Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Use Ambition Wisely

My dad and I often had conversations about goals—mainly because I often talked about the need to set new ones. The last time we had this discussion my dad told me that he set three goals in his life: graduate from college, get married, and have children.

I have always been ambitious. I imagined myself doing amazing things. In class I would sit next to one of my closest friends—another ambition addict—and talk about life post-high school. I will spare you the details, but please believe that our discussions were fabulous.

Ambition is good if it encourages forward movement. It is not intended to dishearten you or lead you to feelings of inadequacy or apathy. I will always encourage people to set goals and dream dreams, but it’s also necessary to maintain balance. When we only prepare ourselves for the next phase we are not present. When we incessantly reach for more we may fail to appreciate what is directly in front of us. When we constantly chase we never renew.

Being ambitious has led me to wonderful and fulfilling life experiences, yet one of the many things that my dad taught me is that some of us are not chasers. Some of us know exactly what we want out of life and seek it out early. My dad was not a chaser. He fulfilled the goals he set for himself and spent the last thirty years of his life enjoying what resulted from his hard work. My dad set his goals, achieved them, and lived a life that not only he loved, but everyone who knew him admired. I will always be grateful to my dad for teaching me to use ambition wisely.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: Japan

I had high expectations for Japan. I’d traveled to Osaka in 1999 and remembered its impact on me. I was amazed by what I’d considered a futuristic city. I couldn’t believe the children walking around with tiny cell phones when at home the only thing I had resembling such was a large, fairly stationary car phone. I couldn’t believe the vending machines that contained ice cream that I could—and often did—consume whenever I wanted. I couldn’t wait to experience 2011 Japan, and it did not at all disappoint.
My friend and colleague (now affectionately referred to as ‘frolleague’) is from Japan and she graciously agreed to take a few of us around her hometown. Of course the first thing on our agenda was food. We headed to lunch and enjoyed all the Kobe beef we could handle. Afterwards, we went to a 100 yen store. The best way I can describe it is a far more impressive version of America’s dollar store. There were so many interesting and fun items on the shelves. We all admitted to being overwhelmed.
That afternoon we visited the international school that my ‘frolleague’ attended. My favorite part was the conversation we had with her tea teacher. She was so welcoming as she showed us around the beautiful classroom space she uses to teach traditional tea ceremony practices. The day continued with a home visit where we met my friend’s mother, grandmother, and great-aunt. I was honored to sit down in her personal space and experience a splice of her home life.
What’s a trip to Japan without sushi and karaoke? We headed to a fast-food restaurant and experienced conveyor belt sushi. Plates of food and desserts slid around the tables. Whatever we found appetizing we simply grabbed. After conveyor belt sushi we headed to a karaoke bar. Even typing this puts a smile on my face. My friends and I laughed more than we sang—and we did some singing! It was a great time and I am sure that the mere memory will bring me joy many years from now.

The last time I was in Japan I regret not visiting Tokyo so Tokyo was most definitely on the agenda. After being personally escorted by my friend’s mother, four of us took the bullet train from Kobe to Tokyo. We arrived at the Tokyo train station and was met with option overload. Tokyo’s subway system has more than 250 stations! It took us some time to locate the train that would take us to the station nearest our hostel, but eventually we found our way.
We checked into our hostel which required all guests to remove their shoes at the entrance. This took some getting used to, but our accommodations were so adorable that we didn’t mind. Not only was our hostel great, the neighborhood was lovely. We were extremely pleased. We were located in Asakusa, an area that is deemed to have a more traditional Japanese flair than most in Tokyo. We were just around the corner from shops, restaurants, and historical sites. It was a perfect blend of modern and traditional culture.
We were prepared for how expensive Tokyo would be, but we were not prepared for how difficult it would be to get our hands on yen. Each ATM we visited rejected our cards for not being national cards. We had to make our dinner decision based on which restaurant would accept our credit cards. Of course, this became a source of laughter for us (probably because it doesn’t take much for us to laugh).
Noticing that we hadn’t watched any sports in over three months, we visited a sports bar so that we could get a football fix. While there we met several Americans. One couple was just visiting, but four of our new friends had relocated to Tokyo over ten years ago. It was great listening to them talk about their love for their home.
We spent our last evening visiting one of Tokyo’s most famous entertainment districts, Shibuya. Think Times Square in New York City minus the noise, litter, and unruly crowds. There were massive groups of people, but everyone is so orderly in Japan. Even if there are no cars approaching, no one crossed the street until the light instructed pedestrians to cross. Big, bright lights advertised everything from popular brands to boy bands. I could feel the energy of the city as we walked down the street. I loved it.

On our last morning we decided to visit the Imperial Palace and I was thoroughly impressed with the use of city space to create an oasis. As we approached, I was amazed at the level of peace I felt in such a cosmopolitan area. In the midst of large skyscrapers and government buildings there was lush grass and gorgeous fountains. It was beautiful and breathtaking.
We caught the train to Yokohama and as we reached the port where our ship was docked, I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave Japan. Even having the gift of experiencing such different facets of sections of Japan, from the 100 yen store, to the international school, to the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, to the bustling Shibuya district, and the glorious Imperial Palace, I knew there was still so much more. I hope that wasn’t the last I’ve seen of Japan. I want more. Next stop, Costa Rica!

Try-Umph Travels: China

My time in China was a bit of a whirlwind. In six days I visited Hong Kong, Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai. I traveled by boat, bus, and via airplane. When my six days ended I was tired and extremely grateful to return to the ship that’s been home since August. Still, if you asked what I would have changed about my hectic schedule I would tell you not a single thing.
The ship docked in Victoria Harbour on a gorgeous morning. Hong Kong’s skyline is beautiful, inspiring, and unbelievable. As we waited for the ship to be cleared by immigration, I stood in awe of the little island with enormous impact. The skyscrapers were mountains of prosperity. Boats of all shapes and sizes floated by. I took pictures, but none of them capture the fullness of what I felt looking out over the harbor.

I got off the ship and headed on a tour of Hong Kong. It wasn’t long before I was in a cable car heading to the top of a mountain taking in the view of the entire harbor. After spending time getting a top-down view, I headed to the bottom of the mountain and boarded a small boat that would allow me to tour a floating fishing village called Aberdeen. I left the small boat and boarded the last handcrafted traditional Chinese junk built in Hong Kong. A Chinese junk is a sailboat. The one I boarded had red sails which made it regal. Seeing the Hong Kong skyline at night from the Chinese junk was incredible. Once again, none of the pictures I took could adequately convey how magnificent Victoria Harbour was at night. It was amazing.

The next morning I headed to the airport for Beijing. The first major attraction I visited in Beijing was the Great Wall of China. This marvel is 5,500 miles long! As I carefully walked the unbelievable man-made structure, I couldn’t imagine the fortitude, patience, and physical strength it must have taken to build such a massive piece of history. Its mere presence reminded me of the sheer willpower we all possess when we are determined and focused.

My day continued with a visit to the Summer Palace. I loved the views of this royal garden, especially having Kunming Lake in its backdrop. The next day was filled with visits to more historical sites. The Temple of Heaven is lovely. It’s a park that has temples and is filled with open green space and trees. When I arrived there were groups of people dancing, exercising, and playing cards, chess, and dominoes. It was refreshing to see so many people outside enjoying life.

A couple of Tai Chi instructors gave us a quick lesson. I copied their physical movements, but what will stick with me far longer is what an instructor said. He shared that our exterior should be soft, but our interior should be strong. After leaving China and it’s magnificent structures I thought about the concept of a soft exterior and a hard interior. This isn’t meant to inspire weakness or an inability to stand up. I understood this teaching to push me toward maintaining more strength, commitment, and power in the area that matters most. It is far more logical, important, and necessary for me to be strong in mind and heart. As the years pass and I continue to look over my pictures of the beauty of China I will always remember the importance of interior strength. Next stop, Japan!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: Vietnam

In order to reach the port in Ho Chi Minh City, we had to travel through a narrow waterway. It was a sunny, balmy morning, and a lot of us were standing on the deck, watching our approach. We passed fishing boats, houses, and fields. As we got closer to the city, though, the skyline appeared. High-rises came into view and I realized how cosmopolitan some aspects of Vietnam had become since I’d visited in 1999.

My first two days in Vietnam were spent experiencing Ho Chi Minh City. My friends and I went to the well-known Ben Thanh market. There were so many arts, crafts, clothes, suitcases, bags, and jewelry. Every stall was filled. It was souvenir saturation! Near the center of the market there were food stalls. The freshly made dishes, combined with the smell of fresh fruits and burning incense created an interesting nasal experience.

We left the market to explore the city and visited a ridiculously adorable coffee shop. We sat outside and enjoyed coffee, fresh fruit juices, and blueberry cake. It was relaxing, fun, and made me smile each time I reminded myself that I was sitting in Vietnam.

We discovered a movie theater on the top floor of one of the shopping centers we visited so we purchased movie tickets for 40,000 dong each, got some slightly sweet popcorn, and saw Hot Boy Noi, a film that is scheduled to be shown at the Toronto Film Festival. The film was shot in Ho Chi Minh City so we recognized many of the locations on the screen because we’d just walked through the city.

On the third morning I boarded a plane with two friends and we headed north for Hoi An. Hoi An is a quaint city on the coast of the South China Sea. I loved it! The city is laid-back and filled with culture. Shops outlined the streets and there was so much color! Buildings were yellow, orange, red, and turquoise. The vegetation was a lush green. The water was several shades of jade. At night, lanterns of all hues illuminated. It was beautiful, breezy, and exactly what I needed.

My last day in Vietnam was spent back in Ho Chi Minh City where we declared it Food Extravaganza Day. We began with a visit to the most adorable restaurant. It was located on the second and third floors of a clothing boutique. There were colorful couches and cushions everywhere. The sunlight was spilling into the room. It was perfect. I ordered breakfast sushi. It was a rolled up omelette that had been cut and served like sushi. Not only was it pleasing to look at, but it was tasty, too. My favorite, though, was the dessert we ordered. Banana wontons served with coconut icing should follow every breakfast.

After breakfast we bought coconuts from a street vendor and walked to the War Remnants Museum. This was a sobering experience as there were graphic photos and descriptions of the impact of war on Vietnam. As I took in the photographs and read the stories of people’s lives after war I wondered why war is ever an option. I looked at the weaponry on display and questioned why we build such things to destroy one another. It was a staggering, but necessary visit.

My six days in Vietnam couldn’t have been planned any better. I had amazing food every day, shared great laughs, and created wonderful memories. I crossed many intersections without getting a Saigon kiss, saw water buffalo on the side of the road, visited the beach, was part of a scavenger hunt for local students, saw a Vietnamese film, had cupcakes from a bakery's grand opening, and admired a culture that is often misunderstood at home. Although my bank account disagrees with me, Vietnam was a priceless experience and it was even better the second time around. Next stop, China!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Perfect Timing

I’ve often thought about how timing seems to unfold in a way that is nothing less than perfect. My four month time-out from life has been no exception. It came at a time when I absolutely needed to walk away. While I knew that the timing was perfect for me going in, I failed to recognize how the timing of this trip would coincide with the lives of the people I would meet. Now that I am more than halfway done with my adventure I am starting to understand why certain people are here right now, with me.

On this trip alone I have heard many versions of the same scenario. One minor detail and this person wouldn’t have been able to come. One slight change and that person would have committed to another job. A phone call a week later and one of my favorites wouldn’t be here. Timing has been instrumental in determining who shares this experience together and who does not.

Our lives are not independent. Our lives are interconnected. Those who are not willing to listen inwardly for your own sake should consider how your life path influences the lives of those around you. If we don’t do our part individually it can negatively impact lives that are intertwined with ours. We not only need to take care of our personal business for our sake, but also because there are other people depending on us in order to grow.

Consider the relationships you’ve developed in seemingly random circumstances. Think about the friends you have gained when you weren’t even trying to. Your life is not accidental. It’s not haphazard. There is deliberate timing involved and a large part of that is influenced the relationships you invest in and the people you grow with. Make sure you are doing your part because what you do influences the paths of others.