2015 in Review

Somehow it’s almost the end of February, and over the past month I spent a lot of time thinking about what I’ve done, who I’ve met, and where I went in 2015. I thought I’d take a minute to round up a few of my favorite moments from the past year, and share a few photos I never got around to posting.

January

I rang in the start of 2015 with Annin in Phenom Penh, eating dragon fruit and learning about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. It was a bit of a somber way to start the year, but I loved that trip. When I left Annin I met up with the family in Hawaii for a week of relaxing on (or near) the beach.

February

In February I spent a weekend teaching at a high school in a Soc Trang, a rural area of the Mekong Delta, and felt very old. It was an interesting but exhausting experience, and I decided to think of it as a test run for how life in Japan would be. Turns out it’s quite a bit different. But after that weekend I flew to Guam for my JET interview.

When I returned to Vietnam it was time for the biggest holiday of the year, Tet. Brad came to visit for a few days, and then I set off on yet another big trip: Vung Tau with my friends, then Singapore, Hue, Hoi An and Da Nang on my own. I saw manatees, skyscrapers, drag queens and merlions in Singapore. Lanterns, traditional buildings, beaches and Buddhist temples in central Vietnam. And the food! I still think about the food. It was my first time traveling solo, and it was quite an eye-opening experience. Looking back, I’m so glad I did it. I’m not sure how much I want to travel alone for extended periods in the future, but it’s great to know that I am 100% capable on my own, and can have a good time with just me, myself and I.

March

March was a bit quiet after nearly two solid months of travel, but it was nice. I visited Selina and attended a wedding in the countryside, and they wouldn’t let me stop dancing! March was also prime kite-flying weather, and I spent quite a bit of time flying (and sometimes losing) kites with friends. When I think about Vietnam, I often think about flying kites with friends, and how cool it was to see hundreds of kites out on any given afternoon by the river.

April

As my time in Vietnam drew to a close, my friend Ha made up a bucket list of things our friend group had to do together before everyone went their separate ways. The crowning achievement of that list was the “Color Me Run” in Ho Chi Minh City. All of our friends came together to “run” the 5k track and throw colorful powder at each other, followed by a concert, and then nearly an hour of trying to get a taxi to pick us up while we were covered in colored powder. A few other favorite memories from April include eating at a great bbq restaurant as often as possible, going out for way-too-spicy noodles with the teaching assistants, and helping out with Gia Viet’s “farm day” where students had to dig up vegetables and use farm-related English.

May

My final month in Vietnam was bittersweet. I started off with a trip to Da Lat that was both beautiful and also a bit sad for me. The mountains were gorgeous but I think that the stress of leaving Vietnam and waiting to hear back from JET, piled on top of not sharing a common language with most of my travel partners was a bit much for me. But when we returned from the trip, I went with Selina to visit Ha in Ho Chi Minh City and had what was possibly the best weekend of my entire year. We went rock climbing, saw a live show, found a man with a pet squirrel, and ate tons of great food. It was wonderful to spend time with friends, and sad to know it was coming to an end.

In my last few weeks in Can Tho I tried to spend my time with people I had come to love, in my favorite coffee shops and eating my favorite meals. I’m not sure I quite accomplished this, but I had a good time trying. The final goodbye party was nice, and ended with the ice cream cake we had bought melting too much to cut, so we all had to dig in with spoons. My last week in Vietnam was spent shopping in Ho Chi Minh City at the monthly Saigon Flea Market, and hanging out on the beach with Ha, Lavender and Peter. I cried when Ha dropped me off at the airport, and knew I would miss this place immensely. I sometimes half-plan return trips when I have free days at work, or when I’ve had a particularly bad Japanese coffee, or when my friends post gorgeous photos on Facebook. I miss Vietnam, and the friends I made there, and I know I’ll be back at some point, but of course I also know it won’t be the same when I do. If I keep thinking about this I’ll never stop writing, and it’ll get sappier and sappier, so I think it’s best to just say I loved Vietnam, and move on to June.

June

After leaving Vietnam I had signed up for a two-week tour of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore with G Adventures. I’d never done a tour before, and I don’t know if I’d do it again, but it was nice to have other people there to arrange all of the details, and to help me carry my stuff from point A to point B. The locations themselves were fantastic. I realize I never wrote about my summer, but it was great. One of my favorite memories of the whole trip was my first day in Bangkok – I woke up and decided to find a kaya toast restaurant I’d read about online. After a long cab ride and an hour of searching, I gave up and ate at a roadside stall, but of course as soon as I left the stall, mostly full and resigned to miss out on this particular dish, I found the place. Since I’d missed the breakfast crowd there was only one other person in the restaurant. I ordered, and afterward the other woman came over and asked if she could join me. Her English was fantastic, and it turns out she was preparing to go to Cincinnati for a masters program. It was fun talking to her, and at the end of the meal she asked if I’d like to go shopping with her nearby. I had no real plans for the day, and so she took me to a massive market, followed by her friend’s coffee shop. It was so much fun spending the day with this kind stranger, and I felt like I was able to see so many parts of the city I would never have known about. In the end, I decided that Bangkok is a fascinating city, one I’d love to return to and explore in depth.

But besides that day, the tour wasn’t super eventful. I was the only American in a group of mostly Europeans (all of us were in our twenties, most were solo travelers). We went from Bangkok to Ko Samui by overnight train and spent two days snorkeling and sitting on the beach. One memorable day we took a boat into the marine park and I climbed 500 meters just about straight up to get a gorgeous view of the surrounding islands. The hike was pretty tough, and by the end there was literally just a rope and some rocks, and we were expected to pull ourselves up. This isn’t something that would fly in the US, but in Thailand anything goes. I have never sweat so much in my life, but I definitely enjoyed the sense of accomplishment from reaching the top, and of course surviving the journey back down.

After Ko Samui we made our way into Malaysia, to George Town. George Town is a quaint little town in Penang, and one of the coolest things about it is that some years ago they decided the best way to increase tourism was to turn themselves into the street art capital of Malaysia. We had a free day to do whatever we liked, so I hunted for street art and shopped, which is just about a perfect day for me. I would defiitely go back given the chance. After George Town we drove to the Cameron Highlands. The mountains were gorgeous, and the tea plantations were spectacular. The tea itself wasn’t much to write home about, but I loved looking at it.

From the highlands we moved to the urban jungles of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city. There are tons of museums and beautiful buildings in KL, but I think my favorite was the “Heli Bar,” a helipad by day and rooftop bar by night from which you can see KL Tower and the Petronas Towers unobstructed. The night I went there was a live band playing, and it was quite an experience. We rounded out our stay in Malaysia with a trip to the Batu Caves, a massive cave with a hindu temple inside, and finally a day in Malacca, which I found quite charming.

The last stop on our tour was Singapore, and by this point I’d had about enough of my fellow tour-mates and was more than happy to be a solo traveler once again. I decided to stay in Singapore a few extra days, since I had liked the city so much on my first visit. This time I took in a light show, did a bit more shopping, explored the exceedingly creepy Haw Par Villa, and ate some of the best sushi of my life.

From Singapore I took a quick flight to Perth, Australia, where I met up with Cindy for another two weeks of travel!

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It was great to spend time with Cindy, and Australia was amazing. Our first stop, Perth, is in Western Australia, and we used our time there to adjust to the time difference, explore the cute town of Fremantle, and meet some quokkas. In case you were wondering, quokkas (the “world’s happiest animals”) are exactly as cute in person as you’d expect them to be.

From Perth we flew to Melbourne and rented a car to take on The Great Ocean Road. While driving on the left presented its own challenges, I think this might have been my favorite place in Australia. The road was stunning, with views alternating from rainforests to cliffs to amazing rock formations. We saw koalas, wallabies and emus, did a bit of hiking and a lot of driving, and best of all – we were just about the only people on the road. That comes in handy when you’re not quite comfortable driving on the “wrong” side of the road, both for the driver and the far more nervous passenger (me!). We finished up the road trip with a day in Melbourne, which turned out to be a fun city with lots of tasty food, art, and culture that I definitely plan on revisiting soon.

From Melbourne we went north, to Cairns and Port Douglas, where we stayed at an eco lodge in the Daintree Rainforest. It was stunning, and completely different from the forests we’d seen in the south. We went hiking, took a trip through the rainforest to Cape Tribulation, and of course went snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef. It was an amazing few days, and a fantastic experience.

Finally it was time to start heading home, and we flew to our final destination – Sydney. We only had one day in the city, and we spent it wandering, which was really fun. The night before we left we found out that our flight had been delayed by about 6 hours, which was a huge pain in the butt, especially since the airline never actually told us. Cindy found out only because she couldn’t check in ahead of time and then fought like a tiger to make sure everything was settled for our return trip. But despite the hassle, I was actually glad for the extra time, since it gave us a chance to tour the Sydney Opera House. The building is pretty spectacular.

July

From Australia I finally returned home to St. Louis, where I spent a quiet month at home with family and friends. It was great to see everyone, and to play with the dogs, but pretty soon it was time to head out again. Due to JET’s complicated rules regarding interviews and departures, I had to leave for Japan from Portland, OR. I took this opportunity to spend a week in the Pacific Northwest with friends. I went to Tacoma and Portland, saw lots of old friends, and ate lots of foods I knew I would miss in Japan.

August

My first month in Japan was a blur! While orientation was in Tokyo, I spent almost no time there and quickly moved on to my new home, Miyakonojo. Adjusting to life in Japan wasn’t so bad, though I quickly realized how rusty my Japanese had gotten. I was glad to find a really awesome community of fellow JETs , and together we went on weekend trips, participated in festivals and had lots and lots of Japanese firsts.

September

By September I was starting to feel at home, so naturally it was time to take my first big trip in Japan. I met up with Annin and traveled around Kyoto and Hyogo, and it was fantastic. These were places I’d been dreaming of seeing since I was in middle school, and I had finally made it! September was also when my school had it’s culture festival and sports day, when my students went to the regional English speech contest, and I waged (and won!) the battle with the pigeons on my balcony.

October

By October I think I had pretty much settled into work, and was just starting to get comfortable. Outside of work I kept going on weekend trips with friends. I saw lots of flowers, some horseback archery, a Noh play, some pretty cool fireworks and a lantern festival. For Halloween I flew to Osaka to meet my friend Sam while she was traveling in Japan, and we had the thoroughly surprising and extremely fun experience of people watching for a Japanese Halloween.

November

After Halloween Sam and I went to Universal Studios Japan, where we had a total blast at the Harry Potter park. The rest of that trip was spent shopping and sightseeing, from Osaka Castle to Nara’s Deer Park. Otherwise, the month was pretty quiet. I celebrated Thanksgiving with a fantastic meal with lots of my friends from all over the world. We did the holiday proud by eating far too much. It also turned out that almost all of my friends had our birthdays within two weeks of each other, so it was sort of a combined birthday/turkey day celebration (with chicken instead of turkey).

December

And finally, I closed out the year with my 25th birthday, and lots of karaoke. I did a weekend homestay in Izumi, a samurai town in the neighboring prefecture of Kagoshima, where I was dressed up in a kimono, which was fun. I bought and started driving my car, learned exactly how far Japanese customer service is willing to go, went to my school’s end of year staff party, and finally made the long journey to Europe to meet up with the family.

And that’s it! It’s been a crazy year, and a great one. I traveled to four continents and seven countries, saw old friends and made new ones, pushed myself to try new things and continued to find comfort in the unknown. 2016 is already off to a great start, and I can’t wait to see what comes next as I prepare for year two of JET life in Japan. Thank you as always for reading and going on this journey with me. Now, onto the next year!

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The Leftons Take Europe, 2015-16 Edition

Hello everyone and happy belated 2016! I suppose my New Years resolution of writing more prompt blog updates is off to a rocky start, but the year itself has been pretty great. I’ve officially signed the papers to stay in Japan for a second year and I’m pretty happy about it. I’m hoping another year will give me a chance to improve my language skills and keep exploring, and I really like my school and teachers. The adventure continues!

But for now I’ll take some time to look back on the holidays, and the week I got to spend with my family in Europe. Fair warning, I’m putting the whole 10 days into one post, so this might get a bit long….

Anyways, this was the trip that almost wasn’t, what with the Paris attacks and general panic over the state of the world. At one point my mom called to tell me the trip was off, but two days later it was back to, “no, let’s wait and see.” I’m very glad that annoyance over having to discard our plans won out over anxiety about the state of the world, since in the end the world seems to have kept on going, and we all survived the journey.

The family in Dublin, in front of a famous church (either St. Patrick's or Christchurch.... I can't remember now)
The family in Dublin, in front of a famous church (either St. Patrick’s or Christchurch…. I can’t remember now)

This is not to say that the trip was easy. The journey was long for all of us. I took off on Christmas Eve and flew from Miyazaki to Osaka, where I had to spend the night. After a lazy day that ended with me being scolded at a Japanese Starbucks for attempting to charge my computer (yes, it was as strange as it sounds) I set off on the second leg of my journey: Osaka to Hong Kong, then Hong Kong to Amsterdam. I had a bit of deja vu when I realized that exactly four years ago I was making almost the exact same journey from Hong Kong to London to meet my family for the holidays on Pac Rim. It’s funny how much things have changed since then, but have also remained the same… Anyway, once I made it to Amsterdam I had a nice long layover before I finally made it to Dublin, where I met up with the family.

Presto and the Abra Kebabra
Presto and the Abra Kebabra restaurant

It was great to see everyone, though of course we were all beyond tired the first few days. We only had two full days in Dublin and both of them were fairly quiet. We all took a  walking tour of the city that was very informative, though the guide was a bit long winded. We saw Trinity College, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin Castle and several other historic old buildings. It was all very interesting, but by the end we were feeling a bit oversaturated with information, and of course more than a little tired.

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The family in Dublin, in front of a famous church (either St. Patrick’s or Christchurch…. I can’t remember now)

Day two didn’t quite go as planned,since mom woke up in the middle of the night with back spasms. She and dad had quite a night going to and from the hospital, and of course when morning came they were both set on staying in bed. So Katie and I took the day to explore on our own. It’s not often that we get to spend time one-on-one, so I was glad to have a chance to catch up with her. We walked around parks and in and out of shops before ending up at the Guinness Storehouse. The tour was nice, but since neither of us are particularly fond of Guinness or interested in how beer is made, the whole thing was a bit lost on us. The view of the city was cool to see though, and many of the exhibits and props for old Guinness ads were fun to take photos with.

All in all our stop in Dublin was very short, and I think everyone decided that was fine. As cities go Dublin is perfectly nice, but it’s really the countryside that draws people to Ireland. Sadly we didn’t have time to get out of the city, so I’ve put Ireland back onto my list of places to go. Next time I’ll just rent a car and take in the scenery, and I’ll do a bit more research into holidays. This time we had the bad luck (well, really just poor planning on my part) of arriving in the middle of a bunch of bank holidays, and just about everything was closed.

In any case, after leaving Ireland we landed in Edinburgh, Scotland, our main destination. Mom’s back was mostly back to normal, though she spent most of our trip dealing with the side effects of the drugs the doctor had given her. In light of everything she went through, she was amazingly resilient, though of course we all wished she didn’t have to be. But in any case, it was good to arrive with our family members in better shape than before, and I was excited to see what Edinburgh had to offer.

I can’t speak for the rest of the family, but I found Edinburgh to be an utterly charming city. The architecture was gorgeous and gothic, the accents lovely, and the food surprisingly good. We spent a fair amount of time wandering the Christmas markets, which was a fun, seasonal treat (and who doesn’t love mulled wine and chocolates?).

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Our main purpose for visiting Edinburgh was to join in the New Year’s festivities, and so on our second night in the city, December 30th, we all bundled up to join a massive torchlight procession through old town. There were so many people when we showed up, that mom got a bit overwhelmed and decided to watch rather than participate in the procession itself. Katie and I jumped right into the crowd and waited in line for about half an hour to have our torches lit before finally making the journey down the hill and into town.

In the end, the wait and the cold were worth it, because it really was an amazing sight. There were over twenty thousand people in attendance, and they all  created a river of light throughout the town, and I felt a bit of a rush from taking part in something so cool. Photos don’t really do it justice. By the time we made it down the hill we realized we were running a bit late to dinner (where we would meet back up with the parents. Being late would have probably meant inducing a panic attack, since none of our phones really worked). We gave our torches away to a few torch-less tourists and made it to the restaurant just in time.

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The next day Katie went rock climbing and the rest of us split up to explore or nap as we pleased. I decided to wander the city and see where I ended up. Edinburgh is a surprisingly walkable city, and I had a great time getting lost and finding myself in unexpected places. Taking time to just wander is always my favorite part of traveling, and while I love traveling with friends and family, it’s nice to have time for self-reflection. In the evening we met back up to have dinner and check out the official New Year’s street party.

The street party was cool, with five stages for live music and fireworks going off every hour or so from Edinburgh Castle, but in the end the cold was a bit much for us. Katie and I stuck around long enough to see one or two shows, but by 11 we noticed that the crowd was significantly drunker than we were, and our warm hotel room was calling. Not the most exciting of New Years Eve stories, but we had a good time and felt well rested in the morning.

Katie and I decided to kick off 2016 with a hike, so we set out from our hotel to climb Arthur’s Seat, a small mountain (well, ok, a hill) in the center of the city. I’d read that the hike offered 360 degree views of the city, and it definitely delivered. We also lucked out with the weather – a nice, mildly cloudy day in what was otherwise a bit of a cold and rainy week.

After the hike we met up with the parents and decided to tag along on a Harry Potter tour of the city. Edinburgh is where JK Rowling lives, and so the city supposedly inspired a number of people and places in the books. Below we have the “original” Hogwarts, the grave of Tom Riddle (or He-who-must-not-be-named), Diagon Alley, and a bit of Harry Potter inspired street art. The tour was fast paced and entertaining – we were all given “wands” at the start (someone had painted disposable chopsticks with glitter and string) which was very silly, but also cute. I’d recommend the (free!) tour to anyone who likes Harry Potter and finds themselves visiting Edinburgh. It was way better than a similar tour we took in London a few years back.

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Magic duel in the graveyard!

Our final days in Edinburgh were spent walking around, taking in the sites and eating our way through town. We saw the castle, of course, bought ourselves some tweed clothes, and Mom ate and liked black pudding, until she found out what it was (the not-so-secret ingredient is blood!).

On our final day in Scotland we took a tour of Stirling Castle and the highlands that turned out not to actually go into the highlands, but did bring us to a very pretty loch (which is a lake). Katie tried vegetarian haggis, we drove past the castle where they filmed Monty Python and the Holy Grail (though sadly we didn’t get to stop and go in), and I braved some serious wind and cold to get a full tour of Stirling Castle.

The next day it was off to Amsterdam. I think that all of us found this to be an extremely interesting city, but we were also a bit drained from all of the travel and time together. We took an extremely interesting walking tour of “alternative Amsterdam,” a less interesting canal boat tour, visited the Anne Frank house, Rijks and Van Gogh museums, and of course walked over canal after canal. I really wish we’d had a bit of extra time, since Amsterdam is gorgeous and fascinating.

But I think my favorite thing about Amsterdam was the food. No, seriously. The tour guides laughed about how Dutch food isn’t very good, but I beg to disagree. Pancakes, bitterballen, olibollen, stroopwafels, gouda! Given a few more days in Amsterdam, I surely would have gained about ten pounds from all of the delicious treats – especially the stroopwafels, which I made everyone go out of their way to find at a market near the Van Gogh Museum. We all agreed it was worth it, there’s not much better than a warm waffle-cookie with gooey caramel in the middle.

But in any event, after two days in Amsterdam, it was time to part ways. It was sad to go, but I think I do better with goodbyes when it’s not leaving St. Louis. There’s a sort of finality to leaving home that just doesn’t exist in quite the same way when we’re all traveling. Mom said she had the opposite feeling, since she can go home and distract herself with the dogs when I leave from home. I guess I’ll get to test my new theory when I eventually come back home later this year (still figuring out when that’ll be…)

So that’s it! A very long account of our family trip to Europe. See ya next time!