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Living in Paradise

It’s been a few months since my last blog posting from Italy. I recently tallied my year of travels and visited 46 cities/towns in seven countries, staying in 70 different hotels/homes! So you can understand my desire to hunker down and be still for awhile.

In October, I returned to Bali to settle down at long last. My first few days back in Ubud, Bali, I looked at 20 different homes, and it was easy to select my sweet little studio. My living space is 450 square feet, with half my living area outdoors. The second story balcony includes an outdoor kitchen, dining table/desk and chairs; all overlooking a serene rice paddy field. In Southeast Asia, the hum of motorbike and car traffic is incessant. However, my house is on a quiet footpath with occasional dogs barking and the hum of insects. I fall asleep to croaking frogs and wake up to roosters crowing. And my rent is only $300/month, including housekeeping twice a week! My neighborhood is a 30-minute walk into the city center, or just a $1 moped ride from my always-available landlord. Many days pass without leaving my pedestrian-friendly neighborhood since we have a yoga studio, delicious restaurants and many of my friends live nearby. At a minimum, I travel into town for my weekly massage (90 minutes for $11!).

I’ve adopted a simple lifestyle and didn’t even have wifi my first six weeks back in Bali. My refrigerator is stocked full of fruits, vegetables and tofu, and would make my mother proud. I cook two meals a day, whereas in Seattle, I was lucky to cook one meal a week! Yoga four times a week, weekly massages, meals with friends, and only 5-10 hours a week of work. People are always asking me what I do with all my free time and I somehow manage to never be bored (okay, I have learned to be totally entertained by watching the ducks frolick in my rice paddy field).

The past few weeks, I’ve had different friends from Seattle visiting, and it’s been such a joy to share with them my small slice of Bali. We have visited beaches, temples, healers, attended ceremonies, practiced yoga and sang karaoke. They have all remarked on the special nature of Bali, and the personal transformation they have experienced during their time here. One friend related that I’m so much more open in Bali then I ever was in Seattle. And it’s true. I was very happy in Seattle and hope to return there someday. But Bali nurtures this soft, easy, open side of myself – just an unleashed Annie!

Every day, I meet people and they ask me where I’m from and I practically jump up and down with excitement, loudly proclaiming, “I LIVE HERE!” Tourists look at me jealously, while expats sometimes remark that I’m on my honeymoon. Bali instills a constant feeling of gratitude in my life. I hope to never lose this feeling of excitement and joy about my paradise.


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Lucky, lucky, lucky

In 2010, I volunteered at several orphanages in Vietnam, including Tam Ky, located in my mother’s home province of Quang Nam in Central Vietnam. Shortly after I left one of the orphanages, 14 families from Spain arrived and adopted all of the babies. My Vietnamese-Australian friend, Tiffany, has stayed in touch with many of these families over the past two years and invited me to join her in Spain to visit the families this summer. She even offered to pay for most of my expenses, so I readily agree to her generous offer.

The journey from Bali to Barcelona takes 34 hours, with layovers in Kuala Lumpur (where I meet Tiffany), Bangkok and Cairo. When we land in Barcelona, we are so exhausted that we sleep through our first night in Spain, even though we only intend a short afternoon siesta.

Barcelona is a far-cry from Borneo and Bali, and I relish the clean, silent streets, although I miss falling asleep to the sound of frogs croaking and waking up to roosters crowing. Tiffany treats us to a sumptuous 8-course tasting menu. The restaurant is so fancy that we ring a doorbell to get buzzed into the secure dining room. When Tiffany leaves the table, a waiter immediately appears and folds up her napkin without touching it, using two spoons and two forks in a hilarious display of service. She stops eating after 4 ½ courses so I wind up eating a staggering 11 ½ courses and savor every bite! I’m just amazed by the contrasts in my life since days ago I was using squat toilets and bathing in dirty river water.

Our next stop is Zaragoza, Spain to meet four families with adopted Vietnamese children. On the train ride, I’m suddenly stunned by the significance of our trip and overwhelmed with emotions. I feel quite nervous as we walk towards the Old Square, and spot the first family. We hug and kiss the parents and their three-year old daughter. She is a bit shy at first, but Tiffany bribes her with chocolate and lipstick, and I play tag and peek-a-boo. Soon she is holding our hand and sitting on our lap, just like the little baby we had embraced two years ago in Vietnam. My Spanish is limited, as is their English, and we communicate through basic words and the handy use of an Iphone app translator. The father thanks me for taking care of his daughter before they adopted her. I quickly reply, “De nada (you’re welcome).” But he stops me before I can shrug it off and looks at me deeply, “No really, thank you so much.” I get a bit weepy, the first of many teary moments.

The parents are hungry for information about their children. What was their life like at the orphanage? Who were their birth parents and why were they given up for adoption? Did they have health problems? What were they like as babies? Tiffany volunteered for three months at the orphanage, and has some information to share with the parents. My mother is from the region, so I know what life would be like if they had remained in the orphanage. I wish we could provide more, but the parents are grateful for any information, since they only received the clothes on the babies’ backs and the official paperwork, nothing about their children’s health or history.

We spend two days with four families in Zaragoza, several of them driving long distances to meet with us. They are so grateful to the volunteers who loved their children before their adoption. I feel incredibly blessed to be able to meet them and get a glimpse of their life in Spain. The parents absolutely adore their children. Of course, all parents love their children; but these parents seem particularly loving and doting. They even dress their children like themselves!

After Zaragoza, we take a night train to Leon and another family meets us at the train station at 6am. He asks us if we are tired, and I lie and tell him no, because I know he is anxious to talk to us about his daughter. We only have 24 hours in Leon and are meeting with three families, so every minute is packed with activities. We arrive at their home, and I’m delighted to be assigned to the daughter’s bedroom. She was my favorite baby girl in the orphanage, and I’ve often wondered about her fate.

All of the parents have waited many years to adopt their children. Their voices sometimes choke with emotion, describing the bureaucracy with agencies and the Spanish government, paperwork, endless waiting and anxiety, until they suddenly receive a phone call and must immediately schedule the long trip to Vietnam and pick up their children. Our host shares the video of the first time they see their children at the orphanage, immediately recognizable from the one photo they have received and probably looked at a thousand times before their trip. The parents hold on to their babies so tightly and look like they never want to let them go. At the orphanage, babies sleep on wooden slat beds with a bamboo mat. Several parents tell us that on the first night in the hotel, the babies constantly stroked the mattresses and sheets, simply relishing the softness.

There is a big joke about birthdays. In Vietnam, birthdays are not significant like in the United States or Europe. During the war, papers are lost or changed and many people change their birthdays when they emigrate to the United States. At the orphanage, they don’t know the real birthdays of the children and randomly assign them a birthday based on their general appearance. The parents look a bit horrified at first, but then I tell them my mother and brothers (all born in Vietnam) don’t know their real birthdays either! Is my brother really a Scorpio, who knows?

What I do know is that everyone in this equation is incredibly lucky. The children are fortunate to be raised in loving households, and have opportunities they never would have received in Vietnam. The parents feel incredibly blessed to have perfect and adorable children that fill their lives with joy. And I am just a bystander with a big smile stretched across my face, awestruck to witness the transformation in these children and families’ lives.









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Undercover Annie

I’ve been in Bali for 4 weeks, and decided to stay another month. It’s been an intensely healing journey for me and I’m just not ready to leave yet.

Although I’ve been practicing yoga for 10 years, it hasn’t been on a regular basis and I don’t push myself very hard, for fear of the pain or injury. These past few months in Bali and at the ashram in Vietnam have really elevated and deepened my yoga practice. And for the first time I can do a head stand! The spiritual aspect is a huge factor for my inner journey.

Bali has been so inspirational for me. The people are extremely gentle and humble. It’s been a good lesson for me to slow down my monkey mind, that I don’t have to be busy constantly, and to open myself to silence and stillness. I’ve attended several cleansing ceremonies in Bali, and have just been floored by the utter devotional displays. Women and men, young and old, all of them chanting with their eyes closed, heads raised up, smiles of pure bliss. Occasionally, people will start wailing and crying. It’s a bit stunning to see a grown man sobbing next to me, but I soon realize it’s just a natural emotional release for them. Balinese people spend about half their income on various ceremonies – no wonder they are so blissed out!

I’ve spent a few weeks at an amazing mountain yoga retreat center in North Bali, Gaia Oasis. The bungalows are nestled in the hillside, surrounded by lush banana trees, bamboo groves, coconut trees and flowering bushes. Yoga is twice a day, overlooking a pond filled with frogs. My first few days, I stay in my room recovering from food poisoning. Eventually, I feel better and venture out, sharing meals with other guests. One of the guests, after a two-minute conversation about healers, looks me straight in the eye and tells me I’m “undercover.” I don’t quite understand her meaning, maybe it’s lost in translation? So I ask her to clarify, and she tells me I’m undercover because I look so happy, but deep in my eyes she can see great pain and sadness. At first I feel a bit defensive because I am so unbelievably happy, but then I take a step back and own her words. I’m an incest survivor and have been working on these issues for decades. I’ve tried talk therapy, alternative treatments, meditation and hypnotherapy. And even though I can surround myself with goodness today, these horrible things happened to me as a child and I can’t change the past. In Bali, I’ve had so much time for contemplation that I’ve realized forgiveness is the true path for healing. Not for them, but for me.

A few days later, the yoga teacher leads us in a mantra about healing and forgiveness. She tells us to picture someone who needs healing and we begin the mantra (ra ma da sa, sa say so hung). I close my eyes and I’m at my brother’s house in New York. It’s a sunny day and I run into the house and hug my brother and mother tightly. We go into the back yard, feel the grass beneath our feet, throw our heads back in exaltation, holding hands, laughing and dancing. But then I imagine my Grandfather (who molested me) and he looks a bit uncomfortable. I hug him and we start to dance together. Later, my other brother joins us (who also molested me). I am really truly happy dancing with them. Afterwards, I open my eyes in this yoga room and am completely shellshocked by this spontaneous forgiveness.

A few days ago was Nyepi, Balinese New Year. It’s a day of complete silence in Bali. All the electricity is turned off, no one works, you can’t leave your house (or hotel), airplanes don’t even land in Bali! New Year is always a time to reflect on my life and think about my future. So this Balinese New Year, I decided to let love and joy into my heart. My new plans are to go to yoga teacher training in Vietnam in 2013, and open a yoga studio in Hoi An, Vietnam. I’m opening my heart more every day, and so amazed at where it’s taking me.

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My five weeks in Bali are complete bliss. I’ve been travelling alone for such a long time and so internally focused, that I’d almost forgotten the importance of human connections. Resuming my social self, I begin meeting fellow travelers at guest houses, sharing meals with new friends and going on outings. Most of them are on their own personal journey, and it’s wonderful to connect and share stories. One of the highlights is staying at Ashram Gandhi in Candidasa, Bali. My cottage is a few feet from the beach, and I can hear the waves crashing all night long. We eat our vegetarian meals communally, and yoga class overlooks the beach with cows softly moo-ing in the background.

At long last, my friends from Seattle arrive in Bali and suddenly my days are jam-packed with adventures. We return to towns I’ve already stayed at, and locals and travellers call out my name on the street. My friends are astounded that I seem to know everybody. On our first day, we hire a boat and head out to the small islands dotting the horizon. While we are snorkeling, the fisherman uses a spear gun to catch fish and a massive 11 pound squid. Later, we grill the fish and squid on a beautiful white, sandy beach.

In Ubud, Bali, I visit a healer with a delegation of six friends. The 82-year old healer is rail thin, and has a clean, bright energy. He takes short smoke breaks and cracks jokes between healings. The healer is in a chair and I’m sitting on the ground facing away from him. During the initial diagnosis, he places his fingers in my ears, probing my head, neck and shoulders. Before he hits a tender spot, he exclaims, “Ow!” predicting the pain. He tells me my head, heart and gut aren’t connected. That I need to swallow my smile and smile from ecstasy. It’s sometimes difficult to understand his English, and he tells me I’m from outer space (later, my friends have varying interpretations: I was abducted by aliens, I’m psychic, I live on another dimension). Then, he pauses and tilts his head to the side in deep thought. Everyone laughs, “Annie stumped the healer!” He asks me to lie on the ground, and takes out a twig, really a mini-wand and presses the twig between my toes. At first, I don’t realize I’m screaming out loud. The pain is excruciating and I’m yelping and laughing at the same time.

When we first arrive at the compound, we observe the healing sessions of a group of Swedish tourists. We exchange glances of horror when they scream and convulse from the twig. Then, the healer stands over me, splaying my feet with his, uttering Balinese words and motioning with his hands (I think this is the actual healing portion of the session). Afterwards, he uses the twig on my toes again and the pain is considerably less. His final words to me are “Don’t’ worry, be happy” – trite but true.

After a brutal all-night layover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we arrive in Da Nang, Vietnam exhausted with no sleep. We visit a friend in Da Nang, and in a manner of minutes we are all laughing hysterically. It feels so lovely to be back in Vietnam.

I use my 200-word Vietnamese vocabulary to make arrangements at hotels, with taxi drivers, and in restaurants. And I’m continually moved by the gentle, funny and strong souls of the people; easy to spot in a crowd of hawkers. The 50-year old man renting bicycles with the sweetest smile. The 18-year old boy carving bamboo roots into artwork. The 80-year old woman selling quail eggs and peanuts. The young women hold my hand, wrapping their other arm around my waist or stroking my hair. Vietnam is a part of my soul, and my new life starts today. I’m so grateful my Seattle friends can see me in MY Vietnam. They even email my mother that I have supportive aunties in Vietnam looking after me.











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