Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Chasing Joy

Hello from the past, y'all! I'm writing this in the early days of January 2013, full of the whimsy and hope of a new year - the kind that makes you feel like anything is possible, and that you're DEFINITELY going to succeed at achieving all your goals, and you are FOR SURE not going to fail. I felt this year needed a shove in the right direction, so I made a list of things (big and small) that I hope to do/accomplish/experience in 2013. Many are part of my commitment to The Year of Why Not? and, as I write today in January, there are things on this list that seem impossible. But here we go. I've added a few things throughout the year, but nothing has been deleted. Shtuff just got real, y'all. I'm publishing my successes and failures for all the Interwebs to see.

Please don't judge me.

In 2013...

1. Find a church home and group of people to live life with - and then get up in each other's bidness (in a good, making-me-better kind of way) - This came later in the year than I wanted, but I'm really thankful for the people I can call friends today. You are all making me better.
2. Watch less than 2 hours of TV per weekday - Ahem. No, this did not consistently happen. I love my shows, y'all. Please forgive me. I'll try again next year.
3. Read 1 book/month for pleasure - So, TECHNICALLY, no, I didn't accomplish this. But I came really close and read more this year than I have in a long time, which has been amazing. Check out my reading list below!
4. Travel! - I'm SO EXCITED about this one. This year, we visited a lot of places these eyes had never seen before - NYC, Knoxville, Nicaragua, Hong Kong. I LOVE exploring new places. Love. It. Next up (hopefully!) is London and Amsterdam in the Spring! What what!!


5. Take dance lessons - Donesky. Intro to ballroom + Intro to Latin Ballroom. Ask me how to Foxtrot. I can totally do it.
6. Start doing Pilates - I don't even get how I failed so miserably here. I love Pilates. And having abs.
7. Hike at least 2x/month - :( Could we make hiking up the stairs to my apartment count...?
8. Write for pleasure at least 2x/month - Blech. Maybe next year. But I'm getting closer.
9. Cook together (with more than 3 ingredients) - I guess I didn't specify how often this should be happening, so I can say I did it, even if it was just a handful of times, right? Right?!
10. Find the joy in today - This has been one of the biggest reasons 2013 has been one of the greatest years of my life. Enjoying today has given me hope and positivity I didn't have before. Check out these posts: Dear Life, Dear Life (Part 2)
11. Keep saying Yes! to life - Um, yeah. If I may, I'd like to use this point as an excuse for not accomplishing some of the others on this list. Extending The Year of Why Not? to 2013 has kept me really busy, guys...


12. Start planning The Trip - Yup. More to come...
13. Go to NYC for the first time - Been there. Done that. Wrote the blog.
14. Watch a Broadway show - See above. Check! Newsies was amazing!
15. Stay in a hostel - Yep! Hop Inn. $40/night for a dorm room in Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood of Hong Kong.
16. Go camping - We did a 3-day backpacking trek with the North Texas Outdoor Pursuit Center to the Ouichita National Forest in Arkansas. Yes and amen.


17. Be open to new friendships - This has been one of the hardest to do this year. But I am surrounded by amazing people who have made my life brighter and happier. My introversion and fear of rejection never stood a chance against the beauty of friendship.
18. Ride the Megabus - Not yet...
19. Be more positive than negative - Try it. It will change your life.
20. Laugh more than you cry - Unless you count the crying from laughing at this video, I think I accomplished this. I have my friends and family (and www.wimp.com) to thank for that.
21. Cut school debt AT LEAST in half - Well, we didn't cut it in half, but it's down by at least a third, and that ain't bad! 2014 will be a debt-slaying year!
22. Do something that terrifies you - Yes, times five, at least. For examples, click here and here.


23. Get healthy - I'm working on this one, but I'm not there yet. With the help of a personal trainer friend and a list of goals like this, my health and heart condition are even more important to get a handle on. I've been weight training, but still have a ways to go before I can say I'm healthy. Get ready, 2014. I'm coming for you.
24. Write your first travel blogs - Check out my posts about NYCArkansas and Nicaragua. Next up, Hong Kong! Much more to come!
25. Move downtown - My husband has called this one the best decision we've made in our whole marriage, and he was NOT sold on the idea when I pitched it. He's loving urban life like I knew he would! So miracles have happened this year. We're pretty pumped to be out of the 'burbs and enjoying Dallas' energy.


This year has challenged me in ways I've never been challenged. But it also changed me - like, the deep, deep parts of me. Or rather, brought out the me that is really ME. Free and optimistic and eager. It started as a list of goals, but turned into a way of living that made me forget about the goals and just chase after my joy. I didn't accomplish everything I set out to do, but I experienced a few things I didn't even know I could have put on my list, like dancing barefoot in the streets of Hong Kong at 5am with people from all over the world who I'd met less than a week earlier. This why not? philosophy wasn't who I was at the beginning. It was a choice - and often one I didn't want to make. There were many times I initially said no to a new opportunity and, seeing my hesitation and fear, my husband and friends challenged and pushed me out of my comfort zone, and then watched me twirl around in the freedom of it all. It wasn't all roses and backpacks and glee. It was also hard and stressful and exhausting at times. But still better than living safely.

Looking back, I'm just thankful. And looking forward, I feel like there's only adventure up ahead. Who knows what I'll add to the list in 2014!

Looking back on 2013, what was your biggest surprise and/or accomplishment? What are 3 things you hope to accomplish or experience next year?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Travels : Church and Waffles

We walked through the streets of the little town we weren't familiar with, passing families on bicycles, children playing in the road, and old women sweeping their porches. Sometimes, a stray dog would follow us for a stretch, but I think even they began to realize we didn't actually know where we were going. Getting around Granada on foot was... difficult. We quickly discovered that street addresses aren't considered necessary, and most homes and buildings don't have numbers on them. There are street names, but when they sometimes stretch on for a mile or two, you really need to already know where you're going if you want to get there on the first try. Directions are given by landmarks. If you want to get to the grocery store, it's about 4 blocks toward the lake next to the pharmacy. If you're looking for a salon, you need to walk 3 blocks that way, and it's across from the Bolivar family's home.

That's lovely if you know the Bolivars. We, however, do not.

It was Wednesday, and we were headed (we hoped) to a church called El Puente. The owner of Bicimaximo, Baker, told me about El Puente when we Skyped just before our trip. He had come to Granada several years ago for a short-term mission with the organization and is now a part of the church that has sprung out of it. The way Baker described El Puente and what they were doing in Granada convinced me that I had to see it for myself. So Wednesday morning, we woke up early, took another look at the "directions" to the church building, and set out. We walked half a block in the wrong direction, then turned around and set out again.

We found ourselves in a residential area, a side of Granada we hadn't explored yet and one with a 0% population of tourists. The homes were simple, with small yards, concrete walls, and tan faces looking at us like we were clearly not in the right place.

We were walking for what felt like way too long before deciding to stop and ask directions. I dreaded that, simply because my Spanish was usually only good enough to get me and the person I was speaking to thoroughly confused. I felt a little like Troop Beverly Hills tromping through their streets in my bright purple running shoes and Patagonia backpack, but the Nicas were kind and helpful and overcame my Spanglish and American-ness.

Note to self: All your super cool gear makes you look like a privileged fool in the real world.

Monday, December 16, 2013

1,000 Words : Doors of Granada

Bar none, my favorite thing about Nicaragua, and Granada specifically, was the vibrant colors I saw everywhere in the city. Sorry America, but we just don't do color the way they do.

As we walked through Granada, I couldn't stop staring at the doors. What we often consider a functional afterthought in the States, Nicaragua makes the centerpiece of the home. They are tall, sometimes ornate, sometimes simple, but almost always in a hue I didn't know existed. Here are some of my favorite doorways I saw walking through the streets of Granada.




Thursday, November 21, 2013

Travels: Bikes and Beaches

Hey strangers! I never finished telling you about Nicaragua - and there's so much to tell! But I also have stories from my trip to Hong Kong spilling out of my ears! To avoid geographical whiplash, I'm staying in Nicaragua for now. I have a few more stories to tell you before we head east to work groups and hostels and new friendships in China.

So come back with me to Granada.


Have you ever been somewhere altogether foreign, but also incredibly familiar? As we biked our way back to Granada from Laguna de Apoyo (about 16km) with Bicimaximo, we saw farm land and dirt roads blocked by stubborn cows. The smells, the flat green fields, the shouts in Spanish, and the cattle standing behind fences a small gust of wind could destroy gave me a flashback to home - where I grew up in small-town California. It was a strange moment. I was nearly 4,800km from that little border town in the armpit of the West Coast, but straddling my bike on a dirt road in another small town in Nicaragua, it felt the same. It was the tropical version of what I think of when I hear the word "home." It was comforting. And a little bit smelly.


Not so comforting were the bruises on my hind quarters after the long bike ride into town...

But let me back up. Bicimaximo was recommended to us by our host at the Garden Cafe. We stayed in their back room, and it was absolutely lovely.


The owners are a young gentleman from California and his Nicaraguan wife. They run an amazing restaurant and store, and they know basically every expat in the city. There were a surprising amount of restaurant and business owners who were not Nicas, but found the beauty in the country and decided to stay. Or maybe they also found a little piece of home. Damien gave us a list of things to do in the city, and taking a bike tour with Bicimaximo was on the list.

Clicking on the link in his e-mail changed our trip.


Saturday, September 28, 2013

Travels : Miscommunicating in Nicaragua

This was not like vacations we've taken in the past. It wasn't white sandy beaches and posh restaurants and boutiques. It wasn't room service and English and towel animals on the bed with a mint.

It was slow lines through customs at 1 a.m. with a heavy backpack. It was finding our name on a handwritten poster, then walking through the doors into rain and people shouting "taxi! taxi! taxi!" inches from your face, while the humidity curled your hair. It was sweaty and colorful and sometimes hard to look the kids in the eye. It was green and lush and kind. It was electric and beautiful in its rawness.

This was very unlike our past vacations, but it was so much more of an adventure.


When we stepped off the plane, English stopped being my primary language. We failed (FAILED.) to do much/any studying of our Spanish before we left, so what I could recall from my 3 years of high school classes were what we relied on. That, and the kindness of strangers and a sign language we made up on the spot. It was hard.

It made me think about all of the people around me every day in Dallas who don't speak the language well. We sometimes tend to look down on them and get frustrated when they can't communicate with us. "This is America! Speak English!" we say. But wow, it's hard to be on the other side. Harder than I would have thought. And isolating.

Can we please all agree to be kinder to people who are struggling to communicate?

No one said to me, "This is Nicaragua! Speak better Spanish!" I was met by kind smiles at best and confused ones at worst. They asked if they could practice their English. They helped me use the little bit of Spanish I know correctly, so I didn't sound like a dang fool. They were patient and wanted to understand.

It occurred to me while I struggled to string basic sentences together that it is nearly impossible to convey your personality, your intelligence, and your heart when the language isn't your own. You become sort of generic, and very gringo-esce. It feels like you've lost your identity a bit. That you have to boil yourself down to the phrases you know, and speak the rest with your body and your smile.

My husband (a talker to the core) struggled even more because, when we arrived in the country, the extent of his Spanish vocabulary was "yes," "no," and "beer." That resulted in our taxi driver stopping at a convenience store on the way to our guestroom (at 1 a.m.) to get him a beer to drink in the car on the way to the room. My sweet husband had, in fact, told him he wanted a cervesa, but didn't know enough words to clarify that he didn't need one right at that moment. By the end of the week and with a lot of tutoring - a little from me, but mostly from waiters and tour guides - he didn't feel quite so mute. I rely on him for a lot of things, but he was forced to rely on me that week to negotiate taxi fares, order food and translate costs. Hard for both of us, but it probably wasn't a bad thing in the end. Although it was terrifying to think that my poor Spanish skills were being relied upon so heavily!

In all, I felt that Granada was a city of contrasts. Contrasting colors in the doors and walls and streets, contrasting lives of the rich and poor, and the contrasting purity of nature and grime of the markets. (Check out the short video below to see the bright and shiny part of the market.)


As we walked down a road, nicknamed Gringo Alley, a couple of blocks from our room, we almost felt like we were back in the states. We saw white faces and blonde hair; we heard English in varying accents. It was really comforting for a while. There were restaurants and boutiques and storefronts hawking tours. But looking around and talking to locals, we discovered that there weren't any local Nicaraguan restaurants because Nicaraguans don't eat at restaurants. They can't afford it. The whole street scene had been set up for the gringos. The locals tried to sell us wooden birds and bracelets while we ate the food they couldn't buy.

It was a place full of strange contradictions. At first glance it was overwhelming and dirty, but everywhere we went, we found smiles and were greeted with a wave and a "buenas!" Nicaragua stole my heart and reminded me that comfort is overrated and that adventure will almost always take you out of your comfort zone.


I have more stories to tell, y'all, but I'm still processing everything and getting ready for a trip to Hong Kong next week. (Gah!!!) There will be more to come on our adventures in Nicaragua, like biking back to Granada from Laguna de Apoyo with Bicimaximo, and zip lining over the trees and hiking the Puma Trail on Volcano Mambacho with Nahual Tours. Stay tuned! We had a blast!

Monday, September 23, 2013

1,000 words: Granada, Nicaragua

We're back!! Exhausted and happy. My favorite way to come home from an adventure.

Nicaragua was not what I expected. It was amazing and exciting and little scary, but not really in the ways I thought it would be. Nicaragua didn't go easy on us and didn't change herself to make us comfortable. She was raw and real and beautiful. The poverty in Nicaragua broke my heart. And the people stole it. But more on that later.

My mind is still reeling from the trip and the traveling, so until I can process it all, I wanted to share some of my favorite photos from the trip. There will be many stories to come!

The city we stayed in, Granada, was a photographer's dream. The bright walls and doors with intricate details were commonplace to Nicas, but stunning to me. A short, rattling ride outside town took us places even more stunning. The wild volcanoes that smelled of sulfur made my eyes go wide and sting. The lakes more clear than any I've seen mirrored the sky and made my mind wander away. And the overwhelming markets made my eyes go wide and sting for different reasons and carried me to a world I didn't know what to do with.

Granada from above.
The Cathedral in El Parque Central

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Travels: Nicaragua!

Three days from now, my husband and I will be in Nicaragua, a place neither of us has been before. My favorite. (Burglars, calm down. We have house sitters.) Hopefully, our days will be full of tromping through the mud, riding bikes through the old city streets, and hiking to the tops of volcanoes. We haven't planned much of our trip, because we tend to make ourselves so busy we collapse. So this time, we're going to go where the wind blows and see what Nicaragua has for us.

I really hope it has cervesas for us. And lots of dulces. And naps.

Leon, Nicaragua. Photo from here.

Before we booked our tickets, I knew pretty much nothing about Nicaragua except that it is in Central America, is Spanish-speaking, and that we could fly there on Spirit points. Ding, ding, ding! Sign me up. Why not?! But as I've been doing some research on the area, I'm learning that Nicaragua is a beautiful country - one about the size of New York state - but also one that's been wracked by civil wars and political strife since its beginnings in the early 16th century. Those wars, plus natural disasters inevitable with its location and presence of volcanoes and earthquakes, have left Nicaragua in a perpetual state of recovery and rehabilitation. Cities have been rebuilt over and over, and communities have returned again and again to survive on land that doesn't seem to welcome them.

Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Latin American, and is second only to Haiti in the Western Hemisphere. Income distribution is very uneven, leaving the rich and the poor in entirely different worlds. Here are a few facts according to the Nicaragua Initiative for Community Advancement:
  • Just 29% of children complete primary-level education
  • Adolescent pregnancies account for 1 in 4 births nationally
  • 33% of children have some degree of chronic malnutrition, and 9% suffer from severe malnutrition
  • 45% of all income goes to the richest 10% of the country's population, while only 14% goes to the poorest
This picture of Nicaragua breaks my heart, but it's not the whole story. While it has definitely fought and struggled, the country is also known to be the safest in Central America, having some of the best coffee around, and (obviously) being beautiful beyond belief. But really, the people are its gem. For all the bad press it gets, I'm so ready to find the good and the hope in Nicaragua.

Our host sent us recommendations for things to do while we're visiting, and in the process, I learned about several organizations working hard to provide jobs and rehabilitation to the community. A search for a tour company has now led to the opportunity to write several stories while I'm there, and I could not.be.more.excited. Could not. Writing is a job, but it's also what pumps fire into my veins, so if I was excited to go on vacation before, I'm now so far beyond that. I can't even handle it right now. Are we there yet?!

In my research, I also discovered we will be arriving on the country's Independence Day. Don't worry, Nicaragua, I'll help you celebrate.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks. I'm sure we'll have lots of stories to share about our adventures when we get back!

In the meantime, I will be sequestered in my home trying to figure out how to pack stuff for two people and seven days in one backpack. Challenge accepted.

¡Hasta luego mis amigos! Mucho amor para cada uno de ustedes.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Dear Life (part 2)

Dallas, Texas, USA
August 26, 2013
7:37 p.m.

Dear Life,

Thank you for anticipation and the waiting with bated breath. It means adventure is coming.

Thank you for unexpected gifts that shock me with the generosity of others. Thank you for the ability to receive with gratitude from people who love me and mine.

Thank you for the sounds of the Dallas street that waft up to my window and seep into the cracks of the old frame. It's a reminder that we are alive and the world is vibrating with energy and motorcycle engines.


Thank you for the comfort and intimacy of old friendships and the excitement and surprise of new ones.

Thank you even for the stab of a needle from the travel clinic, because it means we're getting closer to our next adventures.

Thank you for dreams and creativity and wonder. They make my life colorful and exciting and the possibilities endless. There is such freedom in it. I love that my creator made my heart a dreamer.

Thank you for the joy of watching some of my best friends become parents, and dozing on their couch at 2 a.m. while their baby boy slept in my arms. I don't have kids of my own, but I am surrounded by children to spend all my love on today. Thank you for the innocence of their little hands and feet and for the reminder that, at some point in my life, I trusted that I was safe and secure in someone else's arms. I didn't worry or fret. Things change as we get older, but I pray I don't lose all my innocence.

Thank you for putting a smile on my face every day. You're not always perfect, but you're always what I need.

Love always,

Michelle

____________________________________________________
This is my second Dear Life post, part of a series on one of my favorite blogs, So Many Places. Click the link to read many other Dear Life entries from Kim's readers all over the world in which we thank life for its many blessings. To read my first post, click here.

What are you thankful for today?

Monday, July 15, 2013

fear, you are dismissed.

We just got back from a rainy and cool five days in Tennessee visiting our recently transplanted family for the 4th of July. We sat on the back deck looking out at the valley nestled below the Smoky Mountains and watched the rain while four generations played games ranging from Go Fish to 42 and chatted about anything and everything. The pyromaniacs of the family shot off fireworks and became real-life examples to the children of why fireworks are dangerous and often result in the singeing of fingers.



On Friday night, however, I squeezed my nieces and nephews a little tighter, because I was pretty sure the next day would be my last.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

diy od

Welcome to my new 'hood! I decided to spruce things up a bit. I hope you like it.

In the spirit of homepage improvement, and because my brain is still in a particularly mushy place, here's another mostly-picture post to save me from a creative meltdown.


In the last several months, I got the itch again. You know the one. It happens to me often, most recently a couple of years ago in March when I was stricken with Restless Life Syndrome. Again. This time, I think I desperately needed a creative outlet that wasn't this blog or the fluffy writing assignments I get on occasion. So I went to town on my house and changed just about every room, and I kinda like how it turned out. I found out that I rather enjoy building and creating things with my own two hands, which was equally fun and dangerous. There were several injuries as a direct result of having a staple gun in my general vicinity and several minor foot injuries as a result of the staples that went AWOL while being shot into the ceiling, wall, and various other objects.

But we're fine. Please don't worry about us.

Click below for the reveal!