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This Looks Familar// Two Hands

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I am sitting in the Bangkok airport for the 4th time this trip, and this time it’s not landing as a weary, jetlagged traveler, or to fly to Hanoi, or en route to Laos (on my birthday), but as one whose feet are homebound. My journal and camera are full and my backpack is now stuffed not with Bibles, but market souvenirs.
And my heart is bearing the all-too-familiar weight of farewells.

Why is God so good to me?

In front of me are 16 hours of airplane air and humming and sitting, then like a magic transportation – dadaah – it’s back in Seattle with my family and friends, back to school and schedules and working just a few minutes from the hospital where I was born, the world of Asia once again thousands of miles away.

I’m going back.
What have I learned? Is the thought that immediately follows.

I wanted to know so much, to have everything figured out. I still do. College degree, where, what. A big booming voice would be grand. I’m sure we all feel that way. I knew I wouldn’t get it, but still – I hoped.

Instead what I’m coming home with is a greater contentment with not knowing. An understanding that God has already made it pretty clear what my life work is to be, and that the life we tend to think of as ‘radical’ or ‘extreme’ isn’t really: it’s just being obedient and a natural response to our salvation.
Kinda more simple than I make it.

I am coming back with two lessons, one in each hand.
In one hand, I have learned missions is not a conditional when/where life (when I’ve graduated or am this old, etc, if I move to another country), but rather living life intentionally, always. Missions is my life. As it’s been put so well, to know God and make Him known. To have as my highest aim, glorifying Him.

And in the other hand, the reminder that as I live ‘missions’ everyday, I cannot cannot cannot forget God’s heart for all nations. I lose out if my focus becomes too narrow and all I can love, pray for, and serve is in arm’s length. God’s plans are a lot bigger than that, and I don’t want to miss out on seeing how great is our God, and being willing to be His servant to those who have never heard wherever they be. Especially as there are brothers and sisters facing injustice, discouragement, and persecution even unto imprisonment or death. Today’s world is globalized, which is awesome – but I believe also holds us to a greater responsibility.

This song came to mind as I sit waiting for my next flight. And the story Kendall shared at the beginning really fits with what I’m learning.

I, sir, have never had clarity. What I’ve had is trust.

Regardless of whether I ever receive a messenger angel – wet/dry fleece – snake rod – scales falling off clarity from God as to my exact life purpose, I have His Word to go by, and I want to be obedient to that.

Still in a Dream

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You may be surprised to hear this, but a busy trip does not free time for blogging make.

Whaaaa?

Somehow the days were completely filled what with plane rides, van rides, tuktuk rides, boat rides, hauling ridiculously heavy backpacks across borders, getting sunburnt Рoh, and a bit of fun stuff like haggling with market vendors and sightseeing here and there. And then of course there was socializing with my team Р*if I must* Рand by the time evening rolled around my brain for some reason did not want to peck out a post on my tablet (tablet, why did they name it that? Calls to mind chiseling on a stone tablet..) or meticulously select and edit photos.

All right, enough excuses. Basically I’ve been having way too much fun. The cities we’ve seen have been entrancing, from the streets of Hanoi that flow with motorbikes like water, to the jungles in Chiang Mai we ziplined through (that’s, right, ziplined. Amazing!), to the 6 hour speedboat ride we took down the Mekong River in Laos, every turn revealing more mountains. We’ve wandered around quiet temples and through crowded markets where haggling now happens by exchanging bids on a calculator with the local vendors until an agreement is reached. We’ve tried food like snails, frog, eel (and they do say once you’ve eaten in these places long enough, you’ve most likely had dog). Mostly we enjoy dragon fruit, mango, the most natural bananas we’ll probably ever have, and the plethora of fruit shake/smoothie options at every restaurant. Oooh and restaurants. We’ve enjoyed Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, Indian – with a bit of “regular” food like pizza or spaghetti here and there – at restaurants in the crowded city central, or a village where those chickens wandering across the road are probably tomorrow’s meal, or by the Mekong as the sun set across the river.

There have been so many moments I’ve sat back to watch my team talking and laughing while figuring out how to hold chopsticks, or squinting against sun and dust as we jolt through the city, crammed into a tuktuk, or humming along as a local church sings in Lao – and it feels like a dream to be here. It feels like a place that just exists as I move, unfolding as my eyes and body move.

I watch the Buddhist monks wrapped in orange praying to a golden head or monument, and cannot wrap my mind around how ancient this religion is, that this is truly what millions of people believe – not just to make pretty buildings or enjoy lighting some candles – and what they trust or lean upon in life. And people think Christianity doesn’t make sense?

That’s another post in itself.

In all of this seeing, traveling, tiredness, joys, and new things, I had the absolutely best team and leader. You know how they say you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family? Same same – I had no idea what kind of people I would be traveling with for 2 weeks, but was blessed with brothers and sisters of kindness, generosity, laughter, and love. Every one of them challenged me with their strong love for Christ and His Word.

In imagining each of them now what I see is their smiles, and their listening faces. They were always ready to quietly and fully listen to what someone else or I had to say – which says a lot more about someone’s character than just that they’re willing to listen, if you know what I mean.

I’m getting choked up, just writing this. That’s happened quite a bit since I said goodbye to them. Always goodbyes in my life, to the most amazing people that make it so hard to leave.

And then you meet more people that show you more of Christ, and life moves on, and God is sovereign, and praise Him that someday there will be a massive reunion in heaven. I can’t wait.

But for now? For now I am staying behind in Laos while the rest of the team has gone home. I am staying with missionaries and really just humbly taking in a lot right now, meeting missionaries and seeing ministries and taking in what God is doing against this country’s darkness through His people.

In ten days I’ll return home, to a very different world.. and we’ll see what’s next. God is good, God is faithful, and again all I can speak is humbled, and privileged.

The Timeless Beginning

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My life has become sitting down. And sitting down. Hallo-ing again my dear friends the clouds. Eating whenever food is brought, and sleeping when I can, and no longer caring how my hair looks, and wondering vaguely just what time it is here – there – how long have I been traveling anyways?

I believe the answer is about 17 hours. 3 of those hours were in the Tokyo airport and the rest of been in flight. My tailbone would appreciate it if I could be vertical – horizontal – just straight, someday. Movies are great (especially a rewatch of Guardians of the Galaxy, yeesss), but a current count of four + no human conversations (as my seat neighbors sleep) is quickly turning my brain to mush.

Fierce hugs and prayers from my family 17 hours ago officially sent me back into the world of travel, aka everything revolving around figuring out where to be when and clinging onto several small possessions (passport and boarding pass), constantly worrying I will misplace them. In the Tokyo airport I was returned to a world where everyone speaks a different language, writes in a different language, watches TV shows that are… not American, and has way more buttons for toilets than are necessary! I am reminded how huge the world is and it is wonderful and daunting all at once.

In about 3 hours I will land in Bangkok (10:45pm their time), and hopefully with little ado make it to my hotel and a horizontal position fairly quickly – then the rest of the team will be landing and joining me tomorrow afternoon. Our first few days will be spent in Bangkok, adjusting and orientation.

I am hoping… along this trip to take you with me. To show you the sights, through my eyes. That’s dependant on me getting thoughts together, on having time to type things up, but I hope to. Thank you for thinking of me, for loving/supporting/praying for me during this trip, depending on who you are reading this. ūüôā

Since I’ve gotten on the plane, the trip has felt unreal, like I’m floating outside of time and space, inbetween worlds, just waiting to land. Planes are weird portals, but I’m sure glad not to be on a rickety ship for 3 months, all of my things packed in a coffin in case I die on the way/there. But what a great commitment that required from people in that age, during Hudson Taylor’s life.
Anyhow. My brain is half lucid right now, as for me it’s about 6am and did I mention I’ve watched four movies…? I just wanted to let you know I’ve (almost) made it. ūüôā¬†

Soundtrack during blog post: Prince of Egypt. Singing along silently while the rest of the cabin sleeps.
P.S. Posted after flight, once I had internet again.
P.P.S. Forgive any spelling errors por favor, I am typing all this on my tablet. ūüėȬ†

Take Courage, Dear Heart

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Well, that figures.

“But on the other hand…” Describes my life. A lot of the time.

I let this blog gather cyber dust on a cyber shelf for four months, still in its ‘Christmas theme’! Work at World Vision was replaced by a lot of free time – and a lot of mental turmoil over what’s next as I trod everywhere through the web, researching the millions of options. My mind turned into Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof,” thinking well on this hand… but then on the other hand… I learned a lot through the roiling but nothing I could solidify into a post. My waiting blog danced in the back of my mind, asking for a life update, but I didn’t know what to say, how to summarize what was going on.

Annnddd now college classes have started with a fury, I have enough assigned reading to fill every waking moment, and what do I suddenly have a desire to do? Write a blog post! Yeah for the strange productiveness produced by procrastination.

It is bizarre to think that it has now been four years since I was last taking community college classes. But before a mournful sense of stagnation attacks, I remind myself of just how many places I was able to work at and visit over those four years – from Rainier to the Tetons, Oregon to Europe. I remind myself that it doesn’t matter if it feels like I’ve gone full circle, but that I am coming back with a better sense of direction and purpose, with lessons learned and most importantly, so many wonderful friends made!

On my first day of plunging back into a world of papers and lectures and *gulp* thinking, I was reminded of a few old friends that went on their own journey. I’ve been encouraged to reflect that what they obtained is what I need.¬†Let me set aside my terribly interesting International Relations book about the military-industrial complex and liberalism, and take just a moment to share with you what these folk say it takes for school – and life.

 

Brains

“Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven’t got: a diploma.” – The Wizard

scarecrow.jpg

The Strawman = always my favorite.

An incognito elder due to my baby face, plunked back among the aimless freshies straight out of high school (or still in high school), I am finding my brain has become¬†just a wee bit rusty over the years. Last week, I puzzled over why I was so¬†tired driving home one day, and determined it’s probably because my mind has grown lazy and now has to start up and work again! So after a long day of school, my brain was tired.

As a believer in God, I think I can tend to compartmentalize what He gives me. I thank Him for food, for income, for the people in my life. I can tend to forget that my capacity to even reason and think comes from God, and that the moments when I am inspired or understand something, God deserves the glory!

As I face every school assignment, every stretching moment throughout life, it is a reminder to rely on the One who makes my body move, my lungs breathe, and my brain work – and to thank Him for it.

 

Heart

‚ÄúAll the same,’ said the Scarecrow,’I shall ask for brains instead of a heart; for a fool would not know what to do with a heart if he had one.’
‘I shall take the heart,’ returned the Tin Woodman, ‘for brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.‚ÄĚ

Tin_Woodman

It’d be great if this guy had a heart. Because he’s carrying around a sharp ax…

 

I always need to remember to have a heart, whether at work or school or on a city street… it is more comfortable to slip into disengagement. Seeing my fellow co-workers and students as faces, with no lives or history or dreams within¬†them. Losing sight of why I want to study and obtain a bachelor’s. I slip into seeing things on the surface and cease to see deeper relationships as worth it, or focus on just getting by with a good grade without caring about the life impact I could let the class make on me.

In the very first class my sociology teacher lectured on the ‘Why’ – specifically, why were we taking his class and attending college – and how it was important to understand undertaking anything¬†in¬†life. A lot of students don’t¬†think enough¬†before they start college, and they simply get a college degree because their parents and society tell them ’tis the fitting¬†thing to do, and they should get a good edj’macation so they can get a good job, so they can earn a lot, so they can buy¬†a great house and retire well, so they can…? We live every today for the future, and yet do not look far enough.

Though I’ve plunged back into classes with a renewed zeal, it can get rather tedious turning in assignments and plugging through the thick textbooks (though there are pictures!). Enthusiasm for a subject, when it encounters some bumps and difficult areas, can wane quickly unless there is a bigger goal in mind. This may sound contradictory, but to keep my¬†heart engaged requires keeping my eye on the present – right now – and on the why, the future goal.¬†I’m not¬†exactly sure just what degree I am getting and what it’ll look like when I graduate, but I know that I want to get involved in ministry serving the Lord overseas and a degree will ultimately equip me and open doors.¬†And I’m OK with the unknowns. Mostly.

Which leads us to the last fellow and his quest for…

Courage

“You have plenty of courage, I am sure,” answered Oz. ¬†“All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”

Fullscreen capture 4242015 113445 PM.bmpLife takes a lot of courage. Like, a lot a lot. It takes courage to wait on the Lord. It takes courage to move. It takes¬†bravery to tell the people in your life¬†this¬†is what you are headed towards… because what if the direction changes? Or what if you never¬†make it?

The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them. -Thoreau

It takes courage to stay undefeated. To be an enduring dreamer. It takes courage to¬†try without knowing¬†everything first. To engage. It takes courage to let go of a dream, and courage to choose God’s dreams above the world’s. It takes courage to pursue – when it feels like everyone else is better at everything than you. It requires a brave person to take the blows of¬†failure without letting go of hope.

This school quarter is already a quarter of the way done. And then who knows what’s next, and next, and next. It’s not for me to worry about. I want to simply focusing on having a brain, and a heart, and courage – for today.

As Joshua was told – Be strong and courageous

As a disguised King once said –¬†You will have troubles but take heart – I have already overcome

And as another Lion once said –¬†Courage, dear heart.

 

 

Now back to Kant-

Sarah

See Beauty// Again

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Heaven walks among us ordinarily muffled in such triple or tenfold disguises that the wisest are deceived and no one suspects the days to be gods. Yet we are often impressed with a conviction that if we were elsewhere in other company or employment or in no company, in turrets near the stars, or in caves underground, enlarged by science, or melted by music, or kindled by poetry, we should come into the conditions of sight & the universal cloud would roll up and disappear.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sometimes the attributes people comment on and compliment in me are areas where I am aware I am deficient, so I work harder to make up for my lack. Such as I am not graceful, I am not observant, I am not good at removing myself from myself and fully listening to people, I am lazy. But I am aware of those weaknesses in my life, so I work harder on those areas. Do you find this true for you as well?

One of the areas I always work hard at is noticing the beauty in everyday life. It is so incredibly easy; all it takes is the pause to look and appreciate. My short breaks during my workdays give me just enough time to wander and take in whatever beauty is casually unfolding.

The woods behind World Vision’s buildings are small, like the last thought in the building plans, a green scribble in¬†the architect’s empty squares between buildings and concrete. But they are just large enough to hold small ponds, holly and ferns and dewdrops and God’s miraculous, living art that needs no encouragement but space to be. Before the pond froze, there were frogs that flew for watery cover with a¬†-zip- and a squeak of panic when I came to the pond’s edge. The water was clear enough for me to see straight through, to the moss and sunken branches and vibrant green on the bottom.¬†If I stayed still and looked long enough, I could glimpse the frogs’ heads as they floated, but with the slightest move from me they disappeared deeper and further into the pond.

Once the pond froze, I could skip rocks and figure out just what size would break through the ice. And when the temperature rose the bare branches, dark silhouettes against the winter sky, filled with caught beads of winter rain that glistened. The sunlight, weak but still gold, and the remaining autumn leaves add a touch of warmth to the winter landscape.

I don’t have to tell you about the beauty in this world. You see it too in a million facets – in the glow and color of Christmas lights, in the vibrant colors of Divine and mortal art, in the smiles of every person, in the laughter with a loved one, in nature’s wild yet calm. Sometimes so instinctively felt and sometimes so forgotten, yet always so obvious when we lift our eyes and take in. For me, it takes a conscious pause to reflect on the wonder of what I am seeing.

In Anne Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek¬†(click for full chapter), she muses about seeing,¬†and what blind people experience when¬†their cataracts are removed and they¬†see for the first time. She speaks about the bewilderment that comes with the new sight as¬†the patient¬†has to learn¬†height and depth and size, formerly non-existent perceptions that now dawn and overwhelm. ¬†But when the person is able to move beyond the disorientation, there is wonder. “The newly sighted,” Dillard writes, “see the world as¬†as a “dazzle of color-patches.”

A little girl visits a garden. ‚ÄúShe is greatly astonished, and can scarcely¬†be persuaded to answer, stands speechless in front of the tree, which she only names on taking¬†hold of it, and then as ‚Äėthe tree with the lights in it.‚Äô‚ÄĚ Some delight in their sight and give¬†themselves over to the visual world. Of a patient just after her bandages were removed, her doctor¬†writes, ‚ÄúThe first things to attract her attention were her own hands; she looked at them very¬†closely, moved them repeatedly to and fro, bent and stretched the fingers, and seemed greatly¬†astonished at the sight.‚ÄĚ …Finally, a twenty-two-old girl was dazzled by the world‚Äôs brightness and kept her eyes shut for¬†two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize the¬†objects, but, ‚Äúthe more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be¬†seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly¬†exclaimed: ‚ÄėOh God! How beautiful!‚Äô‚ÄĚ

I worked on this post in the airport waiting for my flight to board, feeling a bit like I was in school again as I became engrossed in trying to capture my thoughts in words and musing over Anne Dillard’s essay. So engrossed, in fact, that there was a “last call for Sarah Ulrich” to board the plane. I wrote¬†this on the plane to Boise as well, the wing from my window seat gleaming from the eastward sun. We floated over mounds of clouds – one of my favorite views of one of my very favorite things. Though “floating” is not quite the right verb, more like “bucking.” The plane shook from the air turbulence and I felt like an unperturbed horse rider, letting my body loosen and sway with the movements so the jolts became somewhat relaxing. I am so sorry for those of you who do not like flying. Talk about a way to enjoy beauty, and wonder.

But back to Annie. Continuing on from what she had read in the observations of the cataract surgeons, Dillard writes:

I saw color-patches for weeks after I read this wonderful book. It was summer; the peaches were¬†ripe in the valley orchards. When I woke in the morning, color-patches wrapped round my eyes, intricately, leaving not one unfilled spot. All day long I walked among shifting color-patches that¬†parted before me like the Red Sea and closed again in silence, transfigured, wherever I looked¬†back. Some patches swelled and loomed, while others vanished utterly, and dark marks flitted at¬†random over the whole dazzling sweep. But I couldn‚Äôt sustain the illusion of flatness. I‚Äôve been¬†around for too long. Form is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning: I couldn‚Äôt¬†unpeach the peaches…Martin Buber tells this tale:¬†‚ÄúRabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher Rabbi Elimelekh that evenings he saw the angel who¬†rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness¬†before the light. ‚ÄėYes,‚Äô said Rabbie Elimelekh, ‚Äėin my youth I saw that too. Later on you don‚Äôt see¬†these things any more.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Why didn’t someone hand those newly sighted people paints and brushes from the start, when they still didn’t know what anything was? Then maybe we all could see color-patches too, the world unraveled from reason, Eden before Adam gave names.

Giving names and raveling the world into reason can add to our appreciation, or it can lead to a loss of wonder. Especially in this day and age, when we can explain so many “hows” with our head knowledge, and in the midst of¬†dissection forget about the “whys.”

Break from the instinctive labels of “trees” and “sunset,” “water” and “peach” and look as if for the first time. Marvel again in colors. In the miracles of the oddly shaped, two-legged breathing creatures that lumber and dance and chatter and smile all around you. In the miracle that¬†you are, from your body to your mind to your soul.

Most of all, remember anew the One who made you.

Remember again the wonder of an eternal God¬†choosing¬†mortal clothing, for the sake of restoration. Consider afresh¬†the undeserved, attentive grace ¬†of our God manifested in the large and small. Today, this Christmas, break outside of the labels and rote lessons and words that have worn ruts in your mind. Consider if you’ve placed God in a box. Personally, I know I can become so inundated with sermons and books and words that I become like one who looking, does not see, and hearing, does not comprehend.

Recall how precious that grace, the hour you first believed.

This time of the year there are voices clear and subtle, clamoring at you to buy and give and come and do… you may even have a lot of voices with good intention reminding you of “the reason for the season,” and to find peace and joy in the midst of the bustle. Humbly I add my voice to the later cause.

Take a moment, right now, to see God and His wonders again. Talk to Him about His love for you. Dwell on Him, in stillness and peace. Pull out a sheet of paper – even just a sticky note if that’s all that’s near. And give to Him whatever comes.

Close your eyes. Open your eyes. And maybe you will find… “It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.” (Dillard)

 

 

Connemara Cycle

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Well I wasn’t planning on doing another blog post until I got home, pulled out my laptop which has a real keyboard, and sorted out my who-knows-how-many thousands of pictures I’ve accumulated.
But then I went on a bike ride today, and it was just so beautiful I had to share.
So I’m skipping the Louvre, Paris, Londonx2, Downham Market meeting relatives, and the first 2 weeks of Ireland. We can come back to visit those memories and trips, if you’d like. Let’s just jump to my today…

I’m currently in a town called Letterfrack, a town 2 hours by bus from Galway. Olivia and I split up for a few days, since she wanted more time to see the Cliffs of Moher, and I wanted to see more of the West Coast in our few days before we head back to London. So on Tuesday I took the bus from Dublin, after saying goodbye to my mother who flew out that morning, and got here around 6pm last night. As I was walking down the street looking for my hostel, a man ran up to me and asked if I was looking for the Old Monastery Hostel. Now, everyone in Ireland has been exceedingly helpful, but locals running after you to make sure you know your way? What next?
It actually turned out he was Steven, the owner of the hostel for the last 23 years. He gave me directions then disappeared back into town, probably to the pub. The door to his hostel was open and a sign invited me to make myself welcome. So I plopped my things down next to an unoccupied bed and became friends with a German couple that walked into the door a few minutes later. They had also run into Steven, but they had asked him for directions to a different hostel in town. He’d gave them the directions then added on directions to his hostel.
This place has quite a character – besides the easy going manager, who collects your money whenever you hand it to him. There are stacks of faded paperback books in the dorm rooms, animal skulls and bones around the dining room on the bottom floor, mismatched furniture in the lounge, blue twinkling Christmas lights for the bathroom lighting, and a few peat fires keeping the whole place warm (one is in the bathroom – but don’t worry, there is a loveseat in front of it so you can lounge and enjoy).
A ginger cat named Messieur (sp?) seems to live here, and a random local woman showed up to invite us to music in the pub. No, not traditional Irish music, just 3 locals taking turns starting a tune and the others joining in as they will. Ghost Riders in the Sky, Ring of Fire, and a song called Spaces were a few played. The woman did convince Steven (who was also in the bar, of course) to sing part of “The Rocky Road to Dublin.” I wished I knew more songs, could play the guitar better or at least sing well, as I was reminded that night what a universal language music is. After we walked back through the park, where she stopped and took advantage of the wet grass to let us watch her practice her fire twirling skills.
But I was just going to tell you about my bike ride! ūüôā This morning I rented a bike from Steven and set out to do part of the Connemara loop. I rode past Kylemore Abbey, past hills and peat bogs, sheep fields and large lakes, out to and along the oceanside. It was gorgeously sunny. Wild blackberries, fuschias, roses, ferns, and rhododendrons grew lush by the sides. The road had hills, but I surprised myself by being able to cycle up them. At home I can’t even cycle home from the mailbox. Must be the Irish air. Due to places being closed this season, I didn’t find a place to stop for lunch until three, when I paused at a pub for a huge fish and chips meal – the fish took up half my plate! I relaxed in their windowsill reading “The Princess and the Goblin” by George MacDonald.
After the lunch the road went up and down more, winding along the coast and past homes perched for ocean views. Cars passed me occasionally, and the driver always waved hello. At one spot I stopped to walk onto the beach, and had the entire sandy strip to myself. I could easily read the story of the few prints trailing along, and left my own temporary tale.
I had to walk up hills more at the end, as my legs started to question what in the world I was making them do, but in the end I had biked 40 kilometers and was proud of myself. I made one more stop before the hostel – to balance out all that exercise with a surprisingly large slice of cheesecake and nearly a whole liter of water.
But let my pictures tell the rest – describe half of the beauty, that is. Seriously, you can’t even know. The crazy part is this area is so secluded and untouched.

Dancing in// Tuscany

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Every traveler – of the world, of life – knows that the best parts of a journey are the parts you don’t plan. The moments that come out of the blue, that just happen, and end up becoming the highlight and a memory you will always try to hold onto. Like people and places and a hundred other small things are ingredients, and sometimes as the hours slip by you find a combination that makes a particularly wonderful recipe.

As travelers, we also hope to see the land’s culture outside of the museums and tourist landmarks. To break bread and share stories with the people, to see close up all the similarities and differences between us as well as the freckles on their faces. To clasp hands. To step over their doorstep and drink tea together. To stop up the thoughts that put my way of life as the best, but just to listen and take in.

We got to do all of this and more for two brief days in the countryside an hour from Turin/Torino, Italy – smack dab in Tuscany.

Tuscany has always been especially beautiful to me. I still remember sitting in a doctor’s office, maybe 5 years ago now, flipping through a travel magazine and coming across an ad that had a typical Tuscany photo – a sprawling white house on top of a hill filled with vineyards and cypress trees. Everything was washed in sunset warmth. I asked the receptionist if I could take the magazine home, and I still have the photo tucked away in my room. From then on, I’ve wanted to see Tuscany.

Obviously two days – all the time we could afford between leaving Rome and heading north to Paris – was just enough to dip in the tip of the toenail of our tiniest toes in, but it was a great taste (literally).
First off, Turin gets tops in Couchsurfing. In the beginning we were hoping we could spend our few days close to the now-popular Cinque Terre or somewhere on the west coast, but research into hostel prices and CS requests didn’t produce anything. So I sent out requests to Turin, where our bus to Paris was leaving from anyways, and not only did we hear back overnight, but we had three invitations, so had to choose! O life’s dilemmas. We chose to stay with a guy in the country Thursday night to Saturday morning, then to travel into Turin and spend the night with another couchsurfer there so we’d be all ready for our Sunday morning bus.

On Thursday we used rideshare to get from Rome to Casale Monferato, a small town an hour from Turin. The other three people in the car only spoke Italian, so we didn’t talk, but they were obviously jovial and easygoing people, and it was entertaining during the ride just to watch them talk and joke. They dropped us off right in town at the train station, where our host Cristhian picked us up. He was born and raised in Italy, though he’d traveled all over, and now lived a simple life with his 5 month old cat. His house was a skinny two story whose front windows looked into his overgrown, jungle-like garden, and the back windows onto fields and the train track. He made us some tea and we talked until it was time to leave for a folk dance he invited us along to. Apparently it was a once a year event.

We met up with a few of his friends along the way, who were from the UK and Gemany and Italy, and carpooled to a tiny town called “Rinco.” One part of the drive was especially beautiful, where we puttered along a ridge in his old car and could look down on the hills and lights of scattered houses on both sides. Lovely, Italian cypress trees.

In Rinco they had a large, white tent with a stage and a hardwood floor set up, and the band (made up of accordions, a bass, some sort of woodwinds, and one other instrument I did not recognize) was already playing away. They played a variety of songs, but a lot were native to that region, of Southern France, Northern Italy, and Eastern Spain, collectively. They told me the name of the region but it didn’t stick in my mind, being in Italian.
Olivia and I hung shyly on the side for a while, sitting in the chairs and just watching. None of the dances were taught but everyone seemed to know what to do, like they’d learned the steps from birth, which they probably had. There were also people that seemed clueless but were just having fun and laughing, which made us feel better. After we watched for a few dances, like standing on the diving board eyeing the pool, Cristhian came over and convinced us the next dance was an easy one. And once we caught on, it was.

We danced for almost three hours more, taking breaks only for the really hard dances or to use to the nearby water pump. Most of the dances were in groups, in circles, but we never lacked in men to lead us in (they were all at least above 35 – don’t get any ideas, Mom). One in particular seemed to enjoy dancing with Olivia, while another grandfather seemed to like dancing with me. He didn’t talk, just smiled at me, his eyes almost hid by wrinkles.¬† When the dance would end and the next one was announced, he would immediately strike up the pose, holding my hands, and smiling at everyone else that meandered into position until the song started a few minutes later. At the end of one dance, close to midnight, I suddenly found myself next to him and in a line of people with their arms around each other. The grandfather suddenly straightened and puffed out his chest, now my height, as everyone sang heartily a few songs in Italian.

And thus ended our first Italian folk dance! Before we left we exchanged info with some of the other young people there, who were actually from Germany and on vacation. The next day we met up and went to the swimming pool, then walked around the town. Per Cristhian’s orders we invited them back to the house for dinner. It turned out that that day was the birthday of Cristhian and the British lady we’d met at the dance, so we had a celebration that night with about 9 people in all – which completely filled Cristhian’s tiny dining space. Every spot on his oven was also full, and we enjoyed a dinner of homemade ravioli, cooked zucchini, figs, red wine, and fig cake for dessert. Even the cat joined the party, moving from lap to lap as he wanted. The party stretched on until midnight when people dissipated in groups.

We enjoyed one more breakfast and conversation with Cristhian the next morning, before taking a bus straight into Turin, where we spent the night at the flat of another CS and his girlfriend. They were very welcoming (and Miyazaki fans!) and served us – what else? – pasta for dinner.

Unfortunately we did not get a chance to spend more time with our hosts or to really see the city of Turin, which I’ve heard is beautiful, as we had to catch a bus the next morning for a 12 hour ride to Paris. From Sunday to Sunday, we’d gone from Bologna to Rome to Turin to Paris. Whew!

Written on the way from Paris to London
Soundtrack: Needtobreathe. Always and ever Needtobreathe.
And Death in His Grave/John Mark McMillian, Remember What You Believe/Mumford and Sons, All of Me/John Lennon

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