Our trip to China was six months ago. Yes, it’s taken me this long to write and publish something about it. Lately I’ve found myself searching for deeper meaning as I travel, not simply wandering for wandering’s sake, or for writing a useful guide. Trust me, I’m still all about useful. But this post isn’t a guide. It’s about finding roots in a place that has experienced more uprootedness than perhaps any other on the planet.
I wish I could sum up our winter trip to China in just a few words, but China has to be one of the most multifaceted countries I’ve traveled to. Every time I visit and learn a bit more, I realize how little I know — and perhaps how little is disclosed.
Solely exploring the cultural history of China awakened a sensation of odd familiarity for me. The philosophies resonated with my lingering tendencies, perhaps hidden in the recesses of my mind. “One year of tyranny is better than one day of anarchy,” one political philosopher said. I was immediately reminded of my tight grasp on control, one I’ve been working to release for years. It suddenly made sense. The temptation for me is to be oppressive, overbearing, and inflexible, rather than carefree, liberating, and trusting.
Unlike the American intellectual history I explored as a college student, elements of Chinese history offer emotional resonance. I don’t understand everything, at least in the rational sense, like I did Thoreau or Veblen or even Dubois; but I feel it. The repressed passion, the honoring courage, the sadness and shame— these are states of the soul that I’ve experienced somewhere in the mysterious continuum of time.
Perhaps it’s the blending of art, scenery and poetry that makes everything feel so oddly familiar. Nature inspires art, which inspires poetry, which inspires art, which inspires landscaping, which shapes nature. These cyclical tendencies turn bamboo groves into paintings, willow branches into words, gardens into calligraphy. My amateur Mandarin skills are sufficient to imbue meaning as poetry is read aloud, dipping with tones that rhyme imperfectly, as only Mandarin can. I look at my dad’s paintings and suddenly I’m transported; here in China, I felt as if I’d swum into the bristles of his brush, smothered in inky black.
Of course, there’s the China of myths, and there’s the China of today’s global economy. Both exist, both are true. But there’s a difference between hearing a poem’s echo deep within your soul, and trying to imbue romantic fluff into every last remnant of art. I’d argue that modern China, having found new identity in economic productivity, has yet to find its cultural center. The destructive breaks and tragic hiatus of the twentieth century haunt today’s efforts for a continuous narrative, while government surveillance and the lack of rights overwhelm an effort to harken back to the dignity of the past.
Still, the efforts persist. Here in the beautiful town of Wuzhen, an old fishing village now converted into an historic site, authentic facades are kept up to pristine conditions, while every stray willow leaf is removed by early-morning cleaning staff. The sunrise is majestic, but it doesn’t quite feel real. The residents of Wuzhen were shipped out years ago as their town became popular with tourists who wanted to see “old China,” and thought the canals were charming. Enterprising spirits soared, and now we pay an entrance fee to explore this ancient town, no longer residential.
Similarly, the city of Hangzhou used to be the stuff of myths, and still is. The saying goes, Above are the heavens; here on earth are Suzhou and Hangzhou (translated roughly by yours truly). Today, Hangzhou is home to 9 million people and a traffic problem that the local government tries to regulate extensively. The West Lake, covered with mist (and smog) most mornings, features in traditional operas, poems, paintings and stories, and has its own unique cuisine. I’ll admit, sometimes it’s hard to see both realities. Hangzhou and its lake are still in myths, and myths occupy a different dimension of reality.
Another stop on our pilgrimage was Suzhou, the other mythical city. Suzhou feels more like a small town than Hangzhou, developed in some areas and folksy in others. Home to China’s famous gardens, it’s flooded with tourists, many of whom are (arguably like me) looking for roots somewhere between the stone trails and sweeping pines. These quiet retreats are a thousand years old, dripping with artifacts that marked the intellectual and financial prowess of their commissioners. There are elements designed to bring fortune and favor; others for pure aesthetic pleasure; still others to show off the fortune and favor already received. One must wonder whether real tranquility existed in these quiet spaces, if much of the surroundings are focused on protecting, inviting, and boasting. That was one of the revelations of my limited research on historical China: in an age of warlords and localized power, the threat of tumbling off your pedestal was very real.
Whatever fears linger from millennia of hierarchical society, however, may or may not be apparent in Shanghai. As our last destination, I was excited to enter a cosmopolitan space. The food in Shanghai is legendary, and if you can afford to eat well, you certainly should. Beyond the excellent food, we enjoyed a few drinks at the trendy new cocktail bars in town, including getting into the speakeasy Tipsy at Sober company (access to Tipsy is a secret and totally worth it! Hint: poker chips are involved).
The Shanghai Museum is an inspiring if crowded visit, pulling together a collection of what China currently holds (I am partial to the National Palace Museum in Taipei, which arguably holds more national treasures). Beyond the food and museum, however, Shanghai left much to be desired. Unless you find witnessing blatant capitalism euphoric— or perhaps participating by shopping at international fashion flagships— the city doesn’t offer nearly as much culture as one might expect. It is certainly significant, but perhaps not for the reasons we travel. I’m happy to stand alone in this position.
4 Tips for visiting China
Because I can’t help myself, here are a few ways to prepare for an upcoming trip to China.
1) Read up and do your research.
China’s millennia of history carry more nuance and complexity than most countries. Your visit will be enhanced more than you know if you’re not tabula rasa when you arrive. Thankfully, there are people who devote their careers to studying and writing about China. Go beyond the Lonely Planet and do some digging on topics that interest you— traditions, minority tribes, poetry, historical fiction, memoirs, and more. They exist.
2) Have an internet plan.
As stated above, I’m not one to leave too much up to chance. If you’re hoping to access websites blocked by the firewall (e.g., Google and some social media), make sure you have a plan for that. We used a VPN linked to our home server and it worked pretty well for a 10-day trip.
3) Expect some rough travel experiences.
Bring a mask designed for smog; depending on where your going, there could be upwards of 200 parts per million. If you get motion sick, prepare for that dreaded stop-and-go traffic, especially around cities. As usual, bring tissues for the restroom, wipes, and cash. Be smart.
4) Plan ahead and arrange guides where possible.
Aaron and I love to show up in certain destinations without concrete plans— this is a fine way to travel. But I wouldn’t recommend it for China. At the very least, you might need a Visa and that can take a while to obtain; beyond this, there are some areas where you’ll easily find help from locals and other areas where you won’t. More importantly, the atmosphere can be a bit overwhelming if you don’t know what you’re doing or how to get into the sites you want to see.
5) Let inconsistencies exist.
As I’ve alluded to in this piece, there is a lot of messaging around and within China— what’s allowed, what’s appropriate, what’s cultural, what’s honorable, what’s real. A nation of a billion people who occupy every socioeconomic status known to the modern world is bound to exhibit inconsistency. The less you let it bother you, the more fun you’ll have.
Sometimes I wonder whether there’s anything I fear more than failing in plain view of others. And I’m not talking about your average “this is my first time” failure; I’m talking about “I worked really hard and I did not succeed” failure.
Maybe it was because I grew up dancing, tumbling, and playing the piano. The performance arts do wonders for your presentation skills and self-awareness, and they also make failure– especially in front of an audience– the worst possible outcome. You can practice the same pirouette a hundred times a day, only to miss a step in the spotlight. You can trill Baroque melodies to the astonishment of your piano teacher, only to slip on the keys at your own recital. In utterly results-oriented activities, failure feels fatal.
There are a few ways we performance-oriented people can respond to our conditioning. First, we can be private: don’t let others into the story until success is absolutely on the horizon. Second, we can disengage: don’t let others perceive how much we care and how hard we’re working.
Third, we can choose vulnerability: allow others to speak into our process, share in our burdens, and lament over our losses.
Over the past several years, I’ve started to more openly explore Option 3. Because as much as I’d like to be the principle dancer twirling through each life stage with ease and elegance, opportunities constantly abounding and never a misstep, I know too much about the world to believe it’s actually possible. So if I’m to portray such perfection, I know I’m choosing solitude. And I don’t want to be alone anymore.
Just tell people everything. That’s easy for the openhearted, extroverted, perhaps slightly narcissistic personality to say. Because there’s actually a tradeoff when it comes to vulnerability.
When we choose vulnerability, we let others see our true level of performance. It’s all too easy to give off an air of excellence when in fact, we are struggling or falling behind.
When we choose vulnerability, we allow others to see our true level of investment. Some people say success comes with a certain degree of obsession– the kind that can feel overwhelming to a bystander. Not everyone wants to go there with you. Not everyone approves of how much you care.
When we choose vulnerability, we invite others to enter into a story and stay for as long as they want. There’s the inevitable “how are you doing with that?” or “any updates?” or “are you still trying to…?” Questions can feel condemning, condescending, evaluative, or loaded. But the door we opened doesn’t close. At least, not on our account.
What makes vulnerability worth it
Vulnerability is worth it when we’re done being alone.
When we’ve decided the facade of perfection (which no one probably buys anyway) isn’t worth our anxious, quiet suffering.
When we’ve decided it’s better to receive empathetic insight and wisdom than empty praise and admiration.
When we’ve realized we need other people in order to accomplish anything of significant meaning in the world, and we shouldn’t wait until we’re perfect to ask for their help.
Vulnerability is worth it when we start perceiving life as a series of opportunities to try new things, rather than a string of stunts to pull before a crowd of critics.
I’m still learning this. In the meantime, here are a few practices I’m adopting:
1) Name the motivation, the action, and the emotion.
When we choose vulnerability, we need to tell the whole story: why we’re doing something, what exactly we’re doing, and how we feel about it. If it affects others, let’s be honest about that, too. Not sharing the whole story keeps us protected– and still alone.
2) Lead with mutuality and live in the tension of others’ successes.
All too many people try “vulnerability” by divulging every last detail of their lives, while showing no interest in the lives of their listeners. This doesn’t lead to deeper empathy or more meaningful friendships. So even when we’re working through a challenge, let’s remember that those walking with us have stories, too. And– whether eventful or not– let’s hear those stories.
3) Commit to the unformed narrative.
There’s always a temptation to reframe our failures as insignificant in light of graver realities, or part of a bigger story, or otherwise not as important as they feel. It’s a bit like retouching a photograph of ourselves: we clean up the scars, bumps, and discoloration to reveal an enhanced version of what was originally captured.
Some people in our lives only need the retouched version. Others– the ones with whom we’re choosing vulnerability– deserve the untouched version: emotions, frustrations, self-doubt and all.
The failure becomes the gift
Vulnerability allows us to move through defeat. It helps us to see that– even though we failed, embarrassed ourselves, or made poor judgments– we’re not alone, and the story is not over.
I’ve experienced much more courage when I rise up with people around me excited to see what’s next.
In what ways have you experienced vulnerability as a strength?
I love the Spanish Steps. And the Trevi Fountain. The Pantheon still takes my breath away. And the first time I sank my teeth into a delicate lasagna in the Piazza Navona, I thought I’d discovered culinary gold.
Rome is where I fell in love with travel. When I was 13, my mother and I did a whirlwind tour of Europe (both of our first times) and I took Italy home with me. Rome is what I like to describe as atmospheric: every sense tells your mind and body that you are now somewhere else. The Eternal City– a home that’s not your own.
This time when we went to Rome, I wanted to see more than its famed ruins, churches, and layers of history. Years ago I had the privilege of traveling to Rome with my Classics teachers, a complement to our reading of the Aeneid in Latin; a few years later I traveled there again with family and zipped around on an epic Segway tour.
This time, I wanted to see where modern Romans actually lived and to walk its streets rather than board a bus, with only our sense of direction to guide us. I wanted to open my eyes (and lungs) to the deep chaos of humanity breathing, consuming, creating and dying for multiple millennia, in the same space. That’s the Rome I’m sharing about in this post.
Off the beaten path: a possibility
The fourth time you visit any city, you’re bound to notice things you never thought to look for. Even if that place is Rome, a destination every savvy traveler would like to lay claim to. In fact, “off the beaten path” in Rome is a bit of an oxymoron; what path in Rome isn’t beaten? What square inch of it isn’t filled with stories of those who trod before?
I suppose what makes this guide slightly different from the others is the aim to dig a little deeper than the freshest tourist footprints. In multiple moments during our visit, we found ourselves completely alone; other times, we were certainly the only non-locals. These corners exist in Rome (perhaps more in the winter than the summer), but still. You can find them.
First, the logistics & safety of self-guided wandering
Flying into Rome is fairly straightforward. Once we arrived, we had our AirBnB host pick us up for the longer-than-anticipated ride directly to our apartment (which I highly recommend for 1-2 travelers, it’s cozy!). If there’s a pickup service you can arrange ahead of time, you’ll find yourself less stressed prior to arriving in the city itself. Worth it, in my opinion.
Once you get settled, plan on finding a shop where you can get a SIM card for your phone. This is unbelievably helpful for navigating Rome on foot. There are various shops in the historic center you can visit and request that they install a SIM for you (and are MUCH cheaper than what’s available at the airport). The one we went to was right off a major road well-trafficked by tourists.
Depending on your travel style, you may want to decide which neighborhoods to visit prior to heading out the door. If you’re picky about food like us, it’ll also be important to add restaurants and cafes to your Google maps while in the comfort of your hotel room. That way, while wandering the city, you can always check your map for a nearby joint to visit.
A note about restrooms: In some major tourist cities, public restrooms are everywhere. Rome is not one of those cities. There will always be restrooms available at major tourists sites, but if you’re wandering the city without entering sites, this can be a challenge. Plan accordingly and always use the restroom when there is one; you never know if you’ll come across another.
Public transportation in Rome is pretty reliable. You can purchase tickets at the snack kiosks and convenience shops that are ubiquitous, particularly near bus stops, stations, or lightrail stops. When you board a vehicle, make sure you punch the ticket in one of those yellow boxes on a pole (long story there for another time).
And finally, do your absolute best to blend in. I know this isn’t easy for everyone, but the less conspicuous you are, the safer you are. My preferred travel style is chic and comfortable; it allows me to fly under the radar. Rome is not a dangerous city, but standing out as a tourist can draw attention that you don’t want. Maintain a good sense of your belongings, bring only what you need, and keep the essentials somewhere safe.I like to use this bag when I travel because of its amazing compartments, perfect size, and zip closure. It’s also tough leather so not easily sliced open!
Books you won’t want to miss
Shortlist: Restaurants for the food-obsessed
I’ll cut to the chase. Rome is an absolutely fantastic place for food, and nearly anything you eat will taste better than what many of us are used to for the same price at home.
That said, there’s good Roman food, an then there’s phenomenal Roman food. To the latter end, we were able to enjoy quite a few “New Italian” restaurants noted for their innovative approach to local cuisine. Reservations are highly recommended at each of these!
Places to go for the off-season experience
Trastevere: the heart of Rome
More than one Roman readily told us that we were staying in the heart of Rome. We loved its quiet cobblestone alleys, beautiful boutiques and traditional trattorias. The church Santa Maria della Scala has a gorgeous interior worth poking your head into. If you’re open to staying here, choose an AirBnB in Trastevere and enjoy the local life (get $40 off if you book here).
The Jewish Quarter
If you wander through the more popular areas of Rome, you’ll likely find yourself in the Jewish Quarter without noticing. But you should notice– and you should walk straight to Pasticceria Boccione, where you’ll find the perfect snack. When we visited (twice), we loved the fruit bread they offered. It was moist, warm, and the perfect level of sweetness; so good in fact that we went back the next day. There are also ruins in the Jewish Quarter that are worth seeing right at the end of the main drag.
While the Borghese properties are hardly off of tourist radars, many tourists won’t visit if they’re only in Rome for a couple of days. Plus, the gardens are such a lovely place to read, people watch, or get away from the automotive chaos that dominates Rome. The Borghese Gallery is 100% worth visiting at least once; skip the zoo but take a boat out on the little pond.
Colle del Gianicolo (Janiculum Hill)
For a quiet stroll up to one of the highest points in Rome, head up Janiculum Hill. You can stop at one of my favorite restaurants along the way, Antico Arco, for some delicate pasta, as you ascend to a gorgeous view of the city. On the way down, head toward the Fontana dell’ Acqua Paola.
Testaccio and Monti
These neighborhoods are up-and-coming: you’ll find quiet streets, a market or two bursting with tourists, and unassuming sights like the expat graveyard we found. There are boutiques in Monti that come highly recommended; we didn’t get time to stop in, but I hear they’re a must-see if you’re inclined to acquire a new Italian accessory or two.
We’ve just returned from an 18-day trip around the world. Aaron discovered an unusual route that would take us east from Los Angeles to Rome, Rome to Taipei, Taipei to Shanghai, and Shanghai to LA. All nonstop.
So on December 12th, we packed our bags and left for the longest international trip we’ve taken since 2015. And it was not without stress and apprehension that we sat down in our tight middle-aisle seats on the Norwegian flight to Rome. The past several months have been exhilarating, exhausting, and somewhat isolating. Projects carry into the new year. Results await us on the other side.
I myself have been caught up with a particular project that has been all-consuming. Its intellectual demands leave my writing pen dry, and its emotional weightiness leaves my spirits low. As the deadline looms close (very close), I expect to feel some amount of relief, despite the commencement of a period of waiting for results. That’s the lesson I have yet to truly learn: efforts and outcomes are not the same, and we can celebrate the former regardless of the latter.
The more we travel, the more clearly we see
This was my fourth time to Rome, a city that caused me to fall in love with travel nearly 15 years ago. The infamous chaos of Rome, try as it might, fails to fully overwhelm its grandeur. Everywhere you turn, you stumble on something stately and beautiful. The more closely you look, the more details come to light. A painting of the Madonna on a wall. A tucked-away cafe. A basket of flowers.
As we wandered through the backstreets of Rome’s heart– Trastevere– I couldn’t help but wonder: What is the future of the Eternal City? Living in Rome appears to be less an opportunity proposition than a lifestyle choice. People love Rome for the voracious carpe diem of Rome. There is always room for another plate of pasta, and a main course after that. There is espresso and cigarettes for breakfast, and tiramisu in a jar. There are more ancient ruins than we’ll ever find without bulldozing the entire city. But what’s next? Will tomorrow be just a fuller, busier, more chaotic version of today?
Shanghai, in some ways, is the opposite of Rome. It’s a fast-moving city for fast-moving people, with impossibly high rent to show you just how fast. Within the walls of its best bars and restaurants, you’ll find a generation of obscenely wealthy young people (what do they actually do?) whipping out Tom Ford lipsticks and flashing their gold iPhone Xs. Outside those walls are ordinary locals trying to make a living, zipping through Shanghai’s backstreets and boulevards on little motorbikes.
The region around Shanghai is stunning: there are water towns that date back a thousand years and more; gardens built for political officers back when scholars ruled China’s culture; a lake with a hundred myths that shroud it in mystery and a thousand paintings that celebrate it. These days, remnants of Old China are yielding to the new, becoming a playground for locals with means. Streets are cleaned up, canals patrolled for trash at dawn, and several Four Seasons await even the most squeamish travelers.
As much as travel inspires, it also breaks my heart. As the human race breathes in and out, fumes fill the skies (in Rome and Shanghai in particular, but also everywhere else). The hustle for bigger, brighter, and better is seductive, its fulfillment always elusive. If we all follow our instinct to be first, and if not first, then next, where will that lead us?
2017 in retrospect
Before Fall 2017, our year was already full. We spent a few days in Mexico City again, and I traveled to Cambodia with some of my best friends. Several months later, Aaron and I took our first flight to Oaxaca in Southern Mexico, where we encountered unbelievable local cuisine and streets bursting with celebration. I then took off to visit Guatemala with Noonday Collection, where we met our artisan partners and learned their craft (which I have no future in).
Our community group continued to grow this year, and it has been an honor to share joys and sorrows with others. We continue to ask questions of the heart, questions that matter to God: How can we live faithfully? How do we become better sisters, wives, friends? What is the right next step for our families? How can we make a difference in our local and global community?
In addition to learning in community, there were a few books that powerfully changed my perspective:
Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee: a close look at how to truly make a difference for the poor
Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr: a writer’s experience of Rome, absolutely beautiful and hysterical
Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle: heart-wrenching stories from Greg Boyle’s experience in gang intervention
Dreams for 2018
I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, as I believe commitment to be more about grit than about timing. That said, there are several goals I’m holding for the year as I look ahead.
1) Removing pressure where it need not be applied. One of my tendencies is to be overly results-oriented, even in areas that don’t really matter. I feel immense pressure for all of my tasks to reflect excellence; and while this is helpful in some areas, it’s unhealthy and stress-inducing in others.
2) Deeper honesty and vulnerability with friends, and in general. Tied to #1, I hope to continue to grow in being open about the challenges I’m facing, even if I’m still facing them. So many of us like to tell the success story: we once struggled with X, but now we’ve succeeded because of Y. This can be incredibly isolating; so even if it means sharing complicated, unfiltered thoughts, I desire to more openly articulate my journey.
3) Cheering for others whenever I can. In a digital world of likes, views and shares, it can become less of a habit for us to verbally encourage each other. I already have the tendency to think well of others but forget to tell them on a regular basis; I hope to be able to do so more consistently in 2018.
4) Continued growth spiritually, professionally and intellectually. There are so many unknowns for us in 2018. But regardless of the circumstances, I want to continue to grow. This means setting up (and bolstering) practices in meditation, service and prayer; seeking opportunities to always do my best at work; and reading and learning constantly outside of what’s required of me.
What about you? What are your plans, dreams and reflections for 2018?
Autumn in Kyoto is something else. Bursts of color occupy the stretch between earth and sky, spreading wide at the tops of trees, trickling down in fallen leaves, crunching beneath your feet.
Having lived in New England, my expectations weren’t low. But there was a fineness and delicateness to the fall foliage in Kyoto that I can’t describe as anything other than mystical.
Our suggested fall itinerary: temples and gardens galore
I fell in love with Kyoto in June of 2015. We were traveling through for just 3 days, but I was absolutely swept off my feet (excuse the cliche) by this gorgeous ancient city. Thousands of temples and gardens abound while visitors shuffle along in traditional Japanese attire as though there’s no other way. The cuisine is unique, impeccable just like all other Japanese cooking, and yet with a uniquely delicate flavor. Kyoto has long been a popular destination, and it deserves every last raving fan.
Last fall, we decided to park ourselves in Kyoto for almost a full week. We were catching the tail end of autumn along with many other Japanese nationals making the annual pilgrimage to see the old capital dressed in reds, yellows, greens and auburns. Everywhere we turned there were Japanese citizens (many of them elderly) paying homage to Kyoto in an iconic season: there’s nothing quite like hills of maple trees waving their brightly colored leaves like hands in the breeze.
This time, we wanted to go to a few old favorites, and also throw in some new sites. All of them are an absolute must if you’re going to Kyoto specifically to see foliage.
I should add that foliage season is typically at its peak in mid-November. We went the week of Thanksgiving and saw a handful of trees that were already bare– but as you’ll see, there were a number that were still in their full autumn splendor!
Must-have Kyoto resources
I love reading everything I can about a location before I go. These three books are absolute essentials if you want to understand the story behind Kyoto’s hundreds of temples and gardens. Plus, Seeing Kyoto and Old Kyoto will give you the insider’s look at everything else the city has to offer.
Our curated Kyoto garden map
Below I’ve listed 9 locations we thought were really wonderful for seeing autumn leaves– and also created a map with all of them already selected for you. We have found that Google is pretty trusty when it comes to Kyoto, and most cab drivers will take you wherever you point to on a map (pro tip: you can also give them the phone number of a destination and their GPS will find it as well). You can also print off the name of your destination (in Japanese!) before your trip and show that to your cab driver.
You just can’t avoid this one– and you can’t avoid the crowds, either. The maples at this famous Buddhist temple just win all the awards. If you can, try arriving early. This is a very popular temple even during seasons with fewer tourists, but you will likely not find yourself alone.
2) Kenninji Temple
This was a brand new spot for us– and it was gorgeous. Kennninji is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, and the grounds are as tranquil as you would expect. The secret is to enter into the Chouontei Garden when you get to the temple grounds. You’ll have to pay extra and remove your shoes, but the quiet views of interior moss and Zen gardens are absolutely worth it.
3) Ennaruyama Reikan Temple
This is probably my favorite temple of all time. A nunnery, Reikanji is only open a handful of days out of the year– including the fall, when the leaves turn gorgeously red and yellow and cascade down the stone steps.
4) Honen-in Temple
A mossy gate opens to a gorgeous wonderland of greens and reds, even in the midst of fall. This beautiful spot is right next to Reikanji and is also a quiet retreat from the crowds.
5) Philosopher’s path
This famous stroll stretches through Kyoto’s Higashiyama district, connecting some of the most famous temples and gardens. There’s a beautiful little creek along parts of this path, maple trees leaning over the water, and plenty of benches and bridges for stunning photos. If you’re there during high season, you’ll likely be sharing this tranquil walk with tourists and locals alike.
6) Nanzen-ji Temple
Another ultra-popular stop, this temple is most majestic in the fall. It has a Western brick aqueduct to its name, which pairs well with the dark wood, sculptural pines, and expansive maple trees.
There’s an area behind the aqueduct where additional admission is required for entry. I highly recommend paying to enter this garden in the fall.
7) Adashino Nenbutsuji temple
This is one of my favorite temples and it’s really out of the way, even for Arashiyama. It’s actually a site of remembrance– and you’ll see hundreds of Buddhist statues, there to remember those who died without families to remember them. There’s also a miniature bamboo forest (similar to the famous, large one in Arashiyama) that is great for photos as it’s rarely crowded.
She is the picture of authenticity. She catches us off-guard with her honest, knowing smile. She builds rapport without uttering a word.
Anne grew up dodging bullets in east Africa. She now lives in Pasadena with her two daughters and sings every now and then during our worship services. I’ve had the pleasure of sing with her, each time harmonizing to her bright Kiswahili hymns.
Anne’s soulful voice carries plaintively throughout the sanctuary. Every word comes from a deep place—penetrating every sham of devotion and religiosity. Her effortless timbre is haunting, unhindered by training, not cultivated to be proper. It just erupts, the way every great work of art does.
Anne reminds me not to be perfect, but alive.
Perfection as chains
I still wake up every morning and strive to be perfect. I chart my failures: first, opening my eyes and scrolling through Instagram instead of reading or praying. Second, losing my temper when we’re not eating breakfast as early as I had hoped. Third, hating how I look when I’m tired, my eyes droopy and my skin slightly yellow. Fourth, rehearsing the items on my to-do list for work as I drive impatiently to the office.
By the time the workday starts, I have already struck out. And thus the hours progress: a constant self-correction and self-evaluation of wins and losses. I hustle for my worth.
There’s a tension we all wrestle with between a true and important desire to do things well, and the fear of imperfection, criticism, and shame. This tension is part of our privilege. It comes from having access and so many options that we eliminate the ones that aren’t a guaranteed success. It comes from the paralysis of too much time to weigh our options, of confidence that we have tomorrow.
I’m the last person to champion a carpe diem approach to life, but there is a semblance of truth in the raw, unedited impulse. Especially when that impulse is to stand courageously, without pretense or position, declaring hope to a roomful of devastated people.
This is the difference between being perfect and being alive. Perfection impresses and intimidates. It garners praise and recognition. Aliveness inspires and galvanizes. It is radiance not seen but felt.
More than selling ourselves
Everyday at work, I ask questions that are ultimately about pleasing others. And this is the right thing when you run marketing for an organization looking to serve a particular tribe. Will these words resonate or alienate? What will they think of this campaign? Are they ready to go deeper with us?
That’s what good sales and marketing is. You provide what people need, and you tell them about it in the most thoughtful, resonant way you can. There’s nothing wrong with this work, and I actually find it to be interesting and challenging.
But it’s not the way I want to live.
To be fully alive would be a gift. It would be a gift to a world worn out by the hustle, the anxiety, the depression of never being good enough. It would not mean giving up on goals and dreams, but living into them wholeheartedly. Not scrambling, feigning authenticity, holding back tears of resistance and frustration, the soul-crushing grind we’re told is our only path to excellence.
To be alive would mean letting our own plaintive cries reverberate in the sanctuary and outside its doors, our sorrows unpolished. It would mean dusting off those enduring passions that we dismissed as impossible, pursuing them not for success but for joy.
This is the life we want, and to the extent I can fathom, the life we are created to live. It’ll take me time to get there, but I want to get there. I hope you’ll join me.
We live in an age where we feel as though everything matters and nothing can wait.
Between headlines, notifications, and the regular demands of our work and home life, it is all too easy to go through an entire day (or week) doing nothing other than responding to what feels like crisis. Our rhythm begins to sync with the pace of requests that fly across our screens, and we react. We can spend hours simply reacting.
Of course, some of these things are important. It’s important for us to know what is going on our world. It’s important for us to respond to our loved ones who need us. And it’s important for us to do our jobs well.
But in living reactively to the stimuli that constantly interrupt, we lose the ability to live intentionally. What we experience, over time, is an indomitable chaos for which no one, it seems, has charted a path of escape.
Quietness as a rhythm
No honest writer can tell you that the demands you experience don’t matter. Because the truth is, the human experience is complex. The world we live in is imperfect. And if we desire for our lifestyles to imbue meaning and hope, we can’t pretend to ignore the complexities and imperfections we see.
So rather than removing the chaos, we resist. We resist in our actions, our thoughts and our words. We resist in quietness.
Rather than removing chaos, we resist. We resist with quietness. @daisysrosales Click To Tweet
In quietness, we find the ability to regain ourselves in the way we desire to be.
In quietness, we seek God, refreshing our spirits at the fountain that is like no other.
In quietness, we don’t have to do anything, be anything, or say anything.
It’s the most powerful pause, and can change everything about how we respond and engage outside of that quiet space.
So what does quietness look like? It starts with setting aside time where there will be no intrusion of chaos. It can look like an early morning walk in your neighborhood. Or a quiet coffee break in the afternoon. Or a few minutes on your knees before bed at night.
It can also look like a longer period of time away from your regular routine. Perhaps an entirely empty, quiet afternoon with nothing on the agenda but reflection. Or it can even be time spent entirely away from home on a short, intentional getaway.
4 simple practices in quietness
The most important element about creating this quietness is how you spend your time there. Here are 4 simple practices to start with.
1) Recognize and name the overwhelm.
Part of what adds to the exhaustion is that we don’t recognize the number of decisions and sacrifices we make everyday. We just do it— and that’s a form of survival. But in quietness, we have the opportunity to name the sources of chaos, even just to recognize that there is a lot on our plate. This also allows us to see how these demands range in levels of importance.
2) Seek solitude (and a change of scenery).
Solitude used to mean simply being alone. But today we can actually be more distracted on our own if we lack focused discipline. In quietness, we remove distractions by turning away from screens and removing ourselves from the path of interruptions. This actually could be helped by being the presence of another person who is also seeking quietness.
Is your living room or office the best space for this? Possibly not. If these spaces reflect loads of undone chores, you might need to find another place, or close your eyes (but don’t fall asleep!).
3) Distinguish between urgent and important.
In times of quiet, I like to reexamine my priorities. What do I absolutely have to address? What would be good areas of growth? What can wait?
Writing these thoughts down can be helpful– or simply giving yourself space to ponder them. Observe areas of anxiousness, grief, surprise, worry, or anguish; then decide if they need to be dealt with immediately or over a longer period of time.
4) Decide what matters enough to engage.
Quietness becomes resistance most evidently when we stop reacting like everyone else. And this can be a challenge: we can feel guilt over the fact that we’re trading immediacy for intentionality, and the fact that it looks different. However, this is the most crucial outcome of choosing quietness. It’s the mark of thoughtful living, of keeping long-term impact front-of-mind.
So if you decide to engage with a demand, do so with integrity. And if you decide not to engage, commit yourself and accept a new outcome.
Noise is not a virtue; chaos is no haven.
As far as false virtues go, noise is the new busyness. What used to be represented by jam-packed schedules is now the insidious demand to always be reacting, engaging, and responding.
In quietness, we withdraw from the momentary and allow ourselves to regain perspective of the long-term. It’s this perspective that makes the moments meaningful.
This is a guide to Oaxaca City, Mexico. It’s also a bit of a memoir. We spent a week there absorbing its magic, wandering its alleys, and tasting its impeccable food. I want to remember all of it.
And I want you to know about it– where to eat, stay, and play while there.
I arrived in Oaxaca with an absurd amount of hope. If the rumors I’d heard were true, we had landed in a wonderland of bold craft traditions and nuanced Mexican cuisine.
I was expecting to see soon-to-be-lost varietals of maiz being pounded into tortillas, their earthy scent wafting out of doorways. I thought I would find alebrijes— hand-painted wooden figures– carved and painted on every street corner.
And I hoped that whatever was causing my excruciating sore throat would magically go away.
Our AirBnB hosts greeted us with warm, Mexican enthusiasm and we drove to their place in the dark. I garbled out some Spanish and smiled weakly, no heart to let them know that earlier that week I thought I was going to die of a throat infection (not literally).
After getting settled into our small, sufficient, and well-situated room, Aaron and I strolled down to La Biznaga— our first Oaxacan meal. Floor-to-ceiling menu options scrawled with white chalk covered the walls, while the Spanish colonial courtyard welcomed us in with bustling energy. It was 10:30PM.
Located in southern Mexico, Oaxaca City is the capital of Oaxaca state. Occupying a diverse terrain that consists of mountains and valleys and desert-like flora, Oaxaca contributes stunningly to Mexico’s food and craft traditions.
Our visits to Mexico City piqued our interest in Oaxaca. Everything we loved– from the peppers and moles to woolen rugs and embroidery– people would tell us “son de Oaxaca.” We had to see it for ourselves.
To my delight, I woke up the next morning after we arrived with only a slight itch in my throat. I like to think it was the healing powers of being in Mexico again, but my antibiotics probably kicked in. And stepping outside was the best moment. I looked up and down the colorful streets and a wave of relief washed over me. It always feels good to be in Latin America together.
Plato Principal: Oaxacan cuisine
One of our favorite chefs in Mexico City, Enrique Olvera (whose restaurant Pujol has won numerous awards), raves about Oaxaca as the source of all his inspiration. That alone was enough to whet our appetites for the food we were to consume. Olvera has a new restaurant, Criollo, not far from the center of town. It was nothing short of magic.
Criollo stands somewhere between casual and formal, indoor and outdoor, traditional and modern, humble and conspicuous. The stunning decor and immaculate kitchen (through which you enter the restaurant) bears a unique Mexican minimalism that forgoes the concrete chill of Scandinavian design. Instead, you’re greeted with a yard: candles, cactuses, hammock.
The meal itself was beautifully balanced. Each table receives a combination of the same ingredients, but you’re given a preparation that fits the number of guests in your party. My favorite dish was an early summer pea salad with crunchy cactus leaves and succulent purslane. If you have the means to afford the $60USD menu (at the time of writing), this meal is not to be missed.
In addition to Criollo, a number of Oaxacan restaurants are worth mentioning (although a lot of the food you’ll find is pretty fantastic):
Boulenc: a gorgeous shabby-chic bakery with the most delicious toast (pictured below)
Oaxaca has to be one of the most artistic towns in Mexico. There are museums of every kind, featuring textiles, jewelry, pottery, sculpture, and paintings. Furthermore, it costs very little to enter into museums, and galleries are constantly changing their exhibitions.
There are also plants everywhere– thriving in clay pots, climbing up walls, breaking out of wrought-iron window cages. Somehow I am always amazed at how gorgeous the plants are in countries other than the U.S., and Mexico is no exception. Decorating with plants is commonplace, and it brings a beautiful, cozy vibe.
The Jardín Etnobotánico is especially worth mentioning. If you love the classic Oaxaca postcard featuring tall cactus posts, you’ll have to coordinate your visit with tour times through this garden. Sadly no one is allowed to enter on their own, so you’ll be with a group the whole time, but this cactus haven is totally worth it.
Beyond the galleries and gardens, you’ll find that even the shops on and off the main drag offer stunning art to feast your eyes. Of course, production levels vary widely, but poking your head into these artisan boutiques can lead to discovering troves of treasures. There aren’t shops I would say are the “absolute best,” but I do recommend wandering into a handful before picking out which pieces you’re going to take home.
A note about parades
There are endless celebrations in Oaxaca. In fact, Oaxaca is famous throughout all of Mexico for its eccentric and stunning Day of the Dead celebrations.
Almost everyday, there are parades that process through the streets, complete with dancers, musicians, and yes– explosives. The explosives are pretty shocking at first when you’re not used to them, but the locals either think they’re fun or don’t even hear them anymore.
My favorite part of the Oaxacan parades was watching women in their beautiful outfits twirl down the streets with huge smiles on their faces. If you see a parade while in Oaxaca, follow them all the way to the center of town.
Beyond Oaxaca: stunning day trips
If you can, I highly recommend getting out of the city into the countryside. The mountains around Oaxaca are studded with agaves.
In an effort to avoid crowds and see what we wanted, our friends decided to go in together on a private vehicle, which we hired with one of the many tour agencies on the main drag. Our driver was fantastic, and flexibly drove us to our favorite spots. (Note: between the four of us, we spoke pretty solid Spanish, which made it a lot more fun to hire someone to take us. If you do not speak Spanish, an English-speaking tour might be a better way to go.)
Our first stop was Hierve El Agua, about 90 minutes from Oaxaca City. The water that rises from the ground carries minerals down the side of a mountain, fills a natural infinity pool, and pours off the side of the cliff.
On the way back, we stopped at what might be my top highlight of our trip:
From Oaxaca to Guatemala back to Los Angeles, I feel ready to be in one place for a while. It’s in the moments between journeys that we are able to absorb and process all that we’ve experienced. And even though I’ve been back for two weeks from Latin America, I think I’m still in that space of transition.
So it’s an honor to be returning to this blog featuring a new ethical clothing brand. This trendy, all-purpose off-the-shoulder cocktail dress is made by artisans partnering with TROVE— an intrepid new company changing the face of fashion.
A company that matters
Some might say we’re in a new age of entrepreneurship. So many people want to start companies that offer them freedom and the opportunity to leave a legacy.
But not every startup is created equal. Some simply seek to unleash the potential of the starter, while others are unlocking potential in communities all over the world.
TROVE not only creates beautiful clothing through fair trade partnerships, but they’re also sustainable. Here’s what they say about their fabrics:
The base of our fabrics are all made from a zero waste factory out of upcycled pre-consumer denim. This denim is ground back into fibre, spun into new yarns and woven or knitted into new sustainable and conscious-luxury fabrics. The manufacturing process is chemical-free, dye-free, and uses minimal water and energy, saving up to 20,000 liters of water per kilogram of upcycled material.
The woven portion of our product is a traditional garment worn by indigenous women in Central America called, foot loom fabric. Known for its fascinating patterns and vibrant colors, this particular fabric is woven on foot looms powered manually using timeless techniques passed down by generations. The end result is a one-of-a-kind work of art!
So yes, it is possible to find ethical clothing that is high quality, well-designed, and on trend. TROVE’s brand helps create opportunity in countries like Guatemala, Rwanda, and India, harnessing the local traditions of each country to make clothing women in the U.S. love. They are so intentional on a zero-waste model that clothing is made-to-order; so you know you’re getting something that isn’t sitting in a warehouse, but created just for you.
What this means is that delivery is not instant. And I think that’s a good thing. In the era of Amazon Prime, we often forget that behind handmade products are individuals– mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers– who desire dignity in their work as much as we do. TROVE orders take 4-6 weeks to arrive, and when they do, you know how much time has been put into making them just right.
I love this off-the-shoulder dress, and have worn it to several occasions already. You can find it, along with other bespoke pieces from Guatemala, Rwanda and India at TROVE.
I grew up dreaming of visiting, and in April of this year, I finally did– with two of my best girl friends from college, one of whom just finished two years with Peace Corps there.
If you’ve ever to traveled to Southeast Asia, you’ll find a lot of similarities between Cambodia and neighboring countries. But you’ll also find flavors, stories, and challenges unique to Cambodia. Navigating the Khmer kingdom, still very much in recovery from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, can be an adventure in and of itself.
I should preface this travel guide by saying that if seeing the world is important to you, I think you should visit Cambodia– and not just Siem Reap, where the famous temples are. But it might be a tougher trip than you imagine.
Cambodia is vibrant. In a single moment, it holds harrowing stories of human evil as well as glorious evidence of kindness, innocence, creativity and beauty. The Khmer people have lived in this region for centuries, and despite the destructive efforts of the Khmer Rouge, much of Khmer culture survives.
This guide will show you some of my favorite parts of Cambodia. It’s by no means comprehensive, but it’s also not just about typical tourist attractions. And ultimately, I hope you’ll go. Even if it’s a part of a multi-national trip to the entire region, I hope you’ll stay awhile.
The first thing that struck me about Phnom Penh is that it’s really pretty. There are trees everywhere and a bizarre mix of French colonial architecture and traditional Khmer embellishments.
Phnom Penh is where you’ll land if you’re starting from the capital. And if you’re intentional about truly seeing Cambodia, you must stop here.
The most common sights in Phnom Penh– by far– are the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21 Prison) and the Killing Fields. Usually people visit both these sights in one day to experience the heartbreaking journey of prisoners from torture in the prison to death in the fields.
What I love about these two sights is that they are so well-preserved. There’s no pretense, no presentation, just storytelling. And as difficult as it is to hear the voices and see the faces of those whose lives ended here, I’m encouraged that Cambodia has taken ownership of what happened and wants the world to see it. In fact, Germany helped support the building of the museum in order to commit the genocide to public memory– that it might never be repeated again. To see this is to become a holder of that memory.
Beyond this somber day, you’ll likely wander by the large square next to Cambodia’s palace and famous temples. Take in the public life: families out on the river, monks passing by, mopeds weaving between clusters of gridlocked cars.
Stay: The Penh Guesthouse
We enjoyed the Penh Guesthouse, but I would strongly recommend emailing them directly for reservations. This is the best way to get a good deal!
I’d recommend staying long enough in Phnom Penh to visit the genocide sites and also get a feel for the city. There’s not exactly a need to linger (there are more fascinating places to discover), but it’s definitely worth a night or two.
Getting around: Tuk-tuks
If I had a dollar for every time a tuk-tuk driver got lost in Cambodia, I’d be eating a lot of Khmer noodle soup. Most tuk-tuk drivers know where the tourist sites are, but if you’re looking for a particular restaurant, it’s best to get a SIM card and track yourself on a map. In our experience, most of our drivers had no idea where things were.
If you’re sensitive to pollution, I’d bring a face mask (common in Asian countries) or bandana for your tuk-tuk rides. A lot of locals wear these– so you’ll actually fit in– and it’ll keep your nasal passages from feeling clogged with particles.
Eat: Pho Fortune
Oh, man. I just about lost my mind when I learned that noodle soup was a breakfast food. I can eat noodles anytime, anywhere– so this was perfect. And here at Pho Fortune (vetted by my Peace Corps friend to be super clean), a $3 bowl of noodles is just about as good as it gets. The herbs are so fresh and fragrant you wouldn’t believe it. Grab an iced coffee there too.
Detour: Phnom Kravanh Village
Indulge me a bit as I share a few snapshots from my friend Jasmine’s village. Jasmine is a dear friend from college who recently completed her service with the Peace Corps (I’m SO proud of her!). She’s the one who showed us around Cambodia.
Between our tourist activities in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, we spent two nights near the village where she taught English. This isn’t a place I’d recommend for just anyone to visit, but I did cherish the opportunity to hang out with Jasmine’s students and take a moped ride on the dusty red roads.
Jasmine’s sweet host sister made us lunch (marinated beef with a phenomenal Kampot pepper sauce) and took us for a little loop around the town. I’m so grateful to have been able to meet her and see a small piece of Jasmine’s experience.
By the time we made it to Siem Reap, we had traveled several hundred miles through Cambodia. So arriving in this touristy, funky little town was a bit of a shock. Neither Phnom Penh nor Phnom Kravanh are particularly geared toward tourism, so it was a bit strange to roll into Siem Reap with its rows of massive hotels and streets lined with buses.
There’s a lot going on in Siem Reap. We knew this even before we arrived, because booking our hotel there was one of the most challenging feats. It was impossible to know where to stay.
I would have loved to splurge on the stunning Viroth’s Villa, sadly currently under construction. But if you’re reading this and planning a trip in the future, be sure to check its status.
We ended up staying in a little hotel I won’t mention because I feel pretty neutral about it. I don’t recommend it whole-heartedly, but nor do I feel strongly enough to dissuade you, so I’ll let you sift through reviews online and make your own choices. Unless, of course, Viroth’s Villa is open.
Ultimately, location isn’t extremely important, as you can take a tuk-tuk to the town, and hire a guide to pick you up from your hotel when you visit the temples. Again, it’s probably best to keep a map on you so your tuk-tuk driver doesn’t spend hours circling around Siem Reap as you look for your hotel.
Eat: Cuisine Wat Damnak
If you care about food, or if you just want to appreciate some serious Cambodian artistry, you absolutely have to make a reservation at Cuisine Wat Damnak. We barely snagged a table here and I am so glad we did.
Chef Joannès Rivière has won awards for his cooking here, and the restaurant is one of the top 50 in all of Asia. That’s some pretty serious recognition! I loved his use of herbs and the inventive combinations of cumin, coconut, peppers and sesame seeds. I’ve never had a meal quite like it before and it was such an exhilarating respite from an otherwise busy town.
Relax: Kaya Spa
We thoroughly enjoyed our spa treatments at Kaya Spa, where they use real essential oils that smell incredible. If you want to visit and you’re on a tight schedule, be sure to reserve your treatment in advance.
Visit: The Angkor Temples
This is the crown jewel of any tourist’s visit of Cambodia– as it should be. Words can’t describe how fascinating these temples were, and we spent the day stunned (and sweating profusely). For buildings composed of sandstone, they’ve lasted remarkably well in the jungle humidity and heat, and they are quite the beauty to behold.
There is so much to know about the Angkor temples, and really not enough space for me to write it here. I strongly encourage you to pick up a book and learn about the Khmer kingdom before going to Angkor Wat.
One of my best tips for visiting the temples is hiring a guide AND an air-conditioned vehicle. This is not a temple complex you can walk through in a day, especially if it is really warm outside. You’ll need some kind of transportation to take you throughout the entire area, or you won’t be able to see much.
Our guide Chhaya was great– super knowledgeable and really friendly. He drove us tirelessly all day and was even quite the shutterbug. Thanks to him, Courtney and I were able to get quite a few photos together. If you can swing it, I’d definitely hire someone from his company.