Jamie Jo Hoang - Author & World Traveler

Category: Travel (page 1 of 2)

Travel Iceland

Iceland is a paradise unlike anywhere else. An island in the Arctic Circle, it’s a haven of colorful architecture, kind-hearted locals, and otherworldly landscapes.

Make your way to Reykjavik and get your walking shoes on. Your first stop for the afternoon must be Baejarins Beztu Pylsur: The famous hot dog stand.

A simple hot dog, it’s covered with mustard and a gravy sauce. The best part though is the crispy onion beneath the hot dog. Come hungry and order two with all the fixings. 

Continue on your walk and you’ll discover colorful buildings, ornate churches, snow-white swans, souvenir shops, wool clothing stores and cafes galore.

Now that you’ve worked off the hot dog, hop in your car and make your way down to the Blue Lagoon. A place synonymous with Iceland it is not to be missed. Stop by on your first day or make it your last stop on your way out. A large pool with cloud blue water, a swim-up bar, facial station, bridges to cross under and a waterfall to stand under it’s an oasis like no other.


When you’re done relaxing, hop in your car and head for the Golden Circle. Strokkur, Geysir Hot Springs, and Thingvellir National Park are must-see attractions. Personally, Gullfoss Waterfall was a bit of a letdown. Yes, it’s massive in size, but its water is a murky brown and it’s so touristy that its grandness gets lost among the crowd. I’d skip it.

After the Golden Circle, you MUST dive Silfra. Silfra is in Thingvellir National Park and was formed by the divergent tectonic drift of the Eurasian and North American plates. It’s the only place in the world where you can dive between the fissures. At 2 degrees Celcius it’s a bit chilly, but that’s what your dry suit is for! With visibility up to 100 feet, it’s one of the most incredible experiences you’ll ever have. 

After a peek into the deep, make your way south to the Ring Road (Route 1) which goes all the way around Iceland. You can start north or south but I recommend starting in the south so that you’re prepared to drive in the north. Just like in Game of Thrones, winter hits the north first. We’ll come back to that later.

If you loved the Blue Lagoon, but didn’t like the smell and want a smaller more intimate hot spring to sit in, make your way to The Secret Lagoon. The water is crystal clear and fresh (no need to lather yourself in conditioner). The sand beneath your feet is a sparkling black and all around you are bubbling geothermal hotspots in case you didn’t get enough of those at Strokkur.


Driving along the Southern Region, you’ll see why I said to skip Gulfoss. There are waterfalls everywhere. Anytime you see a sign with “foss” as the end make you take the detour if you love waterfalls. Here’s a few of our favorites. 

Thingvellir National Park


I am convinced that the only way to see Iceland is to rent a car and drive. The roads are well paved, but I’d recommend getting windshield insurance because it’s inexpensive and flying gravel is common. 

We traveled to Iceland in late September so it was raining at times. Because of this we skipped Vik and went onward toward Jökulsárlón. This natural phenomenon is where black sand meets giant furniture sized glaciers.



Frolic around on the beach, take your photos and then continue on up toward Myvatn. The Myvatn Nature Baths are the Blue Lagoon of the North. It’s smaller in size but filled with the same famous sulfuric blue water. The temperature here is less regulated so you’ll find hot spots and cool spots within feet of one another. Visit during the day to see the blue water, but come at night and you may catch a glimpse of the Nothern Lights. 

If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones then your next stop must be the Grjótagjá CaveIt’s unfortunately no longer open for public bathing because the geothermal hot spring has risen in temperature and can get up to 45 degress Celsius. Hot to the touch, it won’t burn you if you fall in, but it’s far too hot to be comfortable. Still, it’s worth a visit.

A trip to Iceland is always going to be uniquely yours. Where you stop, how long you stay and what you see are all up to you. You don’t need an itinerary, in fact, I’d recommend going without one. Pick one or two places a day that you definitely want to see and then give yourself the freedom to stop or keep driving as you please. Don’t rush through the trip or you’ll miss out on some amazing rainbows! 

And last but not least, download the My Aurora Forecast App and make sure you look up at the sky! You can pay $150/pp to take a Northern Lights tour with no guarantee that you’ll see them, or you can be diligent and catch them on your own. They can last anywhere from five minutes to two hours, so check often.

Traveling Finland & Estonia

It’s been a while since I’ve posted about travel. Life–as it happens–got in the way. But I finally got my wings back and I feel enriched in a way that I haven’t in some time. In my twenties, I launched into travel after heartbreak and in my thirties, it would appear that it’s been revived by love. Go ahead barf away (I won’t lie, typing that made me gag a little.) But it’s true nonetheless. Anyway on to the good stuff. 

Finland. We landed in Helsinki in the dead of the night, grabbed a shuttle to a nearby hotel to crash and then picked up our rental car and headed up north. I was hellbent on seeing the Northern Lights and if that meant driving 12 hours to the Lapland then that’s what we were going to do. Finland in September is lush with Autumn colors. The roads are well maintained but mostly two-lane and you can drive for miles and miles and only see one or two other cars. 

We stopped in Tampere for lunch and through the blog of an expat American living in Finland, found Kauppahalli, this fantastic marketplace with a wide variety of things to taste. If you’re traveling in a large group or are a foodie this is the place to go. Walk around and you’ll find bread shops, jam shops (get the cloudberry jam), famous fish soups, meats, desserts, and souvenirs. 

 From Tampere, we drove to Oulu, Finland. Oulu is a small town on the western border of Finland which touches the Baltic Sea. Great for walking around, the area is surrounded by tiny islands that are connected by bridges. If you’re into food there’s also a fantastic restaurant Sokeri-Jussin Kievari restaurant known for their karelian pie, salmon soup, bread cheese Leipajuusto (cream and cloudberry jam), homemade cloudberry ice cream, compote. The cloudberry ice cream alone is worth a visit. 

Also, look out for these fantastic walking signs everywhere on the streets. Love it.

On your way out of Oulu, to stop and stretch your legs during the long drive, you’ll want to stop at Cafe & Bar 21 in Rovaniemi, Finland. The hot chocolate and waffle desserts are amazing. They also have this super creative vibe that makes you want to pull out your laptop and tell a story. 

Once we finished  writing, drinking and stuffing our faces (just kidding we didn’t write, but we thought really hard about doing it.) We made our way up to Kakslauttenan.

The entire Northern area above Noway, Sweden, and Finland is called the Lapland and it’s known for being one of the best places to spot the Northern Lights. 

Since this was our honeymoon we splurged and got a cabin with an igloo attached. An oasis in the Arctic. Equipped with our own sauna, fireplace, kitchen, living room, and incline beds inside the igloo sipped hot chocolate and waited for the Northern Lights to show up. We waited and waited some more and then realized the darn clouds were just not going to go away, so we went to eat came back, started a fire and looked up just in time to catch a faint glimpse of some green in the sky. Once we caught a glimpse it became an obsession which I’ll talk more about when I get to Iceland. 

The great thing about having this cabin for two days was that there was hardly a need to leave it. We went on a hike but the weather wasn’t cooperating, we fed some reindeer at the reindeer farm on the property and then we were forced to do something we hardly ever do. Relax. At first, it was hard, we’d sit and then talk about what we should do next but then I crawled under the covers to get warm and became a bear in the dead of winter–hibernating. 

Relaxed and ready for more sightseeing we booked it back down to the port of Helsinki and made our way to Tallinn, Estonia. 

When we booked our trip to Finland we started asking friends who had been for suggestions on where to go and three out of the three people we asked told us to go Tallinn. Weird. We’re asking you about Finland and you’re telling us to go to another country? Humm…

Just a two and a half hour boat ride from Helsinki to Tallinn we disembarked from the boat and immediately understood why everyone told us to visit. 

A town that modern and medieval it’s a mixture I’ve never seen before. 

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The town is 100% walkable. So much so, that I would say a car is more of a hindrance than an asset. Here a few highlights: 

The St. Petersbourg Hotel. This 700-year-old hotel looks simple from the outside, but it’s full of decadent art and design on the inside. Also, their customer service is top notch making it worth the higher priced rooms. 

For places to eat, there is the famous Pegasus (shown above) which has one of the best chai tea’s I’ve ever had and this snack plate with crispbread, and meat, fish, and vegetable paté’s was phenomenal. Also if you’re looking for a more traditional meal Olde Hansa is a  must. The servers are dressed in traditional costume and the whole atmosphere is like being transported back in time. 

And then, before you go you MUST MUST MUST visit this bakery, KALAMAJA PAGARIKODA, in the Northwest part of town. You can the smell the fresh pastries as you walk up the block. They’re served warm and just melt in your mouth. 

Old town is small so you don’t need a map. If you decide to stay at the St. Petersbourg, just orient yourself from there and wander. You won’t get lost and you’ll find lots of cool little gems hidden along the way. 


And to cap off the trip, we spent some time in Suomenlinna. A Unesco World Heritage site, the fortress was built in 1747. The island is built almost entirely of stone. There are long pathways where you can wander around the island but the most interesting thing was these tunnels which run so deep that even the during the day it’s pitch black inside. We went in the evening and most everything was closed, so I would recommend doing this during the day. 

End cap: The fish in Finland is amazing every time. You can’t go wrong. Their coffee however is hit or miss (mostly miss) but their hot chocolate is superb. Always get the hot chocolate.


South Park, James Cameron, and Writing

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last 5 years you’ve probably seen this video South Park made of James Cameron. They’re clearly making fun of the fact that he has to actually “do” the things he makes movies about and that he, in fact, does everything. Cameron has a thirst for adventure like no one else and the end result of that curiosity are his incredible movies.

My dad rarely ever goes to see a movie. Mostly because his grasp of the English language isn’t good enough for him to understand or catch all of the subtext or innuendo’s. But when I took him to see Avatar, he totally got it. Moreover, he really enjoyed the visuals. I think for someone who has known poverty, and lived through a war, he was blown away by the magic on screen. Afterwards, he kept asking me, “How do people get ideas to come up with things like that?” My snarky response was, “I don’t know Dad, if I did do you think I’d still be living here? Nope I’d be a millionaire exploring the seven seas on my yacht.” “What’s a yat?” he asked. I sighed, “A boat. I’d be on my own boat.” “Oh,” he says, “Well hurry up and figure it out.” Thanks Dad.

His question did pique my curiosity though and when I googled James Cameron I found that it wasn’t just that he had a more vivid imagination that I did, it was that he had explored so much more of the world than I had. In my quick google search of “James Cameron” I found the TED Talk he gave below. In his 17-minute talk I learned that he convinced the studios to make Titanic because he wanted to go deep sea diving. The love story and box office millions were an aside. As a diver myself, his exploration of the deep sea hit a nerve with me.

As writers, we create worlds that other’s get to live in, but our creative minds need fuel. A car doesn’t run without gasoline and we can’t write without inspiration. This is the fun part of our jobs! Yet, we’re made to feel like we’re undeserving of the “fun research” because what we do for research is what other people call “entertainment” or “vacation.” But here’s the thing. James Cameron could never have made Titanic the way he did without that deep sea dive. Nor do I think Avatar would have existed without his incessant need to explore the world.

Exploring the things that draw on our senses is what opens our imagination to creating worlds beyond what anyone thought possible. I think there’s a reason writers are usually slightly ahead of our technological time. We not only see things, we want to experience them for ourselves. I personally am fascinated with the passage of time. The lifespan of a seed becoming a flower is immensely interesting to me, and the details people seem to love so much in my writing comes from caring–albeit, a ridiculous amount–about the process.

So, I hereby give all writers–ok, you don’t have to be a writer–permission to: eat at that expensive restaurant, travel to an exotic location, zip-line through the Amazon, climb to the highest peak, dive to the deepest part of the ocean, and just do whatever. Say yes to everything and see where it takes you!

A Visit to Pablo Naruda’s House in Santiago, Chile


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La Chascona–Pablo Narudas house in Santiago, Chile. Fun fact: There are two identical doors at this house, one for him and one for his mistress.


A few months ago I went to a beautiful wedding in Uruguay (a story that still needs to be written). From Los Angeles I had a daunting 24-hour flight, which included two layovers before reaching my final destination. The first stop was a quick drop down in Lima, Peru where 70% of the passengers disembarked and new people took their place. Pretty uneventful. Next stop, Santiago. I had an 8-hour layover so I decided to go exploring. There was a bit of a rush in knowing I only had a few hours, was in foreign country where I could barely speak the language, and was risking missing my connecting flight–in other words, everything was awesome! Damn that Lego movie for having such a catchy tune.

Just after clearing customs I hesitated momentarily, then proceeded through the baggage claim area in search of a taxi company. After finding one, I tried to explain what I wanted (mostly with hand gestures and pointing): I needed a driver for 2 hours to take me to San Christobal Hill and Pablo Naruda’s House and then back to the airport. I showed the desk attendant google map printouts of the two places and drew stick figures of me and a taxi driver visiting each one then coming back to the airport. When she still didn’t understand, I cursed my 8th grade Spanish teacher. The poor desk attendant looked at me with a blank stare and just as I was about to call it quits and head back into the the airport, another girl approached saying she spoke ‘minimal’ English. “Well, we’re in luck because I speak minimal Spanish,” I said, and she laughed. I explained my situation again and this time was rewarded with an “Ah…” before she smiled and spoke in rapid Spanish to the attendant. A number was scribbled on a piece of paper: $12,000.


“Pesos,” she corrected me. Quickly, she calculated the conversion to US dollars and wrote $80 US on the paper. Okay! $80 I could manage. In fact, $80 for 3 hours in a cab seemed like a steal. (Side note: It’s not. My older sister, an obviously more seasoned traveler than I, would later tell me I was severely ripped off–no matter, I was on a high and having the time of my freaking life!)

When I met my driver, he never gave me his name, but for the sake of this story let’s call him Robert. Robert glanced at the 4 receipts I handed him and a look of confusion of crossed his face. Not again, I start to think. But he turned to me and said, “So you want to go to San Cristobal Hill, Pablo Naruda’s House, and then come back to the airport?”

“Yes!” I smiled. “You speak English?”

“So, so,” he said. “You speak Spanish?”

“Muy poquito. Very little,” I laughed.

It was about 7:45 a.m. local time and I was ready for the grand tour of Santiago, so imagine my surprise when we arrived at San Cristobal Hill only to find that they didn’t open until 8:30 a.m. Well crap. Robert told me it’s not a problem, we’ll just see Naruda’s house first. This sounded like a good plan until we arrived at the house, properly named La Chascona, and saw the sign that said, Open at 10:00 a.m. I was about 40 minutes into the trip and my wild solo excursion in a foreign country was turning out to be an epic fail.

“What do you want to do?” Robert asked me. I just paid $80 for his services so I hardly wanted him to just drive me back to the airport. I didn’t say anything for a while and racked my brain for a solution. A few minutes passed and I got the feeling he was becoming super annoyed with me but then he said, “I can take you to see the House of the President? And then probably San Cristobal will be open after.”

“Okay!” I shouted enthusiastically. There was a little guy in the back of my mind telling me he was about to charge me up the wazoo for this little detour, but I didn’t care. When else was I going to get the chance to explore Santiago? We hopped in the car and almost instantly Robert went from taxi driver to tour guide. He pointed out the national library, a famous cathedral, a huge indoor market–popular as a place to get a bite to eat after a heavy night of drinking. He told me if I ever came back I must be sure to check out a stall inside that sells the best crab in the world. Come to think of it, I was kind of hungry…but Robert had already gone above and beyond his duties so having him to pull over would’ve been asking to be abandoned in a foreign city. We pulled up to the President’s Palace, and he pointed out the guards surrounding the building and told me they were the most respected division of law enforcement. I told him they are were quite handsome and he laughed.

When I finally arrived at San Cristobal Hill he took me to the top, parked the car, and said he would a nap while I looked around. By this point, we had a pretty good rapport going so I was pretty sure he’s wasn’t going to leave me there; nevertheless, I looked for his car every time it was within view just to be safe. I hadn’t done a lot of research before coming to Santiago; to be honest, I wasn’t sure I had the guts to actually leave the airport until I did it. So all I knew was that San Cristobal Hill had the best view of the city and man, did it ever. Hundreds of thousands of buildings and roads all sprawled out in front of me. Behind me a staircase led further up the mountain and toward a large statue of Mary, complete with a mini chapel at the base of her feet. The main character in my novel, BLUE SUN, YELLOW SKY, visits Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, something I had yet to do, so as I stood beneath Mary I tried to imagine being in my character’s shoes. I could write an entire blog just about that experience so I’ll refrain from getting into it, but what I will say is this: as a first-time author it was affirming to know that my character’s experiences weren’t wrong.

Robert was in the driver seat playing a game on his phone when I returned to the car. At the sight of me, he shut off his phone with a smile and we headed back down the mountain to Pablo Naruda’s house. After paying a fee, I was handed a listening device that looked like a long skinny telephone before being ushered into a courtyard. There were about 14 stops on this tour of Naruda’s house, but I only had a few minutes before I risked missing my connecting flight so I decided halfway through the first description to skip to the next one. Big mistake. At the end of each section the narrator kindly tells you where to walk next. This left me wandering around the courtyard with a security guard eyeing me suspiciously. I turned down a wrong corridor and get scolded in Spanish, which ironically sounds a lot like a scolding in Vietnamese, but he pointed me in the direction I was supposed to go. I moved through the downstairs portion quickly, past the dining room, small bedroom, his mistresses’ quarters, and then finally I reached the place I came to see. Pablo Naruda’s study.

It wasn’t very large. In fact, it seemed quite small given Naruda’s notoriety and fame. There were wooden bookshelves lining the back wall, a desk, reading chairs, and lots of artifacts that reminded me of Native American relics. Maybe they were? If I’d had more time I probably could’ve listened to find out. His desk was clean with nothing more than a few pieces of paper, his glasses and a pen. It was also tiny, not much bigger than the desk I used at home. The room was brightly lit with tons of windows. I wanted really badly to sit down in one of the chairs and imagine being him; to look out over his garden and think about the words that would flow together into poetry.

For a writer, the 8-hour layover in Santiago was enlightening. I walked in the shoes of one of my own characters and sat in the house of one of the greatest writers in history. AND I did it all with time to spare, so after going back through security, I took a seat at the bar, ordered a Pisco Sour and toasted myself for a layover well spent.


Travel to Bonaire and Chase the Silence

Chasing Silence (Photo taken by Marvin Lai)

Jetlagged and sweating profusely, I anxiously wait for my luggage to show up on the single snake-like conveyor belt of the Flamingo Airport. Usual hordes of smiling family members at the gate are non-existent here, yet there is a strong sense of community among those disembarking from the plane – everyone is a diver. The dry humidity makes for an uncomfortable arrival but less than an hour later, as I’m peering at a school of fish swimming along the edge of the Buddy Dive dock, I barely register the heat anymore. While being briefed on proper Nitrox tank checkout procedures, I jokingly (but seriously) turn to my dive instructor and promptly state, “We’re here for a week. If I don’t see a sea turtle by Thursday, Friday morning I’m going on a diving marathon and I may miss my flight home.” With only two flights in and out of this remote island, this is a serious threat. I smile inwardly as my instructor tries to read my poker face, knowing that I have just been pegged the “troublemaker” of the group. Swimming with sea turtles has always been a childhood dream; though the decision to come to Bonaire was rather impulsive.

I live in the noisy city of Los Angeles where perspective is one of the hardest things to grasp. Where I had found inspiration before, I was now left feeling incredibly nervous about the future. I spent my 20’s playing hot potato with my career, working a variety of jobs from drafting to legal consulting before finally settling on writing. A restless person by nature, I am always looking for something better and rarely ever commit to something long enough to make it a profession, but my 20’s were over and it was time to buckle down and make some difficult decisions. With this immense pressure bearing down on me and people constantly asking me, “What are you going to do next?” I did what any normal, rational person would do: I grabbed my passport and fled the country.

Bonaire – so famously known for its optimal diving that the license plates even boast the slogan “Diver’s Paradise” – is located 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela. A part of the Netherlands Antilles, Bonaire, together with Aruba and Curacao, are commonly referred to as the ABC islands. Containing a tiny population of just 14,000, the small island (only 24 miles long and 3-5 miles wide) is more urban than metropolitan.The center of town is rich in colors, with buildings painted sunshine yellow, neon blue and cactus green. Covered in artwork reminiscent of a kindergarten playground, the neighborhood atmosphere lends itself to a kind of childhood nostalgia. A vibrant mural on one wall of the local supermarket pays homage to the man considered to be the founding father of Bonaire, Captain Don.

Revered for his work preserving the natural habitat, stories about Captain Don and his conquests, be it islands or women, have become a sort of verbal folklore. With dive site names such as “Leonora’s Reef,” “Joanne’s Sunchi” (Joanne’s Kiss) and “Helma Hooker,” it is no wonder Captain Don stories are always told with a devious smirk. Famed for his work in preserving the natural habitat and known to give stern lectures to anyone who dared break off a piece of coral as a souvenir, Captain Don has dedicated his life to protecting the wonders below.

On a lazy Tuesday morning, I bike across the island along Bonaire’s paved roads, passing large cacti that thrive in the warm climate and a wild donkey that shows little interest in me. I am no different than his neighbor, and so unlike the wildlife in the city that scatter at the sight of humans he looks at me only for a moment before returning to his meal. Peddle further and the fields of cacti suddenly clear, leaving the landscape completely flat. To my right is the ocean and to my left are giant mounds of a pure white mineral. Salt City – developed by the Dutch in the 1600’s, is comprised of large mounds of sodium chloride cultivated from the sea water flowing into the salt pans – and to this day has proven to be a lucrative source of income for the islanders. For me, the discovery of natural salt pans had a different meaning. When I was young my mother used to massage salt mixed with mashed up garlic into my skin as a method of healing bruises. She claimed the salt helped defuse the clotted blood making the wound heal quickly (I have yet to find a doctor who endorses this). Not wanting to regret leaving Bonaire without any salt, should a scientific discovery be made regarding its healing properties, I pour out the contents of my water bottle and begin filling it with salt. I would later come to find that Buddy Dive actually sells this very salt (albeit nicely bottled with a proper label and pretty ribbon) as a bath salt promising smooth skin. Not quite the cure for cancer, but useful nonetheless – Thanks Mom!

Salt in hand, in trek back across the road, past my bike, towards the clear, blue, fresh water on the other side. As the sun beats down on me and a blue-green iguana scurries past towards the shade I am made aware of my close proximity to the equator. Up above, the beams of light push through to the clouds, wrapping their arms around me in a warm embrace. Below me, fragmented coral, drained of its color and tumbled smooth by the ocean water and sand, blankets the pristine shoreline. As I look around, it dawns on me that these long stretches of beach lack any of the garbage or debris that would be expected on unguarded shores. Bonairians respect for oceanic preservation clearly permeates to land as well and visiting divers dare not get caught littering. There is balance here, with humans and wildlife seeming to coexist in harmony. Enough with the beauty on land though; I came to Bonaire to dive!

Descend anywhere along the coast of Bonaire and the marine life speaks loud and clear to Captain Don’s preservation efforts. The water is crisp and clear with visibility at an optimal 80-100ft. I move at an incredibly slow pace, completing only 17 kick cycles every 50ft. but this deliberate crawl pays off as I watch an octopus change from a sandy white to deep green. A baby trunkfish explores his new environment, peeking out a few inches from behind his coral shelter to look around a bit before quickly darting back to safety. I gaze intimately at the intricate detail and color of banded coral shrimp, squint to make out a perfectly camouflaged sea horse and barely breathe as a giant squid ventures toward my mask with the grace of a ballerina. And as if the natural wonders are not enough, Bonaire is also home to a 300-foot cargo shipwreck – the Helma Hooker. Legend has it that the cargo ship, carrying marijuana, docked in bad condition and was abandoned by the owner, leaving the drugs to be confiscated by the authorities and burned on the island. That day, fishermen didn’t fish and smoke covered the island, with a westerly wind carrying the smoke all the way to Aruba, garnishing the island with the slogan, “a very happy island.” Being careful not to scrape myself on the rusted edges I poke my head into a window with a flashlight and am delighted to see that coral anemones have formed. Smaller fish stay close to the coral as large tarpon hover around the exterior like guards making sure their home is not disturbed. As I dove past the large propellers I couldn’t help but be in awe of how the aquatic life could take something foreign and turn it onto a beautiful place for life to thrive.

Happiness for me seems to be intertwined with love. A love of heritage brought me to Vietnam where I learned about my family; a love of history had me climbing thousands of steps to reach the glorious ruins at Machu Picchu; and a love of food steered me towards the decadence that is Paris. It was a lack of romantic love though, that brought me to Bonaire. My friends and colleagues hoped that I might find Prince Charming on this flight to an exotic country and for a minute I indulged in this marvelous fantasy. But truth be told, I chose the solitude of Bonaire and the forced silence that is the nature of diving on purpose. More than finding someone new to love, I needed to discover myself, because somewhere in my last relationship, I had gotten lost. So lost, in fact, that when asked what my favorite music was, I drew a blank. How can I know where I want to go in life if I don’t even know what I like? It’s classical, I love classical music.

It is early morning (before sunrise early) as I grab my iPod and walk to the edge of a nearby cliff to listen to Christopher O’Reilly’s “Tribute to Radiohead” compilation. I don’t know if it’s the beauty in the darkness, the thick warm air or the soothing cadence of classical piano but I can feel a rhythm. I am acutely aware of the gentle waves brushing up against the cliff beneath me, but more than that I sense an uncomfortable beating of uncertainty. My consciousness was kind enough to let me marvel at the beauty of Bonaire uninterrupted, but it was time to at least acknowledge that big decisions lay ahead. Looking at woman in the water beneath me, I wonder if I’ll ever see more than uncertainty stricken across her face. What mediocre job would she take that will stamp her with an ill-fitting societal identity? Hi, my name is Jamie and I’m a…retail associate? Home decorator? Accountant? Nothing fits. I am exhausted. Closing my eyes I try to meditate (not as easy as it looks) only to find myself begging God for some divine intervention. Stop. Quiet the mind, breathe in…breathe out, and let your feelings go. What does that mean anyway? “Let your feelings go?” I give up. Uncrossing my legs, I let them dangle over the edge of the cliff, and lie back. Surprisingly, my body begins to relax, still as a rock, I lay, as the color in the sky slowly changes and the sun peaks above the horizon to gently kiss my skin.

Now late afternoon on Thursday, I realize I have yet to spot my sea turtle. Peaceful meditative state of mind gone, I am feeling antsy. For fear that I may refuse to leave the island (I made sure to inject the playful threat every now and again), Will (Dive Instructor) and Chris (Dive Master) load tanks into the van and the three of us head out to the 1,000 Steps site on a private dive excursion. At 50 feet, Will spots a giant lobster and motions me over for my introduction to underwater photography. The first rule in underwater photography is to “get really close to your subject,” but underwater, depth is deceptive and things appear much closer than they actually are. Camera in hand, I stretch my arms out as far as they can reach before I feel the guiding touch of both Will and Chris positioning me for the perfect shot. As my index finger snaps a picture, my inner monologue can’t help but shout, “Bam! And that, folks, is how you take a picture of a lobster,” but Will isn’t satisfied and I am guided closer, so close actually that I feel guilty for crossing what must be an aquatic boundary regarding personal space. But my buddy Sebastian doesn’t seem to mind as he crawls forward posing nicely for the camera. Above water, the photos seem to tell a different story, most are either blurry or so far away it’s hard to tell what one should be squinting at. No matter, I had enough photographs to keep people asking me “How was the trip?” instead of “What are you going to do?” – and in the interim this was good enough for me.

Photo class complete, I float upwards toward the shallow coral, glad to be looking beyond the scope of my lens. I take in the color and the warmth, flipping upwards towards the shining sun to pay homage to whatever force or being created such beauty. As a school of blue angel fish swim above me, every worry I’ve ever had seems irrelevant and for the first time in my life, I understand what it means to live in the moment. I live my life rarely ever being fully present. My body sits at the desk of my 10th floor office while my mind is elsewhere, worrying. Not right now though. Now, I am thinking of nothing but the cascade of colors filling my underwater experience. Heavy tank and gear aside, I feel a part of something so marvelous that it is downright magical.

A light tap on my tank snaps me out of my trance and when I look up, there he is, the Holy Grail – my elusive sea turtle. Young but bold and free-wheeling, he glides through the water at a leisurely pace, stopping to chomp on some coral before quickly rising to the surface for air and to my delight, coming back down to play. Perhaps it is the colorfully animated atmosphere of Bonaire or maybe just my own juvenile tendencies, but I feel like Marlin when he encounters Squirt in “Finding Nemo,” complete with the urge to high-five the little guy. We swim side by side for 50 meters across a landscape of blue, orange, yellow and purple coral until my pressure gage shows that I am low on air and I am forced to say goodbye.

The Holy Grail…My Elusive Sea Turtle (Photo taken by William Wang)

When I set out on this journey, I was hoping that I would have some sort of “Ah Ha!” moment whereby the clouds would part and Grandma Willow would whisper a predestined prophecy of unending happiness. That didn’t happen. Society dictates the sequence of events that our lives are supposed to follow: Finish high school by the age of 18, college by 22, marriage by 27 (for girls) and 35 (for men) and careers in full swing around that same age. I passed the first two markers with flying colors, graduating high school with honors and finishing college a year early at the age of 21. But even with a full year head start, I’ve fallen behind society’s expectations. As I look around me at a world I might never have seen had I found a comfortable place to be complacent, I know that whatever choices I made in the past were the right ones. Life is not supposed to be so linear and the tick marks of age should be self-defined. If this year is the year I accomplish nothing else beyond this trip then next year can be the year that I find love or the perfect career. Today, I am happy and this moment, right now, is all that matters.

Click here for a link to some amazing photos from my trip to Bonaire.

Note: This article was written in August of 2011 but kept private until now, so it’s a new “old” posting.

From Big City to Small Town

Main Street in Sutton, Nebraska

In the past few weeks I’ve found myself in a constant state of disquiet. I worried about: the recent distance I’d put between my family and myself, where I was going to be in six months, the decisions I’d made in the past, the ones I knew I would make in the near future…I had buckets full of paint and no idea what picture I wanted to create.

Then on a flight from Bakersfield to my new hometown of Houston, I sat next to a woman who had only one direction she was going in life—building a family. She was from Nebraska; grew up in a town whose population was 1,300–roughly the size of my high school student body and she had no intention of leaving.

We couldn’t have been more different. I was a city girl, living in a world of concrete walls and high rises and she lived on 52 acres of lush green farmland. I passed by a thousand strangers everyday whereas I was probably the only stranger she’d met in weeks. This was going to be a very quiet plane ride home.

It had been a particularly rough weekend for me and as friendly as she seemed I wasn’t interested in making friends. The 3.5-hour plane ride was quiet time for me to do what I did best: worry. Right away my mind went into superdrive, thinking about back-up plans and big picture changes that needed to be made.

I was contemplating my next move–Ireland? Scarborough? Bangkok? Singapore? San Francisco? Seattle?–when I heard her ask me, “Do you speak English?” I raised an eyebrow; an attitude notoriously known as being an “L.A. thing,” (Los Angeleno’s apparently don’t talk to strangers and those who attempt to talk to us are given the death stare) only this time I felt it was justified.

“Yes. I was born in Denver actually,” I replied, with a condescending tone.

“Oh. I just wasn’t sure cause…” I could tell she was embarrassed, which consequently made me feel like an asshole. She didn’t look like a malicious person and even though I wanted to be offended, I could tell that her question was sincere.

I backtracked, softened my tone and told her that it happened all the time. In truth, I think it had been probably 20 years since someone had asked me whether or not I spoke English (and even then it was the daughter of a blatantly racist household). But I was in big picture mode which meant I had to think about the adverse effects of being mean to someone obviously very sheltered.

We took off and I reclined in my seat, ready to take a nap and decompress, when she handed me a copy of “Star Magazine” with a photo of that girl from Twilight and some guy who was apparently not her boyfriend. As you can probably tell, I never read gossip rags–not even while standing in line at the grocery store–but I didn’t want to be rude so I politely thumbed through it.

“So do you travel often?” she asked.

“More so than most I guess,” I said.

“For work?” she asked.

I didn’t really know how to answer that question. I was a writer who valued travel as a means of expanding my scope of knowledge so in a way—yes—I traveled for work. Truthfully though, travel was a socially acceptable means of running from life. In a fight or flight situation my instinct was always the go with the latter.

It was easy when I lived in Los Angeles, where I could find a cheap cross-country flight for less than $300. But when I made my move to Houston it was with the intention of staying put. I had hit a point in my life where running—though fun—had become unhealthy. So, even though I was itching to hop on a plane at every turn, I made a commitment not to run.

Of course I wasn’t about to unleash my life’s story on this poor stranger who had the sore luck of sitting next to me, so I turned the conversation onto her. Gina told me about her favorite cattle, Gertie, a calf that had been abandoned until Gina found her. She told me about the town; it’s community-like feel and how she’d grown up knowing everyone’s business.

We laughed together as she told me about the Jerry Springeresque drama that had been unfolding in the town recently. And before I knew it I found myself enraptured in her stories. With our age, cultural, societal, and personality differences we were the most unlikely of friends. Yet, there we were.

As the plane began taxing toward the tarmac, I thanked her for my reading material and wished her the best of luck, but in true small town fashion she did me one better. Gina handed me a piece of paper with name, phone number and address on it. “If you ever find yourself in Sutton, Nebraska make sure you look me up. I promise to show you a great small town time.”

When I sat down next to this 52 year-old farmer I expected her to marvel at the adventurous life I’d led; I expected her to be jealous. We city dwellers always assume that small town folk want to be us. How delusional we were…

My 3-hour plane ride with Gina made me wish I had grown up in a small town where my grocer, doctor, and teachers occasionally all sat down for dinner together as equals. And then it hit me, I was running around the globe searching for the very thing Gina has had all her life: community. There was no amount of travel or education that could give me that and in that moment…I was jealous of Gina.

For a week after meeting her I considered making a move to Sutton, Nebraska. If I pack up now and move I could nudge my way into thanksgiving dinner at the Sutton community center potluck, I thought to myself. But then there she was again my instinct to fly away…and I knew right then that it was time to go home.

Travel – Washington DC

The one and only...White House.

I’m not entirely sure where I get this from, because my parents are very reasonable people, but whenever I’m feeling really lost in life my solution is to hop on a plane. When I’m on a plane I feel like I’m moving forward in life, but in truth it’s more like someone walking on treadmill; physically moving, yet going nowhere

I took a trip to DC a few years ago because a friend of mine had been relocated there for work and both of us were feeling displaced in our lives. We did what all girls in their mid-twenties do; drank wine and talked about everything from shoes to boyfriends. Our parents are all immigrants and as such we had a very practical mentality about life. But we’d also been injected with American idealism and so we both really struggled with the idea of going after the dream vs. attaining financial stability. We had the same outlook on life but our roads diverged post-college.  I became a writer, she a lawyer, and we each envied the other. But neither of us could tell you why.

After a heavy night of drinking, my friend was comatose the next morning and I was wide-awake. Lawyers may have the reputation for being heavy drinkers, but trust me when I say a writer can drink a lawyer under the table every time.

Looking for some fresh air, I took a walk with no destination in mind. I was simply going to stroll and see what I stumbled upon. Wanna know what I found? The White House! No joke. I stuck my arms through the gate as far as they would reach to try and get the perfect picture and then quickly retracted them when I caught sight of the snipers on the roof.

I had been to DC before, so I wasn’t really interested in doing the “tourist” thing, but one of my favorite places to reflect, happened to be on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Maybe it was the history that surrounded the area, but every time I was there I felt like standing on the steps and shouting to the world that I too, had a dream.

When I was a kid we were really poor and I hate to admit this, but romantic comedies were the equivalent of “happily ever after” for me. What’s strange is it wasn’t the love story that drew me in; it was that “happily ever after” happened to everyone. I honestly thought, that we got to the age of 18 and just lived happily every after. That idealism was short lived, but the passion for rom com’s and great story stayed with me. I liked the idea of someone having a really shitty day turning on a movie that I made and laughing.

At the time I was working at MGM studios in the legal department. I was playing it safe in an industry that demands insurmountable risk taking. Needless to say I was very unhappy. The job itself was fine, the people were great but aside from the fact that I worked at a studio I wasn’t doing anything creative – at all.

Walking up towards the massive sitting Lincoln figure I felt like I was walking through history. He looked down on me with a slight shake of his head and said, “Are you kidding me?! It’s Monday. Monday! And you’re lollygagging around my ankles, 3,000 miles away from home, with the audacity to complain about your life?” – Abe, always the voice of reason.

But the thing is I was tired of being reasonable. Reasonable landed me at a job pushing papers for 8 hours a day just to earn a pay check that only paid the day to day bills. I wasn’t afraid of losing my day job, I was afraid of trying something new and failing miserably. At the end of the day though, the sun is going to set and tomorrow it’ll rise again so if I fail today I’ll start again tomorrow. So why not? I’ve got nothing to lose but time and it going to pass regardless of my failures or successes.

Travel – Ireland

Rebel at the Cliff's of Moher

Back in May I had been writing a novel which incorporates quite a bit of traveling, and my friend Don, having read a few pages, said to me, “That’s so American, to travel not for the culture but for introspection.” Well of course, I thought, civilizations have looked to nature and mother earth for answers to life’s difficult questions since the dawn of time, why shouldn’t I? I had never considered that it was a distinctly American thing.

Still pondering this discussion, I asked some of my international traveling buddies, and the consensus that I got was, “Yes, when I travel I find it easier to gain perspective on my life.” Statistically speaking, my data gathering and analysis means nothing as it is severely skewed towards people who are like myself –wandering souls. But it was enough for me to know that if not the majority, a few people around the world were just like me.

I wouldn’t say that I have been running around the world in the pursuit universal truths (though I have found many), but I will admit to a curiosity geared more towards myself than my particular surroundings.

If you look closely at the photo above captioned, “Rebel at the Cliffs of Moher” you will notice a tiny figure walking along the cliff’s edge. That’s me. I arrived at the Cliff’s to find that a 4-foot high cement wall had been built to protect tourists from plummeting to their deaths.

Being that I am very American, I hopped over that wall and ran down to the cliff’s edge. I tried to hide around the corner, but couldn’t get to a place where concern about my suicidal state of mind wouldn’t be questioned, so I had to come back up. A few other tourists had been watching and my friend got a proper scolding from some Portuguese gentlemen who pointed at the “danger” sign. As far as repercussions though, that’s where it ended.

My reasons for doing it were two-fold: 1. I knew with 100% certainty, that barring any suicidal intent, it was perfectly safe. They had postcards in the gift shop with tourists standing on that very edge! and 2. I had something to prove to myself.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that leap over the edge symbolized just how far I was willing to go in order to live out my dreams. I live for moments, experiences, red letter days, whatever you want to call you’re fondest memories. And yet, I had spent every single moment of my life, following the rules, taking no for an answer and never pushing the boundaries of success because my fear of failure trumped my desire for something more. Not anymore.

Something changed that day, and I wasn’t going to let a tiny sign keep me from fully experiencing the danger that is life. Don’t get me wrong, I am not condoning leaping over the cliff’s and possibly getting thrown into an Irish jail, but what I am saying, is that sometimes breaking the rules is what pushes us to do better, to be better.

Read the biographies of anyone who has achieved greatness and somewhere in there you’ll find that they not only broke a few rules, they pushed down barriers. Take Steve Jobs for example (Yes, I know people are sick of hearing about him, but bear with me here). He said, “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.

I just so happened to come across that quote today, but he isn’t the only one to have said it. Nothing great comes without taking a risk.

For me, leaping over that wall was just the gateway to getting past barriers that I might otherwise have been too afraid to attempt.


Nothing great comes without taking a risk.

Do Things – Be Still (Rothko Chapel)


Everything comes from nothing and the darkness is the nothing that manifests everything in our minds.

Since my arrival in Houston a few months back, and my subsequent leap into the art community, (because well, when you don’t have a job, you hang out in museums), I had been asked in passing if I’d ever been to the Rothko Chapel. Now, I’m not a church going person (don’t tell my parents) but this question became such a recurring motif that I felt compelled to take a look.

At first glance, the chapel seems to be nothing but an empty octagonal room with natural sunlight and deep dark paintings covering the walls. What’s so special about that? I opened up the brochure to see what the hype was about and learned what I needed to do in the chapel: sit down and shut up.

I sat on the floor in the middle of the room, and before I knew it, I found myself with my eyes closed and my legs crossed. When I go quiet my mind always tends to go to dark places. Feeding on facets of my life that are unfulfilled. But this was different. It felt scary and safe at the same time. I do not know how to meditate so I can tell you right now that I was probably not doing that. I was simply being still because the stillness in the room caused a stillness in me.

Void of color, shape, or content, the darkness cut through all distractions and then offered up a mirror that reflected only myself.  Everything comes from nothing and the darkness is the nothing that manifests everything in our minds. The room was designed to lend us a hand, in case our will power wasn’t strong enough to keep our eyes closed during meditation.

When I opened my eyes, I saw just this little sliver of color, a brightness if you will, that trumped my pessimism. What happened next was unexpected. I didn’t just see Rothko’s color field paintings, I saw inside of them. Black paint metamorphosed into waves of black, each one a symbol of untold stories.

For me, I saw past and present swirling around before me. If the universe is circular, then the octagon is its cartography. In thinking about everything: our jobs, our families, our friends, our significant others, etc. and our fears associated with each of them the process is overwhelming. But break it up into 8 categories, paint them honestly onto the walls, and watch as truths you never saw before move to the forefront of your canvas. And the great part is, if you’re not ready to deal with any aspect of your life, you simply move on to the next panel and circle back when ready.


Travel – Austin, TX

The Famous 6th Street in Austin, TX

Two days is definitely not enough time to spend in Austin if you want to see it all (esp. if you go on Halloween weekend) but it is a city to be reckoned with.  My first night I actually stayed in Milano, TX, which is about an hour and a half outside of the Austin’s city center.  The grandparents of an old roommate of mine owned a cabin out there and we thought it would be nice to stay and relax outside the city before entering the mayhem.

I fully admit that I am a city girl, so when her grandparents told me that the only things in the town were the Church and the Post Office, I laughed. I had heard once that the only thing you needed to be recognized as your own town was a post office, but I never thought towns like this existed. It was awesome! At 10pm we went on a night hike through the hills where I saw not only the brightest constellations (Cassiopeia, Orion’s Belt, and Ursa Minor to name a few), but also millions of other constellations that I had never seen before.  We walked for about 2 miles and then turned around and came back to homemade pudding with ice cream. They weren’t my family, but it felt like home.

That was the calm before the storm. Austin is a mixture of intellectuals and artists in a combination unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We started (drinking) at a restaurant called Cedar Door where I discovered that Austin does not tax alcohol. Trouble had arrived.

A couple of beers and a bus ride later, we found ourselves on 6th street. The most popular street in Austin for, well, pretty much everything. Before I go any further I would like to say that I am not ugly, but I’ve never been considered “hot” either. But the moment we hit the strip, free drinks came flying at us from bar promoters and I felt like a million bucks.

Our journey in and out of bars can only be described as speed dating on crack, except it was with both men and women. Everyone was friendly and complementary in such a way that we never once felt uncomfortable.  I’ve never been in a city before where total strangers felt like acquaintances.

The next day our friends took us to a secret spot along the Colorado River where we wadded waist deep and watched people kayak downstream. We were smack dab in the middle of Austin and yet it felt like another city. Our shoes off, we walked along the river learning about each other until we stumbled upon a scene that reminded me of Venice Beach. Glow sticks, circus acts, hoola hoop girls, elaborate costumes, puoy balls, and glitter – a day time rave.

With our busy 9-5 schedules and mapped out lives, it’s a rarity to happen upon something cool by accident. Yet, so many of my most amazing memories were found created in unexpected places.

So maybe the lesson here is to loosen up and break as many daily habits as you can, as often as you can. If you walk down Potter St on your way to work, maybe go one block further along a parallel street and check out something different.

My time in Texas has been a bit of a social experiment since nearly everyone I come in contact with is a stranger. And Austin was no different. In a span of 2 days I probably talked to 10 different people (not counting the drunk debauchery) by catching their eye and smiling or answering a simple “hello” with genuine interest.

Ask questions, lots of them, all the time. Ask someone what time it is, or to help you out with grabbing something out of reach. Ask someone for his or her opinion. Ask, because if you do, strangers can quickly become acquaintances who morph into friends.

While I’m living in Texas, Austin has become my home away from home. A taste of the eclectic world I used to roam. Delicious restaurants can be found in abundance and pretentious d-bags are left at the door. If you’re looking for a young, cool, hip city that is bursting with creativity and economic growth, this is the place to go.


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