Reunion

My trip to Richmond, Virginia took me further south than I have been before in the States. After spending the last 24 hours in NYC, I was feeling a bit disgruntled by the high costs of food and drink over here – $23 for a stack of pancakes and coffee! It even made me long for London prices. However I was pleasantly surprised arriving in Richmond to a reasonably priced iced coffee and muffin ($5). And I needed iced coffee because the temperature had soared to 21 degrees! The people I met were also super friendly. With just 20 of us on the tiny plane to Richmond from NYC we had pretty much become best mates by the end of our journey.

The following 48 hours in Richmond was a foodie’s dream. My friends from England, now living there, were fantastic hosts and tour guides. So much good food and delicious local beer was consumed. A highlight was tasting my first cheddar grits – a cheesey, gooey dish that resembled something between polenta and porridge. By the time I boarded my Amtrak train to Philadelphia I was feeling uncomfortably full and a few kilograms heavier. Ah well… It hadn’t been my plan to come here and lose weight…

I arrived in Philadelphia after five hours aboard the train. Another hour later I had reached the lush, green small towns west of Philly where I was picked up by the wonderful Teacher Natalie.

It has been over a year since Natalie and I were last roomies in various Thai establishments; our school accommodation, Kanchanaburi and Bangkok hostels and our Koh Samet beach side hotel. Despite the time that has passed, and despite living on opposite sides of the Atlantic, we are very much still as ‘in tune’ as we were when we taught English and enjoyed Thailand together. In fact our personal missions, current career paths and aspirations are now incredibly aligned.

West Chester, Natalie’s home, is a quintessentially Pennsylvanian small town. It has a high street full of independent stores, cafes, restaurants and bars. The chains are there too – but why would you bother with Starbucks when you can feel at home and cosy in an independent cafe? There is so much I could write about just four days here, but instead here are my top five highlights:

5) Discovering the self-serve coffee (in a MASSIVE coffee cup) at the local Wawa. And getting to mix a tonne of brews together to make my own signature brew (which didn’t taste too good to be honest).

4) Taking Natalie’s pup to the local dog park (next to Wawa) and witnessing the biggest canine social event I’ve ever seen.

3) Dining on The Izzy at Green Street Grill (Natalie’s workplace). (Picture to follow shortly).

2) Meeting Natalie’s wonderful friends and family and constantly being referred to as Teacher Jenny. Then realising that Brits and Americans speak different languages, (ok I already knew this after summer camp, but it was further validation). My favourite instance was receiving a look of horror from Natalie’s Mum when I said I was “gutted to be leaving” – ‘gutted’ simply means to be dead and have your insides ripped out over here.

1) Going to the stadium to watch the Philadelphia Sixers win their game against Brooklyn Nets. With the addition of chicken, fries, cheese sauce dip and a Bud light, I was living the American dream.

As I waited to board my Amtrak train to NYC (yes you can’t keep me away from trains) I had a heavy heart to be leaving so soon. However, the past four days had reassured me that a strong friendship can survive distance and time. I’m very sure I’ll be back to watch the Sixers win again next season.

And on that note, I’m about to arrive back in NYC…

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Next stop, Philadelphia!

If you ever plan a trip to the States and have the time to explore the cities of the East Coast, I thoroughly recommend taking an Amtrak train. Back in 2011 I took an epic eight hour ride from Boston to Washington DC. I recall the trains being really spacious and the view out of the window being awesome as I trundled down the coast. I’m pleased to report that eight years later I am back on the same railway line but this time travelling in the opposite direction from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia. Why am I doing this? And why am I writing about it? Well, 1 year and 4 months after we said our goodbyes (me sobbing and her half-drunk and half-asleep) I am going to see my amazing roomie and co-teacher from Thailand! Therefore it seemed fitting to get back on the blogging bandwagon and document it.

And so much has happened in the past year. I reviewed my final post from Australia before writing this and recalled the mixed emotions about returning to the UK. Over a year later I am still not London’s biggest fan and I still hate the tube! But I can honestly say that I have found my calling as a teacher of Science in a school in Elephant and Castle. It is tough though. I can tell you first hand that educating the children of a very disadvantaged and often dangerous community is incredibly challenging. But I am convinced that this school – where I am inspired every day by colleagues and students – is where I need to be right now. It would be pretty hilarious if I could time travel back to 2016 and tell ‘past me’ that in three years time I would find myself teaching photosynthesis to a class of 12 year-olds… and that I absolutely love doing it.

So my career is back on track and I wake up every day feeling motivated and driven by my personal mission to get kids loving Science and help them to develop into well-rounded people. And another massive positive about teaching is of course the holidays! So here I am in the States enjoying more solo travel during my Easter break.

Now I’m no Bill Bryson. If you want a more interesting and well-researched read about the USA then look no further than his books. I am currently reading his book about Australia and it has been pleasing to learn how much he loves the country for all the same reasons I do – the super friendly people, the beautiful coast line and the general chilled out vibe that is considerably lacking in the UK. Bryson also struggles with some of the wildlife in Aus and his stories please me because they make Tom’s tussle with a cockroach in our Byron Bay place seem a little less awkward. (FYI this tussle involved a lot of swatting the air with a flip flop (and Tom screaming) before the creature was sufficiently squashed.)

Anyway, I plan to document some highlights of my trip to the States so far and if that’s of interest to you then I hope you enjoy. I promise there is no more mention of cockroaches.

Touch down in NYC

I landed back in the big apple on Thursday 11th April. Last time I visited was after my summer as a camp counsellor and it had been exciting to be in the big city after spending the previous two months on the edge of a lake in the wilds of New Hampshire. This time NYC felt more familiar – perhaps because it was my third visit and perhaps because I now live in an equally diverse and vibrant city. On reaching my hotel, I battled my tiredness and wandered out looking for dinner. I made two mistakes: 1) I wandered towards the Rockefeller Centre 2) I wore new shoes. I had assumed that NYC would have places serving diner-style food on every corner. Maybe that’s true in some parts. But all I found was street after street of clothes shops and banks. After spending 45 minutes convincing myself that a diner would be found around the corner, I admitted defeat and hobbled back towards my hotel (heels rubbed raw by new shoes). After setting off in search of pancakes and burgers, I settled for a salad of BBQ jackfruit, rice and sweet potatoes which was surprisingly very tasty. The next morning I decided to venture in the opposite direction and low and behold… there was a 24 hour diner just 30 seconds from my hotel serving pancakes. Lesson learned – do what normal people do when trying to find somewhere to eat: Use Google maps. Oh, and don’t wear brand new shoes.

My final notes – from the land down under

I can’t believe the day is almost here. I fly to London tomorrow. Naturally I’m now reflecting a lot on the absolutely epic three months I’ve just had, and how they’ve affected my head, heart and soul.

Firstly I appreciate more than ever before that I have amazing friends and family back home. Being miles away from familiar faces can be hard at times, so I’ve enjoyed every WhatsApp message and call received. And thank goodness for WhatsApp! Back in the Jurassic period before good smart phones and Wi-Fi it was bloody hard to stay in touch across seas. I got pretty homesick when I was in New Hampshire for three months, despite being only a six hour flight from home. I am hugely grateful for everyone who dropped a message, made a call, liked my Facebook posts and of course… read this blog. You are awesome and I can’t wait to catch up with you!

Secondly, I have met some incredible people on my travels. I could not have asked for a better TEFL partner, travel companion and roomie for the best part of eight weeks. I am devastated that the Atlantic Ocean lies between us and that teleportation hasn’t been invented yet. The wonderful staff and students at my school in Thailand will always have a place in my heart. I hope that someday I can visit. When that day comes I’ll ring ahead and make sure the canteen stocks enough fried eggs to satisfy my addiction. Thailand does awesome fried eggs! To my fellow TEFL-ers, you were an absolute pleasure to discover Thailand with. I have so many fond memories. One highlight has to be my birthday bash in Kanchanaburi. Singing and dancing to the Lion King, in the coolest bar in town, was the best way to turn 27.

Alongside the teaching, another transformational experience was the return to the backpacking and hostel life. My perspective on life’s wonders, problems and priorities has changed significantly after meeting so many wonderful people in Kanch, Bangkok and Chiang Mai. After years of a decent salary and getting used to the ‘finer things in life’, hostel life opened it’s arms and gave me an unexpectedly warm and tight hug. Meeting people from across the globe and from all walks of life taught me a vast amount. I’ve realised that it’s easy to share a bathroom and bedroom with strangers. Because with this comes awe-inspiring stories, learning about different cultures and careers, and of course making new friends. If any of you fellow hostel dwellers are reading this, thank you for opening up my eyes and making my travels in Thailand some of the best times of my life.

To the friends who hosted me and Tom on our travels, and showed us the wonders of your neighbourhood and ‘back gardens’ we can’t express our gratitude enough. Being far from home can be a little exhausting at times and the world can feel like a terribly big place. But your generosity, kindness and friendly faces made it feel a little smaller and a lot easier. I hope that our visit can be just the first, not the last.

I can’t lie, as I think about heading back to the UK I cry a little inside… I have taken to the travelling life like a fish to water. More so than I imagined! Plus the last two weeks in Australia have been beyond my wildest dreams. I have become rather attached to this country of friendly chatter, stunning beaches and amusing slang.

I’ve seen the Sydney Opera house – something I learned about at the age of 7 when playing a computer game called World Explorer. I remember having to work out how to fly around the world and get stamps in my “virtual passport”. I’m pretty sure I still have the passport my Dad printed out for me when I finished the game! Anyway back then the idea of travelling to Australia was ludicrous. But here I am in the land of kangaroos, sunshine and much needed eskies – and I don’t want to leave!

I’ve also held a koala, seen a monstrous crocodile, bushwalked through the mountains, snorkelled among tropical fish, chatted with friends around a beach bonfire, and discovered that Sydney has some of the best ‘secret bars’ – we almost missed them they were hidden so well! It pains me to have fallen for a place so far away from the UK. But who knows, perhaps living in the land down under is my next adventure…

On the other side of things, I am super excited to see my mother in the arrivals hall at Heathrow this Sunday. And I look forward to being home for my Dad’s birthday, where we’ll hopefully be in the great outdoors on a country walk. I just need to learn how to wrap up warm again! I also can’t wait to grab a beer with amazing friends over the coming weeks. At least in the British climate there’s no chance of my beer becoming warm before I finish it! Finally, I look forward to carrying on with the life I have been blessed with. The last few months have changed my perspective somewhat on my priorities over the next few years. I look forward to pursuing the things that truly make me happy. And learning to cope better with the things that don’t. When you see how beautiful the world is, and experience the kindness of people around it, it helps you appreciate what really matters. Suddenly the reasons you flew away in the first place seem a lot more trivial.

Happy Australia Day!!!

TTYL
Jenny x

Hong Kong Highlights

After a romantic film-like reunion with Tom Imeson at Hong Kong airport, we began our adventures together… JOKES it was a sweaty and confusing ten minutes of coordinating our whereabouts after venturing to different arrival halls…

Stop 1 – Hong Kong

Hong Kong is truly awesome! The trip started off particularly well when we were reminded that the hotel we’d booked resembled a palace – a palace that serves peanut butter on French Toast for breakfast! And we were located near the cool area of Soho, jam packed with cool bars not too dissimilar to our very own London Soho. 

On our first full day we ventured to Lantau island to visit the Tian Tan Buddha. Unfortunately we made the mistake of thinking our arrival at 10:30am would beat the queues to the cable car that takes tourists to the Buddha. It was horrendous – the queues snaked across roads, along walkways and up stairs. It was going to be a two hour wait! Undeterred we sought out Wi-Fi in Starbucks and furiously Googled other ways to get to the Buddha. We found a great article with details of a walk to the top. Two hours later we were laughing after ascending a beautiful trail through the Lantau country park, past stunning waterfalls and monasteries hidden away in the hills.

If you have the energy and don’t want to fork out for a fast track cable car ticket, or join a horrendous queue, take the local bus 34 to Shek Mun Kap village and take the trail from there. It was the best decision of the day! The Buddha was an incredible sight but it was swamped with tourists. The peaceful hike to reach it definitely made it worth it. And we got the cable car back down – which by the way is an incredible piece of engineering – and the queue was just 20 minutes!

The following day we decided to fall in line to get the tram up to Victoria Peak. Although a long wait it was pretty cool riding on the steepest tram railway I’ve ever seen. The views from the Peak were amazing too. Our mornings in Hong Kong definitely seemed clearer and less misty than our late afternoons, so it was worth getting up early to experience the brilliantly clear skyline. And in true Tom and Jenny style we decided that queuing for the tram down was a waste of time. We found the trail down the Peak which wonderfully led us into the city’s botanical gardens and Hong Kong Park – both beautifully landscaped and worth a visit!

That evening we ventured across to the community of Sai Kung where we received the warmest of welcomes from Tom’s Aunt and her family and friends. I was awe struck on discovering the view from our bedroom – a vast stretch of shimmering water peppered with small islands. I could feel this place getting under my skin! We then welcomed in the new year in the heart of the Sai Kung community. It was great to speak to many Brits who have made a home on the other side of the world. And I could see how easy it might be in the right circumstances. 

To blast away the fuzzy head from the night before, Tom and I took a kayak out with his cousin to explore the beautiful bay. Making our way between the islands in the afternoon mist was a treat. It would have been so peaceful but we spent a lot of time singing songs with Tom’s six year old cousin! 

I was sad to be leaving after just four days. A week would have been a more suitable amount of time. There is so much to see and do across Hong Kong’s various islands and communities. We only scratched the surface. Tom’s Aunt, Uncle and cousin were the most amazing hosts. I sincerely hope to venture out here again. Perhaps when Asia calls to me for another trip I will make Hong Kong a stop-off point on route or on the way home. It’s too good to miss out on. After an emotional departure from the parts of Thailand I’ve grown to love, it’s been very uplifting to discover another part of Asia that whispers in my ear, “see you again soon”.

Notes from the Northern lands

Chiang Mai is one cool city. Thanks to a recommendation I have ended up staying in an awesome hostel called Green Sleep. The place is clean, green and very friendly  – which pretty much sums up Chiang Mai as a place!

I arrived here on the morning of the 24th after boarding a sleeper train in Bangkok. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it turns out that sleeper trains are the way to travel – Thailand anyway! My travel companion, Heidi and I were settled in by our carriage steward. She had a good sense of humour and made us feel comfortable. After transforming our seats to beds we tucked ourselves in for a night on the train. Surprisingly I found it very easy to rest. The rocking movement of the train was pretty soothing – I felt like a baby being rocked to sleep in a cot! We awoke to our host serving us breakfast in bed, then spent a while gazing out the window at the beautiful northern Thailand landscape. It was quite a world away from Bangkok! 

Day 1 in Chiang Mai involved a trip up the mountain to Doi Suthep temple. It was a steep road to the temple and we were rewarded with good views of Chiang Mai. The temple itself I would sum up as ‘a massive amount of bling’. The golden structure blinded me in the sunlight! In the hot weather it seemed that an ice cream was needed. Feeling in an experimental mood I thought to try a local ice cream made with Taro, after enjoying a lot of Taro bread back in my school town. Turns out it was a big mistake – it was grim. It’s fair to say I’ve experimented a little less with food in the following days. 

Day 2 was Christmas Day! And due to the temperature being a lot milder than the UK, it made sense to kick off the day with some exercise in the park. I needed to build my appetite for Christmas Day lunch! Turns out I had the same idea as many of the community. I felt such a buzz working out amongst the many Thai locals and foreigners who were either travelling like me or had made their home here. I noticed a group of Americans congregating for some kind of coffee morning. We wished each other Merry Christmas and I left the park feeling the festive cheer. At lunchtime, I headed to a place appropriately named The Pub with my fellow travellers, Heidi and Nikki. It was such a good find! Walking in to the cosy bar, decorated with Christmas decorations, I felt like I was receiving a warm hug from Santa Claus. The lunch did not disappoint. Sitting in the pub, wearing a Santa hat and sharing the special day with two very special ladies – how could I not feel very happy and content!

That evening the staff team at the hostel put on an awesome Christmas party. There was free Thai food, drinks and lot of very cheery travellers. After making a few calls to England to speak with greatly missed loved ones, it was the perfect ending to the day. 

Day 3 and the Chiang Mai magic continued. After a 2.5 hour drive into the mountains and jungle, we arrived at the village of the Karen Hill Tribe and the home of three incredible elephants. The minute we arrived the villagers introduced us to our animal friends for the day. We acquainted ourselves over a meal of bananas and a fun dip in the river – where the elephants proceeded to soak us with their trunks/hoses! We trekked to a beautiful waterfall and after lunch we went swimming. Playing with the elephants in the waterfall was an ‘out of this world’ experience. Something I never ever imagined I would do. And the Karen Hill Tribe were amazing hosts. They ensured an incredibly special time with the majestic animals. It was explained that elephants in Thailand are under threat from poachers who want their ivory, as well as cruel people who want to work them and make them carry tourists. The Karen people want to save elephants from terrible fates. The money we paid for the experience was fully invested back into securing the future of the village and increasing their elephant population. As I took my final glance at the ‘mummy’ elephant – the most beautiful and gracious animal I have set eyes on – I was filled with love for the people who keep her and her offspring safe. If any of you reading this plan to travel to Chiang Mai, please support the Karen Hill tribe and their enterprise, Elephants at Home. I promise that your day with the elephants will be beyond your wildest dreams.


Day 4 and I am reflecting on the last few days whilst tucking into freshly baked bread and coffee from a hill tribe. Tomorrow I leave this northern haven to spend one last night in Bangkok. Bright and early on Friday 29th I fly to Hong Kong. There I will be united with my best friend and I can’t wait for another month of adventures with him!

TTYL 

Jenny x

Life is a beach (right now)

Life is a beach. At least for the next few days. Koh Samet is a beautiful island and provides a perfect end to the teaching internship with i-to-i TEFL. I am already enjoying the head space. It’s rare to wake up in the morning and have nothing on my agenda except relaxation on one of the many sandy beaches.

Casting my mind back to last Thursday and Friday, when I said farewells to my school, I feel sadness wash over me. The teachers gave us an incredibly special send off, starting with Thai hot pot dinner on Thursday night. Around 12 teachers crammed in a school truck and we were taken to a large town nearby. The food was absolutely delicious. One thing I noted about Thai people once more was that they ensure no shortage of food! I was completely full after the first 10 plates of meat and fish had been cooked in the hot pot. When round two of dishes were placed in front of me I told them I was sufficiently full. But they wouldn’t take it! Two hot pots later I rolled into bed feeling very much grateful for my time at Prathandongrungwittayakarn school.

The following morning we took part in a leaving ceremony at our final school assembly. The Director presented us with traditional Thai clothes as a parting gift, and we had many photos taken with students and teachers. After a last few hugs and selfies, we departed from the Greenhouse which had become home. We were waved off by our wonderful teacher friends.

A last night in Kanchanaburi provided a perfect way to celebrate the end of the programme and spend a last few hours with fellow interns who were returning home instead of heading to Koh Samet. Once more we descended on Chill Out Bar which seemed fitting as it had been a huge part of my Kanchanaburi experience. 

The next day 22 of us packed our bags and made the journey to Koh Samet. After six hours on a bus it was amazing to feel the sea breeze on my face as we were ferried to our resort on the island. A highlight was the realisation that our ferry could not take us all the way in to the bay. We had a thrilling transfer to a tiny boat, leaving our bags behind with the hope that they would not end up at the bottom of the sea. The resort turned out to be everything I’d hoped for. Right on the beach. At night the waves crashed against the nearby rocks, composing the perfect lullaby to send me to sleep.

This morning I watched the sun rise. It was utterly beautiful. As I sat on the decking looking out to the sea and sun, accompanied by five teaching friends, I felt very lucky. Lucky to be witnessing such a beautiful moment and grateful that for the first time in a long time I had no worries on mind. If this trip has taught me anything it’s that I was stressed out back home. The crowds, the commute, the negative news constantly sensationalised by the media. It had got to breaking point. Although a tiny part of me fears the return to the big smoke, I now know what my priorities are for the next few years – Thailand has given me a great amount of time to reflect on these. Thailand has also made me feel so grateful for what the Western world gives me. And more than anything Thailand has given me memories that I will treasure forever. Memories that I will conjure up the second my old nemesis of rush hour anxiety strikes. So if you see me on the tube, with my eyes closed and a smile on my face, I’m picturing this sunrise and I am invincible.

One more week for Teacher Jenny

I can’t believe it but I’m just five days  away from the end of this teaching internship.  The weeks have literally flown by and I’m experiencing very mixed emotions about my departure from the town of Phra Thaen.

I started writing this post yesterday whilst sat next to a gorgeous pool in a Kanchanaburi hotel. But I had to give up because sleep was calling to me. A bar here in the town hosted a belated birthday party for me the night before. I had spent a couple evenings at the bar in previous weeks and became acquainted with the lovely owners. When I mentioned my birthday was coming up they kindly offered to throw a party – and what an awesome night it was! Who knew that the marking of my 27th year would be such a special one. They put up balloons and signs. I even had a cake, candles and everyone singing Happy Birthday. I was joined at the party by a wonderful group of teaching friends, who didn’t fail to make it an epic night. 

Another memory I will treasure is a spontaneous trip to the town of Tha Ruea. On Wednesday afternoon, Teacher Natalie and I were hijacked by our older students. They insisted that we join them at The Ruea market where they planned to play music and sing to fundraise for a good cause. We piled into a truck and arrived at the bustling market 20 minutes later. The students set up their sound equipment and started to sing Thai songs. Then they handed the microphones to me and Natalie and we took the opportunity to sing Zombie (The Cranberries) and the classic What’s Up. Although I naturally felt responsible for the safety of our students, I couldn’t help sensing they were looking out for us the whole time! We had so much fun, the students raised a tonne of money  and I arrived back at school buzzing.

My fellow interns, the Thai teachers, the students and the kind community of Kanchanaburi have made this internship an unforgettable experience. Under different circumstances it could be easy to grow roots here and settle. Thailand is a beautiful country. But without immersing myself into a small town, the school life and the culture, it could have been just another beautiful country. Thanks to a special Thai community and the good company of my fellow interns, this place has felt more like a home. I must give a massive shout out to Teacher Natalie who has been an absolute hero of a housemate and co-teacher. I am so grateful for her friendship and for her being at my side through everything. We have had so much fun. I’ll never forget the time we armed ourselves with scissors and mosquito spray to defend ourselves against a totally non existent intruder!

On the other hand, the end of the teaching means a lot of exciting adventures are getting closer. I’m super excited for relaxing on the beaches of Koh Samet with my teaching pals. Followed by a journey north to hugely positively reviewed Chiang Mai for Christmas week. And then most of all I can’t wait for a special reunion in Hong Kong airport arrivals with my BBFF Tom Imeson. Yes it could be easy to pick up a teaching job here, and I hope some of my fellow interns do just that. But for me, my heart is back in the UK – residing at a certain house in suburban Colliers Wood, in what I imagine is currently an untidy and unclean bedroom populated by a unwashed male. But you know what they say “home is where the heart is”.