Joy-full

Another week has passed and not much has changed. I’m still enjoying school-classes, lab,  clinicals- I am still enjoying the warmth and smallness of St. George life, and I am still feeling pretty isolated and alone. I have gone back up north to see family the past couple weekends so that my three days off are more bearable.

Yet even though I’m less than a month in, Father continues to teach me so much. My daily prayer is that he would transform me, humble me, and renew my mind; and I can truly say he is answering that prayer in his perfect way. Throughout my adult life, I have continually been searching for where I’ll be happy, what job will be satisfying, what community will facilitate relationship-building. In my head, I knew that only God will fully satisfy, but in my heart and therefore in my actions, I didn’t really believe and I kept on investing myself in this endless search that has only left me frustrated and well, unhappy and alone. So Father has kindly spoken to me this week, “In my presence is fullness of joy.” This is a beautiful promise, but so backwards to what the world wants us to think. My joy is not in my circumstances. My joy is not in my relationships. My joy is not found in me doing anything. It is found in simply standing in his presence and soaking up his abounding glory, love, and grace.

But so I wouldn’t become stagnant or self-focused, our wise Father also gave me this passage, “Deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me.” Life isn’t about me. My life isn’t even about finding joy. It’s about God, what he is doing in this world, and what will bring him glory and joy. There is a lot of things in life that I avoid just because it would mean more work for me or would make me even just slightly uncomfortable. But is that really so important? No! Deny all that. Take up that cross. Do whatever it takes, walk through whatever open doors God provides to show off his glory to the nations and draw people back into his presence. It just makes sense now. I’ve tried it the other way and I can attest, it won’t bring happiness! Yet praise be to God, this isn’t condemning us to a life of misery. He cares so much for us that our joy brings him joy! He wants to see us overflowing with joy and has made a way for us in Christ to access him and the only true joy available! By denying myself and my own whims and pleasures, I am actually accepting God’s gift of eternal joy through which I can live the happiest life ever!

Of course, this is huge. It’s not like I’ve got it all figured out now. I’m prone to forget and bound to fall back into my old ways. But by God’s grace and through his Spirit who reminds us of all that he taught us, I will believe in my heart and try to live out in my actions: in his presence is fullness of joy.

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Who can know?

The first week of nursing school was great! Orientations, meeting 41 fellow nursing students in my cohort, starting classes (Pharmacology and Health Concepts), and already learning practices I will actually use as a nurse like physical assessments and sterile technique. The time I had leftover, I used to explore my new home! I’ve ridden my bike all over town, scouting out coffee shops, churches, where I’ll buy groceries, and nearby parks to get outside and escape my tiny condo. New places are so exciting to me and moving here on my own is an adventure. The unknown potential for the future invigorates me. Then the weekend came and that’s when a little bit of reality hit. After a busy week of school, I now had three days ahead of me (I get Mondays off) with no class, no lab, no student interaction. The dread of this isolation overwhelmed me. I don’t know anyone here. I don’t have a church family. I live alone off-campus. How could I make it through three whole days of this? What would I do to pass the time? What excuses could I find to get out of the condo? And then the rabbit hole opened and there was no one around to pull me out. Why is it so hard for me to meet people? Why can’t I make friends? What do I need to do to change that? In the solitude, I had no one but God around so I cried out to him. I asked him for courage and guidance and begged for things to change. I walked and talked with him. I read his promises, I worshiped in song. And then God spoke to me. “Lean not on your own understanding.” While this may not seem relevant, I am a very logical person. When I find myself in a hard place, I try to reason my way through it. By remembering God’s promises and believing they are true, I can find peace and a solution for most issues.  But sometimes, I don’t know the answer. I can’t see the logic and I’m left unsure of what to do. This is where I find myself. I can’t reason myself out of the absence of community and relationships in my life. I don’t understand why I’m like this. But, as God tenderly reminded me, I’m not supposed to understand everything. If I did, what need would I have for him? I don’t know how to handle these circumstances or these feelings, so all I can do is trust God completely. He sees, he knows, he’s always with me and he’ll carry me through. It’s not like the weekend turned out great. I had to spend it alone and I can’t say the next will be any better. But I do know this weekend is exactly what I needed to allow that quiet moment for God to tell me “trust in me.” He’s working in me, transforming me, and renewing my mind. Apparently this move is about more than just becoming a nurse. God has a lot yet to teach me and prepare me for the kingdom work I have ahead of me.

A New Cave to Explore

It’s actually happening. I’ve worked a long time for this. I’m finally starting nursing school. I can hardly believe it. I’m making visible steps forward, toward a goal! It’s so exciting and a bit of a relief from the waiting and wondering that has pervaded my life these past couple years. I’m so thankful to God for giving me this opportunity, for leading me to this place,  and for preparing me for this time. I know that every day I’ve had to wait was to mold me into a better worshiper of him. Here I sit right now, praising him as he opens my eyes to see his hand in every page of the story he is writing for me.  My Father takes such good care of me. He gives me so much and I don’t know why. Why me, when there are so many more deserving people than I. I have the privilege of attending nursing school. I have a condo to live in and a car and a bike to get around town.  I have money to buy healthy food and clothes and enough gas to drive the four hours home whenever I want. God gives me so many blessings every single day, he surprises me with even the littlest of things that only he would know would bless me. It’s so much more than I could ever dare to ask for, yet even if I had none of this, I would still have enough to live abundantly – along with all these physical blessings he’s given me every spiritual blessing! As I realize all that I have been given, I remember that to whom much is given, much will be required. I have a responsibility to steward these gifts well. God has entrusted all this to me so I can magnify him with it and make disciples of every nation. These things and these experiences aren’t about me. I’m not the main character of this story, God is. He is the treasure in every chapter. As I go deeper into the shadow of his wings, I will fade, but his glory and worth will shine forth and that is the life worth living, no matter my circumstances.

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My little living room (with a keyboard!)

Saying Goodbye

My students fighting to keep the tears back during my class

The room is full of crying, no, wailing, children. It’s so loud that teachers come down the hall and peer in the door to see what’s going on. Boys and girls’ heads are on their desks, their little arms wrapped around their faces, trying to hide the tears pouring down their cheeks. They are unable to pick up a marker to draw or watch the video on the screen: the fun activities that were supposed to make the class extra special and laid back. I am standing at the front, having given up all hope of accomplishing any more of my lesson plan. A few students start to leave their seats to come give me a hug and soon my shirt, front and back, is soaked in tears. This is my classroom, this is my last day of teaching, and this is what happened over and over in every one of my eight classes.
I am not one to cry. One of my Chinese friends is the same way and she says we are strong, but I am not really sure it is a sign of strength. It is just the way I was made. And so, I don’t cry. I don’t shed even a tear, but that doesn’t mean my heart isn’t tearing up inside. These are my precious children, who I’ve seen grow taller and more confident over the last year, who can now have little conversations with me – in English, who I’ve been frustrated with for not listening to me in class, who I’ve laughed with for making a joke that was cleverly created to cross the language barrier, who I baked chocolate cake for, who I danced and sang with in performances and ran with on sports day, who tackled me in the hall and gave me the hardest high fives they could, and who all told me they were “very very sad” the day I was sick and had to teach class. They love their sweets (what child doesn’t?) yet Zaija always offered me a lick of her lollipop (which I kindly refused) and I always got bites of cookies during snack time. They will do almost anything for a smiley face sticker, yet Theo peeled off four of his stickers from his English book and put them on my hand telling me, “You are a good Miss Sarah.” They study Chinese for hours upon hours each day, yet Ettie saw me practicing my Chinese characters in the office and put her hand in mine to guide me where I was going wrong. These are the moments I am leaving and their sweet little hearts don’t understand why I have to go, and in the moment, neither do I.
Teaching has definitely been the biggest struggle I have had during this past year I’ve spent in China. The first semester, it was me not knowing what I was doing, feeling incompetent, and trying get on my feet as a first-time teacher. The second semester teaching became something I didn’t enjoy and didn’t want to do and I really fought hard to have the right attitude. It was boring teaching the same simple English lesson six times over again and I looked forward to the day I wouldn’t have to anymore. When the last day finally came, I really was glad to be done with teaching but I didn’t expect how hard it would be for me to say goodbye to the individuals I was teaching to and how hard it would be on the my students when they realized I was leaving and not coming back.
Even the naughty little boys who didn’t ever seem to listen or care at all about my lessons were crying and some of the sweetest goodbyes came from the mouths of the students I didn’t interact with much or who rarely participated in class. When the all the kids yelled “bu yao zou, wo hen xiang ni!” (I don’t want you to go, I will miss you very much!)  or Bella told me my smile is beautiful, or Jude said he was going to go home and tell his parents to take him to America to come visit me, or one of my classes’ Chinese teachers writes in English on the blackboard “We wish you happy forever” and tells the kids not to cry so I have happy memories of our last class, I realized I had more of an impact than I ever knew. It was all worth it. The mental struggles I had to push through to get myself to walk in that classroom, the days I had to teach with no voice and was coughing every other sentence, the freezing cold classrooms in the winter when I taught with my coat on and the 100 ˚F days when even the kids are dripping sweat at their desks, the lessons that flopped and the kids were out of control, the time spent planning so many creative lessons or cutting 288 pieces of paper for all my students to draw on: it was all worth it.

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The Number-One, Top-Rated Tourist Attraction

As our time in Taiyuan draws to a close, my team realized we hadn’t done one very important thing: we hadn’t visited the number-one, top-rated, tourist attraction in Taiyuan. Described as a “pleasant temple complex”, “very interesting”, “a combination of historical cultural relics and beautiful landscapes” and “really a nice park”, it is supposedly “world-famous” (have you ever heard of it?) because it is a rare ancient ancestral temple. (according to TripAdvisor and travelchinaguide.com).  So, how could we live in Taiyuan for a whole year and not see this? It must be done, so one Saturday we all pushed our way onto a public bus and rode the 2-hour ride to Jinsi Park.  It was a beautiful escape from the dirty cityscape we are used to, but mostly a good time to spend together as a team taking lots of pictures and adventuring together. In the end we all decided it was worth the trip, but we live here.  Take a look and see what you think. Do you want to come to Taiyuan now?

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A 3,000 year old tree. Blows my mind.

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Hailey and Asher

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A rare team photo we got a nice Chinese woman to take for us.

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Watch out Lindsay!

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The five girls: Sarah, Lindsay, Anna, Hailey, and Chesney

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Breathe in. Breathe out.

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Dasha and Asher. Actually the biggest attraction there. The Chinese people just can’t resist those cute lil’ white faces.

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Mongolia

At the end of April we had our first and only whole week off this semester. I spent a long time deciding what I should so for this week. There was always the option of just staying here in Taiyuan but that’s what I did almost every break last semester so I felt like actually going somewhere. One of my team mates, Chesney,  decided she wanted to go to Mongolia so I thought I might join her. Unfortunately this is where my indecisiveness really came out. It was quite an expensive plane ticket so I said I would “probably” go but I didn’t want to lock myself in and actually buy the ticket. I waited, and waited, and waited, thinking maybe I could catch a deal but the day came when we were supposed to leave and I still didn’t have a plane ticket! It was a very stressful morning and I will try to never put myself in that position again, but long story short I just barely got myself a seat on that plane. I ended up paying more than I wanted to, but I went to Mongolia and I’m glad I did.

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Mongolia is just north of China, but it’s also just south of Siberia so it’s a lot colder there than it is here in Taiyuan. I had to pull out my winter coat, hat, and gloves again. It wasn’t too bad (above freezing most days), but we did have a mini blizzard on the last day we were there. This was the first time Chesney had ever experienced a “true” snowfall so it made the fact that we were facing a snowstorm in May a little bit more worth it.

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I wasn’t expecting this in May.

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A snow storm’s a-blowing

The organization I am associated with here is China also has a team of English teachers in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia who we had become friends with during our orientation in Beijing back in August and also when we also went to Thailand in February for the conference, so we were able to stay with them. We ultimately chose to come to Mongolia wanted to visit them and but also to experience a little bit of life in Mongolia. I really had no idea what Mongolia was like. What struck me most was how un-Asian it felt in Ulaan Bataar. IMG_1382

Coffee Bean? and a woman in traditional Mongolian dress.

Coffee Bean? and a woman in traditional Mongolian dress.

Who knew? Beatles Square in Mongolia.

Who knew? Beatles Square in Mongolia.

Looking upon Ulaan Bataar. (view from our hike)

Looking upon Ulaan Bataar.(view from our hike). Can you find me?

Yes, the people look Asian, but the architecture, the food, and just the whole feel of it was much more…almost European I guess (I would say Russian, but I have ever been to Russia so I can’t really compare anything to it), compared to other Asian countries I have been to. I was also amazed how many foreigners there were there. Around every corner there was another one! Because of this, there is a ton of Western food available. Not in the sense of, like McDonalds and Pizza Hut, because those don’t exist there, but there were several entire grocery stores devoted entirely to imported food products from Duncan-Hines chocolate frosting to organic gluten-free pancake mix. You could probably find nearly anything you would want in one of them. IMG_2801

Chesney and I were in awe and really overwhelmed. I couldn’t even think of something I wanted to try to cook because the options were so broad. We were told Mongolian food wasn’t very good, so we tried it once but otherwise we mostly ate delicious home-cooked meals like enchiladas, french toast, big fresh salads, cold cereal, hand-made pizza, and bean loaf (you can thank me for that one, I was tired of all the meat). In the end though , I am actually kind of glad that I don’t have all that because I have really enjoyed all the Chinese food here and being creative with the ingredients we can find. It sure saves a lot of money too.

Aside from cooking, the rest of our time we spent walking around town, going on a hike, and just living life with our friends we were staying with. We attended the local Mongolian fellowship with them which was awesome because we could freely worship in English with the local people -not an opportunity available to us in Taiyuan. We went to classes with them every day (they didn’t have the week off since Mongolia has different holidays than China), and we went to their English corner and played word games with Mongolian English learners.

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Our hike on the Mongolian hills. It was really cold, and not much had bloomed yet, but t was great none-the-less.

Our hike on the Mongolian hills. It was really cold, and not much had bloomed yet, but great none-the-less.

Snack Break, hiding from the wind

Snack break, hiding from the wind.

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Actually, one of my favorite things about my trip was going to their middle/high school classes. It showed me how different a teaching situation can be. It inspired me to keep on trying in my own classroom and not give up on enjoying teaching. It reminded me how much I love interacting with students, even with limited English, and learning about their lives in a culture so foreign to me.

Morning line up before school starts

Morning line up before school starts. This school is truly bilingual with every subject being taught in English as well as Mongolian. This means that students have upwards of 16 classes each semester though. They have to be so driven!

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I was amazed at how well these six-graders could speak English. Their program really works!

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I am really thankful for the lessons I learned in Mongolia, for the refreshing and encouraging interaction with our friends there, and even for the few more days of freezing weather. It was a worthwhile trip, no regrets.

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Even though the hills looked so barren from afar, there were little signs of life when we were up close and really looked for them. In the same way, I have to constantly be looking for the sweet, life-giving aspects of each day to keep me present and focused in my own life.

加油!加油!Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!

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Ahh…spring weather. Time to pull out those skirts and short sleeves. Time to take a few layers of blankets off the bed. Time to walk as slowly as possible to the office in the morning to soak up as much sunshine as possible. The perfect time for students to learn the poem passage:

Spring, spring,

nice and warm.

Spring, spring,

I like spring.

(Yes! Our textbooks have us teach quality literature like this every week!) And something new I’ve learned this year about spring: it’s time for students to be super antsy in their seats and not want to listen to anything the teacher has to say.

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Thankfully, our school’s annual sports day came just in time. Here they actually call it a Sports Meeting and this isn’t your typical field day. It lasts several days, classes are canceled (yay!!!), and the events are taken very seriously. The awards given are proudly hung in the classrooms all year long until they are replaced by next year’s winners. An elaborate opening ceremony is prepared and practiced weeks in advance complete with everyone marching by class out into the field, dance performances, and speeches. The main events include several different distance sprints, a 4x100m relay, long jump, high jump, and jumping rope. Only the select few are chosen to participate in these, but to get everyone involved there are a lot of fun whole-class competitions like an obstacle course, rolling a tire, or passing a cup of water down a line. It was so fun and quite an experience for me.

I had so much fun hanging out with my students outside of the classroom. Cheering them on (加油!or jiayou! literally meaning to “add oil”), congratulating the winners, and just being silly with them during the down times. It was so good to see them be their normal selves and act like the kids they are. We played rock-paper-scissors and thumb wars, we tried to have English conversations, they helped me practice my colors in Chinese, and I got to take tons of pictures with all 285 of them. Here are just a few of them:

Opening Ceremony

Opening Ceremony

There were a few Teacher events too. The Chinese somehow think that every foreigner is really good at all things "sports" so we are always chosen to participate. I did the skipping and ran in the 4x100m relay race.

There were a few Teacher events too. The Chinese somehow think that every foreigner is really good at all things “sports” so we are always chosen to participate. I did the skipping and I ran in the 4x100m relay race in which we placed third.

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The two girls are my twins, NiNi and NaNa. They are so precious and have such personality but I still can't tell them apart.

The two girls are my twins, NiNi and NaNa. They are so precious and have such personality but I still can’t tell them apart.

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I love my students!!!

Adventures in Cafeteria

The other day, my sister posted a picture of her breakfast on Facebook. It wasn’t anything too spectacular: some scrambled eggs with spinach, a bowl of sugar-swirled cream-o-wheat, and half of a grapefruit; but, she being a good photographer and all, it looked pretty darn delicious and I commented as much. Anyway, it got me thinking, if she felt it was worth showing off her standard American morning meal to all her American friends, I should like to show you all what a typical breakfast looks like for me; and maybe lunch and dinner too (there isn’t much variation between them anyway).

The school we live and teach at is a boarding school, so there is a cafeteria open for all three meals of the day and as foreign teachers we can eat there for free as often as we want. Because I am a frugal penny-pincher, I have a hard time resisting free food so I eat at the cafeteria a lot. I basically always eat lunch there, usually breakfast (unless I don’t want to wake up before eight to walk down there), and dinner on occasion depending on if I have the time to prepare dinner at home what sort of ingredients I have on hand at the moment. The food is pretty good most of the time so I actually like eating there but it does get pretty repetitive and its pretty oily so that’s why I try to cook my own dinner as much as I can.

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To start my meal, I grab a clean metal tray, a little metal bowl, and a pair of chopsticks. Then I start down the line.

 

The "line". I guess it's a buffet, but that makes it sound kind too fancy and there is no fancy here.

The “line”. I guess it’s a buffet, but to me that makes it sound kind of fancy and there is no fancy here. I love how they have pictures of food on the wall (look in the background above) with tea, what looks like a piece of cheesecake, and there is even a picture of a cheeseburger on one wall; but don’t be fooled, they don’t serve anything like that.

 

Standard breakfast fare: don't ask me what everything is because I honestly can't tell you.

Standard breakfast fare: I honestly can’t tell you exactly what everything is but I will try my best. Served nearly every morning are hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, and sauteed cabbage. Then depending on the morning there will be some other vegetable/tofu options like celery and boiled peanuts or some sort of egg drop soup like I have in my bowl above. There is always an assortment of mantou, or steamed bread, as well. My favorite are the buns filled with red bean paste (top right of my tray) but most of my teammates avoid everything “red bean”, which the Chinese have found ways to include in nearly everything including ice cream .

 

It's breakfast time!

It’s breakfast time!

A standard lunch tray. If you think it looks like I got a a lot food you should see the Chinese people's trays. They are little miniature mountains of food.

A standard lunch tray. If you think it looks like I got a a lot food you should see the Chinese people’s trays; their trays look like miniature food mountains. Here I have egg and tomato (one of my favorite Chinese dishes) in the bowl, some rice, and some, um…, potatoes and…um…I really just don’t know what all I fill my stomach with each day but this is about what is looks like.

A bowl of fish heads

On special days (a.k.a. a random Saturday night) we get special surprise dishes like this one here: a giant bowl of fish heads. These aren’t little fish heads either, but rather fist-sized heads filled with the good stuff that helps your brain (so my Chinese friend informed me). I was a little shocked and quickly moved down the line, but then found I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try cafeteria fish head so I plopped one on my tray.

Another lunch tray

See the fish head up there? It was actually quite scrumptious but I was kind of picky with what I ate of it. My Chinese friend eating with me ate nearly every bit of her fish head including the eyes and spit out only what she couldn’t chew. Here, I also have eggplant on the left, another one of my favorite Chinese dishes, a squash porridge in the bowl and a mess of other vegetables.

 

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Oh the choices…I don’t eat pork so that actually limits my options considerably, but there is usually an egg option and sometimes chicken legs or whole fish. There is always steamed rice or steamed bread to go with.

The "noodle bar", available every day for lunch. The noodles are in the water in the left bowl, then you have the option of egg and tomato sauce or brown sauce (again, sorry, I don't know what it is). That's chives and parsley in the middle bowl.

The “noodle bar”, available every day for lunch. The noodles are in the water in the left bowl, then you have the option of egg and tomato sauce or brown sauce (again, sorry, I don’t know what it is). That’s chives and parsley in the middle bowl.

Assorted "toppings" like raw garlic cloved, vinegar, pickled vegetables, and spicy chili oil.

Assorted “toppings” like raw garlic cloves, pickled vegetables, spicy chili oil, and vinegar.

Time to find a seat!

Time to find a seat! Hope your group has no more than four.

At the end of every meal the Chinese finish with a bowl of soup. It is actually just hot water with some sort of boiled grain in it so its pretty flavorless.

At the end of every meal the Chinese finish with a bowl of soup found in this pot on the floor. It is actually just hot water with some sort of boiled grain in it so its pretty flavorless. I don’t usually partake unless I am thirsty.

 

So that’s our cafeteria and the food I eat every day of every week! If you come to visit you can try it for free too (a foreign face is like a free meal pass)!

 

No complaints

I have always taken advantage of the fact that in the modern world we we can get from A to B so fast. I am so thankful for the invention of the airplane. Yes, traveling through airports, arriving hours before actual departure time, putting all your liquids in little bottles, stuffing all your junk in a bag small enough to be carried on, and standing in security lines isn’t fun. But, speed. Sometimes it is worth all that just to save those precious hours or days it would take by other means of transport. When Anna and I realized we had extra money in our transportation budget we decided to book a flight from Laos to Cambodia. It really was quite a relief not to have to endure the mess of taxis, buses, tuk-tuks, walking and whatever else it was going to take to get us from Vientiane to Cambodia overland. We got on a plane and arrived in Phnom Penh a little over an hour later! Okay, maybe this isn’t that exciting to you, but after all the long hours we had spent on wheeled vehicles, this felt nothing short of magic. I won’t complain next time I’m blessed to travel by air.

Our main reason for coming to Cambodia was to see Angkor Wat so we only stayed in Phnom Penh one night before bussing (9 hours! People, do we really have to empty the bus for a bathroom break every single hour?) up to Siem Reap. We spent less than a week total in Cambodia. We tried lots of different Khmer food, my favorite being a variety of curry called Fish Amok. We were able to meet up with another friend of Anna’s in Phnom Penh and hear about the work she is doing with various NGO’s and at-risk girls in the universities.

Anna's friend in Phnom Penh

Anna’s friend in Phnom Penh

You never know what you may see on the streets of Cambodia

You never know what you may see on the streets of Cambodia.

Most memorably, we spent an entire day riding bikes around Angkor Wat visiting stunning temple ruins that look right out of a movie scene (actually Tomb Raiders was really filmed here). We started at 5 a.m. to catch the sunrise and rode and walked and climbed until sunset. It was a long hot day, but totally awesome so not worth complaining about.

5:30 am sunrise. Spectacular!

5:30 am sunrise. Spectacular! This is Angkor Wat, the most famous temple but just one of many temple in the Ankgor Archaeological Park.

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This temple must be old because look at the size of the tree growing right over the top of it!

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The temples in the park are all remains of Khmer Empire capital cities from the 9th to the 15th century.

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We biked to and explored at least seven different temples.

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The temples in the park are all remains of capital cities of the Khmer Empire from the 9th - 15th centuries.

I feel like I am climbing up the staircase of a giant.

A beautiful sunset to finish off the day.

A beautiful sunset to finish off the day.

After a long hot day in the sun, I needed to rehydrate and there is nothing better than a coconut to do the job (seriously!).

After a long hot day in the sun, I needed to rehydrate and there is nothing better than a coconut to do the job (seriously!).

Our time in Cambodia went quickly and before we knew it we were on our way to the next destination, a island in southern Thailand called Koh Chang. We were told this should be an all day transfer, but we were blessed with a speedy taxi driver, a short immigration line, and little traffic so we made it to the island by early afternoon.

This guy was speedy. Thanks man!

This guy was speedy. Thanks man!

Welcome to Koh Chang

Ferry to the island. It was high time we traveled by boat. It says “Welcome to Koh Chang” on the hill in the background.

When we finally made it to our guest house on the farthest end of the island, we were a bit shocked to find we would be sleeping in a little hut with only a bed and a plastic lawn chair for furnishings. Not the nice little beach place we had imagined, but we had few options at that point so we quickly recovered and settled in. The location couldn’t be beat anyway. Our “bungalow” had ocean front views, there were hammocks along the shore, free kayaks, and a white sand beach that wasn’t very crowded.

Our bungalow.

Our bungalow.

Anna had been looking forward to this destination the entire trip. She was so ready for a few relaxing days at the beach to just rest. Me, on the other hand, I sort of dread the “lazy” days. What will I do all day? How will I fill the time? I can’t stand to just sit for hours on end at a beach, in the heat, doing nothing. Of course it is never as bad as I imagine once I get there and I always end up enjoying it for the most part. We kayaked, snorkeled, swam in the ocean, explored the fishing village, and, of course, ate some great Thai food. I LOVE Thai food. No complaints.

guest house

That’s our accommodation, Cliff Cottage, in the background. It looks more ghetto than it is but again, location, location, location.

It's beach time!

It’s beach time!

Snorkeling in the warm, blue sea.

Snorkeling in the warm, blue sea.

Rotee

In Thailand every evening these street carts come out that and make rotee, a sort of crepe/pancake filled with bananas and Nutella. A delicious late night treat!

One evening we happened to be walking on the pier around sunset and witnessed probably the most spectacular sunset I have ever seen. Postcard anyone?

One evening on Koh Chang we happened to be walking on the pier around sunset and witnessed probably the most spectacular sunset I have ever seen. Postcard anyone?

Laos

I’d heard of Laos. I knew it was somewhere in Southeast Asia and that was really the extent of my knowledge on the country. I didn’t have any particular desire to see the place and didn’t really know there was anything to see, but when I decided I wanted to do trekking on my trip, Laos kept coming up in my research, so I put it on the itinerary. At the very least, it was another country I could check off my list, but it turned out to be so much more that.
We left Kunming overland headed south to the Laos border on a sleeper bus. Don’t be deceived by the adjective “sleeper”; by “sleeper” I mean 26 hours of rocking and bumping down windy roads on a too skinny and too short “bed” and not so much actual sleep. It really wasn’t that bad, but Anna and I were definitely glad to step off that bus onto firm ground when we finally arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos.
We started our trek early the next morning. With our guide, Mr. Phai, we would be hiking through the jungle for three days, kayaking down the Nam Ou River on the fourth day and sleeping in a local village each night. After being in cities for so long, and sitting for hours upon hours in trains and buses, being in nature, miles of green in all directions, was incredible and so rejuvenating. I find hiking to be so much more fun when there is a purpose behind it and a destination to be reached (a place to eat and sleep). It was kind of surreal at moments. Here I was, in the middle of the Asian jungle, walking through rice paddies and bamboo forests; stuff I’ve only seen in pictures as something very distant from my own circle of life.

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I also had a lot of free time to think during the hours on the trail. I can’t really ever not think; I don’t even know if that’s possible. Usually the mind just wanders on all sorts of rabbit trails, but I really tried to take every thought captive to use the time beneficially. I couldn’t help but constantly praise the Creator of the great jungle around me, so I spent time in prayer and thinking on the possibilities for my future, on relationships, on my own character, and probably hundreds of other topics. I find so much joy and energy in nature and probably walked with a big grin on my face the majority of the time. !

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The time we spent each evening in the villages was just as enjoyable as the rest and also very enlightening. The villages we passed through were inhabited by the Hmong and Khmu minority peoples with 40 to 400 people in each. It was really neat to experience a little of the village life and be able to just observe even more. It looks like such a simple life although I am sure their daily lives are plagued with many problems, as ours are. What stood out the most was the great sense of community and the strong family unit. Every morning and night each family squatting around their fire, pairs of hands hovering over the flames, trying to keep warm from the unusually cold night air. A group of young women standing around the communal water spigot talking and doing their washing: some clothes, some vegetables, and some their children. An old grandpa cradling his grandson, rocking him to sleep. Throngs of children running freely all over the village, some with their own little sibling tied to their back, playing with woven balls or a handmade wooden cart. And amidst all the villagers and their bamboo huts the are dogs, pigs, ducks and lots of chickens plucking around waiting to be eaten or sold (depending on how much money the harvest brought in that year).

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The villagers seemed to have a lot of free time especially since it is the dry season and nothing is growing at the moment, so I began to wonder what tasks I, who doesn’t like sitting around, would have busied myself with if I were brought up in this culture. I love learning about different cultures and seeing how different people live their lives, so being actually in it was so cool.
Another fun part of our trekking experience was the food. Mr. Phai, our guide, did all the cooking for us and we ate whatever food was available, which meant mostly different vegetables either stir fried or in soup, eggs, pork, and loads of sticky rice. We had rice for 9 out of 10 meals (Laos is the sticky rice capital of the world), but instead of getting tired of it, Anna and I fell in love with sticky rice. We ate with our hands so it is a great vehicle for getting the saucy foods to your mouth, it is so portable, it has a great chewy texture, and it kept us satisfied until the next meal. I learned how to cook it (albeit over an open fire and in a bamboo basket) so I hope to try to make it myself with the more modern tools I have available.

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The rest of our in time in Laos we spent looking a bit more around Luang Prabang, and going further south to spend a few days in Vientiane, the capital, with a short stopover in little Vang Vieng to check out a cave and break up the long drive.

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20140204-082635.jpgThere isn’t really much to see or reason to go to the capital, but my stepdad happened to have some friends who were gracious to let us stay with them for a night. It was a refreshing break from our usual hostel accommodation and we were able to join them at their English fellowship meeting, have some great conversation with fellow Americans, and even do laundry (with a washer and dryer!). And thus ended our eight days in Laos (it felt like much longer). Always sad to leave, but excited for what’s next: Cambodia, the kingdom of wonder!