First Things First – RGADC

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(The first glimpse of the city out the window of the plane.)

True to form, the very first thing I did when I arrived in D.C. was get sick.

It wasn’t a terrible illness, but the cold put quite the damper on my orientation experience. I slept far more than I was awake, which is very unlike me. And imagine my dismay that my first impression on my roommates was snotty, sneezy, and sleepy!

First impressions are crucial in forming an attitude with which to face the year. Thankfully, the first impression D.C. made on me was close to perfect. I had to fight through the illness to get out and do anything, but even when I was stuck in the apartment, I was basking in the city. I enjoyed every second (even the ones I slept through) just because I’m here.

And I’ve still managed to get in a number of “firsts.”

– I’ve been to the national mall for the first time. I didn’t feel remotely like a tourist. Actually, I felt like I belonged there. It was so natural, so expected. Every time I look out a window, really, I feel like I belong here. I’m living here and working here for 15 weeks. I’m no tourist; I’m a part of the city.

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(Guess where I’m spending a semester. Just guess.)

– I’ve already seen my first rain. And my second, for that matter. We’ve been warned to keep an umbrella on us at all times (and I’ve felt super classy carrying my new umbrella from H&M). I keep watching the rain with an awe that no one seems to understand, especially if they see rain all the time. But hey – rain is a powerful thing, and we don’t see much of it in Texas.

– I love the first impression I’ve gotten of my roommates. Katie and I share one bedroom, while Aki and Jasmin are in the other. They are fantastic girls, so nice and so understanding, and I hope to get to know them better as the semester goes on. Maybe next weekend, I’ll actually be able to go out and grab dinner with them.

– I’ve had my first soda since giving them up. This is a little disappointing, since I only gave them up less than a week ago, but Sprite is my self-proclaimed cure-all. Cold, stomach ache, or you name it, and Sprite will make me feel better. Of course, I rarely touch it unless I’m sick. So, other than a few glasses of Sprite, I’ve been doing fairly well on the soda front.

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(My last soda before giving them up.)

– I’ve ridden the metro for the first time and feel like a pro. I am confident that I could find my way around D.C. in a heartbeat. The iTrans app helps, telling me exactly what trains to take. The system just isn’t as complicated as I expected it to be, so I’ve just stayed confident and walked. Plus, I love the feeling I get of just being a part of that flow: so professional, so adult, and so active.

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(The metro: hot, muggy, but thrilling.)

– And speaking of adult and professional, I’ve had my first day of course programming. The greatest thing about it though, was that we were treated like adults. We were required to go for our course programming, and, though our coordinator gave us directions, he let us go entirely on our own. Being treated like an adult instead of a student is a refreshing breath of air. I’m about to face the world on my own, more or less, and I need to know how to do that. Having that precedent set early on, makes me excited for the responsibility the year will hold. (Silly, right?)

– Then there was my first event. After staying in bed basically since I arrived, I finally got out for the annual Labor Day concert. I only expect to be in D.C. this one Labor Day and the opportunity was too good to pass up. And I was right; it was totally worth the effort. The music (which included numerous patriotic pieces, Broadway, Beatles, and more) really warmed my heart. After the night as over, I felt pretty dizzy, but I was desperate to get out, and I am so glad I had.

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(If this is beautiful,the music was so much more so.)

Then there are the firsts I have not had yet.

– First day at the National Archives (though orientation is tomorrow).
– First meeting of our Civic Engagement project (and I have yet to find out what it is).
– First day of class (which will also be tomorrow).
– First brunch with the President (which I will probably never have).

But, of course, I’ll be sure to keep you posted on my adventures as they come, firsts or otherwise.

Preparing for the Adventure – RGADC

Clothes are littered around the floor of my room, patches of overgrown weeds that seem to get larger with every hour. Shoeboxes stack a mile high in the corner of the room. Then there are the folded clothes, judgmentally sitting alone on the bed. They know they are better than the mess on the floor. They know they are first pick to be placed in the waiting suitcases. They know they get to go to Washington D.C. on my next greatest adventure.

This. This is the packing process.

All the piles of clothes really do have a purpose. There’s a pile to take with me, a pile to maybe take with me, a pile to donate, and a pile to get rid of altogether. The process is the hard part. And the scary part. Every pile signifies something left to do before I leave for my adventure this fall.
To be fair, though, every pile also signifies something that I’ve completed. I’ve gone shopping. I’ve combed through my closet. I’ve updated my wardrobe. Every step of the process takes me closer to D.C.

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(Let’s face it: I needed an update.)

My college wardrobe valued comfort over class. Sweatpants and t-shirts were preferable in the freezing classrooms, especially when class included essays or lectures. Sure, I dressed nicely when going to church on the weekends. Yes, I had cute clothes in the closet for those special date nights. Of course, I made an effort to be presentable when I was at work. Overall though, my wardrobe did not make the cut for business professional. Or anything business, really.

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(The shoes can make it or break it.)

So the shoes stacked in the corner are my new dress shoes. The folded clothes on the bed are my new blazers and suits. Even my casual wear has gotten a fashionable update. Once I take that pile of clothes to the donation center, my closet will be complete. New outfits will prepare me for my internship, but also for the professional world beyond – a world that I need to prepare for, since I’ll be thrown into it all too soon.

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(Presenting… my updated adventure attire.)

Adventure attire? Check.

But the closet purge is only part of the battle, and the clothes will only fill so much suitcase space. There are still so many things I need to be sure to take:

– A lint roller, because white fuzz somehow becomes magnetically attracted to black fabric.

– Tide To-Go? That ketchup stain becomes all too obvious on a tan suit.

– My DVD player. I can go without movies for four months, easy, but they do provide a good way to get to know new friends and roommates.

– An umbrella and rain boots, I suppose. I’m from Texas; I don’t even know what rain looks like.

– My iPad, since the modern world practically revolves around technology.

– I’d say books, but with all the reading I’d want to do, my books would fill up a suitcase all on their own. I’ll stick with my Kindle.

– Brand new (and comfortable) walking shoes, so I can walk the streets of D.C. in style. And without blisters.

– A pen and some paper. Inspiration may strike me on the subway, and I’ll need some way to write it down. (Fun tip: if you want to keep a writer entertained, hand her a simple pen and paper.)

– My journal. I’ll want to keep every memory preserved somehow, so I can look back on it later. So I can really learn from the whole experience.

Then there’s my backpack. Indiana Jones always carried his satchel, so I took a page from his book. It’ll probably carry some of the aforementioned essentials that don’t make it into my suitcase. It will hold my journal, my iPad, my Kindle, a pen and paper. It will contain everything that I really do need with me. The necessities of a writer, an intern, and an adventurer. Except a whip. Thanks Indiana, but I’ll probably be able to face my brand of adventure without that one.

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(The real adventure necessities.)

Adventure accessories? Check.

Now all that’s left is to actually let the adventure begin!

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(Washington D.C., here I come.)

Ain’t Money Funny – RGAT

20130702-143049.jpg (above: me sitting in a window frame overlooking the courtyard of Angkor Wat temple, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever set eyes on)

Shortly after our arrival in Cambodia, frustrations sky-rocketed. Getting through immigration was frantic enough (considering it was rainy, muddy, and we had to haul our luggage all over the place – this situation was only worsened by the sprained foot I sported from my Bangkok disaster day), but the more frustrating things all boiled down to money.

Instead of taking us directly from Poipet to our destination in Siem Reap, our rented vans wanted to take us to their home office so that we could change vehicles and (in short) pay them twice. All we wanted to do was get to out guesthouse hotel which wasn’t even that far away. Convenience wasn’t the issue, money was. Because of communication differences and rather extreme stubbornness from both parties, we waited a long time before finally moving on to our temporary residence.

However, upon arrival at the hotel, we discovered that three of our nine reserved rooms had been given away earlier that day. For – guess what – monetary reasons! The owners of the guesthouse didn’t think ahead to losing the business of foreigners staying for four nights. Instead, they took one-night guests, thinking they would just get the money then. Basically, they set themselves up for less profit. Instead of practicality, they were focused on immediacy.

All of this raises questions about the importance of money. I can’t live well without it, that’s for sure. It is a part of day to day life. Wake up in the morning. Check the stock market. Attend expensive classes at a university. Buy lunch. Pay off your new car (since you wrecked your first one). Buy groceries. Buy a mango sweet tea at Sonic Happy Hour because who can argue with a dollar drink? I dish it out regularly, and I consider myself fairly frugal. I celebrate every time I get a paycheck and can have a more extravagant meal than Ramen. (The life of a college student is so hard, you know.)

The government, our society, businesses, and individuals all rely on the strength of the economy and the circulation of money. None of this is a bad thing. Money is a tool to build a functioning society. It helps regulate the trade of goods and services between members of a community. People like to be compensated for their efforts. Imagine the chaos without it.

No, no. Money is, in itself, a good thing. The problem arises when money becomes an idol. When the simple need turns to devouring greed. Dramatic as it may seem, huge consequences can result from the love of money. We, thankfully, did not encounter huge consequences. We just split up to stay at different hotels in the vicinity. And the people of Cambodia would not recognize or call their desire for money “greed,” since their basic needs aren’t always fulfilled. They take the money where they can get it so they can keep food on their tables and a roof over their heads and maybe have enough left over to buy a toy for the baby. Mostly, it’s the treatment of money in wealthier countries that is brought into perspective by the experiences we had in Cambodia.

We should not take for granted what we have. Moreover, we should not forsake the more valuable things (like a unified family, a loyal friendship, etc.) in pursuit of money. Most of us (and I can’t speak for the followers I don’t personally know) live comfortable lives. Money should simply be a part of life, not the cause of so much frustration. There are worthier goals than money, richer treasures than gold, and wealth alone brings no joy.

(below: Siem Reap graffiti and Cambodian humor: “Angkor What?”)

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Unable to Leave — RGAT

20130628-223652.jpg I would be lying if I said that my trip to Thailand wasn’t – in part – an attempt to escape West Texas. It wasn’t the whole reason. And it wasn’t an escape like the kind I talked about in my post “Escape to Atlantis“. I just needed a reprieve from the dull, rolling plains and the reminders of heartbreak. What better cure for emotional and mental stagnation than an adventure full of inspiration?

So when I think of being unable to leave the States, it’s difficult to grasp. This trip has been so rewarding. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was so easy for me to do! Hop on a plane, fly around the world, pass through customs, and voila! But my best friend (Venezuelan) can’t leave the States. And the girls I met in Mae Hong Son (the Karenni girls from left above, Ida, Dima, Mimi, Mithi, and Symmetweh) can’t leave the border of the forests that surrounds them.

It’s been over a week since I left their peaceful, humble village in the mountains and I miss them so much. I could go back to visit them, of course. But they can’t visit me. They are refugees who crossed the Thai border from Burma and now live in the mountains. They are wonderful young adults who stayed up with me every night to laugh and swap stories. Then they showed us city-folk how to bathe in a stream. They demonstrated using rocks to exfoliate and teased us when we tried to rub our faces with them. And most heartbreaking of all, they cried when we left.

20130628-224757.jpg These girls hardly dare to dream beyond the surrounding trees. It almost makes me feel guilty for daily pursuing a dream to write. My feet ache to move, so I travel. My fingers itch to type, so I write. For the girls, they settle on a future within the camp. They have so many dreams and wishes, but so little hope that they will come to fruition.

Since this was more of an open-ended thought with no real conclusion, I will end with a few words of encouragement:

To those who wish to roam, don’t take your leave for granted.
To those still stuck at home, don’t forsake your dreams.

A Quick Note from Cambodia

A quick note to my followers (and those who care to read this blog):

My time in Cambodia has consisted of food poisoning, smoke-filled lungs, and little to no wifi. My apologies for the lack of posts. Everyone should expect a slew of them over the next couple of days. Okay, maybe not a slew. I have at least three that should be posted relatively soon (one every other day or so). Hopefully you’ll enjoy them and won’t get sick of me typing to you. 🙂 Love to everyone from Cambodia!

Going Out On a Limb (Or Leaping Off It) – RGAT

20130621-100050.jpg Meet Lima. Lima lives in a tree near one of refugee camps in the mountains of Mae Hong Son. She hates cameras. Point a phone or camera at her and she’ll screech and try and grab it away. Mainly it’s the flash, but she is completely unwilling to get to know you. The first time I offered her my arm, she grabbed my Kindle and began to chew the corner. After a moment of pulling it away from her, I set all of my stuff down out of her reach. From that point, she was completely happy to be my friend.

Lima would bound toward me across the ground, jump on my leg, and run all the way up to my shoulders. Her favorite place to perch was my head, which made it difficult to hold my neck straight. She was a heavy little devil. I had monkey footprints up and down my arm. Then she would sit, immovable, on my shoulder and stare at me while I scratched her head and back. I felt like I’d made a good friend (because she was brilliant, guys, you don’t even know).

Anyway, I’ve ranted about Lima too much. I need to get to my deep, philosophical parallel. I just really loved the monkey, okay?

One of Lima’s favorite pastimes was wrapping the rope she was tied to over a branch, leaping out of her tree, and swinging by her “leash.” She would propel herself towards the other trees by lunging off her trunk and flying through the air. At first, I thought she was struggling, with her limbs flailing everywhere. But Lima is a monkey. The second she wanted, she could grab the trunk, or easily pull herself up to the branch again, untangling herself. Next, I thought she was showing off to me her cool tricks. But Lima didn’t even care that I was standing there while she swung. Finally, I realized she was pushing off to try and grab the smaller branches of a nearby tree. When she reached it, she would clutch the leaves, staying awkwardly suspended in air.

Lima went out on a limb to reach a goal. She couldn’t extend her leash, but she could reach beyond her boundaries to the unattainable. Not only did she go out on a limb, she leaped off of it! Why isn’t the whole of humanity more like my monkey friend, Lima?

When I was staying in the refugee camp, hardly anything was within my comfort zone. I bathed in a stream. I slept on the floor. I stayed off of Facebook. I pulled a fin off of my already cooked fish. I lived in 90 degree weather with no A/C (or fan to speak of, most of the time, since the electricity refused to be consistent). It was amazing! But not within my comfort zone. I think the Karenni people even laughed at us for the silly things we did.

But in an adventure, what good is staying within a comfort zone? Where would the happy ending be if the prince refused to challenge the dragon? What fun would life be without a little risk?

Thailand is my adventure of the moment. I try and make adventures from everything: a trip to the beach, a visit to barren West Texas, a walk downtown, et cetera. (Every time “et cetera,” y’all.) But this was a huge step for me! This was flying around the world! Oceans away from home! For two months! With very few familiar people! To a country with ridiculously spicy food! And very few fluent English speakers! And different cultural norms/expectations/traditions! I mean, holy crap! What was I thinking?!

I was thinking I needed a step out of my comfort zone. I needed to take a leap of faith off the branch in the hope that the result would ultimately be beneficial for me! My life had been too plain, too full of drama. I’d been broken-hearted multiple times in the past year and staying in my boundaries would never have helped me heal. By going on an adventure, I get to experience new things, learn more about myself, and more about the amazing world! You probably all think I’m silly for my over-enthusiasm right now. Yes, Renee. It’s a monkey. Yes, Renee. You’re in a different country. But, hey, the excitement is what makes it easier to take the risk and have a blast and make a difference!

Looking silly doesn’t matter. Feeling foolish doesn’t matter. It’s about living to the fullest. It’s about having fun. It’s about going the distance and beyond. It’s about jumping away from the tree, maybe flailing for a bit, but eventually grabbing the leaf in the distance.

Bubble Shows – RGAT

While showing me several video clips on YouTube, my Chinese friend Karen asked me if I like bubble shows.

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Lately, she’s been showing me all of her favorite Thai, Chinese, and Taiwanese dramas and introducing me to some of the actors she likes.

“You think he’s cute, yeah?” she’ll ask.

Of course, I’ll agree. It’s hard to argue that some of these men are very attractive. I’m not gonna argue if a handsome Asian man is walking around without his shirt on. (Sorry, I’m single. No regrets.) Every time I admit the man is attractive, she’ll tell me, “You have yellow fever, huh?” Sure, Karen. I have yellow fever. Really, I just think attractive men are attractive men.

I digress. Once I began to think about the clips she’d showed me so far and she hesitantly added the word “opera,” I realized what she meant.

“Soap opera!” Karen and I both died laughing when we realized the misunderstanding.

It’s been amazing to get to know all of the interns that I didn’t know before the trip. Especially the foreign ones. Karen is Chinese, Mit is Malaysian, and Mahya is Japanese. P’Ball and Na are both Thai, though Ball isn’t exactly an intern. We just all live together in the same building. Which is good and bad.

It’s like having a roommate or, I suppose, a spouse. There’s always someone who leaves the dumplings out on the counter, or doesn’t refill the toilet paper when they use the last of it, or something, et cetera, et cetera. (Please enjoy that King and I reference. I am in Thailand, after all.) We’re also getting closer and closer to each other. We’re enjoying the bonding time we have and growing into our spiritual gifts. We take silly pictures and have inside jokes (especially when Karen says something hilarious, like “bubble shows”). We are all working together for the service of others.

However, two months is a long time to be with a select group of people. We’ve only gone two weeks. Before I came overseas, my dad wrote me a letter that reminded me 5+ times to avoid drama. It seemed like an easy request, and I still think it is entirely possible. I’ve just begun to realize that traveling so far from home can bring out unseen characteristics in others. This is good! You get to know all of their traits! But it can also lead to tension over time when traits don’t coincide well.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there’s drama among the interns. They may read this and think, “What the heck, Renee?” But that’s not what I mean. This is more of a post about thoughtful prevention. I just know that drama can tear a close knit group apart in seconds flat and I don’t want any of us to feel like we’re stuck in the middle of a bubble show. We head out to displacement camps in Mae Hong Son tomorrow and will basically be roughing it for four days. Not to mention, cramming 17 people and their luggage in to a truck for a trip through the mountains. These are the exact conditions that make for a brilliant bubble show.

Bubble shows are hilarious to watch: tense, overdramatic, and often intriguing. Real life drama, on the other hand, can quickly be devastating. This intern team has a positive purpose in Chiang Mai and should not be brought down by negativity even for a moment. We have too much to do to waste any time bickering. We have too many blessings to spend time complaining. We are on an adventure together and need to maintain our joy, camaraderie, and friendship.

Drama always has negative consequences. I hope we continue to stay away from real life bubble shows.