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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