My Secrets To Enjoying Unexpectedly Extreme Cheap Skate Travel

If you want to go fast, go alone.

If you want to go far, go together.–African proverb

10509679_10204682674124685_4537211730364252991_nI like going fast, and I’m a huge fan of traveling alone, but when a dear friend invited my little family to use her empty condominium in Manzanillo, Mexico cost-free, I couldn’t resist.  I hadn’t traveled with my grown daughters in almost ten years. This was a golden opportunity.

We planned to cook meals at the condominium to stay on budget and to stay healthy. The biggest splurge would be on the jungle horseback riding trip I’d buy the girls for a belated Christmas present. I made the brilliant decision to book it online, using a company with great reviews on trip advisor.

What possibly could go wrong?

That online transaction completely cleaned out my bank account. The phone number and email address for the company didn’t work, and the windstorms interrupted my phone connection repeatedly so that I couldn’t make a thorough report to my bank or authorities for three days. Once my complaint got through, all access to my funds were cut off until the matter could be sorted out.

10968517_359062167611160_2607567521168045191_nI half-hoped that there had been a misunderstanding, that maybe I’d accidentally bought a horse that would be waiting in my yard when we got back to Alaska.   

No such luck.

After the initial shock, I made the conscious decision to not let ruin our time together.  And you know what? It turned out to be the best trip ever.

Here’s are my secrets to enjoying  unexpected extreme cheap skate travel.

Keep great company.

I felt like I got to know my daughters in a new way, and without distractions. No television. No radio. No internet. It turns out, they’re wonderful travelers, picking up  language quickly, trying any and all food available, tipping generously, and rolling with the unexpected.  They were attentive and considerate, and adorable enough to net us a great table everywhere we went.

photoEnjoy good books.

I read seven, including Dominick Dunne’s  Justice, Comedy Writing 4 Life by John Vorhaus, Family Furnishings by Alice Munro, and Far Outside the Ordinary by Prissy Elrod to name a few. The sun and balcony became good friends to me.

Embrace the added exercise when forgoing taxis for long walks.

Exercise sharpens the mind, and gave me time for candid talks with my daughters, and time to sort out my thoughts when I walked or swam alone.

I returned to Alaska having strengthened my relationships with my daughters, exercised, read, and slept better than I have in ages. It was like I’d gone to a poor person’s spa. There was no horse on my snowy lawn when I got home, but there was a renewed excitement to lead my pedestrian life.

Not too shabby, I’d say.
What are your tips for enjoying budget travel? Leave a comment below.

Deciding to Be Different/Leaving the Legacy of Domestic Violence

Have you ever had a chance meeting with someone that changed your way of thinking?

My journey to Paris last month had been a long one. A five hour flight from Anchorage to Minnesota, a three hour layover, followed by an eight hour flight to Paris. By the time I got off the plane, my left ankle had swollen outside of my tennis shoe. And then there was the crowd. I hadn’t thought Paris was a small town, but I wasn’t at all prepared for the swarm around me. I just about lost my lunch.
A subway ride, a metro, and many wrong turns later, I managed to turn the one-hour trip to my youth hostel into a six hour nightmare.  My confidence evaporated.One of my hostel roommates chatted with me while I was resting.  He asked about the sites I had seen in Paris thus far. “None,” I told him. “At this point, I’m worried I’ll get lost again.” 
How did a nice older woman  like yourself end up so far from home in a youth hostel?”  I shocked us both when I spared no details. I told this young stranger about the volatile marriage that ended my youth and that nearly ended my life. I told him about raising two daughters on my own, with no financial support from their father or anyone else. I told him how I promised myself in my thirties, after earning my graduate degree, that if I did a proper job raising my daughters, I would treat myself after they were grown to travel far and wide.  
The young man sat quietly for a moment on his bed. Then he said“Name what you’d like to see, and I will take you tomorrow.”
His name was Alex, and at 29 years-old, he’s just a bit older than my daughters. Though raised primarily in Costa Rica, his parents made him an interesting blend. His mother is from the Ivory Coast. His father from France. “It’s kept me from getting too puffed up about any one country being best,” he shrugged. “Every country is home, not just the one I was born in.” Alex works virtual jobs in order to live closer to his girlfriend at the university in Switzerland.

The next afternoon, we were off. To the Eiffel Tower. To the Pantheon. To Notre Dame. The Latin Quarter.  The more we walked together, the more we shared about our lives.

I told him about my volatile marriage, and my concerns that my inability to find the girls a father-figure would impede their ability to couple later in life. “What you need is a man with empathy,” he said.
 Alex told me about his own mother. Like me, she had been tormented by her husband. Unlike me, she never moved on after her kids grew up and traveled or embraced other hobbies. “I always wanted my mom to travel,” he said wistfully.
As day turned into night, and as our walk about Paris neared five miles, I began to dread ending our time together. I had always wanted a son, and on this night, I felt I had one.

He must have read my mind. “Don’t worry about your girls, Liz. They’re healing just fine. Just look at me. I was greatly affected by domestic violence, but I chose to be different than my father. People follow their parents’ examples often, but they can choose to be different.”
It is true. Children often follow their parent’s lead by reflex, and domestic violence is an intergenerational legacy, but with some information and perspective, kids can (and do) make different choices all the time.
I thanked Alex as we headed back to the hostel, and couldn’t help but notice the benefits we had both received from our day together. That on this cold January night in Paris, a young man could finally travel with  his mother, and a mother was reassured that her grown kids would be just fine.

How Do You Measure a Good Vacation? My trip to Italy and France

How do you measure a good vacation?

Is it the sights you’ve seen?

The friends you’ve made?

Or is it that you’re positively thrilled to return to your own routine of work, chores, and friends?

Reconnecting with a dear friend made in Laos

However I measure it, I had a great time. I’m tickled to be back.

After spending three weeks on a frugal trip to Italy and France, I can honestly say it was an unforgettable trip.

Given my propensity to get lost and to break things, travel far away is always a particular risk for me (or the people around me).

Thank you to my hostel mates for filling in the gaps. To the wonderful Costa Rican young man who set aside time to show me the ropes of Paris subways and navigate the way to all the best sites.  To Hakan in Rome who intervened when a creepy staff member starting following and  harassing me. To the gentle, elderly Parisian woman who must have sensed my loneliness and sat with me on an empty subway to share her life story. To my old and very dear friend Popi for bringing me into her life in Trieste, Italy. And to the many, many others.

Venice, Italy

Everyone has a story worth hearing.

For me, it takes removing myself and going far, far, away to make the time-from work, from family, from hobbies, even from writing, to really focus on hearing those stories.

And guess what? I returned under budget, two pounds lighter (no small feat given the countries at hand, and couldn’t wait to re-connect with you.


Remembering Grace and Making New Memories/The Bright Spot of My Daughters’ Abduction

I’m in Italy this week, spending time with a cherished friend.

Have you ever been the beneficiary of uncommon kindness from a random stranger?

There is something special about going through a brutal time and finding that you have guardian angels who pop up out of nowhere. 

Such was the case for me in 1995 when I found myself alone in Greece without two dimes to rub together, looking for my abducted daughters.

On my first trip to Greece after they were kidnapped, I met with a lawyer I had retained there. Two young women attorneys worked in his office, and after our initial meeting, they invited me to lunch with them.

They weren’t involved with my case. They were not being paid. They simply extended their hospitality, and they were only too happy to practice their English skills.

One of the women, Popi, inquired about my living arrangements while in Greece. When I told her I was staying at a hostel, she piped up. “It is settled, then. You will come stay with me in my spare bedroom.”

And I did. 

At the time, I had long been a motherless child, and was now a childless mother.  Popi’s nurturing presence was medicinal to me. She taught me to read and speak Greek after work, something that would come in handy since my daughters no longer spoke English. Popi took me on outings with her friends, and when my lawyers quit my case temporarily due to non-payment by me and due to the fact that I second-guessed them constantly, Popi stood in the line of fire with them to help me find a private investigator. In turn, her job was threatened.

What do you say to someone who has done so much and asked for nothing in return?

Thank you, Popi. I said I would never forget  you, and I have not.

We’ve all faced hard times and have been the recipient of uncommon grace.

Who in your life has stepped up to help you?

With luck, I’ll post next week. Otherwise, I’ll return to you at the end of the month.
Take care.


When Vacation Beckons/ Three of my Favorite Travel Blogs

What signs do you see in yourself when you need a vacation?

I don’t know how much is the increasing darkness or the legitimate need to unplug and focus on rest and relaxation, but I’ve definitely seen the signs in myself.

Sign #1) Small frustrations are out of scale.

Today I got a text from a friend. “You’re tail light in the car is burned out.”  It’s a small, cheap fix, but I thought I might cry.

>Sign #2) None of my day-to-day life holds my interests. Not my job. My volunteer work. Not Household chores. Not even my fun weekly rituals with friends.

Sign #3) I go to favorite travel blogs over and over. Right now, here’s what I’m looking at:

Legal Nomads

Budget Globetrotting


I leave on New Years Day for a long jag of solo travel.  France and Italy are on the agenda, a time for lots of fun and photography. There will be time to visit some old friends. The challenge? Enjoying it while on a budget.

Do you have any must-see recommendations for Italy and France?

What places populate your bucket-list?

I love hearing from you.


Feasting for Fiji and Pack for a Purpose/ How Increasing Literacy May Impact Domestic Violence

At work, I just wrapped up my part of Feasting for Fiji, our second annual fundraiser to support  Pack for a Purpose create a library in a remote village. Our event pairs juvenile delinquents with some dynamic probation and detention staff to host a barbecue for community partners. 

Children in Lao village with the books last year’s fundraiser bought them.

Education and freedom from domestic violence have been inextricably linked (in my mind) for a long time.

In the spring of 1991. I was a year out of my marriage. I food-stamped and pell granted my way to college and took a Literature of Appalachian Women class where the late author Sidney Saylor Farr came for a visit from her post at Berea, Kentucky.

After giving a reading from her book MORE THAN MOONSHINE, Ms. Farr told us the story of how she married at age 15 in rural Kentucky. Her older husband dominated her.  When she raised money to get her high school diploma by ironing shirts for the pastor’s wife, her husband beat her. Later, just on the brink of taking her final exams,her husband threw her books in the trash and set it on fire. Undeterred, Ms. Farr said she wrote the school and said her books had burned in a fire.

Author Sidney Saylor Farr (center)

Sidney Saylor Farr finished her education, left her husband,  and kept moving forward, eventually becoming a staff member at Berea College and an author of four books. 

As a domestic violence advocate, I experienced a sharp increase in the number of calls from university professors requesting pamphlets for students around the time of finals week. “Her boyfriend lurks in the hallways,” one told me of her student, “and she can’t concentrate on her schoolwork when she’s worried about his reaction to her possible success.”

Super creepy.

What is it about an education that so threatens a controlling partner or an oppressive government?

An good education will: 

  • Challenge the student to question authority.
  • Increase opportunities for self-sufficiency.
  • Build self-confidence.
On a global scale, children of women in developing nations who have completed primary school are 40 percent less likely to die before the age of five (Plan, ‘Because I am a Girl: Girls in the Global Economy’ 2009).

Is an education a guarantee that a person will not be abused in their lifetime by an intimate partner?

Absolutely not. But simply having an education can provide a way out of the hopelessness and isolation that accompanies abusive relationship.

Would you like to support your community’s efforts to increase high school graduation rates?
Google your town/city’s name and the word literacy and see what you come up with.
Are you planning a vacation overseas? Consider helping Pack for a Purpose fulfill their mission. It’s a great way to make a lasting connection.

And finally, if you’d like to take a free online course from a top university instructor, go to www. It’s a fabulous resource.

Thanks always for stopping by. Feel free to Like my author page at

Traveling to Alaska? Four Laws of the Land

Greetings.  Forgive the re-post. I’ve jumped at the past week of good weather in Alaska and enjoyed Seward and Soldotna. I’ll see you next week.

Have you ever considered visiting the 49th state, or even moving to Alaska?

Every summer, thousands of tourists visit Alaska. With it’s strong economy and exquisite wildlife, Alaska has also become home to a growing number of adventurers in recent years.

If you’re thinking of coming to Alaska, please do. But for the sake of us all, keep the following Four Laws of the Land in mind.

1) You can’t pee in the pool. 

Although great in size, Alaska is still a small town. The land is rugged and the temperatures are extreme. It doesn’t take long before you realize that you need the people around you to survive. On two occasions last winter alone, my neighbors helped dig me out of my driveway so I could eek my way to work after snowstorms buried my car. A state trooper friend told me he had to ask an offender’s family to give his patrol car’s dead battery a jump after he arrested their son on a warrant. And a delightful dog I know named Lewis relied on his compassionate neighbors for sustenance and walks when owner Bob Eder was mauled and nearly killed by a grizzly this summer as he hiked around the neighborhood.
(After weeks in the hospital, Lewis’s owner is doing much better now).

2) Birds of a feather don’t flock together.

Community activist Ma’o Tosi


Inuit band Pamyua

When you travel, do you like to be with people who mostly look like you? People who eat the same foods and listen to your kind of music?

If  you answered Yes, you might want to stay home.

This past year, the U.S. Census Bureau found that Caucasians were minorities for the first time ever in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. Over 100 languages are spoken within the local school district. While many people think of Alaska as home to the Eskimo, the reality is that there are many different kinds of Alaska natives. Immigrant populations come from the Pacific Islands, Sudan, Bhutan, Gambia, Laos, and many other countries I can’t spell.  And neighborhoods aren’t necessarily clustered by race or culture. We’re all snuggled in together, trying to get along, pushing each other out of snowy ditches or warning one another about bear cubs in the neighborhood.

3) Plans cannot be contingent on good weather.

An Alaskan that waits for good weather to execute their plan is a frustrated, inactive human. If you decide Alaska is for you, you’ll learn to like hiking in the snow in April, or fishing in the rain in June (After all, the fish are already wet!). Today at the state fair, I was among hundreds of other Alaskans standing in the wind and rain, happily listening to the super-group from the seventies, Styx. Life goes on, regardless of what the weather dishes out.

4) The odds are good, but the goods are odd.

I’d love to tell you that I made that phrase up myself. I didn’t. Legend has it that it came about when women learned that the ratio of men to women were something like 5 to 1 in rural Alaska twenty years ago, a mecca for husband-seeking females until they got up close and personal with the men in question. Looking for love? You might want to consider casting your net far and wide. Something about the extremes of the Last Frontier seems to bring out the quirks in us all.

Me, flanked by odd goods.

Alaska is a place of mystery and wonder. If you haven’t already been here, I hope you’ll come. And if you’re considering it or have questions about it,  please leave them here!  And as always, thank you for visiting my blog.

For more information on visiting Alaska, check out

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Lunching for Lao Literacy

What happens when you take four juvenile justice professionals, combine their energies with several enthusiastic juvenile delinquents to create and serve up wonderful meals to a caring community in Anchorage, Alaska?

You get a much-enhanced library at the Dong Bang Secondary School in Laos.
Last January, I was in Laos for a week. I brought a few school supplies after coordinating with Pack for a Purpose (PfAP), and set off with Rivertime Ecolodge owner Barnaby Evans to distribute them.
What I saw in the school was amazing. Two textbooks were shared among fifty students in a classroom. Nearby, there was a designated room for a library.
Google the word library and you’ll find one definition is a building or room containing collection of books, periodicals, and sometimes films and recorded music. Noticeably missing in this one? Books, periodicals, films, and recorded music.
The solution seemed within reach when I returned to my work as a probation officer in Anchorage and got permission to involve our delinquent youth in stocking the Lao library. One coworker thought a barbeque was the perfect way to raise funds, and had detainees prepare posters to display around our facility advertising Lunching for Lao Literacy. A second coworker skilled in culinary arts volunteered to make the food with the kids to sell to workers and community partners.  A third coworker, a Lao probation officer, helped organized youthful probationers to work at the actual event, and his wife also prepared food for the barbeque.
Our goal was modest. If we could raise $300 to $500 during the Lunching for Lao Literacy by selling meals prepared in detention to the community, it would be enough to consider the event a success. Our juvenile volunteers would learn cooking and other work skills, and Rivertime Lodge’s Barnaby Evans agreed to take pictures of the village children to give back to our Anchorage youth.
Artwork by the boys detention unit at McLaughlin.
On a cold and rainy Friday the 13th (of July), it was time for the barbeque.   Crickets.  A few stopped by to ask me if the event was cancelled.
Event coordinators.
And then ten orders from a substance abuse program that serves our teens rolled in. Twenty five orders from a local utility company rolled in.  And so on.

All told, the Luncheon for Lao Literacy raised $800 that Pack for a Purpose will delegate to the Dong Bang Secondary School’s library. And the delinquent teen volunteers in Anchorage? They got a lot more than cooking skills and community service credit. They learned that one doesn’t have to be wealthy or have their life in perfect order to make a positive difference in their world.

Barnaby Evans distributes supplies to school staff.

Thanks to Pack for a Purpose for the inspiration. Just as their tagline suggests, just a little effort has a big impact.

Meandering Miser’s Five Ways to Fund Foreign Travel

I recently returned from working a week in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the United States.  I’m so fortunate to have a job that pays a slim salary, but offers benefits like generous leave, medical insurance, and an alternate workweek. My work also offers occasional junkets to different parts of the state, or once in a while, a trip to another state entirely.
As a single mom for more than 20 years now, it’s been up to me to pay all the bills on my own.  So I know there’s been a whisper or two when I’ve booked an international flight for my vacation. The truth is, traveling is my drug of choice, my best anti-depressant, and the finest education I’ll ever receive. Looking forward to a big trip every few years has kept my hope afloat.
To do it, I’ve had to be intentional in my spending habits. Here are five tips that have helped me travel far and wide.
Shop for used clothing.  Someday, I’ll buy a pair of fancy jeans for $100 or more just to say I did.  But until then, I’m content grabbing them up after someone else has had their way with them. Fashion just isn’t that important to me, and I love getting a good deal.
Avoid overeating whenever possible.  It’s expensive to eat more than what you need. The side effects ratchet up your healthcare costs. Plus, when you avoid overeating, you’ll likely forgo restaurant eating. Me, I go out to lunch maybe once a month during the weekday. Some of my coworkers happily spend $5-$15 a day on lunches, averaging up to $200 monthly. That’s $2400 a year, a trip or at least airfare and part of a trip for me.
Save creatively.  I personally pack food from home for work trips, and use my per diem to pay towards travel or other exciting expenses. The Barrow trip will pay towards my daughter’s graduation gift.
Two Barrow apples = one night’s stay in Laos

Side note: I didn’t pack quite enough food for Barrow, and dashed into the store to pick up three apples and two zero waters for $20! I realized too late I paid $4 per apple.  So two apples equaled one night’s stay in Laos at the eco lodge. Ouch!

I also pack food from home for my recreational trips. Protein bars and the like. Then I enjoy one restaurant meal daily. Yes, it means I don’t get to experience all of the joy and culture of the local food. But it also means that I neither starve nor put off going on trips due to the cost of food.

Let travel cost help you choose your destination. Without question, France is on my bucket list.  England, too.  I breezed through London once, and would adore taking my time and spending a week or so. But right now, with my kids still needing some support, and the economy in the crapper, these destinations are out of the question for me now, and will be until circumstances change or I join one of the house swap companies. Southeast Asia?  This year, with the average cost of a room in Vietnam and Laos running between $ 8 and $20 a night, it was a perfect match for me.

Embrace rugged travel. I’ve never stayed at a Hilton when traveling overseas. I favor youth hostels (which, fortunately, aren’t age-driven) or eco resort lodges when possible. That may mean sleeping in the same room with strangers, or being lulled to bed by the screeches of a rat in the ceiling, but it saves infinite amounts of cash.
I love reading Alexis Grant’s Traveling Writer blog. This past Valentine’s Day, she wrote one called When You Spend on Travel.
In it, she comments“My trip is someone else’s Gucci.”
My current goal is to grow my savings cushion before booking my next trip.  And until then, I’m making a list of some offbeat places to go:
New Caledonia
What’s your next big adventure?  Is it travel? Fixing up a classic car? Going to a spa just once? I’d love to  hear your comments.
Check out my friend Terezia’s photo travel journal at

Meandering Miser

(Journal entry)
I know it’s been two days since I officially arrived (and four days since leaving AK), but it’s never too late to start journaling, right?
The long and winding road took me to layover in Seattle for a day, where I got to spend quality time with my dear old college friend, Mike Dominoski. I hadn’t seen him in twenty-plus years. He hasn’t changed much, only for the better. I met his lovely new wife, Mike’s first. At age fifty. Now that’s courage and love.
My trip has been dampened by my lack of attention to details. I forgot to bring pictures for my arrival VISA. But I had a pleasant layover in Korea, and made it to Hanoi three days after leaving Anchorage. It was midnight when I flew in. I knew the ride to my hotel would be another hour, so I ordered a driver through the hotel six months earlier.
And guess what? My driver wasn’t there. I scanned the airport for someone holding a sign with my name. No luck. There weren’t pay phones. No airport staff to talk to. Soon after I arrived, it was just me in the dark Hanoi airport, and a bunch of taxi drivers queued up outside. I’d been warned about Hanoi taxi drivers and the two tiered pricing system that exists for locals and Westerners. No thanks.
But after an hour of waiting for my runaway driver, I weakened. I went outside and negotiated the fee with a driver who I noticed had ten long, papery thin fingernails. We agreed on $15.00 and I hopped in after shaking his hand. A second man slid in the cab just behind me. He worked with my driver, and once the taxi accelerated, the second man began raising the price of my cab fee. I opened the door and hopped out of the moving taxi, tugging my luggage before it left with the men. The second man hopped out of the car and followed me back into the airport, begging me to get back in the taxi. Just as I approached the door to the airport, a rat ran in front of me.
Hello, Hanoi.
My second effort was much better. I got the nicest driver ever who was more than happy to accept my proposed fee. I was more than happy to give a good tip. And an hour later, I found myself in my lovely hotel room.
I’ve been frozen ever since. I had dragged my spring clothes out of my closet for this trip. Short sleeves, capri pants, and sun dresses. It’s wet and freezing in Vietnam.
The Rising Dragon Hotel is clean, hospitable, and amazingly homey. No one has over-charged me and the staff is concerned that I have a good time.
I am, all in all.
It’s difficult in a foreign country- to bank, bathe, shop, dress, and even walk without incident. Cars drive up on the sidewalk regularly, motorcycles honk constantly, and people target-glance my wallet.

I don’t know why I do it sometimes. Why not just relax in Hawaii? What is this need to see the world? I suspect I can learn to be a more compassionate person for it, and can represent our people well. It’s a thrill like no other, testing one’s mettle in that way.

Yesterday, I arrived in Heaven. Laos welcomed me with sun, heat, a driver holding a sign with my name on it, and two new American friends, a married couple currently stationed in Japan , a precious dorm room for $8 a day at Rivertime Eco Resort and Lodge. I walk down a dirt hill for my meals on the lodge’s floating restaurant, eat for nearly nothing, and enjoy the company of staff-Lao, Hmong, Australian, and British. I do excursions at my leisure. For $7, I had a one hour massage. I watched staff do karaoke ($3). I go walking, sunbathing, and hear the sounds of water, animals, and an occasional motor from a boat passing by. I do what I want, when I want. I gave school supplies to the local kids through Pack For a Purpose. Feel fabulous.
In 1999, I was still struggling, had a paper route, worked ten hour days as a social worker, attended graduate school, and carted (or dispatched friends to cart) the girls around for their activities. They were 11 and 12 years old.
Now here I sit in the sun in Laos, happy to leave my college-aged lovely daughters behind as I also leave the man of my dreams and the job I adore for three, self-indulgent weeks. This is awesome. If life gets no better than it is right here, right now, so be it. Good enough.

In the span of four days, I’ve gone on two village tours ($5 apiece), went kayaking for free, inner tubing($5), had a traditional Lao dance lesson, compliments of the locals having lunch at the floating restaurant, collected 4 new Facebook friends, and been invited to a Lao woman’s home to visit. This resort is a single mother’s dream.
And Hanoi? It’s a different experience altogether. If you like a constant chorus of beeping horns, cold, damp weather, locals target-glancing your belongings, pressure to shop, and uniformed men every so many meters watching your every move, Hanoi may well be your mecca.
As for me? J’e deteste.
(The next three days were filled with more fun in the sun, meeting other resort guests from England, France, Israel, and Laos, and touring the capital’s war museum, riding back to the airport in a tuk-tuk. I hated leaving Laos.)
Dear Journal,
Vietnam is mildly better this time around. My ride was actually at the airport in Hanoi when I flew back from Vientienne. Jennifer and I met up. Then we went to Sapa via overnight train. We had a teeny cabin and shared it with an Aussie married couple. Marty and Peter. I loved them immediately. They’re hilarious.
We went to a hotel directly from the train, took a shower, and began our trekking tour which consisted of 5-8 kilometers daily in monsoon-type weather mountains of Sapa in Hmong villages swarmed by Hmong women calling out, “You buy from me? You make me happy?” Occasionally, someone asked our ages, a popular question in every social circle in Vietnam.
I wanted to scream. Between the rain, the mud, and the begging, I was fried. I’d forgotten what a jerk I can be. The villages were as pleasurable to walk through as chicken coops. But after the good exercise the hikes provided, Jennifer and I enjoyed the new friends we met in our tour by sharing dinner time with them. We drank hot wine, which tasted like your average cabernet sauvignon heated up to 150 degrees. I wouldn’t touch it at home, but when you’re freezing after a good, long hike, somehow it works. And we went to a Vietnamese massage spa, where we sat in a sort of assembly line and warmed our feet in buckets of hot water while we got over-the-clothing body rubs.


Today, we got back in the early morning hours, taxi’d back to the Rising Dragon, and took much needed showers. Jennifer and I went to lunch and shopping with Marty. I got too comfortable with the crowds in Hanoi since Jennifer and Marty were with me, and barely noticed the hand unzipping my handbag as we chatted and strolled. I wrapped my hand around the attached wrist, and squeezed hard, calling out for Jennifer to help. I didn’t actually need any. I was mad at the female pick-pocketer. She was scared of my mad. I held on to her awhile. Now what? I wondered. She did too, and encouraged me to let go of her. I did.
On to Hoi An. Jennifer wisely decided that we should go via overnight train. I was tired and grumpy from the aftertaste of Sapa until we got to our overnight cabin. Seated closely across from us on the bottom bunk were three Buddhist monks. They stared at us as though we were a zoo exhibit, and spoke in Vietnamese about us.
“How old are you?” asked Middle Monk.
“47,” I answered, and motioning to Jennifer, “and she’s 42…How old are you?”
The monks bookending Middle-monk were both 29. Middle Monk was 33.
Jennifer leaned forward from the bottom bunk. “Do you speak English?” she asked, speaking louder and slower than usual.
Middle monk shook his head no. “Do you speak Vietnam?” he asked, matching her volume and pace perfectly.
All three monks burst into girly laughter.
Too often, I’ve thought that the Vietnamese are cold and humorless. On this night, the evening of my pick-pocketer, I was rewarded with being proven wrong.
The monks continued to talk and giggle amongst themselves. At around 11:30PM, I turned off my light in the top bunk and gestured that I was going to sleep. They said goodnight and lowered their voices accordingly.
Nearly a half hour later, I was awakened to the sound of Jennifer shreiking. I flicked on the light and saw that the monks had bestowed her with their traditional Chinese New Year foods, the Thousand-Year Egg and bean curd, and were insisting Jennifer partake.
Bean curd has a strange texture, but is otherwise fine to eat. But the Thousand-Year Egg? That was brutal.
In case you don’t watch the Travel Channel, Dear Reader, let me tell you what that is. It’s a half-incubated egg, either chicken or duck, that’s prepared in a concoction of things like salt, clay, and lime, and left to age for a good long period. Not a thousand years, but too long. So inside the shell is what amounts to a chicken fetus. Chunks of meat and hard-boiled egg, all at once. Blech!
Once I popped my head up to see what was going on, the pressure shifted to me. Middle Monk prepared me a plate of goodies, stood up, and handed it to me on the top bunk. I shook my head no, worried I would puke. He wouldn’t have it. “You! You! You! You!,” he said loudly in mock anger. We repeated the process. Twice. The others laughed uproariously.
What else was there to do? It was Chinese New Year. These were monks.

Two eggs later (it tasted like boiled egg with pieces of chicken inside it) with a bean curd chaser, I had to admit that it wasn’t half-bad. Jennifer and I were only too happy to provide three Vietnamese monks fodder for their holiday.

And that was when I knew it was love. Me and Vietnam. Not the Love at First Sight kind of love I had with Laos. But the arranged marriage, you’ve grown on me over time and will definitely do in pinch kind of love.