Hanoi: (part two) On crossing the street and other woes..

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Train tracks make a lovely backyard.

The constant movement of the city propelled our travels. We walked everywhere we could, to the dismay of the waiting motor-bike drivers.  As blonde Americans, we were obvious tourists and easy marks.  “Madam!  You buy?” people would hurry up to us and fan us with a paper fan, or show off a book of postcards.  Our second day we spent exploring the downtown section of Hanoi.

Downtown

If there is open road, just drive.

 

I can’t tell you that Hanoi was a logical city. I can’t tell you that there was excellent public transportation.  What I can tell you, is that you can get around without too much trouble as long as you are good with a map.  Streets wind and curve their way around the city.  Intersections are unmarked, crowded with people and generally dangerous.  Everything that you hear about the traffic in Hanoi is true.

No, seriously.

Take everything you know about rules of traffic.  Now forget it.  People in Vietnam don’t honk to let you know that you should move: they honk to let you know they have no intention of stopping.  There are no stop signs.  No street lights.  Right of way is taken, not assumed.  Staying on the right side of the yellow line really doesn’t matter.  If there is space on the road, you can drive there.  Sidewalks, too. The only benefit there is to being a pedestrian is that you are slightly more mobile than cars and trucks.

Rush Hour

Go ahead. Just cross.

The age old adage, “look both ways before you cross the street” isn’t entirely accurate here. The first time I needed to cross the street, I stood there, staring at the traffic.  I was hoping that a light would change, or that they would slow down.  I stared, terrified, perplexed at how people didn’t die daily crossing the street.

Me afraid of traffic.

My sister, who is 100lbs soaking wet, took great joy in making fun of my fear.  She was used to the traffic from her weeks in Cambodia and Thailand and would frequently laugh at me from the other side of the street once she had nimbly and successfully crossed.  Frequently, I would freeze mid-way through the street, heart beating in my ears as a truck or a bike or a bus would be going faster than I thought.  It took me the better part of the week to become comfortable with the movement of the traffic and the pace of life in southeast Asia.  Though there were many things that were vastly different, culturally, this one massive difference was the one that really underscored my culture shock.

Right, so.  Traffic.  Big deal.  I didn’t intend to blog on it this long, but there you are.

SO.

We walked everywhere, despite the terror that the traffic had instilled in my pedestrian heart.  Our goal for the second day was to go downtown to see more of the history of Hanoi. We delved into museums and we visited Ho Chi Minh.

[more on this day]

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Hanoi: A blending of contradictions (part one)

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Temple of Literature

Imagine a city that blends the modern with the medieval at every turn. Lonely Planet accurately describes it as a city of “Parisian grace and Asian pace.” The heady smell of incense intertwines with the cloying fumes from motorbikes.  The incessant honking and hum of engines blends in with the gentle chimes of bikes. A woman walks by with a rice hat, balancing her wares on a bamboo pole over one shoulder as she gracefully crosses the street, the teeming swarm of bikes and mopeds parting as she crosses. In Hanoi, history meets modernity. You have the mystery of the Far East and the complexity of twenty-first century Asia, marrying together in a city filled with wonder. The streets overflow with traffic; heaving and overflowing in a senseless disregard for any form of order, all against a perfectly symmetrical landscape of architecture.

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The Huc (Morning Sunlight) Bridge

Hanoi is a city that has lived.  The culture gives a feeling of tenacity, the people here persevering over countless invaders.  They have built and rebuilt their buildings, forged their own identity and held onto their own beliefs despite the desperate attempts other countries have made to take them. There is a nod to the French in the architecture and a hint of Mongolian in the language.  It is a city that has not forgotten, but embraces their identity.

Rather than point fingers in blame, they celebrate their history and ancestry.  The message in the city is peace.  Richly steeped in heritage and acknowledging the horrors that they’ve endured with a tenacity that illustrates the determination of the human spirit, Hanoi is a beautiful balance of new and old.

I had been too tired to appreciate the city until our first day.  Awaking in our guest house room at dawn, the air was punctuated by a loud and mechanical megaphone, announcing something repeatedly in a language that was still so foreign to my ears.  It played the same insistent warning and I quietly crept from the bed to peer from our balcony at the old quarter below.

The city stretches out, busy even at dawn as vendors hurry to markets and peddlers gather their wares. We head downstairs and eat a western breakfast and make our way out into the city.

Everything that you can read about the traffic in Hanoi is absolutely true.  You don’t really understand what they’re talking about until you’re faced with the streets.  They are infested with bikes and mopeds and cars.  People don’t honk to let you know you are in the way; they honk to inform you they have no intention of stopping or slowing.  The noise is incessant.  A haze hangs over the city, making it look grey and overcast despite the oppressive heat.  I give up on trying to figure out how hot it is, because everything is in Celsius.  The temperature, like the exchange rate, become two things my brain will not convert for the entirety of this trip.

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He looks comfortable……

On every corner are people wanting to sell you something.  Be it a ride or a photo opportunity or a fan…  (so many little paper fans) people identify us immediately as western and they zero in to attempt to close a sale. Without any idea where to head to after leaving the hotel, we decide to check out the Old Quarter. Motorbike taxis (xi om) can be found on virtually every corner in Vietnam. They are usually more than willing to offer anyone a ride, even if it’s just half a block down the road — for a minimal fee of course.  Also, motorbikes are used for almost all transportation in Hanoi.  From a family of four to a furniture delivery, they manage to find a way to fit it all on their bikes.  Its not unusual to see drivers eating or sleeping on their bikes, either.

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Turtle Pagoda

Its only a few blocks away from our guest house, so we walk.  Most of the things in Hanoi are close together and, similar to US East Coast cities, you can get almost everywhere on foot provided you don’t mind. The Old Quarter is beautiful, with shops surrounding Hoan Kiem lake.  Hoan Kiem actually translates to “Lake of the Returned Sword” and it serves as an iconic focal point of the city as well as a social hub. At the center of the lake is the beautiful Ngoc Son (Jade Mountain) temple, which can be reached by crossing a red bridge standing out in bright contrast to the grey of the sky and the green of the overhanging trees.  One of the most recognizable images is that of the Turtle Pagoda, which is linked to the legends of the lake itself.  Shops crowd in tightly, one packed on top of the other.  Some of the names are immediately recognizable: Gucci, Aldo, Burberry.  Sadly, even with the exchange rate I can’t afford these brands.

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Traffic circle north of Hoan Kiem

The lake is transformed at night, with the twinkle of lights sparkling off the dark waters.  All of the benches around the lake become date-night destinations and happy couples cuddle and watch the lights over the lake.  Every tree houses some form of lantern or tiny twinkling light, and the pagoda is lit in shifting colors. Honestly, I was expecting fireworks or a water parade to start up at any moment.  It was like Epcot Center, only a foreign country.

We weave our way through a night market, where every kiosk hosts a pile of product and everyone has a deal to be made.  We keep our bags close and attempt to make sure we stay close to each other, as the people press in on all sides.  There’s the smell of sweat co-mingled with the smell of roasting meat. Around every turn is another bargain, so much that it almost becomes overwhelming.

We soak up the city, the chaos and ceaseless honking woven in with the mystery and tranquility of the  lake.  I find myself drifting in my own thoughts as we find our way back to our guest house, confused at how I could be so attracted to a city that made me feel so much like an outsider.  Hanoi held me at arm’s length that first day, and I curled up in bed to fall asleep within minutes despite still feeling so separate from my surroundings.

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Time Travel: Part I

 

Planes

Planes in the rain

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the voice says soothingly.  “In preparation for landing, please ensure that your seat backs and tray tables are in their upright and locked positions.”

As we descend into Chicago, I can basically recite the speech by memory.  I fly so often that I barely even look up when the announcements happen.  It’s the same every time.  Just like packing a bag- I know the routine. I’ve finally graduated to the “frequent traveler” lane at the airports.  I know a few TSA agents by name.  This landing is different.  This landing, I stare out the window in childlike anticipation for the next leg of the flight.

Tokyo.

The mystery of the Far East is almost mine to behold.  Though I am only in Japan for an hour, it will be the first time I have ever set foot in the country.  I hold my breath as we skip once, twice and land in Chicago, the sun baking the tarmac in this unseasonable heat wave.  The flight is late. I hadn’t left myself a large cushion of time between flights, but there was an unforeseen technical delay in leaving New York.  I was worried and excited all at the same time.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the local time in Chicago is 12:15 and the current temperature is…  102 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Thankful all I am doing in Chicago is RUNNING to my gate, I slip my bags over my shoulders and hop uneasily from foot to foot, waiting for the plane to empty.

Come on, come on, come on, come on. I have the patience of a seven year old as I watch people incapable of retrieving their bags from the overhead compartments.  A woman in front of me shifts her child from one hip to the other as she attempts to haul a carryon out of the compartment.  I reach up and heft it out for her.  I need to be off this plane.

She looks at me with a grateful smile and I smile tensely.  Move. I think to myself as she shuffles along the aisle.

I get off the plane and to the end of the gangway, finding a gate attendant.  “Tokyo?”  I ask hopefully.

The arch of her eyebrows as she looks down at her computer says the obvious.  We are cutting it close.  “Gate 62,” she tells me.  “Hurry!”

I nod once and take off down the hallway.  Call it luck.  Call it providence. Call it divine intervention. My gate was only six away in one of the larger international airports in the United States.  I sprint towards the gate, boarding pass and passport already in hand.

The woman at the gate scans my ticket and allows me to get onto the plane.

If you can call it a plane…  inside it looks more like a hotel. The first class cabin actually has armchairs that pivot so you can have a business meeting.  Business class has recliners and flat screen televisions.  I, however, am traveling neither in business class nor first class.  I’m traveling in economy. Luckily, I managed to snag an aisle seat on this very full flight. I dump my backpack and my purse under my seat and fasten myself into the seat.

Its not long before the announcements start back up.  This time, however, my memorized speech is followed by a translation into Japanese.  The lilting voice of the flight attendant repeats the safety features of our 767 aircraft in the deliciously exotic sounds of the Japanese language.  I speak enough Japanese to order in a sushi restaurant and watch anime, but that’s about it.  I catch the few words I know.  Thank you.  Everyone.  Important.  Welcome. I watch in transfixed glee as a safety video plays across the screen in my seat: first in English, and again in Japanese.

“This is really happening,” I think to myself excitedly.  I haven’t been to Asia since 1997 and I’ve never EVER been to a country as foreign and exciting as Vietnam.  The stop in Japan is only the first step in this adventure.  But before that happens, I have twelve and a half hours to fill.  The massive plane slowly lurches its way down the runway and turns itself towards the runway.  The noise from the engines is deafening and I crane my neck to see the window.  The whole plane rattles as we hurtle down the runway.  200, 300 miles per hour the gauge on the screen tells me.  Suddenly the rattling stops and my stomach drops.  We nose up into the sky, the steaming cityscape of Chicago flying by us.

Traveling backwards across the nation, we chase the sun for the entire trip. Right now, it’s already eleven in the evening in Vietnam.  By the time I arrive, it will be tomorrow night.

We settle into our altitude and the reality of my situation sets in.

I have twelve hours.  I have no internet.  And there are no outlets in Economy.  I poke at the touch screen television embedded in the seat in front of me.  There are television shows and movies for free.

I watch “Wrath of the Titans.”  It’s terrible.

After “Wrath of the Titans,” I pop two sleeping pills and drink two glasses of wine.  I watch about 12 minutes of “The Hunger Games” and PASS OUT.

I wake up, not entirely sure where we are.  I poke at the handy touch screen and it tells me we’re somewhere over Alaska.  I’ve only slept for three hours. What time it is really doesn’t matter and I do my best to forget about silly things like TIME and DATE.  I gear up the little television and watch “The Hunger Games” again.  I enjoyed it more on the little six inch screen than I did on the IMAX screen.

I grabbed my Kindle fire and read a book from cover to cover.  I started a second book and the battery gave out.

Flying is uncomfortable.  When we hit the ten hour mark I was agitated.  I was irritated.  I stood up and walked around.  There weren’t many places to go, so I wandered back and forth on my aisle.  Just to not be sitting.  It was still afternoon, the sun shining brilliantly.  I tried to convince myself that it was already Friday.

I tried to sleep some more and couldn’t get comfortable.

I tried to do some writing and couldn’t get motivated.

I was a tangled bundle of nerves by the time we began our descent into Tokyo.

Craning my neck to stare out the window in unveiled glee, I watched as the kingdom of the sun passed below us.  I watched my little map curiously, looking for identifiable landmarks.

FUJIYAMA. Whatever that means.

We touch down at Tokyo Narita.

I left Chicago Thursday at 12:30 in the afternoon.  It’s now Friday at 4 in the afternoon.

I have lost an entire day, and the sun is STILL out.

I disembark and find myself in a totally different world.  Everything about Tokyo-Narita is bright.  I can’t tell if it is because I’m jet-lagged or if it really is this shiny.  Every color is vibrant.  Every sign is brightly colored.  Every store is brightly lit.  Everything seems to have an exclamation point.  And everyone who works in this airport is beautiful.

I am suddenly aware of my fraying French braid and my wrinkling clothing.  The women all have perfect hair and perfect makeup.  “Excuse me, ma’am- would you like to try?” the sales women call from the duty-free shops, wielding designer perfume.  They are perfect, with their precisely arched eyebrows, tiny waists and designer heels.  I jealously eye one woman wearing a pair of Christian Louboutin black heels.  I wonder for a moment if they are real.  I weave my way through the Japanese security screen and make my way towards my next gate.  Everything is surreal.  I’m tempted to stop and get some sort of sushi or some form of food, but I can’t seem to identify what is what.  If Japanese airports are anything like American airports it would only be a pale comparison of the food in the cities.  I stare out a window, hoping to have a glimpse of culture or excitement.  Perhaps a pagoda on the tarmac?

Alas, these hopes are unrealized and I find that Narita looks very similar to Connecticut.

I wander around for a bit, feeling like I should do something interesting, and then find my salvation in the form of a charging station.  Quickly, I hook the kindle up in hopes that I will have something to do for the next five hours of travel to Hanoi.

In airports, one of my favorite pastimes is people-watching.  I find quickly that in this airport it is an interesting task.  A part of me is somewhat alarmed at my ignorance.  I can’t tell the difference between the different nationalities.  Near the charging station, where I am relaxing are many people of Asian descent.  I couldn’t tell who was Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Laotian or Thai.  I realized there were different languages spoken around me and I couldn’t understand any of them.

It was the first time in all my planning that I was wildly intimidated.

How was I going to get around?  How was I going to get the things I needed?  How would I eat? How would I know WHAT I was eating?

I suddenly spent time listening to the languages that were spoken around me.  In vain, attempting to make sense of some cognates or similarities to languages I knew.  It was to no avail.

The announcement came over the speaker for my flight.  The only reason why I knew it was my flight was because people started moving near the gate.  The translation came over the loudspeaker, heavily accented.

One thing I will say:  international airlines have boarding honed to a science.  They board the back of the plane first, then the front.  Everyone lines up according to where his or her seat is instead of how soon you checked in online.

Chasing sunsets

Quickly, our half-filled flight to Hanoi is boarded. I’m lucky enough to have a row to myself and I tuck my cramped legs beneath me. I watch out the window as the plane taxis and ascends.  We head south, and finally the sun begins to set.  I can’t say that I am fully convinced that it’s really Friday, but the sky is painted with an array of pinks and purples.  The twilight soothes my nerves and the white noise from the engines lulls me to sleep.

I awaken to a language that is extremely foreign to my ears.  I know the speech, but the words are so strange.  Russian, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic do not help me.  Vietnamese is totally foreign to my ears.  The men in front of me chuckle and joke back and forth as they fasten their seatbelts.  Please ensure your seat backs and tray tables are in their upright and locked positions….. Knowing what the words are holds no relief.

What was I getting into?

I disembark from the plane, half awake, half asleep, and all excited.

I shuffle with the crowd down the stairs into the lines at immigration.  A man behind glass says something I don’t understand and I hand him my passport.  He looks at it and looks at me.  He looks at it and looks at me again.

“No,” comes a heavily accented voice from beside me.

“What?” a teen-aged girl asks, visibly nervous.

“No, is not right,” the accented voice from behind the window says, shaking her head. A uniformed woman hands the passport back to the teenager, shaking her head.

“What do you mean?” the girl protests.  There is a conversation that happens between the people behind the window.  The man holding my passport shrugs, shaking his head.

“No,” she says again.  “Not right,” is all the explanation she gives.

I pale, watching the man who holds my passport.  Is there a possibility that I will be turned away?  Can that even happen?

The girl beside me opens and closes her mouth, not sure what else to do or say.  She clearly knows about the same amount of Vietnamese that I do.

The man who has my passport stares at me.  I notice he has a knife at his waist.  Better than a gun, but I’m still unsettled.

“What flight?” he demands.

“I uh…”  I don’t know what flight I was on.  I don’t know what day it is.  “Narita,” I mumble uncertainly.

“Boarding pass,” he demands and I quickly hand him all the paperwork I have.  Boarding pass, reservations, the printout for my hotel and everything I had printed. Just in case.

He stares at the papers. Then he stares at me.

After a pregnant pause, satisfied, he stamps my passport and shoves the paper back through the window.

I’m in.

Numbly, I take my papers and my bags, looking back to the girl who is still arguing with the woman at the window.  I walk through the gate into another world. My baby sister greets me at the other side of the doors.  She is tan and her blonde hair is sun-streaked.  She sees me from the greeting area and rushes to my side.

“You’re early!” She beams.

“If you say so,” I laugh.  We collect my bag (I over-packed.  Like…. seriously.) A small man has a sign with our names on it.  We follow him out of the airport and into the humidity.  We pile into a little car and weave our way through the streets of Hanoi.

I don’t know what day it is.  I don’t ask what time it is, but when we get to our guest house, I gratefully collapse on a bed and sleep deeply.

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Urban Exploring: Seaside Regional Center

Seaside Sanitarium

One of the larger building where the nurses stayed. Also offices were on the main floor. Loving those windows.

Connecticut is full of amazing history. Being in one of the thirteen original colonies, we’re lucky enough to have spectacular old buildings and architecture that tells some really interesting stories.  Another thing that we have plenty of is spooky abandoned hospitals.

Yeah.  We have a LOT of those. And many of them at one point were mainly used as mental institutions.

From the famously haunted and now burned down Connecticut Valley Hospital to the Ghost Hunter’s favorite Norwich State Hospital, Connecticut has plenty of places left abandoned.

During the 1950s, the patient populations were higher and many hospitals expanded to include new medical research facilities, pathology departments, and large residence buildings. The opening of these buildings meant the closing of the older structures, which were used for storage or just left to rot. By the early 1970s, the addition of the new structures and the effect of decreasing patient population that was occurring all over the country left only some facilities in use.  The others stand abandoned; some boarded up with posted guards and others razed to the ground. Some places are shrouded in controversy, as the history of Psychiatry has not always been pretty.  But these buildings still stand, many decaying and falling to disrepair and vandalism.  Others are sold to high bidders and converted to resorts or hospice care facilities.


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A quick internet search will come up with a host of rumors of hauntings and demons and lore.  Ghost hunters armed with EVPs and Full Spectrum DVRs sneak through the boarded windows to attempt to capture some sort of paranormal phenomenon. Many of these hospitals have such sad histories: from the deaths of sick children to the unnecessary suffering unwittingly caused by doctors trying to do their best. But for every intrepid ghost hunter, there are four or five scumbags who think it’s fun or cool to vandalize. Because of this, many of these buildings have serious vandalism problems and are usually closed to the public.

Back side of the hospital, facing the ocean. Note the huge balcony on the second floor.

With a stroke of luck, my dear friend and muse, Melissa Damon found out about a place called Seaside Sanitarium. Both of us working on Paranormal Romances, we grabbed our notebooks and our swimsuits and packed into the car to investigate.  Built in 1934 and originally named Seaside Regional Center, this facility was built for the express purpose of treating children with tuberculosis. The design of the facility was to use a treatment called ‘heliotherapy.’ With heliotherapy, the children were basically treated with exposure to the sun.  Beautiful balconies and patios were designed facing the Long Island sound, and the beds would be wheeled out during the day so patients could be in the sun.  Pathways led down to three beaches for wheelchair access.

Rough life, right? Though tuberculosis was a horrible disease, I feel like living in this hospital might have made things somewhat better.

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Ivy climbing up the brick, awesome windows.

In 1959 the hospital changed over to be a geriatric facility and remained as such until  May 1961 when it was converted to Seaside Regional Center for the Mentally Retarded under the administration of the Dept. of Health and Office of Mental Retardation.  It remained a rehabilitation center until 1996 when it was closed.  It has been closed ever since.  Offers to buy the property have come, but so far a suitable offer has not been made on the facility.  With seven buildings and three beaches, it is a formidable seaside resort.

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Strange noises from below… Ghosts? Or Birds? *NOTE* upon posting this picture I CAN NOT account for why it appears to be glowing red in there. I have NO explanation for this.

And its SUPER CREEPY which makes it awesome.

As we were wandering around the buildings, you could just catch the strangest movements out of the corner of your eye.  Most of the movements and noises were caused by the sparrows that live in the tunnels underneath the hospital. Since I’m not really an expert, I can’t tell you if they were garages or storage facilities or what they were.  But they were creepy.

The sparrows nest in these tunnels and the flapping echoes so it sounds like people moving.  The chirps sound like they could be children crying.  Its really very unsettling.

But explicable.

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About as close as I get to trespassing.

Please don’t mistake me: I am a believer through and through in all things paranormal. I have been to places that scared me so profoundly I can’t talk about them alone. Seaside was not one of them. I was filled with a peace and a happiness as we wandered around the grounds.  Without a camera, I had to rely on my cellphone to grab these shots.  I was so inspired by the architecture and the story that I truly enjoyed wandering around through the grass, snapping shots.

We got up close to the building to try to sneak shots in through the windows, but I didn’t dare try to get in for fear that it was dangerous.  And really, I’m not big on rule breaking.  I am not really one to make waves. If there is a ‘No Trespassing’ sign, I’m not going to trespass.  Its just how I roll. So Melissa and I run around like teenagers exploring.  But its really REALLY hot out, so we pack up and head towards the beach.  Since the property is state owned, but open to the public, the beaches are at your own risk.  There are no lifeguards on duty and there isn’t anyone making sure all the seaweed is gone.

So we lay out our towels and head off to the deliciously cool and refreshing water. We’re relaxing and enjoying the water, chatting about all the fantastic story ideas that a beautiful place like this can immediately conjure up.  Both of us deliciously plot over using a hospital like this as a plot point or for a photo shoot or for a television show of some sort.  I’m watching the windows, still not entirely convinced I won’t see a ghost, when I do, in fact see movement.

I see a teenage boy climb out of a window on the top floor.

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Jerk.

Jealous for a moment at his ninja break-in skills, I envy the view from up there.  I envy him quietly until I see him pull out a can of orange spray paint.

I splash Melissa and mutter about how jerks like him will ruin places like this for everyone else.  She takes one look at the kid and starts off up the shore, yelling at him like his mother.

The little jerk WAVES.  Then spray paints an array of letters onto the side of the wall and slips back in through another broken window.  Melissa marches up the beach, intent on finding a cell phone signal to call the police.  He and his friends sneak in and out of windows, causing more damage and ‘redecorating’ a few more sections of wall before the police actually show up.

Then they’re no-where to be found.

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Lighthouse. Also creepy window that looks like someone is in there.

I have no problem with urban exploring.

I have no issues with sneaking into old and abandoned places of history to take pictures, search for spirits or spend time alone.  None.  Just so long as you aren’t causing any damage.  But for someone to do that, it runs these buildings into the ground- LITERALLY.

Without getting preachy, I was really disappointed.  Its not cool to vandalize, and no-one is impressed.

And he got caught.

But that’s Melissa’s story.

So enjoy a few more pictures without my commentary.  NEXT WEEK PICTURES FROM TOKYO AND VIETNAM, YO.

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Yeah, I can’t explain it.

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To the left of the entrance were doctor’s offices. Also, notice the EPIC thunderstorm brewing.

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Looks kinda like a seaside resort. Which… was the idea. Mission accomplished. 

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For ghosts. …did you hear that? OMG DID THAT JUST MOVE!!?!?

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New-Age Nomads

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Flying before the sun

“When your only friends are hotel rooms; hands are distant lullabies.”

I’ve been on the road the past two months.  Instead of the freedom of traveling for fun, I have been traveling for business.  People often say to me, “It must be so cool to travel so much for work!” Most of the time, it is cool.  Life on the road is very different than I imagined it would be.  You think of the movies, these powerful businessmen in fantastic suits sipping on martinis and having meetings until late in the evening.  And though that is often true, though I don’t have many fantastic suits- there is also this pervasive sense of detachment on the road.

I recall in times past, of nomadic tribes who would pack up their teepees or yurts or tents and find their way to greener pastures.  Now we pack a carry-on, make sure all of our liquids are in 3 ounce containers and set out to a new city.

Did you know all the Hyatt Place hotel rooms in the nation look the same?  I’ve woken up not sure where I am.  I make friends with the bartenders, become friendly with the night managers.  They become my social life for a week.  Or two.  Or eight, as the case may be. We connect through electronic devices to the people we miss and who miss us.  I feel torn between the luxury of hotel life and the comfort of having my own things.  I’ve almost forgotten how to cook.

I’ve been counting off the days that I can go on vacation to somewhere new and exciting.  I’ve realized that traveling all over the nation for work has set me up to needing a bigger vacation for relaxation.  In order to relax: REALLY relax?  I need to go far away.

Somewhere where I can’t answer my cellphone.  Where I probably can’t look at email.  Where I’m not compelled to stop at a store.  In order to go on vacation, I need to go AWAY. 

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S in Moscow. I’d hate her if she weren’t so damn cute.

So enter my baby sister.  My sister is one of those people. The kind who travel everywhere, do everything, and never seem to run out of ideas for new things to do.  She also is exceptionally frugal, so she can do all of this on a shoestring budget. She’s barely 25 and she’s been to more than 30 countries.  So she calls me up.  “Melissa,”  she says insistently.  “Come on vacation with me.” 

She’s recently sold her soul to a university.  She’ll graduate with her PhD in clinical psychology.  So I got to thinking…  I hadn’t really experienced traveling the way she does.  We’d never really traveled internationally together.  The last time I was out of the country was in 2007 and it was only to Mexico.  So. I thought about it for a while and then decided to make it happen.  It’s just money.  I’ll make more.  And its going to be the vacation of a lifetime.  I agreed to go before I really realized where specifically I would be meeting her.  Other than “Asia.” Which isn’t a very small continent.

But this is how I came to be traveling to Vietnam in two weeks.

Its funny, when I tell people where I’m going on vacation. The incredulous look they give me. People expect “Florida”  they expect “Bermuda.”  But Vietnam?  The look of surprise and disbelief makes me laugh.

I’m really excited.  I haven’t been to Asia since 1997 and I’ve never been anywhere near as exotic as Southeast Asia.  I’ve been watching travel shows and experimenting with new and interesting cuisine to attempt to prepare for this journey.

So.  Expect interesting stories and photos, since I intend to post a lot.

 

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“It’s hard to dance with a devil on your back…”

“So shake him off….”

Loneliness followed me on my business trip tonight. I know I didn’t pack him in my suitcase, so I imagine that I must have picked him up at a rest stop somewhere on 15S. It even might have been when I stopped for gas on the Garden State, since gas is a full $0.80 cheaper over the line in New Jersey. But somehow, he managed to come with me.

He was with me as I curled up in the over-sized bed, watching the season finale of ‘Once Upon a Time,’ and he scoffed at how happy endings could only happen in those faerie tales. With teeth and claws exposed, he followed me downstairs to the lounge where I had a late dinner.  He munched on my french fries and criticized the menu, eyeing me critically as he informed me I shouldn’t eat the french fries anyway.

And tonight, he stayed with me, stealing the pillows and sprawling out on the bed as I tried to write the ever-elusive chapter twelve. With biting sarcasm and sharp criticism, he tore into my infant manuscript. “Why bother? No one will read it. That is, if you ever finish it…” He hides in the shadows and lurks in the darkness, this loneliness.  Sometimes he comes with a different name.

Doubt.  Pain.  Self-consciousness. Self-deprecation. The demons who lurk within us who whisper, “You aren’t good enough.”

Self-esteem, and lack thereof is something that all of us have dealt with at some point in our lives.  Dove actually has championed a campaign towards helping young women have a better and healthier self image. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ytjTNX9cg0

I have found that many of us continue to suffer past our formative years. Some of us past high school, where bullying and criticism live around every corner. I find that even now, into my thirties, some nights loneliness will shove his way into my personal space and make me doubt myself.  Sometimes this self-consciousness is centered around my creativity, but sometimes it spirals out into the other parts of my life.

So what can we do to avoid this?

  1. Believe in yourself.  I know that it may sound cliche, but it really does work. Have an affirmation of what you want to be.  Whether you want to be a writer, or you want to be more confident or more eloquent- stay positive.  If you know where you want to get to, its easier to plot the course.
  2. Talk it out. I’m lucky enough to have a good support system of friends (both in real life and on the internet) who have the unique ability to talk me out of the dark closets I sometimes lock myself into. Ask for help. If it gets dark, know who to talk to to get back into a bright spot.  Don’t sit in the closet alone.
  3. Expect it and accept it. You’re going to have bad days, you’re allowed to have a hard time.  No one can be perfect every day.
  4. Control what you can, release what you can’t.  It’s taken me a long time to realize that I can’t make anyone do anything.  I can’t make people take me seriously as a writer and I can’t make people listen to me.  Everyone’s heard the saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Its easy to take things personally and let the actions of others bring us down.  Stay focused on what you can control, doing the best you can.  Its all you can do, no matter what anyone else might say.
  5. Shake it off.  Step away from whatever is causing you pain. Find an outlet you enjoy: books, dancing, yoga, meditation, hiking, running, or a combination.  Channel the negativity into something positive instead of wallowing in it and letting it pull you down.

And for the record? I called hotel security and had Loneliness escorted out after he tried changing my Spotify playlist…

Stay positive.  Stay focused.  Chase down that dream and don’t let go.  When you focus on what makes you happy, only good things will come to you.

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Free Comic Book Day 2012

“Can you do me a favor?”
Really, there are few phrases that inspire the same level of dread in one’s stomach.  I think that “can you do me a favor?” ranks up there with “we need to talk” in the realm of loaded phrases.  There are few people in the world that can pull “Can you do me a favor” and know that my answer will be “yes” without any hesitation or pause.  But Thursday evening, one of those people asked me that question.

“Hey Melissa, can you do me a favor?”

“Of course I can.”

This is how I ended up in a Regency era ballgown with an elaborate wig and a face full of makeup on my day off. I was asked to help with the launch of one my dear friend Melissa Damon‘s debut novel, Stalkers.  I’m extremely proud of her, so I wanted to show my support, even if that meant showing my support in a ball gown and a wig.  Though, to be fair…  it doesn’t take much coaxing to get me into a ball gown.

We were going to a small annual event hosted by Sarge’s Comics in New London, CT. Its called “Free Comic Book Day,” and just in case you were wondering, they weren’t handing out fishing tackle.  The shop is intimate, but the selection they have for any fan of science fiction, horror, anime, fantasy, comics, graphic novels or role play was formidable.  Growing up in a household where Star Trek was a religion, the geek within me is strong.

I leaned against the glass case, with a quickly merchandised display of the paperbacks available for sale and some wonderful printed material about Melissa, her site and her book.  What I really wasn’t prepared for was the people I would meet at this convention.  Being that Sarge’s was a small store, I didn’t really expect the cross section that we were able to see. Many local artists and vendors had set up booths.  Some were drawing caricatures on demand, others selling their own self-published books and comics and even more getting recognition for other local stores and businesses.  The event was well-attended by people of all ages:  men and women, girls and boys, many in costume but all fans of some aspect of the store.

The conversation that struck me, and the reason for this post was a conversation I had with a little boy of about nine.

I had come around the corner after an engaging conversation with Darth Vader (who’s name was Bill) to meet this little boy.  He looked at me, with these amazing green eyes and a face filled with star-struck awe and asked me, “Are you an author?”

I smiled gently, informing him that Melissa was the author.  I told him that I loved to write, but that I hadn’t written a book.  So once I finished the book, I could be an author.  Til then, I was just a writer.  He smiled at me with this unadulterated optimism and says to me, “Then I’m a writer, too!”

We had a wonderful conversation in which he told me about the story he was writing.  He had such enthusiasm about his characters and the story he was weaving.  He had already written two whole pages.  We talked about his favorite books and we talked about the story.  I told him that it was really great that he already had such wonderful ideas about the book.  He also, told me I was really cool and gave me a high-five.

He asked me if I had any advice.  I told him that no matter what, he should keep writing.  I told him to write what he wanted to write and to write because he loved it.  I told him to keep working at it because it made him happy, and that the hard part was already done, since he already had such great ideas.

After we finished talking, I watched him run off to his older brother.  He grabbed his older brother’s arm and pointed back towards me, grinning like he had just met a celebrity.  His brother raised a hand in thanks, and I offered a small smile and a nod in return.

I kept thinking about this discourse earlier this afternoon, now almost eight hours later, it still stayed with me.  That level of commitment and passion for creating something at that young age.  I admired his parents and teachers for encouraging that creativity and I was happy to, for a small moment, to share in the joy of our shared craft; even if separated by thirteen years.

I was so touched to have been able to be a positive influence on this little boy that I wanted to make sure that I took my own advice and kept working on the story.  I have wonderful people in my life who support me.  The only thing in the way is my ability to procrastinate.

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The dark corners of the closet.

writ·er   [rahy-ter]

noun

  1. a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories, etc., especially as an occupation or profession; an author or journalist.
  2. a clerk, scribe, or the like.
  3. a person who commits his or her thoughts, ideas, etc., to writing: an expert letter writer.
  4. a person who writes  or is able to write: a writer in script.

You see it on paper and it doesn’t seem like such a hard task.  “Melissa, if you want to be a writer, you should write.”  This was one of my main motivations for this blog.  I have been writing. I’ve blogged, role-played, sketched out plots and written out stories.  But I have never felt like a writer.

In my mind, in order to be a writer, I needed to finish something. Start as I may, I never do. I’ve puzzled over this over the past few months.  My friends seem to be hitting their stride; getting married, having children, becoming successful in their chosen fields. I have a wonderful job with a wonderful company, but when someone asks me what I want to with my life there’s this little voice that cries out, “I want to be writing.”

And yet, I don’t.  I have stacks of stories started, but they never take flight.  Piles of plots sketched out, lists of characters, maps of distant lands, notes on ancient Sumerian texts, names of gods, magic systems, myths, legends and lore.  The bits and pieces of murdered stories litter a few rubber-maid containers stacked in the back of my bedroom closet. So if I want to be a writer, why don’t I write?

Writing, like singing and dancing is such a personal act. You are taking a small part of your soul, something very personal and private and showing others. You can prepare yourself for criticism, tell yourself that you can welcome it and try to stay positive. But you need to be prepared that someone is going to call your baby ugly.  You have to take the good with the bad.

A friend of mine asked me this just a few days ago.  Can I separate myself from the work that’s been done?  Maybe its not that I can’t write, but that I can’t separate the criticism from the blood and the sweat and the tears that went into the creation.  If I never finish it, I will never be disappointed.

Everything in my head went into slow motion as I read this.  (Because it was in an email, seems like I rarely TALK to anyone at all these days.) What was I so afraid of? Could my fear of rejection be so strong that I hadn’t allowed myself to write freely?  Was I so self-conscious of my dreams that I had put them away so I had no way for them to be broken?

I’ve been thinking about this for a few days now.  Examining what other things scare me.  Digging through the closet of dark secrets to see what other situations I avoid.  So I’ve turned a new corner with writing.  I’m trying to start with writing and see if it will help me turn this corner for the rest of my life.  I’ve been told that good things happen when you follow your dreams.  Its time to stop worrying about what people might say or think and just go after the things I want.  I’ve been waiting for things to fall into place for way too long now.  Its time to go out and lay the groundwork for those things to happen.

Live life intentionally.  Do it on purpose.

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Journeys | An Introduction

Every journey begins with a step, or so they say. Though, in my opinion, journeys begin before the step. Journeys begin with a dream. They start with the seed of the adventure that needs to be taken. A tiny voice inside longs for something different than the mundane, hopes for something more fun, lusts for the thrill of something new and different. The journey begins when you make the decision to take one.

With that pledge, whether you commit to change or commit to adventure or commit to movement; a transformation begins. You start planning the little steps along the way; seeing yourself in those different places. If you’re anything like me, you’ll start getting excited about the first step before you even get a chance to take it. Wanderlust takes hold. The decision to make a change or to take a risk is both liberating and intoxicating.

So with that said, I’d like to invite you on my journey. Who am I, you might ask? Where are we going? Let me enlighten you as to where this journey is going. My name is Melissa, and about a month ago, I decided that I was going to make a change. A number of them, really.  So join me, if you will, on this adventure. This blog will chronicle and document some of the quests I am undertaking.  Here’s a short list of big things that I hope to do this year:

  • Become a writer.
  • Move halfway across the country.
  • Live a healthier lifestyle.
  • Travel to at least three other countries.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey to come. The chronicle of my adventure has just begun. Think of this as a travel journal. The milestones I pass will be shared.  Lessons learned along the way will be documented.  Right or wrong, I’ll share it here.

Maybe we can all learn something along the way.

-mam 4.9.12

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