Japan: Saihoji, Kokedera, the famed moss temple – a perfect birthday gift!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Since 2015 when I found photos of Saihoji online, I have wanted to visit the temple also known as Kokedera or the moss temple. Today, the afternoon before my 16th birthday, I was so excited to finally get my wish! A perfect birthday gift! Unlike many temples where you can simply pay entry and enter, the process for gaining entry to Saihoji is a bit more complicated. A postcard must be mailed to the temple a few months before the desired visit date. We provided 3 dates in our application, then waited to see if we were approved. They sent our postcard back with an assigned time, and today was finally the day! Thank you so much to the owners of the machiya where we are staying for helping with our reservations!

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We arrived 30 minutes early at the temple gates – we certainly did not want to be late after putting so much effort into getting there! – and fortunately, we were let in early. We showed our reservation postcard and waited for the other visitors with the same assigned time to arrive. (Note: I would love to have photos of this special part to share with all of you, but no photos were allowed inside!) We were all led into a room with traditional floor seating and small tables. Two monks chanted and another played a drum. We so enjoyed the ceremony! Then, we copied words using ink and brush, a requirement to be allowed to enjoy the famed moss gardens. After that, we each had a brief stop to pay our respects at the altar, then it was time to go back outside. Now, we could see the temple garden!

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Before we had even taken a few steps away from the temple, we could see how amazingly beautiful the grounds were! Moss and traditional buildings! I was awed by softness of the 120 different kinds of moss. We walked along the edge of the lower gardens first. We could see islands connected by several wooden bridges, covered in verdant moss. A single bright orange koi fish swam in the water. The weather frequently shifted from sunny to overcast to raining, and then my favorite: raining while it was sunny! In Japan, this is called a fox wedding because of a popular folk tale. I loved the moss, the birds, the sunlight, the scattered acorns, and especially, I loved that it had rained! Saihoji was so special, it was wonderful to finally be there! I quickly fell to the back of the small group, as I took every second I could to photograph and appreciate the beautiful plants. I took so many photos my phone battery died! DSC_0046.JPG

I am so thankful to my parents for helping make this opportunity happen for me! And one of the coolest parts? As we were about to leave, there was a rainbow. The perfect ending to a perfect day!  

Note: I will be updating this entry with more photos later (my phone battery died, but I couldn’t wait to share this experience with everyone!)

 

 

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Japan: My Sweet 16

December 25-27, 2016

I have been dreaming of what my Sweet 16 celebration would be like for years. My family loves to travel and explore the world, and my parents had told me long ago that for my 16th birthday, I could choose the destination, as well as plan the activities we would do. I dreamt of traveling to Japan! I have always been attracted to its beauty, art, and respect for nature, even from the other side of the globe. Finally, on Christmas Day, my journey began. The time from when we left our home in Florida until we arrived at our Kyoto home rental would be over 33 hours, including 3 flights.

 

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China Airlines has great vegan food options!

 

As our plane was about to land in Japan, the clouds hung low, but I finally got my first glimpse of the mountains and water below us. It was so beautiful! During our drive from Osaka to Kyoto, we passed unique buildings, both hyper-modern and traditional. I could see mountains in many directions. Groves of bamboo, pines, and maples sprung from the hills, the clouds hovering just above them. We came off the main highway onto roads crowded with houses. I was in love with the tiny gardens and mosses in front of many of them.

 

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My first glimpse of Japan

 

We arrived at a traditional-Japanese townhouse, called a machiya, where we would be staying. Ferns grew outside the front of the building, and the inside had wooden beams, mud tsuchikabe walls, tatami grass mat floors, all surrounding a small, beautiful traditional garden.

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Upstairs, a porch overlooked the roofs of the traditional Gion district. I sighed with happiness as I examined the perfect rooms and enjoying the numerous cherry blossom decor, in the form of paintings, doors, and bowls.

We made a quick trip down the street to the market, then prepared a wonderful plant-based dinner, served in pretty, cherry blossom bowls. Spicy ramen noodles with seaweed served as the main course. As sides, we ate fluffy bread balls and fried mochi, or rice cakes. I was finally in Japan, something I had dreamed about for years. I was so happy to finally be in Kyoto!

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Iceland: Waterfalls, a glacier, black sand beach, and trolls

November 23, 2016

Our day started while it was still dark outside, which in Iceland’s winter, does not mean what you may think, as the sun would not rise until around 10am! Leaning against the glass window of our shuttle, I watched the pale snow glow in the moonlight and the gently sharpening silhouettes of the mountain landscape. After nearly 2 hours, we came to Skógafoss. Our guide proudly proclaimed his opinion that Skógafoss was his country’s most beautiful waterfall! Nudged between 2 lightly snow-sprinkled hills, long-haired Icelandic horses peacefully grazing on one, the tall falls fell into a river, which edges were laced in thin ice. We walked along the gravel banks and marveled at the beauty of the hills framing the waterfall.

Our next stop was Sólheimajökull, a large glacier surrounded in every direction by breathtaking scenery! According to our guide, who had been bringing people there for 11 years, the glacier had receded 300 to 400 meters in that time. This melting was due to global warming, which has tremendously affected the Icelandic landscape. A large lake was at the bottom of this glacier, and snow and ice was all around! The view from every direction was magical! I found some moss and other small plants to examine by the trailhead. With the magnificent glacier visible just beyond me, I took photos in which I could see each filament and ice crystal.

We came to the village of Vik next, where we walked down to the black-sand beaches of Reynisfjara. Green hills towered above us, where white seabirds where flying and nesting. Rounding the corner, I spotted a wide cave and hexagonal stones lining the mountain. These hexagonal pillars were made of basaltic salt, and their tops were nearly a meter in diameter. Many people were climbing on the lower columns, posing for pictures. The salt columns, which are cold, hard, and a dark grey quite unlike table salt, were formed after volcanos erupted and the lava had dried quickly. Hexagons, our driver had explained, were some of the most efficient shapes in nature, and that is how these salt columns formed. Icelandic folklore, however, told a different story as related by the guide:

3 large trolls used to live in a sea cave, and, since they were allergic to sunlight, would only come out at night. They loved to steal and eat things, like livestock and children, and so every night, would ransack the village of Vik. One day, the villagers had enough and wanted to get rid of the pesky trolls, so they bought a large ship with 3 masts and filled it with things they knew the trolls liked. They left the ship anchored in the bay unguarded, and at night, the trolls found it. They saw it was unguarded and started to tug it back to their cave. However, the sails were large and the wind had caught in them, pulling the boat towards the harbor. For hours, the trolls worked to pull the boat to their cave. As the sky started to lighten, they were within a few meters of the cave and were left with a choice: they could keep tugging the ship to where they could feast on whatever was inside, or they could return to the safety of the shadows. Not being incredibly intelligent, the 3 trolls chose to keep pulling the boat. Soon, the sun beamed down on them and turned the trolls into the salt columns and the ship into a small island nearby. Today, the island has 3 vertical points, resembling a ship with 3 masts.

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Next, we walked through the fine sand and pebbles, before driving around the mountain to the actual village. We stopped at a small, white church overlooking the city for pictures, and as we drove back down, were told how the church was the emergency meeting point in case the nearby volcano erupted.

As we made our way to the next stop, our driver guide told us more folklore, mostly about the wintertime. Two very ugly trolls had 13 children known as the Yule lads, and for 13 days leading to Christmas and for 13 days after, the lads are allowed to roam the island. They wreak all kinds of havoc, mostly stealing things, and their mother used to take the naughty children. These stories were originally meant to scare children into acting right, but later evolved into a sort of Icelandic Santa Claus. Today, children place special Yule shoes on their windowsills, so the Yule lads can place gifts inside of them. However, many children used to be disappointed when they received clothes instead of toys, so the Yule cat was invented. When the children do not get any new clothes, the Yule cat comes and scratches them, so the children fear not getting clothes.

The sun was setting as we arrived at the Seljalafdsfoss waterfall. Our guide told us this waterfall, since it was unique in that you could walk around it, was probably the most-photographed in the country. Leading up to it was a gravel pathway, some grass, and a quiet, but definitely moving, river. At least 2 smaller waterfalls were to the left of the main one, which we could see from the illumination of the electrical spotlight. Snow was covering most of the ground around the falls, and as we moved closer to the water, the more ice and snow there was. In fact, there was so much snow and ice that the section of the path which led behind Seljalafdsfoss was roped off. Fortunately, we were wearing crampons, so were able to go as far as possible before encountering the restricted area.

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On the ride back to Reykjavik, our guide continued with the wonderful Icelandic folklore. He told stories about the “hidden people” of Iceland, or equivalent of fairies and elves. He said the hidden people’s nature varies greatly from each story, from stealing and hurting people to offering great wisdom or advice. Mostly, he said, the Icelanders use the existence of hidden people to blame for when something suddenly disappears, shows up, or is not otherwise easily explained.  Sometimes, he said, construction is shut down if the hidden people are believed to be in the area! People will then offer flowers or food, or even build tiny houses (such as the one I saw by the Secret Lagoon). Learning about the stories surrounding trolls and hidden people, I am reminded of the fairy garden my family has at home in Florida. I will miss Iceland’s numerous stories! Maybe you would like to check out some of Iceland’s folklore or many sagas? There are many tales to choose from!

 

Iceland: Winter swimming and yummy veg dining

Tuesday November 22, 2016

We traveled by a small shuttle bus today, riding through valleys with pretty, snowy mountains and partially frozen rivers. Our destination was the Secret Lagoon, a geothermal hot spring many locals visit. As we arrived, we saw warmly-lit greenhouses nearby. As we approached the check-in building, I noticed a tiny fairy residence, which someone later said was for elves. The walls were white and green turf was placed around the shin-high house and on its roof. Tiny paned windows were also there, in additional to miniature snow piles. The little house was quite charming!

 

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Transitioning from showering in the locker room, walking through freezing air, and getting in the gloriously warm water!

 

As we checked in, we were given towels and guided to the locker rooms. We showered and put on our swimsuits before stepping outside in the freezing air. Goosebumps erupted all over my arms, but the water, only a few steps away, offered refuge at around 104 Fahrenheit. Taking a pool noodle, I waded into the hot water, noticing the steam rising to meet the chilly air. Around us, snowy scenes of hills and forests and rivers and birds and even a geyser created the landscape. 

On the other side of the shallow pool, I spotted the old stone bathhouse with some frosted-over moss surrounding it. We waded through the water, noticing the water temperature varied throughout the lagoon. Beautiful, smooth, dark rocks littered the bottom, and I felt I didn’t even need my water shoes. At various points, we were met with large, bench-like boulders with billowing plants growing around them.

 

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Swimming in the Secret Lagoon reminded me of our Florida springs, except these were warmer and there were ice and snow above water!

 

We came to the other side of the pool by the geyser, which was fenced off. Within a few minutes, we saw the steam rising from a small opening and water bubbling forth. This repeated every 10 or so minutes with varying levels of height. Next, we met 2 nice ladies from Indonesia who love to travel, and we started talking with them about Iceland and other adventures. One of the best parts of traveling is meeting people from all over the world with similar interests! After exchanging social media information, it was time to go.

 

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My father likes to be funny! 🙂

 

As we were leaving, snow flakes began to fall. We also noticed the large tour buses coming in. We were happy we had arrived as early as we had, so that the lagoon was not crowded! If you ever have the chance to visit the Secret Lagoon, I certainly recommend going at a time when you can avoid the large tour buses, so that you can better enjoy the beauty and serenity of the location.

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One of my family’s favorite thing to do while in other places is to eat Indian food, and tonight, we had some of the best food we have ever had! We ate at Hrablestin, less than a block from where we are staying, and had an amazing meal. Although some people think it is hard to travel with dietary restrictions, we rarely have any problems. Often, it is actually very easy to eat plant-based in other countries, and Iceland is no exception. 

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Our server was incredibly kind and helpful, and we were happily surprised by how many vegan options they had. My father ate the vegetarian thali, a sort of meal served with mixed Indian dishes, while my mother and I shared the much similar vegan version of “Option 1,” as it was labeled on the menu. In option 1, we had aloo gobi, a mix of potatoes and chickpeas, palak, assorted vegetables, chana masala, chickpeas, and basmati rice. In addition to this flavorful food, we had sides of crisp, onion pakora and a kind of fried ball filled with yummy potatoes, one of my favorite foods. Afterwards, we had crepes at Te & Kaffi. I loved my vegan Oreo and peanut butter crepe! Te & Kaffi is a wonderful little shop that offers many vegan options, and I highly recommend visiting them if you are in Reykjavik!

 

Iceland: Enchanted Skies

Monday, November 21, 2016

Today was the best Monday I have ever had! After a busy couple of days, my family was relaxing at our apartment rental, simply enjoying our time together, and making our plans for the rest of the week. The weather was gorgeous, with clear blue skies, and with the upcoming week’s forecast calling for gray, rainy, or snowy days, we made a last-minute decision to take a helicopter ride.

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Flying over Reykjavik in a helicopter

We got a bird’s-eye view of Reykjavik, seeing the little islands, the bay, the tiny forest of dark, green conifers, lava fields, and snowy mountains.

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A crater near our mountain-top landing

We landed on a mountain top by a large crater. Our pilot pointed out the direction of the Arctic.

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Moss and lichen atop the mountain. Photos by Avalon Theisen.

Every way we looked, there was a beautiful, snowy scene. I also took time to study the ground around us and was surprised by how many tiny mosses and lichens, some of my favorite plants, were growing up there on the lava rocks.

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Sunset comes early in the Icelandic winter.

The time was about 3:30pm, but due Icelandic winters having short amounts of daylight, we were fortunate to watch the sunset.

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I felt like I was standing on top of the world when we did a mountaintop landing!

That evening, we made another attempt at finding the Northern Lights. A jeep picked us up along with 3 travelers from Australia. We drove out of the city, listening to chatter on the radio. Our driver guide was talking to them. He translated to us that the aurora lights had been spotted nearby. We proceeded to a large snowy field surrounded by rocky mountains.

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Seeing the Aurora Borealis has been on my bucket list!

At first, I thought the lights were only diagonal clouds of mist, but soon, they brightened, revealing glowing green cloud-like shapes that snaked along the dark sky. Bright stars, including the Milky Way which I could see for the first time, shone through, creating a beautiful cosmic effect.We watched, and took many pictures, as the lights slowly changed shape and intensity. At several points, new, warmer colors appeared, such as orange, red, and purple.

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Seeing the aurora borealis has been on my bucket list for years! I was ecstatic to finally see them after dreaming and drawing pictures of them as a young child. The lights were beautiful and the weather was wonderful, much less severe than the night of our first attempt.

After a while, the lights dimmed to a fog-like cloud, only a subtle pale green glow in the distance. We loaded back into the jeeps and drove down a back road through rivers and snow. We came to a small valley with a flat field for stargazing. Running through the ripples of snow and grass, I looked up and spotted the different constellations, recognizing many like: Little Dipper, Big Dipper, North Star, Orion, and Pleiades, or the 7 Sisters.

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Vegan crepes in Reykjavik

Soon, it was time to return to Reykjavik. For a late-night snack and to reminisce over our amazing experience, we ate vegan crepes at a coffee shop with new friends. The crepes were a very sweet ending to a very wonderful day!

 

Iceland: Persevering to Snorkel Silfra

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Me after snorkeling at Silfra

We started our day with a breakfast of croissants from the bakery in our building, before meeting our guide. He took us on a scenic drive through Reykjavik, past colorful signs and buildings, the cove that met the white mountains, and into a long snowy valley. As we drove along the highway, we were able to see much of the landscape. We saw snow piling in the rocky lava fields, strong and long-haired Icelandic horses grazing together, and, as we drove further up, less and less brown ground and trees.

My family at Thingvallavatn Lake, Iceland

We stopped at Thingvallavatn Lake, the largest lake in Iceland at 83 square kilometers and 114 meters deep. Long stretches of hills and mountains, their peaks mostly covered by clouds, led down into a deeper valley with the reflective water of the giant lake. Islands dotted its wind-blown surface. I also saw a picnic table, that was covered in frozen snow and ice. When I took off my gloves to get a picture, I was nearly blown over by the extreme wind. In fact, the wind was so strong, the government had issued a wind warning for the day.

Getting dressed in the van

After stopping at a little, but crowded, store, our guide drove us to Thingvellir, 1 of only 3 national Icelandic parks. Thingvellir is also 1 of only 2 places in Iceland that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were instructed by our guide and the staff to remove all large clothing, including coats and waterproof pants, so we could fit inside a footless and handless wetsuit. The wetsuit was actually very comfortable over my 2 layers of thermals, as it was lined with soft fabric. Next, we slipped on our boots and beanie hats to go outside in the gnawing wind, as the next layer, a dry suit, could not be put on in the van. We had a lot of help getting into the drysuits, as they were complicated to put on. They had built-in boots, which my quick-dry socks touched directly. Unfortunately, the cold of the snow below the boots numbed my feet, and I lost feeling in my toes.

A guide helps me into my gear

Next, we had to remove our gloves to pull on the top part of the suit. We listened to the guide give an informational and safety briefing (it seemed like it took forever, as I was getting more and more cold!). We learned about the plan for moving through Silfra, one of the only places in the world possible to swim between continental plates. During the briefing, my face, neck, and hands were gnawed by the wind, which I directly faced.

After the talk, it was time to wait for the staff to help all of us put on the rest of the gear.  My chafed hands were put through a tight opening, where they were left bare again on the other side for several minutes. My head was forced through a small opening, and because it fit “loosely,” a dog-like collar was fitted around my neck to seal it from the impending water. I could barely breathe. My chin was numb before I was fitted for a hood, and my nose ran from the cold. I was then helped into a pair of mitten-like gloves with 3 finger spaces like lobster claws.

I soon lost feeling in my fingers, too, something the guide said was normal for him, but still scared me. I have always been very sensitive to extreme temperatures, so was frightened I might be unable to go into the water. I was barely able to carry my snorkeling equipment as my arms were stiff. A guide lead a group of us across the icy street, down a path and to the entry stairs to the water.

Entry area to beautiful Silfra

I could no longer feel anything in my outermost limbs, which caused me to drop my equipment, and my body strained from the burning cold. I doubted, again, if I would be able to swim, and I was reminded I did not have to go if I thought I couldn’t. I persevered, despite all feeling lost, a runny nose, burning limbs, and tears involuntarily streaming down my chafed face. I made myself put on my mask and flippers, although I needed help since my fingers had become immobile.

Making my way down the stairs with the others, the air grew less chilly as more wind was blocked. The water was warmer than the air, just above freezing, and without the wind, was bearable. I smiled after lowering myself into the water, looking into the clear glacial melt, rocks surrounding me and far below. Small, yellow-brown plants clung to some of the boulders and floated through the water. I lifted my head and saw the snow meeting the Silfra water on its banks, creating small icicles on the mosses which met the water. “I’m snorkeling in Iceland,” I thought with empowered wonder, feeling accomplished and strong.

We went slowly with the current, seeing rock formations below the crystal-clear water, and frosty plants and snow above. The snorkeling ended at a sandy lagoon, where I swam in circles with happiness. My face was cold but I was there: swimming in winter in one of the coldest countries in the world. The reward of persevering was incredibly worth it!

Returning to the van, I felt strong: I had pushed with all of my willpower to overcome one of my greatest obstacles. I was relieved I had gone in the water, and even wished we had stayed longer than the 30-45 minutes. I was still numb for a while, though, and feeling did not fully return to my toes for 3 more hours. Despite the difficulties of the cold and bitter wind, I felt powerful because of this immense demonstration of willpower. I was reminded that through perseverance, whatever life brings, as incredibly uncomfortable as it might seem in the moment, can be overcome. Just keep pushing and get through.

So happy to have had this experience! Exit lagoon at Silfra. I am on the left, as you view the photo.

 

Iceland: Searching for the illusive Northern Lights

Friday, November 18, 2016

We had had no sleep on the long, overnight flight to Iceland. The sky was still dark, and the air was the coldest I have ever felt. The bitter wind chilled my nose, my chin, and shook my hands. On the shuttle to Reykjavik, I watched the tall silhouettes of the distant mountains and the clouds, the rolling hills paled by the snow, and the dark patches of rock and earth.

We arrived at our apartment an hour later, the darkness still around us. In mid-November, daylight lasted only about 6 hours, so the sun would just start coming up around 10 AM. We were told that on winter solstice, the light would be as short as 4 hours.

After a long nap, we had an early dinner of pasta, before putting on several layers of clothing and winter outerwear to prepare for a night of searching for the Northern Lights. A large jeep arrived to pick us up, which included 3 other travelers who were from England and Hong Kong.

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We drove about 20 minutes out of the city to a large clearing the guide, Steinar, said was for picnics. Powdery snow completely covered the ground and surroundings, by far the most snow I had ever experienced. I danced happily in it, then sat on large boulders to watch the sky. Other jeeps joined us, but no northern lights. We headed out for our second stop.

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We drove through a road in a snow field, to a stretch with 30 mph winds. The silhouettes of large mountains loomed in the distance. Due to the intensity of the wind and cold, we only stayed here for about 10 minutes, before leaving for a long drive through the rocky, snowy mountains.

We stopped in a small valley, the moon shining through the pale clouds, reflecting off a small lake and the snow. The outlines of the mountains glimmered against the stairs. I recognized the Pleiades cluster and Orion constellations. I took my phone out to take a picture of the moonlit clouds, lake, and mountains, but my fingers hurt as they had been exposed to the bitter wind many times throughout the night. Thankfully, the different guides and drivers had prepared hot drinks for all of us, which warmed us up for the remainder of our search.

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The tour was meant to end by midnight, but our guides were persistent: it was past 1:30 AM before we started back. I watched the mountains, or what I could see of their frosty surfaces, as we drove past, the wide field of stars above them, the moon, too. We might not have seen the aurora, but we had an amazing sightseeing experience, where I got to experience walking in snow for the first time. Thanks to our many layers of clothes, we also stayed very warm. The night turned out to be a wonderful experience, and we looked forward to trying to find the aurora borealis another night.

Aruba: Beach Day, SUP and flying high

I wrote this entry while in Aruba in March 2016. As I explained in my introductory post, some things I share will be from past trips and experiences. This was from my third time on the Happy Island. I hope you enjoy it!

It was our last full day in Aruba, and we decided to go paddle boarding. One of my father’s coworkers and his wife decided to spend the day with us.

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Paddle boarding with my mom!

Paddling close to shore, I saw 2 dogs. After jumping off my board, I gently approached them. One of the strays approached me, and I stroked her neck and scratched behind her ears. Her body sagged with the heat of the day, so I brought her a cup of water. As she thirstily drank her fill, I petted her short, yet smooth, fur. She looked similar to the male dog who now approached from the trees, so much so that they could have been siblings. The second dog easily drained the cup, and so I brought them another.

Leaving them to drink, I returned to find my father’s coworker leaving to try flyboarding. A small group had gathered to wish him well, and we waded to the end of the buoys to watch. I watched as he flew into the air, rising through a stream of rushing water as the jets pushed him up. I wanted to be up there, soaring above the aquamarine water!

The man at the shop suited me in a yellow life jacket. By the water, I was guided into large, leaden-like boots, which he strapped across my feet in the ankle deep water. Instructed to lie face down in the water, head up, facing the sea, I did just that. The man waded out to a jet ski, which he hopped on. “Superman to open water!” He said, which was my signal to sit up, arching my back as the jets turned on by my feet. Swiveling at first, I successfully avoiding the razor-like motor of a boat just a meter away. Safely away from the other boats, he increased the pressure on the jets, making me glide faster, the friction pulling me to a push-up position.

We flew past a row of cameras, as a large crowd had gathered to watch me. Waving to my mother, who was in the crowd, the jets started to slow down. My feet sunk down as the man instructed me to try to stand up before he returned power to the jets. Arching my back, I strained against the immense weight tied to my feet. I twisted, worming my way into a semi-standing position. Bubbles rose by my feet, pressure built in my knees. I bent low as the board pushed me skywards. I could see the boots now, and the steady rush of water below. I lost my balance, falling sideways into the sea, the jets pushing me in deeper. I tried again, this time getting almost 2 meters above sea level. I crashed, belly down, my sunglasses punching the bridge of my nose.

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Flyboarding for the first time!

It took almost 15 minutes before I could consistently stay in the air. I rose skyward, my calves sore from pushing against the braces. At one point, I came to almost 4 meters above the sea. Lower, lower! I thought. He lowered slightly, as if recognizing my thoughts. I veered to the left, diving into sandy waters. I swam up to the surface, the buoyancy of the tube and board pushing me upwards. Struggling to a standing position, the jets came to life, pushing me faster than any time before. I was directly in front of my mother and her GoPro, so I posed for a picture: I bent one of my knees and placed my hand on my hip. I jumped out of the position, caution suddenly overwhelming me. I made it back to the water, and went up a few more times.

The man on the jet ski then told me to, “Superman to shore!” Clutching with a hand to my vest, I waved with my free arm at the people. We stopped several meters from shore, where I tried with sore legs to stand. Balancing on the board which stood on the sandy seafloor, I braced myself for one last flight. I clutched both hands on my vest, as instructed, just as the white bubbles boiled around me. The board freed itself from the sand, propelling me out of the water. I bent my knees, then stood when I reached 3 meters. I stared out at the buoys where my parents were slowly making their way back. The water was reflecting the clouds. Dark patches splotched the waterscape in the deeper sea. I looked out to where the lowering sun danced across the sky, where it met the glistening water. It was beautiful.

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Fun!

That evening, we ate dinner at an Indian restaurant and had really good vegetable samosas and pakora. We were exhausted by the time we got back to the hotel, but very happy that we had an amazing time in Aruba.

Peace & love,
Avalon

Aruba: SABA Elderly Home

I wrote this entry while in Aruba in March 2016. As I explained in my introductory post, some things I share will be from past trips and experiences. This was from my third time on the Happy Island. I hope you enjoy it!

It was our fifth day in Aruba. This Monday was what we had been looking forward to most of the week. Almost everyone at Cox Automotive, the company that my father works at, including our family, would be volunteering at S.A.B.A., an elderly home on the island. A large problem in Aruba was people abandoning older members of their families in homes like these, and not coming back to visit, help out, or even say hello. Of course, like anywhere, every member was not treated this way. A few out of nearly 80 people did have some family visit, so we had heard.

Today, for the first time since we had started volunteering through my father’s president’s club, we got to work inside with the people we were helping. This was great because we had not had an interaction with any of the people before.

We were led up a small ramp into a room with tables and plenty of clear window shutters. Only a few people were in the room. We waited patiently near the doorway, and somewhere, still on the ramp, was my father. Soon, the space outside began to fill with our bright green shirts labeling us as “Cox Automotive” volunteers.

Through the crowd, a man with ruffled brown hair came in. I expected he was one of the nurses until he did the strangest thing: he pulled out the arm of a nearby woman, and pressed his index finger into the bend in her elbow. Immediately, this reminded me of my nausea towards veins. He walked up to me, and I smiled. He stuck his nail into my arm. He soon plucked his finger away, grinning.

We were all assigned to tables and allowed to pick one member to play Bingo with. Then, as I waited anxiously for a resident to sit down by our table, the man, I will call him T, galloped to my family. He sat down happily.

He remained quiet throughout much of the evening, except for when he’d gesture for my arm and poke it again.

We must have played 3 or 4 rounds of Bingo, and then we were already breaking for a midday snack. One of the nurses pushed a grey plastic cart around the room, handing out Lay’s potato chips, granola bars, water, and Sprite. My mother and I shared a water and a bag of Lay’s original potato chips, a wonderful, vegan junk food. (Oxymoron, much? :)) A final round of Bingo went on as people finished their snacks. I volunteered to collect trash.

We stopped for lunch, heading outside the complex to the parking lot. There, white tents and snow cone stations had been set up for a barbecue and dessert. T sat at the head of a table where our family ate. I helped one of our table’s nurses distribute hamburgers, potato salad, and some sort of round bready ball to the residents, then sat down. Trying to eat some black beans and corn, I found I couldn’t concentrate or really wanted to eat while surrounded by so many hot people eating greasy food. I decided I would break to get everyone snow cones and waters, instead.

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Me, my mom, T, and my dad!

About an hour into lunch, an announcer began to call the names of Cox Automotive volunteers who had been assigned to give gifts and the people they were going to. Being “Theisens”, our name took a while to get to. It did come, though. We had waited so long, and were excited to see our resident’s reactions. Not seeing her, we walked around the maze of tents looking for her. We came by our table, again, and the nurse I had helped with the food offered to bring us to her. Apparently, she had broken her feet, and could not join the party.

The nurse, a young native Aruban, led us through the familiar gate. We circled along the perimeter of rooms, coming to one with an opened door and an elderly woman lounging near it. She wore an expression as if watching the world go by, and she seemed to be viewing the 4 of us as someone might view a change in weather. She smacked her lips as we gathered her gifts from the backpack we had brought. I dressed the woman, maybe in her early 90’s, in the pink hat we bought for her, and then we posed with her for a picture. We said goodbye. We were the last people back on the bus.

Back at the hotel, we came in the side entrance. The doors were propped open by something shielded by over 100 pairs of feet. It was loud, everyone talking, and, nearing a corner, we heard something above the sound of voices and tired feet: something different. It started with a low rhythm, almost like music. Then it grew steadier, like rain falling in a hurricane. Rounding the corner, we found the source of the noise. About 20 employees were lined up, backs to the wall of the hall, clapping their hands together.

After around 5 minutes of their applauding, my father led a large group of us volunteers up a secret set of stairs, stealing us away from the noise. 50 of us pounded up the metallic stairs. The sound of so many feet echoing off the metal stairs and reverberating off the hollow cinderblock walls excited everyone. We said goodbye, cheering them up the stairs.

Peace & love,
Avalon

Aruba: Best Plant-Based Pizza!

I wrote this entry while in Aruba in March 2016. As I explained in my introductory post, some things I share will be from past trips and experiences. This was from my third time on the Happy Island. I hope you enjoy it!

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The yummiest vegan pizza ever!

Today, I ate the most amazing plant-based pizza in the entire world! We took a taxi to the shopping center for dinner at Amoré Mio, an Italian restaurant we had eaten at a few nights ago. We had gotten warm polenta bread with a vivid red sauce, and each of us had had a pizza. Instead of having my usual broccoli and black olive pizza without cheese, I chose potato as a topping. Potatoes and crunchy, pizza broccoli are some of my favorite foods, and so, the pizza was delicious! The potatoes had been cut into round slices, spread evenly on the pizza.

In the future, I will make sure to add potatoes as part of my unique pizza toppings, that includes: spinach, corn, raisins, garbanzo beans, black beans, lettuce, and sunflower seeds, among others.

By far, this potato, black olive, and spinach pizza was the tastiest and most unique pizza I have ever enjoyed!

Peace & love,
Avalon

Teen traveler, artist, activist, vegan, bookworm, athlete & adventurer. Loves nature, history, culture, kindness & Earth. Click "About" for more information.