The Con Dao Islands of Vietnam

michael carterWhere in the world are the Con Dao Islands?

If you happen to be wandering around Vietnam or are looking for your next tropical adventure, head east of Ho Chi Minh City to the port city of Vung Tau. The Con Dao Island group is a cluster of 16 islands located about 80 km offshore from Vung Tau. A now-daily high-speed catamaran service connects the mainland with Con Son, the only permanently inhabited island of the bunch. Traveling there takes about four hours overall.

A Con Dao Anecdote: The Day of My Arrival

Just past high noon, the ”cat” docks at the harbor, which is about 12 km from Con Son town. Con Son claims the title of largest community on the islands, proudly housing approximately 7,000 denizens. In Vung Tau, I had hooked up with a fellow intrepid traveler, Jim. Jim and I grew up in the same Canadian town; additionally, this was the first trip to Con Dao for either of us.

A-frame cottages at Con Dao Camping

I don’t know the collective noun for taxi drivers offhand, so I’ll use the term ‘annoyance’. Hordes of taxi drivers waited as we disembarked, certainly eager to offer their services. “Where are you staying?”, “Where do you want to go?” Impossible questions to answer, as neither of us had ever been there before and therefore, had absolutely no idea.

We decided to incorporate the distraction of snapping a few photos of the undeniably scenic harbor as an opportunity to ignore the mini-fleet of vultures. Soon, a bus pulled up beside us and the driver opened its doors — ”jump in,” he welcomed with hand gestures.

“How much?”

No reply.

“Where do you want to go?” He asked in broken English.

“Don’t know, somewhere near the center of town.”

Understood or not, the hand gesture came into play again.

I felt unquestionably uneasy as we boarded a bus going to an unknown destination with no set price. We were the only passengers. Ah yes, the joys of an intrepid traveler.

When there appeared to be enough buildings surrounding us to indicate we happened to be in some sort of town, we requested to get off. How much did we have to pay? Absolutely nothing!

Café Soleil

As we stepped off the bus, I noticed a sign on a tree that read ”Piano Café.” Across the street, a small, open-air spot named Café Soleil beckoned. The only person in sight was a bare-chested, middle-aged man. We ordered two ca phê den da, which they didn’t have. Fortunately, Mr. Bare Torso walked a couple of doors down the road and got two for us.

Coffee shop in Vietnam. Best Vietnamese coffee in town.

A woman and a small kid soon appeared. She almost immediately touched my arm and smiled. After returning, the guy wrote a number on a piece of paper. He then wrote 1975 and pointed to himself — indicating his year of birth. He handed the pen and paper to me, particularly intent. In an effort to humor him, I wrote 1976 and pointed to my chest. A confused look washed over his face and he shook his head in disbelief. I decided to come clean and wrote my true year of birth. He gave me a thumbs-up and revealed the other number he had written — 2047. The soothsayer foretold my longevity. I am not going to die until 2047.

Despite their hospitality, we still felt damned hot. Plus, we still didn’t exactly know where we were or where we were going to stay.

Hospitality Abounds

Jim had one of those so-called “smartphones” that some people seem to enjoy carrying around these days. With the aid of his contraption, he located a nearby place that promised something good to eat. Other than the three early morning beers on the boat, my stomach was empty. After a feed, we could ask around for accommodation options.

A tree in Con Son Town, Con Dao Islands, Vietnam

The phone map touted a restaurant called Villa Maison, supposedly only about three or four blocks away. As we headed out, an idle taxi saw us hauling our bags,  filled mostly with wine we had brought over from Vung Tau. He asks the usual “where do you want to go?” question.

“It’s OK, it’s not far. We’ll walk.”

“Come in,” he says, utilizing the traditional hand gestures that graduates of Con Dao Bus & Taxi Driving Schools are required to master.

The Villa Maison was indeed only about three blocks away. The taxi driver charged us… absolutely nothing! (Now I know for sure I was certainly on a different planet.)

A friendly Villa Maison waitress welcomed us with cold, wet face towels, a lemon drink, and iced water. No charge.

Without a doubt, great first-day hospitality all around.

What to do for a few days?

Relax. If you want nightlife, head back to Vung Tau. We ended up staying at a property known as Con Dao Camping. Not camping as we know it, but rather a collection of A-frame cottages that snoozed beneath some trees, necklacing a fine beach. I spent a lot of time reading, writing, and thinking that life was a breeze. Tourists and residents alike consider Con Dao a peaceful existence, but it hadn’t always been thought of that way.

Entrance to Trai Phu Hai Prison on the Con Dao Islands.

At one time, many called this island the Hell of Southeast Asia. The French called it the Devil’s Island of the east. Why? The island used to house some of the most notoriously horrific prisons. Wardens kept their prisoners in horrendous conditions. It was here that people were subjected to in the infamous Tiger Cages. This is an article on its own, but do some research on the Internet if you don’t know about the tortuous Tiger Cages.

Michael standing behind prison bars in Trai Phu Hai Prison

I spent a morning walking through the worst prison on the island, as well as a couple of smaller ones. They were truly despicable places.

More Than Horrific Prisons

But there is more to do than reading, writing, and hanging out in prisons. When you decide to get out of Con Son town and explore the island a little more, the best option is likely to rent a motorbike. Another option is what Jim and I decided to do — hire an elephant taxi. NO, not an actual elephant, but electric vehicles that act as a major taxi service both in Con Son town and around the island.

An Elephant Taxi. One of the many unique elephant taxis.

We stopped off at various near-deserted beaches. We spent probably too much time dangling from cliff faces that dropped off into the ocean, snapping a lot of pictures.

Rather than writing a lot of words using repetitive adjectives to describe ”scenic,” I’ll let some of the pictures speak for themselves.

The Life of Lassitude Comes to an End

This was a whirlwind 10-day trip to Vietnam from neighboring Cambodia. I spent six of those days visiting Con Dao.

With every departure from a new destination, I am always torn as to whether I will ever get to — or want to — return, or whether I will continue to seek out new destinations. I’ve been to Vietnam numerous times but this was my first to these islands. I think I’ll go back someday, but for the time being, my quest is to visit what is the unknown for me. If you happen to follow my adventures on Dreams Abroad, I hope to introduce you to both recently- visited places and newly- discovered ones.

To read more about Michael’s island adventures, check out Michael’s Tioman Tale Part One and his Tioman Tale Part Two!

Dancing in the Forum

If you haven’t read my last post about my Italian pasta class and visiting the Roman Coliseum, check it out!

Our guide led us down several ancient stone steps into a patch of grass that glowed in the bright Italian summer sun. All around us were ruins in various states of completeness at the Roman Forum. Some stones barely stuck out above the grass line while others almost resembled buildings. As we walked around, the guide pointed out where old buildings used to stand and their importance to Rome’s history and culture. The 10th grade online Latin classes were finally paying off. 

Big door

A Great Accident at the Roman Forum

Forum ruins

He told us that earth had covered the ruins for centuries right where we were standing. Nobody knew for centuries that they had been walking right on top of one of the most treasured historical sites the world knows to this day. Someone discovered the ruins during some kind of routine construction project, if I’m remembering correctly. 

Roman Art

After listening to the guide’s explanation of the Forum, and feeling quite insignificant in the timeline of human history, we began exploring on our own. Dounia and I decided to check out a nearby site that was on the river: Castel Sant’Angelo. This mausoleum/citadel was one of the coolest places we visited during the entire trip. The entrance rests at the base of the giant cylinder, with the guided path slowly taking visitors up the steps to the citadel’s gorgeous view of Rome. The stunning history and ancient walls make this an unforgettable stop, with tales of dungeons, battles, and crazy Roman tales.

Rome Castel SantAngelo

battles around the forum

Armor

Gelato and People-Watching in Rome

After we finished touring the citadel, we ran into some members of our group. We decided to walk along the shade in a quieter section, certainly appreciating the slowdown from our busy itinerary. I picked up some cute Rome-themed magnets from a local vendor before we grabbed some gelato. Grabbing a spot along the wall that rested above the river, we spent the afternoon people-watching until it was time to go back to the hotel. That night was opera night. 

River

Putting on the best thing I packed for the whole trip, the whole group met in the lobby. After a short bus ride, we finally arrived at an elegant-looking restaurant. The host escorted us to a table with a great view of the stage. One of the performers even invited me up in front of the whole audience to dance as one of his co-performers sang. It was such a fun night filled with friends, laughter, and song. 

Join me next time as I talk about our trip to the Vatican!

Cassidy Kearney at the Forum

by Cassidy Kearney

 

Jack Whitten: Whittens Have a Little Bit of Outlaw in ‘Em

My name is Amanda Whitten. I’m from a small-to-medium town found in northeastern Oklahoma in the USA. I currently live in Madrid, Spain. I don’t meet many people from Oklahoma, or even from the midwest, around here, and I couldn’t tell you why that is. Maybe it’s resources that many Oklahomans lack, or maybe it’s a matter of mindset, but I don’t think that many of us feel like we will ever get to leave unless it’s via the military. Some of us don’t even have the desire to ever do so. Sometimes, I wish I felt that way. Being far from family and friends is not easy, and the part of Oklahoma that my family and I call home is gorgeous. 

I think what allows me to be an exception is that I have a little thing called a Travel Bug (having an emotionally supportive family and a safety net helps, too, of course). It’s a condition that I believe I caught from my paternal grandfather. His name was Jack Whitten. My papa was an exceptional man. I recognize that I say this looking through the lens of familial love and adoration. I really think it’s the truth, though. 

Jack Whitten Origins

Jack whitten and hit wifeWhen he was young, before he met my grandmother, he had an experience that left an impression on him. He upped and left with his family to Oregon to become a logger for the summer. His family left early to go back to Oklahoma, but he stayed on the condition that he would come back when school started. When his dad, my Grandpapa, wrote him a letter telling him come home and finish school, he totally ignored it. Being a young teen, he became accustomed to making money and having freedom. It took a second letter that probably included some strong language and a few threats to get him to return home. He might have hitchhiked all the way back. I’m not sure. The specifics may be fuzzy, but his stories live on inside of me.

Humble Beginnings

His dream was that when he retired, he and my grandmother would take their camper and travel through Canada and Alaska, stopping to fish here and there. It didn’t happen for various reasons. He wanted to go out in style. He wanted to die fighting a grizzly bear. My grandfather died in a nursing home. 

He called me “kid” and “squirt”. He had a very specific dry sense of humor that coincided with mine very well. It was strange, though. I rarely understand other people’s dry senses of humor, but I got his perfectly. He was the wisest person I’ve ever known. He pulled himself and my grandmother out of terrible poverty, and together, they made a comfortable life for themselves. Papa told me that in one of the first places he and Mama lived, the lack of heating and insulation was so terrible that during the winter, a diaper actually froze to the floor.  He was smart financially and had a knack for making the right investments at the right time. 

Jack Whitten

Who He Was

Jack Whitten was honest. When I asked difficult questions, he didn’t shy away from the truth. I asked him about segregation. He told me that at the time he thought it was the natural order of things and that he didn’t want change. I asked him what he had thought about Martin Luther King. He told me that at the time he had thought he was making trouble. My Papa wasn’t a perfect man. In fact, sometimes, he could be downright difficult. He couldn’t be swayed, let alone manipulated. He was a man’s man which came with most of the wonderful pros and cons thereof.

Despite all that, during a time when the majority of people, specifically older people, conservatives and even a lot of progressives, were actively against gay rights, he wasn’t. When I asked him what he thought about gay rights, he said that he didn’t care what people did and that it was their business. I can’t say that he was an ally, but he wasn’t an enemy. Not like the others. He had no poison or vitriol. He was open-minded about the universe and the possibilities concerning religion. I asked him once if he thought that it was possible that humans could have “extra” abilities like clairvoyance. He told me about the time that he had shot his bow and lost an arrow. He had no idea where it went so he closed his eyes and just followed his instinct, and walked right up to his lost arrow.

His Quest for Gathering and Sharing Knowledge

great depressionWhen I had questions, he had advice. He knew the real history and was always wanting to learn. He told me what the Great Depression was like since his dad lived through it. Papa grew up during its after-effects. I remember a story he told about a young boy who stole a handful of flour. I asked if he the child got into trouble for it and thankfully he hadn’t because everyone knew his family was starving. 

When the internet became available, most older folks shied away from computer technology. Papa dived in. He learned all he could. He saw it for what it was: a miracle and a gold mine. Later, when he got Netflix at home and saw all the available documentaries, I’m told that his eyes lit up. I didn’t feel surprised in the least. 

A Vacation

In the summer before my 10th grade, he and Mama took my cousin and me with them on vacation for two weeks. We went to Maine and a few surrounding states. That trip gave me a big taste of travel. I was surprised to see that the countryside in Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee, and the Virginias was so beautiful. 

The first thing that I remember when I stepped out of the camper in Maine was the smell of pine trees. We got to see Niagara Falls and ride in the Maiden of the Mist boat. We stopped on the way and spent the night in a park in Salisbury, Massachusetts. I made a point of remembering the name because I liked the place so much. The sound of the wind and the smell of the sea at night made an impact on young-me for sure. 

Shaping Who I Became

My grandmother and I got up at 5:00 AM many times to look for seashells when the tide went out at a few of the beaches we visited. One time, my Mama, my cousin and I tried to catch the little crabs, but they kept pinching us so we tossed them back and forth between us, trying to catch them in the folds of our clothes. I feel a little bad for them now, but I also remember our peals of laughter and shrieks of joy. 

Jack Whitten and family

There was no real plan. Papa just drove and where we ended up is where we ended up. It was one of the best times of my life. During this trip, I feel Papa made a definitive impact on my personality. When Mama asked me to cut a cantaloupe, I must have been feeling a little lazy, selfish, or even afraid of using a large knife. I told them that I’d do it when I was twenty. I don’t know what kind of logic that was. Papa said, “If you won’t do it now, you won’t do it when you’re twenty.” I felt unbelievably embarrassed and, of course, I cut it up for everyone. He didn’t slap me or get angry. He just used his logic and words to make an impact. 

Dealing With the Loss of Jack Whitten

Papa died about three months after I arrived in Spain. After that, I imagined him with me in spirit. I wondered if he would get to experience my travels through me. I think he would have made the perfect traveling companion. There is a part of me, perhaps a selfish, egocentric part, that believes that he died because I left. I don’t mean that my leaving had an overwhelmingly negative effect on him. Quite the opposite. 

I told him something that we aren’t supposed to tell people. I told him that I wasn’t ready for him to die — that I needed him in my life. This was when his cancer was starting to get a little more serious. There’s this part of me that believes that he let go because he knew that I was finally going to accomplish my dreams and carry on for him in a way. It’s more likely that the timing was a coincidence. He was a survivor until the end, and he fought tooth and nail for every scrap of life that he had. There were times at my lowest that I wished that I could have gifted him the remaining years of my life. He wanted to live so badly.

Jack Whitten Lives On

a big fish

His love of travel and adventure lives on through me and many others in the family. Also inside of me is a quality that I’m not quite sure how to name. I have, in my opinion, the ability to see any avenue, no matter how minuscule, that may lead to any given goal of mine. I have the urge and wherewithal to follow it, full steam ahead (with the exception of giving up chocolate and cheese. Luckily, I got that from him, too. Thanks, Papa! Haha!). And one time, he told me that what he liked about me was my curiosity and my desire to learn about history, for example. I definitely think that we shared that trait. 

Jack Whitten left his intelligence and knack for survival instincts to my uncle. My sister joined the Navy when she was seventeen. I think he gave her boldness and inner strength that I may never quite possess. He left his talent for good advice and honesty in my father. I see him everywhere I go. When I see tobacco pipes in the Madrid shops, I remember the smell and I feel a twinge of regret for not having bought him one when I had the chance.

When the sun rises and I feel the cool morning air, I think of when I was a little girl. After staying the night at my grandparents’ house, I would get up to sit in his lap and we would watch the sunrise together. When someone tells a dry joke that I don’t get, I can’t help but think that he was funnier and would have delivered it better. When I’m traveling to a new place, I know that even though it may not have been his preferred destination, I still think he would approve. Jack Whitten wasn’t a perfect person, but he was a perfect grandfather.

by Amanda Whitten

Traveling to Paju-Si: Beyond Seoul

 

Traveling to Paju Si Beyond Seoul Zoe EzechielsWhen South Korea pops into your head, there are a few directions that your mind could wander in. In some cases, it goes to the popular phone brand Samsung (a tech giant based out of Seoul, South Korea). On the rise in younger generations is K-pop, Korean pop music, which is, again, based out of Seoul, South Korea. Maybe you think of the Korean staple food, kimchi. Or perhaps you think of the K-BBQ place that you and your friends went to recently.

Whatever you think about, you probably don’t consider the beautiful scenery, rich history, or the wide array of people who call South Korea their home. Though about 48.2% of the Korean population live in or around Seoul, more than half the population still inhabit other parts of the country. When I studied abroad from Fall 2017 to Summer 2018, my home-base was Seoul. Many different factors influenced my decision to study at Sookmyung Women’s University, but one of them was my desire to travel throughout the country of South Korea.

I’ll be honest, I was getting all of my info about Korea from K-dramas, reality TV shows, and programs about Korean idols. The only thing in my head was Seoul, Seoul, Seoul. But I knew there was so much more. That’s what sent me to Paju: my desire to learn more about the beautiful country I was calling home.

Traveling to Paju Near the Border

I got the opportunity of traveling to Paju through my roommate. She was a Korean language student from France. Both of us were on exchanges, but she focused solely on Korean, while I combined learning Korean with learning Korean copyright laws and mass media communication. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about those copyright laws. But the memory of traveling to Paju is burned into my mind.

One afternoon, while I was studying for my dreaded copyright class presentation and my roommate was going through her Korean flashcards for the thousandth time, she brought up Paju. It was a cultural field trip that her class was going on and she was able to bring a guest. I jumped at the opportunity right away (even though I had no idea what Paju even was). The field trip would be on Saturday, early in the morning. This conversation happened on Friday afternoon. There was no going back after that initial agreement since Saturday we would be traveling to Paju.

paju hill side

Finding Friends While Traveling to Paju

On the bus ride, I met two students from England (one born in England and one who had moved there from Lithuania). I sat next to the native English girl and we quickly bonded over our love of the famous Korean boy group SHINee, Taemin in particular. After conversations died down and we were well on our way to traveling to Paju, the tour guide began to give us facts about the city.

The one that stuck out to me the most was how close it was to North Korea. During the bus ride, we saw North Korea from our window. Paju is located mere miles away from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas. For a fee, you can even stay overnight in the soldiers’ barracks and get the “military” experience. Because of the proximity, I expected Paju to be a somber and serious city. Fortunately, as the bus pulled through the city, the impression was quite the opposite. Colorful neon signs, heavy traffic, and screaming children all meshed together to create a joyful and alive city. It was as if there wasn’t a war zone a couple of miles away.

Centuries of Tradition Stay Strong

We went deeper and deeper into the city until eventually we reached the outskirts. Thickly clustered apartments, businesses, and public spaces gave way to rolling hills and lush greenery. We weren’t headed into the city after all, but rather to the Jaun Seowon Confucian Academy. The academy was located far outside the main city in the suburbs, but the driver took the scenic route through the main part of Paju so that we could marvel at it.

Jaun Seowon having a parade and festival

When we finally pulled up, a beautiful mesh of traditional Korean architecture and nature met us. Plus, we were just in time for the parade. Jaun Seowon was having a parade and festival to celebrate the culture behind the academy and we were going to be part of it. The staff was friendly yet efficient as they led us to get changed into the traditional scholar gyobok. The gyobok was what the scholars wore during the Joseon period. While in the academy, they learned about Confucian teachings, how to run the government, and other skills fit for wealthy adolescent men to learn.

Parade, Traditional Art of Tea, and Cookie Making

The parade involved all the students walking after the musicians. The locals snapped a lot of photos and laughed as we waved at them and stumbled over the long uniform pants. Unfortunately, at that time, my Korean wasn’t good enough to ask them to send me some of the photos they took.

Koran Cookie Making

After the parade, it was time to learn the traditional art of tea and cookie making. We all sat in the building that used to be the primary classroom. First, the staff demonstrated tea and cookie making to us. Then, we got to try it ourselves. Needless to say, my cookies turned out pretty amazing. The tea was delicious too.

Finally, we got to write our wishes for the New Year using special Korean rice paper and ink. I was one of the only students that didn’t get any ink on their sleeves. Although, that might have been because I took Chinese in highschool and we practiced calligraphy (shh don’t tell anyone). Even though I had previously practiced, I still ended up smudging ink all over my parchment and my characters looked like they were written by a child. But, I was proud of my New Years wish, which was to continue to live happily and healthily for as long as I could.

From the Classroom to the Field

Our time at Jaun Seowon Confucian Academy ended with lunch (I had a delicious veggie kimbap roll procured by the staff after they realized that they didn’t have anything vegan for me) and then free time. My friends and I played traditional Korean games, failed miserably, and took plenty of photos.

Traveling to a Farm Near the DMZ

soybean field traveling to paju-si

It was now early afternoon and our trip wasn’t over yet. We were going to see how they made tofu. Yeah, you heard me, we were going to a tofu-ery (if that’s what it’s called). The bus driver pulled away from the academy and took us deeper into the rural suburbs of Paju, except we were driving close to the Paju DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone) again.

I couldn’t help being a little nervous as we pulled into a small village less than a mile away from the border. Sprawling land surrounded a few homes. We were in farmer county. Specifically, soybean farmers, our tour guide informed us. The families that farmed here had been at it for generations.

We made our way down a dirt road, passing rows and rows of beans. A stray cat flitted through the crops, hunting a bug. When I tried to call out to it, the cat stared at me. I tried again and the cat blinked slowly before continuing its chase. It didn’t occur to me until later that the cat had probably never heard English before. But that’s a thought for another day.

Making Tofu

Eventually, we made it down to a shed. It was big enough to house a tractor but the only equipment there was for tofu. The two women running the tofu house were extremely polite but spoke no English. Thus, our tour guide translated for us whenever they explained things.

handmade tofu making

First, the soybeans go through a special wash. This cleans them of all the toxins they could have picked up from being transported on the farmers truck. It also softens them to allow them to be ground into a paste. The women showed us how the soybeans sit in the wash for days before they are ready. Turns out, they had a batch that was just finished soaking in the water. Hauling a big bucket between them and with wide grins on their faces, the ladies invited us to grind soybeans with them.

Try Everything

A traditional Korean grinder is made from two huge stone blocks with a small pathway for the beans to go through. They end up between the two stones and are smashed into a paste that pours out the sides into a bowl. You spin the stone on top with a huge wooden handle in order to create that paste.

My friends and I only tried it for a couple of minutes, but those women did it day in and day out. That was their livelihood. To this day, I consider them extremely powerful and badass. After everyone had tried their hand at making the paste, we were given samples of their soondubu (soft tofu). This is tofu that hasn’t hardened and is still in a soybean broth. They had us add soy sauce and green peppers. It was delicious (honestly the best tofu I’ve had). Before we left, we also got to take home chunks of their handmade tofu, directly from the source. My vegan heart was soaring.

What I Learned from Traveling to Paju

I never would have had the chance of traveling to Paju if my roommate was a different person. I never would have heard of the place unless I was open to the opportunity. Because I trusted my gut and said yes, I made lifelong friends, learned a lot more about the place I hope to call my future home, and got to have once-in-a-lifetime experiences. So, in short, I learned that Korea is a lot more than Seoul and it’s worth it to explore every single inch.

traveling to paju si kakao talk

Resiliency Abroad While Exploring: Month Four

MilanThis soul-searching series showcases my grieving process over the course of the most harrowing and heartbreaking six months of my life. It offers a window into how I worked through the processes of loss and resiliency after the passing of my beloved grandmother. Perhaps it will be of benefit to you if you are struggling to cope with a similar situation.

To read the previous article in this series, please go here.

Resiliency and Confidence While Exploring

As each week passed, I felt more and more adjusted to my life in Madrid. The best part about all of it was that I was getting stronger and more confident in making my way around the city—and speaking Spanish! I made amends with friends. With all my heart, I tried my best to accept that I couldn’t change the fact that Tata was gone. All I could do was remember her and the good times we shared. And so, I did. 

Tata and me before my trip to Spain (2016

I decided to spend spring break exploring! It is the season for adventure, after all. I wanted the chance to see Italy again. But, this time, I wanted to see Milan. My goal was also to experience the southern parts of Italy that I had read about in travel magazines. I wanted to experience Italian culture and let my soul search deep into the wine, food, and rich history. I also knew that the week of my travels would be an incredibly special time. It was around Easter, and Good Friday happened to fall on what would have been Tata’s 90th birthday.

She was born on April 14, 1927. In her memory, I planned a trip to Italy and spent much of my time reflecting on life. I also wanted to celebrate her life the way she would have wanted me to. During this trip, I realized through subtle reminders (such as a song played by a street musician as I passed) that the people we hold dear to us often become part of us.

Remembering the Good Things

Drinking wine

The people who were an important part of our lives will not go away after they pass if we choose not to let their memory fade. I realized I could always have Tata live on through me by continuing to do some of the things she liked to do. I felt a piece of her in my heart and considered it a sign of good luck. There were things that would remind me of Tata, especially certain types of music, food, and wine! I believe part of the healing in my grieving process was facing the things that reminded me most of her and celebrating them instead of feeling sad about them.

Keep your head up, your heart strong.” – Ben Howard

Month Four: Signs

Italy! Eat, drink and be merry. Tata loved all three. I will save the details of all the locations for another post. While I could write all day about the many fascinating parts of my Italian experience, I will return to this for another time!

The first stop on my itinerary was Milan, where I saw my first Italian opera at the Teatro Alla Scala. The performance of Anna Bolena, the tragic retelling of the life and death of one of Henry VIII’s wives, was outstanding and so was my balcony seat. My favorite part of the show was the orchestra, which was right below me. I could hear and see each instrument being played in sync to each character’s dramatic role.

No Place Like Rome

It wasn’t quite what I pictured in my mind as I had heard details from people who had been there before who had said it was old and run down. Yet I didn’t feel that vibe while I was there at all. Yes, the city is extremely old but it is FULL of life. I especially enjoyed being in Rome the week before Easter for a variety of reasons but mainly because of its history. The city feels like you are walking back in time with every step you take.

I fortunately had a local take me through town, which helped me to get under the Italian capital’s skin more easily I knew the history in Rome would be one of the highlights of my trip. Because of that, I wanted to spend a good deal of time learning about it. The area I enjoyed walking through most was the Roman Ghetto. Because of the time of year, the Vatican became a favorite of mine too. I saw the Vatican the Monday after Palm Sunday and got to keep a piece of palm from the ceremony the day before.

penne

A Taste of Sicily

Last, but certainly not least, I visited two parts on the island of Sicily. I flew from Rome to Palermo, and then drove to Taormina. The most interesting part about Taormina is that you have to take a funicular, or cable car, to get up to the town on top of the hill. So on my first night there, which happened to be Good Friday, and also my Tata’s birthday, I did just that. I got a glimpse of Taormina atop the hill.

sicily

It’s Good Friday

The most important part of this trip was the events that took place on what would have been Tata’s 90th birthday. The magical part about this day was that I was able to see a full religious procession in Sicily (on a whim).

In an earlier post, I spoke about how the St. Croixe church in Bordeaux, France helped me take an important step forward in my grieving process. Well, something similar happened on Good Friday. I was walking around Taormina in the downtown area up on the hill. I was browsing through the Swarovski store. This became incredibly meaningful once I realized where I was and on what day.

Backstory: I had given a necklace to a friend as a keepsake before we said goodbye in Madrid and I was looking for a replacement (something different but unique to Italy) for myself. However, looking back now, the irony of this story and why the “sign” or symbol of Swarovski is important, is because my grandfather used to always bring Tata a Swarovski crystal for Christmas from abroad. I fondly remember sitting in her kitchen one Christmas. Papa told her to reach over her shoulder into the stocking above, hanging on the wall.

To this day, I will always remember the smile on her face when she reached into the stocking and pulled out the box. When she opened the box, a tiny mouse-shaped crystal that had a tiny metal spring as its tail unveiled itself. It was definitely something my grandfather would have picked out. She looked at it adoringly and put it next to the swan crystal in her glass cabinet. Over the years, her collection grew as did my memories of her adoring the Christmas holiday and, of course, my Papa’s special gifts.

Calmness During Procession

While in the store, the lights grew dim, and the staff asked me to leave so we could watch the procession. I knew what a procession was because I had heard about it the week before from my students in class. However, in Italy they do their processions a bit differently than in Spain. As I walked outside, I heard music and singing. I saw votive candles and women wearing black. They were carrying Jesus Christ during each stage of his life on Good Friday. The feeling I felt while watching this unexpected event is one I will never forget and hold dear to my heart.

Procession in italy

Looking Back

procession

As I look back at this moment, how I felt and how I feel now, I realize that this trip to Italy helped me let go and officially mourn my grandmother in a way that was special for my own self-growth. The procession that happened on her birthday was a raw moment for me. It became my way of laying her to rest. Since I was not able to be with my family for a memorial or for the prayer with the priest as she took her last breath, this procession on her birthday made me feel as if I achieved closure.

I took deep breaths and lived in the moment. I looked into the crowd into the eyes of either a young Italian girl or an elderly Italian woman. They all proceeded in honor of a man who died for others. For me, observing this culture and seeing these women gave me the peace in my heart that I needed to close the door in order to move on without feeling the guilt I had been feeling. For whatever reason, because I wasn’t there to see her when she died, I felt guilty and I needed to let that go. Me being hard on myself made me feel unsettled inside. And, for whatever reason, this procession and this moment during my quest made me start to feel at peace in my heart and especially within my soul.

Building The Essential Checklist

Here are some helpful tips that I developed as I dealt with the grieving process abroad:

  1. Go out and talk to friends, coworkers and try to retain as normal a routine as possible. You don’t have to talk to them about your grief, but it does help to go out and make new memories while you are trying to let the pain subside.
  2. Cry when it hurts, but don’t let it consume you. Suppressing feelings is not a normal thing to do. It only results in delayed, and sometimes worse, outcomes.
  3. Seek professional counseling if you feel like you can’t follow your everyday routine and things aren’t getting better.
  4. Try not to internalize your sadness. Write to your family and friends back home or write to a stranger. Maybe talking to someone you don’t know as well as someone you do know will help you release some of the suppressed feelings you are experiencing.
  5. Start a new hobby and find a way to focus on making it as meaningful as you can while you are abroad.
  6. Listen to feedback from friends and family. Be aware of what they say and note whether or not you need to adjust your lifestyle choices. Resilience begins once you understand your behavior and its effects, and how you should adjust to being able to recover from grief in order to become your better self.
  7. ENCOURAGE people in your life to try their best. Teachers, get to know your students’ needs, and most important, get to know your students before telling them they CAN’T do something. This type of behavior causes learner anxiety and self-doubt.
  8. Take time to mourn and reflect the way you feel in order to start healing. Make plans ahead of time during a holiday break to enjoy yourself by doing something fun. Do the things you need in order to find peace within.

 

For my next article, I will be writing about Acceptance, Resilience, Happiness: Month 5 while teaching abroad. Thank you for reading and being a part of the Dreams Abroad family!

Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

by Leesa Truesdell