Before I head home – sappy thank yous are in order!

As tonight marks my last night being in a foreign country before heading back to Mama America – my bittersweet emotional side took over and I wanted to throw out a few thank you’s to people I owe from the past 1/2 a year. Big time sap alert – fair warning.

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you:

To Elizabeth, AC, Laura, Sara, and Ariel for joining me on parts of this adventure. It means the world to me that you spent time and money to visit. I am so blessed to have people in my life like you. And so happy my memories of this bucket list trip will involve some of my closest friends.

To my parents for being so supportive and generous throughout the last 6 months. Dad – I know I’ll never starve with your concern over the state of my financial well being (thank you again for my plane ticket home!!) Mom – you’re the only person I can count on to always actually care exactly where in the world I am! Can’t wait to see y’all.

To AC for a million things I can’t put into words. You handled my whole life at home – got my mail, wrote my checks, paid my bills, housed my clothes, sent me cupcakes, and took a month off work to come see me. You are amazing. Thanks for everything. I’m so lucky to have you.

To Mary Liz, Courtney, Sara, Ariel and Laura for buying me the most outrageous gift of an iPad before I left. Visualize my cry face when I opened it – I’m still that appreciative. My ability to blog, Skype, watch movies on 15 hour trains through China, view the presidential debates in Australian coffee shops, research hostels in communist countries, watch LSU football, write this thank you, and a million other things – is because of you. Love y’all.

To the Costanzo’s for generously storing my whole life in their garage while I’m ‘homeless’!

To Shanna – my traveling soulmate. There’s no point in wondering ‘what if’ we didn’t meet each other. It was always going to happen that way. Miss you so much. Can’t wait till India.

To my lovely PwC family for giving me the time off work to pursue something that is important to me. So fortunate I work for the company I do, and with people I love.

To the incredible, intelligent, brave, adventurous, really really fun people I met on this journey for making my last 6 months so wonderfully memorable – I miss you dearly already. Please remember you have a piece of a bed, air mattress, or couch at your disposal any time you decide to come to New York (once I find those things for myself).

And to everyone who sent me emails, skyped, and who checked in on me from home – traveling is amazing but having wonderful people to come home to makes it infinitely better. Can’t wait to see you soon.

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Jumping out of a plane in New Zealand

Maybe 5 years ago I thought skydiving was something I wanted to do at least once. Then I came to my senses and decided I definitely, 100% had absolutely no desire to jump out of plane with the potential of plummeting to my death out of my own sheer stupidity. Because jumping out of a plane is stupid.

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Then Sara joined me on my trip in Australia & New Zealand and suddenly I was told that we were skydiving.

I tried lots of excuses. Even got lucky one afternoon when we were taken out to the ‘drop zone’, suited up, and then were told that it had gotten too windy for us to jump that day.

I feigned disappointment.

But Sara got her way and in Franz Josef, New Zealand – we did it. I was shaking before we got up there, had a nervous wreck on the car ride to the drop zone. Could not BELIEVE it when we were in the plane. Then I had to watch Sara be the first one to jump out. All I saw were her legs fly up behind her, as she jumped out of the window next to me from 15,000 feet up in the air.

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Then all of a sudden I was out the window too. But my parachute opened (the first time I relaxed all morning!), and I lived to tell about what has to be one of the greatest feelings you can feel.

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If you promise not to judge me during all the goobery commentary – watch my skydiving video by clicking on the link below!

Lauren leaping out of plane

So, I’m a Diver

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It happened like this:

On an Indonesian night around 2am (ish) I made some new friends in Gili Trawangan, and around beer number 5 (ish) – we decided that the next morning at a way too early 8am – I would join them on their first day of the PADI Scuba Diving Certification course they were already signed up for on the tiny diving island where we were staying.

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As you can likely imagine, the waking up for 8am was a particularly large feat that morning. But I did.

With Fear. Since I’ve discovered my uncontrollable, intense, anxiety-inducing claustrophic tendencies during this trip – I approached diving very trepidatiously. My poor ‘dive buddy’ (they do actually assign you one!) featured below, received the brunt of this trepidation..

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Day 1 involved a mild panic attack of clawing at the neck of my (way too tight, way too hard to remove, ohmigosh it’s closing in on me and I’ll never be able to get out of it!!!) wetsuit. Also a few freak outs underwater (luckily we were in the pool for day 1), that forced the instructor to swim up to the top and baby me with reassuring platitudes of “It’s okay, EVERYONE does this at first (while I noted, mind you, that my other dive buddies were remaining happily underwater – freakoutless). You’ll be FINE. It’s SAFE. Trust me, your air will NOT turn off all by itself, a shark won’t eat you and leave only your legs dangling out of its pearly white snarl-toothed grin, your wetsuit won’t close in on you and swallow you whole”. All the common reassurances a novice diver needs..

But by Day 2 – I was in the Bali Sea.

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Me, turtles, cuttlefish, starfish, clownfish, parrot fish, sweet lips, and a million other things I’ve never come nose to fin with before. And my air kept flowing, my limbs remained predator-free, and my wetsuit, weight belt, air tank, and goggles remained removable at the end of my dive.

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I dove a shipwreck, the wall of an island called Gili Meno, and Manta Point. And on my 4th day became officially PADI certified. Really, I have a card and everything.

This was all to prepare me for the Big Shebang, the Mack Diggity Daddy, the Wonder of all World Diving Wonders, (okay, I’ll stop).

My 5th Dive ever – The Great Barrier Reef.

I was grinning ear to ear on my first stop in Australia when I picked out the boat I would take, and when I informed them that yes, I was a certified diver and needed no further instruction or hand holding (well maybe a TINY bit of hand holding) on my dive trip to the ole’ GBR.

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I went to the Agincourt Reef system, which is pretty far north and pretty far east – to give you an idea of which part of the longest reef in the world (there’s more than 3000 separate coral systems that make up the reef, and it’s longer than the Great Wall of China – which is really long) that I got to see.

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I got in 3 different sites where I saw really diverse, colorful coral in weird shapes; and crazy fish that I wish I could actually identify. And I can now gleefully say “I dove the Great Barrier Reef”!

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Yes, this is a shark. No, it did not eat me. Phew.

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Me and a green turtle. My favorite picture:

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Nemo!

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So, I'm a Diver

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It happened like this:

On an Indonesian night around 2am (ish) I made some new friends in Gili Trawangan, and around beer number 5 (ish) – we decided that the next morning at a way too early 8am – I would join them on their first day of the PADI Scuba Diving Certification course they were already signed up for on the tiny diving island where we were staying.

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As you can likely imagine, the waking up for 8am was a particularly large feat that morning. But I did.

With Fear. Since I’ve discovered my uncontrollable, intense, anxiety-inducing claustrophic tendencies during this trip – I approached diving very trepidatiously. My poor ‘dive buddy’ (they do actually assign you one!) featured below, received the brunt of this trepidation..

20121008-113501.jpg
Day 1 involved a mild panic attack of clawing at the neck of my (way too tight, way too hard to remove, ohmigosh it’s closing in on me and I’ll never be able to get out of it!!!) wetsuit. Also a few freak outs underwater (luckily we were in the pool for day 1), that forced the instructor to swim up to the top and baby me with reassuring platitudes of “It’s okay, EVERYONE does this at first (while I noted, mind you, that my other dive buddies were remaining happily underwater – freakoutless). You’ll be FINE. It’s SAFE. Trust me, your air will NOT turn off all by itself, a shark won’t eat you and leave only your legs dangling out of its pearly white snarl-toothed grin, your wetsuit won’t close in on you and swallow you whole”. All the common reassurances a novice diver needs..

But by Day 2 – I was in the Bali Sea.

20121008-102708.jpg
Me, turtles, cuttlefish, starfish, clownfish, parrot fish, sweet lips, and a million other things I’ve never come nose to fin with before. And my air kept flowing, my limbs remained predator-free, and my wetsuit, weight belt, air tank, and goggles remained removable at the end of my dive.

20121008-103515.jpg

20121008-103445.jpg
I dove a shipwreck, the wall of an island called Gili Meno, and Manta Point. And on my 4th day became officially PADI certified. Really, I have a card and everything.

This was all to prepare me for the Big Shebang, the Mack Diggity Daddy, the Wonder of all World Diving Wonders, (okay, I’ll stop).

My 5th Dive ever – The Great Barrier Reef.

I was grinning ear to ear on my first stop in Australia when I picked out the boat I would take, and when I informed them that yes, I was a certified diver and needed no further instruction or hand holding (well maybe a TINY bit of hand holding) on my dive trip to the ole’ GBR.

20121008-105056.jpg

20121008-103152.jpg

I went to the Agincourt Reef system, which is pretty far north and pretty far east – to give you an idea of which part of the longest reef in the world (there’s more than 3000 separate coral systems that make up the reef, and it’s longer than the Great Wall of China – which is really long) that I got to see.

20121008-105555.jpg

I got in 3 different sites where I saw really diverse, colorful coral in weird shapes; and crazy fish that I wish I could actually identify. And I can now gleefully say “I dove the Great Barrier Reef”!

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Yes, this is a shark. No, it did not eat me. Phew.

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Me and a green turtle. My favorite picture:

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Nemo!

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Asianglish – when the translation isn’t quite right..

Here are a few of my favorites signs, instructions, graffiti that you could only find in Asia:

Sounds delicious?

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Who doesn’t love a clod water shower.

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Immodium usually does the trick..

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No words.

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They really ought to make that hoarding a bit sturdier.

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Seriously – only in China. Land of the ‘spit anywhere including trains, hallways, subways, mall floors – wherever your little spitting heart desires. Except here:

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It’s just so so simple.

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True love. Doudou and Doudou.

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Gentlemen – whatever you do, do not try to date a Laos lady.

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Chicken Gordon Bleu. Yum.

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Asianglish – when the translation isn't quite right..

Here are a few of my favorites signs, instructions, graffiti that you could only find in Asia:

Sounds delicious?

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Who doesn’t love a clod water shower.

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Immodium usually does the trick..

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No words.

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They really ought to make that hoarding a bit sturdier.

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Seriously – only in China. Land of the ‘spit anywhere including trains, hallways, subways, mall floors – wherever your little spitting heart desires. Except here:

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It’s just so so simple.

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True love. Doudou and Doudou.

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Gentlemen – whatever you do, do not try to date a Laos lady.

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Chicken Gordon Bleu. Yum.

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Monkey Business in Bali

Laura and I rented a car (more details to come on the fun of that adventure..) and headed out to one of the temples in South Bali – Pura Uluwatu. Upon buying our entrance tickets, they said we could buy food to feed the monkeys..

“um, monkeys?”

We assumed this was just a ploy for tourists to fork over more cash on the tiny chance you might possibly spot a monkey from afar.

Not the case..

Laura got surrounded by monkeys.

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One stole her flip flop, then darted into the woods with it (& she was left on the road, in a shoeless state of shock).

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A Balinese man retrieved it from the woods. Bless him.

Now her Tory Burch has a monkey chomp.

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Cheapest souvenir she’ll be bringing home!

WTF China?

China’s funny.

Evidently you don’t really love each other if you don’t match.

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And you’re not a real man if you don’t carry your main squeeze’s purse.

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All Aboard: China Style

I’ve taken lots of overnight transportation. Sleeper buses and sleeper trains galore. There’s typically a bed involved, and I’m typically surrounded by at least a few other backpackers doing the same thing.

Coming to China has proven a bit more difficult to travel than SE Asia. Evidently the BILLION people in China means you need to plan a bit more in advance than I have been doing the past 2.5 months.

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Trains book up quickly, and sleeper buses aren’t nearly as common. And China is huge. So if you’re not flying – it takes FOREVER to get from place to place.

All of the above is how I ended up on a 17.5 hour local train from Chengdu to Xi’an, with a ‘hard seat’ ticket for the entire journey. The only ticket worse than that one is the ‘standing room only’ tickets. They actually sell those. For 17.5 hour train rides. And people buy them. Which also means the aisles are lined with people during your entire trip..

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Shanna and I thought positive thoughts, chalked it up to ‘a good experience’, and bought a bottle of ‘Great Wall’ red wine in case all else failed.

We boarded the train in Chengdu around 9:00pm to find a family of 4 sitting in the 3 seats across from us. The seats were set up in rows of 3 – facing each other, with 2 feet long tables in between each group of ‘hard seats’. Included in the family was a baby wearing a shirt and pants (sort of). Really just legs of pants that connected to a waistband. Diapers are a luxury reserved for the wealthy, so it’s pretty common to see crotchless, bum-less ‘pants’ for squatting whenever (& wherever) they’ve got to go. Having a baby across from us really got me excited. A train in China obviously wouldn’t be complete without a screaming baby boy who can pee anytime he wants to – and is facing directly at me…

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To my left, was a cross-legged sitting monk. Shanna was seated to my right. I was smack in the middle.

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By around hour 3 – I stopped caring that he was a monk, and made it clear that sitting on an airplane size seat with your legs crossed indian style and your toes exposed – rubbing on your neighbors leg, is unacceptable and imposes on others’ right to the comfort of their full seat size. Monk man spoke 0 English and did not care.

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By around hour 4 – we resorted to the wine. Monk man dissaproved. At one point, he literally ripped the cork screw from my hand to examine it (without a word), and then handed it back a minute later.

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By around hour 5 – we were completely surrounded. Word was out – WHITE GIRLS ON THE TRAIN!! People were peering over their seats, walking over, some tried to speak English to us – others just silently watched. We were a hot commodity. Someone would speak Mandarin, they’d all laugh. We’d pretend to laugh. Then we’d make hand gestures. Maybe they understood? Maybe not. But we spent some time hanging out, answering their questions, and trying to communicate as much as possible. We were told later that Americans have a ‘rich’ stereotype in China, which is possibly why Monk man was very interested in ‘How much did it cost you to come to China? How much was your plane ticket? How much money did you bring with you?’ (all this pieced together from someone who spoke a few words of English, of course). I did not answer truthfully. I also found out later that talk of money is not at all rude here, which helped explain his persistent interest..

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By around hour 6 – Some people had left the train at one of the million stops along the way, so people around us got to spread out a bit (we were not so lucky). The group of chairs to my left had a boy sleeping on the ground, underneath the seats. A woman with her leg up on the table and her body laying down across the seats (hey, get comfortable..), and a man asleep with his head on the same table.

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By around hour 7 – the fan club was getting very old..

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By around hour 8 – I finally tried to sleep. Our across the seat neighbors (baby included) had lucked out and upgraded to sleeper seats, and they were replaced by a young Chinese couple and a 20-something boy who ate chicken out of bag with his mouth wide open. Just smackin away. This, coupled with the fact that Chinese people will talk about anything to anyone for hours (really – perfect strangers will have 5 hour long conversations on the train!) made sleeping extremely difficult..but we made made a valiant effort.

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By around hour 11 – I pretty much gave up on the sleep. It was 8:00am by this point, and the lights were never turned off. Monk man had only uncrossed his legs and given me my fair share to the seat a couple times, and EVERYONE was heating up noodles and eating chicken out of a bag at extremely odd times of the night. Evidently Chinese people need very little sleep. They just want to talk, talk, talk to strangers, and slurp as many Ramen noodles down as humanly possible.

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(A rare moment of silence. That’s chicken smacker featured on the left, monk man’s uncrossed legs in the middle, and then my feet – dangerously close to chicken smacker’s face.)

By around hour 15 – We should have been arriving. PRAISE THE LORD. The girl of the couple across from me politely informed me we still had 2.5 hours left. Oh right, why would a train be on time?

By exactly hour 17.5 – we made it to Xi’an. With some really funny pictures in tow, very little sleep, and a much better idea of ‘China’.

Then we promptly bought a plane ticket to our next stop – Beijing..

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Squatting in Beijing

So the toilet situation has varied quite a bit in Asia. You can typically count on a western toilet at hotels, hostels, and nicer restaurants.

Everywhere else, you’ll find pretty much a hole in the ground.

However, all over SE Asia, these holes in the ground come with privacy. You know – stalls, some walls, even a door. And if you get really, really lucky – sometimes even a lock!

BUT then I came to China. And I will caveat this with ‘I LOVE CHINA’, and I have found plenty of lovely restrooms in this country.

Tonight though, I had my first public restroom experience.

Not the first time I’ve used a restroom in a public place, but the first time I’ve been subject to actually USING the facilities publicly. (Yes, you read that right).

I was dining outside at a little restaurant near a really nice area of Beijing. Upon asking for the ‘toilet’, a waiter directed me around the corner into a small alley.

Typical Asia, nothing out of the ordinary here.

But then I walked into this:

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Please note: there are no stalls/doors/walls/locks in sight.

And for the record, when I walked in -those squatters were fully occupied. I turned right back around and walked out.

I stood contemplating it for a second, gave myself a pep talk, and marched back in there to share a public bathroom in the most extreme sense (eyes averted as much as humanly possible).

It’s official – I’ve been to the ‘real’ China!!

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