Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Slow Down Challenge # 5: Gratefulness

I’m joining the Slow Down Challenge initiated by one of my favourite writers Jeff Goins. If you want to jump in, here’s how.

Today, try saying “thank you” — for everything.  Say it to your spouse who makes you wait for dinner. Say it to the cashier who moves too slow. Say it to your late lunch appointment or the call center operator who keeps putting you on hold. Say it to God for every inconvenience that causes you to grow. Say “thank you.” Don’t just think it or tell it to yourself. Actually speak the words — and mean them. Be grateful for the moments that slow you down, the ones that cause you to take your time. Use these opportunities to appreciate what you already have and tend to miss. As you do, see how much better life looks, and actually is, when you approach it with gratitude.

I’ve been literally on a slow-down mode for the past four months. I usually tell people I’m bumming around but I personally call it my gap months. In practice, people take a year off from school or work to volunteer, travel, or learn new skills. It’s not a popular practice in the Philippines, however and I can’t really afford a year off so I’m sticking with a few months.

It’s been a really good four months. Although I panicked after the first two months, I’ve learned to take it in stride. I owned my time now (except for the occasional household chores) so I had to make the wisest use of it. To date, I finished my travelogue series for my Vietnam-Cambodia backpacking trip, spoken at two news writing workshops at my alma mater, volunteered to take pictures of the school events my parents organized, started a photo blog, learned to cook omelette, cuddled my nephews and niece a lot, and I am about to finish the Slow Down Challenge. I still have a lot of things to do on my list so never for a second am I bored.

But what I’m really doing is waiting. Waiting for the next bus that will take me to my next destination. Jeff Goins, one of my favorite authors who also started the Slow Down Challenge, said that our big moments happen every now and then. But most of the time, we spend our lives waiting. And what do during this waiting period makes all the difference.  

The point of this last challenge is to say thank you to the people who have slowed you down. Since the gaps months was a personal decision and quite frankly, one of the best decisions I have ever made, I thanked HIM. My Creator. My Savior. For leading me to this path. For making me realize a lot of things. For making me breathe. For making me forgive. For making me let go of things I cannot anymore control. And for making me believe in HIM again. For everything. And I will always be grateful.

Monday, October 07, 2013

The Slow Down Challenge # 4: Disturb Me, Not!

I’m joining the Slow Down Challenge initiated by one of my favourite writers Jeff Goins. If you want to jump in, here’s how.

The Challenge:
1.       Decide what you will do and who you will be WHEN you get interrupted. You don’t have to let people steal your time, but choose your response before it happens.
2.       Block out time to spend with a person who usually interrupts you. Call her just to chat; if local, ask her to lunch.
3.       When an interruption occurs, welcome it. Look for what you can learn from the experience, and don’t get annoyed. Instead, embrace this as a chance to grow.

Lately, I’ve been doing a LOT of writing for my blog as a result of trying to accomplish the Slow Down Challenge # 3. For two weeks, I laboured over my travelogue series to the last letter. Fighting all the distractions was pretty hard, especially since we live next door to my nephew (aged 4) and niece (aged 3). There isn’t a day they don’t burst through the door screaming or giggling. I later found out they frequent our home to collect their daily dose of candies or sweets.

They are adorable, irresistible, and sometimes really irritating. My niece is THE BOSS. When she enters my room, she smiles sweetly and lets me cuddle her. Such a cutie. Then she grabs my hand, my fingers – whatever she can hold on to – and pulls me toward the canisters that keep the candies. At times when I’m relentlessly chasing an idea with my fingers, I pull back and resist. Sometimes, I win and she walks away. Sometimes, I grudgingly comply. On the other hand, my nephew and I can already engage in a simple conversation and he’s tall enough to reach the canisters so he simply drops by my room to poke his nose into my business, asking a series of follow-up questions to my answers to his questions. Here’s our typical conversation:

Nephew: What you doing?
Me: Working.
Nephew: Why are you working?
Me: Because I have to.
Nephew: Why do you have to?
Me: (Grasps for answer.)

I’ve come to love and hate their interruptions. I love those tykes! I’d hug, kiss, and cuddle them. But when they distract me, what little brats! But I realized it doesn’t have to be either or. And I found out, there’s a way to weave these distractions into my everyday routine. I started treating those distractions as breaks – just like bathroom breaks, and I actually use the time to play with them a little. It’s a huge help to my writing too. The effect is similar when I’m stuck in a rut and leave my desk for a while to get some fresh air or fix a cup of coffee. When I play with them, my mind relaxes and gives me a couple of new strategies to attack the piece. I’ve come to appreciate the distractions and turned them instead into necessary pauses. After all, that’s what I came back here for: to spend more time with the people I love.        

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Slow Down Challenge # 3: Writing

I’m joining the Slow Down Challenge initiated by one of my favourite writers Jeff Goins. If you want to jump in, here’s how.

I ended my Slow Down Challenge #2 with an admission: I’m a huge multi-tasker. As if on cue, the third challenge is the one that deals with multi-tasking. Here’s the challenge:

1.       Pick one task you need to accomplish; write it down.
2.       List all distractions that stand in your way.
3.       Share the list with one person who can hold you accountable.
4.       As you work, glance at your list and remind yourself what really matters.
5.       Turn off your phone and/or silence other pieces of technology, while you do this task. See how much better your can concentrate when you focus.

And here’s my response to the challenge:

The Task: Finish the blog post about my first backpacking trip.  

1.       Myself and my nagging perfectionism
2.       Internet
3.       Nephews & niece

My accountability partners: Maan and AC

It’s been four months since my first backpacking trip and I haven’t written a single word about it.  So I decided to make it my major task, only to realize later how much work and how much time it took. I went backpacking for 13 days and it’s impossible to squeeze everything in one very long post. Well, yes, if I do it sloppily – which I will not, cannot, and should not. (Refer to # 1 distraction.) I had to write more than 10 blog posts to cover the entire trip. The next two weeks were heaven and hell.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of multitasking. I was doing quite well for my first two posts – minimal checking of email, kept my phone away, being in relative seclusion to the rest of the world, and putting my entire focus on the articles. After the success of my first two posts however, I relapsed and went back to my usual routine. I struggled. The distractions loomed larger and became more persistent. My nagging perfectionism tormented me for hours. (said the voice in my head: “Nope, can’t write that.” “Boring!” “Seriously?”) There was so much going on I couldn’t resist googling the latest news about the pork barrel scam and the senators involved. My nephews and nieces kept barging into my room with all the fanfare that accompanies kids their age.

If there was anything that kept me sane for the last two weeks, it’s the thought that if you don’t know what to write, write anyway. Write anything. Just write and don’t ever give up. The hardest part of writing is when inspiration seems to have abandoned the writer. After that, everything the writer does is hard, hard work wrangling with the nouns, verbs, and adjectives and stringing phrases and thoughts together. But I showed up every day on my laptop and wrote whether I was feeling the inspiration or not. How’s that, perfectionist you. And two weeks later, I finished my major task. Hallelujah!

I still am a huge multi-tasker. It’s kind of hard to rub down years of embracing the corporate mentality that lauds multi-taskers. But with practice, more focus, less distractions, and strong will, it is possible. 

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Confessions of a First Time Backpacker

Colors of Vietnam

Four months later and looking back, I’m reminiscing my first backpacking trip from start to end. Most of it, I’d already documented here on my blog. The whole process of reading my travel journal and re-writing it into several blog posts was meticulous and tedious but it brought a lot of good memories and valuable realizations.

Backpacking is not for the fainthearted. I thought I didn’t have it in me to live on five pairs of clothing for 13 days and emerge from the bathroom dry using a thin, small towel. I cringed at the idea of riding a train for 30 hours without taking a bath. A self-confessed introvert like me balked at the thought of making small talks with complete strangers.   

But I survived! How? By getting my clothes laundered after 3 days so I had a fresh supply of clothes for the days to come, using an absorbent towel, bringing along a pack of wet tissues for those no-bath days, and finding the guts to chat up fellow travelers – not all the times but it was a good start.

I think this is the very essence of travelling by backpack: to survive on the minimum essentials, to be creative at finding solutions, and do things you normally wouldn’t do in your daily routine. It is a perfect excuse to live differently, think differently, and act differently. One might just discover that the difference was all it took to become the person you always wanted to be.

Backpacking is for the strong-willed and the goal-oriented. It is also a test of character – summoning the last inch of your self-control when a flea market vendor screams at you; and of patience – walking around for hours until you find what you’re looking for.

I could go on and on. But I am just getting started. My wanderlust has awakened and beckoned to me. And the world is waiting to be conquered, one backpack at a time.

Friday, October 04, 2013

How to Walk the Streets of Vietnam

I survived my first backpacking trip. A big thank you to the numerous tips and tricks we picked up from fellow bloggers who have traveled the same path before we did. And yet, no matter how prepared we were, a few surprises dropped in on us while we tried to navigate our way around the busy streets of Vietnam.

No, I will not teach you the proper way of walking around Vietnam (But sashaying like a ramp model is definitely not recommended!) or reading the traffic signs. (I’m bad at this.) I was a first time backpacker and I wanted to stay true to being one. Although we went with group tours for Mekong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnels, I wanted a more intimate experience with the city by walking on its streets, feeling the concrete pavements under my feet, watching the hundreds of motorcycles roar by, attempting short conversations with locals to ask for directions, and pretty much taking everything in as far as my senses could take me. So, we abandoned the idea of getting on a tour bus to the city and decided to explore it on our own.

After making several wrong turns, getting rejected by drivers who couldn’t understand us, and acting out too many sign languages, here are three tips in making the most out of your city tour:

Map of Hanoi. Gave my Saigon map to another tourist.
Get a map. Most hostels and guesthouses offer this to their guests, but there are those that don’t. We only got a map of where our hostel was located so we were pretty much blind as to where were the places we wanted to visit. In case they don’t have a map, head first to the Central Post Office to get one. Not a bad idea too. The Post Office is beautiful and will transport you to a different world altogether. Once you have the map, look at where the attractions are located and plan your itinerary.

Vietnam attractions in English & Vietnamese languages.
Know the Vietnamese terms for the places you wanted to visit. For example, Reunification Palace is known as Dinh Thống Nhất. You can look up these terms online. Very few Vietnamese people speak English. And apparently, not all people understand the English equivalent no matter how famous the attraction is. I kept on repeating “Reunification Palace” and they kept answering me in Vietnamese. That was one of the most awkward situations I got into. Also, ever heard of the phrase same same but different? This is a famous expression in Vietnam, reflecting one of the complexities of their language. Their vowels have different symbols at the top. Put the wrong symbol, it’s a word with a different meaning. So, be careful that you get the correct symbol of the Vietnamese terms. Otherwise, it will only lead to more confusion and more awkward moments.

Riding the motorcycle in Vietnam is a thrill!

Haggle with the motorcycle drivers. Riding the motorcycle in Vietnam should be on your to-do lists. For the places that are impossible to reach on foot, we rode the motorcycle instead of a taxi. Taxis were reserved for the really far areas. When you approach a motorcycle driver, ask first how much. Some will overcharge. So, haggle. Don’t get into that motorcycle until the driver explicitly agrees. If not, walk away. You’ll know they’re desperate for customers when they ride up to you and agree to the price you asked. Ask your hotel or hostel staff for the reasonable prices from one location to another. We usually spent VND 20,000 per person per ride. As much as possible, give the exact amount. Other tourists have shared horror stories of their drivers speeding away without giving the change.

These tips are all based on our experience during our recent backpacking trip. Above all, your mindset should be to embrace the great moments and even the misadventures. Yeah, you get really pissed off by bad luck or things that don’t go your way, but trust me, you’ll laugh about it later and you’ll come out of it a better traveler.

Enjoy Vietnam! :)

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Day 13: Exploring the Cu Chi Tunnels

Our last full day in Saigon and of our whole backpacking trip. We booked for a half-day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Same tour routine – bus picks us up at the hotel, takes us to the tourist spot, and takes us back to Saigon. Cu Chi district is more than an hour ride from Saigon.

The Cu Chi Tunnels are an important part of Vietnam’s history, especially during the war with the Americans. The tunnels served as their hiding place as well as their communication and supply routes. 

The visit to the tunnels was both amazing and terrifying. I was amazed by how clever the Vietnamese were in trying to avoid the American troops. They were smaller in size compared to the latter so they used it to their advantage to build small holes and tunnels. It was also terrifying to see the booby traps they set for the American troops. One wrong move and your flesh is torn to pieces. Then again, war is serious business.

One of their hiding places cleverly disguised under a pile of brown leaves.

One brave tourist trying to squeeze himself in the hole.

As for me, I'll play it safe with the bigger tunnels.

This is one of the Vietnamese's booby traps for the Americans.

Anyone who falls into this trap will be pierced to death by those sharp wooden sticks.

Inside one of the tunnels. This was scary!

Guests have the chance to go through the shorter tunnels and I found myself crawling around the tunnels. There was a part where it was nothing but absolute darkness. Good thing my travel buddy brought her flashlight or I would have screamed in shame.

Our last stop for the entire 13-day trip was short and sweet. We were back in Saigon by mid-afternoon. Stopped by Trung Nguyen café for a late lunch and a cup of their lip-smacking coffee. Even my taste buds craved for that familiar delicious taste. Later that evening, we boarded the plane back to the country, bringing with us new memories and new experiences.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Day 12: Getting Into A Little Trouble at Ben Thanh Market

This is going to be a very short post. Well, because not much happened except for that one incident we can’t shake off our minds.

I didn’t take any pictures because I wanted to focus on shopping and if needed, haggling. I already knew what to expect in Ben Thanh since we’ve explored this a few days ago. I bought a few items and simply looked around, trying to find interesting items. My travel buddy was asking one vendor how much the item was. The girl answered. Price was too much. So my buddy put down the item, then the girl angrily asked in her curt English, “How much?” My buddy declined as she has decided not to purchase it anymore. The girl repeatedly asked my buddy and her voice was getting a little louder each time. And when we started walking away, she started shouting and saying something like, “You not very nice customers!” Well, EXCUSE ME, you are not a very nice vendor either! Aren’t customers allowed to ask for the price? My friend didn’t even haggle, she only asked for the freaking price!

I was so pissed and frustrated we decided to leave. I fought the urge to snap back when images of being locked up abroad flashed on my mind. So we walked away from her as much as possible and checked out the other stalls. When we couldn’t find anything else to buy, we left.

Next: Day 13: Exploring the Cu Chi Tunnels