “cheers” is something that can be understood in any language.

After dinner, May and her cousin drew us Herbal Baths in tubs that reminded me of the matchmaker scene in Mulan. The Red Dao are famous for their herbal baths, and after a day of hiking, it was the most wonderful and relaxing thing imaginable. Between the bath and exhaustion, I passed out for a deep sleep (finally!!!)

The next morning, I woke up to a rooster (which makes sense on a farm!!!) and relished the absolute serenity that was Ta Phin in the morning. For breakfast, we had pancakes that were really crepes with honey from the mountain and bananas. Yummmmm. We got to speak to May’s cousin, also named May (it’s a popular community name meaning the first girl), for a bit as she joined us for breakfast. She has been hosting tourists for five years and has met people from all over the world. I can’t imagine how amazing it would be to have people come into your home to learn about your culture. Both women loved that they get to meet people from around the world and learn so much about other cultures by being hosts. After breakfast, we said goodbye to May’s family (and the adorable children I became friends with) and set off on our trek again.

Our second day was much foggier than our first, and we had a persistent mist follow us on our journey. Despite that, the trek was amazing. Most of our second day was through the forests of the mountains. The terrain was so lush and green but difficult to maneuver. As we were walking, it hit me why this country was so difficult for the US soldiers as the pervasive mist and overgrowth would have been completely foreign to many of them.

I asked May about her culture’s music (#musicteacher), and she explained that they didn’t really have any music. The local songs were very hard and only the older people knew them. When we passed a Hmong village, however, we heard a Hmong man singing a local song, which was beautiful and haunting.

We finished our trek with lunch of fried noodles at a small rest stop and made our way to a car for our ride back to Sapa. Once we returned, I said goodbye to May and got invited to her wedding in October. I told her I’d plan on attending.

I had a few hours to kill, so I walked a bit around Sapa Town. Sapa Town is small, but manageable and clean. May had explained that many Vietnamese people have moved into Sapa to start businesses for tourism. I wandered around the city for a bit, stopping at the market where minority women were selling their crafts. The market was alive with color as all of the women were in their minority costume. I wish I learned more about each costume and what they meant!

After wandering the market, I talked with a couple from Moldova, who told me all about the galleries I needed to see in Hanoi, and watched a bit of the World Cup with the tour guides at Sapa O’Chau before boarding my bus to Lao Cai. Lao Cai is right across the river from China, so I did a quick wave to a different country. We arrived at the train station, and I was quickly given my ticket and told I’d been upgraded! Such a better experience than in Hanoi!! A nice family from Quebec City was on my bus, and they invited me to join them for dinner. I have loved meeting people from all over the world and it has been incredible eye opening to recognize that some of what I thought I knew was very wrong. Vincent, Isabelle, and Marianne were so lovely and kind, even when I mistakenly made generalizations about Quebec and Canada. It’s a great learning experience for all! We also talked about education (both Vincent and Isabelle work in schools), and recreation in our communities. They are incredibly well traveled, so we discussed all of the places in the US they have been that I have yet to go to. Looks like a road trip is coming up.

After dinner, I boarded my train and we began our journey back. I cannot believe I almost didn’t go to Sapa due to a set back at the train. Even though it rained the entire time, Sapa was easily one of the best experiences of my life. I cannot wait to go back.

Highs of Sapa: Pretty much everything, May as our guide, all of the food, learning about the Red Dao culture and learning to sew. Lows of Sapa: my confusing train situation at the beginning, rain and fog, seeing all the children peddling souvenirs. Surprises of Sapa: my motorbike VIP service, having a grand old time despite the rain, befriending the Quebecois Family for dinner.

*If you are ever going to Sapa, I cannot recommend this organization or May highly enough. I’d be happy to give you details.

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Hanoi: Traveling Solo but Never Alone

After getting into Hanoi at 12:30 AM, I slept like a rock. That is until the rooster woke me up at 4:30 AM. Yes. Rooster. It’s a little incongruous to have a rooster crowing in a big city, unless it’s in an episode of Friends, so I just started laughing. The first morning in Hanoi I made my first friend of my trip- Louise from near Cambridge, England. We ate breakfast together over our breakfast Pho. Noodles for breakfast is something I’m going to adopt when I get back home. It was delicious.

Feeling ready to take on the world after my hearty noodles and strong coffee, I had my first opportunity to navigate Hanoi traffic. Traffic in Hanoi is like a real life game of Frogger. The cars and motorbikes don’t stop for you, they merely slow down and go around you. I’m happy to say that my prayers worked and I have made it across all streets alive. Navigating the sidewalks is equally challenging as I swerved to avoid craft sellers, fruit sellers, shoe shiners, and raw meat. Hanoi is so alive with activity: sounds of people, cars, and smells of all different kinds (some good, some not so good).

Just when I began to feel overwhelmed by the overloading attack on my senses, I made it to Hoa Kiem Lake. It’s amazing what a lake, some trees, and a temple can do to add tranquility to a city. My first unexpected moment of the day came when I was stopped by a man and his nephew. The man told me his nephew was learning English and asked if he could talk to me for a few minutes to practice with a native English speaker. The boy was so nervous and shy, but I was so impressed at his English. He asked me about my trip to Vietnam, the weather at my home country, and what food I like. The whole exchange was incredibly unexpected, but made my morning. And I got some restaurant recommendations out of it, so I can’t complain.

After walking around the lake, I went to the Vietnamese Women’s History Museum (by way of the opera house, because of course #musicmajor). I LOVED this museum. The museum covered different aspects of women’s life in Vietnam, focusing a lot on the customs of the minority peoples. I was particularly struck by the different marriage customs, especially in the matrilineal societies. The women take such a major role in the marriage process and are the men follow the women. Both families present each other with gifts for marriage matches, similar to a dowry. Examples of gifts include hatchets, pigs, necklaces, and many more items. One of my favorite parts of this exhibit talked about child naming practices. The spiritual leader who names the baby throws two sticks on the ground. If the sticks face the same way or if the baby cries, the name is rejected and it’s back to the drawing board. If the sticks face opposite ways, the name’s a winner. I’m glad that I didn’t cry when I was named. I quite like the name Melanie. Additionally, some women will name a baby an “ugly name” so ghosts don’t steal the baby. As a child of Michelle Reiff, I firmly believe there are no ugly names, but if it wards off ghosts, I guess it’s okay.

The museum also featured an exhibit on women’s roles in wartime. This was the first example I had of a very different telling of the Vietnam was (or the American war as it is known here). It was really fascinating to see how early women were allowed to participate in combat in Vietnam, leading insurgences and other campaigns. The whole exhibit was fascinating, especially seeing the role that women played in the war effort. It was, however, a little jarring to see the propaganda posters and different take that the Vietnamese have on the war. The Vietnamese government controls all of the art and exhibits shown, which makes for a very one-sided presentation of all materials. It made me really grateful that America still values different perspective and freedom of speech.

After having thoroughly enjoyed the museum, I set out on my first lunch adventure. My father is very well known in our family for his “walkabouts” while trying to find food when we’re starving, which is really just a nice way of saying his “dear God, Dad, just choose something already!” To his credit, we have found some of our best meals that way. I have apparently picked up this knack. The reality of being solo really set in when I was hot, hangry, and tired. Which almost led to a mini-meltdown. When I finally found a place, I was so hungry, I didn’t even know what I ordered. I lucked out in getting wonderful rice pancakes with minced pork and mushrooms. Hanger crisis averted.

With a full belly and a fresh dose of caffeine, I made my way to the Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton. One of the things I have been most intrigued by was seeing the Vietnamese take on the war. Having taken a fantastic class on the Vietnam War in college, I know a lot of The American perspective, the justifications of the war and the harsh criticism at home. I knew the Vietnamese take would be different, but I didn’t realize how much. Walking through the prison was sobering. The first half is dedicated to Vietnamese imprisonment at the hands of the French, a decidedly unsympathetic portrayal of French imperialism. This was in stark contrast to how the prison was portrayed during the Vietnam War. The museum really played up the “good” conditions for the soldiers – letters from home, medical care, cooking dinner, etc. There was a complete omission of any other aspects of the life of the prisoners. Of course, I know the other conditions our POWs had, but it was so interesting talking to people from other countries who only have learned about the war from these exhibits in Vietnam. The perception of facts is both jarring and absolutely enlightening. Admittedly, our government made some terrible and horrific choices in Vietnam, but it was an odd experience to be characterized as the enemy. Just a good reminder that there are often multiple sides to every story.

Having spent the day by myself, I was really looking forward to getting back to the hostel and meeting some other travelers. Fortunately, hostels are a wonderfully social place filled with wonderfully social people, and my solo travel fears were all gone as I was met with plenty of new companions from around the world who were all brought together by the common desire for free beer (thanks, Old Quarter View Hostel!). I spent the social hour talking to Kevin and Felix, two men from Montreal, and Ellie, a medical student from England. Realizing that I was traveling alone, Ellie invited me to join her and her friends for dinner. Since eating alone is one of the loneliest things I had experienced so far, I happily accepted. Suddenly, I had 6 new friends all from different places in The UK. We went to a delicious restaurant for dinner where I had some Vietnamese style spring rolls and stir-fried noodles with chicken and vegetables. All of my dinner companions had recently finished university in the UK, and I loved hearing about all of the differences in college from the UK to the US. After two failed attempts at finding a rooftop bar, my jet lag began to set in and I went home for the night.

On my second morning in Hanoi, I set off to spend the day with two of my new friends, Becky, a student from Germany, and Louise. Our morning was characterized by a series of miscommunications and surprises around Vietnam. I had scheduled a free walking tour with a student, but a miscommunication in email led to us missing each other. So Louise, Becky, and I set off for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex on our own.

Along our way to the complex, we stopped at the Bac Ma Temple. This temple was a lovely building right in the middle of the city. I was impressed at how many people were there praying, lighting incense, and showing their respect. I was also amazed by the offerings of towers of Budweiser. I guess the champagne of beers is popular with the Gods.

We also passed the big market in Hanoi. I have been to big flea markets before, but I have never seen anything like this. It was stalls and stalls of shoes, bags, clothes, jewelry, and various odds and ends. I was so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things!

When we finally got out of the old Quarter, we passed through the West of Old Quarter area on our way to the Mausoleum complex. This area felt much more grand as the streets got bigger as did the buildings. All of the government buildings were a bright shade of yellow, which was a lovely contrast to the green trees surrounding them.

Once we got to the Mausoleum Complex, we tried to go in, but kept getting told no. After about 30 minutes of being told ‘no’ by very official looking people, we learned that we were in the wrong part of the complex. Once we finally found the entrance, we got turned away because it was approaching the lunch break. Alas, traveling always has unexpected surprises, and the best laid plans can go awry. Fortunately, we had a great plan B – more coffee! My coffee was just what I needed, and the conversation with Becky and Louise was even better. From talking about our respective politics to TV shows that we all watched to the Royal Wedding, we covered so much about ourselves in just a few hours. These experiences have been my highlights so far.

After our coffee, we went to the Temple of Literature. Again, I was impressed by the number of people paying their respects in the oppressive heat of midday. This temple was dedicated to ancient scholars in Vietnam, including Confucius, and it was nice to learn a bit of the history there. I didn’t realize that Confucius was considered an important teacher in Vietnam, and still today his teachings are studied.

After the Temple, I parted ways with Becky and Louise who left for the Women’s museum, and I went to go find lunch. I am now two for two on walkabout lunch endeavors. After walking on the same block 5 times looking for a non-existent restaurant, I ended up at a place where I had the best fried rice and spiciest pepper I have ever eaten. Note to self, if it looks spicy, it is.

I then went to the National Museum of Fine Art. I was going to skip this museum because of my hunger and frustration, but I am SO glad I didn’t as this was my favorite thing I have seen in Hanoi. The art was beautiful and so different than the art I have seen in Western countries. The museum began with early stone sculpture of important symbols in early Vietnam and moved into exhibits of ornate Buddhist sculptures and more realistic figures. I wish I knew more about the individual Buddhist teachings so I could understand why different figures were portrayed in the ways they were, but I was completely struck by the variety of techniques and portrayals. The museum also showcased Western-influenced art, covering everything from day-to-day scenes, to portraits, to war scenes. My favorite part was the exquisite lacquer work. Seriously, go look up Vietnamese lacquer painting. You will not be disappointed. I was amazed by the color and the detail work and I certainly had a few moments of Gary Reiff muttering about “the magnificent color.” The most striking part of the museum was how serene it was. Juxtaposed with the hustle and bustle outside, the museum was absolutely tranquil. In the majority of the exhibits, I was the only person there. I got to contemplate the art in silence, which was just what I needed.

After the museum, I went back to the hostel by way of a stop for coconut coffee, a recommendation from my friend Ali who lived in Hanoi. Coconut Coffee is literally the best thing I have tasted. Especially on a hot day. It’s sweet refreshing goodness made the walk home much more enjoyable. For dinner, I met up with Becky and Louise again for Banh Mi before I caught my taxi to the train station.

I had the most exhilarating two days in Hanoi. I am now sitting in a quiet hotel in Sapa before my trek. My biggest take away from Hanoi is that I am certainly not alone while I am traveling. I have met the most amazing people from around the world and have already have had my eyes opened to different customs and beliefs. I’m so excited for more to come.

I’m taking this from my dear friend Katie Leonard who has spent the last 6 months traveling. Highs of Hanoi were: meeting new friends, the art museum, the Women’s museum, and really good food. Lows of Hanoi were: getting lost on many streets during lunch and navigating street crossing. Biggest surprises of Hanoi: the ease at which I met people, challenges of miscommunication, and the amazing way things work out.

Till next time, it’s nice to know I may be solo, but never alone.

But first, Tokyo

Well, at least the airport.

After 13 hours of Pure Joy, aka my sleepless flight from Dallas, I landed in Tokyo. Yes, I left Denver to go to Dallas. Yes, Dallas is the wrong direction. The flight was uneventful enough, except for my lack of sleep. Thankfully, I had the Hamilton album and The Post to keep me occupied (watching a movie about the Vietnam War on my way to Vietnam was by far the most meta thing I have done so far.) The plane also had these amazing tinted windows that could be regulated by a button. They go from pitch black to clear in a few clicks, while getting every Instagram filter in between. I took a few great pictures (#nofilter) of Wyoming, Alaska, and Tokyo to document my long and weird journey.

Upon landing in Tokyo, I learned that my upcoming flight from Tokyo to Hanoi that I thought was 3 hours was actually 5. I decided the best thing to do to console myself was to get more food. I had the most amazing airport food I have ever had in my life: udon noodles with shrimp tempura and a small bottle of sake. Nothing will ever live up to this warm bowl of umami goodness. I think I used umami correctly there. I’m still learning my chef-y words. While at the restaurant, I met several people from Colorado! Small world. One woman just left Vietnam so she told me some things to go do. I love helpful people.

Some other observations from Tokyo: It’s amazing how much can be communicated with a smile and a nod. I understood nothing that has been said to me, but I completely comprehend body language. While in line for the restroom, a woman from Ho Chi Minh City started a conversation with me- just because we were waiting. People are so friendly! Also, Tokyo has more flavors of KitKats than I could have possibly imagined.

I finally arrived in Hanoi around 10:40 PM after having finally slept on a plane! When collecting my bag (which was there! Number one fear was losing my bag), there was an announcement apologizing for the false announcement that there may be a fire. Nothing like an erroneous fire to start your night right. I eventually made it to my hostel after passing a busy street market at midnight!!

As I write this, I just finished breakfast, and I’m headed for my first day around Hanoi. I cannot wait!

The craziest thing I’ve ever done

It is 4:15 AM MST*, which is, as everyone knows, the best time to start a blog post. Especially when you haven’t had your coffee and only slept for approximately an hour. But, as today is the first day of my month long venture to Vietnam and Cambodia, I thought I would start to capture my journey from the very beginning. It is, after all, a very good place to start.

When I booked my flight to Vietnam 3 months ago and told people I was taking my first solo venture abroad, they often asked how I chose Vietnam. For a lot of folks, Vietnam has the connotation of a war zone. The known images of death and destruction so closely associated with the Vietnam War do not scream popular spot for solo female travelers. However, since the end war was now over 40 years ago, times have changed as has the country, and Vietnam has become one of the top destinations for intrepid voyagers.

So, how did I choose to travel to Vietnam? The short answer is: I wanted to do something different. Having studied abroad in Vienna, Austria and having had the great fortune to travel with my family, I’ve done a bit of travel through Europe. While I would always love to go back, I decided it was time to spend my wings and go somewhere else. I also knew that I was going to be traveling by myself. I love traveling with my friends and family, but I had this itch to go out on my own and have my Eat, Pray, Love adventure. So, as the type-A student that I am, I did a bit of research. Long story short, I discovered that Vietnam is one of the most beautiful and welcoming countries with a vibrant culture and stunning scenery. Add in good food, and I was sold.

So here I am. Starting the craziest adventure of my life. I’m so excited to meet new people, explore new places, eat new food, and grow as a human being. I cannot wait.

*update: as of posting, it is 9:47 Central Time and I have had coffee and slept an additional 30 minutes.

A community of heroes

What does it mean to be a hero?

This could be the start to a standardized test essay, but this is the question I asked myself today, standing in the midst of 1,700 high school students, plus elementary and middle school students and members of my school community.

Today was my school’s charity event to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. For the 11th year, my school’s community has come together to fight cancer and show our solidarity with those fighting. Tons of high school students, not to mention the elementary school and middle school students, parents, teachers, and members of the community, signed up to shave their heads or donate their hair to raise money for cancer research.

This assembly was not just an assembly. It was a rallying call. It was a call for those who have voices to continue to fight for those who cannot. It was a call for those who are battling cancer to keep fighting and to know that they are supported. It was a call for all of us to keep going, because sometimes there are bad days, but we can never give up.

Cancer is scary. It is devastating, and it impacts whole communities. But there is always the hope for a cure. There is hope in the faces of the elementary school students excited to shave their heads. There is hope in the faces of the high school students who are ready to take a stand. There is hope in the faces of the community, brimming with pride at the work that these young adults are doing to organize and put on an amazing event. And there is hope in the faces of our seven year-old “hero child” who is putting up the fight of his life.

There has been a lot in the news recently about what needs to happen in schools to fight violence that we have recently seen.

This is it. This is what needs to happen in schools. Teaching empathy. Teaching compassion. Encouraging our kids to be leaders and stand up for a cause. Allowing our students to recognize that they can make a difference and they can be heroes, even by doing something as simple as shaving their heads.

Some adults can learn a thing or two from these kids.

I stood at school today inspired and proud. Proud of my community, and darn proud of my students. These kids, this community – they are my heroes.

Keep Calm and Play Ultimate

In my last blog post, I resolved to say “yes” to new opportunities. Last weekend was my first foray into big new opportunities – I participated in my first ever ultimate frisbee tournament.

If you have known me for more than this year, you would know that the last time I played frisbee was in my sophomore year of high school in gym class. A hot-shot kid decided to throw the frisbee over my head, but instead, he threw it into my head. The frisbee broke my glasses and I vowed never to play again. That all changed when my amazing roommate convinced me to sign-up for Summer League Frisbee.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Having never played on a sports team before, I was a little self-conscious about my lack of athleticism. However, my supportive teammates cheered me on and helped me learn the basics of the sport. I still didn’t touch the disk much, but I learned a ton and made a ton of new friends in the process.

Flash forward to December 2017 when a girls’ night conversation ended in me booking a ticket to LA to play in Lei Out (for those not in the know, a layout is a move in which you catch the frisbee while jumping and horizontally landing on the ground).

So… that’s how I ended up in Huntington Beach playing 7 games of Ultimate Frisbee in two days. And I loved it. The “Bruce Springs-team” from Colorado Springs showed up in cut-off denim shorts, denim vests, American flags, and flannel, helping us get in the spirit to huck a frisbee down a sand field. (It turns out, frisbee tournaments often are played in costume…). Running on sand is hard, and my calves burned after the first 5 minutes of running, but I toughened-up and played as well as I could. I may not have touched the frisbee much, but I learned a ton and bonded with my wonderful teammates. I could not think of a better way to start 2018 (okay, I could have done without the bee sting).

Joining the Colorado Springs Ultimate Network was one of the best decisions I made in 2017. I now have a network of supportive and welcoming friends, and I am constantly meeting new people. I am a part of a community that I love. I firmly believe that this tournament is just the beginning of a lifetime of frisbee playing.

The Return of the Blog

After a brief (6 month) hiatus from my blogging adventure, I have made it my New Year’s Resolution to return to writing. In my 6 month break, I have done some wonderful things, but I have also let myself get very busy and have forgotten to sit and reflect. As I find myself rushing from one thing to the next, I decided it was important to build this reflection time back into my life. Therefore, New Year, New Blog.

Last year, my blog had a monthly theme – which sometimes made for trite posts that did not really fit my monthly goal. So, I’m taking a new approach. Reflections. Musings. Creative Ideas. Stories. This year, my blog will encompass any and all of the above, and maybe some other things along the way.

For my first post (this time), I’m setting myself up with some goals for the year. I’m not a big fan of “resolutions.” I think that “resolving” to do something puts a bit to much pressure on me. What if I don’t do it? Will I have failed? Instead, I’m focusing on my goals for the coming year. I have made these goals broad enough that I should be able to meet them in some way. None of my goals are measurable – like lose 10 pounds – or anything like that. Instead, I have decided on goals that will help me to be a better, more loving, and more forgiving person. So here we are:

  1. Say ‘yes’ to opportunities. I get into a routine. I like my routine. It’s comfortable and doesn’t challenge me. But, it doesn’t offer much opportunities for growth. Some of my best decisions I made last year came from my month of saying ‘yes’ to new opportunities. I’m excited to see how many new doors open if I just keep myself open to the possibility.
  2. Say ‘no’ when I need to. The corollary of saying ‘yes’ is saying ‘no’ when something doesn’t feel right. I am a people-pleaser and I like doing things for other people. I like to be involved, and I like to help people out. Sometimes, this means putting myself last and burning the candle at all ends. I have learned that I need time for me. It’s okay for me to take the time I need and put myself first sometimes.
  3. Think of my mistakes as learning opportunities. I preach this to my students every day. Each and every day, I tell them to “Make Mistakes Boldly.” However, I am really bad at doing that myself. I will own my mistakes, but I will endeavor to not let them destroy me. Instead, I will look for the lesson and try to do better next time.
  4. Learn something new every day. This does not have to be anything big like learning a new instrument or a language, but something to open my mind every day. I’m excited to see what the world has to offer!
  5. Listen to Hear. This is probably my most important resolution. As a choir teacher, I have to listen all the time to help my students progress musically. But sometimes I wonder if I’m really hearing what is going on around me. In today’s political climate, it is possible to ignore what I don’t want to hear and focus on what I agree with. In surrounding myself with those with similar viewpoints as myself, I get isolated from others who have things to say. I think it’s important to listen to someone and say “I hear you” and not offer any rebuttal. My goal this year is to have meaningful conversations about everything and really listen to the other person – not to plan my response, but to hear them.

So that’s what I’ve got. I’m sure these 5 goals will produce a number of interesting stories and reflections.

Happy 2018! May this year be the best one yet.

Challenge 3, Day 4: The Toast

The maitre’d greets us as we walk through the door. He is dressed impeccably in his well-tailored sport coat and silk tie. He asks for our reservation, and a hostess in an sultry black dress escorts us to our seats. The restaurant is a posh reminder of a forgotten elegance, days when people dressed to dine, when people went to see and be seen. As soon as we sit down, our waiter presents us with a bottle of champagne. “Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Jones,” he says as he pops the champagne bottle in one simple flourish. We toast to our new marriage and the journey on which we are embarking.

Prompt from 365 Creative Writing prompts. Story to be continued tomorrow.

Challenge 3, Day 3: Dancing

He’s a 10 year-old boy, and he’s a sensation. Every day at 4:00 PM, people line the street to watch the kid on the corner of 10th and Christopher tap. He’s unassuming as he straps on his worn down taps and presses play on his old CD player. He’s memorized every Gregory Hines routine he can find on YouTube, and can perform them perfectly. Each day, the crowd grows bigger and word-of-mouth spreads and the entire Village is clamoring to see the tap prodigy.

 

Prompt found on 365 Creative Writing Prompts.

Challenge 3, Day 2: The Ship

The massive vessel towered above the motor boats that lined the pier. The sturdy wooden planks harkened back to ships of old and seemed out of place along the modern New York harbor. The ship’s whistle drowned out the din or the busy city streets as it called for its passengers to come aboard. I pick up my suitcase, anxious for the adventure ahead, and I walk the gangway without looking back at the city behind me. I am starting a year away at sea, without the pressures of chaotic city life. As I cross the threshold into the ship’s main cabin, I am transported back to another time. The lush red carpet juxtaposed with the lavish gold accents are reminiscent of a luxurious lifestyle only seen in movies. A clean-cut porter greets me in hallway with a glass of champagne. “Welcome, Miss. Please join us in the dining room for the Captain’s Welcome.” I take the champagne, kiss my desk job goodbye, and prepare myself for the adventure of a lifetime.

Prompt from 365 Creative Writing Prompts.