Memento Mori

The worst kind of trips are the ones where you have to fly for a funeral.  Such was the case for me last weekend. My friend, John, died at the age of 54 from multiple myeloma.  He had been fighting it for a few years now.  To tell you the truth, because of his unending positive attitude I never thought he would die from the disease.  I just talked to him about a month before he died.  He was supposed to come to Chicago and we were supposed to get together.  Just as I was thinking in mid September that I should reach out to him to secure the dates for seeing him, his sister texted me on a Monday night that John was in hospice.  This was sudden and shocking to me.  To me hospice always meant that one will die very soon  after being admitted.  This was my previous experience with another friend who died from melanoma a few years back when he went into hospice.  That friend died within the week.  So I asked a blunt question to John’s sister:  how long does he have to live?  She replied, “hours maybe days.”  I couldn’t believe it as this news was so abrupt and harsh as all tragedies and deaths are.  Then, two days after the initial news of John from his sister, he passed away.  

When someone dies it never seems real.  When I walked into the church in St. Louis where John grew up, I saw a beautiful photo of John blown up and on an easel like a precious piece of artwork.  That’s when it got real.  My tears could not be held back any longer.  I looked for his mother whom I have never met but I was told that she couldn’t face the day.  She was too heart broken to be there for her son’s services.  I can’t imagine the pain she’s in, especially because I know she’s frail, and she is 93 years old.  

I got through the service without too many tears as we saw numerous photos of John living life and living large on the projector screen of the church and constantly smiling in every photo. The projector in the church was quite large and it had photos of John throughout the whole service when people were talking, praying, and singing about John and his full life.  If it wasn’t for the distraction of the many photos of John’s big life on the screen, I would have certainly cried much more.

There are so many positive thoughts and stories of John because he truly was a great human being.  As with all deaths we think of our own mortality.   At least I do. This makes me wonder how people will talk about me when I’m gone.  It makes me think about how I want to live the rest of my life and it makes me ponder the the big questions. Did I matter?  Did I love?  Did I tell the truth?  Did I try my best?  Did I risk?  Did I contribute? Did I live the best possible life?  And finally, did I travel?  I’m not sure if all the answers to these questions are an undeniable yes in my mind if I were to die today.  But thanks to John and all the other great people who have passed on, I can ponder these questions so that in the end, my end,  the answers to these life questions can be a resounding YES. 

Yesterday I attended John’s celebration of his life in Chicago. (They had three celebrations for him in each city he lived in). What I found out was that John, being a lover of travel, wanted his ashes spread in Capri, Italy. So that’s where I plan to be next year along with some of his other friends and family. Even in death John knows how to make us happy and bring us together. I am reminded of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, HOW DO I LOVE THEE? LET ME COUNT THE WAYS. The last line of the poem reads, “I love thee with the breath, Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.” Amen, John. Amen.

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Athens and Malta

It was my second time in Athens, and it was more spectacular than the first time. Perhaps the pause in travel because of the pandemic made it seem like every experience was brand new again. As I am writing this five days after my return to U.S. soil, it already seems like my whole trip was a dream. The weather today in Chicago is 68º whereas the weather in Athens was well over 90º when we were there. I can still feel the heat in my mind, and I already have a longing to go back immediately. I had the great pleasure and fortune of staying at the Hotel Grande Bretagne. The central location was great, but the best part of the hotel was the rooftop restaurant with the spectacular view of the Acropolis. 🙌 It was truly mesmerizing, and to have breakfast there was decadent. The breakfast itself was exceptional with their fresh juices (especially the green juice!) and the rest of the spread along with the view of the Acropolis was truly a once in a lifetime experience. And to see a stranger’s face light up in awe for their first time upon seeing the wonder when they walked in gave me such joy.

I did a lot of shopping in Athens but my favorite store was The Naxos Apothecary because it was local. Please check them out. I can’t wait to return as I wanted to buy everything.

My travel buddy and I also took a weekend trip to Malta from Athens. The island country of Malta is beautiful and dates back to around 5900 B.C. Aside from the beauty of the island, my favorite experience was seeing the two Caravaggio paintings inside the St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Seeing The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, especially, was stunning. In addition, another experience my friend and I loved was dining at the restaurant, Aki. There were numerous good meals all around however.

We returned to Athens to ready ourselves to fly back home. This was when we had one of the best meals of our lives, at a restaurant called Theta with a night time view of the Acropolis. A bottle of wine, 2 large bottles of water, one cocktail, a salad, an appetizer, and the most beautiful spread of fresh grilled seafood only cost $135 Euros!!! It was crazy good. A picture of this dinner is shown on my Instagram, fyi.

Although there were too many great moments that I experienced in Athens, the absolute best experience for me was the early evening Acropolis tour. To catch the sunset was a magical experience so if you do go to Athens, I encourage you to do one tour in the morning and one in the evening a few days apart. There is way too much to take everything in so seeing the Acropolis in two different lights gives you ample time to perfect your photos. We toured the Acropolis on our first full day there and the last night there. This wasn’t planned but I suggest everyone try to do the same. It leaves a beautiful, lasting impression of Athens in your mind and heart.

I am sad to say that I probably won’t travel again internationally until early next year. As I reviewed all my photos while writing this post, I realize what a great privilege it is to travel. To see the world, taste the different foods, and experience different cultures…these are the greatest highs for me. I can’t wait to see where in the world I will travel to next.

Until next time, Athens…

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Lost wallet, Found heart

After a 2.5 year hiatus of travel as a result of the pandemic, I took an international flight, finally. I couldn’t wait for the 10 days of travel to Milan, Florence, and Rome as I felt like I was meeting an old friend again. The beauty, the food, the shopping, and the unexpected discoveries, feelings, and emotions are all so intoxicating when experiencing travel. What I didn’t expect, however, was the loss of my wallet on the second day of my trip. Well, I didn’t actually lose it. Instead, it was stolen from my backpack in the subway of Milan. This happened so quickly that I still can’t believe it happened to me. You read about all the pickpockets and such but you never expect it to happen to you. And it’s not like I’m a novice at traveling. My backpack was zipped tightly so I can’t figure out how these thieves (I believe there were at least 2 thieves working together) got into my backpack with such quick precision. In case you’re wondering I had $700 in Euros, $500 USD, all my credit cards, my REAL ID, and all things important except for my passport!

As I’m back from my trip and reflecting on all the wonders of travel I am so grateful for the experience. Traveling is such a luxurious privilege! Although the loss of my wallet is probably the worst experience I’ve ever had while abroad, I won’t let it spoil my passion for travel. Instead, I will continue to honor my heart by seeing more of the world. In fact, I just reserved a hotel in Copenhagen for August. 😍 We’ll see if it happens. But for now I can still dream.

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How would Anthony Bourdain survive the pandemic?

It has been about 14 months since the pandemic imposed lockdowns here in the U.S. and most of the world. I can’t believe how long this has dragged on but since about 33% of Americans are fully vaccinated, there is an end in sight. Or so I thought. I just found out that as of 5/8/21, only 3.99% of the world population are fully vaccinated. How selfish of me to think that as long as I was vaccinated that I could just travel freely not thinking about each country’s situation. But when you want something SO bad, you can’t think straight. Besides, this vaccine passport idea is all too new and there is no precedence in place. As with all things during this pandemic, we are figuring things out as the situation and need arises. This means that my hopes for international travel doesn’t seem possible this year as of now. I’m a positive person, really, but after hoping (and kind of assuming) last Fall that I would be able to travel to Japan this March, postponed from March 2020, I kinda lost hope. It was too painful for me to keep obsessing about travel, an addiction that I fueled by feverishly looking at hotel sites, travel sites, and curiously wondering what each airfare costs by plugging in random places around the world on my favorite travel apps. It was a game that I enjoyed so much ever since my wanderlust was ignited, but I stopped punishing myself many months ago when I couldn’t see the end of this pandemic in sight.

When Spring came around along with the vaccine rollout, there was optimism in the air. And just yesterday I saw many women walking around in 6 inch heels and dressed up to go shopping and dining. Thinking that after I get my second vaccine shot this upcoming week that I would be free to plan trips around the world, I was grossly mistaken. My naive thinking as well as my impatience, and ridiculous optimism to travel again, made me peek at the NYT Travel section again. Every Sunday I would eagerly make my vanilla matcha latte to slowly sip while reading and dreaming of my next destination. But during lockdown I didn’t allow myself to go there. Today, however, I was happy to look at the NYT Travel section again with my latte in hand although there wasn’t many positive articles to read except for the hope that Greece will reopen in June.

Being an avid reader and scouring the best seller lists weekly, I was looking for a new book when I saw that WORLD TRAVEL, by Anthony Bourdain and his former assistant, Laurie Woolever, was No. 1 on the Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous section. I started to think about how Mr. Bourdain would handle this pandemic and the world’s travel ban. It would drive him mad, I suppose, especially living in New York, one of the hardest places hit by the pandemic. As I thought about how much I had to cook for myself during the lockdown making basic meals, I imagined Mr. Bourdain cooking his life away by making exotic meals that look beautiful on Instagram while taking up his cigarette habit again, getting a pot belly, putting his content on all social media platforms, and helping the NYC restaurants somehow with his fame and celebrity. I am sure he would have soured to even greater fame because of the pandemic by getting a new show or a new podcast channel and rediscovering himself during the process. I miss him dearly as I’m sure the whole world does. But when it comes to travel, as for now Mr. Bourdain, the rest of the world, and I are all on a even playing ground. We are powerless to go anywhere that requires a passport. As with everything in life, things change. The days of wine and roses, and the freedom of travel are on the horizon. We can’t necessarily see the horizon with clarity but we know it’s there. As we have learned that we are much more connected than we realized before the pandemic, I dream of an ideal world as international borders open up where we can travel to a new place for the first time, share a hug (alas, a kiss!), share beautiful meals with strangers and loved ones, and continue our thirst for wanderlust.

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When will I pose again?

The other day I decided to change my screensaver on my iPhone which I haven’t changed in years even though I upgrade my phone every year. The old photo was hard to beat as its of me sitting atop Machu Picchu overlooking the vast green expanse, and it looked so unreal! But as I was counting in my head how many months it’s been since my last international trip (15 months), I decided to look through old photos to re experience the journey in my mind. The last trip was to Jordan and I wondered how much longer I have to wait to travel again. I had to cancel my hotels for Tokyo only a couple of weeks ago which would have been a trip in March of this year. Because I rescheduled this from last March, truly thinking this past Fall that this trip WOULD happen this time around, I’m giving up on Tokyo for now. I don’t care that “the third time is the charm” as I’m so sick of waiting and dreaming about it. I’m not a person to force things, and I feel like trying to go to Tokyo for the third time would be somehow bad luck.

Anyway, I found great pleasure in looking at my photos from Jordan. It’s amazing how we relive the journey with every picture. I can feel the temperature and what the air felt like with every photo for some reason. The above photo was taken in the desert of Wadi Rum where the movie THE MARTIAN was filmed. That day we went on a jeep ride, stopped by the above scenic place to take photos, and watched the sunset. After dinner we went on a walk with a Bedouin to look at the stars in the sky (so beautiful and bright!) while listening to his stories. He warmed us with his humor all the while making hot tea for us. I kind of tuned out his stories after being so mesmerized with the sky. The stars were so bright, and after my neck started to hurt looking up I laid down on the rock. When the Bedouin started to joke (or not) about scorpions and such I freaked out at the thought of something climbing into my hair and I got up immediately. The hot tea was strong and delicious, and that moment was so magical to me. Looking up at the sky and seeing bright stars are not something I’m used to since I live in a big city. As my tea cup was almost empty, it was time to head back to our tents. I truly tried to savor that night with every sip of tea. When would I see the bright stars again against the desert? I felt sad to leave that kind of beauty.

Every day of that trip to Jordan was amazing. Each day was filled with adventure. When going to bed that night I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve because the next morning we would be frolicking in the Dead Sea! 🙌

Oh World, how I miss you so…

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Splendor in Awe

Splendor in Awe

I am a frequent meditator and I sometimes have visions the minute I close my eyes to meditate. This morning’s meditation took me to the Sistine Chapel. I was there on March 5th, 2013 and I remember it so well that I had to wipe away the tears while meditating. When I entered the room that day I was so overcome with emotion that I cried. Nothing prepares you for that vision and magnificence of what man can achieve, and I truly could not fathom the genius of Michelangelo. The above photo was taken by my iPhone so it’s blurry as the technology was not as advanced as today’s phones. At the time we were not allowed to take photos which is a common practice in many museums, but many people around me were sneaking in photos without a flash, of course. And one guy right in front of me was so cocky and bold taking photos with his selfie stick that I got so mad that he was so blatant and getting away with it so I took a few photos, too. Perhaps I’m as bad as he is, then. To lessen my guilt I want to emphasize that I didn’t use any flash!

As I sat in one of the benches against the walls I looked up in utter amazement. I could FEEL the awe of others in the room, too, and with all our heads tilted toward the ceiling it felt like a spiritual moment. And it was. I did not want to leave, and knowing that I will most likely never be in that room again I tried to linger a bit longer. When I visited and saw the entirety of all that I could experience in a few hours, I came out of the building to take a break. What I completely forgot about that amazing experience until this writing is that it truly was a miracle that I got to see the Sistine Chapel. You see, before I left for Rome from Chicago I almost hesitated on going because at the time the Papal Conclave was to take place which happens inside the Sistine Chapel. My Italian instructor at the time was in fear for me that I would not be able to see it. He made me consider going to Rome on a different date because of this fact but since the travel gods have always been on my side, I decided to go and take the risk. A few minutes after I came out of St. Peter’s Basilica and after the Sistine Chapel, I saw that I got an email from the Vatican Museum indicating that the Chapel will be closed that day from 1:00 pm until further notice. Whew! I just made it! I really was amazed.

As the pandemic is still ongoing without an exact end in sight, I dream, hope, and pray for normalcy so we can go back to enjoying all the wonderful human experiences, especially travel.

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Detailed image from the back of the business card of the Istanbul hotel I stayed at. Such details!

It’s been 23 weeks since I last wrote on this blog. The pandemic is still ongoing, and since I’m in the thick of the dreary Chicago winter it’s been difficult to have the creative energy to write. Besides, there is not much happiness, deep pleasure, or the wonder of travel during these past 10 months of the pandemic. I truly cannot believe that this pandemic has lasted this long, and it won’t be over any time soon. Whatever “soon” means these days since the concept of time has been lost for many of us from the stresses of our current world climate.

Since this blog started after my experience of AWE when I first traveled solo to Turkey, I just decided this morning that to practice the discipline of writing I will write about the moments of awe that I experienced in my travel life. I wish there was an exact and true way for all of us to share the feelings and emotions that we experience with our friends and loved ones. For example, a VR machine or a network of electrodes that we can hook up to that allow us to instantly and accurately feel what someone else has experienced or felt, especially the incredible feelings like awe. For now I can only illustrate with words along with some images.

While cleaning I recently found the business card for the Sura Hotel that I stayed at in Istanbul. It is the most beautiful business card I have ever seen, and the memories of the entire journey just flooded my mind. Amazing! Take a look at the photo above which shows the back of the hotel’s business card…it shows a map which illustrates the distance and location of each of the iconic sights from the hotel. I wish every hotel in the world would follow their lead. It makes for a great memento, also.

I hope you take the time today to think about the last time you felt awe. Enjoy your Sunday. 🙏

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Weekend Vibes…

The bridge is up!

Yesterday in Chicago all bridges were up that led to the downtown area because of the scheduled BLM and defund the police protests. As much as they claimed that it was supposed to be peaceful protests, I feel like lately nothing is peaceful at all. And sure enough, there was violence, indeed. I try not to read the news too much because it’s all too much to take. Between the looting that went on recently in Chicago as well as the world still in a pandemic, there is not too much happiness lately.

I did take a walk yesterday which inspired me to take the photo above. The weather was beautiful, and for a few moments I forgot about the distresses of the world. There were tour boats passing by as well as people kayaking, and with the gentle breeze caressing my face as I walked along the river all seemed perfectly fine in the world. The beauty of Chicago couldn’t be denied. As I heard the bells ringing upon approaching the raised bridge, however, the realization came to me that the world is not alright at all. But I am a hopeful person who believes that humanity will shine brighter than the evil and the darknesses of the world. Peace…

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Goodbye, June 2020

I went back to work exactly two weeks ago today as life has been slowly moving back to normal. The lakefront opened up last week, and Millenium Park opened up two weeks ago. However, when I walked the lakefront a couple of days ago, it just wasn’t the same. But then again, nothing will ever be the same. For the first time since I have lived in Chicago I didn’t enjoy my walk along the lake. Of course, it’s because of COVID-19. The solemn mood of the world could be felt as I walked with many others who were out to enjoy the Sunday. But then again, maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m tired of wearing a mask at work for 8 hours a day which makes me exhausted. Maybe I’m annoyed at seeing lines at Target as well as Lululemon which kept me from going inside because I didn’t want to wait for 20 minutes in line. Maybe I’m just sick and tired of everything, period, because of COVID-19…

Today was my day off, and after a doctor’s appointment I was excited to finally go to Millenium Park to get a close up view of The Bean. How disappointed I was that I couldn’t get close at all as metal gates were put up around it. I felt an odd feeling as I could never get a shot of the sculpture before without mobs of people, and today, as I was able to take a picture of The Bean with no one close to it at all, I actually longed for people to be near it. Perhaps I crave normalcy, or maybe the 3 month isolation scarred me somehow. A thing of beauty, such as The Bean, should be admired close up. It’s meant to be touched, stared at closely to see one’s distorted reflection, and to walk all around it as well as underneath it to admire the work of art that it is. But today it seemed unnatural to me somehow that I was able to take a picture with not one person standing and posing near it. I actually felt sad as The Bean looked so lonely.

As today is the last day of June, I am so relieved. My 3 month isolation is over and I’m back at work. I guess I feel that this must be the worst year ever, and I’m glad that half of it is over. I just pray that the worst is behind all of us. #covidsucks

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Welcome, June

Wow. I can’t believe it. It’s the first day of June. The entire month of May was a blur as I, along with the rest of humanity, awaited for our worlds to open up with the shutdown from COVID-19. I’m still on furlough but I’m told that I might be back to work in a couple of weeks. Again, this has lasted so much longer than originally thought. There is hope in a couple of days, though, when the City of Chicago finds out what the next phase of reopening will be. Fingers crossed.

Not much has changed since I last wrote except for one thing. There are protests and lootings around the country as the result of the death of George Floyd, a black gentleman who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25th. The protests in Chicago only started a couple of days ago but there is much destruction all around. The stores and neighborhoods in and around Chicago were looted, cars were set on fire, and vandalism ensued. I can’t believe all this is happening. The pandemic is horrible enough but to add this to the stress of the world is just too much. Yesterday I couldn’t dare see what Michigan Avenue looked like in person because I saw the pictures in the news and social media. Many stores were broken into, looted, and graffiti sprayed across the buildings. Such a terrible sight. So I decided to walk toward the river instead. It was a beautiful day. Then I saw something that I had never seen before. All the bridges of every street were raised up so no car nor person could get through. When I got closer I heard the constant alarm from the raised bridges which was unnerving. It was only cool to see all the raised bridges because I had never seen it before, and seen against the gorgeous blue sky was a sight that I surely wanted to capture. I walked all along Wacker Drive and was more saddened to see workers boarding up the storefronts and restaurants to prevent further looting. After an hour and a half passed I started to head back home. It was getting chilly and I had a phone call scheduled.

Somehow this protest, vandalism, and looting seems worse than the pandemic itself. I’m sure it’s because we can physically see in all the media outlets the proof of people looting, cars being set on fire, and the vandalism whereas with the pandemic it’s an invisible virus. We only see statistics, facts, and figures. But when you see a video of a man being killed as well as the destruction of communities by mobs of people, it’s easy to lose faith in humanity. The economic downturn from COVID-19 will be rebounded in time, although a very long time. But losing faith in humanity is something that is far worse and not so easy to harness back. The world needs a healing as well as prayers. At this moment this is all I hope for…

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