Hiking in Patagonia: Grey Glaciers

Our telephone rang and it was someone from the front desk to inform us that we missed our scheduled hike that supposedly started at 7:45am. I was confused because one of the guides last night told me that our Fauna Tour hike was at 9am this morning. I checked my watch and it’s only 8am. We spoke with the people at Patagonia Camp for other options and we were informed there were no longer hiking trips available that day. I was so disappointed and almost in tears thinking our last day in Patagonia has been ruined. The last thing I wanted to do was to sit around and do nothing.

After a few hours of fidgeting, the manager approached us and told us we could do a private hike with Fabian but only after he takes the people in the Grey Glacier tour to their boat and while waiting for them to finish with the ride. It was such a great option, even better than the Fauna hiking tour we were originally going to do, so we put on our hiking boots and off we went!

Fabian is a charming young man from Santiago. He took us to his favorite hiking spots, where he’d usually go when he is by himself.

The terrain wasn’t difficult, just right for me and my friend, but of course my ambitious self was thinking I could’ve done something more challenging (even after experiencing hardship yesterday). Although today’s hike wasn’t difficult, we still had to deal with long ascents (I suppose there aren’t any flat terrains in Patagonia. I reminded myself this ain’t Dallas lol!).

After our hike, Fabian took us to the Glacier, where we could see massive icebergs floating in the water. While walking towards the icebergs, it rained hard again but luckily the winds weren’t that strong.

This private hike with Fabian was a great way to end our hiking expedition in Patagonia. We had a great time getting to know about him and the reasons why they all decide to become guides. He said the money was good enough to sustain their livelihood and meeting people from different countries was the most exciting part of being a guide. Also, living in Patagonia was way simpler and less stressful than living in a big city such as Santiago.

We came back to Patagonia Camp where happy hour drinks were waiting for us. I think this was one of my favorite activities there! While we were hanging around the bar having drinks, a miracle had just happened: the clouds began to clear and there it was in front our very own eyes, the view of Torres del Paine National Park!

At dinner, our server was an adorable young lady who had just graduated from high school. She told us she was taking a break from school and wanted to do this job to make money and of course meet people from different parts of the world before she begins her college life.

Seated on the table next to us were a lovely young honeymooners from Denver. I immediately took a liking to them and after hours of talking we found out that during their wedding they had all their guests take a swab to be a part of the bone marrow registry! What are the odds! I told them about my son who battled cancer twice and had two bone marrow transplants! We all couldn’t believe what we had in common. At the end of the night, we all hugged each other and hopefully someday we will meet again! ❤️

It was a beautiful night to conclude our trip in Patagonia. The journey to get there was long and tedious, definitely was no easy feat, but the rewards are unparalleled: beautiful landscapes, friendly people, and amazing food!

Tomorrow we fly to Buenos Aires, Argentina!

Setting Me Free

Last year I made a pact with myself: in order to move on with my life, I need to stop thinking about the past, to stop worrying about the future, and to only focus on the present. But last night, it all brought me back to the past and once again felt all the emotions I have been trying to escape from.

Before I temporarily deactivated my Facebook a few months ago, I was answering all those silly questions that appeared on my profile page. The idea of these random questions was to learn more about the Facebook user. I remember writing, “Netflix binging” as a joke for my New Year’s resolution. It seems the joke’s on me because I find myself in front of the TV a lot lately.

Last night, I cried myself to sleep after watching Me Before You. And I don’t mean soft tears. I was actually sobbing and at times hysterical. I had an outburst of emotion, not really sure where it was coming from (most likely from my lingering PTSD). The movie’s story line does not in any way mirror my life but it somehow touched me deeply, taking me back to all the difficult memories I had at the hospital when my son was there for his cancer treatment. Then I thought of my dad and the last time we spoke before he passed away.

It must have been the subject of death and suffering that made me very emotional. Because those two things have unfortunately often touched my life in the past few years. We practically lived in the hospital for months and were surrounded by children with cancer, some in very terminal stages. I’ve seen kids who were sent home because there was nothing more that their doctors could do for them. We knew kids who passed away and after seeing their young life taken away from them, I couldn’t help but think, what is really one’s purpose on earth?

Last year I made a pact with myself: in order to move on with my life, I need to stop thinking about the past, to stop worrying about the future, and to only focus on the present. But last night, it all brought me back to the past and once again felt all the emotions I have been trying to escape from.

Another movie had me thinking of the future: Arrival (if you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it). In the movie’s ending, I was confronted with the question,”If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?” I pondered on it and honestly I’m not sure what I would do. Although if I have seen the suffering we’ve all been through, would that motivate me to change my life? Would I have married my husband knowing that we would eventually have difficult challenges, give birth to kids whose lives will become familiar with suffering—one from depression and the other from childhood cancer? My husband said he wouldn’t do anything differently. Because according to him life is all about suffering anyway (taken from the principles of Buddhism) and there’s no escaping from it.

The movie, Revolutionary Road, was perhaps the movie (out of the three I’ve seen recently) that made the biggest impact on me. The movie is about yearning for fulfillment and passion in life and seeking to escape from the conventionality of suburbia. Ah, sounds too familiar! As I desperately try to escape from conventional, something in the universe seems to conspire to always bring me back.

You might be wondering what this post’s title got to do with my Netflix binging lately. It’s me, living my life freely by laying in bed all day and binging on thought provoking movies….

Ok LOL that’s a joke!

The truth is I’ve finally woken up and realized I have been very conservative with my approach in life. By living freely is to take more risks, be more courageous, and just be able to say what the fuck! Life is too short to limit myself.

Living free also means standing my ground. On the day of my departure to France last October, my husband complained all the way to the airport when he found out I was going to be gone longer than he expected. Normally I’d budge and cut my trip shorter. Because that’s just me, always giving in and catering to other people’s needs. But I stood my ground and told him I’m not changing anything.

Living free is doing things that make ME happy and will no longer be subjected to people’s opinions. And more importantly, to not care if I’m being judged by others because they have certain moral biases. My goal is to make myself happy and fulfilled, but only according to my own definition of what “happy” is and not anyone else’s.

When travel is concerned, if you know me well, travel is my love language. I feel most alive when I’m traveling. After taking a solo trip last year, I found myself again, the person who’s been lost for quite sometime now. I recognized what truly sets me free is to escape from the humdrum of my life by traveling and exploring different countries and cultures, thus, I promised myself nothing will stop me now from doing what I love.

Going back to what my husband said, can we really not escape from suffering? Is life really all about that—pain and suffering?

Perhaps….

But today I am setting my life free by living to the fullest. To be in places I’ve dreamed about. To be happy without feeling guilt. To stop worrying about people’s opinions. And to realize that this is my life and I will live it according to my own rules.

What I learned about myself while in Santiago, Chile

Santiago has been overshadowed by its South American neighbors (it does not have the beaches of Rio or the architecture of Buenos Aires) but it is definitely emerging and is slowly recognized by global travelers as THE next exciting city in South America. The food scene is exploding, neighborhoods are swanky, and trendy bars are plentiful. Oh, let’s also not forget its close proximity to some of the top notched wineries!

Santiago is also full of surprises. On my second day there, I learned more things to love about the city as much as I’ve learned about myself.

Before we left for this trip, I made a reservation at Concha Y Toro for a wine tasting tour. For a little over $40, we get four glasses of wine and a charcuterie. But when I mentioned about it to Jorge, our city tour guide in Santiago on our first day there, he talked us out of going. He said it’s very touristy and he preferred Sta. Rita winery instead. Because we didn’t have a transport to Concha Y Toro, we decided to book us a wine tasting tour at Sta. Rita Wineries in Spanish (the English tour was sold out). My friend speaks Spanish but I do not, and honestly, this was a big mistake on my part.

The driver wasn’t going to pick us up until 1:30pm so we had the morning to explore Bellavista, a Bohemian neighborhood in Santiago, and only a fifteen minute walk from our hotel. If you are looking for bars and restaurants, this place has plenty of them. Pio Nono Street is the main street where most of the bars are located. Towards the end of the street, you’ll see people lined up for the funicular and teleférico to reach the summit at Cerro San Cristóbal. It was about 11:30 am and they told us it’ll take more than a couple of hours for the whole experience. We decided to buy the tickets now to avoid the long line later when we come back from the wine tasting tour. Waking back to the hotel, we looked for the restaurant, Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate). We were told tourists come here just to take their pictures in front of the restaurant. After looking inside and checking out the scrumptious menu, we decided to have dinner there tonight.

It took a little over an hour drive to Sta. Rita winery. I realized that this tour that costs about $46 was the classic tour, not a premier tour unlike what I had reserved at Concha y Toro for about $41. After realizing that, I felt that we made the mistake (we wanted transportation, which we got, but the tour itself was nothing special). And also the fact that it was in Spanish, I stood there, lost among the crowd (who were giggling and laughing whenever the guide would crack a joke). I did feel I was cheated of this experience (at least my friend was enjoying herself and sometimes she would translate something to me). I only have myself to blame because I agreed to the Spanish tour (thinking I was there for the wines so who cares if the tour was in a language I barely understand). But I wish I hadn’t listened to Jorge. Yeah, now that I think about it, this was his fault! If he hadn’t dished on Concha y Toro, then we wouldn’t have been here in this vineyard right now. Of course, it was too late when I became fully aware of the mistake I made. We were already there, I might as well make the most of it.

To make the long story short, I didn’t really enjoy my time there—something that I kept to myself because I didn’t want to ruin it for my friend. The whole time she kept saying how much she enjoyed the tour and that it was the highlight of her trip so far. Yeah I would’ve perhaps enjoyed it too if I knew Spanish lol! I kept thinking how dumb I was to let this happen to myself—on my own dime and time.

Fortunately, the wine was good. I bought a 2015 Medalla Real Gran Reserva Carmenere that was awesome and from what I was told it was not widely sold in the stores in the US (or Texas—I can’t remember which one, not after the good amount of wine they poured on my glass 😁). I’m such a lightweight, I was tipsy after the wine tasting. I’m glad wine makes you forget everything. By this time, I was no longer feeling angry at myself.

On the way back to the city, we asked the bus driver to drop us off in Bellavista, where the funicular was, instead of dropping us to our hotel. We only had about less than three hours before they close. Luckily we were smart to get our tickets beforehand, skipping the long line.

This funicular is probably the steepest funicular I’ve been on. I’ve only been on three other (in HongKong, Paris, and Southern Italy) but I don’t remember them to be steep. Suffering from acrophobia, I almost shit my pants when I looked down while the funicular was going up. I thought I was going to have a panic attack (this explains the lack of pictures).

We got to the cumbre (summit) and there it was another birds eye view of Santiago. It was also here where we rode the teleférico (cable car). I failed to mention to my friend earlier that this was my first time to ride a cable car and told her just as we hopped on it. She laughed and couldn’t believe I’ve never been on one.

I developed my fear of heights when my husband (who was my fiancée at the time) and I went to Mexico City and climbed the pyramid (I can’t remember which one, either the moon or the sun) in Teotihuacan. I had no fear climbing up until it was time to go down. I panicked when I saw how high we were and my knees were trembling while going down the pyramid.

To ignore my fear of heights and be willing to get on the cable car knowing how high it was going to be was a huge accomplishment. It meant I was willing to overcome my fears. Of course it didn’t stop me from screaming as soon as the cable car started moving. The people we were riding with didn’t help either because just like me, they too were screaming at the top of their lungs. I guess I wasn’t the only scaredy cat there. 😹

On our way down, on the funicular, a young Indian guy (who looks like he was in his twenties), screamed to one of the operators to let him out (he saw how steep the funicular was and panicked). His friends were laughing, thinking he wasn’t serious. But he did get out and his friends at this point were quite shocked. I asked the young man how he’d get out of there without taking the funicular, he said he’ll find a way. My friend and I didn’t think he would be back at his hotel tonight if he had to walk down. Tomorrow perhaps! I bet he had to take the funicular anyway and had no choice but to face his fears. If not, he’d get stuck there overnight.

We went back to our hotel to change our clothes for dinner. I was excited to go to Como Agua Para Chocolate. If you read the book, Like Water for Chocolate, this restaurant is exactly based off of that. The waiter told me the restaurant was already in business even before the movie was released. But the movie enhanced the restaurant’s popularity. We were initially at the bar waiting for a table to open up and the bartender was really helpful describing the different drinks in the menu. I ordered his recommended specialty and glad I did because it was really good.

For dinner, I got the Cazuela de Jaiba y Camarones (spicy broth with crab and shrimps) served in a clay pot. I could’ve ordered a lot more (appetizers and dessert) in the menu but sadly my friend vetoed that desire. She decided to eat less not only on the first few days of our trip but on the entire trip! It was too bad because the reason I travel is to immerse myself in the country’s culture and trying out the food is a huge part of the learning experience. I don’t ever think of dieting when I’m in a different country. Also after each breakfast, she’d announce that we better skip lunch and that was every.single.day we were in South America (except in Patagonia because we were at an all-inclusive resort). Our three days in Buenos Aires was even worse and I missed out on trying a few great restaurants. Of course, I could’ve gone by myself but that’s not easy to do when you have a travel partner. But I was still grateful my friend was there with me although I realized traveling solo gives you the optimum results if you want to accomplish everything in your trip.

There were so many things I learned about myself on this trip. First, I learned that I can challenge myself to overcome my fears. Second, I also learned that I really enjoy traveling solo and third, I have FOMO–fear of missing out (which in this particular trip, I did miss out on a few things 😭)!

Como Agua Para Chocolate was the perfect place to conclude my last night in Santiago. It signified what the city of Santiago is—charming, hip, modern yet romantic, and definitely unforgettable.

I’ll always have Paris… 

“I need to move around a bit. To shuffle my surroundings. To wake up in cities I don’t know my way around and have conversations in languages I cannot entirely comprehend. There is always this tremendous longing in my heart to be lost, to be someplace else, to be far far away from all of this.”

My life had its share of ups and downs. It has seen a lot of heartaches and disappoitments. After my son’s relapse with cancer, life hasn’t exactly gone back to normal. Life at home is just as stressful as it was. Besides tending to my younger son’s medical and everyday needs, my husband has been suffering  from anxiety attacks. I used to think it was just a once-every-few-months occurrence but lately the attacks have  been occurring with increasing frequency. They often strike out of the blue without any warning even when the atmosphere is relaxed. I also worry about my older son. He recently came out and it was revealed to us in his blog that he’d been bullied in high school. Since this revelation, I’ve been worried sick about him. I’ve been concerned about his happiness and finding love, as I’ve been made aware by my gay friends that a homosexual lifestyle can be very lonely. I think about him a lot and sometimes I make myself sick by overly agonizing about his well-being. And as for me, I believe I still have PTSD. I’ve had countless of sleepless nights drowning  in sorrow. I have done everything to help alleviate the loneliness. I walked. I hiked. I wrote. I read. But no matter what I did, there’s always that feeling that something was still missing.

Perhaps I needed to take time away for myself to recharge my batteries and travel somewhere I’d always wanted to go. In a city where I could do as I wished without regard to what a traveling companion wanted to do. Where I was entirely alone and free. And to be far away from all of this.

I’ve always had this fantasy of being in Paris alone. To wander in the city, without any destination in mind. To go where the moment takes me. To stop rushing from place to place. I want to experience Paris. I want to take chances and have adventures. To learn the art of talking less. To take my time and savor each Parisian minute. To stay at a cafe and survey the scene. Take pictures of anything and everything that catches my eye. To contemplate. To have Paris all by myself, my way.

And I did just that….and more.

I also got to do some of the (touristy) things I missed out on in my previous visits. I have stood in front of the Eiffel Tower many times before  but never got the chance to climb it (that’s because none of my companions wanted to).
And so it was the very first thing I did on this trip.

I didn’t only climb the Eiffel Tower but treated myself to a wonderful lunch at the 58 Tour Eiffel.  For about $50, I had a three course lunch with wine and tea. Was the food good? It wasn’t spectacular. Was it worth it? Absolutely!

I also learned to use a tripod, and taught myself to be self-indulgent by taking a lot of pictures of me. I loved it for a change!

Like the Eiffel Tower, I have never made it on top of the Arc de Triomphe in my previous visits.

And so once again, I climbed another famous structure! The benefits of solo travel!

I took a million pictures of the Eiffel Tower in various filters. Regardless of how many times I have seen this tower, I can’t get tired of it. It never gets old. Paris never gets old.

I wanted to get lost in the moment, to go anywhere without a destination in mind, to walk around aimlessly, and…I did! My wish, granted: I wandered, got lost, but found my way back. Now I know what it means when people say do not be afraid to get lost!

But once again, I got lost…this time in the company of books at Shakespeare And Company,

Someday I’ll remind myself these words by Hafiz: I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.

And to also remember that little things can instantly bring a ray of sunshine such as a free bench.

I went for a walk at Jardin du Tuileries, to contemplate life…

and to admire the beauty of the autumn leaves.

Reminding myself once again that no matter what life brings, it is still beautiful just like those flowers in bloom…

To always stop and appreciate the moment. To look around me in awe and be grateful at how lucky I am to be surrounded by such beauty.

One of the great pleasures of being in Paris, that is truly très magnifique, is the art of cafe-sitting. And no one can deny that this city is a gastronomical dream!

I had tea at Mariage Fréres.

I indulged on a cup of rich hot thick chocolat at Angelina.

They say, “To err is human. To loaf is a Parisian.” My daily petit dejeuner were croissants and baguettes.

I drank wine. Every. Single. Day.

But I also ate light on some nights and had this fantastic Salade Nicoise with tuna at a bistro near my hotel. It was so good I went back twice.

I looked up at every building and swooned over the architecture,

and took pictures of whatever that caught my eyes.

I declared that my most favorite metro station is the Abbesses,

and spent a whole afternoon in the Bohemian and artsy Montmartre.

And there, in Montmartre, I found the wall. No, not Donald Trump’s wall, but a wall where love comes together in every language: Le mur des Je t’aime,

I love you wall.

Although Paris is the city of love, it is the perfect place to be alone. It is perfect for strolling by yourself without the constraints of pleasing somebody. Since I usually travel with my family I didn’t realize that this adventure gave me the opportunity to be completely selfish–something I don’t normally get to be when I’m at home. I almost forgot what it felt like to not have to worry about anyone but myself.  It took a lot for me to finally take a step and just go. I left feeling lost, lonely, and wanting to escape life. I was hopeful that during my alone time, I would find myself in the mystery of a new place.

I pondered each night on how much I learned about myself on this trip. I wrote journals with pensive thoughts: what had happened, I wrote, to the woman who loved spontaneity and great adventures? Had she disappeared?

Somehow, when I disconnected myself from the usual habits, I reconnected with myself. Perhaps this is what traveling alone usually does: you rediscover and reconnect with yourself.


Oh, but then again, I wasn’t completely alone. Paris was there with me the entire time–to accompany me on my journey of self discovery. And whenever I start to feel lonely again, or feel that life is passing me by, I will remind myself that I’ll always have Paris.

 

Easter Sunrise

I feel more spiritual now than I have ever been but it has nothing to do with religion. My new found spirituality is centered on being more open and accepting of things I have not been accustomed to.

We did something unconventional this morning. We woke up at the crack of dawn to attend the Easter service at Oak Point Park, an outdoor amphitheater near our house. But that’s not the reason why it’s unconventional: it wasn’t a Catholic service.


I’ve  been raised in the Catholic faith all my life. I went to Catholic schools since kindergarten until we migrated to California when I was fifteen. I almost attended the all-girls Catholic school near  my dad’s office in Los Angeles, however, my cousin convinced me to go to the public school she attended. Boys, she said, were important part of any teenage girl’s life. And so I did (which was almost shocking that my parents agreed).

It was a beautiful service this morning. They had a band singing gospel songs. The pastor’s sermon was about coming back to life, both literally and figuratively. It’s about appreciating every moment of your life. The sermon felt as if it was intended for my family since we have “died”, not only once but twice  before. And both times we have gotten back up, picked up every broken pieces, and moved on. However, we were much stronger the second time around. My younger son reminds me that this is not his second chance at life. In fact it’s his third. At a young age of 12, he is ahead of his years. He has experienced life not many adults have.

As for me, I feel more spiritual now than I have ever been but it has nothing to do with religion. My old self  would’ve thought going to an Easter service, other than Catholic, sacrilegious. But my new found spirituality is centered on being more open and accepting of things I have not been accustomed to.

This year, I decided I was going to be a new person, challenging myself to new adventures and experiences. I have actually amazed myself at keeping up with my personal challenges, no matter how difficult it was. Going to a religious service that wasn’t called “mass” was a challenge. But I did it and it’s uplifting to be less constrained by my own ideals or others people’s ideals.

This is my personal challenge #5!

Happy Easter!

First Easter without our older son!

 Keep it weird, Austin! 

Austin may be the capital of Texas but if you are expecting Cowboys and steaks, you’d be surprised to find hipsters and vegans instead. It’s my most favorite city in Texas and if I live here, I can honestly say my life is going to be a lot more exciting.


Austin is one of the best cities in Texas! 

Nah…..let me take that back. Austin is THE best city in Texas! No one can argue with that because it’s true. Although Austin is Texas’ prodigal son, a city completely different from the rest of the state. And f not for the unbearable summer heat and the crazy weather Texas is known for, you might even mistake it for Portland or Los Angeles. Also, unlike Texas, Austin is progressive, a perfect oasis  for the free-spirited liberal young minds. 


Believe it or not, Austin is the #1 most desirable place to live in the United States. Now that’s an argument I can see brewing from other cities. ! I’ll tell you why it’s true. Not only Austin is less expensive than most major cities, it’s exciting, colorful, diverse, healthy, active, vibrant, lively, interesting, artsy, and yes…weird!!

Murals are a part of the city’s charm

“Keep Austin weird” is a famous slogan found everywhere in Austin. Just in case you’re wondering what it means— it was a campaign that was started by the Austin Independent Business Alliance to promote small local businesses. Texas is home to many big corporations such as the oil and gas industry (Exxon, Valero, Halliburton), airlines (American and Southwest), telecommunication (AT&T), grocery stores (Whole Foods), and many more large corporations. My guess is this is the reason why Austin campaigned for supporting local small businesses. “Keeping it weird” is also a movement to preserve its offbeat culture.

Austin has pretty much everything I need in a city to be happy.

The people here have a healthy and active lifestyle. The city is surrounded by walking, running, or biking trails, where residents use for their daily exercise. Dogs are also a huge part of the community, making Austin a very fur-friendly city. 

Austinites are hipsters…like me! This is something I say that makes my older son cringe. He insists I am far from being a hipster. First of all, he said, I’m too old (age discrimination?). Second, I don’t even look or dress like one (I suppose you need to have tattoos and nose rings to be a hipster?yeah, whatever!). Well, let’s just say, if I was much younger, I probably would’ve been a hipster. Going back to the people, hipsters outnumber cowboys and that proves my point that Austin is NOT Texas!  

*FYI, I don’t have too many “weird” pictures of Austin but I promise you the city is eclectic and vivacious!

The dog park near our hotel
Beautiful trails in the city
Austinites are very active

Austin is home to an incredible food scene. In recent years it has grown immensely in sophistication, boasting numerous world-renowned chefs. From BBQ joints to taco shops, from creative sushi to delicious tapas, the city caters to everyone’s taste.

We had the pleasure to dine at Uchi, one of the best sushi spots in America (according to Thrillist). I’ve lived in the Dallas metroplex for 16 years now and I haven’t found a Japanese restaurant as exciting and as creative as Uchi. Fortunately for us, Uchi opened in Dallas just recently!

Austin is also the most vegan friendly in the United States—this is nowhere close to what you might expect from Texas that’s known for its cattle industry. If you think of Texas food, it’s usually BBQ!

When it comes to food trucks, Austin is always in the top 10 spots for best food trucks in America. In fact, in 2014, Hopper.com proclaimed Austin as #1 for ten best cities for food trucks in the United States.

One of many food trucks in the city

Because of its close proximity to Dallas (only 3 hours away), we drive to Austin at least a couple of times a year. Sometimes we’re just passing through when we go to San Antonio (my second favorite city in Texas). We are currently here on spring break and lucky for us, it’s the same week as SWSX (South by South West). If you haven’t heard, Austin is dubbed as the music capital of the world and SWSX is an annual fusion of film, interactive media, music festivals and conferences that takes place in mid-March. Approximately 600,000 people visit Austin just for this reason. We didn’t get a pass this year but we are planning to get one hopefully next year. Although you can still find free concerts somewhere in the city or things to do even if you don’t own a pass.

Waiting for the (free) concert to start during the SWSX

We always stay at the Hyatt Regency in Barton Springs, located on the shores of Lady Bird Lake. The lake is where people go kayaking, boating, or wake boarding. There’s also a nice trail that surrounds the hotel, where both tourists and residents use. The hotel allows easy access to all the cool areas hence we usually don’t need to wander far. But this time, as part of my personal challenge, I made sure we explore Austin away from the hotel and embark on a little adventure. 

This is the view from the balcony of our hotel

This is my personal challenge #3

Our normal route to Austin would have been  from our house directly to the hotel, but I convinced my husband that we stop at Lake Travis (25 minutes away from downtown Austin). I wanted to see The Oasis, a restaurant located on a cliff 450 feet above Lake Travis, offering a breathtaking view of the lake and surrounding Texas hill county.


The food wasn’t great but the ambience made up for its mediocrity. The view reminded me of the time when we were in Sorrento, Italy. We had our sumptuous breakfast everyday at the hotel’s balcony and right in front of our eyes was the spectacular view of the Bay of Naples.

If we hadn’t stopped by at The Oasis, we would’ve never known that Austin’s terrain also includes rolling hills reminiscent of Hollywood Hills or Malibu in Southern California. As a consequence of visiting Austin often, I took its familiarity for granted, neglecting to explore it in depth (thinking that it’ll always be there and in within reach). 

Also included in the itinerary is hiking, something I have never done in Austin.  I googled the best hiking spots in the area, and found McKinney Falls State Park, along the banks of Onion Creek. The park has two waterfalls, the lower and upper McKinney Falls where people can go swimming. Also, there are a lot of small trails (not as strenuous which is appropriate for my younger son) but it’s hard to know where to start or where to end.

upper McKinney Falls
Lower McKinney Falls

This trip was short but it was more productive than our previous visits. Thanks to my personal challenges this year, it inspired me to divert from our usual routine. As I mentioned, our hotel’s location is near all the excitement that it’s easy not to go far (sure, we can blame it on the hotel).

But, hey, you’re in Austin. There’s nothing boring about this city. Even if you don’t wander far from where you are, the city is weird enough to entertain.

A Day at the Mosque


When I found out people were gathering outside a mosque in a nearby city to rally in support of Muslims, I called my next door neighbor to ask if it was the same mosque she attends. She told me she goes to the one closer to our house (just five minutes away). Since it was Friday, the day of their worship, she asked if I would like to go with her. I was surprised by her invitation, assuming that only Muslims could enter the mosque. I have always been curious what it’s like inside. I remember going to a mosque in Johor Bahru in Malaysia years ago but we weren’t allowed to enter hence I’ve always assumed that non-Muslims could never enter a mosque.

I came up with an idea to organize an event, granted a permission given by the imam, to allow us to observe them during the prayer service. Given today’s political climate and anti-Muslim rhetoric used in election campaigns (also manifested from Trump’s initial executive order barring anyone coming from seven Islamic countries to enter the United States), it is imperative for Americans to gain a better understanding of Islam, perhaps the most misunderstood religion.

The following Friday, with help from three other women, the East Plano Islamic Mosque has graciously permitted us to observe their prayer service, followed by a Q&A with the imam. I was hoping this event would give us a more nuanced view of Islam and of America’s Muslim citizens.

This is my personal challenge #2

People were gathered outside the mosque

 

There were about 30-40 people gathered outside the mosque when my best friend, Clara, and I arrived. Much to my surprise, a reporter from the Dallas Morning News was also among the crowd. She asked who the organizer was and they pointed her over to me. In the interview, she asked what inspired me to organize this event. I told her it started from a comment on Facebook from an old acquaintance who was convinced that because of Sharia Law, it isn’t possible for Islam to be a peaceful religion. She then posted links of articles with absurd claims about Sharia Law just to validate her point. Since I wasn’t adept on this topic and I didn’t want to rely on the internet for information, I thought the best way to get first hand knowledge on the subject is by hearing it from a reliable source, someone who’s well versed on the Qur’ān, that’s no other than the imam himself.

This talented woman painted several of the artwork displayed at the mosque. She told me that Islamic arts are mostly words that are creatively translated into a picture


The interview was cut short when a couple of women in hijab invited us to enter the mosque. They showed us the cubby holes where we tucked away our shoes and then asked all the female guests to follow them upstairs. The men stayed behind on the main floor where they prayed separately from the women.
The Imam appeared on the television screen. He began his prayers with a beautiful chant then spoke in Arabic for the actual prayer. After the prayer, he began his sermon by first welcoming all the visitors. He then talked about the plight of Muslims in the United States (and the rest of the world). There were three important aspects he discussed. First, despite the negative perception on Muslims, he reminded them that the backlash they have experienced in the past years is miniscule when compared to African-Americans who have lived with racism their whole lives. He stressed on the importance of keeping a stronger faith. Therefore, Muslim husbands should not be embarrassed when their wives wear hijab and to stop prohibiting them from wearing it in public. Second, he mentioned about the significance of being proactive in the community, to help out and volunteer at charitable organizations. Third, to be always appreciative and grateful of the people who are speaking out for them. And to make sure they thank those who are showing up for racial justice.

The woman on the right (wearing hijab) is my neighbor, Abir

After the prayer service, we were all directed to a room on the main floor where the Q&A with the imam would take place. Everyone was very accommodating and hospitable, they even had snacks prepared for us. During the Q&A, the imam explained to us what Sharia Law meant. It means a “path to God, a way of life.” It can also be described as ‘Islamic law’. However, Sharia states that Muslims must be loyal to the laws of their country of residence (American Muslims must follow the US constitution). A Muslim who is observant to Islam will (unknowingly) adhere to Sharia Law,  and surprisingly most Muslims do not know (or have heard) of Sharia Law. Not even the imam himself. The first time he’d heard of Sharia Law was from American politicians (who often referred to it to demonize Islam).

Also, unbeknownst to many of us, the Muslims in this particular community are actively volunteering in charitable causes. Many of them volunteer at the North Texas Food Bank, they also have a free clinic offering medical care to everyone (not just Muslims) who can’t afford healthcare, and also shelters battered women in the Dallas metroplex area. But we will never hear about it in the mainstream media because they are not newsworthy.

The Facebook acquaintance I mentioned in the interview still refuses to accept that Islam is a peaceful religion after I had posted my experience at the mosque and even berated my efforts. “I find it ironic how interested and tolerant you are of a faith that has produced such extremism. However you are so quick to judge those that take an alternative viewpoint in America. A viewpoint that conflicts with yours but that viewpoint doesn’t involve murder, killing cutting off heads because you’re gay, chopping off your hand because you stole something or killing your children because they dated outside the faith,”she wrote on her comments. “I would love it if you could exhibit a little more tolerance with the conservative viewpoint. We are nowhere near as extreme as you claim us to be.”

It is ironic that she demanded for me to ‘exhibit tolerance’ when she herself wouldn’t do it. I told her my objective in organizing the event was not to refute her conservative viewpoint but to shed some light on the religion and the people. Nearly half of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam, often equating the religion with terrorism. This perception makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that the majority of mainstream Muslims hate terrorism and violence as much as we do. But my explanations fell on deaf ears. Everyone was invited to this event but unfortunately the people who couldn’t tolerate different religions and cultures, the ones who should have attended the event, didn’t. This person, in particular, would rather embrace ignorance. Sadly, you can’t open someone’s eyes when the mind is closed. I doubt it if she has any Muslim friends. Because if she did, she wouldn’t think that way. I’ve had many Muslim friends since I was in college and as I mentioned, our neighbors are Lebanese-Palestinians. Abir is a great cook and often sent us huge plates of her  delicious Lebanese cooking. When my son became sick, she took care of us, sending foods to our house on a weekly basis. It was great to come home from the hospital and be fed with a delicious meal, a good break from eating at the hospital for days.

Since then my Facebook acquaintance has unfriended me on Facebook. But there was no love lost there…I haven’t missed her one bit.


A couple of weeks later, my husband, I, and approximately a hundred or more Americans, were back at the mosque to welcome refugees. As of lately, Trump has once again issued a new Executive order, halting all refugees from entering the United States. One friend had lamented that she no longer recognizes the America she grew up with.

Neither do I and this is why we need to keep fighting in bringing back the America we once knew, the one who welcomes and fully embraces immigrants. The America that has always been great! 

P.S. If you are interested in showing your support to your Muslim neighbors and would like to organize an event similar to this, most of the mosques are very welcoming to outsiders. It only takes one phone call! 

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I wrote about some of my goals for 2017 (such as reading more books, writing more often, daily meditation, etc.) and also personal challenges that would hopefully include 12 adventures—new places and/or new experiences:

1) going to a new place, by plane, train, automobile or even on foot, and not necessarily far from where I live. AND/OR 

2) by experiencing something new, something I have never done before—whether taking a class for personal growth, learning a new craft, or participating in something within the community.