Playlists and Inspiration

It’s been a long time since I have blogged here.  It’s been a long time since I wrote much of anything for myself. I write a lot for other people. Blogs, articles, manuals…  pieces of content that are requested and delivered.

It’s a hollow, empty thing, to write often and yet never for yourself. It helps me to keep the gears turning, sure, but it doesn’t sate the creative monster that lurks around the corner. The music in the words can still play but the voice isn’t mine. When you’re writing content for a company or ghostwriting for another person, your voice needs to fade. The voice must match all the other content for that person and for that brand.

So anyway.  I’m finding my voice again.  For the first time in about two years, I am writing

inspire

Music and words

for myself again. And not just a blog post here and there because I am suddenly inspired by something on the internet.

I’m actively drafting again.

For me, one of the first steps to writing creatively is to find the right music. It tethers me to the mood and the feel of what i am trying to write. Sometimes, that means a specific artist. Other times, it is a collected mess of things that don’t make sense individually but make sense with that chapter.  Or they make sense for that character.

Veronica Roth, author of Divergent, Insurgent and Allegiant, had this to say on her blog:

“…when I find songs to write to, I don’t really consider what genre the music is or how respectable the band is or any of that. If it makes me think of Divergent characters or scenes, it’s on the playlist, no matter how I feel about the artist as a whole.”

I find that my sentiments mirror hers. The songs that I am writing to, at the moment, help me to keep my voice and my tone in the feeling of the story itself. I can’t write without music and some nights I will stay hunched over the laptop with my eyes covered, letting the music lend a hand in my creative process.

I also find that wearing headphones and tuning into a good soundtrack helps me to focus. The temptations of television, twitter and Facebook fall away.  I become more immersed in the world, in the words and with the characters in my head.

When choosing songs, I sometimes take inspiration from soundtracks. They already evoke a mood. The soundtrack for Ink, a Jamin Williams film, is amazing. The music is dark and hopeful all at the same time.

deepskiesSpotify has been immeasurably helpful in curating a good playlist. There are a number of writing playlists that authors have published and lists Spotify has assembled that strike specific moods and feelings. The “Deep Focus” list is a rich and atmospheric instrumental list that is great for writing. (And incidentally, for debugging code.) When you find songs you like, they have suggestions for related artists and the ability to generate a radio station based on that song. Like Pandora, only with the ability to create your own list. Victory. If you want to share in my twelve hours of music, you can check it out here.

Whatever helps you to stay focused, use it. Let the music help you find the words and let the words make their way to the page.

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Stop with the Body Shaming.

Body image issues plague women today. Rare are the women who can look you in the face and tell you they think that they are beautiful. Few are the women who can say “I love my body and everything about it.” It’s a tragedy. It’s a shame. And we perpetuate this because our daughters see us lamenting our bodies. I grew up with my mother constantly on diets. Even when I was thin enough to have people ask about having an eating disorder, I never felt like I was good enough.

If only I were thinner/curvier. If only my legs were longer/shorter.  If only my hair were thicker/thinner.

I wish I had skin/hair/eyes/teeth/legs/arms/eyebrows like yours.

We are never satisfied.

Let me say this.  You’re all beautiful.

If you are thin because of genetics or you are thin because you’re depressed and not eating or you are thin because of a health issue or you are thin because you work your ass off (literally) to stay there.  You’re beautiful.

If you are heavy because of genetics or you are heavy because you’re depressed and eating too much or you are heavy because of a health issue or you are heavy because you don’t have TIME to work your ass off.  You’re beautiful.

I am tired of the body shaming.  The fat and skinny shaming we do to ourselves and what we do to others.

Bloggers on the internet talking about how “Fat” is a size 12, 14 or 16. You know sizes get higher than that, right?

Have you ever had a salesperson look you up and down and arch their eyebrow when they tell you “nothing here will fit you?”

Have you ever had a waiter give you a smug smile after you order dessert? In such a way that you suddenly feel guilty for indulging?

Have you ever knocked something off the aisle in the grocery store with your ass?

Have you ever had an unfortunate summer wardrobe choice and end up getting home with your thighs and/or arms chafed so badly that you have wounds?

When trying on wedding dresses, the store owners flitted around me—TERRIFIED that I would actually try to zip up one of their samples.  They made me hold the dresses up in front of myself instead.  “I’m sure we can order a plus size, but we can’t risk damage to the sample.  You get the idea, right?” It was even more humiliating when they showed me how one was going to define my waist.

Of course it did, you jerk.  My waist looks great if we pretend I’m a size four. I’d love to suck in ten inches.  I’d love to Spanx away 100 pounds.

Why should this happen?

To those of you who do shame fat people, let me ask you something. Do you think we don’t know?  Do you think that when we’ve been forced into stores that carry sizes that are artfully masked to help us not feel so terrible about ourselves that we think that we’re not overweight? That somehow, your reminder is useful to us?

Is it necessary to call me a cow when I walk past you? To show off in front of your “bros?”  Do you think I don’t speak enough Spanish to know that’s what you said?  Do you?

Is it necessary to roll down the window of your car to yell out to me while I am walking to my car to tell me that I am fat and ugly?  Did that make your day better?

Thanks.  I didn’t know.  I didn’t feel it already.

Did you see me at the gym, trying to do better? Did you see me order a non-fat latte to try and save calories? Have you been there in the restaurant when I’ve asked them to prepare my meal without the butter?

You don’t know me.

I remember what it was like to be a size six.  I wish I still were.  But we get older.  Things happen. Children happens.  Work happens.  Life happens.

The same cruelty exists for women who are too thin. Surprisingly, I’ve been at both sides of this spectrum. It’s just as cruel for someone to ask you if you have an eating disorder. For people who are heavier than you to tell you that you need to eat a sandwich.

You look like you should eat something.

Are you okay?  Are you sick?

We shame each other. Cruelty is common.

It needs to stop.

This culture of never feeling good enough, this perpetual cycle of trying to be something other something better something different than who we are….  It needs to stop.  We need to focus on kindness. We need to focus on what’s inside.

Smile at someone. Tell them to have a nice day. Offer a compliment.

Be kind.

Tell yourself that you are beautiful.

Stop spreading the ugliness.

Stop calling yourself fat.

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The “After” Myth

This is an amazing transformation with an amazing realization. When I lost 90lbs to get down to my high school weight, I was thrilled. But I was miserable. Now that all of those pounds have come back and my life is balanced and I am truly, blissfully happy…. am I less of a person?

Being overweight again has diluted my joy of being engaged. It has plagued me every time I look in the mirror. But I remember that when I was 130 pounds…. I was miserable. I was self-destructive. I was not who I am. I didn’t love myself more. In fact, I did things that intentionally hurt myself both physically and emotionally.

Remember that who you are is not a number on the scale. Strive to live a healthy life. Push for self-love, not some arbitrary size. Be yourself. Love yourself. Rediscover and redefine your idea of sexy. This woman is an inspiration to me and this post should be shared. Bravo!

Can Anybody Hear Me?

DURING

After.

It’s here.

In my first post, Before, 3 years ago, I said “I’m not to After yet, but I’m closer to After than to Before.”

I now weigh 117 – 120 pounds (depending on the day), and standing at 5-foot 6-inches, that measurement means that After is very, very here. But, before you congratulate me, dear readers…if I have any…and dear friends and family who I know follow this blog… I have to come clean with you: I don’t feel like I’m at After. I’m terrified of being at After. And, I don’t like that After is here.

After5 2

The tagline of my blog is “uncovering myself one pound at a time.” For most of this blog, I’ve spoken strongly about how my relationship with food and myself was what caused my weight struggles. I stand by that. The thing is, the symptoms have resolved faster than I’ve been able to…

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Autumn

Beauty of Autumn

Autumn Colors

Autumn is my favorite season. There’s always been something about it. This quote from an old TV show sums up my feelings:

Sundays this time of year, I used to lay in bed and watch the morning football game. And then I’d go out when the sun was just… right. Golden. Autumn. I grew up in San Diego, and people say that there are no change of seasons in California, but… there are. I could always feel it. Always. There is just this… cold, inevitable edge in the air. The light, the colors… it’s as if the Earth were letting you know that Summer was gone. There’s no getting it back. Winter’s coming and there’s nothing that you can do to escape it. A lot of people say that they fall in love in the Spring. Not me. I always fell in love in Autumn. It is just the most… romantic… sexy… desperate… –Lt. Shane Vansen, “Space: Above and Beyond”

Something about the light changes when autumn creeps in. Everything takes on this slightly golden cast. The blue of the sky is slightly more intense. The green of the leaves brightens slightly before giving way to golds and reds. Growing up in New England, I loved how autumn touched on all five senses. I would wrap myself in all things autumn.

Since Labor Day is over, it doesn’t really matter that it’s still hot. To me, it’s autumn. Here is a list of my favorite things about autumn.

  1. Pumpkin Spice Latte:
pumpkin spice

Take my money.

The official taste of autumn. I don’t know which chain was the one who invented this, but I love them. Starbucks’ autumn menu not only has the coveted PSL, but also the Salted Caramel Mocha and this year the Teavana Chai.  I’m not ashamed to admint that some days I will go to Starbucks twice. Be aware that most Starbucks run the “Treat Receipt” campaign. Bring your morning receipt back after 2pm and get a grande drink for $2.  It helps your wallet…

  1. Bonfires

fireMaybe this is a New England things, because I think that I might get into trouble if I had a bonfire in  Van Cortlandt Park. But there is something so awesome about sitting by a fire to stay warm.

  1. Sweaters

Goodbye sundresses, hello jeans and sweaters! I love curling up in a warm sweater. By a bonfire. With a pumpkin spice latte. You see how they all build upon each other?

  1. Boots

Whether you wear Uggs or knee-high or booties or midcalf…  the shoes of fall are amazing. Right around the second week of September, it’s time to put away the sandals and pull out all the awesome boots that have been hiding all summer. This is why we have a day off on Labor Day.

  1. Pumpkin Spice ALL THE THINGS

pumpkibeerWhy stop at coffee? PUMPKIN SOAP.  PUMPKIN BEER. PUMPKIN CANDLES. PUMPKIN LOTION. Spice up your life.  True confession: I burn pumpkin spice candles all year and if I could, I would keep Shipyard Pumpkin in my fridge all year as well.

  1. Leaves

colorThere is nothing better than getting in a leaf fight. You are never too old to jump in a pile of leaves. I love the sound that they make when they blow across the pavement; that skittercrunch noise that you get when you are walking in the woods. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

  1. Colors

Not just leaves, but the sky. Everything in the fall seems to get the saturation level turned up. I firmly believe that the color of the light actually changes.

  1. Harvest Festivals

fair2 Growing up in the country, there were harvest festivals that popped up in towns, counties and then celebrated at the end with the “Big E.” (Eastern States Exposition). Make no mistake, these fairs are more than just a Ferris wheel and the Scrambler. The harvest festivals are epic, sweeping extravaganzas with cider and fried dough and live music.  Also, usually pumpkin beer and bonfires.

  1. Sports

footballIf you’re a sports fan, you have the intersection of all things in the fall. Baseball playoffs, football, the start of hockey… And even better, you can throw on a sweater and boots and go watch a game because now the weather is perfect.

10.  Air

But the best thing about autumn is the smell and the taste of the air. This mélange of spice and smoke and apple. The wind picks up and lifts your hair and has just the slightest bite to it.

Writing this list has made me need to go outside and go for a hike.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

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The Best 21st Century Horror Movies You’ve Never Seen.

I’m not superstitious.  I don’t worry about walking under ladders, I don’t flinch when I step on a crack and if a black cat crosses my path, I’m more apt to chase after it making soft kiss-y noises than I am to be afraid.  With that said; I love an excuse to watch a scary movie.  I delight in the art of terror.  More comfortable in an abandoned cemetery than walking on a city street, I will enjoy the gruesomest and -creepiest of horror movies with childlike glee.  From the splatter-horror teen screams to the dark and cerebral thrillers, I am always game for a scary movie.

My love for the genre is evident in the stories I write, sometimes delving too deeply to the dark side for a young adult stamp. I also find that the movies I love the most are obscure. Sometimes foreign, sometimes limited releases and sometimes my sense of humor is just a little bit…  off.. So often, when I look at the “Top Ten” lists or the “Best of” lists, I am woefully underwhelmed.

So in honor of today being Friday the thirteenth, I give you my list of the top ten best horror movies.  You might disagree with my order, but everything on this list is worth watching- for one reason or another.

Image10. Timecrimes (2007)

This Spanish thriller written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo creeps under your skin. The movie centers around Hector, and what happens when he is able to travel back in time.

A harrowing look at what can happen with the paradox of time travel, this entire movie will keep you guessing as it moves back and forth in time.  The first few minutes start slow and confusing, so just give it a moment and you will be in for a delightful treat.

This film is made memorable not by a huge budget or glamorous effects, but with a small cast of wonderful actors who truly keep you riveted as you watch how bad goes to worse so quickly.

9. Splinter (2008)

ImageI caught this movie at 2am in a hotel room.  Within minutes, I was hooked in such a way that I couldn’t sleep even if I wanted to. This tight little movie illustrates how terror doesn’t need to have a huge budget and how a good idea and some solid acting can seriously unsettle the audience.

A camping trip goes south when a couple encounters two convicts on the run. Things only get worse when a strange parasite seems to start infecting humans around them.

This movie, from director Toby Wilkins doesn’t drag for a minute, with solid acting and nail biting tension all the way til the end.  In pulling this together, I see that it is an independent film, but I never would have guessed from how neatly woven it is.  It’s not perfect, but it is a gem.

Image8. The Ring (2002)

There is something to be said for the staying power of the Ring.  I truly enjoyed both movies, the original Japanese Ringu (1998) and the subsequent Americanified version. But this list is about twenty-first century movies….  so…. the American version gets the picture. Something about this movie continued to haunt me. I have found myself liking this movie more and more as time goes on. I even have the soundtrack, a stunning score by Hans Zimmer queued up in my writing playlist.  So what about it stands the test of time?

Maybe it’s the gloomy, dark atmosphere.  Maybe it’s the brilliant performance by Naomi Watts.  Maybe it’s the way the videotape just creeps under your skin.  Maybe it’s the subtle repetition of shapes and colors that continue to set the tone and reinforce the mood. After a decade, this movie provides a satisfying scare.

7. Saw (Franchise: 2004-2010)

ImageSo, okay, this is multiple movies.  Hear me out, though!

I watched the Saw franchise religiously. The first movie with the brilliant ending was a fantastic kickoff for a beautifully executed story line. I still can watch the entirety of the franchise (though it does take an entire day) and have a wonderful enjoyment.

I know that they may get brushed to the side as gratuitous gore, but to me the key to the Saw franchise is how they somehow, over the course of all those years, manage to make every single piece RELEVANT at the last scene of the last movie.  It makes you sit there and say “Wait, how did I miss that?” and then watch them again.  Unlike other contemporary franchises (cough- Scream-cough), every movie makes sense when you see the last one.

Image6. Orphan (2009)

Don’t watch this movie if you are looking to adopt a child.

You might think that you’ve seen enough of the child-gone bad movies, with “Bad Seed,” “The Good Son,” and “The Omen.”  But this is totally different.

This psychological thriller brilliantly directed by Jaume Collet-Serra provides amazing performances by Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, and Isabelle Fuhrman. Orphan is dark, sinister and clever. It keeps you totally engrossed as Collet-Serra pulls you through a range of emotions: from terror to cheering in victory.  Easily one of the most stressful movies I have seen in a while.  A victim of its own marketing, don’t spend too much time researching it as you will spoil all the fun.

5. 28 Days Later (2002) 28 Weeks Later (2007)

Image

Beautiful, allegorical and scary as hell, 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later provide a scary and realistic view of what the future really could look like.  Danny Boyle really breaks out with this movie, clearly illustrating the darkness that lives in all of us.

As Romero did with Dawn of the Dead, the allegory to what our society is and can ultimately become.  To me, 28 Days later is a masterpiece and it ranks with other horror classics. Also worth noting is the spectacular score and the amazing job Cillian Murphy does in his role.  28 Days Later is unrelenting survival horror- taking you first to the end of the world and then to the end of sanity.

Image

4. The Orphanage / El Orfanato (2007) 

Another Spanish film, echoing the influence of Guillermo del Toro, The Orphanage pulls at the horrors of real life. This movie scared me in a very different way, drawing in on emotions instead of pulling stunts and scares.

Returning to the orphanage in which she spent her childhood, Laura with her husband and adopted son Carlos intend to re-open the old building as a home for troubled children. But not all is quiet in the building as they soon discover. Emotionally gripping and beautifully suspenseful, The Orphanage weaves a rich mystery tied in with wonderful cinematography.

3. Martyrs (2008)Image

I’m not going to post anything about the plot here.  This is a movie that I am glad that I watched but I may never watch again. This is easily the goriest, blackest, darkest, most disturbing movie on the list, and the hardest movie to watch.

It is NOT a vessel for torture porn, as some might dismiss it.  Rather this is a groundbreaking and daring film that stretches your mind and your imagination.  Right when you think you know what is about to happen, the entire film takes a hard left turn and becomes something entirely different.  Written and directed by Pascal Laugier, this film is thought-provoking, astounding, surprisingly moving and will stay with you long after the credits roll.

Image2. The Descent (2005)

A caving trip goes horribly wrong.

That’s really all the description that you need for this movie, This movie that in most of my horror lists would top the charts.

The entire cast is women, which is rare in horror, but all of them do an amazing job. The Descent is one of the few movies that made me feel terribly uncomfortable in the theater. It is so claustrophobic that it is hard to watch. Down, down it takes you- to the depths of the cave and to human sanity. Where at the bottom of the cave we find the things that lurk in the dark…  both in the shadows and in ourselves.

Don’t watch it in the dark.  Don’t watch it alone.  And for the LOVE OF GOD– WATCH THE ORIGINAL UK ENDING and not the atrocity they crafted for US theaters.

And.

Finally.

1. Cabin in the WoodsImage

What?

This is actually my all time favorite movie.  (I know, i know…)  People thought that I had legitimately lost my mind when I was saying that this was the best movie of all time.

But I love it.

If you haven’t seen it, just see it.  I am not going to talk about it here other than it is the most fun I have ever had at a movie.  It breaks every rule, it twists everything you think you know about horror movies and turns it into a fun dark parody of all things horror.

If you aren’t laughing within the first ten minutes, just turn it off.  Come back to this list and pick something else.  But I have been a horror fan forever and this movie I can watch again and again….  not because it scares me, but because someone else who loves horror movies wrote and directed it.  It’s smart, witty and deliciously fun.  And out of all the movies on this list, it is truly my favorite.  Sure, it’s cult horror.  I’m sure there are plenty of people who thought that Evil Dead 2 was terrible.  But everything about this movie makes me happy.

And really, that’s what this genre is all about.  Get under your skin.  Surprise you.  Make you jump at the shadow in the corner.

Happy Friday the thirteenth, everyone.  Curl up with a warm blanket and watch something scary.

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Vagabonds and Transients

I woke up and I didn’t know where I was.  The light that filtered into my room through the sheers that covered the windows indicated that it was near dawn.  The green glowing lights from the alarm clock indicated that my mind was still set to the wrong time zone.  As the fog of sleep lifted, I could pick out details in the room.  King sized bed.  Strange sectional configuration in tan fabric and brown leather.

Hyatt Place.  The questions was…  where?

The interior of most Hyatt Place hotel rooms is identical.  Their strategy is to make you feel like you’re coming home.  To your other home, some strange work-apartment that happens to move around with you.  It doesn’t feel that way to me.  Rather, I spend time in the morning attempting to remember where in the country I am for the week.

Image

It’s like they all had to take a class in penmanship!

At least with a Hampton Inn or Hilton, there is variation.  Lobbies are decorated with regional flair, rooms equipped with standard amenities but accented with local color.  The rooms all have the same matching white duvet covers and the adorable little post-it-notes that say “Duvet and sheets are clean for your arrival.”  These post-its appear to be hand-written.  Magically, every housekeeper in every Hampton Inn has the same EXACT handwriting.

Miraculous, I know.

It’s a different world on the road and not one that I expect people to understand.  People hear about my travels and they comment on how “glamorous” it must be to travel as much as I do.  How “exciting” it must be to be a jet setter.  I get compared to rock stars and twenty-something socialites on a fairly regular basis.

Yes.  I travel a lot. And please understand when I say “a lot” that I mean that I lost count of my plane tickets after fifty.  I used to think it would be cute to keep a stack of my room keys as keepsakes from my travels and to commemorate my trip.  I stopped that after 50 as well. Because they all look the same, too,

Flying before the sun is up

Flying before the sun is up

If you’re one of us, you understand.  There is a level of camaraderie on the road.  The frequent flyer miles, the member points. Comparing and contrasting the different reward programs. We have our own lane for check-in, because we just do it so often.  We have learned how to pack our lives into suitcases that roll and are easy to carry on to the plane.  We know the rules about liquids, we know better than to wear shoes that require work to take off.  (We also know that other countries don’t make you do this- but we’re too tired to complain about it.) You learn not to stand behind old ladies because they never can figure out how to take off all of their metal and to avoid the small families because they will inevitably get detained because little Joey NEEDED to keep the bottle of water.  (because, you know…  it’s important).

If you’re on the road, you KNOW.  There are experiences that people who travel occasionally just don’t understand.

  • The horror you feel when you leave a building after a long day of work and are greeted with a filled parking lot and you have no idea which car you rented this week. You walk around the parking lot, hitting the “UNLOCK” button on your keys…  hoping.
  • Standing outside your hotel room after a long day, cursing because the key doesn’t work.  Upon getting all the way back to the front desk, you realize that isn’t your room this week.  (At some point, you start requesting the same room number.)
  • You’ve made reservations for the wrong days because you have no idea what day it is.  Mondays have no meaning if you work 11 days in a row.
  • The perplexed feeling when you go to put your hotel into GPS and realize you weren’t the one who booked your hotel and you have no idea where you’re staying.
  • Waking up and not knowing where you are.  Even worse is waking up at home and not recognizing it.
  • Cutting in line to check in for a flight or a hotel and having the front desk open you warmly. You wonder at times what your name looks like in the computer. The double take when they repeat back to you that you are staying for 17 nights, an edge of awe and curiosity to their voices.
  • You learn how to eat dinner alone.  You also suddenly become a sports fan, just because it gives you a reason to be at a bar by yourself staring up at a screen.  If you aren’t an inherently social creature, this can help you feel less alone.
  • Getting used to the lonely. It will creep up on you and eat you alive if you don’t keep it at bay.  Instead you come up with things to fill the time.  Like reality tv shows, going to the gym and the joys of ordering room service.
  • You know the secrets of how to get out of a cancellation fee and how to get a nicer room.
  • Taking a conference call under your desk or sitting in your car because there are no other outlets in the room.
  • The hell that is hotel bandwidth.
  • The moment you realize hotel laundry is cheaper than laundromats. However, there is nothing more fun than doing laundry at a Kentucky truck stop.  Try it some time.
  • Two words:  International Roaming.
  • You know why you don’t want to drink out of the glasses in the hotel room.
  • You get so accustomed to first class upgrades that you forget what it’s like to fly in coach.  (To be fair, this really only makes a difference on flights more than three hours.)

firstclass

It’s not glamorous.

It’s not always fun.

And yet, despite how hard it is to be away from everything you love…  you keep going.  Because it’s one more trip, one more check in, one more in flight drink.

Bring on that horizon.

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Just another day in paradise.

Dawn

Sunrise over the bay. Already humid.

I woke up with the sun.  Really, I woke up because the room was so cold, I couldn’t sleep anymore.  The air conditioner was cranked up so high that the windows had fogged in our room.  Sister was all curled up under her sheets.  I shivered, yanking at the sheet in an attempt to free it from the bottom of the mattress.  Irritated and numb from cold, I slid from the bed and escaped to the bathroom.  From the porthole, I could see the sun coming up from behind an islet.  I quietly reclaimed my camera from the bedroom and opened up the porthole to take a picture of the sunrise.  The sky was streaked with purple, pink and gold. I turned on my camera and tried to take a shot….

The contrast in humidity from my refrigerator of a room and the humidity already outside immediately fogged the entire camera.  I grumbled, trying to shoot through the condensation.  Sighing inwardly, I quietly snuck out of the bathroom, grabbed a key and slipped out of our bunk.

Fishing

Early morning shift. I wonder if they have coffee.

The morning heat and humidity was refreshing on my numbed and over-air-conditioned skin.  If my eyes could have fogged up, I’m sure they would have.  I rubbed the lenses on the camera, trying to capture the spectacular colors of the dawn.  Finally the temperatures equalized enough for me to take a few pictures.

There is a legend of sunrise… that if you don’t blink, and you watch closely, the whole world turns to gold for a moment.  Blink and you’ll miss it. I watched, I tried, but that moment eluded me.  It was the perfect balance between silence and solitude, a stillness and a quiet that was mine along.  Well, mine and the fishermen as they made their way out into the bay.  I sat down on the edge of a lounge chair and watched the purple burn off into blue.

The sun broke through the last of the shadows and shimmered across the water.  Everything was still and quiet before the heat of the day.  One of the chefs from the kitchen peeked his head up from the galley and he waved.  “Coffee?”  he whispered, his voice heavily accented.  I nodded.

I took two cups of coffee back to my bunk and waved the coffee towards my sleeping (frozen) sister.

“Oh…  WARM!”  she murmured sleepily as she curled her fingers around the cup.  She pulled the coffee cup towards her as she slept.  “WHy you up?”

“It’s warm out there,”  I laughed.

“mm.  True.”

Breakfast was uneventful. Apparently there was no cilantro at breakfast.  We cruised our way to our own private island.
ImageThe beaches were alabaster white sand, and it crushed between your toes with the feeling of cornstarch.  It felt almost fake as we walked out and around on the tiny little islet.  Kayaks were available for us and we were able to paddle in and around the area.  Our tour guide and the chefs made us lunch on the beach, grilling fish and other meats on an open fire on the beach for us.

caves

Like an amusement park. Only with real rock.

After lunch we hiked up the side of the islet and explored a cave.  It seemed to me almost like a Disney ride.

I whispered quietly to my sister, “And now is when the pirates show up and our tour guide has to save us.”

“Hush!” SHe admonished.

“No really.  This is like Universal Studios does Vietnam.  It doesn’t even feel real!”

She grinned and pointed out a fire extinguisher tucked into a corner of the cave.  “Maybe you’re right.”

The view from the top was amazing and we relaxed watching the view and enjoying a few icy cold Tiger beers.  I couldn’t imagine anywhere else being so perfect, so quiet, so peaceful.  Relaxing on my beach with my yacht anchored only a few feet off shore…  it was a perfect way to spend a day.

I inhaled two books cover to cover on the beach that day.

paradise

Just perfect.

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On paradise, coriander and waiting for Stephanie.

Just leave me here. I’ll be fine.

It’s taken me months to write this post.  Months to be able to revisit this place in my mind.  Maybe I needed it to be hotter.  Maybe I needed the humidity to set in for me to be able to go back to the bay and to take you with me.  It has been almost a year since I was here, since these pictures were taken.  And still, I can pull myself back like it was yesterday….

Halong Bay.

We sat in the waiting room, sipping out freshly squeezed watermelon juice. This was the first time we got to wait for Stephanie.

Beautiful, tall, blonde and obviously wealthy…  Stephanie was the kind of woman who gives Americans a bad name.  Which is ironic as she was from Canada.  Anyway.  Stephanie, upon reaching the port, realized that she needed a hat.  She somehow managed to get all the way to the port without this realization.  So…  we waited.  Stephanie went downtown, bought a hat and came back.

Dinghy

Even the boat has a hat.

Stephanie, new hat in hand and designer sunglasses perched on her nose, led the way as we boarded the dinghy to take us to our boat.

In Vietnamese, Vịnh Hạ Long, literally “descending dragon bay” is an amazing site to behold.  The port, where the cruise ships and junk boats dock is just outside of a city.  The commerce in the area is largely tourism, but it also still has a healthy balance of the old.  Traditional fishing boats and fishing villages still exist.  We sped across the bay in our tiny boat as we approached our boat, the Dragon II.

All the boats are painted white, with huge sails.  Apparently, because of how many boats are on the bay at any time, they were painted white for safety.  (The polished mahogany apparently blended in with the darkness.) We climbed out of the dinghy and got onto our boat, excited to start our adventure.

We had an adorable cabin, with two of the most comfortable twin sized beds I have ever had a change to sleep on.  We quickly unloaded our things and changed into swim suits.  The boat had plenty of places to relax.  An outdoor dining room, an indoor dining room and a beautiful deck with lounge chairs.  There was a spot for everyone.  Sister and I leaned against the railings, drinking in the view.

Islets

Seriously. Pirate Ships and dinosaurs.

The bay itself has close to 2000 islets, mostly made from limestone outcroppings.  I don’t claim to understand how that happens, but it looks like these tiny islands were once the bottom of the ocean.  Thrust upwards, they towered overhead.  I felt quite positive that we would see a pterodactyl or a pirate ship at any moment.

Image

No seriously. It’s just intense.

The islets were covered with lush foliage and you could hear the most exotic noises.  The hum of cicadas and the shrieks of monkeys mingled with other noises I couldn’t identify. We cruised around, the wind lifting our hair and the sun warming our backs.  The humidity was lessened by the breeze from our movement.  The water was an intense aquamarine: not blue, not green and almost impossible to photograph.  When swimming, the water was warm and silky.  Heavy in saline, we floated with increased buoyancy. It was both refreshing and relaxing.  Other than the jellyfish.  Jellyfish are like ninjas here.  You don’t see them coming until they’re almost on top of you.  We had to have a jellyfish lookout while we were swimming.

We cruised around the bay for a while and then we dropped anchor in Bái Tử Long, an area of the bay that is more secluded.  The literal translation is something about baby dragons, but I don’t remember now.

Image

Looks like we know what we’re doing, right?

Our tour guide was delightful, he told us all about it.  We dropped anchor in this little area, had lunch and then went kayaking.

Sister and I paddled our way around the area.  We went into caves we weren’t supposed to go into and wandered around, mobile in our little paddleboat.  It became evident quickly that I don’t know my right from left.  Tour guide as always, my sister ran the show shouting out directions so that we didn’t crash into one of the limestone islands.  (there are over 2000, you would think I would learn at some point to avoid them.)

After we paddled ans swam for a while, we returned to our ship for an amazing dinner.  We realized then that our travel companions all had weird food issues.  A vegetarian.  Someone who didn’t eat pork.  Someone who only ate fish.  And then the old lady who wanted everything with no coriander.

Coriander.

Apparently, cilantro and coriander are the same damn thing.  I always thought they were totally different tastes and totally different plants.  Apparently I was wrong.

This woman could taste it in everything.  She had them remake everything.  I love cilantro and I would put it in every dish I cook were it socially acceptable to do so.  So I got irritated quickly with her continued insistence that everything had it.

“These green flecks, I know it’s coriander.  Can’t you cook this without coriander?”  It became a theme.  Waiting for Stephanie and no coriander.

After dinner, we had delicious Vietnamese coffee and stretched out on the deck to watch the sun dip behind the islands.  The sky changed to the most magnificent colors as the sun dropped down.

ImageOnce the sun had gone down, the noises from the islands grew eerie but oddly soothing.  The alien unseen creatures serenaded us from afar, their lullaby echoing off the water.  Stars spread out in a blanket above us.  The ship’s lights were dimmed and the moon rose over the water.  With no light pollution, the night sky was amazing.  Tiny pinpricks in the black velvet backdrop seemed to go on forever.  We laid out on the deck, stretched out under the stars pointing out constellations we knew and guessing at the ones we didn’t.

It was glorious.

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On the Road to Paradise

MelissaVietnam2012 276

The van that picked us up from the hostel was gloriously air conditioned.  So conditioned that it almost felt cold when we got in.  We piled into the van and off we ventured down the highway.  Traveling in a motor vehicle was not more relaxing than walking.  Narrowly avoiding vehicular homicide every few moments, we pressed our way through the city and up towards the mountains in the east. The ‘highway,’ like all the roads here provided no guidance as to lanes.  Right of way is given to whoever drives the fastest.  You pass whenever you deem it necessary.  Right side, left side, no-one really seems to care.

Gated community.

Gated community.

Driving through the country was a strange blend of old and new.  Farmers tended their rice paddy fields beside highways and power lines.  Beautifully adorned buildings with ornate balconies were blocks away from children playing in unpaved alleys.  The constant contradiction of ‘have’ and ‘have not’ was even more pronounced as we moved from the city.  So much for Communism.  Construction projects stood out, abandoned; as if the state decided the funds were better spent elsewhere.  A beautifully arching overpass curved across the highway to…  nothing.  Oxen and cows would randomly wander across the highway, eyeing the mopeds and vehicles with unveiled irritation.

Mountains gave way to valleys.  Valleys gave way to narrow roads and bustling towns.  It was almost three hours before the sparkle of the sea could be spied between buildings and the majesty of limestone crept up on the horizon.  A sparkle, half hidden by signs and storefronts, beckoned to us.  I craned my neck to see and opened the window.  The unmistakable scent of the sea toyed with us, a sweet and seductive scent above the gritty diesel smell of the fuel.  And there it was.  The water.  We drove across a massive suspension bridge and wove our way down the side of the mountain; slicing and shimmying our way through sharp curves on tiny roads.

MelissaVietnam2012 284Halong City opened up before us.  Shops, hotels, businesses and boats lined the shore. Buildings were painted in the vibrant, saturated hues reminiscent of the Caribbean. Limestone formations were thrust upward from the ground at odd intervals, offering the illusion of mountains.  The van pulled up to a large building beside the pier.  The smell of the salty air was more prevalent now; a melange of flowers and brine, heavy as the humid air.  We unloaded our bags and walked in.  Ushered to waiting rooms sorted by cruise ship, the Indochina Junk lounge was both luxurious and decadent.  Both a convenience store and a snack stop- the lounge showed off hats, ice cream, sunscreen and bottled water.

Excited, we grabbed our things and went to our assigned room.  We met two couples from different parts of Australia and were told we were waiting for a couple from Canada.  I went upstairs to pay the bill.

The upstairs office reminded me of an episode of CSI.  A woman sat behind a desk with a guard at her side.  I handed her my credit card.  She handed it back, shaking her head.  I handed her a different one, confused.  Maybe my bank forgot I was in Vietnam.  She handed it back to me and shrugged.  Scared now, as the guard narrowed his eyes, I handed her my Discover card.  She looked at it, arching an eyebrow.  No one takes Discover.  No one in the world.  She shook her head.

“Maybe you go to ATM.  Only 30 minute.  We take you on motor bike.”

No, no, no.  Not on one of those.  Not with the three hours of near-death experiences I witnessed in the van.  I hesitated, and looked in my wallet.

Deciding it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission; I handed her my corporate spending card.

She ran it.  I signed it.  And I walked down the stairs, pale and jittery.

“What happened?”  my sister asked, concerned.

“Well,” I started, taking my seat and ordering a drink.  “I might lose my job when I go home.  But we’re getting on this cruise.”

The ice-cold drink arrived and I took a long sip.  I was living for today.  I was living for this week.  And as soon as this Canadian couple showed up– I was living a dream.

Purchasing card be damned.  We were off on an adventure.

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Hanoi: (part 3) Wisdom, Literature and Government

It’s raining, but I was already all wet so it didn’t matter.

Humidity punctuated the heat of the day with a wetness that counteracted showering and rendered makeup useless.  Sweat found its way into everything, leaving us dehydrated to a dangerous level despite the fact that we were constantly soaking wet.  Water everywhere and on everything.  Incidentally, water is not potable in Vietnam.  It has to come from a bottle.  Oftentimes, we would just drink beer instead.  (This is not recommended.  Ever.)

We came up with a curious way to get around our language barrier.  We learned how to say “How much does this cost?”  (“Bao nhiêu?”) and “That’s too much.” (Qua’ nhiê’u tiê’n.)  Then we would hand over however much money we were intending to pay.  The result is that usually, we were able to fake our way into getting better deals by pretending we knew the numbers.  True story.  Often they would hand us change.

Still I have no idea how to say anything else.  Except “thank you.” (Cảm ơn).

Our second day in the city was spent exploring the downtown area.  Hanoi, being the capital city of Vietnam and the capital of North Vietnam during the war, gave off a heavy vibe of politics.  No, politics is the wrong word.  Everything about the city felt Communist.  The shape of the buildings reminded me of Russia.  The gates on the buildings.  The colors in the advertisements.  Everything in Hanoi proudly proclaimed that they were proud of their nation.  And by “nation” read “government.”

There were frequent nods to other great communist leaders.  Like Lenin.  And Castro.

Lenin

“That looks a lot like Lenin.”
“Yeah, that’s because it is Lenin.”
“Wait, what country are we in?”

We walked out to visit Uncle Ho.  Ho Chi Minh, the great leader of the nation is still housed in a mausoleum downtown.  You can visit to pay your respects before noon.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Mausoleum from a distance. Can’t walk on the grass, either.

He is still on display, like a wake that’s been going on for over thirty years.  They’re very strict about respects in visiting him.  Like visiting a temple, dress must be respectful: women must have shoulders and knees covered.  Men must not be wearing shorts.  We watched people pulled out of line; tourists with no idea there was a dress code.  Visiting Ho Chi Minh is a solemn thing, and we file through the mausoleum quickly.  He’s guarded with a full dress guard armed with AK47s.  There’s to be no smiling.  There’s to be no laughing.  No talking.  No!  You must be respectful, keep moving, and be on your way.

So we waited for about an hour, saw the dead guy and then continued on our way.  One thing that we were excited to do was see some museums, to get a feel for the other side of the Vietnam conflict.  I was curious to learn more about the other side of the story.

Well.  So.

To start off, Vietnam was so fought over that they refer to each of their conflicts by the name of the aggressor.  So instead having 12 “Vietnam Wars” they call it the “American War.”

War Museum

Not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

There was a serious history lesson for me and a stark reminder that history is not determined by those who are right, rather it is determined by those who are left.  For most of my past, I’ve been content with the knowledge I have about the war.  Content with the history books and what the media told me.

Seeing the other side of the story was sobering and unsettling.  Hanoi’s version of events was along the lines of celebrating their victory against the aggressors.  (You know.  Us.)  More on the war in the Saigon posts.  There were military displays on war equipment and tactics.

More importantly, there was air conditioning.

Temple of Literature Main Gate

Our next stop was the temple of Literature or Văn Miếu in Vietnamese.  Let me preface this by saying if you have never been out of the US, its hard to appreciate something like this.  I’m not saying that its a bad thing, only that there is nothing at ALL in the USA that can compare to a place like this.

Because this temple was built in 1070.

Blows my mind.

Really, when you think about the history that we have in our country, it pales.  Restoring a building back to the way it was in 1647 or in 1776 does not have the same effect.  A temple that was built before history was even being recorded correctly.  Not to mention that its still standing despite wars and bombings and all of the strife that Hanoi has seen.

It humbles me, but also reminds me of how much world there is.  How much history there is.  How little I have had a chance to experience.  It makes me want to see everything…

First Courtyard

First courtyard of the temple.

Dedicated to Confucius, the temple is split into five courtyards.  The main gate opens into three pathways which continue through the temple complex. The central path was once reserved for the monarch. The left path for the administrative Mandarins and the Right path for military Mandarins. Since I’m a princess, I walked in the middle. The first two courtyards are quiet areas with ancient trees and trimmed lawns, where scholars would relax away from the bustle of the outside world.  The noise from the traffic and the bustle of Hanoi fell away.  There was such peace, such symmetry as I walked into the temple.  A stillness blanketed the area, and I realized that everything was balanced.  Every tree, every plant, everything for a millennium had been meticulously trimmed, nurtured and cultivated so that each plant on either side of the main path was mirrored.

Second Courtyard

Constellation of Literature Pavilion. Wanted to ring the bell. Apparently that’s only for auspicious occasions.

Walking into the second courtyard, the peace continues.  Wikipedia tells me that “The ‘Constellation of literature pavilion’ is built on four white-washed stone stilts. At the top is a red-colored pavilion with two circular windows and an elaborate roof. Beside the “Constellation of Literature pavilion” are the “Crystallization of Letters” gate (“Suc Văn”) and the “Magnificence of Letters” gate (“Bi Văn”). These two gates are dedicated to the beauty of the content and the form of literature.”  Which is not immediately evident when you walk in, but its still really pretty.

The stillness in the second courtyard really moved me.  I wanted to just stay and write.  There was a tangible feeling of inspiration, a humming to the air that made it feel electric.  The overcast sky and threatening weather did not make me feel any less centered in this area.  There was something that pulled at the innermost feelings of my being.  Mysticism or magic, whatever you might call it- everything about this temple vibrated.

Insistent on seeing everything before the sky opened up to pour on our already soaked selves, we moved into the third courtyard.

Well of Heavenly Clarity

Really, it just looked like a pool.  With a lot of algae.  I wondered if at one point it had been used for bathing, but I can’t find any evidence of that.  It was, however, around for over a thousand years, so I really can’t complain much.

We wandered through the other courtyards of the temple and dodged a rainstorm by hiding out in a gift shop that had once been a classroom.  We got beautiful gifts for loved ones at home and enjoyed the serenity that balances out the chaos in the rest of the city.

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