Testimony of a Nomad

My mind holds no more plans, only dreams, because life never goes as planned, but dreams keep me motivated.

My thoughts grow in appreciation of the small gestures, kindheartedness, and generosity of others.

My day-to-day physical belongings fit into one suitcase or backpack and I like it that way.

My heart has learned to love in more ways than I ever thought possible.

My belief in the power of positive thought is unshakeable.

My trust in the good of humankind remains firm.

My soul floats in a pool of gratitude and it’s buoyancy makes even the difficult moments manageable because I know they will teach me resilience, determination and strength.

My desire to give back to a world that has given so much to me overwhelms me.

New Year’s Eve used to be a significant event in my calendar, the date marking the finish line of another year. I would take stock, count up the accomplishments and failures, resolve to do better, and make a list that would define the start of the next day. The trouble was that I rarely consulted that list after writing it and my intentions were often lulled to sleep by the ensuing monotony of my daily routine and general neglect. For years, the pattern was what I felt was one good year followed by a bad year. And it was only a bad year because I allowed a difficult event to define the entire year. I had resigned myself to believing that’s just how things were going to go… as if I had no control of my own destiny.

There was no horrific rock bottom that led to an awakening, just dozens of small paper cuts that kept nagging at my flesh… an overwhelming urge to shake things up like I had never done before… a moment of courage to etch a decision in stone and commit myself to it.  Here it is… the start of a new year, and for the first time in maybe a decade, I don’t feel the need to sum up the entire year and label it. Now, I take notice day by day. I relish the good moments and let the bad ones go. I have seen and experienced more in the past year than possibly any other year of my life, all of it character defining. I don’t have the words to express my gratitude for all those who have been there along the way, but I do want to use this post as a testament to your love, kindness, and generosity. Evidence of our ability to change not only our own world but that of other’s in the process.

So, whether you were the one to pick me up off your kitchen floor after I passed out from traveling 20 hours and catching the flu… show me kindness, offer travel tips, share your company with me on the road, or befriend me in a new city, I’m infinitely grateful. Whether you were the one to sit by my hospital bed, put a roof over my head, allow me to couch surf because I no longer have an apartment in the States, or host a dinner to bring family together, you remain fondly in my heart. Whether you were the one to send me an overseas package with my favorite holiday foods at Christmas, show me support, send me messages, or offer encouragement for my current unorthodox lifestyle, I am touched by the sentiment and your thoughtfulness.

In the lyrics of Brandi Carlile, The Story:

All of these lines across my face, tell you the story of who I am

So many stories of where I’ve been

And how I got to where I am

Oh, but these stories don’t mean anything when you’ve got no one to tell them to…

It’s true, I was made for you

 

A day in the life – Dubai

So maybe life isn’t quite as exciting as when I was searching for adventure daily, moving on to a new city every week, and meeting fellow travelers… but sometimes I need to stand still to reflect on what has happened and what I’m learning from it.  While out with colleagues the other evening, everyone kept asking me what it was like to live here versus other places I’ve been, and my mind has lingered on the question.  So, today, on UAE’s National Day, a celebration of its mere 43 years of nationalization from the British Protectorate Treaties, I’m sharing a little glimpse into a day in my life in Dubai.

Dubai sunrise from my bedroom window.

Dubai sunrise from my bedroom window.

I wake to watch the sun rise every morning just outside the bedroom window of my hotel room.  Living in a hotel makes my life seem more transient than it actually is at the moment, but witnessing this perpetual view every morning offers me some permanence.  So I leave the curtains cracked a few inches… just open enough for me to squirm down to the center of my bed to see the sun ascend from the desert floor in a pink, orange and yellow ball of fire.  It’s beautiful.  And with the multitude of high-rise buildings here, I’m certain I’m not the only one with a view of this amazing spectacle.

After getting ready for work, I make some breakfast before leaving.  I eat it sitting on my living room window ledge.  I’ve never lived this high up and although I joke about all of the crazy skyscrapers here, I get it.  Living above the world below is peaceful and safe.  It’s the opposite of how I normally live – in the center of it all, involved, with energy and interactions pulling me in all directions.  In my 28th floor apartment, I can sit, disembodied, and watch the world come alive.  The people and the cars below look like miniature figurines.   I can see half of my route to work from my living room window, so I watch the traffic and plot my course.  I’m borrowing this phrase from a dear friend, but it allows me to get my mind right before I join the world below.

On the way to work, I listen to the radio, purely to see what will be newsworthy on the various stations.  There are so many different ex-pat groups of people here, that when I turn on the radio, I can find radio hosts with Arabic, English, Australian, Russian, and Spanish accents among others.  I’ve never lived anywhere with more diversity.  One of the stations has a trivia game in the morning and I always learn something new from it… the capital of Yemen, or the name of the current Secretary General of the United Nations, or which Sheikh currently rules Sharjah, one of the nearby Emirates.  It makes me realize how un-cultured I am, despite how much I’ve traveled this past year.  It motivates me to continue seeking knowledge.  The radio and the music provide the entertainment and engagement that I can’t seem to find in the passing neighborhoods or streets that all look the same.  As opposed to Los Angeles, where I lived for the past 15 years and where I could observe the subtle character changes from neighborhood to neighborhood, Dubai all looks the same to me – concrete, steel, construction.  The architecture itself is both distinctive and random, but the streets and facades are devoid of distinctive qualities.  It’s the tops of the buildings that differentiate neighborhoods for me.  Never mind street names, or highway signs, you’ll find me staring at the sky to figure out which way I need to turn.

When I arrive at the office, I go to the elevator bay that will take me to my floor.  I work on the 43rd floor of a 48-story building so the elevators are broken down into different bays to keep the flow of traffic moving.  This is similar to the corporate offices where I’ve worked in Los Angeles, but it’s a different experience here.  First of all, the elevators are high-speed, which means that when I ascend to the 43rd floor in something like 30 seconds, my ears pop, every time.  Second, I always feel like I’m in a United Nations commercial – silently staring at all of the other faces, which could be from Pakistan, India, Philippines, Egypt, Iran, the UK, Scotland, South Africa… you name it.  These are just the people I can think of on the same floor as me.  Some days I have to pinch my arm to remind myself that it’s real and I’m here.  All of these people co-exist peacefully in the same workplace, the same city.  They manage to collaborate and communicate effectively enough to ensure the functioning of a profitable business.  It’s also one of the safest cities I’ve ever visited.  This diverse interaction feels hopeful… progressive… enlightened.  There’s no historical atrocities or maladies residing in  people’s minds or the city’s archives.  This is vastly different from my experience earlier this year in South Africa, where the memories of atrocities laid like speed bumps in people’s psyche and had folks stumbling down almost every avenue.

As the day continues, work is work.  No matter how much my responsibilities vary from assignment to assignment, I’m a recruiter and every business wants the same thing: to be able to attract and hire the most talented professionals in the industry in the most efficient and effective manner possible.  Each country may have a slightly different way of viewing or managing the work and its associated challenges, but the underlying fundamentals are the same.  The most taxing part of business here in the Middle East is not actually recruitment but getting visas for the people we want to recruit.  I won’t bore you with the details.

48 story U-bora Tower, where my office is located.  Ninety flights of stairs is a long way down.

48 story U-bora Tower, where my office is located. Ninety flights of stairs is a long way down.

Every now and then, we’re given some additional trials like internet connectivity issues or a fire drill.  Low and behold, in my short 6 weeks, I’ve already had the opportunity to experience a fire drill, which is probably one of the only disadvantages of working in a skyscraper.  With double sets of stairs between floors and a few parking levels before getting to ground level, there are 90 sets of stairs that I had to descend this past week for our hour-long emergency exercise.  This test literally made me want to store a parachute under my desk and the interruption kept me working long past standard hours.

Marriott Marquis, The Lounge.  Tallest hotel in the world.

Marriott Marquis, The Lounge. Tallest hotel in the world.

After a long day like that one, drinks still tend to be my default solution, however, visiting a bar almost always means seeking the most conveniently located hotel, the only places that are typically licensed to serve alcohol.  And with a zero tolerance policy for drinking and driving, as in getting thrown in jail or kicked out of the country, drinks after work often means leaving my car at the hotel and taking a taxi home.  Then taking a taxi back to the hotel in the morning to retrieve my car and go to work.  If you read my prior post, Living in a Concrete Jungle, you now understand why I am very happy to have absconded with some alcohol during my discrete liquor store run to be able to enjoy a glass of wine at home.

Evening time is often filled with making a simple dinner in my basic kitchenette, which offers a stovetop, but no oven, and then unwinding by Skyping with a friend (FaceTime is banned here), going to the gym, or watching a movie.  The TV has more than 80 stations, but only 6 of them are English-speaking, and once again, I’ve never seen television programs in so many different languages.  The funniest thing about television for me is the movies they show and what they cut out of them.  Local broadcasting companies are obligated to honor Sharia Laws, or the moral or religious codes of UAE, so they bleep out profane language and cut out any french kissing or sex scenes.  The other day, I was watching “Friends with Benefits”, and for any of you who have seen this movie, you can imagine how misleading and ineffective the plot would be if all of the kissing and sex scenes are cut.  The movie is little more than half as long as it would normally be and barely makes sense.  It puzzles me why they would choose to broadcast it given the necessary edits.  I just have to chuckle.  No disrespect to a very honorable religion, but I’d choose to be a heathen any day of the week and twice on Sundays (or Fridays as would be apropos here).

Weekends are filled with the usual chores – laundry, grocery shopping, organizing, and maybe a hair, nail, or massage appointment, which have all proven to be interesting experiences, or unfortunate ones, as is the case with my latest hair color.

View from along the Dubai Creek

View from along the Dubai Creek

I also try to reserve one of my weekend days to try something new – this is quickly becoming not only a habit but a lifelong lesson.  If there’s one thing that I have realized over the past 5-years, it’s that stagnation is like quicksand and it will rapidly submerge you until you can’t move or breathe.  So, no matter how little energy or motivation I have for exploration, I try to do something I’ve never done or go someplace I’ve never been.  It’s quite literally mind-altering much like the view in the picture I’ve attached. There will be more to come on the details of my excursions in another post.

As you can read, my life isn’t all that different from yours although my perspective may be thanks to the leap that I decided to take a little over a year ago.  While I think travel or living and working in foreign lands is riveting and exciting, you may not, but I hope that my travel inspires you to break your daily routine, try something new, and pursue your dreams to get the perspective that you need in your life.

Still revelling in gratitude.

In case, like me, you don’t know the answers to the morning radio trivia questions, they are respectively: Sana’a, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, and Sheikh Sultan III bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi

Living in a Concrete Jungle

I recently accepted a 3-month work assignment in Dubai, one of the seven Emirates of the United Arab Emirates, after my visit to the States, detailed in my last post, Because I Missed Home. So here I am in a strange new land… one that was never on my list to visit. I don’t have an agenda of things that I want to see or do. I don’t even know what there is to see or do in the vast, open desert. So, let the adventure begin…

As I flew into the Dubai International airport, I looked out the plane window to see miles and miles of sand dunes. Then, as if someone had taken a tiny model of a metropolis and set it on the scene, there was the city. I arrived on a Friday, late in the afternoon, and was greeted warmly as I stepped off the plane. As a corporate guest in Dubai, my company extended Marhaba service for me. Marhaba means “welcome” in Arabic, is inspired by legendary Arabic hospitality, and means that I had a friendly guide to walk me through the airport, retrieve my luggage and escort me through immigration. My guide then ushered me into a chauffeured car and I was whisked through a still quiet and solemn city because Friday is respected as a day of prayer and rest until sundown. When I arrived at my hotel, I was again afforded royal service with doors held open, someone to assist with my luggage, warm greetings at reception, refreshments, and probably just about anything else I would have requested… all with a “yes, Madam” and a smile. I must say that I much prefer Madam to Ma’am, as is often used in the US. It seems much more refined.

Sunrise just outside my hotel

Sunrise just outside my hotel

I was scheduled to stay in a hotel for two weeks until I could find a short term, furnished apartment, so I spent the rest of that day unpacking, ordering room service and settling in. It wasn’t long before it was dark outside, and when I looked out my hotel room window, all I saw was a city transformed into twinkling lights. The next morning, I awoke at 4:30am, my internal clock completely out of whack, and laid in bed staring out the window until the sun started to rise. As soon, as the light of day reared its beautiful rays, I ventured out for an exploratory stroll around the neighborhood. My hotel was directly across from the Dubai Mall, just down the street from the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and a few blocks

The Burj Khalifa

The Burj Khalifa

away from Downtown. The first thing that I noticed was construction. Around every corner, there were construction cranes, orange cones, mounds of dirt, and detour signs. I laughed out loud, as my brain made inadvertent associations to my life path and I thought, “Detour, huh, seems about right.”

As I continued to walk, it seemed as though the buildings were springing up through the desert floor like weeds that had suddenly been doused with a warm, summer rain. I observed how tall, shiny and new all of the structures seemed to be. Dubai has had both significant upturns and downturns in its economy and most of the buildings weren’t constructed until

Construction project just across the street from my hotel.

Construction project just across the street from my hotel.

the 80s and 90s, so all of it is new by most of the world’s standards. All 5-foot, 3-inches of me felt miniature as I peered up at skyscraper after skyscraper. I eventually arrived at a small park, which felt phony positioned next to all of the glimmering metal, planted palm-tree trunks wrapped in lights, and 4-lane wide concrete streets divided with a barrier between the other 4-lane street going in the opposite direction. After walking for about 45 minutes, at only 7am, it

My hotel, the Murooj Rotana, and backdrop of the city.

My hotel, the Murooj Rotana, and backdrop of the city.

was almost 90 degrees (32 C) outside and I was feeling a little light-headed since I hadn’t eaten breakfast. I was also trying to be reverential of local customs and the modest dress code by covering my knees and my shoulders, so I was dressed in full-length pants and a t-shirt, which wasn’t helping. It was time to go back to the hotel for some breakfast and exploration of the pool. I spent the rest of that day relaxing and preparing my mind for the start of my workweek that happened to be the next day.

Due to the Islamic religion, the workweek here is from Sunday to Thursday. Initially, I thought this might feel strange, but oddly enough, since I’m immersed in it, the schedule makes little difference until I try to call home and wonder why no one is answering on what is still a workday on a US Friday morning. The rest of my first week was filled with introductions and business meetings, riding high-speed elevators up and down 40 floors, getting lost, driving in circles, and searching for a short-stay furnished apartment, which I quickly determined would be based on the location with the least amount of traffic on my route to the office. After a year of parachuting into new cities, I’ve developed my week-one routine. It mainly consists of asking a million questions to anyone and everyone in order to gather as much information in as little time as possible, never setting firm meeting times, so that I don’t get stressed about being late when I get lost, and then purposely getting lost and attempting new routes in my off time to learn my way around the city. I’ve actually surprised myself with how comfortably I’m able to do this now.

By week two, I realized that a large part of Dubai’s economy is reliant on tourism and the level of service here is better than just about anywhere else I’ve been in the world. There are plenty of 24-hour grocery stores, pharmacies, and restaurants and all of them will deliver. As a matter of fact, I could never leave my room and still have almost anything I wanted delivered, except alcohol, which is strictly regulated. At work, even if I never left my desk, someone would still come by and offer me water, tea or coffee. I’ve also now discovered that there isn’t one local or National employee that works in our office. Only about 8% of Dubai’s population of around 2 million are Emirati – the other 92 percent are expat and migrant workers. Men outnumber women by around 300 percent – an optimistic prospect for the female, single professional. The result is one of the most diverse work environments that I’ve ever experienced.

Week two continued with a trip to our regional corporate office in Abu Dhabi, the capital of UAE. It is about a 75-minute trip from Dubai, and although I had a chance to witness more enormous construction projects and landmarks, like Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the world’s largest mosques, I didn’t get a chance to do much else that day. One of my colleagues was kind enough to drive, which was far more relaxing since drivers are quite aggressive and disorderly here. As we departed the office to return to Dubai, my colleague also showed me where I could find alcohol. We drove a few blocks, turned down a side street, pulled into a parking lot, and just when I thought we were going to stop, he drove through the parking spot into a dirt lot and pulled up next to what looked like a loading dock. There was an inconspicuous ramp leading to a door, and through the door, a dimly lit storeroom of shelves and shelves of alcohol, ranging from hard liquor to wine and champagne. This retailer was considered an off-license distributor. As I started to scour the shelves to see what kind of imports I could find, I noticed that my colleague had filled his basket in record time and was already paying. I quickly followed his lead, grabbed a few bottles of wine, and a bottle of Vodka, which I figured would last my entire stay, and then casually and swiftly paid and exited to the car, as if I were fleeing the scene of a crime. My colleague explained that it technically is illegal to buy, transport, or house alcohol unless you have a license, which he does, but you can only get a license with a resident visa, which was impossible for me since I was visiting with a mission visa for my assignment. So it was best if I didn’t linger long enough for anyone to ask questions. The rebellious teenager deep inside me flurried with glee as we drove off in a trail of dust from the lot. It was silly, but I just pulled off my first scam in UAE. Living in a land that is so foreign, and conservative, in relation to how I have lived, I was certain there would be other scams to come. For the rest of the drive back to Dubai, I chatted with my colleague about other cultural abnormalities, and made mental notes of the places that I would want to come back and explore.

My apartment at the Emirates Grand Hotel

My apartment at the Emirates Grand Hotel

I rounded out the week by signing a lease for an Executive apartment in the Emirates Grand Hotel, which would be home for the rest of my stay. It is difficult to find short stay apartments here, as most places look for a one-year commitment, so a hotel was one of the only options. Not exactly “homey”, and again, far different from anything that I might have chosen anywhere else, it is a convenient location both in regard to my commute to work, and its proximity to places to see. So, it’s been an altogether highly productive first two weeks, and so far, it’s fascinating. I feel very much like an observer at the moment, as if standing at the zoo and watching the animals play. It’s delightful to anticipate what I might see next.

Revelling in gratitude for the opportunity to be a spectator of the world’s diversity… until next time. Be well.

Because I missed home

I know, I know… this blog has grown to be my lifeline to friends and family and I’ve been derelict in my duties. I’ve realized that my life has been shaken and flipped upside down ever since July and I’ve been a little off balance. When I embarked upon my travel year, it was with a plan… a flexible one, sure, but a plan. And even when I adjusted that plan for a work assignment in South Africa, I had a direction. It’s hard to predict how choices will completely alter your course, but that’s what the decision to go to South Africa did for me. And getting sick changed the course again. So, allow me catch everyone up.

After finishing my assignment in South Africa, I went back to the States. I had been ill for the better part of July with tonsillitis and doctors in Johannesburg were recommending an immediate tonsillectomy, but I wanted to go back the US to see a doctor for a second opinion. When I really think about it though, I have to admit, I also wanted to go home. After being away for 11 months, the answer to everyone’s question, “why are you back”, is I missed it… that feeling of home. I arrived in Los Angeles on a gloriously sunny Wednesday afternoon, and that feeling of familiar washed over me like a warm shower. I was so happy and comforted to see familiar sites, deal with familiar problems, and know how to handle all of them. I was instantly at ease.

I went to the doctor, conveyed my story and past symptoms, and he simply gave me an emergency prescription to carry on the road and said I’d be crazy to have surgery after one incident.  Again, I was relieved.  Surgery was complicated for numerous reasons – no permanent address, no insurance, and two weeks of down time. So, no surgery was music to my ears and by that point, I was feeling almost completely back to my normal self anyway.

Friday night happy hour… the best way to end the week.

Friday night happy hour… the best way to end the week.

Concert at Grand Park, Downtown Los Angeles

Concert at Grand Park, Downtown Los Angeles

Malibu Surf Riders Beach

Malibu Surf Riders Beach

I spent the next three weeks in Los Angeles enjoying all of the things that I said I didn’t miss when I was away and it was all the therapy that I needed. Time with friends…  sharing stories, laughing until I cried, relishing warm summer nights, visiting my favorite spots, and soaking up some sanity. I went from city to sand to mountains and watched every day melt into sunset.

I’ve been practicing the art of non-attachment this past year – seeing new sites every day, moving just about every week, meeting new people, relishing every moment, learning how to let go and say goodbye.  Johannesburg gave me an opportunity to settle in and build some relationships but it still always felt temporary.  Coming back to LA and drinking (more like gulping) “normalcy” tonic again, well, it was tempting to fall off the wagon and re-attach. It was all waiting for me – work opportunities, apartment options, workouts, networking circles – all of the things I thought might not be there if I ignored them for a year. I had this nagging feeling though… that if I settled in and fell right back into my old routine, it would be like my yearlong journey was for nothing. I felt like it could be forgotten so quickly and easily. Despite so many coaxing me to stay, there was a little voice in the back of my head cooing, “you’re not done yet, there’s more”.

Thank you to all of the friends who listened to my accounts, my speculations, and my ponderings, and offered their best interpretation of and response to the foreign language that I was speaking.  Unlike the first time, I know that I left you all without any conclusive decision, direction, or timeframe.  It certainly wasn’t intentional… it was just my current state of affairs.

Edisto Memorial Gardens, Orangeburg, South Carolina (Downtown)

Edisto Memorial Gardens, Orangeburg, South Carolina (near Downtown)

Thai Orchid Restaurant in Orangeburg, South Carolina (go eat there so they stay open!  It's delicious)

Thai Orchid Restaurant in Orangeburg, South Carolina (go eat there so they stay open! It’s delicious)

Tuesday afternoon, local Orangeburg area card club (Canasta is the game)

Tuesday afternoon, local Orangeburg area card club (Canasta is the game)

Scenery along my drive just outside Easton, Pennsylvania

Scenery along my drive just outside Easton, Pennsylvania

Just approaching NYC on a gloomy afternoon

Just approaching NYC on a gloomy afternoon

Dinner on the Upper East Side with these two powerhouse ladies who manage to thrive in NYC.

Dinner on the Upper East Side with these two powerhouse ladies who manage to thrive in NYC.

After leaving Los Angeles, the next stop on the homeland visiting tour was Orangeburg, SC. It is a small town, barely a blip on the map, and I didn’t grow up there, so I truly only go to visit my biggest supporters, my parents.  Over the past 15 years, I often saw this little town through my parent’s eyes and I settled into their routine. I went where they went and I met the people that they knew. This time, however, with a completely open agenda, I ventured out on my own a few times and stumbled upon things I never would have known where there. I found a great, little Yoga studio, which had an excellent instructor and a Zen, stylish class setting.  I drove through parts of town that I hadn’t seen.  I got my Dad to join me on a scenic river walk.

My Dad retired this past year while I was away, so my parents seemed to have a greater sense of adventure too.  We all went to Congaree National Park for an afternoon and strolled through the Cypress trees and wild pigs. My parents were even a little adventurous with food and eager to tell me about a new Thai restaurant that recently opened, run by a family who came directly from Northern Thailand. It was like finding a hidden gem – a paradoxical mystery – the exterior didn’t match the interior at all and the food was remarkably authentic. I have no idea how they found all of their ingredients.  I’m also a regular sub for the card club now, which is a fun group of ladies. Finally, my sister lives nearby in Charleston, so we made a trip or two into the city to visit with her and her family.

While the newfound exploration and home cooking fed my soul, upcoming work and travel plans unfolded and ultimately made me decide to add a North Eastern road trip to my tour. I missed my standard holiday season trip to Pennsylvania to visit family last year and it was now looking like I was going to miss it this year too. Autumn is the perfect time of year for long drives along winding, colorful, tree lined highways, so off I went. The ten-hour drive gave me the quiet time that I relish for reflection. North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York – I popped around from town to town, household to household, catching up, sharing dinners, visiting family and old friends, meeting new babies, and trying to give undivided attention to loved ones who I see far to infrequently. My answer to “what comes next” changed little by little with every conversation and every day that passed. Emails and phone calls from overseas trickled in to me. There is something about the solitude of the drive and the focus on the road ahead that calms my swirling thoughts. A plan started to take shape.   I lingered in New York City amidst friends and the endless hum of energy until the plan was clear and then, I went straight back to South Carolina, to my parent’s house to prepare.  In less than a week, I would be back on a plane to a land that has never been on my travel list… I never can predict where the road will lead me.

On October 9th, I left for a 3-month work assignment in Dubai.  Revelling in gratitude for an opportunity for continued adventure and discovery.  More stories soon to come.

A great escape: Phuket

You might be thinking, why in the world do I need an escape when I’m already in Johannesburg, a long way from home.  Well, if you’ve read my post, Caught in the fray, then you know that this past month has been a roller coaster ride of battling illness, finishing up work, and trying to wrap my mind around leaving a community to whom I’ve grown quite fond.  You might also recall that my initial travel plan was to follow the summer and that changed when I agreed to take this assignment in Johannesburg during their winter.  So, I’ve been craving the sand, beach, and sun for nearly 5 months and since I now have to go back to the States for a tonsillectomy, I couldn’t resist a little getaway to Phuket to get a sneak peak of the travel that I hope to complete in the near future.

Due to the hustle and bustle of work, I allowed someone else to plan this getaway, a highly recommended travel advisor.  This trip was also far different from the rest of my travel because I had only one week, specifically wanted a little pampering since it was the week of my birthday, and for the first time, wasn’t traveling solo.  You see, I’ve met an amazing man here in Johannesburg, and when I was recovering from my first bought of tonsillitis, I thought a parting trip would be a great way to create fun memories and an upbeat goodbye.

We flew from OR Tambo to Bankgkok International to Phuket International.  This is Bangkok.

We flew from OR Tambo to Bankgkok International to Phuket International. This is Bangkok.

I was initially supposed to wrap up my assignment by July 25th, so my thought was to fly to Phuket and then travel straight on to Los Angeles.  Unfortunately, illness persisted, so by my second bought of tonsillitis, I realized I was going to have to extend my work assignment to finish everything, and this trip would just need to be “a great escape”.   So, after more visits to the doctor, pleading for permission to travel and medicine to take on the road, and promising to get a ton of rest, we boarded our plane.

Amari Resort - seaside rooms and pool

Amari Resort – seaside rooms and pool

Phuket is about an 11 hour flight from Johannesburg, so when we arrived at the Amari Resort on Sunday morning, we checked into our seaside hotel, relaxed into our plush, ocean facing room, and let all the stress of the past month wash away with the sound of the crashing waves.  Since I was still under the weather for the first few days, we took short trips to Patong Beach, Bangla Road, and the local market, but mostly enjoyed the resort accommodations which included beautiful swimming pools, a spa, and plenty of shaded napping spots.  It was just what I needed…

Phuket Town Market  - lots of fresh fish and live turtles

Phuket Town Market – lots of fresh fish and live turtles

Now, this type of travel – sheltered in a resort community and doing everything with a partner – made me realize that I wasn’t getting a true experience of the culture, so I signed up for one solo day, a Thai cooking class.  Thai is my favorite food and I couldn’t resist learning how to make some of it for myself.  And since my nocturnal companion enjoys his restful mornings, he was happy to send me off on my own at 7:30am.  This day of cooking started with a trip to Phuket Town

Waida, one of our chefs, explaining the food and spices at the Phuket Town Market.

Waida, one of our chefs, explaining the food and spices at the Phuket Town Market.

Market, which opens at 3:30am for all of the local restaurants to buy their fresh ingredients for the day.  When our group of 8 arrived just before 9am, it was still teaming with local patrons, well stocked with delicious foods, and drawing us in with it’s vibrant colors and arouma.  Waida, one of our chefs for the day, divided our group into two groups of four and then took my group of four through the market to teach us about local Thai foods and the ingredients that we would need for

Curry spices - Phuket Town Market

Curry spices – Phuket Town Market

the day.  As she showed us what things were called, what they looked like and how they were used, she also added a gastronomy lesson of each food’s nutritional value and what affect it might have on our body or when combined with other ingredients.  It was a fantastic education and as we walked along with Waida, she handed us ingredients to taste.  We started by tasting fresh donuts dipped in a green coconut type cream, an unexpectedly delicious combination.  Then we tasted a Rose Apple (champoo), that is very common in Thailand and tastes like a cross between an apple and a pear.  Next was a Longan (lamyai) or “dragon eyes”, named because of it’s resemblance to an eyeball when it is shelled.  It is translucent in color, sweet in flavor, and closely allied to lychee.  We then peeled back a bamboo shoot to taste the sticky rice that had been prepared inside it and were off to learn how both coconut milk and coconut cream were made.  It was a delectable experience and the ingredients were so fresh, that I might be disappointed with all future Thai food that I eat outside of Thailand.

Phuket Thai Cookery School

Phuket Thai Cookery School

After the market, we were off to Fisherman’s Village, where the cooking classes would be held in a seaside classroom, with elevated seating and an overhead mirror in the classroom, rows of counters and stoves for cooking stations, and large tables on a patio where we would all taste our dishes after they were prepared.  It was a warm, balmy day with lots of sunshine and we were all ready to dig in.  We put on our aprons, pulled out our

One of our chefs teaching us how to make Tom Kha Kai, chicken in coconut milk soup.

One of our chefs teaching us how to make Tom Kha Kai, chicken in coconut milk soup.

pencils, and got started.

The first dish was Tom Kha Kai, literally translated means “boiling galangal chicken”, which is actually chicken in coconut milk soup.  We watched as our chef expertly prepared her ingredients, then walked us through timing and cooking for one versus many.  Once we watched her complete the dish, we all tasted it and were then off to our own station to attempt to replicate her results.  I’ve got to tell

Me making Tom Kha Kai - prep work.

Me making Tom Kha Kai – prep work.

you I was very pleased with myself!  In restaurants back home, I often don’t eat Thai soups because they are so spicy, but fresh ingredients have a completely different spicy flavor and make a world of difference.  I was able to create a soup that I will enjoy over and over again.  The hard part will be trying to find the ingredients outside of Thailand because palm sugar is not easily replicated.  In all of our dishes that day, we would be using palm sugar, a kind of sugary paste, fresh coconut cream, some type of chili or chili sauce, and fish sauce.  The essence of most Thai dishes have the 4 S’s – sweet, sour, salty, and spicy, in varying degrees.

Our next dish was Pad Thai, a common dish with fried noodles and traditionally, prawns.  It varies in flavor from the north of Thailand to the south; the north

My Pad Thai

My Pad Thai

typically creating a fairly bland dish, and the south a much spicier one.  This dish has lots of ingredients so the preparation is key and often takes much longer than the cooking time.  My finished result is pictured to the left and although it looked beautiful, I think I need to work on perfecting the combination of flavors a bit within the cooking process.

The next dish was Som Tam or Papaya Salad, one of my favorites.  Waida was our teaching chef for this dish and she has lived outside of Thailand in Australia for about 3 years so she fully understands the challenges of trying to find the same Thai ingredients that make these dishes so flavorful.  As she taught us how to prepare this salad, she offered numerous suggestions for substitutions and took pride not only in the right combination of ingredients and flavors, but also it’s presentation by cutting vegetables with various tools that added more surface to absorb the sauce and offered a prettier presentation.

Chef James and his tasty green curry.

Chef James and his tasty green curry.

Our last dish of the day was Kaeng Kiew Wan Kai, literally translated as Curry Green Sweet Chicken.  James was our teaching chef for this dish, and he was full of fun, flare, and fabulous, just like the dish itself.  Despite what I initially thought, a curry doesn’t cook for all that long, so the trick is bringing out all of the flavors of the ingredients in a relatively short time on the stove.  James also insisted that a curry is only going to taste good if you stir in

My green curry

My green curry

circles, add lots of love, and literally cook with a smile on your face.  Preparation and the order that the ingredients are added is very specific so our group got a little help with those, but I was again very pleased with my finished dish.  We also had dessert that day, but it was the only dish that we didn’t prepare ourselves.  It was Khao Niew Mamuang, or Mango with Sticky Rice.  It takes time for the rice to absorb the sauce that makes it sticky so we watched the preparation of the sauce but left the rest to the professionals.  It too was delicious and just the right amount of sweet at the end of our buffet of dishes.

Throughout the day, I had the opportunity to talk with the rest of the group, 3 other couples from Brisbane who didn’t know one another, and a chef in training from Moscow.  Apparently, many Russians have been visiting Thailand and they go back to Moscow wanting to enjoy the same Thai food, so Michail was sent by his current restaurant owner to learn how to make Thai dishes to add to the menu.  Our teaching chefs also had interesting stories that they shared with us through the preparation of their dishes and then at the table while we enjoyed our creations.  This day was a gluttonous treat and the little bit of culture that I was craving on this getaway.

So, although I’m taking a little hiatus from travel, I’m grateful because the hiatus is going to give me the opportunity to travel home with palm sugar and green curry powder, ingredients straight from Thailand so that I can treat my hosts with my newfound Thai cooking skills.

Sunset over Kata Bay

Sunset over Kata Bay

Our final days in Thailand were filled with other fun experiences, like a Sea Canoe excursion to Phang Nga Bay, relaxing Thai massages, and a trip to Kata Beach.  Thailand will remain on my list of travel destinations for broader cultural exploration.  Still revelling in gratitude for my sneak peak.

Many thanks to Megan Fineberg, Managing Director at Travel Experience Meadowridge, who made all the arrangements for flight and accommodation.

Contact: megan@constantiabergtravel.co.za and +27 21 715 2850.

My Cooking Experience was courtesy of Phuket Thai Cookery School.  Our Sea Canoe excursion was courtesy of Sea Canoe.

Please note, all of the opinions in this article are my own.  I included the contact information for our Travel Agent and excursions solely because some of my blog community have requested specific information.  

 

“You strike a woman, you strike a rock”

One of my favorite things about traveling is the opportunity to experience other cultures, and then share those experiences with you, my small community around the world, in an attempt to educate and enlighten.  I rely heavily on my community for learning, sharing, challenging one another, and unconditional support.  I’m writing today because it’s an important day in South Africa – Women’s Day – and I’ve been moved by the talks, celebrations, dedication, and commitment to honor this day by the strong women around me.

Today commemorates the national march in 1956 of women who petitioned against the “pass laws” that required all South Africans defined by the government as “black” to carry a pass, or an internal passport that stipulated where they could live, work, and travel.  These passes reinforced segregation, oppression, and inequality.  On August 9th, 50,000 women gathered to protest against the pass laws by marching to the Prime Minister’s office, leaving signed petitions on the doorstep, standing for 30 minutes in silence with their children wrapped on their backs, and then singing a protest song.  The song was composed in honor of the occasion and it’s message was, “now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock”.  In the more than 50 years that have passed since that day, the song and the message, which has evolved into it’s current incarnation, lives in the hearts of many.

To honor the day, our workplace held a celebration that included a networking lunch, 2 speakers, and distribution of reading material and tools to help the women in the company build strong community circles for the sake of sharing, learning, and support.  It instantly made me think of my circle and all of the strong women in it, who I am so honored to have in my life.

A chance to meet Justice Theron after the event.

A chance to meet Justice Theron after the event.

One of our talks during the lunch hour came from Justice Leona Theron, who is a Fulbright Scholar with a Masters of Law degree from Georgetown University.  She grew up poor in the Eastern Cape, rose above her circumstances and went on to be appointed as a judge at age 33.  She is also the mother of 4, and has managed to balance work and family life in superhuman ways.  She spoke about the challenges in society, the glass ceiling, and the guilt that women often feel for wanting to have successful careers which may mean less time with their children.  I have often witnessed the women I know experience this same guilt when they’re late for their child’s school play, or for picking them up from sports practice or for encouraging them to watch TV in the evening because they just need 20 minutes of quiet to enjoy a glass of wine.  Justice Theron echoed what I witness all the time, women often have to do it all.  She went on to talk about the corporate world and the need for more than just accommodation or inclusion… she talked about the need for total redesign.  Do we as a society want to force our women to be mothers OR corporate professionals? Or can we design a world where they can be both?  Do you view childbirth as an interruption of a woman’s career or can you bring yourself to recognize it as an augmentation of life skills, and a cultivation of tolerance, patience, and determination?  Skills that are inherently necessary in the workplace.  Today is a day to raise awareness, to  provoke thought, to challenge the norm, and to honor the strong mothers, sisters, daughters… the women in your life.

Ladies, as one of my strong South African mentors says, “Fly your own plane, stay on your flight path, and monitor your radar”.  Don’t let the world throw you off course.

And remember, you are as strong as a rock.  My heart is revelling in gratitude for all the women in my world.

Caught in the fray

It’s been over three months since I last updated you all, and for that, let me apologize.  As most of you know, I’ve jumped back into Corporate life here in Johannesburg, and despite my best efforts, I seem to once again have lost my balance.  My creative writing has been replaced with writing recruitment policy documents.  Exploration equates to digging through past process for the sake of evaluation.  And travel is reserved for day trips to various office locations.  I’ve done less sightseeing than I would have liked, but as I’ve said many times, my adventure isn’t just about seeing beautiful sites.  It’s about experiencing new cultures, meeting new people, and developing relationships that make this gigantic world feel much, much smaller.  And to this end, my adventure to date, work included, has been a complete success.

Now, a lot has happened in three months, and it would be an exceptionally long post if I were to start from the beginning, so I’m going to summarize and just give you an update on the past month, which has been a whirlwind.  I’ve been consulting with a global architecture, engineering, and construction company and the assignment was to examine current recruitment processes, determine how to implement existing corporate structures across the region of Africa, hire a team and my replacement, and then outline policy that would allow the team to integrate and grow.  Mission mostly accomplished.  I’ve learned that everything moves a little slower in Africa… everything from people to infrastructure to service delivery, so it would probably help if I had a few more weeks or even months, but I think we’ve been able to build a strong foundation.  Unfortunately, after working many more hours than I told myself I would work, and playing just as hard on the weekends, I came down with what I thought was a case of the flu.

When I woke up on Monday morning about three weeks ago, I knew it was a little more serious than the average cold because my glands were swollen and I could barely drag myself out of bed.  As I’ve already had to do twice on this journey, I mustered all my energy to research local healthcare options, reached out to friends for advice, and then took myself to the doctor.  Antibiotics in hand, I left the doctor thinking I could go home and sleep the rest of that Monday and hopefully feel better enough to return to work on Tuesday.  However, on Tuesday morning, I woke instead with what looked like a tumor on the side of my neck.  I called the doctor back and when I told him that I was feeling worse, he insisted that I needed to give the antibiotics 48 hours to work.  So I reluctantly called in sick again for work and went back to bed.  During the next 24 hours, I was restless, had trouble sleeping and lay in a state of delirium, wondering what sort of African bug had taken hold of my body.  By Wednesday morning, not only had I barely been able to sleep, but I could no longer swallow, and my voice had turned into a scratchy whisper.  Off to the doctor I went.  My appointment was at 10:30am.  The doctor took one look at my throat and escalated his diagnosis to throat abscess and acute tonsillitis.  He said he needed to refer me to an ENT and immediately picked up the phone for the ENT on the second floor. He made it an urgent request, sent me upstairs where I promptly met said ENT.  The ENT said my throat was too swollen to see anything but given the fact that it was so enflamed and I couldn’t swallow anymore, he thought it best to admit me to the hospital for two nights.  While there, they would administer intravenous antibiotics until the swelling decreased and the doctor could do a needle aspiration of my throat to determine the extent of infection.  What the hell was happening?  By 3:30pm that same Wednesday, I had an IV in the back of my hand.

World. Turned. Upside. Down.

Getting my IV drugs at Sandton Mediclinic

Getting my IV drugs at Sandton Mediclinic

Do you remember the last time that you’ve been so sick that you didn’t have the energy to do anything so all you could do was sit and count the seconds as they tick past?  My closest recollection was post knee surgery 2010, but at least then, I knew exactly what had happened.  I had never been more grateful for the relationships that I had developed in the weeks prior.  The well wishes from co-workers, the offers to bring me food, magazines, or anything else that I required, the friends who came to visit, and the man who sat by my bedside and sent pictures of me to my parents so that they wouldn’t worry after I had just called them for my emergency travel healthcare policy information.

I’m happy to report that after a needle aspiration of my throat, the doctor determined that I did not have an abscess, just a severe infection, so after another day of antibiotics, I was discharged with strict advice to rest and return in a month for a tonsillectomy.  I will say that I’ve settled in quite well here in Joburg, but there’s nothing that makes you miss friends, family, and home more than suddenly falling ill in a foreign country.  And while I’m also happy to report that medicine in this developing nation is on par with first world medicine, I would just feel more comfortable getting a tonsillectomy in the states.  So there you have it… I’m coming home.

Over the past two weeks of what has felt like a very long road to recovery, work has been more hectic than ever, thoughts and plans for leaving have turned bitter sweet, and I’ve realized that I’ve made some really fantastic friends here.  The kind of friends that will be there during the bad times, not just the good.  So, although I’m tired of South Africa’s winter and can’t wait to catch the end of a California summer… I find myself caught in the fray.

I’m a bit worn out by the long hours of work, but I’m sad to leave the team here.  I want to visit home, but suddenly feel like I’m abandoning a home that I’ve just started to build here.  And unlike the other friends I’ve met on the road, with whom I’ve spent a few days, this time I will be leaving friends with whom I’ve spent months getting to know… and I can’t really say when I’ll see them again.  My heart breaks a little every time I think about it and there’s a bit of a battle going on in my heart and my head… I’m not sure what side I’m on so I’ll just have to let it play out.

This, my friends, is the current state of my world and my mind.  I haven’t purchased the tickets yet, but I’m pretty sure that I will… And would then be arriving in Los Angeles some time next month.  I can’t wait to see you all!

Be grateful today for your health… it makes a world of difference.