Where to even begin…

It’s been almost a year since I’ve written anything….probably because I’ve been grappling with the nightmare that is COVID-19 for about as much time. Having just stepped out of Turkey, which – although a lovely place- was in the grips of economic downturn and political turmoil, we had hoped China would be an era of stability for us. Turns out we were really, really wrong.

Four months in, at the peak of culture shock and just before a much-anticipated Chinese New Year break, the news of a deadly epidemic was spreading like wildfire. Reluctantly, we went on our scheduled vacation to Japan…just days before we were to return, our school and the American embassy sent out a warning not to come back. What was supposed to be two weeks turned into to three months of e-learning, running out one visa and then another (we stayed in Thailand for about a month and a half and in Cambodia for a month). We were dealing with a school that was giving as little information as possible; one day, they would say “don’t come back to China” and the next they would say “buy a ticket and come back now!” When we did eventually go back, we endured a horrific quarantine, replete with anti-foreigner sentiment, being separated from my husband without being informed in advance, and not being fed or given water consistently for the first several days. The whole experience ruined China for me, frankly, which has been hard to deal with after falling in love with being an expat in Turkey.

To add insult to injury, just two weeks after we finally made it back home to Chongqing, my husband and I were laid off for the following school year, along with several other staff members due to declining enrollment.

I didn’t love the school or Chongqing, but it still felt like a punch to the gut. We really only had two choices: take another job in China, or go back to the U.S. to figure things out and be with our families. In the end, we chose the latter. Neither of us could really take much more of China or its schools.

And now here we are in America…which really can’t seem to get its shit together in this pandemic. We had initially toyed with the idea of teaching here, but seeing how political schools have become in all this -using teachers and students as sacrificial lambs for the economy- we just decided to take a year off and live off of our savings. It isn’t ideal, but we are lucky to have that option.

We’ve been back home in Kansas for about four months now, and it’s been pretty boring for the most part. But boring hasn’t been all bad after over a year of frequent turmoil.

All I can hope is that next year will be better.

2019

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January

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February

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March

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April

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May

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June

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July

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August

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September

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October

 

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November

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December

2019 has been a strange year.  A year of change, transition, ups, and downs.  A year I’m ready to let go, but a year to remember nonetheless.  I am hoping 2020 is a little more settled, a little more cheerful, but no less adventurous.  Happy New Year.

Paradise in Phuket

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First term has come and gone.  I can hardly believe it.

Back in Turkey, we spent most of our fall breaks in cold European cities, trying to find traces of autumn that would remind us of home.  This year, we took a different approach, instead opting for summery island paradise.  While I still long for colorful leaves and pumpkin spice everything, I can’t say I minded spending a week on the beach.

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In the end, I had pumpkin spice anyway. 

Adjusting to a new job and a new country is exhausting; often, so is traveling.  We didn’t want to put too many expectations on our first vacation after a couple of stressful months, so we kept it low key:  1) Hotel by the beach 2) No plans.

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Days went by with nothing but swimming, lounging on the beach, drinking out of coconuts, sipping on a few beers, and eating delicious Thai food.  In other words, paradise.

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After several joyful lazy days, we decided it was worth our while to book a tour and explore more of the island.  We joined a half-day Phuket city tour and were the only ones who booked it, so we ended up getting a private tour for the same price as the group tour.  Score!

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Our first stop was Big Buddha, a monument dedicated to Buddha that overlooks the whole island and can be seen from most of it.  As if the statue itself wasn’t enough of an attraction, the views from its platform were stunning.

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Also, monkeys!

Stop #2 was Chalong Temple, which was also gorgeous.

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Last but not least, we had a couple of hours to explore Old Phuket Town, which is a delightful neighborhood full of beautiful pastel buildings, cool cafes, and interesting shops.

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This rainbow building was my fave.

In the end, I may have had one too many Singha beers, bought more souvenirs than I really needed, and definitely left with a sunburn, but I can’t recommend Phuket enough.  Is it touristy?  Very.  Is it fun? Absolutely.  The Thai people are wonderful, kind, and friendly and English is widely spoken.  The food is cheap, plentiful, and delicious.  There is literally something for every kind of traveler, whether you want to be a beach bum, hike, or party until you drop.  We chose to stay in Kata Beach, which is a quieter part of the island more suited to couples and families to avoid some of the more obnoxious crowds.

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I left feeling refreshed, relieved at having survived my first couple of months in China, and excited to explore more of Thailand in the future.

 

We are moving…

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…to Chongqing, China!

After a few months of intense job hunting, we found a school that seems like a great fit for us for next year and were offered the jobs a few days before Christmas.  It still feels pretty surreal.

I am already daydreaming about misty green mountains, spicy hot pot, breathtaking temples, and cuddly pandas.

We are super excited to explore Asia, take another step in our careers, and immerse ourselves in a brand new culture.  We are also soaking up our last six months here in Turkey before taking off on this next crazy adventure.

Bring it on, 2019!

2018

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January

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February

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March

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April

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May

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June

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July

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August

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September

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October

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November

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December

As 2018 comes to an end, it feels good to look back on all of the beautiful things I have experienced this year.  2018 has been difficult, but transformative.  Big changes lie ahead!

 

Floating in the Dead Sea

IMG_3202.jpgAfter a phenomenal adventure full of hiking and camping through Wadi Rum and Petra, we were ready for a little R&R.  The final stop on our Jordanian journey – the Dead Sea- was perfect for just that.

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After a scenic drive along the King’s Way and through Wadi Araba, we were greeted with a hazy coast full of jade green water.  It was at least 10 degrees warmer in Northern Jordan than it had been in the desert, so we were happy to have a little sunshine in our lives.

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We had gotten pretty gross after all of the hiking and desert wandering and the campsites had offered pretty limited shower facilities, so we were ready for a slightly more pampering experience.  We got a pretty sweet deal at a spa resort (~$60/night – including buffet breakfast and a private beach), which seemed like the perfect way to end our holiday.

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Being able to float in the super salty water was an insanely cool sensation.  It was very difficult for me to abide by the one-hour-at-a-time rule because it was so relaxing.

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The next few days were spent swimming, floating, sunbathing, and enjoying some drinks in the sunshine.  It was the perfect end to a fantastic vacation.

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Some local brew

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An incredible sunset

The Rose City of Petra

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Petra:  the crowning jewel of Jordan.  I  mean, how is this place even real?  To think that it was once a city of thousands, intricately carved right into the mountains…wow.  It was humbling.

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We decided to go straight to Petra after our camel ride in Wadi Rum, which made for an exhausting but incredible day.  Thankfully, we chose to purchase Jordan passes for our trip, which included two days at Petra (you need at least two days to see all the highlights and could easily spend three).  The Jordan Passes also include the visa fees to visit Jordan, as well as entry to several other sites like Wadi Rum and Jerash – great value for the money.

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A rare view of a mostly unobstructed Treasury!

Most people only know Petra because of the Treasury, which is undeniably beautiful; however, Petra is SO much more than that!  I couldn’t believe how massive and extensive this ancient city really is, not to mention how well-preserved most of the structures are.

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There are a wide variety of routes you can take through Petra, ranging from flat, easy walks to more intense hikes.  If you visit, expect to be bombarded by people asking if you want to ride a horse, donkey, or camel.  Most of these people are not licensed professionals and in my opinion, most of the animals there did not look well taken care of.  Personally, I did not feel comfortable riding any of them and chose to go on foot.  I also enjoyed the intensity of the longer hikes and wanted to be able to stop and take in the views as I pleased.

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The hike to the Monastery was one of the highlights for me.  Along the way, there are tons of great views, it’s not nearly as crowded as the Treasury, and there is a great little cafe right next to it.

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Our other favorite hike was to the High Place of Sacrifice.  The views from the top were stunning.

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It’s amazing to imagine what Petra would have been like back in its heyday, when people still lived in caves nestled along the mountains’ walls.  This New Wonder of the World is an ancient marvel not to be missed.

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A Magical Journey in Wadi Rum

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We woke up bright and early for our journey into Wadi Rum desert.  We quickly shoved the last of our delicious breakfast down our throats in Aqaba before our driver came to take us to the entrance.  The seaside highway quickly gave way to sandy mountains, and before long, the vast stretches of red desert were all we could see.  It was the stuff of dreams.

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It was a cold and cloudy day and our Bedouin travel guide reminded us to keep our coats within reach throughout the tour.  In the end, I was grateful for the chilly weather as it made the countless hiking stops much more enjoyable; I could not imagine doing it in the heat.

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The first few hours of the tour were spent hiking under the mystical fog, which somehow made the desert look even more amazing.  To be honest, I had not expected the tour to include so many great hikes (I imagined it more like a safari); it greatly exceeded my expectations.

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Around noon, we pulled over to have some lunch and warm up.  Along the way, we grabbed some dry pieces of bush for the fire, which was difficult since it had just rained.  We enjoyed a delicious stew of tomato, pepper, onion, peas, and beans, followed by some freshly brewed tea.  It was easily one of my best meal experiences to date.

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The sky started to clear a bit after lunch, and while I loved the way the clouds looked hanging over the desert, the sun on my face was a welcome sensation.

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The final hike on top of the arch bridge was an incredible way to end our desert tour.

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Above and below!

We headed towards our camp just in time to watch the sunset.

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As if we hadn’t already had an incredible day, our hiking adventure in the desert was followed by a fun and relaxing evening at a Bedouin camp, where we met some wonderful fellow travelers, ate a delicious meal, played several rounds of various card games, and learned more about Jordan and Bedouin life.

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It was a cold night in Wadi Rum, but we managed to sleep well under several thick blankets.  After a quick breakfast, we were ready for our final Wadi Rum adventure:  a camel ride across the desert.

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My husband may or may not want a puppy.

We traveled with Wadi Rum Nomads and loved every second of it.  Camping in Wadi Rum was a crazy, magical adventure of a lifetime that we will never forget.

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Exploring the Red Sea: Eilat to Aqaba

IMG_2938.jpgAfter a few very interesting and eye-opening days in Israel, we were ready to cross into neighboring Jordan.  Prior to our trip, we wondered if this was even possible, but after some research, we realized that it was a relatively simple process.  We flew down to Eilat -an Israeli resort town on the Red Sea- to spend the night before our border crossing into Aqaba.

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Eilat reminded me a lot of Antalya or Fethiye – a bustling tourist town full of restaurants, cafes, and shops.  Honestly, it was a little crowded for my taste, but since we were only there for one night, we did our best to take it easy and enjoy it.  The mood was simultaneously upbeat and laid back and we were pleased by the variety of food options (Japanese, Mexican, American, you name it) in such a small space.

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The next morning, we took a taxi to the border crossing, which involved a lot of stamping and signing, but only took about 20 minutes in total (we were the only ones there when we arrived).  I was amazed by how completely different Aqaba was than Eilat, even though they are right next to each other.  We hopped in a cab which drove us along the coast to our hotel near the beach.  Along the way, wild camels grazed on the side of the road and desert mountains rose above the horizon.  I already felt like I’d experienced so much adventure in Israel, but I realized in that moment that my adventure was just beginning.

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We got to our hotel, dropped off our stuff, and immediately hit the beach for a stroll.

Much unlike Eilat, the beach was relatively peaceful and uncrowded, save for a few families barbecuing.  It’s important to note that people dress much more conservatively in Jordan than in Israel as well, so plan accordingly.  I definitely saw foreign tourists in bikinis, but I felt it was more respectful to cover up.

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After our first night, I was ready to  spend some time in the water.  The Red Sea is known for its beautiful coral reefs, and after snorkeling in the Maldives last year, I was really excited to do it again.  Our hotel let me rent a wetsuit, mask, and flippers for just 5JD  per day (~$7) and even graciously drove us down to some of the best dive sites.

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I don’t have an underwater camera (although I’m starting to wish I did), but the image below can give you an example of some of the aquatic life I was able to see in Aqaba – and right off of the free, public beach!  Winter is not the most popular time to travel in Jordan and especially not in Aqaba.  The weather is good (roughly in the 70s), but a bit cold for swimming.  Still, it was warm enough for me and I happily spent several hours snorkeling both days we were there.  As a bonus, I had the water to myself, thanks to the lack of crowds, and the cloudy skies prevented me from getting sunburnt!

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Yes, it was really this magical.

Aqaba was a lovely and relaxing introduction to our Jordanian adventure!

 

The Holy City of Jerusalem

IMG_2865.jpgI felt like I was living in someone else’s dream as I boarded the dusty green bus headed for Jerusalem.  Jerusalem:  one of the world’s most ancient cities; the most sacred city for the world’s three most powerful religions; a city steeped in contention and controversy.  To be honest, I didn’t feel worthy of such an ancient and important place, especially because I know many people long to make that pilgrimage while my own visit was not religiously motivated.

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Still, what a place.  I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about this city that had kept its walls under constant turmoil for most of its existence.  I had hopped on that bus with little expectation, aside from a couple of starred locations on Google Maps.

The Jerusalem I first saw was a far cry from the picture I had in my mind.  Upon exiting the bus station, I walked into a rather modern, four-story mall.  Continuing along the road into the old city revealed residential streets reminiscent of downtown Kansas City.  None of it was adding up in my head, but I kept walking.

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Once I caught my first glimpse of the Old City, the Jerusalem of my imagination and the one in front of me bore more resemblance to one another.  I entered the maze-like alleys, winding unintuitively in every direction, avoiding eye contact with the pushy shopkeepers whose stalls line every inch of every street.  Turkey has jaded me in this way.

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I stepped out of the tunnels and finally reached  the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the alleged site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.  Thousands upon thousands of pilgrims from every corner of the world filed in and out of the church with surprising consistency.  Just down the street, a group of well-dressed Jewish men, followed by a crowd of Jewish schoolboys struggling to maintain their best behavior, filed down the steps to pray at the Western Wall.  The Muslim call to prayer filled the cloudy sky.  My head was spinning.

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My husband and I stopped for a quick snack of hummus and pita bread at a nearby cafe, and as luck would have it, a woman with a camera crew showed up to film an interview with one of the restaurant owners.  He was Palestinian and was sharing his thoughts on Trump and the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  We chewed our bread a little harder, trying not to be too obvious about our eavesdropping while trying to grasp every word of the man’s valuable perspective.  In a nutshell:  the conflict rages on and little ever changes.  No one will go anywhere without a fight.

My head spins even faster at that point.  My husband suggests that we grab a coffee at another cafe with a great rooftop overlooking the city.  For the first time, the city feels quiet and calm.  We are the only ones up there, looking around at the beautiful, ancient rooftops – a skyline unlike any I’ve ever witnessed.

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On the bus back to Tel Aviv, only two seats remain and they are not together.  I sit next to a sleeping woman with earbuds in and my husband sits next to a man who turned out to be a Zionist and a former American.  His take on the conflict?  Anyone who isn’t Jewish should have left a long time ago.

I step off of the dusty green bus and walk back to our hotel, feeling like I understand more and less than ever.