3 Nights in Pai

Northern Thailand continued…

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A bus from Chiang Mai took me north into the mountains via a windy, horrifying road. You know that famous road in San Fransisco, California? Imagine that for 2 hours. Advice, don’t eat beforehand.

I hadn’t originally planned to go to Pai, therefore I hadn’t considered accommodation before leaving. This is a pretty common practice for backpackers, so when I arrived at Common Grounds Pai, a hostel a short walk from the bus station, I was relieved they had a bed for the night. It was hot as hell and I sure as shit didn’t want to walk around with a 25-pound pack on my back in the mid-afternoon sun. Plus, Emily and Harriet were waiting for me to get lunch.

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Hanging out at Common Grounds

Pai, in a sentence, is backpacker spring break. It’s basically a few streets sewn together allowing the sightseeing weary a chance to recharge and mellow out. Streets are filled with bars, restaurants, shops and at night, the best street food I’ve had. Cheap, delicious street food. You can get anything from homemade breaded pizza pockets to sushi to chicken and veggie kabobs all in one, walkable square.

Pai is also beautiful. Rent a motorbike. Just do it. (Yes, in a previous post I said “any idiot can rent a motorbike” and I still stand by that). Emily, Harriet and I rented a few bikes, had a mini lesson around a dirt track and off we went!

Pai Canyon, a waterfall with wading pools, expansive fields, winding roads, a view of Big Buddha… spectacular! I actually didn’t think I’d enjoy the motorbikes, I’m a giant baby, but it was a blast zipping along, trying to find these out-of-town destinations. One unfortunate sight, however, was directly on the side of the road. Two elephants were tied up with a sign inviting tourists to ride them. I’m really not sure how someone can legally run a business like that, but that’s also why I don’t participate in dodgy animal attractions (and neither should you!).

Pai’s nightlife is another big addition to the spring-break-like culture of the town. Bars host pretty impressive specials accompanied with live music and/or a dj. It’s easy to sit down somewhere, make a few new friends and get pissed. Then, when the bars close, head to the real party at Don’t Cry. Buckets, fire shows, body painting and typical drunk debauchery.

I actually headed home quite early on my first night in Pai. I was excited to be the only one in my hostel at the time of arrival, and even though it was a 6-bed dorm, I knew only 2 other beds were taken by guys I sort of previously knew existed. I was woken up an hour or 2 later, but by 3 people entering the room. Great, I thought, someone is gonna have sex and it’s gonna be really annoying. Well, to my surprise, the “couple” climbed into the bed next to me, not into the bunk previously acquired. I thought it was strange, but put in my earbuds, put on my eye mask and tried minding my own business. But then, who can ignore terrible pillow talk? Like awful, awkward pillow talk. The voice of the female was surprisingly familiar-an Irish accent, accented further by intoxication. I met her earlier – at check in – because she works at the hostel.

Now I’m not one to judge, but wtf is going on here? This is clearly not your bed and you’re just going to stranger snuggle in someone else’s room, even though you work here and probably have a private suite?

About an hour later, Ivaan got home. Ivaan (and his friend Joe) were my bunkmates and they, too, didn’t know another guest had checked into our dorm. So, Ivaan walks in, the Irish lass suddenly springs into action saying she’s sorry she’s in his bed (she wasn’t), she says to her bed buddy he wants them to leave (he didn’t care) and then the “couple” get out of bed, him calling her crazy all the while. For the record, it’s gotta be like 4am. Ivaan leaves the dorm again, the couple is gone, back to bed for me. Until about 45 minutes goes by when I wake up and Ivaan is sitting on my bed starring at me…

I checked out of the hostel a few hours later and graciously accepted an invitation to share Emily and Harriet’s private room for the night at Namu. Ivaan came, too. Turns out him and Joe were actually really cool guys who also thought the night’s surprises were too much to deal with. (Ivaan will later deny all claims to bed creeper 2016)

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Clockwise: Joe, Ivaan, Emily, Harriet (Cool double date guys)

Emily and Harriet checked out the following day and Danielle and Sara checked in. Another invitation extended to crash a private room. Have I mentioned that I’ve made some really terrific friends on this trip?

On my final night, the girls and I were going to meet to watch the sunset over Pai from the Big Buddha, but they were on motorbikes and I decided to go for a run. Underestimating the mountainous terrain and unending stairwells, Danielle saved me with a bottle of water about halfway to the top. (Sidenote: At time of writing, I’ve been traveling for a month and this is the ONLY time I’ve worn my trainers. They take up so much space, I should toss them. But then I remember this run and think, I’ll run again.)

This run was the highlight of Pai. Exhausting and refreshing and reflective and exactly the kind of thing I wish I did more of. Why don’t I? Which excuse would you like?

Anyways, Danielle, Sara and I went out, had fun and got educated! I had wondered why wine, a personal favorite of mine, wasn’t offered very often. Alcohol in general in Thailand is expensive. You can get an entire meal for 65 cents but a gin and tonic is like $3. Turns out alcohol has a 300% tax extended to liquor operators. No wonder mark-up is so high! We also learned that in some areas in SE Asia, wine can be made with more ethanol (maybe that’s not right, I was drinking, don’t remember) and not very good for you. Danielle and I each treated ourselves to a fancy, imported glass of wine before moving back to cheap Chang.

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I left the next day. But first we decided to meet in Bangkok in a few days. I was off on my lonesome again to Chaing Rai. But that’s for another post.

 

 

 

Elephant Nature Park

There are a lot of choices when it comes to visiting the elephants of Thailand. There are options that include riding and not riding. Swimming and not swimming. Half day and full day treks.

Based on reviews and my own belief that riding elephants isn’t kosher I chose Elephant Nature Park. I wish I would have asked around a bit more. For 2,500฿ ($70) the tour company picks you up at your hotel at 8:30am, drives you to the site in a comfortable, air conditioned van, feeds you lunch and drives you back to your hotel after a day of elephant fun. This is by far the most expensive thing I have done in Thailand, but I think the money is going to a good cause and it’s a bit far to travel alone.

While I believe the park is extremely conscientious of the creatures they contain, they are still contained creatures. I’m not sure what I expected, but what I experienced, I wouldn’t do it again.

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Here’s why I don’t recommend Elephant Nature Park:

  • When the passengers are done being picked up, a 40-minute shock video is played to scare the shit out of everyone. It’s basically propaganda against any other elephant tour, showing abuse, injury and a few interviews of why ENP is so great. It’s really difficult at 8am, not to mention just very aggressive.
  • There are about 60 female elephants, 5 males and 1 baby, all separated respectively.
    • I get that the males can become aggressive and we heard them (we never saw the males as they are behind massive fences), but isn’t caging still not very natural?
    • The baby, which is more or less seen as a cuteness factor and often pictures are showed of people “snuggling” them, is kept behind barricades as well with it’s mother and nanny. Again, another safety precaution, understandable, but still a bit misleading.
  • The elephants are led by their Mahout (elephant trainer, like a buddy system). To be friendly and led around, they are plied with food and phrases and occasionally a push. I didn’t see anything unethical, like abuse, but still these are wild animals and there is nothing wild about here’s a watermelon, be good.
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Elephant with her Mahout, empty basket, leaving the river
  • Swimming with elephants to help clean them… let’s get this straight right now. You don’t swim with anything. You don’t need a bathing suit and when we were on our way to the river, the guide said you can wear your bathing suit if you “want to be sexy.” WTF? No one wanted to be sexy, but we were led to believe we’d be bathing the elephants and swimming in a river. That river was knee deep at best and you’re given a child’s beach bucket and you literally stand on the edge and throw water at the elephant.
    • It was so strange and uncomfortable, the people in my group basically left.
    • The elephant is kept standing there with a laundry basket of watermelon. When that’s gone, the elephant is gone.
  • Besides your assigned table, there’s absolutely no shade. For humans or other animals. A few umbrella huts dot the property and you can see the animals fight for cover when the sun blasts down.
  • There’s so much downtime that it’s often confusing about what you’re supposed to be doing.
    • Shop – they literally give you over an hour to shop in the gift shop
    • Lunch – The food wasn’t good, it ran out quickly and flies were all over all of it. It was very open and while feeding a herd of people is no easy feat, I know I barely ate because I was afraid of getting sick.
    • Rest – Rest for an hour after… who knows? Walking around a walled field? It’s so strange.

A few good things that made it sorta worthwhile:

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  • I believe in good intentions and I think this park is trying to make it natural, it’s just missing the mark
  • You next to a lot of elephants really puts size into perspective
  • It is educational when it comes to the treatment of elephants around the world
  • Water buffalo also roam the property and these are pretty rad, if not terrifying
  • Cat and Dog sanctuary – over 400 cats and dogs are fed and kept at the property. They do adoptions all over the world
  • The park is a beautiful, picturesque postcard-like setting

Bottom line: I heard other tourists spent less and had more fun and a better overall experience participating with elephants (also at no-ride parks). Elephant Sanctuary was one that came highly recommended and people seemed to love.

It was an interesting day and I enjoyed learning about the elephants. I also learned that I do no want to touch, ride, play or really engage with wild animals. I’m an absolute baby, but maybe that’s better. Wild animals aren’t meant to be touched and hugged and hand fed. They are meant to roam free, make babies, have aggressive man fights and live in a safe environment.

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I’m not touching her, I’m literally pretending, terrified 

Is it better for an elephant to live at Elephant Nature Park over a torture park where they are chained up? Yes. Is it better for an elephant to live at Elephant Nature Park over being hunted for ivory? Yes. But free will always be better than living in captivity.

After over a week of Chiang Mai, I needed to move on and see what else Northern Thailand had in store, so I headed to Pai to meet back up with Harriet and Emily. But that’s for another post.

Doi Inthanon National Park: The Roof of Thailand

The highest point in Thailand, a gift fit for the King and Queen and waterfalls!

Those colorful, glossy brochures that fill hotel lobbies and street corners are enticing. They’re full of exciting excursions led by knowledgable tour guides. Great right? Yes, if your wallet is stacked and you don’t mind spending a little extra (a lot extra) for convenience.

Even when I have the cash, I never really like excursions. I don’t enjoy being told where to go, when to leave and how long to spend there. So when I read a few travelers’ blog posts about how to do Doi Inthanon National Park on a budget and on your own, I was sold. All I needed was a few willing friends.

After becoming chummy with the boys I asked if they’d be interested. Doi Inthanon is a 2 hour drive from our hostel and there are hikes to take, waterfalls to play in and temples to see. I explained to them that it would cost about 1500฿ a person to do this on a tour and it would probably be a get on, get off bus type thing. This wasn’t that type of group.

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They agreed and we decided to flag down a “taxi” driver and ask for a day trip fare to split between us, as the blogs had recommended. We ended up lucking out and met Danielle and Sara the morning we were planning on leaving. This is really how easy it is to make friends. Danielle was sitting there and I was talking to Joel and literally looked at her and said, “Hey, do you want to come to Doi Inthanon with us today?”  And BOOM! we had a little 7 person tour group.

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In front of the grounds at the Queen’s Chedis

Our taxi driver quoted us 2300฿ for 3 waterfalls (that were meticulously picked because we could swim in them), Phra Maha Dhatu Naphamethinidon and Naphaphonphumisiri Pagoda (the King and Queen’s Chedis) and a hike to the tallest spot in Thailand. Not a bad way to spend 330฿ each. Remember that’s like a 1200฿ savings. We also learned there is a 300฿ fee for the park that we’d have to pay on top of the tour price, so a big win! Plus, we thought we’d grab some Changs and bask in the sun all day, really making this a laid back trip.

Phra Maha Dhatu Naphamethinidon and Naphaphonphumisiri Pagoda

The King and Queen’s Chedis and surrounding gardens were insanely beautiful. Meticulous tiling that detail stories that I am sure I don’t understand. These gifts were dedicated to the King and Queen for their 60th birthday anniversaries in 1987. Between the Buddha’s on the inside to the flowers and shrubs and statues, and the rolling clouds that you were literally standing in, it was really breathtaking.

The Tallest Point in Thailand 

Located 2,565 meters above sea level, this point is not a hike. It’s not even really a walk. It’s a sign and a trick. We felt silly as we climbed the few stairs to the sign and then followed a wooden pathway through the jungle and then a few meters later popped out at the gift shop and bathrooms. They do a good job of making this feel like a stopping point, and saying you made it to the top of Thailand is cool, but seriously…

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Waterfalls and (not) Swimming 

You know what they say about best laid plans? Well, that’s true in Thailand too when you can’t speak the language and have no actual idea what your “guide” has in store. After discussing and showing the driver the waterfalls we wanted to see AND telling him we wanted to swim, he had other ideas. The first waterfall, Wachirathan Waterfall, was very, very cool but there was a balcony to take pictures and no swimming allowed. It was not on our list but it was cool and huge, and it had started to rain.

 

The second waterfall I believe was the Sirithan Waterfall. There were definitely pools to swim in and multiple falls. It was drizzling at this point and the grounds were slick. We still managed to climb around the rocks and feel the water. The taxi driver was now at our sides, he had very different ideas for getting this show moving than we had in mind. “No swim” was spoken often. He did not want us chillin, at all. He even told us the ones we wanted were dry. Dry? So water/rain chooses which falls to visit? Interesting.

The final stop, and last waterfall on our tour was the Mae Klang Waterfall. It was now pouring. We didn’t need to swim, water pooled around us. Drenched, and glad to be wearing bathing suits we ran around but didn’t stay at the last stop very long. Took a few pics, saw how grand it was and got back into the taxi.

To complete the journey we asked the driver to stop at 7-11 for Changs for the wet 2-hour ride home. He did. At one with gas, where they don’t sell booze. We’d lost control of our little personalized tour, but still happily rode home after a day of discovery and adventure. But no swimming.

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After a long, wet day of sightseeing 

Next stop, Elephant Nature Park. But that’s for another post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Halfway Around the World: Part 1

Week 1 – Old City, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Man, it’s been a weird week. It’s almost too hard to start this blog post so I’ve been putting it off- which is stupid. There are so many wonderful things to share. Which is why I separated this post into 2 parts. It’s a lot. So, let’s get right into it.

May 24 – May 26

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My trip started at 1pm on Tuesday. I landed in JFK and had a wonderful layover dinner with my friends. It was a very special meet-up in a random sports bar in Queens, especially because a buddy I haven’t seen in ages showed up and my brother Patrick was able to meet my friends. I was also able to give him a birthday present in person–something I haven’t been able to do in about 10 years. At 2am Wednesday morning my China Eastern plane shot into the air for a 15-hour flight to Shanghai.

After a sleeping pill, several bathroom breaks, 2 microwaved plane meals and countless annoying neck pillow adjustments, I awoke to find it was Thursday. It’s weird to skip an entire day. I’m still catching up. I don’t have jet leg, but something worse, my body somehow refuses to believe it’s 12-hours ahead of my real life.

So anyways, Shanghai to Chiang Mai was seamless and before I knew it I was checking into 99 The Gallery Hotel. I felt great, it was some time in the afternoon, the sun was high and hot, and I’d made a friend on my flight. Scott. We taxi’d to our respective hotels together and exchanged phone numbers on Whatsapp.

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Old City, CM. Top green box – Great Chaingmai Hostel. More central green box, 99 Gallery Hotel

 

99hotelbedThe hotel was beautiful and located in an amazing location. I didn’t wander around right off the bat. Scott and I had plans to meet up for dinner and explore together so I showered, sat in my room and just digested everything. It was like walking around in a dream. I wanted to lie down but the bed was rock hard. For example, when you lay down on your yoga mat at the start of class… that hard.Apparently this is just the Thai way, and I’ll have to get used to it. I decided I needed a walk.

 

The moment I realized I was in Thailand was the first turn I took out of my hotel. There, in front of me, was a big, beautiful temple. Wat Pha Bong, constucted around 1345, stood there in the crowds of workers, amongst pharmacies and buses and students in uniforms. Gold and shimmering and absolutely stunning. I couldn’t read any signage around it and I suddenly became unbelievably aware that I had no idea how to navigate this journey.

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Sight-seeing, Friend-making

Scott is a 28-year-old on vacation from Los Angeles, California, in town for an Egress gaming convention (no I’ve never heard of it either. It’s like the Amazing Race I think). We walked around town and went to the big street food market for dinner on our first night and tried our hands at Chang and Pad Se Ew. It helped that we were both so confused and new. It made it easier to assimilate into the new culture.Scott

For the next few days Scott and I did pretty much everything together. We explored Old City, ate meals, tried to learn Thai pleasantries and with the help of Scott’s rented motorbike we scouted hostels. Motorbikes are scary AF. Driving in Old City is scary AF. Crossing the street safely is a Hail Mary. All my years in Manhattan traffic paid off. There are pretty much no rules when it comes to driving in CM. For a 2,000 Baht (฿) deposit (we’ll get to money later), any idiot can rent a motorbike and scoot around the world.

Anyways, in our travels we discovered a pristine park with the world’s most complicated bathrooms, a back-alley bar that I’m pretty sure is just someone’s garage and a rad blues club, Boy Blues Bar, on top of the Sunday Night Bazaar next door to Ladyboy central. It’s because of his friendship I assimilated so quickly and easily into traveling solo. But then he had to go play with his other friends…

Things To Do

After moving into my new home at Great ChiangMai Hostel  and sort of understanding the layout of the city better, I started a bit of a routine. Still unable to figure out what

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Bed and Locker. Pretty nice and has privacy curtain!

day or time it was, I’d get up at like 7am and just go do stuff. There are things no blogs tell you about Chiang Mai and hopefully Thailand in general; the iced coffee is a drink from the Gods and smoothies (made with just fruit and ice) are A-MAZ-ING. Like indescribable. For 60฿ and 30฿ respectively you can enjoy the freshest most flavorful drink combo in the world. The fruit here is outstanding. It’s rich and filling and I’d be skinny if it tasted like this in the states.

 

 

 

Next, I figure out where to take my beverages. One of my favorite things to do so far was a self-guided walking tour of the Wats around Old City. I followed this awesome, downloadable map from Big Boy Travel. I put in my earbuds, turned on some happy jams and let Google tell me where to turn, what to look for. Technology is amazing. Old City is small enough to walk around, so stopping into shops, or getting a bite to eat is super easy.

The wats are outstanding. (I’m putting together a photo gallery, but it’s WIP) They’re meticulously taken care of and the respect shown around them is admirable. I found myself alone, wandering the grounds at times, removing my shoes, covering my shoulders and going in to stare in awe at the statues and Buddha. Although the wats all have similar qualities, they are each different. I’d kneel on the floor and just wait. I’m not necessarily a religious person, but it’s easy to feel moved and spiritual in a place of worship that has sheltered centuries of believers.

It’s possible to make donations and pray to the Buddha. But I don’t know how to pray or what to say. I’d just sit and wait. Sometimes I guess it’s ok to feel small and insignificant. It’s honestly a great representation of my current position in life-small and insignificant but knowing there’s more, a bigger plan is in motion. Whoa, heavy stuff!

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Less heavy stuff in Part 2, coming soon.

 

 

 

 

 

How I decided to Take a Backpacking Trip

Like dieting, there’s no magic pill to finding your best life.

I didn’t wake up and book a ticket to Thailand. For months I was considering the possibility of taking a little “meternity leave” (omg, hello controversy!). At the end of the day, what made the dream become reality was preparation and timing.

I started thinking about and researching this journey well before certain things happened. I knew 2 things: Southeast Asia is a well documented and safer destination for budget travelers and I am a budget traveler looking for a safe destination. Unhappy in my job, I started planning to resign my current role as a contract copywriter at the end of summer. That would give me plenty of time to save and prep. But then two of my best friends announced their wedding reception would be held in mid-September [Congrats, Maq and Atara!]. I obviously can’t miss that. Time to look for a new plan.

This was just dumb luck, but the plan found me. I was given a 30-day notice that I would be out of a job April 22. The stars were starting to align. I hadn’t really started saving for this specific reason, however I had started putting money away for a downpayment on a house. I also have consistent freelance work and a great network of people to reach out to for side gigs.

At first it all seemed like a bad idea. I applied to jobs, went to networking events and submitted the appropriate paperwork to collect unemployment. I half-heartedly interviewed and sent the most basic cover letters known to man. It was embarrassing. Then I made the best decision I’ve made in a long time.

I hired a Life Coach, appropriately named Hope. It’s a bit hard to admit, it almost feels like something that shouldn’t be talked about, like mental health, but she helped clarify so many things in my life. I was feeling so lost. I woke up feeling defeated every day. It showed in my relationships, work and daily interactions. I stopped doing things I loved and didn’t feel like myself. I was on autopilot and hated it.

Hope asked me hard questions, ones I’ve avoided answering or even considering. She gave me homework that consisted of a lot of self-reflection and writing for clarification. She gave me good advice about toxic behaviors. She wasn’t judgmental or quick to tell me what’s right or wrong. She just acted as a guide, a coach. I realized I beat myself up for a lot of things that are completely out of my control.

Ever get depressed looking at Facebook? Yup, so does everyone else. it’s a part of our lives now and it has meaningful aspects. I like Facebook. But I couldn’t help seeing engagements, marriages, babies, new homes, promotions, etc, and thinking what am I doing wrong, why am I failing? These negative, comparative, counter-productive thoughts are so useless. I don’t even want a baby. I think they resemble anchors. And I haven’t seriously wanted to marry any man I’ve been with. And when it came down to it, why the hell would I buy a house? For my shoes? Hope gave me the courage that allowed me to be ok with not wanting those things right now. Accepting that it’s not right for my life… yet.

Finding my best life was going to have to start by admitting that I’ve been on a mechanical trajectory. What do I want? Who should go along for the ride? I started expelling toxic people that made me sad or didn’t lift me up. I considered alternative employment opportunities. I forgave people that hurt me but wanted to make it right again. I started feeling free and undocked myself from the thoughts that I had to settle down and climb a ladder to “fit in” or be happy.

OK, The Good Stuff.

I collected one unemployment check and then decided the trip was the best thing for me, not job hunting. I wanted to take advantage of this amazing opportunity and then look for a new job, probably in a new field, with fresh eyes and a revitalized outlook on life. I found a sublet for my apartment (saving thousands of dollars over 3 months). I paid off bills or auto paid anything that needed to be set before I left. I used my Delta Skymiles American Express miles (40,000 miles + $129 in taxes and fees) for my ticket to Chiang Mai. My miles will also cover my return ticket, but it is yet to be booked. I researched costs and asked those with more experience (Jordan Trigilio) to give me a basic rundown.

Based on an estimated $100 per week budget, things were looking good. I had enough cash to last me 12-budgeted weeks traveling, comfortably. (As an example, I’m staying at Mercy Hostel in Chiang Rai for $6/night) Next, I approached my freelance bosses and asked if they’d be cool with me taking my work on the road. They supported it and we changed our payments from physical checks to Paypal. Even more comfort!

Things were taking shape. I’ll admit getting to Thailand has been more expensive than I imagined. Buying travel goods for this type of trip, vaccines, extended Visa…upfront costs have been rough. [I’ll provide that info in a video to come this weekend once I can lay out an expense list.] But it’s all worth it.

So now you know WHY and HOW I’m taking this trip. Next step is actually packing and leaving. I can’t wait to experience all the world has to offer. Yes, I’m nervous and anxious and scared. But I’m starting to understand that’s actually my happy place. Taking on adventure and risk is my comfort zone. The unknown is my version of settling down. One day I’ll buy a house and throw a few people I love in it. But I’m ok being on my own right now and taking this journey solo.

Follow along with me as I make my way from Norther Thailand to Bali, Indonesia. I leave May 24! (Instgram: jennyfitz21 Twitter: JennyFitzCopy)

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It’s Been Awhile…

I haven’t posted in over a year. Before we break into all the fun the next 3 months will bring, let’s have a quick catch-up, shall we? Here’s what you missed:

  • Geoff moved in. Then Geoff moved out. I’m currently single. Dating continues to be hilarious.
  • I had a roommate that treated rent like a suggestion. He moved in in August. Then he moved out in February.
  • My newest roommate moved in. He has yet to move out. He pays rent. We just resigned a lease for another year.
  • I missed being creative and left managing creatives for an advertising agency downtown. I loved being downtown. However, the work wasn’t creative or busy. I was laid off at the end of April with a respectable 30-day notice.
  • Over the last 4 months I’ve traveled to
    • New York City to see my besties and attend Andrea and Colm’s wedding
    • Belize with my sister Ryan and two awesome girlfriends, Andrea and Stefie
    • Florida with my whole family! It had been over 8 years since we were all under one roof
    • Sacramento, California with my friend Bryon. I played the part of distraction to a family wedding

That pretty much sums my life up to this point. But it’s about to get a hell of a lot more interesting…

If you’d like to check out a visual representation of this post, It’s Been Awhile will bring you to my Vimeo page for 3 minute video. Enjoy!