Wet Feet and a Warm Welcome in Vietnam

I didn’t know it was possible to sink into mud up to your knee caps and still pull yourself out again. But mud at the bottom of a fish pond is fully mixed with water, and apparently, walking around in it can stir up the critters who live there (shrimp, in this case), and give you a chance of catching them with a wicker basket.

I did not imagine that learning traditional fishing techniques of the Mekong Delta would be part of our Fulbright orientation. Especially not when it followed two days of meetings with US Consulate officials, including the US General Consul, Susan Burns, and many of her section chiefs. We were briefed on economics, politics, safety and health. We met with representatives from the Public Affairs section, who are very interested in our work here, building ties with Vietnamese universities. It was truly exciting to learn about Vietnam from the perspective of Americans who have been working here.

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Bright Lights, Big City

I felt a bit giddy stumbling onto the little chocolate shop near the Ben Thanh Market in central Ho Chi Minh City. The tiny shop is lined with dozens of brightly packaged bars of varying choco-intensity and flavor, all sourced from a single farm in the Mekong Delta. “This one is my favorite,” says the young woman assisting me finding my own favorites. Using a pair of small tongs, she grabs a small chocolate chunk from the box of chocolate flavors displayed in front of me and drops it into my palm. I pop it into my mouth and feel the cinnamon sting my tongue. “It’s right here,” she points to the bar of cinnamon chocolate on the shelf behind me and I take one and add it to the other bars I was buying.

Bright lights in central Ho Chi Minh City.

“For how long are you in Vietnam?” she asks in her perfect English. I tell her I’m going to live and work in Dalat for the next five months. Her eyes light up, “Oh – I love Dalat! It’s so beautiful! So many flowers – and the pine forests!” She sighs remembering her time there, and I suddenly feel excited and a little less tired than I’ve been.

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Vietnam: The Arrival

It’s really easy to get caught up in visions of international travel that are more fit for cinema than real life. You know what I mean. You might see yourself on the bow of a ship, the wind whipping through your hair as waves splash the hull – and there’s a crescendo of music before cutting away to a view from above, of that same ship crossing emerald blue waters that border some dramatic cliffs or mountains of ice. Sure. Sometimes it’s like that.

But what we tend to forget is that in order to have those magic moments, we basically have to traverse a modern-day version of Dante’s hell. The hours of sitting in a tiny space where your knees get crushed when the person in front of you decides to recline their chair. The attempts to feel human by brushing your teeth in that tiny airplane bathroom, then wondering why there’s so much water on the floor. The bruised shins, twisted shoulders and smashed finger tips you get from trying to haul all your baggage around – and when you’re going to live and actually work in another country for several months, there can be a lot of baggage! Seriously, I wouldn’t pack a blazer for an international trip if I didn’t have to.

Because I didn’t take too many photos on my 30-hour journey, I thought I’d share a glimpse of Ho Chi Minh City at night. The city center has a lot of old buildings, a lot of new buildings, and a lot of traffic.
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The sinking city that haunts my dreams

Venice is haunting me. I didn’t think it was my favorite place in Italy. That title would have to go to Cinque Terre. Nor did I think it was the most memorable place at the time that I was there. But Venice is the place I keep returning to in my dreams. And it looks just the same in my dreams as it did in real life, with shimmering waterways plowed by gondolas, misty views of distant islands, and buildings that sometimes seem to lean a bit too much toward each other.

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An Introduction to Camino Life

Sometimes the need to walk away from your life can become overwhelming. Do you ever wish you could walk for miles each day, across open farmland, over rolling hills lined with vineyards, and even along suburban thoroughfares, past gas stations, mini-marts and fast food take-outs, even as your feet become blistered and sore? (Okay, I know that last bit didn’t sound so appealing!) I think people have always had this desire to some extent, even if they aren’t fully conscious of it. Across the world there are ‘pilgrimage’ trails – some of which were established for more traditional pilgrimages, or long walks that have a spiritual significance. Others are newer – old roads and sheep trails through mountains become pathways for tourists taking the slow route. The resurgence of interest in pilgrimage routes in recent years is a clear indicator of how much this desire pulls at us.

The Tuscan hilltop town of San Miniato Alto after a September rainstorm.
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Cinque Terre Trails Part 2: Corniglia to Monterosso

I woke up feeling utterly wiped out. My swollen and sore calves felt like they had extra weights attached to them. But when I saw a patch of blue sky, I decided to make my way north from Corniglia, along the trail to the village of Vernazza. The hike along the coastal Cinque Terre “blue” trail is advertised as strenuous and dangerous, as it winds high up along the cliff faces. Any threat of rain will close the trail.

A morning thunderstorm out over the Ligurian Sea, off the Cinque Terre coast.

When the church bells in Corniglia chimed at 9 am, I found myself the only person embarking on the trail, past the still-empty checkpoint where rangers will look at your trail pass and make sure you have decent shoes. There were still puddles from the rain the night before, but the dry earth on the trail drank that water up quickly so I didn’t have to pass too many muddy spots. I had heard that there can be a conga line of people along this trail by midday, so it was sweet to have it all to myself. There was a thunderstorm out over the ocean and I wondered briefly if I was doing something dumb, but the forecast had shown everything shifting southward, so I decided to chance it and make a dash to the next village.

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Cinque Terre Trails Part 1: Corniglia to Riomaggiore

I came to Cinque Terre to hike. I expected late September to be warm but not hot on the Ligurian coast. I had not anticipated things to be unstable, with a front coming in that promised some steady rain, or at least some good thunderstorms. Normally, I’d be excited by a some storm activity, but I really wanted to hike. It’s actually illegal to hike the Cinque Terre trails in the rain. The trails close at the checkpoints that sit on the edge of each village. So, on my first morning in Corniglia, I was up early, hoping to get on the trail and beat the incoming storm to the neighboring town of Manarola. Based on local radar and satellite images, I figured I had a couple hours. I decided to make a run for it – as much as you can ‘run’ up a steep, rocky trail that takes you up nearly 1000 feet.

Looking northward along the Cinque Terre coastline on a cloudy day in late September.
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Captivated by Corniglia, Cinque Terre

In the northeastern corner of the Italian peninsula, the train moves through long, dark tunnels beneath the cliffs that rise straight out of the Ligurian Sea. But I kept my eye on the dark window, because I knew that I would get a glimpse of the ocean soon. And when I did, I was nearly blinded by the green sea sparkling in late afternoon light. I had arrived at one of the coastal towns of Cinque Terre.

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Finding Florence without the FOMO

Why not Milan? Or Rome? Or Naples?

I didn’t want to be in a big chaotic city. I wanted a place where I could walk everywhere, a place well contained in a small area with no need to flit around on a subway or bus to get to where I want to go. I’m not a big city person, after all.

So, in my jet lagged, sleep-deprived state, I found myself walking through the streets of Florence at sunset, carrying the two small backpacks that made up the full extent of my luggage.

And I was not disappointed.

My first view of the Arno River after 24 hours of traveling from Denver.
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Sono sola

It can be dangerous to travel. A strong reflecting light is cast back on “real life”, sometimes a disquieting experience. Sometimes you go to the far interior and who knows what you might find there? — Frances Mayes, Bella Tuscany

Just to keep you headed in the right direction. The Via Francigena is very clearly marked.

I had it in my mind that I needed to go on a pilgrimage. I needed to walk. Somewhere else. For many days.

If we drop the religious definitions of pilgrim, we can define a pilgrim as ‘one who walks in foreign lands’. I believe there is also some deep personal motivation involved in a decision to walk in foreign lands. Maybe there’s the desire for novelty and adventure. A yearning to see beautiful places, and really take the time to absorb them in a way that you can’t when you’re on the two-week-21-city Euro-tour. Maybe there is also a desire to step out of your life, and out of time. Even if just for a short while.

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