Sunday, July 14, 2013


       I was going to write more. I had good intentions, but I suppose living got in the way of writing. I thought I’d write about the time when I watched a truck being creatively pulled from a ditch, and the dozen men gesturing wildly, each positive that he was directing the proceedings. I thought maybe I’d write about the one room schoolhouse and the dusty children I met there, because they are not people I’ll quickly forget. I thought perhaps I’d write about my English students or even the unlucky lizard I ran over with my scooter.
       Maybe I can still write these things, but it will be from a new home. Tomorrow, I leave Vientiane to move back to the States, and my feelings could not possibly be more mixed. I am excited for what comes next, but I know how I behave when I leave a place I’ve grown to love. For a while, my days will consist of living partially in the present and partially in the Indochina Time zone, having thoughts such as, “Joma CafĂ© is opening in 20 minutes. I could really go for one of their mango shakes.” Or possibly, “My students just finished evening classes. I hope they’re not asking their new teacher to go to the bathroom too often to get out of class, because they really need to stop doing that.”
       So if I see you in the near future and I don’t seem quite with it, it’s probably because I’m not. I suppose I could blame it on the jetlag, but I know that won’t be entirely true. Trying to live in one hemisphere while picturing a day in the other is exhausting work, but I’m not going to say no to a few extra naps here and there, just in case.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Elephants: Round Two

       I’m one of the luckiest girls in the world. I never dreamed that within a year, I would be reunited with Boonme. Not only were we reunited, but I was able to introduce her to my family. I’m not so sure she really cares, being an elephant and all, but she played her part nicely.
       Once again, I was able to shimmy up her side and lazily meander through the jungle. I could take part in the ant-avoidance dance, and I could practice my Thai. The difference was that this time, I could call out to my parents and my sister, relaxing just yards away on their own elephants. Not to put words in their mouths, but if I could put words in their mouths for a second, I'd say they were, “Wow… This is…”
       In addition to riding elephants, we had the opportunity to experience a national holiday that puts other national holidays to shame. The Thai New Year is a chance for people to make a fresh start, but what it really consists of is the entire country shutting down and throwing water at each other. It took us a couple of hours to travel a distance that normally would have taken twenty minutes, because traffic was crawling. The backs of pickup trucks were packed with barrels of water and people holding super soakers aimed at other vehicles. People sometimes even abandoned the cars and ran down the middle of the street in order to hit their target. My main thought throughout this experience was, “How can I start this in the United States without being arrested for disturbing the peace?” Also, I occasionally thought, “This would be a terrible time for your windshield wipers to stop working.”
       Bangkok seemed tame after these experiences, and I am sure “tame” is a word rarely used with this city. While I would love to post pictures of my favorite part, helping my sister pick out her wedding dress, I am aware that this would mean immediate dismissal from her bridal party. And from the family in general. But let me just say, her dress is beautiful. And that’s my cue to stop.

Pure chaos, but really fun chaos

Our emotional reunion. Okay, honestly, she just kind of stood there.

Anna: The photographer becomes the subject

Expert mahout right here

Too unbelievably cute

My pictures from last summer hanging on their wall!

Back in the confusing maze that is the Chatuchak market

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Kyoto: Hurry up or you'll miss all the peaceful spots.

       Kyoto has an absurd number of beautiful sights to see. Really, it's not fair to other cities. Also, I believe I saw all of these beautiful sights when I was there. Such was the scope of our sightseeing, that I'm fairly certain I've seen temples that have not even been built yet. I started referring to them by identifying a unique characteristic that would set them apart from the rest. For example, "No, the fourth temple was the one with the deer wandering around outside, and the fifth one was the one with the squeaky floors."
       The simplicity of the architecture and beauty of the Japanese gardens remind you to walk a little more slowly. The artifacts remind you that you are standing among national treasures, treasures that symbolize generations of Japanese culture and revered heritage. And the noisy school groups remind you to be thankful that you aren't thirteen anymore.

Not quite as peaceful as was intended


This is one of the most famous temples. Of course, that means that it was under scaffolding, but luckily, this coin showed us what we should have been looking at. 

Japanese garden


Beautiful stereotype

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Many Faces of Tokyo

       Sightseeing in Tokyo could be quite a job. Luckily, I am related to Tokyo natives who know all the must-see spots, although considering the size of Tokyo, there are enough must-see spots to fill a dozen mid-sized capitals. We had to cut down our itinerary a bit, and by a bit, I mean that we still managed to sight-see for twelves hours per day.
       The pictures below show one of the fish markets in town. It is a cramped, bustling sea of people, and it brings the word "sardines" to mind in more than one way. Since Japan is an island country, the seafood is top-notch. Miniature restaurants along the the edge of the market were selling dishes so fresh, that they were swimming only moments before.
       It was only a short stop in between seeing the imperial palace, the high-end shopping district, one of many malls, another famous fashion street, and beautiful cherry blossoms. If I had to navigate it by myself, I would have stepped outside my hotel, taken one look at the train map, and sat down for a day-long coffee break. And Tokyo, with its multitude of Starbucks, would have welcomed that too.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Photo Preview

       With a sister who is a professional photographer, I know very well to waste little time in transferring photos to a computer. I've heard too many stories of lost photographs to take this lightly, and yet, I forgot to do this after my three week vacation with my family. Today, I could not find an SD card, one which had almost 800 pictures on it. You can imagine my panic, but luckily, the third time I checked my side table drawer, it miraculously appeared. Apparently, I put items away in fairly logical places more often than I realize. 

       So, although I am feeling a little nauseated after ripping my room apart like a maniac and tearing around in the heat, I am still excited to tell you about the events of the last few weeks. I'm just going to do it while taking deep breaths and sitting under an air conditioner. 

       It's not feasible for me to explain the events since April 10th in one post. Instead, I will look back through my photos and post stories a little at a time. The pictures below are just a sample of the beautiful sites of Japan, Thailand, and Laos, but even they don't do these countries justice. 

Cherry Blossom Season in Japan

My entire family experiencing the elephants in Thailand!

The Nam Lik River in Laos

The morning market in Vientiane

Children from a small village school

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

More Starbucks Love, Completely Deserved

       I would like to direct your attention to a comment I made recently, a comment which was written sarcastically and without agenda. After driving to Thailand for coffee, I wrote, "I'm wondering whether Starbucks will renew my gold card status for going to such lengths to reach their product."
       It turns out that THEY WILL. Someone sent my last blog entry to Starbucks, and Customer Service responded, requesting that I contact them. After writing and introducing myself, they offered to issue a new gold card for me. 

        Just let that sink in for a minute. 

       When I received their email, I was about the same amount of giddy as when I found out that my sister was engaged. Congratulations, by the way, Anna. But a gold card! Who could have imagined?
       It seems that Hong Kong has the closest Starbucks to me that will accept the cards, so perhaps Hong Kong has just moved up on the list of places I should visit in the near future. Perhaps I've stumbled across a new motive to travel the world: I could drink coffee from a Starbucks in every participating country. Someone must be willing to support me financially in this endeavor, right? I'm assuming that, from now on, I can casually throw these ideas out here on this blog, and people will actually take me up on it. 
       All of this will happen only if I can get someone to send this card overseas to me. If you do, I will give you a complimentary coffee. Or write to Starbucks and tell them about your good deed. They might give you one. It's apparently worth a shot. 

Don't fret, my account is really there, ready for this gold card business again. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Customer Loyalty At Its Finest

       After living in Lao PDR for a couple months, you become painfully aware of the difference between wants and needs. As it turns out, you need far less than you think you do.

For example:

  • Do you need food? Yes. Do you need Chipotle? Apparently not. 
  • Are you required to own clothes? Yes. Are you required to frequent a multi-level shopping complex in which to buy those clothes? As it turns out, not really. 
  • Do you need coffee? Yes. Do you need Starbucks? Yes. 

And this is how I found myself traveling to Thailand for a Mocha Frappuccino.      
       Now, there are darling coffee joints in Vientiane. Their coffee is delightful. They are within electric scooter-riding distance. However, Starbucks is not one of them, and neither is any other foreign chain restaurant. When you have been required by law to stay within the borders of Laos until paperwork has been properly stamped, and you've been waiting nearly two months, you begin to wonder what is offered on the other side of the fence. You may become antsy to taste something that tastes like home. This is where Thailand comes in.
       The Lao-Thai border is about a fifteen minute drive from Vientiane. Once passports are stamped and customs cleared, you have access to shopping malls on the other side. During the weeks leading up to the first trip there, Thailand became a kind of Mecca in my mind. Laos has everything needed to survive comfortably, but there were several things unaccounted for in my "want" category. Everything I couldn't find here, I was positive I would find there, in excess. Stackable shelves? I'll get those in Thailand! An over commercialized, squeaky clean, six story shopping mall bathed in fluorescent lights? I'll see that in Thailand! Better air quality? I'll find that in Thailand!
       Once there, everything seemed enormous. I have spent quite a bit of time in large cities, but for those couple of hours, I felt as though Udon Thani, Thailand was as cosmopolitan as it gets. That's what happens after you live in a city where this is a perfectly normal, and completely real, conversation to have in one of the main international supermarkets. 

       Me: Excuse me, do you have any more milk in the back?
       Owner: We will probably get more this afternoon.
       Me: Ok! Thank you! 

       This is why we took not one, but two trips to Thailand in less than a week. During the first trip, my Dunkin' Donuts coffee spilled in my lap in the back of someone else's car after taking only a couple of sips. Needless to say, it was a low point for me, and probably for the owner of the car as well. Luckily for him, maxi dresses are quite absorbent.
       For me, the second trip was focused less on buying things to bring back to Laos than buying something at Starbucks. This time, I was determined to drink it instead of wear it. And let me tell you, it was worth every sweltering minute at the border crossing. I'm wondering whether Starbucks will renew my gold card status for going to such lengths to reach their product. I recommend that they create a special discount for people who need to use passports,  fill out arrival and departure forms for two countries, and switch to driving on the other side of the road for a couple of hours, all in order to say the phrase, "I'll have a Grande Mocha Frappuccino please."

So beautiful. Not my photography skills, but the content of the photo.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pha That Luang

       When I pictured my visit to Pha That Luang, I pictured a bustling complex filled with tourists and monks. I imagined little available parking. I thought I'd wait in line to pay my admission. Instead, to protect against the dust that was being whipped around by the wind, I covered my face as I walked across an empty lot toward the temple. Vendors driving tuk-tuks called out for me to buy ice cream at the gates. Unfortunately, I don't think they made very much profit that afternoon. 
       As I completed my quiet loop around Pha That Luang, I tried, with difficulty, to imagine the festivals that cause thousands of Lao Buddhists to flock to the temple. I stopped occasionally to stand underneath sprinklers attempting to keep the gardens from wilting in the heat, and I captured a picture of a lone monk. Soon after, he called out to other monks I could not see, making me wonder what else was going on around me that I was too unobservant or culturally ignorant to notice. 
       I slipped off my flip-flops at the door of a smaller temple in the complex. I peered in the door, sure that I was welcome to walk inside, but hesitant in the absence of other tourists. I was greeted by a tinny medley of Christmas tunes, most notably, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," and I wondered which novice monk was put in charge of that playlist. 
       You can find this collision of cultures in many large, Southeast Asian cities. However, you would struggle to find another one that matches the slow pace with which Vientiane should be discovered. Here is a city that invites you to explore nearly empty temples, but not too quickly, and not without an ice cream in your hand.

Pha That Luang

Lone flip-flops

Lone monk

"You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout. I'm telling you why..."

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Weeks in Review

March 9, 2013

My dear students,

       I must apologize for the lack of updates. To keep you from worrying, I will give you a list of terrible things that have not happened to me during the time that has passed.
  1. I did not get trampled by an elephant.
  2. I did not get sick from drinking too much coffee.
  3. I did not forget about you.
  4. I did not take a boat ride down the Mekong River, lose control, and end up floating into the South China Sea.
  5. I did not forget how to turn on my computer.
  6. I did not get locked inside a temple.
  7. I did not fall asleep on any public transportation.
  8. I did not get lost during a trek in the Lao jungle.
  9. I did not lose my passport.
  10. I did not move to Thailand and forget to tell you.

       Now that you know what unfortunate things I avoided, I suppose I should tell you what I have actually been up to.
  1. I climbed Patuxay, one of the most famous monuments in Laos. When I say that I “climbed” it, you may picture me whipping out ropes and a harness and scaling the side, but there were handy stairs already in place to do the hard work for me. As I climbed (the stairs) higher, I discovered t-shirts, postcards, and other Lao souvenirs for sale in the “cool” shade inside the concrete structure. I believe it’s no coincidence that the spiral staircase leading to the miniature room at the very top of Patuxay is located conveniently inside one of the shops. So, after taking in the view of Vientiane from above, I bought some things. They sure know how to reel me in.
  2. I received another official stamp in my passport, saying that I can, in fact, be in the country. It’s comforting to know this.
  3. I talked to teachers at an English school and scheduled days when I will cover a few classes! There may be more teaching opportunities for me there as time goes on, and I am very excited to be in a classroom again. If you think I moved to the other side of the globe to escape children, think again. You guys just seem to find me wherever I go.
  4. I also started conducting some private tutoring lessons. Non-native English speakers are eager to practice pronunciation and conversation, and as you know, I have no trouble carrying on long discussions. It’s a perfect fit.
  5. Here is a groundbreaking turn of events: I drank quite a few coffees since the last time you heard from me.
  6. Some of my new friends are letting me borrow an electric scooter, so I took it out for a few test drives this past week. It turns out that I am a decent scooter-driver. It also turns out that I am an excellent scooter-pusher, because it turns out that the scooter needs new batteries. Details.
  7. I affectionately named one of the stray dogs in the neighborhood Stan. I later found out that Stan’s a girl.
  8. I delightfully took a walk along the river in misty, 70-degree weather while natives pulled on sweaters and jackets.
  9. I saw two signs that read, “Over than 30 years of service,” and “One of the best pizzas you may ever had.” Fix these sentences.
  10. I bought hangers.

       Some of these things may not sound thrilling. In fact, losing control of a boat in the Mekong would surely have resulted in better storytelling than buying hangers. However, I think it’s important that you know that living in another country does not provide non-stop exploration and adventure. I still have an alarm clock. (Whether it is effective or not is irrelevant.) I still have to buy groceries. I still use a weekly planner and fill out paperwork. I’m just doing it in a place where I don’t have to shovel snow, and I'm okay with that.

Miss Ross

Patuxay (Pah-too-sigh)

Looking down Lane Xang at the Presidential Palace 

Lane Xang and Vientiane 

Beautiful Patuxay at night 

Downtown Vientiane 

A temple across from the Mekong River

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Buddha Park

       Today, I visited the Buddha Park just outside Vientiane. It is a large, grassy area along the Mekong River, filled with statues that seem to have been dropped there accidently. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to their arrangement, since they create a kind of maze without a destination, but each statue is unique. You're drawn through the park, almost simply because you can't imagine what else they could have possibly carved and placed there.
       The most interesting structure is three stories tall and shaped like a ball, one with little windows carved in the side and precarious stairways inside. If balance is not your forte and hights are not your friend, do not attempt to climb to the top. Once you emerge, crawling, through the small opening at the top, the new perspective is worth the climb.
       As I made my way back to land, a group of monks arrived to tour the park. Monks are highly regarded members of Lao society, and they are easy to spot around town in their orange robes. Foreigners often need to be reminded to respect their routines, and pictures are discouraged. I snapped a few from a distance, but I did not approach them or interrupt their wanderings.
       But here's where things became strange. As I was resting on a bench in the shade, the monks started taking pictures of me. While I tried to be subtle with my camera, they stood in a group, talking loudly, and snapping pictures in my direction. Not every day does a monk take a picture of you.
       Now, granted, I had a baby on my lap. That's really what they were taking a picture of, and had I set the baby down and removed myself from the frame, they probably would have been happier. Still, somewhere in a temple in Laos, I am immortalized on some monks' SD cards. That is, until they realize it was silly to take a picture of a hot, tired foreigner and wisely decide to delete it.

 The encouraging entrance

 The outer, well-lit hallway

Having their picture taken 

A sea of statues

Buddha Park

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Weather Forecast

I have stopped complaining about the weather here. This has happened for two reasons.
  1. I start to think about people in the Midwest who are engaging in one of my least favorite activities, scraping ice off car windshields. 
  2. This is the conversation that follows whenever I do complain.
    • Me: It sure is hot here!
    • Wise local who has been here far longer than me and is well aware that it is about to get much worse: Ha!
       From the way they talk about the approaching heat, I'm starting to wonder if I would welcome ice-scraping in its place, a thought that suggests my brain has already been addled. I've started to prepare now. Since it was a cool 95 degrees yesterday, I wore a sweater, even while I walked around outside. I tell myself that it will feel refreshing when I stop wearing sweaters during the hot season. My logic here is unshakable. Don't question it. 
       The hot season is not the only legendary phenomenon here. People have been trying to prepare me for the rainy season as well. From what they tell me, the type of hourly precipitation I am imagining can only be accurately compared to Niagara Falls. It appears that it makes no difference that Laos is a landlocked country. According to my predictions, there will be enough water to swim in the streets. I hope the Niagara Falls tour guides are here to hand out ponchos.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Pity Party Postponed

       I think some people worried when I mentioned I was moving to Laos. Let me drive that worry away once and for all, or momentarily, depending on how prone you are to anxiety. I'd like to debunk the idea that I may be washing my clothes in the Mekong River or bartering for food.
       I woke up this morning and ate a chocolate croissant. Then I read through underlined, beloved segments of my favorite book, Nomad's Hotel. It is the only book I have ever marked up with a pencil. I bought it at my favorite book store in New York City, and it is the sole book that has made the cut each and every time I've gone somewhere for an extended period of time. It has traveled in my suitcase to the Czech Republic, Scotland, Italy, and now Laos. In it, I find old postcards, playbills and ticket stubs that bring me back to Venice or Prague when they were used as bookmarks. Every time I read it, a different thought speaks to me depending on where I am at the time or what has happened in my life since the last time I read it. When the pencil marks start to wear off, I read through and darken them again. It provides a connecting link between my destinations. 
       After reading and pondering over literature, I got an hour long foot massage for six dollars. Then I drank a banana frappe. And that's Thursday. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Communication: Made Possible By Skype

       Sometimes I marvel at my good fortune. Today, I found my way around my new city, only getting lost a time or two, and then only for a couple of minutes. I learned a couple new words in Lao. I drank coffee. Then, when it seemed that the only thing that could perfectly top off the day would be to fall asleep, I talked to a roomful of about 70 second graders in Indiana.
       I thought about complaining that the internet connection was poor, meaning that we typed most of our questions and answers to one another instead of seeing faces. Then I remembered that until only recently, a journey such as mine was truly isolating. The very thought of instantaneous communication between one person going through a bedtime ritual with another person, one who is finishing up a morning routine at that exact time, was unthinkable. I occasionally mention that it would be liberating to untie myself from technology, but then my decisions to move around the globe would be much more difficult to justify.
       We discussed food, transportation, and the shocking lack of video games in my life. I talked about how much rice I now consume, and I confessed to eating ice cream quite frequently, okay daily, to cope with the heat. Also, because it's delicious, and I'm supporting the economy.
       What is more important than these topics, and what I hope my students will learn, is the fact that there was any communication at all. I don't only mean communication between a teacher and her students who happen to miss each other, but between people who are living differently. How can I expect everyone to value what is unknown and strange to them unless I tell them how rewarding it is to feel a little displaced sometimes? The benefits of throwing yourself into a different way of life far outweigh the time it takes to feel normal again. I fear the people who assume that their way of life is the only way of life.
       It was comforting to hear their voices, even for a few moments. I was so thankful that they had so many questions, because it meant that they are trying to understand. They are trying to imagine life in a context other than what is familar to them. To hear curiosity buzzing around them gave me hope that people will continue to communicate across borders. And when there is ice cream on both sides, I don't really see why there would be any holdup.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Year 24 Day 1

       When my plane touched down late last night, I felt a warm affection for Thailand. When I say "warm," I mean it in the figurative sense, of course. Even more so, I mean it in the literal. If you're a fan of heat, we could say that it settles like the warmest down comforter you've ever felt. If you're not a fan of heat, we could say it hits you like a bus.
       Either way, I was thrilled to be in the same country as my elephant again, though I will have to return later to pay her a visit. After only a few hours in Bangkok, it was time to meet my new hometown, Vientiane, Laos. Even after one evening here, I am hooked.
       Vientiane is a small city when compared to other capital cities. There are no skyscrapers and no malls. Despite it's condensed size, it is extremely diverse and represents many international cultures. In the span of a couple hours, I applied for my Laos visa, found cookies I haven't been able to find outside Great Britain, ate a smorgasbord of Italian food, and finished the evening with coffee Haagen-Dazs. If you we're worried about me at all, please note that I can buy Betty Crocker chocolate cake mix if I get homesick. 
       However, with my stay here, I am really looking forward to figuring out what is distinctly Vientiane. I've already seen a small picture, but I'm itching to discover more. I'd say though, for the first day of my 24th year of life, it's time for bed. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Ocean View

I looked out to sea after sunset, and this was, no joke, my first view of the scenic Japanese coastline.

Sagami Bay

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Tokyo Days

January 26, 2013

My dear students,
       A couple of nights ago, I woke up while it was still dark, looked at the clock, did a little calculating, and realized that you were in art class. It was a strange feeling, knowing that I could picture your day, but knowing that you probably can't even begin to picture mine. I suppose it's time that I fill you in. 
       I haven't fallen into any routines yet, as I still have not reached Laos. I've been getting to know Tokyo, which, as it is the largest metropolitan area of the world, takes some time. I did my typical routine, hitting as many major sites in one day as possible, and I managed to buy souvenirs at the base of a temple, stroll through shopping malls devoted entirely to electronics, listen to vendors shout out for me to buy their seafood, and maneuver through the complex maze of trains and subways.
       Japan has vending machines with both cold and hot drinks, and I obviously found the coffee drinks to buy and sip while standing in the crowded trains. I've practiced the art of smiling and nodding along when I have absolutely no clue what people are saying to me, and I've almost learned how to tell how expensive something is when its price is listed in Japanese yen. (If you're wondering, there are about 90 yen in one dollar. Try adding that to a chart in Number Corner.) 
       My chopstick-wielding skills are still improving, and I managed to eat even a salad with them today. I also admitted to thinking a dish was delicious before finding out that the crunching was not only the lettuce, but squid tentacles. Ignorance surely is bliss, and I may or may not look more closely at my food from now on. Maybe I don't always want to know what's in it. 
       No matter what each day brings, I wake up excited for the possibilities. When the day ends, I go to bed exhausted but happy, and apparently full of squids. Isn't that really what life is all about? 

Miss Ross

Top row, first two on the left. That's the good stuff. 


Monday, January 21, 2013

Chapter 1

My Dear Students,

       Tomorrow is the beginning of new adventures for all of us. For you comes a new teacher, bringing new ideas, new experiences, and new opportunities. For me comes a new country. To be honest, I’m not yet sure what all that brings, but I suppose I’m about to find out.
       My coffee machine has been stored away with the message “Coffee Maker, FRAGILE, PRECIOUS, DO NOT DROP” written on the box in Sharpie, just to be safe. One can never be too cautious about these things. Your letters to me are tucked safely in my backpack, and I will read them when I am missing Valparaiso.
       For the first week, I will be with family in Japan. Then, on my birthday, I will fly to my new home in Vientiane. I have never asked for a new address for my birthday, but I suppose there is a first time for everything. Maybe you should ask for an address in a foreign country for your next birthday too. The worst your parents could say is “No.”
       After that point, I really am not sure what to expect. So, right now, all I can do is triple check my to-do lists. Hopefully, they will be completed by the time I fly tomorrow, just as you are finishing your lunch. By the time I touch land again, you will be fast asleep, regaining energy to continue your new adventure. You will do wonderful things, and I only hope I can do the same.

Miss Ross