Tag Archives: Greta

The Long Journey Home

My flip-flops and my backpack… 22 months later.

As I sit here on the floor of Abu Dhabi International Airport already a bit jet-lagged but with 18 of my 35-hour total flight time to go, I can’t help but reflect on the last two years I’ve spent living outside of the United States of America.

The first of dozens of international flights since 2010.

I would be lying if I said that I had planned this all from the beginning.  When I left the U.S. in 2010, I assumed I had sold my traithlon bike and my surfboard to buy a ticket to visit my South African boyfriend, not travel around the globe.  But life has a funny way of showing you that not everything can be planned.

Exhibit A: Our puppy, Major. Totally unplanned.

And then I extended my 90-day visa for an additional 90 days purely to stay a little longer in South Africa, not to move to Thailand.  But again, life has a funny way of working.

Motorbiking it around Phuket, Thailand.

Thailand had begun as an idea, a solution for Morgan and I to be able to work/live in the same country while still seeing a bit of the world outside of the United States or South Africa.  What it became was an experience neither of us would trade for the world.  We were English teachers, backpackers, muay thai fighters, hot yoga groupies, scooter-riders, chili-eaters, mountain climbers and the list goes on.

Did I mention how much I loved the little monkeys that were my K1 Watermelon kindergarten class?

And then a decision had to be made: stay in Thailand for at least another year… or go?

Morgan and I both loved our year in Thailand for any number of reasons: friendly people, good jobs, great friends, AMAZING food, awesome hobbies and ridiculously cool experiences.  But for some reason, we both came to the conclusion that we weren’t ready for our lives to be that simple yet, that sorted.  (Idiotic logic, right?)

But I still believe that we made the right decision and away we went, back to Africa.  By this time, however, I had already been hired to start work for African Impact in Mozambique.

Escolinha de Boa Esperanca: the African Impact preschool in Vilanculos, Mozambique.

I had always dreamed of doing community development work in Africa and after three months of online job hunting while still living in Phuket, there it was: my dream job in the small beach town of Vilanculos, Mozambique.  On several occasions, I remember thinking that I was seeing ‘Africa’ for the first time.

Children’s Day at Bernard’s Orphanage in Vilanculos.

And then every community development workers’ nightmare came true: the Office of Immigration in Vilanculos decided to continuously reinterpret their understanding of what volunteer tourism is and what African Impact does as a company, hence my transfer to African Impact projects in St. Lucia, South Africa.

Building a tire course playground at a creche in Khula Township, just outside of St. Lucia.

I missed the project in Mozambique terribly, but I think I even surprised myself by landing on my own two feet in a new country and in a new position, especially when considering this had all come about with 12-hours notice.  I think this was my turning point – when I realized that maybe everything does happen for a reason.  Life is often sink or swim and I was determined to swim no matter what.  And I swam like hell.

How many people can you fit in a 16-passenger van? As a passenger who has counted, I can confidently say 29 people.

As I’ve sat here in my final moments abroad, I’ve struggled to find the right words to sum it all up – to possibly explain to someone how the past two years have not only changed my life, but changed the kind of person I was then to the person I am now.  And what I think of to say is this:

It doesn’t matter where you go or how much money you have or where you’re from – it matters how open you are to embracing the full experience.  The smells, the sounds, the people, the culture, the philosophy, the heart of what it means to be a global citizen.

And as I’ve stated in the ‘About Me’ section of my blog since my very first days blogging about this 22-month long adventure:  I’m far from being the most experienced traveler, but I’ve found that flip-flops and a backpack can take you just about anywhere.


Thank you to anyone reading this who I’ve met over the last two years, whether in Thailand, Bali, Mozambique or South Africa.  You’ve taught me what it means to be family even when you’re far from the family you’ve always known.  And a very special thanks to Lulu and Tex, my South African parents.

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Durban Days: Back in South Africa

Cruising around Durban in his car like when we first met.

Put simply, Durban is my second home.

Morgan and I started dating here in Durban (*see post An African Boy and an American Girl to read about our cross-continental beginning).  I have friends and a second family here in Durban.  I can even rattle off an extended list of my favorite Durban restaurants and coffee shops.  So naturally, this is where we returned after spending a year in Thailand.

We’ve only had two weeks to spend time with family, hang out with friends and readjust to living life at a faster-than-Phuket pace.  Judging from just a few photos, I don’t think we did half-bad.

Shopping at the Shongweni Farmer's Market with Morgan and Lulu.

Look at all that cheese! One of several cheese stalls at the farmer's market.

Guess who we found in Durban? Will and Greta treated Morgan and I to dinner at an authentic Thai restaurant here in South Africa.

Post-dinner drinks at a rooftop bar. How awesome is this girl?

Friends and former neighbors of ours when we lived in the Glenwood area of Durban. Catching up with Debbie and Travis in Dover Lodge.

What trip to Durban would be complete without lots of downtime with Tex and Lulu? Look at how much they love their boy.

Like any trip home, it’s never possible to see everyone and do everything that you’d like to, but it really has been a wonderful two weeks.  Now, it’s time for the next adventure.  This week I start working as the Project Coordinator for African Impact in Vilanculos, Mozambique!

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Arrivals and Departures

Kassie and Maddy: Our first high school cross-country race in Gainesville, FL - September 2003.

In a place like Phuket, Thailand – where travelers either vacation or live for a predetermined period of time – there are always people coming and going.  Some are continuing their travels, others are headed elsewhere for a new job and then there are those who have had their fun and are simply heading home.   While my past 10 months in Thailand have been littered with acquaintances and friends of friends coming and going, I had yet to experience old friends and/or close friends doing so.  That is, until last week when I had an old friend come to visit and saw two truly good friends head back home.

Arrivals:

Our first time seeing each other since 2006.

Maddy Billeter and I first met in high school in 2003.  I was a sophomore, she was a freshman and we had both decided to join the cross country running team.  We instantly became friends.  Throughout the next three years, we not only provided encouragement, but competition for one another.  It was evident that neither one of us was going to become a professional runner (unlike one of the girls on our team, who now runs for Nike), but we kept pace with one another, often neck and neck, pushing each other to go faster.  To be honest, Maddy almost always beat me by a few seconds, but to this day she’ll never admit it.  That’s just the sweet, modest girl that she is.

Unfortunately, we lost touch after I graduated high school in 2006.  Despite both of us ending up at universities in North Carolina, we never found the right opportunity to visit one another.  Now fast-forward five and a half years.

It’s November 2011 and I’m living in Thailand.  I log in to Facebook to see a message from Maddy, briefly informing me that she graduated and is now a flight stewardess living in Switzerland and working for a Swiss airline… and that her next flight will be landing her in Phuket in four days.

Since then, Maddy has worked on flights that have brought her back to Phuket in December and then again last week.  Each time she has generously brought with her boxes of Swiss chocolate and lots of high school memories.  I’m looking forward to celebrating her birthday with her when she returns to Phuket next month!

Departures: 

Our last dinner with Will and Greta at Kopitam, their favorite restaurant in Phuket Town.

As any of you faithful blog followers have read in previous posts, Morgan and I have spent a lot of time with Will and Greta Edgcumbe since we moved to Phuket.  An old family friend of Morgan’s from South Africa, Will is the older brother of Morgan’s best friend from his earliest days of school.  Morgan had met Will’s wife, Greta, on one or two occasions, but I hadn’t met either of them before coming to Thailand.  Nonetheless, we became fast friends.

Our adventures included countless dinners, a trip to Krabi, several movie nights and a handful of double-date weekends at the beach.  Not to mention celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas together.  They made up most of what Morgan and I consider to be our ‘family’ in Thailand.

Mr. and Mrs. Edgcumbe came to Phuket intending to stay for one year, eventually deciding to leave two months ahead of schedule due to finding fantastic jobs back in Durban.

Saying goodbye isn’t a strong point of mine and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t shed a tear or two at the bus depot as we waved goodbye to Will and Greta.  But as surely as I know I’ll see Maddy soon, so too will Morgan and I see the other half of our family in Thailand when we return to South Africa.

Last beach weekend together in Phuket.

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Thanksgiving in the Land of Smiles

The presence of American flags on our Thanksgiving table was made possible by a South African couple.

As cliche as it may seem, I do consider myself a global citizen.  Or at the very least, an American aspiring to be a citizen of the world.  Nonetheless, at the base of that, I am American.

To me, being an American isn’t about supporting the NRA  or considering any place outside of the fifty states uninhabitable or just plain inferior.  The U.S. is where my family is from (well, at least for my generation and my parents’).  It’s where I grew up; where I first made friends; where I’m part of established traditions… like Thanksgiving.

After a somewhat underwhelming celebration of Halloween (after work I went down to the local 7-11, spent too much on candy and stood on the outside of our apartment door saying “Trick-or-Treat” which was a cue for Morgan to open the door and give me the candy I had bought), I made up my mind to celebrate Thanksgiving in a more traditional way.

My friend Michelle (also American) and I coordinated via Facebook and put together a small, family-style Thanksgiving feast.  We invited another American (Nicola) and our three token South Africans (Morgan, Will and Greta)  to celebrate/introduce the holiday that is Thanksgiving.

My Thanksgiving family in Thailand.

Our Thanksgiving feast! Two roasted chickens, homemade mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, bread, corn on the cob, salad, yams, homemade cider, wine and beer.

My plate of Thanksgiving carbohydrates.

After two plates of food, Will thought he was going to burst. But wait! There's more...

Something I have missed oh-so-much...pumpkin pie. With whipped cream, of course.

And Nicola brought a birthday cake!

And what’s the best part about Thanksgiving?  Without a doubt, the leftovers.

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Loi Loi Krathong!

Oum's krathong

Let me begin with saying that I love Thai holidays.

Like anywhere else in the world, the best holidays are the ones when you get a day off from work.  Assuming this isn’t the case with all holidays, the next best are the ones in which lessons are put to the side and a cultural celebration at school is the focus.  Like Loi Krathong.

Literally translated, loi means ‘to float’ and krathong is the object (generally shaped like a lotus flower) used to float away bad spirits (anger, resentment, grudges, etc).  The idea is that by letting go of all of this negative energy, you can start life afresh.  Why a 3-year-old would need to start life afresh I have no idea, but last Thursday my K1 Watermelon kids came dressed in traditional Thai costumes with makeup on and krathongs in tow.

I know teachers shouldn't have favorites, but I just love Benjamin.

After a 90-minute morning assembly left the kids stressed and undeniably itchy due to their stiff polyester costumes, they were still excited about the prospect of floating their krathongs in the baby pool set up in the kindergarten play area.

Oum and Photo carefully placing their krathongs in the baby pool.

Later that night, the kids would join their families near any major body of water on the island to set adrift their lit krathongs.  Morgan, Will and Greta and I would head over to Saphan Hin in Phuket Town to do the same…. along with over 1,000 other people.

Releasing our krathongs

Also common on Loi Krathong is to look up into the sky to see it filled not with stars, but with hundreds of paper lanterns – like the scene from Disney’s Tangled.  So what did we do?

…Followed the trail of lanterns down to Nai Harn Beach and released our own.

1...

2...

3!

Happy Loi Krathong!

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The Past Two Weeks in Photos

Thailand flooded. Northern Thailand was hit the hardest, but even down on the Andaman Coast, we had days and days of rain. Source: Lulu

Morgan's parents rode an elephant with this guy as their guide. Source: Tex

Morgan, Tex, Lulu and I took a boat trip out to the beautiful Phi Phi Islands.

Steve Jobs died. These are messages written in his memory by the people of Phuket, Thailand. Source: Morgan

After spending nearly three weeks with us, Tex and Lulu went home to South Africa. Source: Tex

... And I went back to teaching the last few days of summer school. The two weeks concluded with an Ugly Duckling-themed party for the kids.

Friday night dinner with friends at Suay Restaurant in Phuket Town.

A weekend roadtrip with Will and Greta landed us on some islands off the coast of Krabi. The water, the beach and the islands are some of the most beautiful that I've ever seen.

...And most of my one-week holiday I've spent at the beach.

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On The Coast of Somewhere Beautiful

Another photo recap!  This time of our four-day weekend (thanks to Buddhist Lent) in Khao Lak and Phang-Nga with Will and Greta.

2004 Tsunami Police Boat Memorial on Friday morning.

Rainbow Waterfall in Khao Lak on Friday afternoon.

Rainy hike through Manora Forest Park on Saturday afternoon.

A day without rain! View from our hotel balcony on Sunday morning.

Trek through a seaside jungle with Will and Greta on Sunday afternoon.

Secret beach in northern Phuket on Monday morning.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Motorbike Accident: My first and hopefully last.  Cut off by another motorist who then promptly came to a complete stop in front of me.  Wet roads+bad drivers=sliding down the road sideways.
  • Hot Yoga: Coming from a running/swimming background, I’ve never really been a ‘yoga person.’  BUT after two weeks of bikram yoga, I can confidently say this is something I’ll be doing for a while.  105 degrees Fahrenheit, 26 postures and buckets of sweat.  Love it!
  • Cassava Chips: Try them.  Enough said.
  • ‘Americanizing’ Beach Time: Generally I feel like a ‘global citizen,’ but every now and again it feels good to rub on some sunscreen, lay out my beach towel and put on some country music.  I had the entire beach to myself in Khao Lak as I adjusted my sunglasses, sat back and put my Kenny Chesney playlist on repeat.  No shoes, no shirt, no problems…

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Motorcycle Diaries from Phuket

Scooter parking at Bo Phut Friday Night Farmer's Market in Samui.

…Scooter Diaries, to be precise.

The main and cheapest form of transportation in Thailand is a scooter, so in our attempts to assimilate  (and to find the most cost-effective way to do everything), we rented a scooter in Ko Samui and have again rented another in Phuket.

But first things first:

-The Full Moon Party was insane and easily unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  Picture it: 20,000 people (the majority of which are tourists) crammed together on a strip of beach on a tiny island.  There are thousands of beach buckets full of alcohol; fiery jump ropes that those with liquid courage attempt to double-dutch with; bathing suits and neon body paint everywhere.  Morgan, Max and I arrived around 9pm and we were determined to see the night through until 7 am.  I’m sad and also grateful to say that Max was the only one who remained true to his word.  Morgan and I both underestimated the ‘power of the bucket’ and caught a speedboat home around 3 am.  The next morning we quickly packed up, checked out and hopped on a bus to catch a ferry to catch a van to Phuket.

When we arrived in Phuket, it was well past midnight.  We were dropped off at an intersection which led to dark alleys where ‘bar ladies’ awaited Morgan.  “Hey handsome man,” they called out to him.  “Come on in!”  We continued to drag our luggage further down the soggy alley in Patong until we finally arrived at it: The Golden Beach.

We checked in and the Thai girl at the counter showed us to our room, which was actually an extension of the lobby.  She opened the door to a small musty room and, with a bottle of air-freshener in hand, told us, “See?  [Spritz of air freshener]  Nice room! [Spritz of air freshener]”  She closed the door and as we looked around, exhausted from Full Moon and the 13-hour journey, I felt a bit like crying (which I later did).  Suspicious stains decorated the bedsheets, the wooden slats beneath the window exposed our bedroom contents to the same soggy alley and the best way to shower was by sitting on the toilet.  Days later, we can laugh about this and Morgan fondly refers to this experience as ‘our stay at the Golden Roach.’

We’re now staying at NaNaChart Phuket, a backpacker’s in Chalong (southern Phuket) and we’ve been here since Wednesday.  Upon checking in, we hit the ground running.  Dressed in professional shirts and slacks, we hopped on a scooter and navigated our way around southern Phuket, applying for teaching jobs at any school with an English program.  Most schools are still in holiday mode (the Thai school year starts May 3rd), but we covered a 30km radius and are now waiting to hear back.

It’s been an adventure to say the least and I can honestly say, on Morgan’s behalf, that learning to drive a scooter around a foreign town with few traffic rules and no road signs is a mission.  I’m not the best navigator either, so many of our dialogs went something like this:

Kassie: “Morgan, you missed the turn.”

Morgan: “Was that the turn?!”

Kassie: (Unable to hear due to wind) “What?”

Morgan: (Louder) “WAS THAT THE TURN?”  I WAS LOOKING FOR A SIGN.”

Kassie: (Louder) “YOU MISSED IT WHEN YOU MISSED THE TURN.  WHERE ARE YOU GOING?!”

…It’s been an exercise in teamwork in no small way.

Today we got to take a break from the rush (schools are closed on Saturdays) and we went to the beach with Will and Greta, Morgan’s family friends who are also here working.  Will and Greta have been in Phuket for a few weeks and know the area much better than we do, so we followed them to Ya Nui Beach, a quiet little cove surrounded by mountains.  The view was absolutely phenomenal.  Morgan and I apartment-hunted for the rest of the afternoon and we met back up with Will and Greta at a huge night market in Phuket Town.  Within minutes, we lost them and found them again only briefly before we left to head home.

Note to group: buy walkie-talkies for market nights.

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