New Year, Same Me

As 2018 has come to an end and I move full-speed into 2019, I wanted to write a little reflection post about the last year.

Did anyone else feel like 2018 was a difficult one? I sure did. There were many times where the world just felt like one massive dumpster fire. My year was personally filled with significant transitions and challenges, some more painful than others. Despite the hardships, I carried on as best I could.

When things felt especially difficult, I reflected on an inspirational phrase created by some pretty inspiring friends and co-conspirators at the Girls Rock Camp Alliance:

“Even when the world is scary, joy is revolutionary.”

Joy can be defined as a feeling of great pleasure and happiness. For me, the most joyous moments of 2018 came in the form of relationships. Over the years, I’ve cultivated some remarkable friendships. I am continuously in awe of the people in my life who inspire me each and every day. Y’all are some brilliant, kind, funny, and resilient folks.

Throughout this especially difficult year, my friends were always there for me. They were willing to listen, to give advice, to distract me, to challenge me, to just be present. They supported me in ways I often feel I can never fully match. I am truly blessed to have such a solid community and network of people around me. Thank you, all of you, for bringing such joy to my life. You help me feel braver and more capable.

So cheers to 2019! Another year of strengthening new and old friendships and loving each of you [and myself] more fully and honestly.

Sweden...again (feat. Norway)

Earlier this month, I spent a couple of weeks bopping around Sweden and Norway. Specifically, I spent time in Stockholm and Oslo.

But why Sweden?

It's no lie that I have an affinity toward Sweden - its culture, food, and girls. But beyond all that, I also have good friends who live there. Over the years, I've been able to meet so many Scandinavians through my work with the Girls Rock Camp Alliance. Popkollo was one of the first organizations in the world to run rock camps, similar to the rock camp that the Carolina Youth Action Project runs (a program I've been volunteering with for several years now). 

Before this trip, I had been to Sweden once before. You can read all about it on an old blog post of mine from 3 years ago. At that time, it was winter, it was dark, it was cold, and it was snowy. Despite all of these things, it sure was beautiful.

Still, I was excited to experience Sweden in a different light - perhaps daylight, since there's usually only about 5 hours of it during the winter months. In all seriousness though, I was pretty stoked to be in Sweden during the summertime.

When I arrived in Stockholm, it was a warmer than usual summer day. Here I was thinking I had escaped the intense Charleston heat. The familiar warmth (sweat inducing heat) greeted me after 24 hours of straight traveling. After getting through customs, I took a 45 minute bus ride from the airport to the Central Station where a friend met me and guided me to my accommodations for the duration of my stay in Stockholm. I was fortunate enough to stay with Casey, a dear friend of mine and fellow board member with the Girls Rock Camp Alliance. The apartment tenants also included Jens, her partner, their roommate Mark, and their two adorable cats - Orlando and Katniss (pictures will be included later in this post).

Stockholm was just as charming as I remembered. Many of the buildings look the same. I joked with Casey my entire stay that everything in Stockholm looks the same. It does but not exactly. But so many buildings do share the same warm color palette. Think mustard yellow, burnt orange, and grapefruit. One of my favorite parts about Stockholm is that you can basically walk to most places and you are almost always near the water. How dreamy, right? For being the largest city in Sweden, it doesn't feel overwhelming at all.

Some of the highlights from Sweden included spending all the time with my friends, visiting a Popkollo camp running in Botkyrka and unexpectedly being part of a workshop, visiting Popkollo headquarters twice, marching in the pride parade, visiting museums, eating all of the amazing foods (like cloudberry jam and Swedish pancakes, meatballs, toast with butter and cheese almost every morning, Jens' taco lasagna, and all of the gummy candies my stomach could handle), going to a crayfish party, meeting new people, and so much more!

But that's not all! Not only did I spend time in Sweden, but I also went to Oslo, Norway to visit a few of my rock camp friends who live there. 

Sofie and her partner Ragnhild were gracious enough to host me in Oslo for a few days. The journey between Stockholm and Oslo takes about 6 hours by train. Most of you don't know this, but traveling by train is my favorite. I'm terrified of flying, so train travel is definitely a less scary alternative. Having that much time on the train meant I could catch up on letter and postcard writing, reading, and journaling.

As soon as I arrived in Oslo, Sofie and Ragnhild met me at central station and immediately took me to a ferry where we met up with two other friends and caught a boat ride to an island. They surprised me with a sailing trip around the harbor is Oslo! We all acted as the crew of the ship and with our collective knowledge we successful raised a sail. Sure, the wind wasn't being very cooperative and we mostly spun around in circles out on the water, but we tried! And it was still a lovely day. Thank goodness for boat motors right?

Oslo reminds me a lot of Seattle, Washington or Portland, Maine. It's a seaside town with a lot of boats. The city itself feels extremely small (especially compared to Stockholm) and is very walkable.

The boat ride was definitely a highlight of the trip. But so was making dumplings with Sofie and Ragnhild. Actually, I ate dumplings twice while I was in Oslo so I'd consider that a win for sure. Anyway, enough about the dumplings. I also got to play pool and experience one of Oslo's finest dive bars.

But my trip didn't end with Oslo.

I returned to Stockholm for what I thought would be 3 last days in Sweden before returning to the US. But my 3 extra days turned into 6 extra days when my flight was cancelled due to technical issues. I'm still not sure what that means, but I'm not mad that my vacation had a little extension.

This trip definitely deepened my love and appreciation not only for my friends, but also for Scandinavia as a whole. Thank you to everyone who helped make this trip what it was. I will dream about cloudberry jam and Swedish breakfast until I return.

Below, enjoy some photographs from my trip.

 

Chicago

Earlier this month, I spent some time in Chicago visiting my dear friend Kate. It was my first trip to the Windy City.

I know Kate through my involvement with the Girls Rock Camp Alliance, a member organization comprised of music camps and various arts based programs from all over the world. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to meet so many radical and inspiring folks through the GRCA. As cheesy as it sounds, many of these people are my lifelong friends.

Before my trip, I was pretty excited to hang out with Kate and spend time in a city new to me. But I also planned my trip around Girls Rock! Chicago’s second summer camp session of the year so I could spend half days volunteering at their program. It felt like a win win situation - hanging out with friends and supporting the youth.

My first couple of days in Chicago were spent sightseeing and trying to avoid crowded areas (the city’s crowdedness was made worse by Lollapalooza coinciding with my first weekend in town). I walked so many miles! This data was verified by my Fitbit. In my first two days alone, I visited Millennium Park to see the Bean and Lurie Garden, saw the Chicago Theatre, visited the Museum of Contemporary Art to see an amazing exhibit by Takashi Murakami, walked along the Riverwalk, strolled down the Navy Pier, saw many a Pilsen mural, walked around Maxwell Street Market, and saw Alvvays play at The Empty Bottle. It was an action packed 48 hours.

Camp week started on Monday. My role as a band coach meant I had to be at the school by 1 PM, but I arrived earlier than necessary to A. find the school where camp was taking place and B. get acclimated to the space and introduce myself to volunteers and campers. Despite my experience volunteering and organizing a similar program in Charleston, I felt extremely nervous being totally new to Girls Rock! Chicago. But, luckily for me, everyone I met was so warm and welcoming. Over the course of the week, I got to bond with the campers in my bands, the organizers of GR!C, and countless volunteers.

Throughout the week, I would spend my mornings sightseeing, my afternoons at camp, and my evenings hanging out with the volunteers or doing other activities around Chicago. Getting to spend time with the GR!C folks at and away from camp was a definite highlight of the trip.

Some other highlights included trying deep dish pizza at Pequod’s, eating a Chicago style hot dog, enjoying a delicious ice cream cone from Rainbow Cone, trying Malort, and visiting so many wonderful parks! I don’t want to feel like a stranger to Chicago so I plan on visiting again sometime in the not too distant future.

Thanks to everyone who helped make the experience as good as it was!

Here are a few photographs from the trip:

Japan

At the end of April, I took a 10-day trip to visit my brother, Bryan, in Japan. He is a teacher in a city called Sendai, about 4 hours north of Tokyo in the Miyagi prefecture. He has been living in Japan on and off for the last 7 years but this was the first time I had an opportunity to visit him there. Being half Japanese, this trip was important for me for a few reasons. Most importantly, I wanted to experience my own family’s culture, my culture. My great grandparents on both sides of my mom’s family immigrated to Hawaii from Japan in the early 1900’s. Despite having Japanese roots, I’ve never felt particularly close to Japanese culture or the Japanese community. Having spent most of my life in the predominantly white state of South Carolina, my experiences have been limited to watered down (white washed) versions of Japanese culture. For me, there has always been a disconnect to the Japanese community because there is no Japanese community for me here. 

I wouldn’t say that I went to Japan looking for a sense of belonging, but I definitely wanted to immerse myself in the culture to feel closer to it. 

I left Charleston at 6:00 AM on a Wednesday and, three flights later, landed in Tokyo at 3:00 PM on Thursday. After being funneled down to customs, I waited patiently in line until it was my time. Once I was cleared, I found the post office at the terminal to pick up my pocket wifi device. I rented a portable wifi router so I would have access to the Internet at all times. Mostly, it was to help with navigation and translation and that’s what I primarily used my phone for. After the post office, I went down to the lower level to wait in another line for my rail pass. Foreigners visiting Japan can purchase rail passes that are good for a certain number of consecutive days. I bought a 7-day pass for when I left Tokyo to see my brother in Sendai. Taking the bullet trains can be expensive (sometimes $200 for a round trip train ticket) so buying a rail pass is worthwhile if you plan on traveling more than two ways. The line was long and I waited for maybe 45 minutes before I finally got my rail pass. I waited to activate it until the day I left for Tokyo. In order to travel around Tokyo in the meantime, I purchased a Suica card - essentially a reloadable metro card that can be used for other things like vending machines and even arcade crane games. It was just $5 for the card deposit and you can load any amount you like. I had to reload it a few times while I was in Japan. After getting the Suica card, I was finally ready to take the train from the airport to the neighborhood I was staying in that night. The train ride is about an hour from the airport to Tokyo central station.

I decided to stay in a place called Asakusa while I was in Tokyo. I found a couple of highly rated hostels and knew that the other places I wanted to see in Tokyo were easily accessible from Asakusa. Plus, Asakusa also had a few different things I wanted to see - including Sensoji Temple, Nakamise shopping street, and the Kaminarimon. I also knew I’d be able to find some great food options around Asakusa from sweets and baked goods, to ramen and curry. My first couple of days in Japan were spent exploring around Asakusa, visiting the Don Quijote (a grocery store / department store like chain in Japan), getting a panoramic view of Asakusa from the Asakusa culture and tourism center, seeing the Sumida river from Sumida park, eating ramen and dongo, and also exploring Shimokitazawa, the hip part of Tokyo that includes many cafes and second hand stores. Just FYI, second hand stores in Japan are the best. Japanese people take such great care of their belongings so all of the clothes, household goods, etc. are in excellent shape.

On my third day in Japan, I woke up early, ate breakfast at my hostel, checked out, and headed to Tokyo central station to catch a train to Sendai. It was a busy travel day as it was the start to Golden Week, a week of Japanese national holidays. Schools are closed and many businesses (not in the service industry) are closed so many people travel during this time. So it was a bit overwhelming being in a busy train station but I managed to find the ticket office and get a seat on one of the bullet trains that would get me to Sendai in 120 minutes.

I arrived at the train station in Sendai and Bryan met me. We grabbed lunch before heading back to his place - a modest studio style apartment. That night, we walked around Sendai and grabbed a light dinner of gyudon, miso soup, and a salad with sesame dressing. 

The next day, Yoko, one of Bryan’s former co-workers, drove us to to Jogi mountain to see Saihoji Temple and eat aburaage (a deep fried tofu specialty). It was a beautiful day and, unlike Tokyo, cherry blossoms were still in bloom in Sendai. I had my first squatting toilet experience that day too. After visiting the temple, we stopped by the Nikka Whisky Distillery and I bought a few mini bottles to bring home. On the way back to the center of Sendai, we stopped at a McDonald’s and I ate a teriyaki beef burger. It was actually quite tasty! Yoko dropped Bryan and I off at the Umini-Mori aquarium in Sendai so we spent some time there. After the aquarium, Bryan took me to a store called Mandai (a chain of stores in Japan that sell video games, figurines, clothing, and candy).

The next day, Yoko and her daughter Marika took Bryan and I to a place called Shiroishi in order to visit Spashland Park (a park with hundreds of flowers) and Shiroishi castle. On the way, we stopped to eat at a restaurant known for hamburger steaks. I, of course, had a hamburger steak and it was really good! Spashland Park was really beautiful despite the fact that some of the flowers hadn’t bloomed this year. We stopped by Shiroishi Castle before heading back to Sendai.

Bryan and I took a trip to Matsushima the next day, a little seaside town that features fresh seafood and a beautiful view of the ocean. We took a ferry tour around Matsushima bay and drank a beer while eating rice crackers and peanuts. It was a little overcast at first, but the sun ended up showing itself. After the boat ride, we grabbed a snack and walked about Matsushima. I also got to try cherry blossom soft serve ice cream.

On my 5th day in Sendai, Bryan and I took the Loople Sendai - a trolley bus that goes around the city of Sendai stopping at major tourist attractions. We made our first stop at the Aoba Castle, or what remains of it. The castle was destroyed during WWII when US troops bombed the city of Sendai. The location of the former castle provides a beautiful view of the city of Sendai. There is also a shrine you can visit and various shops and food vendors. I got to try zunda (edamame paste) filled taiyaki - a Japanese fish shaped cake. After Aoba Castle, we caught the Loople a few stops to the Tohoku University Botanical Garden. It was a good weather day so walking the trails and seeing the varieties of trees and plantlife was super enjoyable!

The day before I left to go back to Tokyo, I took a day trip up to Hakodate in Hokkaido, the northernmost island in Japan. I wanted to visit Goryokaku tower and park, which was said to have some of the most beautiful cherry blossom trees. I took a bullet train to Hakodate and passed through the beautiful countryside of Japan. Once I got to Hakodate, I took the trolley to Goryokaku and got in line there to buy a ticket to the observation deck. It was so beautiful at the top! You get a panoramic view of the city. After spending some time looking at everything, I went back to the ground level and went outside to walk around in the park. There must be thousands of cherry blossom trees there. It was truly breathtaking. I spent the remainder of my time in Hakodate walking around before heading back to the train station.

The next day, Bryan and I had lunch together before I had to leave Sendai. I mistakenly got onto the wrong train car and couldn’t access my actual car because the conductor’s car was between them. So I panicked before being reassigned a different seat. Once I got back to Tokyo, I returned to Asakusa and checked into my hostel. I met a traveler from The Netherlands and we decided to explore Akihabara together that night. We walked around, ventured into the Don Quijote, and even spent some time in a cat cafe. It was fun!

I got an early start to the next day and ventured out to Shibuya. From Shibuya station, I walked up to Harajuku station and did some window shopping along the way. I stopped into the Tower Records and listened to some Japanese music. I didn’t understand what any of it meant, but it was still a fun experience. Once I got to Harajuku, I walked around Takeshita dori, a busy shopping street. I popped into a few of the boutique stores and also explored the Daiso. After Harajuku, I took the train one stop up to Shinjuku. There, I visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to take a free ride up to the observation deck. From there, you can get an almost panoramic view of Tokyo. I say almost because the cafe at the top includes part of the view but you can only access the cafe if you are a customer. I walked around Shinjuku and walked through Kabukicho (the red light district) in order to get to Golden Gai - a network of small streets containing about a hundred different bars. It was 5:00 PM so none of them were open, but it was still a neat area to visit. 

The next day, I met up with some folks from Girls Rock Tokyo. I met two of the GRT members back in March at the Girls Rock Camp Alliance conference. They organized a picnic while I was in Japan so I could meet some of the founders and volunteers involved with GRT. We met at Yoyogi Park and had a really lovely time. I got to see Tamaki, one of the organizers I met at the conference, and meet her husband and two children. I also met two of the founders of GRT and 3 volunteers. We had delicious food (including karaage chicken) and drank beer and sparkling sake. It was a nice way to end my trip to Japan. 

The next morning, my new friend from The Netherlands and I both had to check out of our hostel but agreed to grab melon pan, a type of Japanese sweet bun, for breakfast from this well-known shop in Asakusa. It was still warm and delicious! We both went back to our hostel, checked out, and went our separate ways. I finished up some postcards before heading to Narita Airport.

Overall, I had an amazing trip and enjoyed getting to spend so much time with my brother. I was amazed by his fluency in Japanese and also how clean and seemingly efficient things are in Japan. I’m looking forward to my next trip there, which will hopefully be sometime next year!

Below are some photographs from my trip.

Maine

At the end of June, I flew up to Boston to visit Isabel. It was her last night in Boston. The next day, we took a bus to Portland. I was really looking forward to spending time with her parents and also explore her hometown, Cape Elizabeth.

Isabel's mom picked us up from the bus station Friday afternoon. Our first night in Maine, we wandered around the Old Port and First Friday - an event held on the first Friday of every month in Portland. We met up with Ali, a good family friend, for dinner at a restaurant called Boda. After dinner, we walked back toward our car and stopped for gelato where I had one of the best cups of gelato I've ever had (I ended up getting ripe mango and blood orange - one scoop of each). We stopped by nana's house on the way to Isabel's so I could meet her. When we got to Isabel's house, I met Lola - their family dog, and we began packing for our planned hiking trip on Saturday.

The next morning we woke up and grabbed breakfast from a place called 158. We each had delicious bagel sandwiches. After breakfast, we stopped at Holy Donut for a few treats for our road trip. Their wild Maine blueberry doughnut was one of the best donuts I've ever had. We were on the road later than expected and ended up getting to Tumbledown Mountain early afternoon. It was fun seeing the Maine countryside, small roadside produce stands, farms, and other abandoned buildings along the way to our destination. We hiked a trail that was the most direct route to the top of Tumbledown. At the top, there is a lake that exists because of the melted ice and snow from the winter months. The water was a little too chilly to swim in, but we brought our bathing suits just in case we wanted to swim. Unfortunately, I dropped Isabel's phone into the water and it stopped working. We each got a leg and foot soaked trying to grab the phone from the water so we had to wear mismatched socks and shoes (luckily we had an extra pair of socks and an extra pair of shoes and we each got different feet wet) while we hiked down. It was definitely a fun adventure but I still feel bad about breaking her phone.

After our hike, we drove toward a town called Bridgeton. They have a drive in movie and we had planned on me having my first drive in experience during this trip since Maine is one of the few states that still has drive in move theaters. My stomach wasn't feeling too great so we went home instead and stopped at a place called Yosaku in Portland for dinner on our way back to Cape Elizabeth.

The next day, we sailed to Chebeague Island to spend the night and celebrate the Fourth early with Isabel's grandparents. I previously met them during a trip they took to Charleston back in February and was looking forward to seeing them again. The sailing trip, my first, was magical. It was so much fun getting to see all of the different islands that are off the coast of Portland. And it was nice getting to spend some quality time with Isabel's parents. When we got to Chebeague we were greeted by her grandfather who picked us up and drove us to the house. It's such a charming and magical place. And their house was also so special. There's a cherry tree in the front yard that is as old as Isabel (it was planted after she was born). I caught fireflies for the first time. Her family made a lobster dinner, also my first time eating lobster. It was such an experience! I'm really thankful for her family's kindness and warmth.

The next day, we got up and took a bike ride around part of Chebeague Island. They have a lot of Fourth of July festivities including a 5K run, a parade, and a picnic. We watched the parade go by and went to the picnic for a little while before we left. We went into Freeport that day to stop by a party hosted by Isabel's parent's friends. Isabel and I ended up walking into town and explored the LL Bean store. It's huge. Isabel's parents picked us up and we went into Portland. We left a car in town and it ended up getting towed. We had to go get the car from the tow place. Once that was taken care of, we went back into Portland, parked, and made our way to the Eastern Promenade to set up for the fireworks show. We met up with Natalie and Brette, a couple of Isabel's friends from high school. It was a nice way to spend the Fourth.

The next day, we grabbed lunch with another one of Isabel's friends before meeting up with Brette again to pick strawberries. After strawberry picking, we grabbed ice cream from a place called Kettle Cove Creamery. The three of us went to Portland to meet up with Natalie. We grabbed lunch at the Public Market House. That night, Isabel and I decided to go see a movie since we weren't able to go to the drive in.

Wednesday was my last day in Maine. That morning, we took Lola to Fort Williams Park. It was a fun getting to walk around, see the Portland Head Light, throw around the frisbee, and just spend some time with Isabel. We had lunch with her parents and then I packed up my bag and Isabel took me to the airport. My flight leaving Portland was delayed two hours so I would have missed my connecting flight in Atlanta. I didn't realize any of this until we were at the airport. I decided to rebook a flight for the following morning so I ended up getting a last night in Maine.

We went to dinner at a place called Bao Bao that night and ate delicious dumplings. We stopped for ice cream at Willard Scoops. We took a walk to Willard Beach and then went home for the night. Isabel and I had to get up at 5:00 AM the next morning so tried to sleep as early as possible.

Overall I had a really amazing trip to Maine. I'm definitely looking forward to going back. Here are a few photographs from my trip. 

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