Nerdy Cat Scuba Travels

A Cat Lovin' Engineer taking a career break by traveling, doing a divemaster internship, and diving around the world

Top 5 things I’ve learned so far at a Startup

A little over six months ago, I decided to pack up my things from Spain and move back to California. Full of motivation and excitement. An optimistic view on how I was going to be in the startup world.

Instead, I was met with a big bucket of cold American work ethics and a splash of reality. A high school friend told me “A job at a startup could be the best experience you’ve ever had or the worst.”  Here’s how its shaping up…

Ever Changing Processes

Simply put, I feel like I’m baking a dozen of chocolate chip cookies only for someone to realize that they don’t like chocolate chip anymore.  Then, I bake oatmeal cookies instead, at which point they said they want muffins now. Do I continue to make cookies or change to muffins? Or not make anything?

I’m realizing that I’m the one that needs to change. Startups need to be able stay flexible and adapt to the overall picture of what we perceive our value added is. My first thought is to grit my teeth and keep all the work I’ve done to plan things out. Are you sure you don’t want cookies? I’m slowly learning not to take it personally when I toss out everything I did the week before. Let me get started on those muffins for you…

Unlimited Vacation versus 4 Weeks of Vacation

When I first joined the company, I thought unlimited vacation meant that I could take a vacation whenever. There wasn’t a set time limit or negative connotation with it. “Unlimited” is a trick word. I should have googled it. In most scenarios, people take less vacation when it’s unlimited.

I self-guilt myself into taking less time off. I find myself checking my email whenever I’m away to make sure I pull my weight at work. The company is small, my day-off affects other people. If I leave, then someone else has to pick up the slack.  I worry the impression it has on everyone else. So instead I try to do mini weekend trips. Anything to not disrupt work.

Me in Colorado over a weekend.

The Struggle with Nomadic Life

I spent so many years changing my lifestyle that I don’t want to slip back into the same habits. Working all the time. Going home only to feed my cat and sleep. How easily I found myself doing the same thing at this startup. First one there, last one to leave. I had a moment where I saw this happening.

Hard stop. I close my laptop and leave now. I tell myself it (work) will be there tomorrow.

Is the startup culture to work day and night?  Is that the way to succeed?  If there’s anything I want to bring to this company, it’s that you can be successful while valuing employee work life balance. Lead by example. People will work harder naturally when they believe in the company. I work a lot, but I also play a lot. Both can exist at the same time.

Salary Expectations

Generally, startups pay about 30% less than industry standards. I think thats because you are taking on some risk for a bigger payout further down the line. Does this work for me? Starting to think about my “worth” I wanted to know the right blend. What’s the formula?

What is/was the lowest wage (excluding volunteering)?

Answer: 35 euros / day for scuba guiding. Commuting an hour each way by bus, leaving my place at 7am and returning home around 4pm.

Worth it. I loved the family-run business in Spain.  I spent most my day in the ocean and showing people octopus and fishes. The day always went by quickly and I enjoyed spending time at the “office.” It’s not a job that would pay all the bills, but yes, 100% return on time and happiness.

What’s the perfect blend?

Sometimes I question if my stress and emotional roller coaster is worth the salary.

Am I selling myself short? Salary doesn’t matter, but it does when you go home feeling stressed out, confused and undervalued in the company. I’m still trying to figure out the stress limits I will accept at this salary level.  If I got paid more, would I mind the stress and personal time sacrifice? Or on the flip side, since I have a lower salary, how do I limit my stress to be happy?

Formula:

A. (Winner): (Salary Expectation)-(less at a job where you like the mission and co-workers) = $$

B. (Salary Expectation) + (Stress Factor x base salary) =$$$$

1 on 1 meetings vs Performance Reviews

In the start up world, these 1 on 1 meetings feel like a mini therapy sessions. I’m talking about my interactions, my motivations and opportunities of self improvement.

Caught in between two generations: Gen X and Millennials.

Gen X: work work work.

Millennials: talk talk talk.

I don’t need to talk about my feelings, but as a manager I need to give my team the opportunity to vent and grow.

From the Manager POV

During these mini performance reviews,  I follow the template: what’s going well, what needs improvement, ask questions about the company, and take feedback.  Sometimes I have nothing but compliments and we high five each other. Other times, I can feel tension growing… hearing them slam down their notes on the keyboard of all the things they want to tell me. I try to understand their point of view and explain what’s going on. I try not to show them if I am also feeling the same thing. I want to stay positive and keep them performing.

From the team member POV

For some reason, when the table flips and I am the team member and not the manager, I get anxious and hesitant. I don’t like talking about everything going on. The relational energy isn’t there.  I focus more on how I’m failing instead. I vent without clear direction of what I expect to change at the company.

Rinse and repeat each month.  I’m in a relationship where the other person wants to “talk” about their feelings all the time. Emotionally draining.

I try to think about how start-ups want to feel connected to their employees. Is this working? Does it help retention and company performance?

Let’s Hang Out – Outside of Work

“You mean you actually like going out with co-workers??”

Yup. Believe it or not. The best part of the start up life is working with people my age or younger. Connecting over something new together. We vent to each other. We like hanging out.

I’m not afraid to be myself.  Previously, I never wanted my co-workers to know everything about me. I wanted to be the “A Student.” I never did anything wrong, and I always just worked hard.

Now, I can be both. My coworkers know I’m human and live outside of work.  I dress the same at work as I do after work. I don’t have to hide who I am.

This feels good.

Conclusions

More and more, I do feel that I am growing more from this experience. Good or bad, I’m happy to be back in California and working with people close to my age.  It’s easy to live on an island and scuba dive everyday. The challenge is trying things that you might not be comfortable with. I’m learning a lot and have no doubt it was the right decision.  Is it my new career? That I can’t say. I can’t say that I will be doing this next year. The startup could fail. Things change.

Note – I wrote this in April, and am only now posting (due to laziness)…

When a Friend of the Family Passes Away

On 9/28/2018 Anthony Yen left this world.  A tall “white” Chinese man with a deep voice and a strong presence. Uncle Tony, my Dad’s brother from another mother.  He had a way to make my Dad laugh and smile like no one else. They knew everything about each other and were friends for over 50 years.

Uncle Tony was half British and half Chinese. Dark Brown hair and round eyes. When my dad worked in LA, they would eat dinner together almost every night. Dad loved telling the Chinese restaurant waitresses that he taught my Uncle Tony Chinese. I see their relationship similar to the ones I have with my best friends and sister. The love that lasts forever. Trying to think of a eulogy to say goodbye to someone so close seems impossible. How do you explain that type of brotherhood to anyone? Out of all my dads friends- he is the one I was closest to.

First memories

During Christmas break of 1985, my dad drove me and Wendy down to la to visit Uncle Tony and his family. During our stay, they found out it was my birthday and promptly threw me a birthday party. After all these years, it’s one of my favorite birthday memories.

 

Last Memories

Maybe a year and a half ago, while visiting the Bay Area, my dad and Uncle Tony asked if we could all have dinner. I made a half joke about having to drive alone to dinner. The third or fifth wheel to everything. Uncle Tony told me that I wasn’t solo and he’d ride with me  to dinner, hugging me.  A small but endearing moment.  A positive fixture in my life. It was the last time I would see him healthy.

Cancer

Both my dad and uncle Tony were diagnosed with cancer in 2010/2011 . Each person went through surgery and treatment pushing the cancer into remission. However, in 2016 Uncle Tony’s cancer came back.  The doctor estimated one year. This time he declined chemo treatment and chose holistic and organic treatment. I was angry. Yet I couldn’t say anything.  Everyone pretended it was going to be ok. I told myself it was his quality of life – and maybe this was better. But now after the fact, I wish I could have convinced him to choose life. To stay here just a little bit longer.

This last year he deferred my visit requests. I don’t think he wanted to see him weak and un well. Each time we talked- he would say he would see me when he recovered.  I had been hopeful to see him at Wendy’s wedding, but he was too weak to make the trip. I think in the back of my mind, I knew I would never see him healthy again, but I pretended that one day would be better. If I didn’t think about it, then I wouldn’t have to face the grim facts.

Regrets

I regret not seeing Uncle Tony one more time. Why did we all pretend that holistic treatment was going to make the cancer go away? I’m mad that he died. Would oncologists have been able to save him? I regret not making it a bigger deal with my Dad. Instead now, I get angry at God for taking away a good man too soon. He was my Dad’s best friend and I don’t know if anyone else understood every aspect of my dad as well he did.

The Funeral

The day to say goodbye was hard. I thought about how I would always look for Uncle Tony when I went with my Dad to see his friends. Now his face is gone from the crowd. Instead his photo sat on an easel, next to the coffin that looked too small to fit someone with that much personality. Tears rolled down my face. I couldn’t say out loud what I was feeling.

Saying Goodbye to Uncle Tony

Uncle Tony – I hope this next journey brings you peace. I’ll try to keep the positive attitude you had with my Dad. Take him to try new restaurants. Encourage him to travel. Live live to the fullest. I know I never told you thank you…. but thank you for being a part of our family.

Rest In Peace Uncle Tony

We love you.

Why Its a Mistake to Leave the Digital Nomad Life

It’s only Wednesday. I’m trapped at a desk. I’m anxious. Boxed in by computer screens and some hipster glass conference rooms. Long 8 hour days. Everyone else is working. I hear loud chatter in the background from a sales specialist talking about how our daycares are the best ever. I look down. One of the office dogs is staring at me. He wants some food. Maybe if I get a dog, I won’t mind being here. Red Hot Chili Peppers is playing in the background. I take a deep breath…. sigh.

What have I done?

Transitioning from the Island Life to A Normal 9-5 Job

Imagine you can do anything you want to do. What do you choose? Move to an island and relax. Happily ever after. Or is it?

For the past 2+ years, I’ve been floating around and living life day by day. I’ve been traveling. Trying out different careers. Divemaster. English Teacher. SEO. Permanent Traveler.

SEO

When I decided to quit engineering, I called the two people I knew that could help me. Matt and Robert. We were all electrical engineering majors. But not the typical nerds. We all wanted to do something different. Matt and Robert read Four Hour Work Week and quit their jobs a few years before  me. I looked to them for guidance. Robert gave me a job / internship to learn about SEO. Matt called me every week to coach me on how to start over. Over a few months I learned the ropes and moved to Thailand to learn how to do SEO solo. I created my own company. My bestie helped me find customers. I networked. I worked. I became a Digital Nomad. I became a cliche macbook pro user at a coffee shop.

I do SEO because I like to see the results. It’s all on me. I’m my own boss. Some days I struggle. Stress. Worry. I’m constantly learning more about balancing work and life. The money let me live where ever I wanted. When I want to travel, I go. When I want to go home. I fly to California. Thankful SEO gives me that flexibility.

Working Remotely

There are no days off. Yet, everyday can be a day off. The best part of having my own company is being able to work anywhere I want. Budapest for 10 days. Tour during the day. Work in the afternoon. Out again for dinner and drinks. Rinse and Repeat.

The Downside

Some Days I don’t want to be that tourist. Some days I want to watch Netflix with friends. Lay on the sofa with them and reminisce about how crazy we were in college.  Hang out. Face-time is a substitute, but not the same. I’ve been fortunate to make friends in every city. But that doesn’t replace my best friends. There were so many times I felt alone.  Missing the casual days where I  would sit there watching my friends cook in the kitchen. Having them poke at my non-existent love life.  Talk to me about nothing and everything at the same time.

The Pitch to Join a StartUp

Initially when my friend Jesse messaged me asking if I would work for him. I responded flat out NO. No way! I’m done working for the man. But as he started explaining his company I became more and more interested. Maybe this is something I can get into. The more we talked, I could feel myself get more excited to be part of a team. To make something bigger. Would this be the same? I would be the program manager, have equity in the company. Provide guidance. Challenge myself.

Selling Out

Returning to a 40 Hour work week? Have I lost my mind?

Let me think about this…

Pros Cons
Seeing Friends again in LA and California Lost Ability to Work from Anywhere
Being Part of a large Team that could change the childcare – preschool industry Endless Amounts of Vacation
Showcasing my Program Manager Abilities Loss of Low Rent  // No Longer Living in Europe
New Job Will Force Me to make my own company Efficient – > Hire New Employees Lose my Spanish
Making New Friends with Similar Entrepreneur mindset Being Forced to work M-F 40 hour schedule
Try the Experience in a Startup Loss of Free Time

Regretting My Choice

I didn’t think the cons were a big deal. Loss of free time and remote working. I was wrong. The first week in an office I felt extreme anxiety and caged. I felt like a feral dog brought into a home.  Maybe this was going to be harder than I thought. Learning everything about this new company. After work I catch up on my own company and balance with unpacking and settling into LA again. Each day I feel anxious. How do I explain what I’ve done to everyone?  It shouldn’t matter, but I don’t want to disappoint anyone.

Is it about the money?

Spain is cheap. LA is not. Rent in Seattle was $1400, $400 in Tenerife and here its over $2000. I added more salary with this new job, but I feel like all the extra money goes to the cost of living. I tell myself I’m working for the experience and not the money. Its about feeling rooted. Seeing my friends. Coming back to America. After I got my first paycheck, I realized its definitely not about the money. American taxes and corporate life really do make you pay.

Good Bye Solo life and Hello Wolf Pack

Goodbye digital nomad life. We had a good run. See you later.

What Two White Shirt Mormon Missionaries Taught Me

Knock Knock. Who’s There? Mormons.  Silence. Hello?

Now repeat this everyday for 2 years.

Every wonder why Mormons do this? Why spread the word of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints? Well, I did. So on one insignificant day, I talked to two young Mormons while walking around in Tenerife. One was from New  York and the other one was from Sweden. Elder Hinkley and Elder Holstrom.  I didn’t ask them about their underwear or anything weird like that. I just wanted to have some company and know about the Mormon religion.

Science and Religion – Do They Mix?

Having a science background, I believe in evolution, dinosaurs, Pangea, Darwinism, and so much more. I can’t think of a way to explain how Adam and Eve would fit into these scientific histories. Yet, I believe Jesus was a real person.  I believe he was performed miracles and died for our sins.

Growing up, I went to a Christian Baptist Church for most of my childhood. I had a Precious Moments Bible. Thursday Youth nights and Sunday school sermons. I got excited for new dresses for Easter. I sang songs like –

Father Abraham,  Had Many Sons. Many Sons had Father Abraham… I am one of them, and so are you….

So What happened between being 13 singing songs of Christianity and Now?

Belief versus Faith versus Truth

Belief

I drink water from the faucet because I believe that it’s clean. I haven’t checked the mineral levels, or completed any tests. I simply drink the water because everyone drinks the water. No one has gotten sick. I believe that it’s clean.  If I were to test it or google test results, I could prove that the water is clean (or not clean), and that would change the water safety to a truth. I don’t bother because I haven’t gotten sick, and I don’t care. That’s my belief.

Faith

My Dad loves me. I have faith that he will love me no matter what I do or happens in life. I can do countless tests, but there variations are infinite, so is there a way to 100% truth that my dad loves me? Not really, but I I have faith that he does. Faith can be tested but never truly proven true or false. The tests would only make one lose or gain faith.

Truths

Science related. Truths are things you google verify on snopes. Is it a truth that Eve bit the apple? Some say yes. But to me, that is not a truth. That’s your belief.

Joseph Smith – Prophet of God

Why do they do this?

Missionaries – A once if a lifetime opportunity to go on a trip for 2 years to preach about religion. Every 6 weeks each “elder” meets another Elder. The two learned Spanish prior to arriving to Tenerife and worked 6 days a week preaching the gospel of Mormonism. Thinking back to when I was 18-20, it would have been really interesting to go on a trip abroad and meet someone with similar beliefs every 6 weeks. Tenerife, not a bad place to live for 2 years. See the world. Tell people about  your loved prophet, Joseph Smith and the son of God, Jesus Christ.  Help people.

Our first meeting, I took the two Mormons to a local coffee shop. I drank coffee while we chatted for an hour. We started in Spanish, but all the words were too complicated for me to understand. So they switched to English. The hour went by quickly. I stayed at the cafe and they went to their next appointment.

Walking around La Laguna. Meeting new people. Practicing Spanish. Telling people about who you love and believe in. Now compare this to your job. Is it better or worse? I’m sure they have good days and bad days. But each time I met with the Elders, they were in good spirits and talked about their Faith energetically.

Reading the Book of Mormon

Before this month, I never opened the book of  Mormon. I was actually surprised about how “readable” the text was. The first reading the Mormons gave me was the intro. It explained that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and provided testimonials validating the information he found on the gold plates. (The gold plates remind me of the 10 commandments Moses brought down from God, but these gold plates included in the information we find in the Book of Mormon today).
The Elders really wanted to explain to me that this was Truth. They believed it. They had faith in it. Is it scientifically proven? No. ummmmmm….  However, I believe they take it as a truth.  I respected their religion and point of view and decided not to fight it.

Going to Hell

As I continued to read different passages in the book of Mormon, I became more and more interested. Mormons have three kingdoms after death. Kids and babies that aren’t baptized aren’t going to hell.  They believe that a child under the age of 8 does not have the reason or knowledge to be judged and shouldn’t be judged unfavorable in the afterlife. They go to a heaven where good people (that aren’t Mormons) go. Same thing for the Dali Lama. If I continued to be a “good” person, I would go there too even if  I wasn’t baptized in the Mormon faith.

This made sense to me. One of the challenges of Christianity for me is thinking that good people would go to Hell if they weren’t baptized. No one can say in all certainty what happens after we die. But I want to believe that no matter what, our spirits will go to good resting places depending on how we live our lives on Earth.  I want to be able to see my grandpa and reconnect in the afterlife.

So what did I learn?

Missionaries are just people out on an adventure. These two guys didn’t miss coffee or alcohol, because they never tried it. They didn’t care about it. They spread the word of Mormonism because they believe it to be True. Saving people and helping others. They aren’t annoying salesman. They aren’t as ridiculous as the Book of Mormon Play or how South Park portrays them to be.

Imagine the feeling you would get from helping a person find faith and improve their outlook on life. Thats their goal. Perhaps someone lost or lonely or depressed – and you were the one to be there to help.

Chatting with Door Knocking People

I had time to spare and I hope I helped to make two young missionaries have a good day.  After a couple of meetings with the two white shirts, I learned about  Mormonism without being pressured to convert. I got to ask some silly questions about coffee and their temples. They got to dispel false rumors. I didn’t stop drinking coffee or alcohol, and it was nice to find out I wouldn’t be going to the Mormon’s version of hell.

Religion in time of need

About two years ago, a friend of mine, offered me her story of how God was there to help her when she thought she was all alone in the world. She didn’t know how to get out of an abusive relationship. Didn’t know how she would find a place to live or get a job to support herself. Then someone from a church reached out to her and helped her find a place to live. She found a job. She became part of the church community and felt safe.  She asked me to open my heart and let Jesus in to help. With my heart open, I could start a new and better life.

I think she could see that I wasn’t in a happy place. I had just left my career and relationship. There was something off about me. Then I wondered if the Mormons had sensed something off about me. I was just wrapping up my teaching experience in La Orotava, living in a new neighborhood with most of my American friends gone.  Juggling loneliness and anxiety. Had they seen something in me where religion could help?

Why is religion so important in some people’s lives versus others. I think about how alone I am in Tenerife and realize that if I didn’t have friends or coworkers that I may have joined a church for a sense of community. Someone to accept me and spend time with. Maybe from there, I would read stories about what happened in the past and use that to help make future decisions. If things got better in my life, would it be because of the Church and Jesus?  Maybe I could find a modern church somewhere that believed Gays were normal, abortions were ok, and Noah didn’t really have an ark. Would it be that weird?

My New Faith in Jesus

Honestly, I believe that their is a higher being out there that has an impact on our souls. Whether his name is Allah, Yaweh, or God. I do not know. I call him God and I believe his son was Jesus. That’s my faith. I believe that I can live my life on a set of good morals and go to heaven or maybe be reincarnated. The afterlife will never be known to the living.

If I am ever lost without hope, I can turn to religion for help. Am I at that point? No. I’m still okay with living my life the same way. I know things will always workout. Things happen for reason I can’t explain. I just go with the flow. In the same mixed Faith with traces of Christianity, Buddhism, and Science.

Auxiliares de Conversacion – A Teaching Experience in La Orotava

How did I wind up in Spain? And where is the Canary Islands? The entire process actually started February of 2017. My friend had completed the same job in Madrid and encouraged me to apply. The Auxiliares de Conversacion position required one to be a  native English speaker from USA or Canada and a have college degree.

The position provided:

  • The ability to obtain a Visa for 8 months (October – May)
  • Up to 16 hours of work/ week for 933 euros a month.

A few months later in June 2017, I accepted a teaching assistant job (Auxiliares de Conversacion) from the Gobierno de Canario. Sounds simple enough. What the requisition didn’t provide was all the details of transitioning into Spanish culture. The struggles and the delights. Would I do it over again? In a heartbeat. Looking back on the 8 months, I realize that I have changed for the better, and hopefully that one would think I am, not only an Asian American, but also a little Canarian now.

 How is Canary Islands Different from Spain?

People say it’s the Hawaii of Europe. Islander life- A slow pace, chill lifestyle. How can one be stressed or angry living on an island with beautiful views everywhere?

I think Canarians like to acknowledge that they are friendly than the Peninsula Spaniards. Hospitality unmatched.  Each Canarian I met welcomed me with open arms and went above and beyond to make sure I enjoyed me time here. At first, I resisted. In America, it’s not normal to say hello to strangers on the street. Go to your coworkers’ parent’s home for dinner. I wasn’t sure how to integrate with everyone.

Immersed in the way of life here, I couldn’t help but be converted. Here, I learned to value my time over work. The importance of relaxation and “me” time. Each day after school, I would take a small siesta and relax until 5pm. During that time, I would “get nothing done.” That’s right. Two full hours of me time.

After that mini-me time, motivation would be renewed. Now that rest is over, I had to get up and be productive again for another 3 hours. Some days, I would work on my internet tasks, other days I would practice my Spanish grammar.

The Wages

Is the monthly allowance from Auxiliares de Conversacion enough?

You can definitely “survive” on the 933 euros a month. The rent for a standard studio was about 400 euros a month (mine was a little less expensive). Although you wouldn’t be able to do anything else. Most other Auxiliares gave English lessons to students or online.  I worked online after school for additional income. The price of a coffee here is 1 euro, a sandwich 2-3 euros. A dinner could be enjoyed for less than 10 euros. All my coworkers were always so generous in treating me to coffee or lunch.

What do you need to teach?

“Teaching is so easy and I definitely am overpaid.” Said NO ONE ever.

Teaching requires a lot of planning, interaction, discipline and organization. What’s more mentally challenging? Designing a plane or getting a teenager to try and apply himself to learn? The teenager. With design, I only needed to know the technical requirements. With a teenager, I need to pray to the gods to give me the strength of patience. It would take every ounce of civility in me to be nice and encouraging to a student who couldn’t care less about their future.  It’s embarrassing to say this, but some days if a difficult student’s chair was empty, I would let out a little sigh of relief. This day would be a little easier.  Examples? Well, one day a student told me “Leslie, Son of a bitch.” I pretend I don’t understand. “Sun at the beach? You want to go to the beach? Why?” Then he would say it again. I would repeat the pronunciation of “BEE-CH”. “Beach.” This would go on until he gave up and other students would laugh at his failure on pronouncing a “bad word.” Afterwards, I would ask him other English phrases we were studying to focus on “clean words.” What’s this? A pencil. What’s this? A desk.

In all, there was in fact, only 3 times, where I had to report a student to the teacher for saying/teasing me inappropriately. Whenever I did have to “tell” on a student, I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t handle the situation on my own. I was failing on being a strong authoritative teaching assistant.

Do I have an authority as a teacher?

One of the rules in the program is that the Auxiliares de Conversacion are not allowed to be left alone with the students. We are aids, not teachers responsible for the students. With that being said, I wasn’t sure if I had any authority to impose penalties for misbehavior. No one ever told me the guidelines or what I should do. I couldn’t figure out if my role should be as a friend to them or as a supervisor. My overall goal was to encourage them to speak English. I decided to kill them with kindness. I would be the one to help them. Let them know I was there as an English aid, not a teacher that would grade them. Whenever I would see the students around town, I would always wave and speak in English. “How are you?!” My heart would fill with joy every time they answered” I’m fine thank you and you?”

The GOOD days

The majority of students want to learn. They want someone to pay attention to them. I always liked kneeling next to a student to help them with their workbook or have a little English chat.  The best feeling, for me, was when a student’s face would light up, I could see they linked the English phrase to the Spanish one.  They understood what I was saying. Yes! I did something!

The Boring Days

Not every day can be a winner. There were the days where the teacher needed to explain the grammar or the terms in Spanish. I would sit in the back of class and try my hardest not to fall asleep. I wasn’t sure if the teachers wanted me to contribute more, or not. I wanted to go with the flow and not create more work for the teachers.  Looking back, I wish I had been more proactive about the lesson plans.

Occasionally, I would try to walk around and assist students, but either they weren’t in the mood, or I couldn’t find the strength to force them to participate. When a student hides their workbook from you and only speaks in Spanish and pretends to go to sleep… what can be done to get them to speak in English? The more I pulled the workbook and spoke English, the more resistance I would get. On these days, I would lose motivation and let the student win. But did he really win?  I think he lost the time and opportunity to learn English. Like English- I had the same resistance to Chinese. Like my parents would say- “One day you will regret not learning more Chinese!” How right they were.

CEO Manuel De Falla

The teachers, the administrative staff, the kitchen staff, and groundskeepers are caring and attentive. Unique amongst all other schools in the North, My school included a ethnography exhibit with an entire historic home replica, including a hayloft, gofio mechanisms, cooking area and clothes washing station. In the back of the school there was a vegetable garden for the kids, Orange trees, Avocado trees, donkeys (Cano and Chiquito), rabbits, and goats. The school even had a coffee shop where the teachers could relax during break. (Though the constant rain destroyed some of the electrical in the coffee shop, but thats another story.)

Comparing with other English teaching assistants, I really felt like I won the lottery in school selection. All of the my English teachers were excellent in both English and teaching.  They taught me what it meant to be a good teacher. Other Auxiliares de Conversacion would tell me horror stories of classes out of control, misogynistic male teachers, prejudiced and ignorant teachers. I couldn’t relate. My school contained none of these negative factors.

My school was both a primary school and a secondary school, in a rural area, up the mountain towards Teide. I was the first ever Auxiliares de Conversacion for the school. We had some sunny days, but overall, the majority of my time at school included a down jacket and a scarf. It was a small price to pay for such an interactive school. Finishing school each day, I would start shedding my layers of jackets as the bus descended down the mountain towards the warmer beach weather.  Here are some of the fun activities we got to do during the school year:

  • Learn how to make Queso Fresco
  • Field trip with 3-5 year olds in Puerto De La Cruz
  • Attend an evening at school with local choir/music groups followed by Canarian Food
  • Roast chestnuts and ride metal sleds
  • Dress up for for Canarian Day (Our School had a Special Boda / Wedding)

Do you need to know Spanish before coming to Spain?

Yes and No. I had about 2 weeks of duolingo Spanish under my belt. The first few months I hammered myself with Spanish TV, Spanish workbooks, Spanish lessons. Each day I would lay down for a siesta and my brain would hurt. I thought I would pick up the language quickly, especially since I would be living in a small town. Nope. Didn’t happen. Learning language through daily life without taking a proper course reminds me of learning to swim. Sure you eventually will swim, but not before you feel like your drowning and swallow a bunch of water. My swimming technique improved 100 times when I joined a swim team. I was foolish to think I could learn Spanish fast. The language takes dedicated time and proper studying. Hindsight, I wish I arrived a month earlier and taken a Spanish immersion course.

Nonw, after 8 months of living here, I can:

  • Understand when someone is mad at me
  • Tell people (in Spanish) that I’m learning Spanish
  • Order food
  • Talk about the weather

That’s pretty much it. I originally thought I would fully immerse myself and find Spanish friends and boom! Spanish would seep into my blood. But since I was so lost in the Spanish language, I could not engage anyone above talking about the weather. I grew tired and frustrated at myself. I grew lonely. Not being able to communicate is tough. The social aspect of attending Spanish events and not being able to communicate was too much for me to handle.

Giving Up and Speaking English

To combat loneliness, I became friends with a few of the other Auxiliares de Conversacion. It was such a reward to spend time with them after a long of day of incomprehension.  We all had similar problems. Culture shock.  Language struggles.  Spanish Bureaucracy. Words would roll off my tongue. I finally realized now why most of the Chinese foreign exchange students in California would always hang out with each other than assimilating. Sometimes you need that in order to find sanity in living in such a different world. I didn’t want to be judged, I only wanted someone to understand what I was experiencing. I could tell them about my struggles and vice versa.

Challenges with Gobierno (Spanish Government)

The process of obtaining a TIE/ Visa in Spain felt like an epic 20 year Odyssey journey. Each time I felt the finish line was within reach, something would happen and I would need more paperwork to complete the process.

The first Visa

In June, upon accepting the Auxiliares de Conversacion position, I gathered all the necessary paperwork and sent it to the Spanish embassy. This included:

  • Multiple Passport Photos
  • Background Check Request
  • Finger Prints from the local police station in Seattle
  • A background Check Letter from the DOJ of California
  • An apostille verification stamp on my Background Report
  • My Auxiliares de Conversacion Employment Offer Letter

All this information and my passport was sent to the Spanish Embassy in San Francisco. Processing time stated on the web was one month, but really it took a week before I got an email of approval.  This first visa is only valid for 3 months. All the paperwork was supposed to be returned to me, but the embassy kept it. The rule for the next visa requires the same paperwork, but depending on the day, you may or may not be requested for it.

Achieving a Visa and a TIE card

In Spain, I had to do the following to get my Auxiliares de Conversacion Estancia Visa:

  • Go to an Estancia Office to get an official letter to document my job as a Auxiliares de Conversacion
  • Get a bank account (that took three attempts at different banks)
  • Request 2 different appointments at the police station (first one to fill the paperwork, and the second to pick up the card)
  • A trip to a bank account to pay for the TIE card
  • A local Spanish SIM card / telephone number
  • Provide an Empadronamiento from the City Hall confirming my new residence and lease
  • Provide the Official Job Offer from the Gobierno for the Auxiliares de Conversacion

All of the above was completed in my most unfortunate state of Spanish.  The struggle was real.

All businesses close by 2pm for Lunch/ Siesta. Even when I went get my SIM card, the phone company would say the lines are down, so come back tomorrow. Nothing was easy. Each day after school it was a rush to try to get things completed in time before the businesses close.

In fact, I didn’t receive my permanent Visa until the end of December. From there, it was only valid until the end of May.

Spanish Bureaucracy

If you first don’t succeed, hang up and call again.  I learned that your day could go fast or slow depending on the person working that day. Need a bus pass? Depends on who is working. Need a rental car? Same answer. Want an arepa from the girl at the bus station? Get ready for the worst service of your life.  The workaround to frustration, for me, was to realize it’s all chance. Be nice. Plead. Beg. Smile. Keep asking for what you want, until someone has mercy on your soul and will help you.

My day could change like the weather… one minute everything would be great. The next, cancelations, missed buses, closed stores. My day would be a catastrophe. The good news is that I learned in Spain – everything has a way of somehow working out.

No pasa nada.  – My favorite phrase in Spanish. Don’t worry about it.

Conclusions

This has been an experience of a lifetime. I wish more people knew about being an Auxiliares de Conversacion -España.  Immersed in a totally different culture than my American and Chinese background. I could never have expected the influence it would have on me. I’ve made life long friends, countless memories and maybe even learned a little Spanish.

Planning a Bachelorette Party in Los Angeles

Being a maid of honor has many responsibilities, but perhaps one of the most important one is to plan the Bachelorette party. There are many things I needed consider

  1. Budget
  2. Destination
  3. Activities
  4. Trip Length

Of course, it would be amazing to go on a trip of a lifetime, all expenses paid. But really, who has friends with unlimited budget? Maybe there is one or two people in a group that can spend $5k on a vacation, but most people have limited recourses, jobs, no vacation time, or mommy duties.

Weekend Getaway or More? Choosing the Length of Stay

Originally I wanted to take my sis on a cruise for about a week. However, all of her friends had more vacation limitations. Instead I decided that a weekend trip: Friday through Sunday would be the best choice.  Most of her friends lived in the bay area, San Jose. So, I wanted to choose a location that would be a short plane ride away (and an affordable plane ride)

Hollywood

Los Angeles is a big city with many different areas to explore. Personally, living in Santa Monica, I would have loved to have the beach and Westside to share with everyone. However, it’s not the best “party area.”  I wanted something that would be centrally located so that we wouldn’t have to sit in an hour or more traffic in each direction.  Here’s a simple table I made to help (those not familiar with LA)

City  / Area Type of People Things to Do
Santa Monica / Malibu (West Side) Healthier / Yoga Like Beaches, Lounging
Downtown Multi-cultural / hipster Bars / Foodies
Hollywood Tourists/  Actors People Watching / Night Clubs
K-Town Hipsters / Asians KBBQ, late night grub
Beverly Hills Bougie Shopping
Echo Park Hipsters Dive Bars, Foodies
The Valley / Burbank Suburbs Universal City Walk/ Studios

There are definitely more neighborhoods, and I’m being over the top stereotypical, but the generalization should help decide where to stay.

To complete the “LA experience” I decided to find a Hollywood Hills Mansion.  Its where all the shows on E! channel film and it’s close enough to Universal Studios.

Budget

Here’s where it gets tricky. Some people can spend $100+ a night on accommodation. Some want to stay in a hostel.  So to combat this, I decided that I could create a survey for all the guests so they could list the amount of money they would be willing to pay. The total amount of money per night would help decide on accommodation.  For example, person A is willing to pay $100, person B is willing to pay $75, person C is willing to pay $20.  For 3 guests, I have at least $200 a night, not including my share (and my sister’s share).  In theory, I thought person C would get a smaller room, versus a person paying $100 a night.

Bargaining with Airbnb

Many people don’t know this, but you can contact Airbnb hosts and ask for a discount. Sometimes if there is a lot of vacancy, they can throw you a bone. One Home in Malibu offered me about $300 off a night.

Reasonable Fees per Night

  • Basic House: $300-600
  • Hotel room: $150-$400
  • Mansion: $600+

Activities – Things to do during a Hen Party

There’s a long list of activities in Los Angeles for Bachelorette parties.  For example, here are some of the items I was thinking about doing:

  • Universal Studios
  • Magic Mountain
  • Spa Day (Korean Spa, Glen Ivy, Burke Williams)
  • Beach Lounging
  • Surf or Paddle Board Lessons
  • Food Classes
  • Comedy Shows
  • Concerts
  • Hiking (Griffith Observatory, Hollywood Sign, etc)
  • Broadway Show
  • Strip Club
  • Burlesque Club
  • Night Clubs
  • Bars / Cocktail Bars
  • Museums

In the end it all comes down to what the Bride loves to do. Does she like the outdoors or is she a homebody?

Getting Around in LA

Having a group of 5 or more requires at least 2 rental cars. We had a group of 10 people. I had rented a car that seated 7 people. I was able to pick up and shuffle people around the airport.  For dinners and clubs, we decided to leave the rental car at home and take 2 lyft/ubers.  This enabled all of us to drink and not worry about DUIs.  The average price of an uber ranged from $10-30 per vehicle.  Split amongst at least 4 people at a time, it wasn’t too expensive. Being the organizer. I would assign people to use their app to call ubers to break up the cost.  One person needs to always delegates these little things. I kept a little log of the prices to make sure that each person paid around the same price.

Being Flexible

You can only plan so much. I tried to plan each day with 2 big activities and at least one place to eat.  Everything else would be flexible. Maybe people want to relax or hang out in the hot tub.  By making reservations or scheduling a cooking class, I took away the stress of picking one place to eat.  Other times, someone could suggest something, or we could eat something at the house.

Making it Memorable

What to tell the bride? My sister is a planner, and she wanted to help plan her own bachelorette weekend. I gave her a rough outline of the weekend, but I tried to give her little surprises throughout the weekend to make it memorable.  Thisway she had an idea of what to pack and wear.

The Itinerary

Finally, the bachelorette party weekend had arrived. I flew in a day before to make sure that I could have the rental car and party preparations ready.

Day one – Friday

On Friday afternoon, I picked up have of the group from the airport and took them to the Grove for a quick tour of the outdoor mall and farmers market in the center of Los Angeles. We did some light shopping and picked up some snacks at Trader Joes. Shortly afterwards we went to Hollywood Hills to see our mansion. I picked a place with a rooftop deck and hot tub with sweeping views of the city.

For Dinner – I chose to surprise her with a private Thai cooking class. Our chef arrived with all the ingredients and mini cooking card souvenirs.  For the next 2 hours we learned about Thai ingredients, how to properly chop garlic and more.  We ate and enjoyed the sunset from the house

Cliché – Strip Club and Dancing

No bachelorette party seems to be complete without a trip to see men stripping off their clothes. I booked a VIP table in the front for my sister at Hollywood men. We were a group of 11 women and 2 gay guys, all excited with our $1s. At first, many people had their doubts if this would be fun. But everyone was happily surprised. We laughed and giggled.  The best part was that my sis had a great time.  After the club, we headed down the street to a tiki bar, where we ordered fancy cocktails and danced to some 80’s music.

Day Two- Saturday

The next morning, we woke up somewhat early to get ready for our big Day at Universal Studios. My sis is a BIG Harry Potter Fan. Because of my super awesome friend, we were able to get a small discount to tickets to Universal Studios.  We went prepared with our Wands ready! By 5 or 6pm, we were worn out and decided to head back to the house for a siesta

In the evening, I planned to take the ladies out to Downtown LA for  change of scenary.  We went to Bird and Bees for some fancy mixology cocktails.   Something a little different.  The only snafu was that I forgot to mention that cocktails, although delicious, are somewhat strong in liquour. Philip fell victim to the cosmo cocktail.

Bestia – My absolute Favorite Restaurant

Perhaps my all time favorite restaurant in LA is Bestia. I think it embodies Los Angeles. It’s hidden away in some random area of Downtown LA. Its got high ceilings and brick walls and an open kitchen.  We had a large group of people, so I made reservations 60 days in advance and chose to pick a set family style menu.  I pre-paid for the bill and had everyone else pay for their own drinks.  I kept my fingers crossed that everyone would enjoy it…. And thank god, each person had nothing but compliments on each dish.  At the end of the meal, we even took left overs home, so that we could munch on them in the morning!  Originally I had planned to go bar hopping after dinner, but everyone was so full and worn out that we just headed back to the house.

Day three- Sunday

The last day! In the morning, I shuttled some peeps to the airport. I purchased some coffee and treats for a light breakfast on the rooftop deck.  We sipped on coffee while chatting about the weekend.  Finally when everyone was awake and ready, we headed to West Hollywood for some people watching.

Brunch? I wanted to take people out for some brunch, but everyone was not in the mood to drink. Instead, we went to the Shake shack for some burgers and shakes.  The last meal of the weekend.

 

 

How to Keep a 30yr old Friendship Fresh – Take a Vacation Together

Facebook, Instagram, snapchat, emails, facetime- Just click and scroll. It’s easier to stay in touch online than to meet in person. There’s conflicting schedules. Families. Work. The list can go on forever.

Nevertheless, each year Han, Christina and I plan a few days out of the year to see each other. Our bond stays the same but a few white hairs and crows feet remind us that time is drifting by.

This year we plan to meet closer to my residence in the Canary Islands. Morocco. Just a few hours away from me. After many emails and one complicated online skype call later, we all book tickets to Morocco.

Morocco – Marrakech

Being lazy I use tripadvisor to give me “the top Private Tours in Marrakech”. I send out a few emails stating our travel dates and request for personalized recommendations that include a medina market tour, the Sahara Desert, and a camel ride.

After reading all the submissions from different tour companies, we choose a smaller starter company for $500/ pp for a 4-night tour – complete with a camel ride in the Sahara.

Menara Airport – RAK

First impressions- upon arrival, I hand my USA passport to the immigration guard.

Guard: Where you from?

Me: USA.

Guard: No, where are you from?

Me: Canary Islands.

Guard: No, where are YOU from?

Me: I don’t understand.

Guard: China?

Me: Me? No, I’ve never been.

Guard: Then where?

Me: What? Huh?

“She’s Chinese!”- Han yells from the other line.

At first I thought the officer thought my passport was fake, questioning my nationality. Oh, yes, my face is from China. My ethnicity is Chinese.

This troubles me. If there’s one person in the world that doesn’t need to ask the cliché “You Chinese?” question, it’s the immigration officer holding my American passport. I take a deep breath and sigh. Different cultures will never understand the Asian American identity quandary.  Han tells me not to be offended and I try to let the irritation fade away.

Staying in the Medina

We meet our tour guide right outside the airport holding a “Wang” sign. A very enthusiastic young man named Nourrdine. He gifts us with a bouquet of roses and welcomes us to the Morocco. Nourrdine has arranged for us to stay in a riad within the old city for two nights. We learn that a riad is an upper-class house that includes multiple levels, high ceilings and a courtyard in the middle. Our riad is beautifully decorated with Moroccan tapestry and cushions. We check in and drink some Moroccan mint tea. We relax on bright-pink, purple and blue cushions and watch the small fountain in the middle of the riad. It’s vacation time with my besties from second grade.

Dinner– Chez Ali

Resting in the afternoon, we head out of our riad just after dark. Our guide arranges for us to attend a performance dinner  at Chez Ali. A large arena / park about 30 minutes outside of the city center. The park, designed for thousands of tourists, appears baron and deserted. The parking lot is empty except for a few cars and buses. We enter the park by walking through a procession of Moroccan horseman. As we pass by each soldier raises his swords to form an archway over us. We walk into a large courtyard with some fountains, traditionally dressed Moroccan women, and a somewhat out of place giant cobra figurine.

A man standing on the terrace starts to play his flute. Two beautiful Moroccan brides come to us to pose for photos. Our guide takes us to each photo stop and poses at each different exhibition. Smile. Christina chuckles that this is the most group photos we’ve ever taken.

As we walk towards the dining hall, there are tents set up with differently dressed groups of singing and dancing people. Each group represents a different cultural area of Morocco. Reminding me of Disney’s “It’s a small world” ride, the dancers start dancing and singing as we walk into view.  Once out of view, the workers stop, stand around and look bored. We try to show our appreciation of their efforts by taking photos and smiling.

The Largest Feast Ever

Dinner is served in a large outdoor tented area. Despite only being a small group of 3, our waiter arrives with the largest Tajine platter we’ve ever seen. Probably at least 4 lbs of meat in the dish and enough to serve 10 people. We eat as much as possible but the dish still looks full. We debate about taking leftovers, but the waiter swoops in and replaces the tajine with the next course before we could say anything.
After dinner, we walk to the outdoor field to watch the horse show. There are dancing, horseman acrobatics, and galloping routines. The Finale ends with the horseman firing a bunch of loud gun shots in the air. Cold and Tired, we head back to our riad. The experience gives us mixed feelings. We want to like it because we see that it gives jobs to the locals. However, the emptiness of it all feels too fake and forced. Perhaps the park is fun during high season.

Private Guided tour of the Medina

Early the next day we explore the old city in Marrakech. Our guide today is a well-dressed older man. He starts off telling us about the architecture and culture of the Moroccan people. Since it’s early we are some of the first visitors of the day to the Saadian Tombs. A high wall divides the cemetery from the adjoining mosque. We learn that this entire area was once hidden by sand and dirt. During the time of war, the government buried the cemetery for protection. Years passed by and people forgot about the site. It wasn’t until recently that the government was alerted to a possible tomb within the mosque garden, that the site was excavated. This divider was created so non-Muslims could visit this area. While not actually in a mosque, it still gave us an idea of the architecture and design of what the rest of the religious temple may look like.

Within the site, each grave is marked by intricate mosaic designs. In a tomb of gold painted ceiling and columns, all of the King’s male descendants are buried together. In the adjoining room – slightly less elaborate – the queen and her female descendants are buried together. We see that most of the Moroccan historical sites separate women’s and men’s areas.

We can see this is still culturally present in Marrakech today. As we pass by coffee houses, we see men relaxing and smoking in front, but never women. When questioned, our guide explains that women do go to coffee houses, but usually sit in the back. If they are in the front area they are usually invited by another male family member. Times are changing, but customs are still observed. He says nowadays that women are going to school and work, but they still observe the male dominant culture.

The highlight of the day – the Old Market Tour

In the center of the market there’s a cobra’s head poking out of a basket. A man hypnotizing the snake with his flute. Bins of spices, vegetables, and fruits brighten the area. We taste some fresh mint and a different, butter-battered and cured meat. Overwhelmed by all the trinkets and souvenirs, we are reluctant to buy anything. Only after our guide brings us to specific shops do we jump in and buy some goods. At one of the shops, a woman shows us how Argan oil is made. She shows us how to tell the difference between the good and fake stuff; “Look for that ECO sticker and actual percentages of ingredients.” Trusting our guide, we buy some Argan oil, saffron and other spices.

Getting Scammed

Even before going to Morocco, I knew the shopping in the old city would be full of scams. I just didn’t know I could be a victim. Me? The seasoned traveler? Here’s how it happened.

Throughout the day, we get to know our guide and start to trust him as a friend. He’s polite and full of historical and cultural information. As the day progressed we felt this older man was more like an uncle than a paid guide. We knew that he may be getting commission from stores, but we felt that he probably would only bring us to the non-scamming ones. I thought he would tell us beforehand if we needed to negotiate with shop keepers -He didn’t.

Deep down we should have known better. Like anyone else, he’s trying to earn a decent wage for his family. Why wouldn’t he take us to particular stores to earn additional money?

The Rug Store- Chateau des Souks

Our guide takes us inside to meet an owner of the rug store, Chateau des Souks. The owner tells us, there is no pressure to buy, but at this place we can learn about the history of rugs. None of us are really shopping for a rug. We are keen to learn more about the rugs and how they are made.

We walk through the store and see a wall of photos. Famous people and Americans shaking hands with the owner. Look!  A photo of Bill Clinton shaking hands with the owner. The man tells us the store works directly with the government of Morocco where Foreign dignitaries pick out rugs and then the government pays a standard price.  We learn about the different materials and types or rugs. How women of different villages spend months to make each rug. Our eyes gloss over and each story gives a detail account of the tradition in rug making. What each woman emotionally puts into the rug and designs. Each symbol unique to a Berber village.

The store records each rug maker and its origins. Each rug has a standard government price so there is no negotiating. We learn that if we decide to buy the rug and no longer want to keep it, they will contact one of the many interior designers that want more rugs. They never sell over the phone, and one is only allowed to buy a rug in person. Why don’t they sell over the phone? No idea. Too many credit card scams perhaps?

Each of us are drawn to a different rug. I have my eyes set on a yellow one. Christina buys  a baby camel hair rug and Han buys a large one for her living room. We never thought to negotiate. That wall faces of famous people made us feel like we were in a legitimate store.

An hour later, and we are now Moroccan rug owners. We couldn’t stop talking about the rugs. The unique colors. The women. It dominated our lunch conversation. The guide was quite happy to say he also owned a few rugs from the store as well. We were all on cloud nine… beautiful unique handmade rugs from Morocco. “A whole new world! A magical place…(insert song lyrics here)” .

That is, until, we googled the store name. Chateau des Souks

Back at the riad, Han’s on tripadvisor. Disaster. Countless reviews of the store. We should have negotiated. We could have saved 25% off or more on the rugs. Why were we so naïve? We try to calm each other. These are unique designs. It was a good experience. But that scammed feeling doesn’t go away. How could we let ourselves be tricked? Aren’t we smarter than this? Why didn’t we check our phones while at the store?

Overcoming Deceit

An hour later, Nourrdine arrives to take us on a horse carriage ride from the old city to the new city. The sun starts setting, and it begins to get chilly. We tuck ourselves in with the blankets in the carriage. The horse trotts along the old cobbled streets while cars zooming around us.  This tourist activity is probably over 20 years old and needs to be retired. We would have preferred this horse carriage ride through the garden. Anyway, we appreciate Nourrdine’s effort and enjoy the experience.

Choosing a Restaurant for Foreigners

At the end of the carriage ride, Nourrdine excitedly takes us to a restaurant in the new city area. He tells us that he went for the first-time last week, and was so impressed that he couldn’t wait to take us.  We walk in and found ourselves in a lounge. My mouth drops open in shock.

The restaurant was dimly lit with mood lighting and a large screen tv showing football. The customers were all male. Smoke is filling the room. At first I tried to ask for a non-smoking section. Not an option. Then I try to sit outside, but it was too cold. Finally, I concede and we sit a table mid distance between two smokers.

Being overly polite, I try to pretend the smoke doesn’t bother me. The entire dinner I’m trying not to breathe or cough. I try to look normal, but I hate smoke more than any other smell. Each minute in the lounge feels like eternity. Han gives me the “I’m sorry” stare. We eat smokey air pizzas and try to pretend the meal is delicious.

At the end of the meal, I dash outside for some fresh air. My clothes and hair stink. The lingering smoke was smothering me so much so that, when we returned, I ask Nourrdine to tell the hotel security guard not to smoke anywhere near our hotel room. At first Nourddine protests and states there was no smoke or that the guard is probably sleeping. My crankiness emerges. Between the rug and the smoking, I’ve had enough.

I tell him, ” No, there is no smokiness during the day. I can smell it as soon as he arrives. Last night I kept waking up all through the night each time he smoked a cigarette. He lounges right beneath our room and I can smell it.” My voice almost cracking. I can’t take anymore smoking.  “Ok” Nourrdine responds. We enter the riad, and he tells the guard my requests. Embarrassed by my rudeness, Han teases me and I admit my faults and blame my old age. Nourrdine wishes us a goodbye and bon voyage on the next part of our journey to the Sahara. We all hug and say good night.

The Long Drive between Marrakech and the Sahara

The next day we wake up early and began our journey to the Sahara dessert. Originally the itinerary approximated an 8-hour drive. Our driver, Nourddine’s cousin, tells us it’s more like 12 hours. I begin to wonder if the camels are worth 12 hours. We try to ask our driver where we are going, but quickly find out he doesn’t speak English. Each time we stop, he says “ok, please walk. I stay here.”

A canyon here. A river there. A mountain top. An ancient ruin. Beautiful sites we didn’t know anything about. At each rest stop, children make little camel and rose figurines out of plant leaves in hopes for some money.  With sadness, we try to say no. The thought passes by to give them money, but then do we give them all money? I feel cheap and upset at myself for not helping. Am I helping by giving money? Or if I discourage begging, will they go back to school instead? I want to ask the driver, but have no sign language to explain this complicated question.

Han tells us that she once tried to give kids money in Vietnam, but then more kids swarmed the car, so much so that the car got stuck at a tourist stop and couldn’t leave. She felt even worse.

Why you should speak the Language

Maybe because he wants to show us everything, or maybe we are all being too polite, the journey stretched to 14 hours. We were dying. We wished somehow we could tell him in French or Arabic that we really didn’t care about the tourist sites. We just wanted to get to Merouzuga. Oh the torture.

We had tried to pass the time by reading, taking photos, napping. But after 14 hours, we were at our limits.

Our driver finally sensed our desperation and started to drive faster. He says “Maybe we make it.” Our car whizzes by other slower caravans.  Even Christina is disappointed with the schedule slip. We were all passive girls stuck in the back of an SUV. Unable to communicate. Hindsight, I should have requested a private tour with an English speaking driver.

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Merzouga Desert

The skies change from light blue to pink and purple. Slowly we see the sun disappear to the west and Sahara appears on the east. We see sandy edged mountain peaks. Then he points and says “See!” A young man with 3 camels in the sand. Hooray!

He turns into the sand, heading bumpily towards the camels and parks nearby.   We walk to the camels and take some photos as best as we could with the fading light. The sun has set and its getting cold and windy. Our driver tries to leave, but we don’t understand what’s going on.  His limited English prevents us from understanding the next part. Then the young man with the camels tells us he is from the camp and will take us there with these camels. No suitcases please.

We go back to the car and grab some items for our short stay. Once re-packed, we head back, mount our camels and start on our journey. The almost full moon lights up our path. The sand dunes look like burnt lemon meringue pies. I’m smiling and enjoying the peace and quiet. Han in the front, me in the middle and Christina in the back.  Our young guide, Mustafa tells us about himself. He’s been working at the camp for a little over a year. He speaks French, English, Arabic and is learning Spanish. The camels are named Bob Marley, Michael Jackson and Elvis. The desert is a relaxing and beautiful place. I couldn’t imagine sharing this experience with anyone else. Traveling with Han and Christina is always so easy. We intuitively know what each other wants. We all have the same taste and enjoy the same things. I’m grateful they took the time to fly 30 plus hours to see me on this side of the planet.

“Guys?” Christina squeals.

Then suddenly she lets out a frantic holler for help. I snap out of my thoughts. As I turn back to look, a camel is jumping back and forth. Elvis is trying to buck her off. Poor Christina clutching on the saddle for dear life. Mustafa quickly comes to the rescue and stops Elvis by tying him closely to Bob Marley. Once safe and secure, Christina starts laughing. We look at each other with tears of laughter in our eyes. Poor Christina.

Mustafa goes back to the front of the group, and our trek to the camp site continues.

Han and I laugh while Christina continues to look nervous. Her shoulders tightly shrugged up to her head. Arms flexed and fingers tight around the camel’s saddle handle.

Not too long afterwards, we reach the camp.  8-10 tents in a valley. Our large tent has 4 beds, electric lighting, a sink, shower and a toilet.  The camel hide tent is strong and keeps the wind from howling inside.

Mustafa invites us to unpack and then come to the main tent to relax and drink tea.

More Moroccan Mint Tea

The main tent is the main dining area with three picnic benches. A few lounge chairs and colorful decorative pouffs. There are 5 young hosts working at the campsite and one older gentlemen quietly in the back. All the young men are in the their 20’s. Charming socializers. One is playing a guitar, while another chats in Portuguese to some Brazilian guests. We toast each other and drink mint tea. There’s no alcohol at the camp. We snack on some nuts and crackers while talking about our origins to other guests.

Dinner served. First Course – Soup, Second course – Tajine. warm and delicious. Followed by some Couscous. Dessert  is a big bowl of fruit with Moroccan tea.

Post Dinner Entertainment

The young men tell us to come outside and sit around a bonfire. The large flames of the bonfire provide warm as embers drift up to the sky each time the wind blows. All the guests sit on small little stools. The hosts grab bongos.

We are surrounded by sand dunes. The sky is brightly lit with the moon and thousands of stars.

The camp fire warms us up. The men singing, chanting, and drumming on the bongos. Some guests sing along, while others sway to the melody.

As the wind blows, a bit of ash and embers jump up. Unluckily for Christina, the embers land on her neck. A bit of frantic arm swinging and Han trying to pat her down, we extinguish the fire. We laugh,  poor Christina. First the camel tries to throw her off and now she is almost on fire. She really is the unlucky one of the day. We have a good laugh and the bongos start again. “Bailar?” the hosts ask. Why sure. The hosts help us stand up in the sand and we form a circle. It’s dancing time everyone!

Three boys drumming along, the other two helping us to start dancing. We form a long congo line around the fire. I’m a little excited and have mixed feeling of silliness.  The congo starts and we play follow the leader. Every so often the hosts yells for us to follow his dance moves. Now the chicken. Now side to side. Now ride a camel. Point to the stars. Now up and down. Faster. Slower.

Out of breathe, we sit back down into our little stools laughing. The hosts come around and form us into mini circles and to teach us how to play the bongos. Tapping this corner and the middle to form a simple combo beat. 1,2,2,1. 1,2,2,1. 2? No, Start over. 1, 2, 2, 1…. I hit an edge and lose the beat. We all try our bests to become professional bongo players, but let’s face it, we aren’t keeping the temp. Our hosts takes the bongo back and makes it look so easy. Meanwhile, some Brazilians sing acapella.

Slowly one by one, the bonfire group starts to shrink in size as people wandered off to bed.  Shortly thereafter, we also decide to end the night. The coldness of the desert starts seeping into our tent. Han and Christina go to sleep with every piece of clothing on. They are frozen to the bone. Somehow the cold doesn’t bother me and I change into my pajamas. Quickly falling asleep.

The Last Day of the Trip

Before sunrise, Mustafa wakes us up and we get ready to depart.  On our camels once again, we watch the sunrise over the desert. The sand dunes are smooth with random sharp edges like frosting on a cake. This place is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been in my life. The light pinks and purples, emerging over the dunes. I’m so happy to share this moment with Han and Christina.

Soon we reach the edge of the desert and see our driver gain. We say goodbye to the camels and sand, tip Mustafa and jump back in the SUV. Our driver takes us to town where we can shower and eat breakfast.  Onward to Casablanca. We are all dreading another 10 hour car ride.

The long journey back to the coast is more or less the same. We leave the desert, drive through the mountains, some small towns and make our way back to civilization.

Casablanca

We see a public bus pass by. The bus is at full capacity with some people hanging off of the doors. The bus dangerously close to tipping over. Cars are zooming between lanes. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought we drove to India.

Finally, we reach our hotel. The city is busy and dirty compared to Marrakech. We notice mostly men enjoying the evening. At the restaurant. At the coffee shops. We do see some women pass by, but only a few, and never solo. Casablanca feels too gritty for our taste.

We go out for our last dinner together and try not to order another tajine if we can help it.We order a whole chicken, some bbq, and French fries. The meal is delicious and over filling. We talk about the desert and look at each other’s photos. Christina has added some fun star wars droids. We chuckle together and talk more about her unfortunate camel and fire experiences.

We head back to the hotel. The rest of the night we spend trying to re-arrange all the souvenirs, rugs, and spices into our luggage. In the morning, Han flies to Portugal and then back to California. Christina to Paris to transfer to Seattle. And finally, I fly back to Tenerife.

It’s not often that I get to see both of my friends at the same time. We all have such different lives. And now we will always have Morocco to talk and laugh about. I still remember when we were 28 years old and zip lining in the jungle in Costa Rica. Now 10 years later, we are riding camels.  I love my friends more than words can explain.

Back to Reality

As soon as I arrive back in Tenerife, I begin to miss my friends. I text them,

“When and where are we going to meet next year? Thailand?”

 

Honest Perspective – Looking Back on Why I’m still Single at 38

I never thought my life would be like this. Do I have Bad Taste? What’s wrong with me?

Thru the years, my thought of what age to get married varied. My parents had married and popped out 2 kids before they were 30. That was my point of reference. Rather Accelerated, but typical for the 70’s.

Is the definition of success different between a man and woman? My definition of a prosperous life included a family.  I always wanted to be a mom. I just didn’t know exactly when that would happen. Maybe my goals would have been different if I was a man.

Up until my Twenties…

In the back of my mind I always knew of the life goals I had to achieve to be successful:

  1. go to college
  2. get a good job
  3. get married
  4. buy a house
  5. have kids.

When I graduated college, I couldn’t wait to be independent. I could do whatever I wanted. Pink Hair. Don’t care.

As long as I kept passing my engineering classes and working, all else didn’t matter. I laughed at the thought of getting married and having kids.

Four years later and Step 1 complete.

22 years old. Fresh out of college. No more stress! The days of studying, working, and partying are over.  I’ve got an engineering job with a great starting salary, two adorable cats, and a boyfriend. Life is pretty awesome. I’m settled.

With America’s housing bubble to be – I join the rest of the sheep and buy a townhome with virtually no money down.

Step 1, 2 and 4 complete.

What’s Next?

The dream of marriage and kids pops into my mind. I don’t really admit to this to any of my friends or boyfriend. He’s still in school and I don’t want to stir the pot.  I don’t want to be single and not married.

Time passes by. Two of my best friends from college get married. Pregnancies… then the photos of babies fill my refrigerator door. I find myself at kid birthday parties instead of dance clubs. I’m going to friend’s homes to help make dinner. I’m buying furniture from west elm and learning how to decorate my townhome. I’m happily waiting to start the next chapter of my life.

At 28, my relationship ended with a “I don’t want to marry you” break up. My 20’s out the window. Single and unmarried. Crushed. I distract myself from the pain by diving deep into work. I get promoted and choose to move to Los Angeles. I had spent 10 years in my college home town and felt surrounded by couples and babies. A fresh start. A new me.

Los Angeles. Fun dating. New Friends. New hobbies. Living across the street from the beach. I start exploring solo vacations.

I’m having fun. My 30th birthday comes around and I feel pressure to complete my success list. Am I ready? Don’t want to be unmarried forever.

By 32, I’m living with partner. Work is getting crazier. More travel, more stress. The bridesmaid dresses start stacking up in my closet. 4 to be exact. A little reminder of people passing me by. I don’t want to be part of the single ladies bouquet toss anymore. Of course, I’m happy for my friends. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit a little jealousy. Why can’t I just be settled down already? When can I start my happily ever after?  

I’m still trying to balance between work, relationships, friendships, and family. I don’t have time to dedicate to my personal life.

Choosing work over relationships

Then it happens. IMPLOSION. My 5yr relationship fails for various reasons. Somethings are too complicated to explain. We both had our own issues. I can’t understand how I could fail so miserably in my personal life while everywhere else I was always a high achiever. Countless awards and recognition in academia and work, but I can’t figure out my personal life.  What gives?

So what do I do? Work more. That’s what I’m good at.

My career thrives, but also brings on new stress. Feeling pressured by my age, I try to find a new relationship so I can hurry up and get married. Being single is difficult. I download some dating apps and try to figure out what I should have learned in my 20’s. My married girlfriends use my dating app to help me choose suitable dates.

And then it starts – that biological clock. That ticking. What about my eggs?? I visit my doctor with questions about my eggs. She tells me that I don’t necessarily need to worry, but if its important enough, I could freeze my eggs but the cost is high. I don’t want to freeze my eggs. Single women issues.

Instead I decide to continue dating so I can get married and pop out kids. No pressure. (insert nervous laugh here)

I thought, if I could dedicate time to a relationship, then I can achieve success in life. I could be just like all my friends. I can have a family.

Before you know it, I put my career on hold and decide to chase the dream of accomplishing marriage and kids.

I stumble and trip. fall hard. I take a good look at marriage and kids and realize I’m not willing to sacrifice myself in order to be successful in society’s eyes. I also never go back to work at my engineering job, but that’s another story.

Conclusions on where I am today

I’m living on an island teaching English and sleeping on a twin bed.  My life feels more like I’m in my 20’s versus what I thought I would be like in my 30’s.

With a great therapist, I grasp the idea that success in life shouldn’t be based on that checklist (college, career, marriage, home, kids) I’ve been using my entire life. I tear it up into itty bitty pieces. Working on my self-esteem, I realize that I’ve been too focused on making everyone else happy, I want everyone else to say I’m successful in life.  I don’t NEED to get married. I don’t NEED to have kids.  I don’t feel guilty anymore for not achieving my goals of getting married and having kids. I don’t need for people to feel sorry for me.

Single Life feels like…

When I see my friends interact with their kids, I feel a ping to my heart. Will I ever get that feeling? The thought of  how I would be as a Mom pops in my head… Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I let the feeling pass and tell myself the good parts about being single. I can be lazy.  I can sleep in. I can travel…

At a 20-year reunion, would I be proud of myself or embarrassed?   Truthfully, it would be a mixture of the two. How do you explain to people that you aren’t married without them judging?

I’m not the only one.

When I read articles of single women in their late 30’s. Strength and empowerment. Proud to not choose marriage. “I don’t want kids or marriage.” Who is experiencing the struggle like me? Yes, I wanted kids and marriage, but it’s ok that I went the opposite direction. I don’t need another person or child to complete myself.  Life is full of ups and downs. I’m comfortable. No matter whatever happens next.

What’s the point of all this? Well, hopefully my honesty here helps another single woman with similar thoughts know they aren’t flying solo. Life goes on.  Ya know?

Speaking of which…. back to single life. Back to me.

 

Keeping Spanish Traditions Alive | The North of Tenerife

You mean “Gua Gua.”

“Huh”

“That’s what we call a bus…”

Living in the Canary Islands, I’m repeatedly told by the locals what is Spanish and what is Canarian. Light hearted differences to set them apart from the rest of the Spanish speaking regions. Spain, like America, has many unique areas with their own heritage. Based on what I’ve seen so far, San Andrés, the Spanish Canarian Holiday, is the ultimate demonstration of their beautiful culture.

San Andrés Holiday – Wednesday November 29 2017

Starting in the fall, my school starts to collect all the chestnuts from the chestnut trees around the campus.

In the last week of November, the north of Tenerife holiday spirit comes alive. San Andrés time! Posters around the north make note of the upcoming celebrations in Icod and La Orotava.

Roasting Areas are set up in the city central plazas. Large metal smoker bins in the corner of sunny hot coastal plazas. Some days I walk by with a tank top, shorts and flip flops with a disbelief that people would be roasting anything in this heat.

Cacharros y Castananas – Tins and Chestnuts

What are Cacharros? Somewhat reminding me of the tin cans strung on a “Just Married” car, the Northern Tenerifian residents create these loud tin strings for their kids.

CLINK & CLANK!

The louder the better.

In the past times, it wasn’t uncommon to see people pulling old washers and bathtubs through the street.

CLINK & CLANK!

Icod, La Orotava, and Puerto Del Cruz -The North of Tenerife

Even more unique to the North, are the traditions within each city.

La Orotava – cacharros. A noise maker you can run with. Tins + String.

Icod, las tablas.  Flat wooden boards waxed for kids to slide down cobblestone streets. The North echos loud sounds of tins and boards.

Parents pass down the wooden tables from their youth to their children. Or, they help build faster ones.

Dangerous? Yes. Exciting? Very.

Mouth Open in disbelief. Its striking to see children doing dangerous activities in the streets while parents casually relax nearby.  At one point I see a blind kid go down a table with a someone sitting behind him slowing down the cart towards the bottom of the street. Anyone and everyone gets a turn for glee.

The one safety measure is a pyramid of tires to catch the out of control, fast and furious table sliders.  Sporadically, I see tires bouncing up into the air.

Chestnuts Roasting

During the day of San Andrés, our school cancels afternoon classes and instead roasts chestnuts for 3 hours. All the children make cones to hold the hot and smokey chestnuts.  I spend an hour peeling chestnuts for 3-4 year olds. In the background, older children run around with their cacharros.

In the evening in La Orotava, families take it to the streets. Adults and children all tow their loud noises makers through the cobblestone streets.

Louder than a recycling center.

Clinking and clanking.

3 year old with a string of coca cola cans almost trips over herself. Another family walks together with a large wooden bar followed by oil drums bouncing loudly. Every person in the town is smiling.

Where Does it all come from?

I am not a historian or have any real knowledge of San Andres. My Canarian friends each tell me similar, yet different stories of San Andrés for La Orotava.

Version 1 of the story – Pots and Pans

When harvest season came around people wanted to celebrate. Wine makers would roll the large wine barrels throughout the street and the metal rims would hit the cobblestones and make these loud noises we replicate today. Kids would run around with pots and pans banging around to signal to others it’s time to party.

Version 2 of the story – Corre la Cacharros

In prep of new wine, winemakers would need to clean the barrels. So they would take the old barrels out and roll them down the hills all the way to Puerto De La Cruz for a good washing.  All the barrels would go through the entire town and make the loud noises we hear today with the cacharros.

Version 3 of the story of San Andrés Cacharros

This is the version I was most confused about. When asked what San Andres had to do with chestnuts and wine… I got many different answers. One person said its just because he’s the patron Saint of Santa Cruz de Tenerife.  Another stated that this  Another said that San Andres came to the island got drunk and kids tied pots and pans to him.

My theory is that the harvest coincided with All Saints Day – so San Andres was the lucky one to receive this tradition.

Do you need another Reason to Visit La Orotava, Tenerife?

Besides the weather. Besides the views. Besides Me… I encourage everyone to visit this island to witness unique culture and traditions. Come now before its too late.

It’s sad, but this tradition is fading. Older folks are quick to tell me that decades ago, you would see sinks, tubs, washers, all day banging around the town. Now its only in schools and then about 2 hours in the evening.

Thinking of somewhere to go next Thanksgiving?

Come to the Canary Islands for the warm weather, and stay to eat chestnuts while kids run around with loud cacharros and slide down the streets and crash into tires.

Last but not least, here’s another video of the homemade table a kid brought to school. As you can tell, I am newbie scardy cat. Please let me off of this thing!

The Dark Side of being a Digital Nomad – The Best and Worst

From Thailand to Seattle. Another great stay in the books. Summer is over in Seattle and it’s my queue to find a new home. I sell everything in my studio apartment and pack my belongings into 2 duffel bags, 1 carry on suitcase, and a couple of ikea bags.  The fun exciting part of working online, is being able to explore new cities while working. It’s always fun to tell a story about going to Austin, Texas on a whim or deciding to move to the Canary Islands.

The Biggest Downers of Nomadic Life

Work anywhere. Anytime. Freedom. No one tells you about the downers of being a digital nomad. You only hear about all the different cities you can live in and the flexibility in schedule. Over the year I have appreciated all the benefits of being a nomad, but I have yet to acclimate to the downside.

My Top 4 Annoyances in being a Wanderer

Traveling Light

Each time I go to the mall, I resist the urge to shop. To buy something fun. Fashionable. If I pick a shirt, it has to have a specific purpose. Does it last? Will it go with multiple seasons? Can I fit it into my luggage? Is it wearable 50 + times in a year? Wouldn’t it be nice to just buy something nice for myself once in a while? The answer is: no. There is no where to place it.

Forget about cute houseware items. Bedsheets. Towels. Only essentials travel to the next location.

Falling out of a Routine

That favorite bar. A beloved restaurant. A muay thai gym. Finding my favorite ice cream shop. Each place I grow to love will eventually turn into a memory.  I try to not to ache for the past when I move to a new location. My routine will change and so will all my “go to” spots around the neighborhood. I’m constantly packing and unpacking.

Anxiety

Once I decide to leave a city, anxiety starts to settle in. Finding a new place to live. A place to work out. Is there Wifi? Meeting new people. Will I make new friends?

As the departure date nears, I am filled with both excitement and fear. Excited to explore, but fearful that I will be lonely and without friends. Did I earn enough money monthly to keep a comfortable lifestyle? I make long checklists of all the items I need to complete before moving.

Saying Goodbye to people

Perhaps the worst feeling about being a nomad is missing people. Friends and family.

After living in Seattle for 6 months, I really had to think hard about whether or not stay. I really loved all my Seattle friends. I got into the groove. Sunday Brunches. Bar Hopping. Chilling at a Park. What if I stayed and made this my home? I tell myself not to do this, because the entire reason I left my engineering job in Santa Monica was to explore. Being a nomad means trying new things. Thinking about friends will only make it harder to move.

The Best Part of Being a Traveler?

New places. New faces. Each time I move to a new location, I am realizing how fortunate I am to have a job that allows me to move anywhere. Sure, there are days where I am lonely and anxious. But that’s a feeling I am willing to have in trade of adding a new experience in life. It’s rare to have the opportunity in my 30’s to be unattached. No Stressful Job. No kids. There’s never going to be a better time to travel.

The reality of moving

First week. New scenery, new places. I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world. Instagram is on point.

The second week I find myself calling home and FaceTiming my close friends and family. It’s great explaining the new home, new job, new friends. In the back of my heart there is a small pain. I miss them. I miss having that camaraderie. I push the feelings away and replace it with busy work. Each day is filled to the brim with activities. I find a scuba diving shop. I find a new gym. One needs to keep moving to keep from drowning. I know if I stay at home I will miss Seattle. I realize there’s no turning back now.

I’m not going to lie… being a nomad is hard. There are days where I wonder if I made the right choice. Why would I move to a city where I don’t have family or friends?

Is it worth it? 

Without inserting a cliche quote about life… I will say this. I chose to leave engineering and Santa Monica for a reason. I can either embrace it or not.  Right now, I’m embracing it. What’s not to like about living on an Island with great weather, food and people?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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