journey

There It Went

As a year that is despised by most ends and a new one begins, countdowns and resolutions have taken over the internet. I have been guilty in the past of naming years – “2014 Year of Travel” and “2016 Year of Possibility” (at the time I didn’t think possibility would turn so negative) – but this next year I will not name. I will just let 2017 be whatever it decides to be as it happens, because living in the moment is one of the best lessons I can take away from this whole adventure. As for a recap of the past year, I don’t think anyone needs another rambling post from me about what ending my trip, dealing with cancer, getting a job, and moving back to New York City was like. I don’t even know if I could write that post. Suffice it to say that I did not expect last year to be what it was at all, and it has not been easy on me. But that is not what this post is about.

This post is about that time three years ago when I started this blog. My first official post was on January 30, 2014, but in the month leading up to that first post I had already told everyone in my life of my grand plan, including my job, and started preparing for my departure. I promised myself that I would document it all, from the planning stages to every location to my eventual return, whenever or if-ever I did return. From that day until now I have been halfway around the world and back, I have boarded two one way flights out of the United States and two unexpected one way flights back, and I have found myself settled again in a place I never would have predicted when I started this journey three years ago.

I started TravelAbrodge to document my Round the World trip. Then I continued it to document my Round the Central America turned Life in Guatemala time. And then I used it when I didn’t know any better way to update everyone on my experience with a sarcoma surgery. It has been one hell of a ride.

But some part of me always knew that ride would end. That one day, my TravelAbrodge would be a part of my past, and I would re-enter the stable working world. My blog would have to end with it.

Now that the time is here, it’s been hard for me to actually shut it down. Not only is it a clear sign of the drastic change that has occurred in my life – from a nomad who could take off on a moment’s notice to a project manager who reports to an office 5 days a week – but it is something I grew to depend on in a way. No matter where I was or what I was doing, I would always take time to sit down and write about it. Some posts were short and some were way too long, some were factual and some were deeply introspective, but all were a part of me.

I have enjoyed sharing these parts of me with you. My experiences, my thoughts, my challenges, my elations. And I thank you – truly and sincerely thank you – for reading along. I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did.

And with that, I say farewell to the blogosphere. I know I will have many more adventures and miss writing about them here, but they are for another time and place. This story is complete.

Adios my friends.

– Kristen, aka Brodge

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Phase 3: The Tristen Phase

For some reason I always imagined there would be a Phase 3 of Travel Abrodge. Phase 1 was the RTW trip, Phase 2 was my Central America time, and Phase 3 was nothing more than an inkling that I would have one more thing to do before going back to stability. It usually took the form of Europe in my daydreams, sometimes a road trip, or the rare Antarctica idea. I never could have predicted what Phase 3 would actually be.

I came back to the United States because I had a bump in my side that was growing rapidly. Tristen the Tumor, as I called him. My male counterpart trying to break free out of my rib – a reverse Adam and Eve scenario. If Eve caused Adam this much pain, I feel for him.

I’ve had pain in my side for almost 10 years already. Back when it first showed up I was told it was an inflamed rib – costochondritis – and there was nothing I could do but ice it and take Advil when it acted up. Then on a random day in February 2016, a small bump appeared at the very spot that had been a constant literal pain in my side. That small bump was the size of a golf ball by May. Three different doctors in Guatemala told me three different things so I decided it was time to go home and get some answers.

Two doctors, one ultrasound, four jabs to get a biopsy sample, and three labs to analyze it finally gave me an answer. Tristen is a synovial sarcoma.

Synovial sarcoma is a rare malignant tumor. The chances of getting a sarcoma are small to begin with, but a synovial sarcoma is somewhere around 3 in a million. Don’t I feel special? It has been growing in a muscle in my side for 10 years, and just in the past 6 months it outgrew its home and declared its presence to the world.

Cancer is a scary word. It’s a term that is largely perceived as a dangerous, incurable disease. What it really is is an all-encompassing word that covers a vast range of illnesses. Yes I have cancer, if you want to put it that way, but it’s a very specific kind. As the most recent round of tests showed – a CT scan and an MRI followed my diagnosis, I’m getting really used to hospital visits – my cancer is localized in the sarcoma. This is the best news I have received since I started this process. This means that the surgery to remove Tristen is most likely curative. Yes there is a small chance I would need radiation/chemo to make sure it is gone for good, but the doctors are stressing that ‘small’ word. In all likelihood, when the surgery removes Tristen, the cancer should go with him.

I have surgery on Monday. 8 weeks after my first doctor’s visit but only 3 days after being told the surgery should fix the problem. It’s both a long time coming and so suddenly here I can’t wrap my mind around it yet. Maybe that’s better, less time to really think about being put under general anesthesia and having a near-tennis-ball-sized tumor cut out of me, along with part of the muscle it has lodged itself in and the skin on top of it, to be replaced by a piece of mesh that will hold the remaining parts of muscle together. Before I know it I’ll be on pain meds to help combat a whole new kind of pain – recovery. Then physical therapy. And hopefully the news that we got it all out. And then, the best part, no more pain in my side. I don’t even remember what that feels like after almost a decade of randomly feeling like I’m being stabbed in the rib. But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, first things first.

I have debated whether or not to post anything about this unforseen Phase 3, heretofore known as The Tristen Phase. It’s deeply personal and uses words that probably causes more alarm than I am actually feeling. I am surprisingly calm about all of this. I even managed to enjoy the MRI (FYI if you ever have to get an MRI practice meditation, it helped me stay calm and barely even notice the loud banging noise). So why am I posting this now? Two reasons.

One. It is the easiest forum I have to update everyone. I have been facing the best problem in the world: having too many people who care about me. I am truly lucky to have so many people want to know how I’m doing and wishing me well. But it honestly does get exhausting, getting reminders almost daily that something is wrong with me and having to constantly retell what is going on. This way I can write it here and everyone gets the update at once.

Two. This is part of my journey. It is not why I started this blog and it is not about travel, but it is about life. I made the decision to travel at a time when I didn’t have any medical hinderance, knowing that the future was unpredictable. The future did not let me down, I could not have predicted this. So if anyone is reading this not because you know me but because you happened upon my blog for the travel stories (and managed to read this far into this long-winded post), take this as a reminder to go now. You never know what will happen so make that dream your reality.

When I found out I had a sarcoma… Well first I cried a little, I mean come on it’s cancer it’s scary shit… But then I realized that it came at a time when I could handle it. If I had found this out when the pain started at 19 years old I would have freaked out. Who knows what would have happened with school, how that would have affected my career or ability to travel. Having it now at 29 (which, by the way, is the typical age these things show up) I have done everything I wanted to do in my 20’s and I am okay to stay here and deal with this. Of course it would be better to never have to deal with this, but apparently life was going too well for me and the universe decided I needed some balance.

So there it is. I don’t know how much I will write about what’s going on with Tristen and me. The idea is that I will use this as a forum to update everyone, so if you want to check in on me please look here first. I have surgery on Monday 8/15 and will be in the hospital for 2 nights. Recovery will be 4-6 weeks in Vermont. I can’t promise frequent or timely updates so please be patient.

And lastly, no, they won’t let me keep Tristen and put him in a bottle of mezcal. I know, I’m disappointed too.

My Last Hostel

It was April 16th and I was checking into my final hostel in Fukuoka. In the “Previous Destination” line on the check-in form I casually wrote “Aso.” I moved on to the next line, “Next Destination” and quickly wrote in “USA.” Then I had a minor panic attack.

There it was, the permanent written evidence of this decision I had made. Next Destination: USA. I was going back.

I had spent the weeks leading up to and since this decision constantly wavering on whether or not I was ready for this moment. I knew I was or I wouldn’t have gotten the ticket to go, but seeing it there in writing made the prospect of returning to my native country suddenly real, and really terrifying.

300 days around the world. That sounded pretty damn good. But once I decided this nomadic life was the right life for me, no day of returning would probably ever feel comfortable, even if it was a nice round number and I had the best possible coming back scenario. I was still terrified of going back, of ending this incredible adventure, of giving in to going home.

But it wasn’t giving in. It was a conscious decision so different from anything I expected returning to the United States would be. It was a decision to continue being nomadic for longer than I originally envisioned. This return home was not the go home and find a job mindset, but the recharge and set out on a new adventure mindset. This was a huge change in my life plans and perspective. In this way, returning to the US was actually the beginning of a new adventure as much as it was the end of this one. End of a chapter to start a new one.

So it may have said Next Destination: USA, but it did not say Final Destination. That was still a question mark.

After I checked into my hostel I set up my laptop in the common space to take care of some business like writing down the details of my flights and attempting to blog, which horribly failed in my distracted mental state. Two guys were at the table next to me talking to the hostel receptionist about choosing to go out for ramen instead of partaking in the cheap hostel Thai dinner (which did sound like a great deal) and I casually commented that I was going the same route. My last night in Japan could not be spent eating Thai food; I needed one last Japanese meal.

We got to talking and I ended up hanging out all night with Loïc and Nicolas. We went for tonkotsu ramen and a large Asahi at the riverside yatai – a local tradition – and then picked up a bottle of sake to enjoy on the rooftop of our hostel. It was my last night, we had to celebrate.

When the bottle was empty we ventured back downstairs and were joined by Tom for whiskey and whiskay (a whiskey sake combination that I steered clear of due to my early flight). It was one last accidental late drinking night with new friends from different parts of the world, and it was exactly how this trip should have ended. It’s those moments with the people I’ve encountered that I cherish most. Thanks guys for sending me off right.

The Train Journey from Inle Lake to Kalaw

There’s something romantic about train travel, something old-fashioned, that evokes the movies back when they were called “the pictures” – the tooting of the horn signaling it’s time to go, the slow churn of the wheels starting, and the landscape passing by the windows like frames on film.

As soon as I read that it was possible to take a scenic train from Inle Lake to Kalaw I was sold. I had to do this. Forget the popular trek, I was captivated by the idea of seeing the countryside of Myanmar from a rickety train cabin.

So that’s exactly what I did.

The train only leaves in the morning, 8:30 and 9:00 am I was told, so I left my hotel at 7:30 am for a piercing cold 30-minute tuktuk ride from Nyaungshwe to the Shewnyaung train station. I didn’t mind the cold though; I looked out at the passing land blanketed in mist and reflected on where I was, how far I’d come in the past eight months, and how I felt about my trip. Overall, fantastic, but those thoughts are for a different post. I got my ticket when I arrived at the station for the whopping price of 1150 kyats (about US$1.50) and was rushed out to the platform – the train was leaving at 8:00 am. In a country where buses are perennially late, the train left earlier than expected. Good thing we’d left a little early.

I quickly found my seat and not a minute later I heard the horn prompting our departure from the station. My car was nowhere near full and all the windows were open, so I settled down in my jacket, hat and gloves, ready to watch the world pass by.

The train is scenic in a uniquely “Myanmar in the dry season” way. We rumbled slowly first past green farmland, then through a forest, engulfed by tall trees on either side with a misty background obscuring any distant view. We popped out of a narrow mountain passage and the scenery changed entirely: rolling hills were covered in trees and home to an occasional small wooden cabin. I wonder what this looks like in the rainy season when everything is saturated and green.

Just as quickly as this landscape appeared it disappeared and we were in a town with small single-room houses and people on the streets. I could see people going about their lives from my window, something I wasn’t privy to in the hotels and restaurants of the tourist hubs I’d been staying in.

The next scene was dry farmland, tan and brittle, with a backdrop of rolling hills covered in a patchwork of browns, reds, and golds. Sometimes there were people working in the fields, sometimes cows grazing. We passed another small village. People of all ages came to the tracks to watch the train pass by and wave. I waved back. I watched a kid racing to try to catch up to us; I hoped he would make it but he disappeared behind a bush and I didn’t see him again.

The train moved slowly and jumpily, the car behind us visibly shaking back and forth. At one point I was worried we would actually tip off the tracks but it held on. We stopped only twice along the way, and each time women approached the train with all manner of snacks perched on their heads in case someone in the windows was hungry.

It took 3.5 hours to get to Kalaw but I could’ve stared out the window for even longer. This was my activity for the day. I’ve taken many night buses, prioritizing activities at the next destination over the route to get there, but once in a while I love making the journey the priority. The whole ride I watched the world go by, the world of rural Myanmar, not tourist Myanmar, and by the time I got to Kalaw I felt like I’d already had a full day.

 

We Went for Relaxation, We Got Spiritual Bootcamp

I’ve been wrestling with how to write about Amanoi and have come to the conclusion that there is no right way to write about it so whatever comes out will have to do.

I have never experienced anything like an Aman resort. I don’t want to go into detail about the resort itself, both because I don’t think it’s necessary here and because I don’t want to ruin the experience for anyone else, so I’ll just say that it was the kind of place I thought only existed in hearsay, that I would never experience in my lifetime, and I feel very fortunate to have been there. It was another level.

Amanoi was somewhere we went for ultimate relaxation in a remote, beautiful setting. Perched on a hill with no other buildings nearby, it was peacefully removed from the bustle of civilization. Within minutes from our little apartment (bungalow? residence? pavilion?) we could be at the Cliff Pool with an unobstructed view of green mountains cascading into ocean, or we could be at the Beach Pool with just a private strip of sand separating us from the water’s edge (both infinity pools, btw). Even bad weather didn’t ruin the serenity; our private residence felt like it was alone, and being able to order anything (aka cocktails) right to our door helped us find no reason to leave for an afternoon.

What we sought at the Amanoi was an escape for a few days to recharge, which is why what I got out of the Amanoi was entirely unexpected.

It started innocently enough: yoga at 8 am on the pavilion hovering over the lily pond. I didn’t know I could enjoy Ashtanga Yoga, the kind that focuses on breathing and stretching, moving slowly in order to center yourself, but I did. I went to 8 am yoga every morning we were there and would like to keep it going in the future. Then Meredith signed up for 7 am meditation one day and invited me to join. I’ve meditated a few times in the past and always found I had a curiosity for it so I happily went with her. That’s when everything shifted.

Our 50 minute meditation session with the Spa Manager reached both of us in ways that are hard to describe. My experience was not what I expected it to be but had a definite effect on me, which took a little while to realize and evolved as the day went on. It prompted me, with some encouragement from Mer, to speak to our meditation leader – who I have taken to calling “the Yogi” – later that evening. Our conversation was important for me in this trip and in life. He knew things about me that he had no reason to know, and reaffirmed things that I didn’t know needed reaffirming. After our conversation I sat in the bath for a while – I don’t remember the last time I took a long bubble bath – trying to process what just happened. I needed some me time.

What came out of this encounter was hard to understand. On the one hand I felt empowered, gifted an insight into myself that I wouldn’t have readily come to at that time. On the other hand I felt a little turned upside down. Did that really happen? Was I really that affected by the Yogi?

Leaving the Amanoi felt strange. It was like an alternative universe, one that turned my normal one upside down. It led to a lot of self-reflection, a lot of emotional ups and downs, and necessitated some time to myself before I could move forward. I got that in the next few days and was able to move past the slight bewilderment I was experiencing in the days immediately following.

Now I can say that I am still curious about meditation, having kept it up since then. I am in a very spiritual part of the world that has always intrigued me. It is not coincidental that all of this happened here; if anything I should have seen something like this coming. So as I continue my Southeast Asia portion I am curious to see what happens with this side of me. Will I keep going in this meditating inner-self-discovery direction? Considering that I just tried to type “or realize that it was a temporary experience and go back to my closed-off life” and deleted and retyped and redeleted it a few times, I think I probably will continue. At least for now.

This is why the Amanoi was not what I expected it to be, but also why it was an important stop for me in this journey. I realize this could be a kind of out there post for some people, but if anyone wants to talk to me about it I welcome it. This journey has become a spiritual one as well as a physical one, around the world and the self.

Bon Voyages

Over the past month I’ve said goodbye to a lot of people. I’ve moved out of the city I loved with some of the best people I’ve ever known, I’ve reconnected with college and high school friends only to say bye again, and I’ve gotten together with family in a wonderful sendoff celebration.

All of these goodbyes have been sad, and they’ve made this very real. But more than anything, they’ve reminded me of all the fantastic, supportive people I have in my life. For that I am forever thankful. I will miss you all so much.

I know I am looking forward to taking a break from our hyper-connected technological world for a bit, but I can’t help but feel grateful that the same technology I’m escaping will allow me to keep in touch from wherever I am in the world. Through this blog, through email, facebook messaging, google hangouts, and WhatsApp (yes I have decided to bring my iPhone as a wireless device), I will at least be able to say some quick hellos and hopefully have some great catch-up sessions while I’m away.

And maybe I’ll be able to convince more people to join me. Or at the very least, I’ll be able to feel like it hasn’t been so long when I see everyone again upon my return.

So for now, all of you have been a part of this journey already. Thanks for everything, thanks for following so far, and I will try my best to follow through on my promise to keep this blog updated so you can all come along with me, at least virtually.

9 hours till my flight.

Auf Wiedersehen, USA.