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The Chanukah Gift

I loved presents as a child. “What are you getting me for Chanukah?” I would start asking in September. “Chocolate covered ants,” my parents would sometimes say. Mostly they responded, “Chopped liver.” “Ew,” I cried, “that’s disgusting.” For years this went on and even though they always gave me the same answer, I never stopped asking.

Every late November or early December, depending on when Chanukah came that year, I crept into my parents closet and carefully pulled back the wrapping paper to see what was inside. Then I meticulously replaced the folded edges of blue paper with tape so my parents wouldn’t know I had sneaked a peek. But they did know. They never left my “big” gift in the hiding place where I previewed the other presents. That’s the deal with Chanukah for those out there who think we Jewish kids had it better off with eight days of presents: we only got one blow-your-little-kid-mind gift and seven days worth of socks, hair bows, stickers, etc. (at least that’s how it worked in my family). The big gift was always given the first night of Chanukah and my little kid imagination would run wild with anticipation of what it could be. A pony? A miniature motorized jeep? Emerald jewelry? A puppy or kitty or bunny or hamster? (I didn’t care as long as it had fur.) Or could it be the newest Nintendo system that didn’t require one to exhale into the back of the game cartridges to get them working again?

On the first night of Chanukah when I was eleven, I anxiously awaited the something awesome my parents would give me. We sat down to dinner and my mom handed me a small box wrapped in blue paper with Chanukah Gelt taped to the top. (Gelt is a traditional Chanukah candy consisting of chocolate discs wrapped in gold foil to look like coins. According to Wikipedia, it’s a long-standing tradition for Jewish parents to give their children money to distribute to teachers, but of course then the kids wanted in on the cash. By the twentieth century, American chocolatiers created chocolate gelt to fit the tradition.) I ripped off the wrapping paper in two crazy-kid-hand-swipes to reveal a felt jewelry box with gold metal trim. Ooh, the fancy kind of box, I thought. I opened it and started sobbing – big, heavy, ugly, tears. My face was red and angry. Inside the box was chopped liver. “Oh stop crying, Pauler. Don’t be so sensitive,” my mom said. “Just look underneath already.”

“I’m not touching that,” I screeched. My father lifted the raw piece of meat and there sat a beautiful necklace: my name in cursive with microscopic chips of diamonds inlayed in gold.

Two years later, my much older brothers were in town for Chanukah and we gathered in the living room that no one ever used to open our presents as a family. My gift pile sat closest to the fireplace that no one ever used because we lived in Florida where the idea of even having a fireplace was absurd. There it was, the gift I’d been wishing for for years. A kitty litter box wrapped in a bow, they’d even included the pooper-scooper. “Where is it?” I was on my feet, clutching the litter box to my chest and dancing around the room. “Where’s it hiding? Can I see it now?”

“If you take really good care of the litter box, next year we’ll get you the cat to go with it,” my mom said, laughing. Out rolled the big, heavy, ugly, tears. “You are the worst parents,” I screamed.

“We’re kidding,” my mom said. “I didn’t think you’d get so upset.”

“We’ll go pick up the kitten after we finish opening presents,” my dad said. That night, we drove to a stranger’s house and I got the last kitten left in the litter, the one that ran like hell whenever anyone came near it, the one that no one else wanted. Even if it had been hairless, I would have taken it for fear my parents would change their mind. Misty the cat was the least friendly animal I have ever known, but that’s beside the point.

The point is not that my parents were cruel for bamboozling their adolescent daughter, quite the contrary. These mind games taught me to have a sense of humor, to laugh at the things that really aren’t that bad and to toughen up. I am grateful now for their hazing because I am left with only memories and these are the only two Chanukah moments I do remember. I look forward to the day when I have children and can play the same obnoxious tricks on them.

Happy Holidays! I’m one of twenty-three writers participating in a Holiday Blog Tour put together by the marvelous Icess Fernandez. Next up on the tour: Caridad Pinero.

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Death is Laughable

It’s been many months since I last wrote on Jewtah. I have a good excuse – my Mom died. And while you might now be readjusting your eyes to the subject line, give me this page to explain. I am writing a novel about my mom. She was funny. Then she died. So, now I cannot write a book about my dead mother that isn’t funny. I am in grad school for creative writing as most of you know. If you are just joining us – welcome! If you are a longtime listener, thanks for tuning in again and sorry to have been gone for so long. So to recap: mom funny, writing book about mom, mom dies, starting therapy, creating therapy for myself through the writing, being more honest than ever = death is laughable (at times). Most of us don’t think that death is something to joke about, but some of us (like me) don’t know what else to do. It’s easier to laugh than cry these days.

My graduate advisor just sent me a response to my latest creative work. He appears to be the kind of guy that wouldn’t know how to be compassionate with my feelings, but I’d say he’s the best guy to have in my corner. He adeptly moves between sympathizing with my loss while maintaining a critical eye on the work, giving me keen insight to become a better writer. I found one thing he said in particular to be spot on: “Can we get away with saying that writing about your recently deceased mother is…fun?”

Yes, yes we can. Which is weird, but true. It’s also heartbreaking. Because the person who would appreciate the poking-fun-at-death the most is, you guessed it, my mother. She could flippantly laugh at the worst of moments in her life, but the truth is, she was keenly aware of the pain behind the laughter. She was an empathizer to the max. If one of her children or friends or distant relatives or the person featured on the cover of People Magazine was having a hard time, she would feel their pain. But when it came to her own sorrow, she would laugh, laugh, laugh. Now that she is gone, I realize how much we are the same in that regard. It’s scary when we begin to know we are our parents, when for so long, we tried to separate ourselves, and yet, now knowing I am just-like-her and not being able to tell her we are so alike, is painful in itself.

So, here I am: I have lost my best friend in the whole wide world, laughing is easier than crying, therapy is good, sleeping is difficult and writing has become a magical connection to my inner thoughts. And writing about my dead mother is at times laughable and fun.

Thanks for listening today. Tune in next time when we explore the insane things people say to you while you are grieving (that’s a warning people, leave it be).

The title of this blog is in reference to a song that plays continuously on TV in conjunction with the World Expo. Have you heard of the World Expo? It’s an updated version of the World’s Fair and it’s happening in Shanghai for the next few months and there are enough monogrammed handles in the subway, posters on the wall of buildings and songs on TV to remind you, if you were here.

We spent a month teaching in Shanghai last year and I swore I would never return. I couldn’t handle the spitting, the babies peeing everywhere, the constant staring. Then the university offered us free flights, and to pay us to teach and suddenly we couldn’t turn down an opportunity to travel again. So we agreed! I brought all of my negative feelings with me and when first arriving here, I broke down and wanted to go home. This is not me. I sleep in mountain villages with no electricity, I take overnight buses that curve around hairpin turns a thousand feet over a valley, I bike through traffic in Laos and Vietnam. I do things that most people wouldn’t want to. And suddenly, I couldn’t get past our tiny, dark hotel room with two single beds (but they moved us two days later). So I wrote a cryptic short story and I put all of my negative emotions into it in a humorous way and I felt better. I needed to look at it with humor glasses on, and once I did, I could finally accept the oddities. I now find the spitting hilarious and egg them on whenever I hear the low guttural throat procession begin. I smile at children when they stare and often their parents smile back. I like the slow pace of the people, how they take their time sharing a meal with family and friends, or how they cross the street slowly, unfolding each footstep carefully. It’s a big city with a small feel if you choose the right places to hang out. Everyday is opposite day and once you know you’ll get the opposite of what you expect, it’s easy to accept.

We had a three day stopover in Tokyo on our way to Shanghai. I heart Tokyo. It’s everything a city should be and more. The food is out of this world, the shopping is almost too much and it’s clean, the people are super polite, the subway efficient, and the weather pleasant. We had a blast exploring the city and eating the best sushi I’ve ever had. Most of the restaurants don’t have English but you soon learn how to point and figure it out. Most Japanese speak some English, you just have to ask. The only downfall is that most stores carry a one-size-fits-all and I’m almost twice their size so couldn’t buy much. We met a great guy our last night that owns a delish restaurant called Jewel of India in Roppongi. We stayed at the restaurant until 1 a.m. talking and drinking beer. Thanks Sid!

I have mostly been holed up in our Shanghai hotel room working away at my last packet for school. And here it is: I finished my first semester of grad school in creative writing and I feel amazing! And what’s better is I have so many ideas and want to keep writing. And I can’t wait to start my next book, which is To Kill A Mockingbird. Yup, that’s right, never read it. I was a bad student in the days when this was probably a requirement.

Back to Shanghai. I wanted to make a list of some of the weird/funny things from this trip:

  1. It is easier to cross the street to our guesthouse in the middle of the road then at the crosswalk (it’s three lanes going each direction).
  2. Most restrooms have toilet paper this year.
  3. One of our cab drivers knew a few English words. He said, “Okay, thank you, you’re welcome, bye bye, welcome to shanghai” all at once as we exited the cab. He is the first cab driver we have heard speak any English in this city.
  4. We have learned more words in Chinese than any other language besides maybe Spanish. A few of these new words are: beer, baby (endearing to your sweetheart), check, green tea, dog, Shanghai University and fuckin’ great! On a similar note, I speak great Chinese sign language.
  5. This was heard second hand, but a cat was outside our guesthouse and a man took the cat and put it into a bag, like something that would hold fertilizer. The cat was screaming from inside the bag. Another man came up to the man with the cat-bag and paid him money to release the cat and he did. The man who paid the money even stuck around to make sure the other man didn’t catch the cat again.
  6. Ben and I drank snake blood and snake gallbladder. I wouldn’t say it tastes like chicken.
  7. We went to a nightclub and they stopped the dance music to put on a S&M show. The girls wore black skimpy leather and had whips. The guy wore a full face mask with a ball-gag. (I said, “that’s weird” to my student from last year who was with us and she said, “that’s very Shanghai!”
  8. I watched a man pee right outside our guesthouse, facing the road. I saw a little girl pee in the middle of the sidewalk and a little boy take a poo outside a popular tourist area where there are several bathrooms (with toilet paper!).
  9. I prefer chopsticks to a fork and knife.
  10. Turtle is quite chewy. It was served in a soup with snake. I guest turtles and snakes get along after death.

If you are in the market to visit Shanghai, please eat at Guyi (Hunan; the ribs are incredible!), Haiku (sushi; better western rolls than I’ve ever had in the U.S.) and Masala Art (Indian; great curry and good atmosphere).The food is fabulous in Shanghai and there is always a cute cafe to linger at with a book. They never shoo you away. The shopping is plentiful and I’m off to get my fill today!

And I’ll admit it, we might come back next year! I’m a little sad that we’re leaving on Saturday. However, we are going to an island in Malaysia called the Perhentians, then to Borneo for a two week adventure with Craig.

Please leave your comments! And happy life!

Jew-Z in Da House

Bummed that I didn’t make my own parody video of Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. It’s was going to be about Utah and the chorus would go, “In Utah, these mountains will make you go crazy…”

But here are a two Jewish-themed (well, one is Boca Raton, which is basically the same) parodies that are too hilarious not to share:

and:

Didn’t know Jews could rap? My artist name is P-Titty, formerly known as Poop Doggy Dog. What’s yours? Leave it in the comment box.

The other night while watching “Up in the Air” I wondered if people who are laid off are going after their dreams. Because I am. I overlook that I’m a part of that statistic. I haven’t forgotten I was laid off, but mostly I’m so happy that being laid off now feels like the company did me a huge favor. After the sourness of the ego waned and pride dissipated, I feel great to be a person going after my “real” dream. So, watching this movie I thought, am I alone? Will we see a resurgence of the arts in 10 years because people are returning to their long-forgotten creative roots? When I was young, I would lie in bed and write in my notebook (which I still have) and create poetry that sounds beyond the scope of a 15 or 16 year-old. But I never thought – hey, I’ll be a writer when I grow up. However, as an adult when playing the game “Would You Rather” and being asked if I’d rather be a famous rock star or a famous novelist, the latter always won out. On the same subject, I’d rather have my bottom half be a horse than have scales all over my body.

When I was young, I dreamed of competing on Star Search. I can dance and could do flips back in the day (okay, I tried a few yesterday on the grass but my 30 year-old body wasn’t so into it) and although I had these abilities, I never felt that I could really follow a dream of being a dancer or even teaching dance. I have a fascination with interior design and clothing design, but again these careers felt out of reach. And I’m thinking I’m not alone. So, with all of us who have been laid off in the last few years, how many of us are now going after the dream? After I pondered this resurgence for love of what we do, I did a little research. Nope, not alone. ABC World News reported on reinventing yourself after layoff. I also found a documentary called Lemonade with a slogan that says, “It’s not a pink slip. It’s a blank page.”

I haven’t been writing much on my blog because I’m swamped with work — school work. I am reading the most wonderfully diverse, literary books and I am writing in a way that I didn’t know I was capable. I’m exploring my mind, pushing further, being asked by my advisor “to descend into the unknown.” This is the hardest job I’ve ever had and I’m not the best at it, but it feels worthwhile and I want to learn, and be better and try my hardest. Creativity is a wonderful thing and was lost to me for so many years. So if you’re facing a lay-off or know someone who is, ask them what they really want to do in life. You might be surprised by the answer.

And in a few years, let’s see if this creative resurgence has turned into feeling again like the four-letter word — work. I hope not! P.S. We leave in two weeks and four days for our two-month long trip to Asia. I will be posting more of our adventures this summer!

School is Cool

“I will never go back to school.” – Paula A.

“I am not a ‘school person.'” – Paula A.

“School is not where I do my best.” – Paula A.

I said these things not too long ago, just as recently as 2008. Never is a word I used often about school. I was raised by hard-working parents, but both came from families that lacked educational ambition. My grandparents finished high school only and my parents each completed less than a year or so in college, neither finishing a degree. This is not necessarily wrong, but it shaped how I felt about higher education. I was taught to find a career in which I could make money and support myself, which are excellent life lessons, but there was no emphasis on continuing education for the sake of learning. I am fortunate to have joined a family in which education is a priority. My husband Ben’s grandparents both survived the Holocaust separately, meeting each other in Illinois following their release from concentration and work camps. They made education a priority, realizing that no one can ever take that from you. Each earned their PhD in chemistry, worked at Dupont, and Ben’s grandmother even invented some common household products. They passed on this love for education and higher learning to their children (two doctors and a lawyer) and grandchildren (my husband Ben is working on his PhD). This family issued the support and love of education I needed to believe in myself.

I start my Master’s of Fine Arts in creative writing in February. So in the meantime, I enrolled at the University of Utah as a non-matriculated student, which means I am graded with my peers, but the credits don’t go towards anything. This was a way to get back into the swing of things since it has been eight years since I left college and said I was NEVER going back to school. I found out that I LOVE school. Saying never gets you nowhere. I learned more in four months of school than I have since I started my communications career. I gained knowledge and fostered creativity that make me proud of who I am and what I am working on. I adored my classmates, the curriculum and especially my professors. And best of all, I realized that I am a good student when I enjoy the curriculum. I earned two As and an A-, the highest grades I’ve had in college.

Don’t let “never” be your road block. I am a fortunate person with so many people who believe in me, but what I needed most was to believe in myself. And remember how I said I was never going back to China? Well, there’s a 99 percent chance we’ll be back there in May. Ben will teach classes again and possibly work on a research project for an eco-tourist island off of Shanghai, while I’ll work remotely on my graduate school work.

Lastly, please pick up a copy of Park City Magazine’s winter issue. My article on Park City Iron Man is on page 28 of the second section. Thanks again to Kristen for allowing me the opportunity and publishing my first piece. Thanks to Park City Iron Man for the interview, friendship and incredible craftsmanship. Our dining room table shines in our new home!

Happy New Year! Make a resolution to say no to never!!

Back to the Future

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One year ago today, Ben and I were exhausted. It was the day after our wedding and I remember waking up extremely hungover, and trudging my way to our farewell brunch. One year later, I look back on this to be the best year of my life. The Phillies won the World Series (an Altschuler favorite), Obama became our president, I lost my job, I was accepted into graduate school, I officially embarked on a career in writing, I traveled to five countries in Asia over the span of 10 weeks, and most importantly I married my favorite person in the world (click here to see us featured in Utah Bride and Groom magazine). This last year has included major blips in my master plan, but they have turned out to be the best surprises to happen to me yet.Claire in cyclo

I have slacked on my updates of Asia, but I should tell you about our final days in Vietnam. We met up with our Park City friends who have been living and working in Ho Chi Minh City for the past 15 months. They graciously toured us around the city,  showing us the life of an X-Pat, dining at the best restaurants, going for drinks at the chicest bars, shopping at the “real” boutiques and where to land the best bargain. The most exciting part of visiting HCMC (or Saigon as they call the city in ‘Nam) was the cyclo tour.

Make sure to agree upon a price and a few destinations before you head off on your chauffeured cyclo. If you have fears of traffic, this ride is not for you. But if you can brave it, your driver will take you to the grittiest, most interesting parts of Saigon, the real HCMC. We spent almost two hours weaving through the gridlock streets, narrowly escaping the sideswipe of a passing bus. And then it rained, poured, and they wrapped up the cart in rubber sheets, the only hole at eye level. I still managed to get drenched.

We left Vietnam (our favorite SE Asian country) for Siem Reap, Cambodia, a destination we almost skipped, but thankfully we were convinced otherwise by the Four Guys. When we arrived, our $16 a night hotel (Golden Temple Villas) offered a free pick up from the airport. Our Tuk Tuk driver was waiting for us and just when we left the airport, it started to rain, then harder, then the streets flooded and I could only imagine our little motorbike carriage tipping over into the pools of rain. Somehow that didn’t happen, which was a miracle for sure. I guess when everyone told us that it was the rainy season in Asia, they weren’t kidding!

On our first day to see Ankor Wat, a collection of 40 temples spread across 100 km of lush green planes, we hired a Tuk Tuk driver to navigate us to the furthest temple, about 35 km from town. It was nearly deserted and we felt like pioneers discovering ancient ruins for the first time. I have not acquired the vocabulary to describe the majestic quality of Ankor Wat, that is what graduate school will help me to accomplish. I can only tell you that I have seen the Coliseum in Rome and the Great Wall in China and this far surpassed my amazement in what can be accomplished without modern tools and forklifts and cranes. My favorite temple was featured in “Tomb Raider” with Angelina Jolie, and I know why they chose it for the movie setting. The temple was exquisite but the mountainous trees weaving through the stone like over-sized thread were the centerpiece of the dramatics. If you venture to Ankor Wat, I would also suggest renting bicycles, which we did the second day. We biked to the closer temples, which was a fun, easy ride, but the true excitement came from the children waving from nearby villages, and racing Cambodian teenagers on our bicycles and meeting monks and stopping to watch the wild monkeys jump from the trees into the stream below.Meeting monks

Next post (promise it will be sooner than later) is about Thailand. And more to come about teaching in China!

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I don’t know where to start, it has been so long. I am in Dalat, a mountain town in Vietnam that is at least 20 degrees cooler than everywhere else. We arrived yesterday and couldn’t decide what to make of Dalat. It is called the Paris of the east, which is fitting since it dons a mini Eiffel Tower, there are swan boats that float on the central lake and everywhere you look is a cafe. It truly is Neverland. I don’t know how to feel about M.J.’s passing. I love his music, but not the man. He’s a legend of good and bad, but I was happy to hear his greatest hits belted out at a cafe situated along the Disney-esque lake while the fake swans floated by.

Dalat is a magical place, literally. This may not be true for everyone, but one of the strangest moments happened to me yesterday. My mom met a student in Dalat over two years ago. She has told me they keep in touch by email and that she sends photos from my wedding to her student friend. When my mom found out I was going to Vietnam, she made me promise to visit Hong, her friend. I promised, although my fingers were crossed behind my back. It’s hard to arrange a travel schedule around meeting someone, but luckily it worked out. So we arrive yesterday and after visiting four hotels with no availability, we stumbled upon the $9 Hotel, the actual name. They had a room for us and as I checked my email in the lobby, I struck up a conversation with the owner, whose American. I mentioned to him that I had to meet this girl (didn’t give her name) and said that I only had her email. I emailed her the address and I hoped she would check her email that night. As we’re talking about how I’m going to find “this girl”, a girl walks out of the back rooms of the hotel, carrying the owner’s baby. She looks at me, and walks by. When she returns, she comes right up to me and hugs me. It’s Hong!!!! She recognized me from the pictures my mom sent and checked our passports that were on file to see my name. Of all the hotels in this massive town, I ended up at the one that Hong works at as a babysitter. I don’t believe in fate, but this might make me a believer.

I have completely skipped over China, but I will come back to Shanghai and Beijing and teaching and all the spitting, and peeing on the ground in the next few blog posts. I want to tell you about Sapa, but first Halong Bay. These are in Northern Vietnam. We had a few hiccups on our Halong Bay trip, but it worked out when we finally boarded the boat – a small cruise ship that reminded me of the final moments of “Goonies” when the ship breaks through the cave and sails into the ocean. We met some great friends on the boat, the Four Guys, and they convinced us that it’s really fun to jump off the top of the boat into IMG_1548the water (they did it the night before while intoxicated). Since I’ve become an adventure junkie, I decided to give it a try, but not before jumping from the first and second floors to make sure I had the guts to leap from the top. Standing forty feet up is nerve-wracking enough, but I was in a bathing suit too! After several minutes of hesitation, I leaped to the water. It was exhilarating! Ben jumped too and we jumped tandem, holding hands (hey, we are still newlyweds, only two months until our one year). We spent the night drinking and talking and we’ll have great memories of Halong Bay if it didn’t start out as mystical as we were told it is.

Immediately after returning to Hanoi, we boarded the overnight train to Sapa. We booked a three day bike trip with Handspan (amazing! great tour! ask for Huong as your guide!). Our first day we biked 30 km down the Tram Ton Pass, whoa! My hands were knotted from gripping so hard. Our guide, Huong, let go, using his arms to make a bird shape. He’s not crazy, he’s NUTS! And funny and super smart. He took us to the different minority villages pf the North – H’Mong, Thai, Tay, Laos and a few others that I can’t remember off the top of my head. We IMG_1595helped pick tea (did you know the plant is strong enough to hold you if you sit on it?), we picked peanuts (they start as a flower and then lower into the earth and become a root), we watched as noodles started in a powder form, then liquefied, congealed, then squeezed through metal holes onto wooden planks and dried.

Everyone says “hello”. And the children yell it over and over again, the excitement to share the word with a foreigner to great to waste. The people were wonderful and we didn’t see another foreigner for all three days. We stayed in guest houses and ate and drank with the locals. Our last night, Huong’s friend invited us for dinner at his place. We all sat around on the floor with heaps of food prepared for us and a few other Vietnamese men. So, it’s me (the only women), Ben and Vuong (our host), Huong (our guide), the driver and two friends of Vuong. And drinks, and drinks and drinks. Ish cup, what they say when you ask how many, it doesn’t matter, just keep drinking. We had at least 10-15 shots of rice wine drank in a ceremonial manner, not religious, but out of friendship. Someone chooses who they want to drink with and you have a shot. That continues throughout the whole meal, until the wine is finished, along with the Bia Hoy (beer). So in between shots, we sometimes had to drink an entire glass or 50%, as they referenced, of beer. Without a common language, we had a party! It was one of the most fun dinner parties I have ever been apart of. Thank you Huong!

I have so much more to share but it will come in the next few posts. I have great news too – I was accepted to two MFA creative writing programs, both distance-learning, so my dream of going to graduate school is one step closer and  Park City is home for as long as we like it to be!

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The second week in Laos was just as stimulatingly colorful as the first. We spent two days at the Tiger Trail Elephant Park Project. When we first arrived, we rode in the chair on the back of the elephant and I clung onto the wood with every muscle fiber in my body. I felt like we could slide down the side of the animal at any moment, but we didn’t. The Mahout (elephant trainer) led the elephant through the water and without asking, hopped off the two-ton grayish-pink animal to take pictures of us. Back at the main camp, we practiced mounting and riding an elephant…on her neck (all of the elephants at this camp are female). What I thought would be more unnerving than the sitting in the chair, was actually quite comfortable. I rode horses for the first half of my life and it was just like getting back in the saddle. But without the saddle, replaced with thick, wrinkled skin that felt like a worn leather chair covered in nylon bristles.

After practice, we each mounted our own elephant (with a Mahout sitting behind us). I rested my hands on Mae Pua’s enormous, whiskered head as the gentle giant led me into the jungle. A few steps into the woods, my Mahout jumped off and asked me if I was okay to ride alone. You Tarzan, me Jane. She slowly put one foot in front of the other on the mud path. I knew she was happy from reading the sign posted at the main camp because she flapped her ears back and forth against my legs, which felt like giant rubber mats stretched over canvas. I was sad to leave her after the 20-minute expedition; riding an elephant may be one of the most thrilling adventures I have been a part of so far. Both my husband and our friend Craig loved the elephants as well and Craig can now say he’s rode an elephant but not a horse!

We stayed the night in the lodge and early the next morning ventured back into the bush. We picked up our elephants (once again, I rode alone while my Mahout walked in front of us) and headed for the water. Mae Pua reached the river’s edge and apprehensively entered while dipping her long trunk below to spray a waterfall into her mouth. Quickly we found ourselves in the middle of the waterway, the elephants routinely submerging themselves while we squeezed our legs tightly not to slide off. Then we scrubbed. Using a handled cleaning brush, I rubbed meticulously around her head, reached forward down her snout and turned to wash her back. The village sign that informed me of what makes elephants happy, also warned never to trust an elephant. But at that moment, all I knew was trust.

Instead of taking a van back 15km to Luang Prabang, we kayaked down the lazy river for three hours. Ben and I only tipped once, but that was his fault. The following day we shuttled for six hours to Vang Vieng, a backpacker’s haven filled with pizza joints featuring TVs with your choice of “Friends,” “Family Guy” or “The Simpsons.” Totally random, but surprisingly fun, even though we were considered “over the hill” in comparison to the other Falang in town. We went to a bar for the first time on the trip and getting to it consisted of walking over a shabbily constructed bamboo bridge to a nearly deserted Cancun-like bar on the party island. The people who worked there were mostly tourists who were paid in drinks, food and accommodations. How they stayed a month in Vang Vieng, I’ll never understand. The main attraction of the town is tubing down the river while stopping at riverside bars for BeerLao and to test your luck on a rope swing. We had watched the rope swing videos on Youtube.com and had decided unanimously that it looked too dangerous. Once there, all three of us took several swings off the wooden platform and flung ourselves into the water. Never say never. The ride home on the bus was far worse than any rope swing could ever be. The road between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang climbs steadily up the mountain along a narrow pathway that they call a two-lane road. I would say it’s more like one-and-a-half at best. After the bus broke down, it was quickly fixed and we managed to make it home alive. We were reminded of our luck when we passed a construction truck that had tipped over coming around a sketchy curve in the mountaintop pass. To celebrate the end of one of the best trips of our lives, we dined for a second time at our favorite restaurant in Luang Prabang, Tamarind.

As I sit in my new digs in Shanghai, I miss the laid-back vibe of Laos. It’s a country that I hope to visit again in my lifetime and you should too!

Lao Lao, Yummy Yummy

IMG_0810Laos is the most laid-back country I have visited. The people, the culture, the landscape is uniquely and beautifully exquisite. Right now, we’re in Luang Prabang, a bustling city surrounded by tropical rain forest, the Mekong River, mountains and temples. Compared to any other city, this is quaint, quiet, slow, reserved. But compared to where we have been the last five days, it is an oasis of action.

We spent the past five days biking and hiking through northern Laos. For reference, the country is pronounced “louse” and the people and language and religion is Lao (no “s”). All are Buddhist, but the people are split into three, agreeable tribes: Lao, Hmong and Kamu. Intermarriage between the tribes is now widely accepted.

Initially, I was petrified of biking next to traffic, but the further we made our way north, the traffic gave way to scenery sprawled outward and upward in lime, hunter, and teal greens. Mountains line the river and the dusty, paved road is the only means of travel. We did not see another Falang (non-native) the entire two days of biking, which was close to 120 km. The Lao children are especially friendly, and run IMG_0708from the cover of their village huts to the edge of the roads to wave Sabai Dii (meaning hello) and holding their hands out for high fives.

Our third night was the most unusual. We hiked six hours into the mountains to stay in a village. Along the way, we were unexpectantly accompanied by three young girls who lived in the village. They giggled and talked just like 15 and 16 year old girls would (keep in mind, they had already hiked to our starting point). We also encountered another type of company, but this unwelcome – leaches!! I now completely understand the saying: “You’re being such a leach!”

Just 30 minutes from the Kamu mountain village, it started to rain. A hurricane-like down pour. We arrived soaking wet and muddy to a village as remote as they come – no electricity, bamboo frames and livestock everywhere. Then came the fun part. As we warmed up around the kitchen fire, I witnessed my first chicken slaughter. The same 16 year old girl, Jan, who already IMG_0877walked 10 hours to sell some goods, then made up our beds (mats and mosquito nets on the floor of what looked like a human chicken coup, with dividers between made of woven bamboo), was carrying around a live chicken by its feet. Jan giggled when I took a picture of her and the chicken and then proceeded to kill it, de-feather it and cook it.

We ate our chicken soup on the floor of the deputy chief’s floor, Lao style. We also ate a chicken stir-fry made of ALL of the organs of the chicken as well as its neck and head, mixed with garlic and ginger. Yum, tastes like chicken!

The following day, Jan let me braid her long, dark hair, which the other girls admired but were too shy to let me braid their hair as well. I also tried squirrel, which was what our guide and Jan were eating for breakfast. Tasted like dark meat chicken, but a bit more chewy. Along this trip, I have sampled several unusual foods – buffalo blood and cow’s stomach – local delights.

A long boat ride down the Mekong brought us back to Luang Prabang to hotel Sala Prabang. Showering with soap and shampoo was such a treat! We even splurged and ate dinner at La Residence Phou Vao, the most high-end hotel in all of Laos, located outside of the main Luang Prabang city. However, the meals in the villages have been amazing but our fancy dinner will be remembered for the bread, not the dishes. The best meal was our first night in Luang Prabang at Tamarind, a tiny outpost serving traditional Lao food infused with chic presentation and a multitude of flavors. The icy drinks are the perfect way to cool down from the intense heat and sharing is the only way, the Lao way, to eat!

Tomorrow we head to the Elephant Refuge…more to come!