that toddling town

Before this past weekend, Chicago was a place that only existed in my imagination. Not because I didn’t believe in its existence. No, it was because my father, who lived there during his young adulthood, would recount numerous stories of the city to me when I was little.

“It was so cold during the winter, and I had to walk to work knee-deep in snow every day!”

At 20, my father was working in a pizza place in the city in order to put himself through school at Devry University – you know, the technical institute for which you always saw commercials on television. There’s a photo of my dad wearing his graduation gown and holding his diploma with an ear-to-ear smile on his face. He had escaped Vietnam by boat as a war refugee in the late 1970’s and came to the States to seek a new life. That photograph was taken during a pivotal moment in his new life here. He had a degree under his belt, meaning he would be able to get a job and send money back home to his family. He would be able to provide. No wonder he was smiling.

Still, starting over was no easy task.

“I’d go to the store and buy some sliced bread, ham, and cheese. Then when I got home, I calculated exactly how many sandwiches I could make for the week using what I bought and lived off of that, one week at a time.”

When I was walking through the city, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be in my dad’s shoes. Did he have time to peruse the Art Institute? What was his favorite deep-dish pizza place? Did he, like so many others, look deep into the Millennium Park bean just to find himself looking back?

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec's 'La revue blanche'

Lou Malnati's

One thing that stood out about Chi-town is that everyone who lives there takes pride in being a part of Chicago’s history. Everyone you run into has a story about the town and is proud to tell it. As a tourist, you don’t feel as if you stick out like a sore thumb. Rather, the locals make you feel welcome and give you free rein to explore.

I’ll always remember how one bus driver went above and beyond for Celeste and me. We had missed our bus stop, and instead of simply kicking us out of the bus and letting us fend for ourselves, the bus driver stopped and walked us over to the right bus. He had that driver drop us off a block away from where we needed to go. Incredible! Some Orange County natives will grumble at the thought of having to point you toward the Matterhorn at Disneyland, much less do something extraordinary for a complete stranger. If there’s one thing to learn from Chicago, it’s that one small kind gesture goes a long way.

Other than the locals’ natural goodwill, Chicago has tons to offer. Art it not only alive in the city. It is thriving! Concert halls, jazz clubs, museums, theaters — so many spaces for artists of all disciplines to showcase their work. Caught a show at The Second City, where the likes to Tina Fey and Steve Carrell came out of. The Hideout Block party was also going on that weekend. I sat down at a cafe in Wicker Park and found that someone had left the travel, book review, and lifestyle sections of the New York Times sitting on the counter, which I found to be indicative of the territory. Grabbed an edamame salad at Cipollina Cafe and a mate chai tea, browsed some books at Myopic Books, then some soy hazelnut ice cream at iCream, thanks to my lovely tour guide, freshman Chicago resident, and high school friend Simone.
I’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, when it comes to exploring Chicago. Because of the pouring rain and my ever-so-permeable shoewear, I never made it to the Sears (now Willis) Tower. I didn’t catch a show at a jazz club like I intended, and I still have “Chicago vegetarian hotdog” on my to-do list.  My father’s stories brought me to this city, but my own experience of Chicago this past weekend will keep me coming back.

the world was made to be free in

You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds 
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
—Sweet Darkness, David Whyte

You know how some people appear to be content on the surface but, in reality, are deeply unhappy? Consider me the opposite. On the surface, I am seemingly discontented by my circumstances but, in reality, am deeply and naturally happy. I know this because Haydee, my roommate in college, told me that I laugh in my sleep. Bewildered family members and skeptical boyfriends have since confirmed this. In college, my bookish habits landed me in libraries more often than bars (until I found a library-themed bar once, at which point I was conflicted). I juggled multiple jobs at a time, on top of overachieving in my classes. I had a talent for worrying about everything, a talent that both frustrated and alienated the people around me at times. Despite all this, a remote part of my soul yearned in earnest to laugh, and it let out at full force at night as I slept – to Haydee’s amusement.

The older I got, the deeper and deeper this part of me was buried. Believe it or not, I have a pretty darn good sense of humor. But after I graduated college, took on internships, and then eventually worked a full-time job, my natural silliness became layered with professional airs. I was growing up, so by design, I thought I had to act like a grown-up. Still, though, if you caught me feeling sleep deprived or after I’ve had a few glasses of champagne, you would witness me uttering nonsensical things between 15-minute intervals of giggling with myself without any sort of provocation.

Two months ago, I did something bat-shit crazy. In this struggling economy, I quit my full-time job. Why the heck would I do something like that, you ask? Because I choose happiness. I confess that I am a romantic, but a realistic one. I know that regardless of what life path you choose, struggling is inevitable. However, instead of choosing to struggle for something that makes me miserable, I choose to struggle for something that makes me happy. In that sense, I am choosing happiness for myself, even if it takes immense effort to get there.

This past year, I spent a lot of time gazing out of my office window daydreaming and scheming about playing music, recording a second album, and going on tour. In the past couple of months, I found the studio in which I will be recording my sophomore album. I’ve felt constantly inspired to write. And we are going on a musical tour of the Pacific Northwest in November. All of this has been a long time coming, but it has been an incredibly long and arduous journey laden with internal conflicts, bad timing, and a drought of creative energy. Finally, though, I feel like the stars have aligned once again, shifting the earth’s gravitation and mine toward the kind of happiness that lasts.

De regreso

There is nothing stranger to me than the transition period between being on vacation and being back at home. While this is far from my first time coming back from a trip, this period never gets any less uncomfortable to me.

What’s that, you say? The beach isn’t right outside my back door anymore? I can’t fall asleep in a hammock in the middle of the day? So it’s not appropriate if I walk around in my bathing suit in public — gotcha. I have to actually do work now?

I’ll say it. I miss being away. As an in-between, I’m more comfortable on the go rather than being in a sedentary state. Alas, I am a functional idealist, meaning I understand that you can’t just jetset anywhere, anytime. You have to earn your keep – or at least enough for your next plane ticket.

My favorite thing about coming back, though, is that I always come back a little different than when I left. The sun has energized me, and freeing my mind of work, traffic, and e-mail has allowed me to get back in touch with myself and the world around me. I feel my creative self stretching all her limbs, ready for the next artistic venture.

  • Nothing I can purchase from any store can replace a priceless experience. I’m not a shop-a-holic, but I am prone to binging every once in a while. I confess to doing some pretty hardcore shopping for this trip, but in the end, whether or not I wore my new gladiator sandals meant nothing in comparison to the view from the top of Coba, the sunrise, or the feel of cool Caribbean ocean water enveloping me — all memories that have become embedded in my soul after this trip.
  • Taking care of yourself is not a luxury. It is a necessity. I had my first-ever massage and my second-ever manicure/pedicure on this trip. Holy cow, where have these things been all my life? Forget about body shame and bring on the massage oils! Sometimes, I fall into a cycle of too much work and not enough rest, and I forget to pamper myself every once in a while.
  • Have your cake (or ice cream, or popsicle, or coffee mousse, or cookies, or all of the above) and eat it too. Having practically lived in the gym for the past six months, it was liberating to simply eat without counting calories or thinking about having to run off any of the foods I was consuming. I ate, overate, and then ate some more. I ate as soon as I got up in the morning, between meals, and in the middle of the night. I broke every single rule I had created for myself, and it was amazing. Obviously, I can’t keep this up, as I’d probably eat myself to death (I once decided that this is how I’d like to die), but for the time that I was away, I gave myself license to enjoy everything that I could.
  • Speak from the heart, and you will be understood. I am fluent in Spanish. I spent 4 years studying it in high school, then decided to major in it through college. I have read Don Quixote in archaic Spanish, written papers in Spanish, given presentations in Spanish, watched films in Spanish, and made penpals in Spanish-speaking countries. Somehow, I still get shy around native speakers. In Cancun, I forced myself out of that shell and spoke at every opportunity. I love being told that I speak it well, and I love the element of surprise I have, being a Spanish-speaking Vietnamese girl. Whereas I was too concerned with using the correct vocabulary or slang word or grammatical structure before, I allowed myself to let conversation flow and – lo and behold – it did!
  • Disconnect to reconnect. I have an incessant habit of checking my e-mail and Facebook. Being out of the country, I shut off my phone and only checked my e-mail sporadically. It did wonders for my brain. Suddenly, I felt more in tune with everything and everyone around me. I was no longer distracted by virtual concerns. Back here, I hope to practice this more often so that I can be in the moment instead of in virtual cyberspace.
  • I look and feel way better with a tan. Nuff said.

One of my high school teachers said something about travel that rang both sad and true for me. “No matter how much you learn and how much you see when you travel,” she said, “you forget after a while.” The places you go with stay with you, but your memory of them will grow less intense through time.

I felt so sad about how true this was. I lamented that I could never keep places with me forever. But one thing she forgot to mention was that every once in a while, something in your ordinary life will unexpectedly trigger your memory of a faraway place you’ve once visited. It’s as if someone opened a jar of a potent fragrance that jolts you from your current state and lures you into a place in which you feel places, people, sensations, and emotions just as vividly as you did the first time around. Then, when the fragrance dissipates and you return to Earth, you feel sad that it’s over, but immeasurably happy that you have the memory at all.

cancun: day six

If you could blend Disneyland, Rainforest Cafe, and Mexico, you would get Xcaret, an eco-park located on the Mayan Riviera in which you can go to the beach, hike in the jungle, and most awesome of all, swim in an underwater cave.

Photos from our underwater camera are forthcoming, as we haven’t developed them yet. We were able to snorkel in a huge underground river. The water was about 2 meters deep the whole time, and the caves had occasional skylights that allowed for sunlight to come through. We saw tropical fish big and small, some coral, and extensive caves below. It was exhilarating, spooky, and beautiful all at the same time.

We spent the rest of the day hiking through the jungle. I saw a tapir, a spider monkey, flamingos, and exotic insects…If you’re looking for adventure, this is the place to find it. I highly recommend Xcaret to anyone headed this way.

As the week draws to a close, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to imagine myself back at home. I’ll have to remind myself that the Caribbean will be on the other side of the continent every time I feel the impulse to take a dip in the ocean. I’ll have to get used to a routine, going to work, and reading signs in English all over again. Also, the most common animals I’ll see will most likely be domesticated ones instead of monkeys, tapirs, and iguanas.

Even though I know that this statement is based on my very tourist-y experience here, Mexico is pretty damn amazing. Only 40 years ago, the area’s population was less than ten people, and the only inhabitants were farmers and fishermen. The Mexican government subsidized the first 9 hotels because it became difficult to attract investors in such a swampy area. Now, the extensive hotel industry has created thousands of local jobs and hosts an international clientele year round. Quintana Roo, where Cancun is located, is a state that knows its worth and is able to capitalize on its ecological strength, cultural history, and tropical climate. It is a place that is proud of itself.

I’m certainly a transient here, but each time I have come to Cancun, I have felt welcome. Though I don’t like to think about leaving (we have one full day left), I know that it will be waiting for me until the next time I return, with arms (and underwater caves) wide open.

cancun: day five

Chichen Itza is an eerie abode of history. While the sheer girth of the main pyramid of Kukulkan dwarfs the average sized person (and doubly dwarfs me, a 5’3″ Vietnamese girl) and the astronomical accuracy with which it was built qualifies it as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the last thing I felt while walking around these Mayan ruins today was spellbound. Honestly, I was a little creeped out.

This is a cenote, pronounced “say-NO-tay.” Cenotes are reservoirs often used by the Mayans as a source of fresh water. There are thousands of cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula, 90% of which are connected underground. This network of underwater caves was the reason why the Mayans were able to establish permanent settlements. The one pictured below is not just any cenote — it’s “el Cenote Sagrado,” the sacred cenote, the site of ancient rituals for human sacrifice. Because the Mayans relied heavily on farming to survive, consistent rain and substantial sunlight were their livelihood. In order to ensure these two things, the Mayans would sacrifice grown men and children by killing them, then dumping their bodies in “el Cenote Sagrado,” which they believed was the portal to the next life.

Archaeologists who began excavating Chichen Itza in the early 20th century extracted human skeletons, gold, obsidian, jade, and other valuable stones from this cenote. The stones were gifts that the Mayans wanted to pass on with their sacrifices into the next life.

Today was my second time visiting Chichen Itza, but I had somehow missed this detail the first time around. Cursed with an unharnessed fascination for things that scare me, I stood entranced by this cenote — equally profound in physical depth and historical significance. I found a sign that said, “DO NOT HIKE BEYOND THIS POINT” and decided to ignore it. The tourist viewpoint was underwhelming, so I sought out another perspective. The road behind the sign was a mud path that led further around the edge of the cenote. The trees growing over the path were much denser, and it quickly grew darker. This ominous ambience, coupled with the forbidden nature of my hike and the nature of the cenote chilled me enough to turn around after only a few minutes. However, I didn’t leave without taking a picture.

To give you an idea of how large the cenote is, since my photos alone won’t give you an accurate idea of its depth, here is a photo of it from above. Note the size of the cenote relative to the size of the main pyramid south of the cenote.

The Pyramid of Kukulkan (pictured below) is perfect in design in so many ways. Each part of the pyramid’s design was deliberate and indicative of how intellectually advanced the Mayans were. For example, there are 91 steps up to the top on all four sides.

91 x 4 = 364 + 1 extra step at the top = 365 days of the year

I’ve mentioned in a previous entry that the Mayans were consummate watchers of the sky. To illustrate another great example of this, the Kukulkan pyramid’s design was based largely on the position of the sun. During each equinox, the sun aligns with the pyramid so that the 9 platforms of the pyramid cast a shadow resembling a snake descending down the steps. The snake “ends” at the head, which is a statue situated at the bottom of the pyramid. This is called the descent of Kukulkan (or Quetzalcoatl, as he is also known), the Mayan god.

No matter where you go and what you see, you always end up thinking about yourself (whether you admit it or not). While walking around, I wondered, how do I relate to these ruins? What connection do I have to this ancient place, these ancient people?

I wondered even further: why bother preserving ruins at all? What’s the point of restoring these relics to photograph and look at? What good do they do for us?

I am a prolific diarist and blogger, in case that wasn’t obvious. As someone who has documented the most trivial things to the most important things in her life, I have an undeniable relationship with my past. Every so often, I read old journals and uncover a perspective I forgot I once had.

Like some of our deepest memories, we hold onto ruins because they remind us of what once was. They may be overgrown, dusty, or concealed, but they are still part of our landscape. Although Chichen Itza’s past is haunted by malign human sacrifices and mystery, we still cannot let go of something we consider so beautiful. Coming to places like Chichen Itza, we’re reminded to accept even the most damaged parts of ourselves – to reflect on them with fondness and pride instead of sadness or shame. We find a comfortable space to hold onto the past.

For a natural nostalgic like me, that’s wonderful.