Thursday, December 30, 2010

Looking ahead at 2011: The year of ACTION

I did a lot of reflecting in 2010, a lot of planning, reading, realizing, visioning and that's what made it the year of discovery for me. Looking ahead at 2011, I want to take all that discovery and turn in into action.

As the second part of my annual review, I set out some goals which will help define where I'm headed in the next 365 days. The trick to setting goals is to be very specific. None of this "I'm going to start exercising more" wishy-washy stuff. If your goal is to exercise "more" be specific about it. If you want to make "more" money, get specific about how much money you want to be earning next year.

I will get 30min of exercise 4 times a week. 
I will earn $xxx in 2011

That's just the first step. Then you have to identify at least one action you can do right now to take a step towards your goal. It might look like this:

I will look online for my local running groups schedule and find out when the next session is. 
I will gather my facts and prepare for a meeting with my boss to discuss a pay raise. 
I will create a plan for my small business that will earn $xxx a month to supplement my income.

The final step is to set a deadline. Do this so that you can check in on your progress on a monthly or quarterly basis depending on how quickly you want to achieve this goal. Be realistic. If your goal is to loose 20 lbs, don't set your deadline for Feb 1. You likely will not meet that target (it wouldn't be healthy to) and you will get frustrated and feel unsuccessful. Same thing with any goal. If you want to save for a downpayment on a home, set your target at something your budget will allow. Check in every quarter and see your progress all the way through the year.

I will loose 3lbs a month and keep it off. - Deadline: July 1/11
I will put $250 a month into my "home fund" - Deadline: April 15, August 15, December 15/11
I will create a career path with my boss that will include increased pay and have me reach my income targets by November 1/11 

If you're new to goal setting it can be an uncomfortable process to go through. It seems that whatever your new goal is, immediately there are obstacles that stop you. You don't have gym clothes, or running shoes. You can't afford a gym membership. Your boss is a big jerk. You have no extra money to put away to save etc. etc. etc.

You tell me your goal, and I will find 10 reasons why you CAN'T do it. That's the easy part. There are a hundred reasons why you can't, shouldn't, or why you should just do it later. Your job is to find how you CAN do it and how you can start today.  The brickwalls (obstacles) remind me of a Randy Pausch quote:

"Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out, they are there to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want something badly enough. They are there to keep out the other people"

I mentioned in my Annual Review post that this year I've taken my goal setting to a whole new level. This year, I've created categories to help become very specific about each one. If you want to get serious about your goals this year too, I suggest breaking them down in a similar fashion. You can use the same categories I did, or create your own.

I've looked at a few different possible directions for my career path over the last nine months. I've painted the perfect picture of my ideal work day and gotten specific about what I want and don't want my days to include. I've discovered that I don't want a "job". I don't like the idea of going to and from a cubical everyday and working inside a forever churning machine where the work has no end and where the only reward I get is my paycheque, two weeks of vacation and a benefits package. Some may think that security sounds appealing, but it makes me quiver. What I want is work. A project. I want something I can watch come together, something that is created out of my efforts, dedication and long hours. I want something that once it's built, I can be proud of it.

I gave great consideration to self-employment this year as well. I thought about seizing the opportunity of unemployment to start taking writing seriously. Start thinking about writing my book or putting in the effort into making my small business grow into something sustainable that I might be able to live off. While all of that came with many pros and cons, I weighed my fears against my goals and I've decided two things; one, I'm not quiet ready for that type of commitment to independence, and two, to achieve some of my other goals (home ownership and travel) I will need a regular income that I can rely on. And so, I came to my first goal of 2011.

In 2011 I will find meaningful and rewarding work that I enjoy, challenges me and provides me with new opportunity while helping me achieve my goals. 

Friends and Family
This year was particularly difficult in this category and I relied heavily on my friends and family many times throughout the year. I was surprised (although I don't know why) at how my family united and came together so closely during such hard times. They were incredible. I realized how much love surrounds me and how lucky I am to have such great examples of what family really means. 

I consider my closest friends family as well. Since my Dad, sisters, aunts and uncles live so far away, it's my friends that I have close to me during holidays, special occasions and they are who I turn to when days are tough and I need someone to talk to. They mean the world to me and I am so grateful for them.

In 2011 I will be a better friend and be closer to my family. I will call often, I will not wait until I need something, I will not miss birthdays or special occasions (I'll at least send a card). I will tell them I love them and how much I appreciate them. I will remember to put them first, because I know, that they were there when I needed them and they always will be. 

I have ongoing issues with my back. Issues that take me out of the game and immobilize me until I rest enough to get back on my feet. Every time this happens (which used to be few and far between but happened twice this year), I'm like a teenager who's just removed the entire contents of her stomach praying to the porcelain God and mumbling "I will..never.. drink.. again..".

I lay on the couch, or on the hardwood floor, or bent over the kitchen counter in mind numbing, eyeball twitching pain and swear to whatever God will listen "If you make this pain go away, I will go to yoga everyday. I will see whatever therapist you want. I will make that appointment with the specialist. I will learn to walk on my hands if that's what it takes... anything... PLEASE!"

And in a week or so, the pain subsides so I can walk and I do a few stretches and take it easy for a few days. Then when all is well, I completely forget about the pleas and promises I made just a few days earlier. And so, I have chronic back pain. Everyday. And I do nothing about it. I live with it. I walk around like an 80 year old woman who can't stand up straight, pick up anything heavy or do any kind of impact activity like tobogganing or tubing (on snow or water). I can't risk falling or taking any kind of jolt where my spine might just give up and hate me forever. Alright, I'm overemphasizing the last bit, but you get the point.

In 2011 I will take care of my back. I will strengthen my core and stretch my back, hamstrings and glutes through regular yoga classes. I will make an appointment with my family doctor and get a referral to a physical therapist who will work with me over the long-term care and pre-habilitation of my spine.

I set a five year goal in 2010 to see the world. I said I would visit one new continent a year and over the next five years, I will have been to all 7 continents. I realized this isn't exactly seeing all of the world, but it's a good start.

This year I crossed Asia off my list when I spent 6 weeks in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. I haven't made up my mind about 2011 but it will either be Australia or Africa. Destination to be determined.

In 2011 I will see a country I have not been to. I will visit another of the 4 continents I have not been on. I will start researching the costs of different destinations what I would want to see while I was there.

I really like the idea of volunteering. I did quite a bit this summer either with committees or events and it's a great way to gain experience, give back to your community and add value to your skill set (without having to get a new job or go back to school).

This year I have already committed to being on a committee with a local triathlon organization. Triathlon gave me so much over the years that I really enjoy when I am able to give back.

I will also be leading the 2011 Powered By Noie team for The Ride To Conquer Cancer. This year we want to be at least 10 riders strong and we're already 8. We also have a team in Ontario and the interest for a team in Alberta. Together, we can raise over $40,000 for the fight against cancer.

Click here if you want to join our team! Just ask me for the password

In 2011 I will be a leader for the Powered By Noie team. I will stay focused on our goal of raising $30,000 (BC). I will stay motivated and inspire others to achieve their goals. I will stay organized and host one group destination ride for the whole team every month. 

I really enjoy blogging. I find writing to be therapeutic and I love the feedback I get from my readers / followers. I also enjoy what I get from the blogging community. I have found a few great blogs that I follow regularly and each of them present a perspective that I find refreshing or inspiring. Chris and his Non-Conformist approach, Katy and her minimalist life, Leo and his Zen-ness and all the interesting links / articles those point me to.

In 2011 I will update the look of my blog and find it a new home on another hosting site (don't worry, I'll leave a forwarding address).  I'll create a community of readers that post comments and share their own insight on the post of the day. I will write two posts a week and aim to inspire, entertain, give perspective and share my experiences on my approach to being remarkable. To achieve all this - I will have to live a life worth writing about. 

Not included in this post are a goals in the categories of Finance, Personal Development and Relationship. These are quite personal and I will keep for myself, but I mention it so that you might consider your goals in those areas of your own life.

Good luck with your goal setting for 2011. Remember to make them SMART.

Time associated (deadline)

What are your biggest goals for 2011?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Annual Review: 2010 the year of discovery

I love New Years, and it has nothing to do with champagne popping and kissing at midnight. In fact, to be honest, I've missed the last couple of midnight countdowns passing up the hang over and opting to start the first day of the new year fresh with an early morning and exercise outdoors with friends.

There is one New Years tradition that I don't pass up however and that's setting goals for the year to come. I started writing out my goals in 2006 in what's become known to me as "The List". This was a very simple list I scratched out on a piece of paper and kept tucked into the front of my training journal. It became an important part of my motivation to complete the Honolulu marathon as I wrote it on my hand to remind me of all the things to come in my life after I finished those 42.2 kilometres.

Simple, it worked and it started my belief in writing out my goals.

Since then, my goal setting has become a bit more refined. Last year, I set another 5 Year Goal seeing that my 2005 five year goal was expiring (and realizing) this year. Throughout the year I use my dreamboard and other sources for motivation, but I have figured out the best way to realize your goals is to write them out.

This year, I've taken my goal setting a step further and created something more tangible to refer back to throughout the year. Over the last week or so, I've been conducting my own personal annual review. The process is not original, but it's something that made sense to me and because I am dedicated to a life of purpose and intent, there seems to be no better way than to be direct and specific about your goals.

The details of the review are somewhat personal so there are pieces I've kept private, but I'd like to share some of the process that I found helpful.

I started with asking two simple questions:

What went well in 2010?
What didn't go so well in 2010?

What went well:
2010 was a very big year with a lot to review, but what stands out immediately is that I had Anthony to stand by me through all of it. He's been a warm addition to my life and I am thankful to have him in it. We celebrated our first anniversary in October, although I was somewhere in Thailand and he was at home worried about me. I sent a nice "happy anniversary" email to put his mind at ease :)

Being unemployed for the better part of the year was also a special experience. I used the time wisely to commit to myself and to serve as time of self-reflection. During this time I discovered a lot about myself, what motivates me, what makes me happy, what makes me proud, what fulfills me, what I envision my future to be like (and got into a detail painting that picture). I also came to terms with aspects of what makes me, me, and accepted the good with the bad (or what I think others will perceive as "bad"). I've discovered that inspiring others to achieve their goals is what makes me happy. I'm also learning to not be so hard on myself and accept the best that I can do as being AWESOME and I am still celebrating everyday successes.

In June, my best friend Kierstie and I completed The Ride To Conquer Cancer. We raised over $6,300 in just 11 weeks. Our team, Powered By Noie has grown to 9 riders in BC, 2 in Ontario and the interest of 2 in Alberta for the 2011 ride. This was definitely something that I am proud of and something that went well in 2010.

A highlight of 2010 for me of course was becoming an Ironman. This closed a chapter for me but also served as the beginning of something new. For me, Ironman was about the journey and through the years of training I faced some of the most challenging obstacles and learned incredible lessons about the strength to endure. I also found motivation in this quote from Muhammad Ali.

“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ''Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion."

It's not true about hating the training, but it does speak to my Ironman purpose.

After Ironman I took 6 weeks to travel through South East Asia (Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia). This was not only a great reward for my huge accomplishment, but was also a part of my new 5 year goal to see the world.

Late in 2010 I started a small business with Anthony called MANBASKET. The concept came to us only weeks before Christmas so where it stands today is very much a work in progress. However, it's already taught me some valuable lessons and generated a small income. I plan to continue developing that business into 2011.

Finally, I took a great interest in my financial future this year and am reaping the rewards of that. This was not something that came easily, I had to put forth an effort to get that part of my life organized, and it wasn't all fun and games, but in the end, the reward is confidence, security and empowerment.

What didn't go so well:

2010 had a pretty rough and unpredicted start for me. But I didn't let that set the tone for the year. I converted my sadness into energy and let that propel me forward. I was more determined than ever to live a life full of love, intent and purpose.

The annual review however should not include things that I could neither control or avoid so I can't really add this to my "what didn't go well" list.

Thankfully, what didn't go well is a much shorter list that what did go well.

Technically I had only three months of employment in 2010. One of which was for the most part spent addressing the passing of mother in January and February/March were some of the most stressful, odd, chaotic and blurred weeks I'd had in my 1.5 years with the Olympic Games. I'd love to have put my Olympic experience on the "went well" list, but if I'm being honest, it wasn't. If this were the 2009 review, it would have been number 1 - a job I loved and a hundred reasons for loving it. But the two months that made up my "Olympic experience" were somewhat tainted. I learned some invaluable lessons from that time, but I'll leave it at that.

My health was an ongoing issue in 2010 aswell. I have various back injuries ranging from a broken tailbone, a spinal cyst and a herniated disc that date back over ten years now. I've learned to manage the chronic pain, but occasionally I re-injure myself and can find myself immobilized or hospitalized. With proper care, it rarely gets to that point, but this year I found myself down and out twice. It's the most painful and scary situation to find yourself in and each time I swear I will do whatever it takes to avoid this ever happening again. When the pain is gone, I carry on as usual. What I need to do is prioritize my ongoing back health an take care of it even when I'm not in major trouble.

There are a few other things that did not go well in 2010, but as I mentioned earlier, they are a bit personal and I'm not here to air any dirty laundry. What I will say is that with everything that did not go well this year, there are great lessons to be learned.

For me, 2010 was a year of discovery. I tried to keep my eyes wide open and learn the lesson in every challenge. Most importantly, I learn celebrate every success that I had.

The annual review doesn't end here. There are goals to set and obstacles to plan to overcome, but that's for the next post.

What were some of your highlights of 2010? 
What were some of your challenges?

Friday, December 24, 2010

My HUGE Financial Reward

It's not what you think. I didn't win the lottery, win big in Vegas or return someone's lost precious puppy. I took an interest in my financial future, got serious about my budget and in return am reaping the rewards.

I have been unemployed since April of 2010. Thankfully, this wasn't a surprise and I had over a year and a half to prepare for living on a fixed income. I saved my pennies vigilantly since knowing that once my contract ended I would be taking the summer off to train for Ironman, enjoy some downtime and reward myself with some long awaited overseas traveling. In order to have this plan come to fruition I needed to have a plan. More importantly, I needed to have a plan I could stick to. Enter Gail Van-Oxlade.

You know who she is. She's the doctor of debt who makes house calls on Slices' Til Debt Do Us Part. Since I had a lot of time on my hands to watch daytime TV, I decided I would give her famous "money jars" a go. I went to her website and downloaded the super simple Interactive Budget Worksheet. Starting here, I plugged in all my co-ordinates and set out to the bank to fill each of my 5 money jars.

For three months straight I spent only cash, using my credit card only for reservations or purchases only available online (like airline tickets - and I immediately paid for them after buying), I wrote everything down in my "budget binder" and did weekly reconciliation's to see where I was overspending and where I could save.

I STRONGLY recommend anyone looking to get out of debt, save money or get their spending under control do this even if just for one month. It was such a strong tool that my spending habits changed dramatically and immediately. If you have ever done a 'food diary' for the purposes of losing a few pounds, this works exactly the same way. Writing down everything you spend makes you accountable for where your money goes. At the end of a week, when you notice that $35 went to Starbucks latte's, cinnamon sticks and the occasional chocolate chip banana bread, it's a great reality check. Similar to the food diary, you begin to change your habits simply because you don't want the shame of having to write it in your budget binder. When I saw a sale on shoes or (more difficult) another awesome cycling jersey, I knew exactly what I would tell myself in a few days when reviewing the week's spending. "Seriously? You spent $80 on yet another [INSERT VARIOUS ITEMS HERE]. That $80 could buy you three days of travelling in Asia." That was relevant to me at the time, but I'm sure you have something that could relate.

It's not to say I never went over budget or bought things I didn't need. But at least I was VERY aware of how much over budget I was, and was doing so willingly. When you don't know how much money you have to spend to begin with, you don't know when you've spent it all.

I've stopped using the money jars, but the principles and lessons are still with me. I've been debt free and saving money consistently even as I'm unemployed and on a very fixed income.

My curiosity in my finances didn't stop there. I figured that if I could be in this much control of my spending, I must be capable of more. So I continued to be interested in my financial future and made an appointment with my banks financial advisor to talk about my RSP's and some other savings that I had. He was happy to talk to me about all kinds of securities, registered and non-registered accounts, tax deductions and high interest something rathers.... it was all too much for me at the time, I didn't really get much out of it except that now I know that there's a lot I don't know. 

Fast forward a few months and my "living within my means" lifestyle is still keeping me debt free and I no longer miss the expensive take-out sushi and I haven't even noticed that I haven't bought new shoes or pair of jeans in months. I'm much happier not receiving a visa bill. I do however, continue my interest in a financially responsible future by reading books like "Smart Women Finish Rich" and even though it's not as exciting and the last  edition in the Twilight saga ( I read that too), it's been exciting in it's own right. More than ever, I'm confident and feel prepared to ask the right questions when it comes time to address where my money is and what it should be doing to work for me. Half way through the book I made another appointment with that same financial advisor that confused me months ago and after spending two hours talking to him about all the same things that I now understand, I have a sense of independence and empowerment that only came by me taking a genuine interest in myself and my future. 

I've finished the book now and because I found it so valuable, I wanted to skim through it again and highlight some of the key lessons that stood out for me. I figured I would share them here since I'm in also the midst of conducting my own annual review and this might just add to it.

Chapter One: The facts and myths about your money
- You do not need to make more money. You need to better manage the money you have.
- Know WHERE your money is. Debt? Assets? Mutual Funds? RSP's? Cash? Bonds?

Chapter Two: Put your money where your values are
- Ask yourself "What is important about money to you?"
My answers were:
- Money gives me the ability to make my own choices. It gives me options.
- Having my own money gives me control over my life
- Money gives me the ability to fill my live with my own ambitions
- Having money gives me peace of mind

Understanding why money is important to you helps your decisions on where you spend it.

Chapter Three: Figure out where you are and where you want to go
- Find your "stuff" and get organized. Tax returns, retirement account statements, checking and savings accounts, other investments, credit card statements, mortgage material, major liabilities (car loans), insurance documents (home owners, renters, life insurance etc) and will's and life trusts.
- Online banking makes gathering this information very easy, but it's important to at minimum review where all this material (as applies to you) is and keep it organized.

WRITE OUT YOUR FINANCIAL GOALS. And add to that something you can do NOW to take steps toward that goal.

Again and again I see this tool being promoted/suggested and I (too) swear by it. It works. Do it.

*at this point in the book one of my goals that I wrote down was to be more educated in investments (mutual funds, RSP's etc). Before the end of the book, I had re-visited my FA and (as mentioned above) am reaping the rewards of that meeting). Until this review, I had forgotten that it was one of the goals I had written down. It's s powerful tool. Do it. 

Chapter four: Getting real about what you spend. 
- Helpful review of the budgeting lessons I learned earlier this year with the money jars.

Chapter five: Not putting all your eggs in one basket
- The super boring but necessary educating part about preparing for emergencies, retirement and other very grown up stuff. This is where I went back to see my FA and what was previously "pre-tax/ rate-of-return/ moderately aggressive vs conservative"  mumbo-jumbo investment stuff finally made sense. Repetition works well with me.

Chapter six: Following the 12 Commandments to attracting greater wealth
- Getting paid what your worth and knowing what that is.
This book ending with these commandments was the perfect segway into my next read which has been patiently waiting on my nightstand. Linchpin by Seth Godin.

There were so many lessons I learned financially this year, but it all started by TAKING AN INTEREST in myself and my financial responsibility. You can hear the same thing over and over or get advice from the best and brightest advisors on the planet, but if you're not interested in yourself, it's not worth a damn.

It was really helpful for me to re-write some of these lessons, so thanks for taking the time to read them if you made it all the way through.

Stay tuned for my annual review which takes into account lessons learned beyond my finances.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Operation Re-Connect

I have 261 friends. At least that's what Facebook tells me. Somehow that's hard to believe. If I have that many friends, how come when I throw a party I'm always scared no one will show up? I have 261 friends!

Now, I also have friends that have upwards of 500, 600, 700+ friends. Where does that put me on the popularity scale? I think 261 would fill a room nicely should I die and they all show up to pay their respects, however, it makes me a hermit compared to the guy that has 976 friends. Should I feel bad about this? Is this an indication that my years of focused Ironman training and declined RSVP'ing to dinners, bars, parties, weekends away (and on and on) have resulted in social suicide? Considering that of my 261 friends, I have maybe three that I speak to regularly (one of which I live with), I think having 261 friends is quite the success.

I wonder about those that have say 700+ friends. What do you do with them all? I have maybe a night or two out a week visiting various friends in varying social groups and I still haven't seen (I'd say) a majority of my friends in a dogs age. I'm a bad friend maybe? How do you keep up with 700 or more friends?

Then I started thinking, as with my recent efforts to de-clutter my life, it's time I started choosing quality over quantity when it comes to my relationships as well. It always struck me as odd when people would make a friend request via Facebook and then never follow up with as much as a "Hey.. How've ya been the last 10 years?" Sure it's fun to Facebook creep through their photos, but after the initial peruse through, you never really go back. I just think it's weird that even though we had enough interest in each other to connect, the effort / interest stops there.

Enter Operation: Re-Connect.

I've decided that I'm going to attempt to befriend (or re-friend) all my 261 friends. Some times I see their photos up in the side bars so I click on it, see what they've been up to, then send a message saying hello, or congratulations or "what's that all about?"or "do you know of a good real estate agent" or in one case "how do you get your body to twist like that?"... whatever might strike a conversation and result in at least one return message.

It's a very simple concept, although there are a few rules and qualification clarities to make:

- If you haven't spoken to them in more than two months, they qualify for Op: ReCon. Send them a message.
- Family must be contacted by phone. They're family. Seriously, pick up the phone.
- If you don't recognize them or have any idea how you know them, remove them from your friends list.
- If after much thought and several message drafts you can't think of one thing you would say to this person. Remove them.

So far, I've re-connected with a friend that finished the New York City marathon this year. A friend whom I haven't spoken to since grade 8 who just moved into the house across the street from the house I lived in at that time. Her new house in which I use to babysit the kids that lived there. I had a three or four time return convo going with someone now living in India and how life is so different for him now. I got an invite to stay with friends in England should I ever be on that side of the pond, plus some awesome advice about trails and new adventures to seek right here in my own BC backyard.

So far I've re-connected with 17 of my 261 friends. That only includes those that I have initiated conversation with (of people haven't spoken to in more than two months) and I am going to try and re-connect with all 261 of my friends before my birthday in March. There's no particular reason for that date, it's just that every goal needs a deadline and that one seems to be reasonable and one that I won't forget.

I'll try to send 3 messages a day (on average) which should get me to my goal on March 6th (depending on how my total number of friends fluctuates up or down). So either by randomly clicking on some one's status via the news feed, photos that appear in the sidebar or just working alphabetically through my friends list, I hope to re-friend my friends one by one taking pride in my quality 261 friends.

Never again will I introduce myself to someone at a party only to hear the response "uh.. yeah, I'm *Becky... we're friends on Facebook.."

*Some names may have been changed to protect individuals involved.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Knowing What Your Looking For

Today I read a blog post on ANOC that reminded me to always be thinking about a few very important things. While the list wasn't long, it was significant. Check it out if you have a minute.

Things like dreams, influences, relationships and passions are all things I think of regularly and I try to  nurture them, re-visit and rejuvenate them as often as necessary. But there was something else that resonated with me today and that was "destinations".

"Because you need to know where are you going, whether it’s a real destination or a representative one. (If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.)"

So I started to think about where it was that I was going and it brought me back to a Work / Life career workshop that I participated in while I was working for the Games. Not having any clue what it was all about at the time, I can say it was one of the best thing I ever did for myself. I ruffled through some filing and found the workshop booklet that we used. I kept it because I found the exercises that the hosting life-coach had us do were THAT valuable.

We started with some simple exercises that included writing out your strengths and skill sets, identifying where you've succeed in your current or past roles and what it is about your position that you really like or dislike.

We also were asked to think about a "pivotal" moment in our lives, or more simply, a time when we were the most happy, felt alive and were excited.  Remembering that time, we wrote out all things associated with it.

  • What was the experience?
  • What were you doing?
  • Who was there?
  • Why did it make you feel so alive?
Identifying the contributing 'good-time' elements helped us move forward to what, in my opinion, was the most valuable exercise of the day. 

We identified, and wrote in detail, our vision of an ideal working environment. We listed everything from what time you start in the morning, how you get to work, where you are, who you work with, what are you wearing and so on. We tried to be as specific as possible.

Here's what my list looked like:

- I start early in the morning when there are only a few people around.
- My day is full and requires some logistical planning and scheduling to make sure my time is used    efficiently
- I have an office to go to, but I am not there all the time (work from home or various work sites)
- I dress professionally, but casually
- I work with people I respect
- I work on time sensitive projects
- My projects have a beginning and an end
- I am responsible for my own schedule
- I work long hours and I am dedicated to my projects
- I am passionate about what I am doing, I believe in it's purpose
- I take work home with me, but have good work / life balance

So there it is, my perfect day. I still haven't found a 'job' that meets these requirements, but at least I know what I'm looking for and that is a HUGE relief. I'm also comfortable with the idea of not finding a "job" to fulfill these needs, but I might have to create the opportunity myself. But I know that by identifying these things, I am taking the first steps towards my ideal life and being at my happiest.

However, if you know what this job is that I'm describing..... email me! Kidding.... (sort of).

Not having found a way to make a living with these prerequisites yet doesn't worry me, and I'll tell you why.

Further into the booklet I found some questions and answers that made me grin ear to ear.  Below are some examples. Keep in mind this workshop was completed in summer of 2009.

Q: What do you want more of? What gives you energy? What do you want to say "yes" to?
A: Travel, new opportunity, relationships, exploring of new possibilities

Q: What do I really want? Who do I want to be? What will I achieve? What impact will I have?
A: I want to inspire others to be their greatest, I want to work on something I am proud of, I want to love someone and be loved by them back

Q: Identify one goal:
A: I'd like to do 3-5 weeks of traveling after the Games in 2010

Q: Identify steps you can take to achieve this goal:
A: Research Thailand and Cambodia (what to do there? How much? Where to go while there)

During this session, the life coach did a great job of getting our creative juices flowing. We were really dreaming and writing down things that we weren't completely sure we could do, but in a perfect world, we could have.

 Fast forward to winter 2010 and here's an update:

- I completed the Ironman (a five year goal) and had an overwhelming response from friends, family and new acquaintances about how inspiring my story was. Because of that, and my own experience, I'm working on a project that will help others achieve their extraordinary goals. The project will launch in January.. so stay tuned :)

- I moved in with my boyfriend whom I love dearly (and who loves me back:)

- Together we are building the foundations of a FANTASTIC new business

- I returned home from 6 weeks of traveling through South East Asia (Thailand, Cambodia & Vietnam)

This wasn't meant to be an opportunity to brag about my life, these where just a few highlights selected to make a point. The point is how valuable it can be to really make time and think about where it is you are going. Life isn't perfect and things come up, challenges surface and set backs occur, but like Randy Pausch said "you can always change the plan, but only if you have one."  

I use my DreamBoard now as a way to keep updating new things I want in my life. As life evolves, so do my priorities, my circumstances and my opinions. But if I want to keep defining my own success, I have to at least know what it will look like once I find it.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Change: The Groundwork for Opportunity

As a part of my effort to re-build momentum, there are a few blogs that I read regularly. Typically they are written by people that share my perspective on a meaningful, fulfilled life and in sharing their point-of-view they inspire and encourage me to continue pursuing the kind of life I want to live.

Katy, of The Single Supplement wrote a post about being "an agent for change" and the term really resinated with me. Katy and her sister Rachel, of The Minimalist Mom, are advocates in the world of minimalism and recently she wrote a post about presenting minimalism to the masses by "living a better life through small change". She wrote about how extreme changes can be overwhelming or to intimidating for most and instead called for action of small changes to the everyday. She called the effort "..change people can get behind".

I'm not quite on board with the whole minimalist movement, but the approach did get me thinking about my perspective on "change that people can get behind". I am a huge fan of change. We've become great friends over the years and I strongly believe that, while change can be the unapproachable, confrontational and awkward one in a room full of comfortable habits, routine and predictability, you really ought to give change a chance.

First of all, I understand that change is not easy. It makes us step outside our comfort zone and makes us uncomfortable for a while. It calls for an adaptation of our routine and a reshuffling of the things we're used to. When we change, it sometimes also creates the need for the people around us to change and, well, no one wants to create confusion or inconvenience for anyone else.

But like it or not, change is necessary. Earlier this week while driving around running errands a thought about change and it's relationship with opportunity came to me. This happens a lot while I drive, and I end up having to take voice notes so I don't lose my train of thought. Anyhow, here is the transcript of the message I left for myself:

"We must embrace change. We know that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the very definition of insanity. Our environment, our social circles, what we do for entertainment, our habits and routine. Doing the same thing day in and day out and expecting that something extraordinary will happen to us is insane.  We have to accept change in our life and get used to adapting to it. I'm talking about little changes. Start with where you get your morning coffee, the route or the method you take to get to work, once a week change up your working environment. Take your night out with friends to a place/restaurant/bar you've never been to. Make an effort to meet new friends or maybe re-connect with some old ones you haven't seen or spoke to in a while. I am not implying that these small changes will change your life or cause extraordinary things to happen to you, but it starts to break the mould of ordinary. Here's the thing, when opportunity comes knocking, it will ask you to change. It will ask you to make a decision that will likely create some kind of change in your life. If we are hesitant or resistant to change, opportunity will move on."

Back to minimalism for a moment. My favourite theme in the sphere of minimalism is the movement behind de-cluttering. This is a hot topic for me right now as I am still unpacking boxes from my move in August as me and my redhead attempt to merge our lives together. This has me constantly asking myself "where did I get all this stuff?!" and even more puzzling, "why do I still have it?!" It's incredible the things I've kept over the years and even more amazing that I've moved it from apartment to apartment (not to mention across the country). So it's time to de-clutter. I'm keeping only what I need and what I use, otherwise, EVERYTHING GOES. Well, this is the rule 90% of the time. I still make exceptions, but I'm trying hard to stick with the rule "if I haven't used it, worn it or needed it in the last year - gone-zo".

This is a great exercise to go through because de-cluttering is not about just getting rid of your things. It's about taking control of what you have in your life. It's living with less and making room for the things in your life that matter. Starting with the old t-shirts and college hoodies in your closet and moving to the CD's you haven't listened to since high school and the books that you never read (and likely never will). Eventually it'll be your budget you re-organize and attack your consumer debt. Then it's the wasted energy on other things that just take up space in your life, but really don't matter.

There are endless reasons why de-cluttering is a healthy exercise and just as many resources to guide you, but I won't get into it now. However, if you're like me and want to profit from lessening your life's load, sell your crap on ebay, list it on craigslist or send it to a consignment shop. You'd be surprised at the cash your crap will bring in. Seriously.

Anyhow, the point of all this was that welcoming change into our lives, even the small changes, helps us to become agile in a world where we can get used to the ordinary. We can get so stuck in our routines that change becomes so unattractive and uncomfortable that we avoid it at any cost. Author and poet Francis Bacon once said "a wise man will make more opportunities than he finds." I say, start by creating some change, see what kinds of opportunities come next.

I realize that I just wrote a post about routine and my need to involve that in my life as well, but there is room for both. You can welcome change in your life without completing disrupting your routine. Again, this is about small change. Change that everyone can get behind. Change even you can find room for.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Building a Customary or Regular Course of Procedure

rou·tine: A regular, unvarying, habitual, unimaginative and constantly repeated formula resulting in a convenient or predictable response.

Even though the very definition of routine makes my skin crawl, I know the benefits that come with this "unimaginative" and "habitual" daily act. I mentioned in my last post that having a reliable routine (including work and training schedule) left room for inspiration to find it's way into my mind and make itself welcome. When I don't have to think about what will fill my days I free up some bandwidth in my brain making room for inspiration and motivation to do their thing.

Now don't get me wrong, thinking about doing an hour of yoga, maybe going for a hike, reading recent posts on the various blogs I follow or catching up with friends doesn't exactly push me to my creative limits or anything. But I refuse to sit on the couch and watch TV all day and there is simply nothing worse than coming to the end of the day and realizing you actually and literally did nothing. I just don't let that happen. So, even though it's not life changing productivity I'm filling my days with, it still takes some planning and I have to put effort into what I want to do every day.

Actually... re-read that last sentence. "it's not life changing productivity I'm filling my days with" On the contrary!!!!!

I could fill my days with job hunting. I could send out 10 resumes a day looking for a job that provides a steady pay cheque, good benefits and an RSP matching program. If I put my mind to it, I could have a job in no time and my "day filling" problem would just go away.

Instead, what I'm doing is searching for passion, questioning what makes me happy, looking for new personal challenges and ways to realize my dreams. In doing so, I'm dedicating myself to finding meaningful work at something I will enjoy, bring a sense of fulfilment to my life and that I will ultimately be successful at. So... sorry.. I lost track of why filling my days was a problem......

Right! As a part of my search for meaningful work and unconventional success, I will add routine back in my life so that inspiration has room to get warm and cozy in my once again busy brain.

Back to basics.

Exercise: I have to include exercise in everyday. That sounds so slight coming from an Ironman triathlete who used to have a "training regime". No training here. Just exercise. Yoga in my living room (budget conscious alternative to classes), short runs or evening swims will do. As of late, I just pack up my computer and walk the 25min to the furthest Starbucks where I spend a few hours (as opposed to spending it in my home office).

Schedule: Putting things in my calendar help create routine. I'm riding on Tuesday's and Friday's plus one other flexible day of the week. I'd like to swim on Tuesday's and Thursday's so that in a few weeks (of getting my water wings back) I can start to swim with my local Masters swim club (who practice on the same nights). I enjoy Yoga and start my day with it twice a week.

I also would like to write on my blog three times a week, so I will dedicate some time to that in a schedule. There's also time to commit to career search and research on the same topic. Similarly, there are business ideas that require massaging and nurturing in order to develop.

Finally, being unemployed provides great opportunity to do things that you normally don't get to do, like play tourist in your own city. I'm also adding to my schedule "something new" which will encourage me to look for something new to do each week. "Broaden my horizons" if you will.

Well, that didn't take long. Now my schedule is full and by the end of the day, I will have earned the right to relax. This is an interesting time in my life and I intend to take full advantage of it. This is the time to create opportunity and make change.

Now that I've outlined specifically what my new routine will include, I wonder where I will find the time! It also helped me realize that my time is valuable and what I do with it really matters. This is my life I'm talking about, I will only get out what I put in.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

You look different... did you cut your hair?

Eat. Sleep. Swim. Bike. Run has had a facelift! Welcome to A Work In Progress.

After years of documenting my journey to Ironman (and my six weeks of celebratory travel that followed), I've been pondering on what to do with my blog. I really enjoy blogging so I didn't want to give it up. I find it therapeutic to write my thoughts and it also keeps me motivated when I feel accountable for what I say I am going to do.

It's been an interesting few weeks since I've returned home from Asia. I've found myself in a situation that I haven't been in for sometime now. I've got no training schedule, no work projects, no work, no upcoming races and generally, nothing to focus on. Some tell me that this could be a good thing - time to just be and not be focused on something, but I have a problem with that. For the first time in a long time, I feel directionless. I have spent years building momentum (which is beautifully explained in an article on How to Harness the Power of Momentum) and I fear that somehow by not being busy, I am losing that momentum which I have worked so hard to maintain.

I also have a busy mind. That, coupled with my aforementioned momentum makes creating new ideas and finding the motivation to make them happen come easily to me. I am also a creature of habit and because I have always had a very reliable routine (Eat. Sleep. Swim. Bike. Run), it left a lot of room for inspiration to come into my mind and make itself welcome.

These days, I'm finding it hard to find inspiration. I have been keeping myself busy hoping that all that steam that kept me moving from one project to another pre-travel will catch up with me and move me forward to my "next big thing", but just "filling my days" has left me bored and looking for more (duh...)

I revert back to basics.

Passion: Ironman / triathlon was a passion that consumed me for years. Loving the sport, loving the challenge, loving what it gave back to my life was what kept me going. Now, while I still appreciate the sport, I've decided to put it on the back burner while I try new things. Ironman is a tough act to follow so finding new a passion hasn't been easy.

Throughout my process of finding ways to return passion to my life, I was reminded how many experts will suggests that you think back to what you did for fun as a kid and that may help determine where your true passions lie.

When I was a kid (maybe age 9+) I started riding horses. Horses became my life and something I feel influenced strongly who I became as an adult. I still have trunks full of old riding gear and equipment that I couldn't get rid of for both sentimental reasons, and because I secretly hope that some day I'll win the lottery and can afford to own a horse of my own again. Of course, owning your own horse isn't the only way to have them in your life. In the past, I've looked for work at a stable as a groom or a rider, used my contacts to find some free lance riding, or just hooked up with friends that have horses and may take you up on your offer to ride their horse when they're out of town. None of these options where proving to lead anywhere this time around, so I went the ultimately obvious although somewhat of a hit to the ego route - riding lessons.

As someone who spent (at one point) most of her life on a horse and working professionally with members of the Canadian Equestrian Team, going back to taking lessons on a school horse is a tough pill to swallow. Fortunately I have a bigger picture in mind and I'm more reasonable with myself now-a-days. The one hour a week of pressure free, no responsibility, commitment free riding at a cost my unemployed budget could handle was looking pretty attractive. So that's what I did.

As the universe would have it, before the end of my first lesson, my new instructior asked me if I was interested in doing some riding for her. She has a horse that she half-leases out to a young girl who is advancing quickly and her horse could use a little tuning so that he aid's in her progression and not hindering it. Now I'm riding three times a week and still have my one hour lesson.

I hope you like my new blog. I aim to make it enjoyable and inspirational for anyone that stumbles upon it. Take it or leave it, it's just how I see it :)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Koh Phangan - Oct 25-27

I left Koh Samui in search of a few days of luxury retreat before heading home on Saturday. While I was no longer interested in "exploring" or adventuring, there were enough notable recommendations about Koh Phangan, the middle child of the three famous Gulf Islands, that made it worth the trip.

On the ferry over I met a few people with roughly the same plan as me. They were looking for a semi-luxury place to spend a few days, but had no idea where they would find it. We were all hooked by a guy on the boat pushing a resort on the west side. It was a free taxi out there so we all decided to take a look. When we got there, three of the 6 of us were sold on it, but the other couple and I were unsure. It was fine, but we wanted more than just fine. Plus flushing toilets, we wanted flushing toilets.

They said they would likely head back to a place they had just spent two weeks. They ventured off the island for a week or so, but decided to come back to their favorite spot (even though temporarily distracted by giving this new place a chance). The place they described sounded fantastic, but it was on the east coast and secluded requiring a water taxi to get there. Up for the trek if it meant getting a toilet I understood, I decided to go along.

We shared a taxi around to the east side and got off at Haad Rin. This little row of shacks on a beach is famous for the full moon parties which I had apparently just missed a few days earlier. Shux. The town didn't look like much during the day, but I was told not to let its sleepy appearance mislead me, I had to keep in mind it was before noon still and no one here has had breakfast before noon in some time.

With not much to see here, we jumped in a water taxi and uttered the words Barcelona, which thankfully the kid driving the boat understood because I still had no idea where we were headed.

It was just 10 minutes out into the sea and around a point into a hidden cove and paradise unveiled itself to me. Just like a postcard, wood bungalows lined the white sandy beach. The water was acqua green and the tranquility vibrated out onto the water to us. With a smirk and a giggle I laughed at the discovery. Places like this do exist.

I walked up to the bar (read: shack on beach with blender on the counter) and asked if they had a bungalow. He said he only had the expensive ones, but tomorrow night a big group was leaving and a cheaper one would be available. Figures. So I asked how much the expensive one was and decided I might take a hit one night seeing as I've come all this way. "$500 baht" he says. That's approximately $16 a night. "Sold" I told him.

He gave me the rusty key to the padlock which secured my bungalow and I took myself into my new accommodations. Well, some things are true no matter where you go and this much I know: you get what you pay for (and $16 doesn't get you very much).

It was basic. A roof over my head, running water (but not hot water mind you) and a flushing toilet. Apparently you don't really come here for the luxury, the beauty is on the beach. So that's where I went.

The secluded beach was home to four different "hotels" but everyone mingled and socialized like one big community. The last place on the end was a bit bigger and had a much nicer bar/restaurant and played movies every night. Just about everyone on the beach came to watch. A neat experience.

I stayed a few nights here and even moved into a cheaper cottage which didn't have much less other than having to walk further up some steps to get to it, and it even had a hammock on the front porch. Being higher gave it an incredible view and it poured rain most of the day my second day here so I spent the majority of it making use of that hammock.

After the initial shock of the beauty wore off, I was back in the same place I had been for the past few days. Tired of traveling, missing the comforts of home and missing Anthony. I had some incredible experiences and great opportunity to create even more had I been up for it, but I was just feeling lonely without him. Nothing was as fun, even if it was fun I wished too much that he was there with me and I just wanted to leave so that we could come back and experience it together.

It was an interesting few days and I had met some interesting people. Many of them had been on that beach for months. One guy for 6 years! Most of them had the same story. They needed to get away. They quit their jobs, rented out or sold their homes so they could afford to get away for a while. A long while. While I listened to some of them, I couldn't judge them in one way or another. I heard myself in their stories, wanting to travel but never knowing how to do it. Wanting desperately to escape the mundane and routine of work, home, work, home. The pressures of societies norms and expectations... Rah rah rah. I had heard it all before, unfortunately it was out of my own mouth! I couldn't agree or disagree with any of them. We were just in different places in our lives and for them, right now being on a secluded beach with absolutely nothing to do everyday was what they were searching for. It was what they needed.

This beach also brought me some clarity. I on the other hand figured out that this was exactly where I did not want to be. 2010 has been a major year for me with some significant milestones, closing of chapters, achievements and devastation. And to get through most of it I had to commit. I had to commit to those things I knew wanted for myself and trust that if I stayed focused on what I wanted to achieve, I could only move forward and my life would continue to unveil the great things I know are in store.

One of my life's "to do" list items includes "see the world". While I haven't quite seen all of it, I feel I saw a good chunk in the last 45 days and a certain curiosity has been satisfied. There is still lots to see and I have still some traveling to do, but unlike my comrades on the beach, I can't help but be excited about what's waiting for me at home.

This year started pretty badly, but being sad everyday will not change what's happened. And just because I'm not sad everyday doesn't mean I do not hurt. But I have so many things to celebrate in my life that overlooking them would be an injustice to the things she taught me.

Life is so wonderful. Swinging in my hammock, I began thinking of all the things I've experienced this year.

- I had an experience of a lifetime with the Olympic Games.

- I completed an Ironman after 5 years of dreaming.

- I celebrated the first anniversary of finding a man who loves me unconditionally and has been my rock through it all and even agreed to come on this wild adventure with me.

- I satisfied a dream of traveling. Starting to see the world.

And now, I have more dreams. I have a new chapter to start and I can hardly wait to get the hell off this beautiful beach and go home to start making them happen.

Life is so good to me. I'm so excited to move on.

More photos of Thailand here:

Koh Samui - Oct 23-24

I flew direct to Koh Samui from Chiang Mai. At $225 it was by far the most expensive purchase I've made. I knew my time in Thailand is limited now and I didn't want to spend any of it on buses or overnight trains. The flight was quick and easy and I arrived in sunny tropical Koh Samui in just an hour and a half.

I had selected a hotel at Big Buddha beach before leaving Chiang Mai but when I arrived, there wasn't any access to the beach which apparently across the street. I hadn't paid for a reservation, so I just moved on. Someone suggested a place called Fishermans Village which was about 10min up the road so I figured I would start heading that way. After a few minutes of walking and no taxi's I was worried 10mins might not really mean 10mins and in the heat of the afternoon sun, I was thankful for the girl on a scooter who pulled over and offered me a ride into the town. Seeing how far my walk would have been, I was very appreciative of her offer.

I found gem in the midst of the overpriced luxury boutique hotels and stayed in a fantastic guesthouse run by a German who lived on the second floor. The rooms were like apartments with big clean bathrooms, a/c, tv, full kitchen and private balcony. It was right on the main street and over looked the "action". I use that term loosely since its a pretty sleepy town despite the lounges, restaurants and all the shops. This perfect find came at a lofty 800 baht a night (about $26).

The next morning, I rented a motorbike for the day and went out to explore the other beaches and towns. I made it to Chewng, a party center and tourist magnet. Full of shops, cafes, market style vendors, bars, lounges and energy, this was the perfect contrast to where I was staying.

I took advantage of the beautiful beach and found myself a beach bar and lounger to set up camp for a few hours. I drank smoothies and dipped in the ocean all day. Fantastic. When it came time to move on and see more than just the beach, I strolled up and down the street (there's just one main street) but being completely shopped out, I wasn't finding anything that caught my interest. Changing my intention to finding food, all I found was Irish Pubs and American bars that served hamburgers and pizza. There was usually some Thai food on the menu, but it was 3x the price it should be.

I decided I would find somewhere else. Back on my scooter it wasn't 2min before I found a group of real Thai food shops which are nothing more than street stalls and plastic chairs. These are perfectly acceptable (ie; clean) places as they are very busy serving locals. I stopped in and had a drink, an appy, a main and a side of rice for 130 baht (less than $5). Best of all, they were super friendly and loved to have me. Not something you get in a Thai impression of an American bar.

I went back to my end of the island but not without using up every ounce of gasoline I put into my scooter. Riding around was so fun, I drove up island until I thought I was out of gas than turned around and made it back to my guesthouse putt-putt-puttering my way in and turning over the keys.

I had seen enough of Samui in the day and a half I was there and decided to leave in the morning for Koh Phangan in search of somewhere to hang my hat for the remainder of the trip. I am all traveled out now. I no longer have an interest in planning day trips to explore, being adventurous or searching for excitement. I'm homesick, miss my red head and just want to sit on a beach somewhere until its time to catch my flight home on Saturday. Tomorrow I'll catch a ferry and hopefully stay put for a few days.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chiang Mai - Oct 18-22

Chiang Mai is a charming little place. The city buzzes with energy and a pulse, but its size keeps it welcoming and warm. The most touristy spots are contained in the "Old City" which is a section defined by a river that makes a complete square in the heart of Chiang Mai. Its not all that big, but either is Chiang Mai.

Following my own advice, I set out first thing in the morning on a bicycle which I've already said is the best way to see the most of your new city, get your barrings and get a little bit of exercise. I rode around for a few hours stopping at a couple different tour booking places to check out some options for the next few days. With enough info gathered to make a decision, I stopped for lunch and made a plan.

First up - Baan Chen Elephant Park. What a great day this was. The park is run by a man who loves his elephants (he has 12) and wanted a place to teach people about them, give them an incredible experience by being able to interact with them and do it all without exploiting the animals or using them for "entertainment".

Throughout the day we fed them, learned what it meant to be a "mahout" and develop a relationship with them, what it takes to take care of them and a few basic elephant commands. We did get to ride them, but it was bareback without a nasty iron seat most commonly used for tourist elephant rides. The owner of the park who was with us most of the day explained the riding was short and just long enough to give them some decent exercise. We rode about 25 mins up to a clearing in the jungle were we got off and talked more about elephants with our guide while the big guys rested and the babies rolled around in the dirt. It was really fun to watch and see so close up. When we were ready to go back, we jumped back on their necks and backs and rode back to camp and directly into the watering hole where we were required to scrub down our new friends as a way to say "thank you" for their work with us.

I was reluctant at first to jump into the pond. It wasn't being with the elephants that caused concern, it was the dung and elephant piss I wasn't interested in swimming with. However, I wasn't given much of a choice and in I went.

This probably ranked up there as one of the most memorable parts of my traveling. Swimming around, up, over and on top of a giant elephant, scrubbing them down and seeing how they enjoyed it as much as we did was pretty cool. The baby elephants swam over and played with us. They sprayed us with water from their trunks and jumped over mum, head butting and pawing at her as we all played together. Pretty amazing, even with the dung.

One of the other most memorable experiences was a visit to see the Karen tribe or "long necks". Unfortunately this was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Having done some hill tribe treks and visiting villages in Sapa I made the assumption that this was going to be similar. I booked it through my hotel and as it was explained, we would be visiting a large village which was home to 5 different tribes including the "long necks". This was actually the only village where you could see the long necks unless you went way far north to the boarder of Burma where their main village is. So this sounds perfect to me, a trek, 5 villages/tribes, the long necks. Perfect.

Well, when we arrived to this village there was no need to trek anywhere. This village of 5 tribes was more like a zoo. It was a make shift village built for the purpose of tourism. Ethnic tribes (or members of) come from their homelands to live in this living museum to sit on display for tourist. They have homes here, but many of them probably drive in everyday from the looks of all the pick up trucks in the parking lot. They make a living off what we purchase of their crafts and possibly a small salary from the larger operation.

Feeling pretty cheated by my hotel on this crap tour, things went from bad to worse.

We approached a gated village (as opposed to the wide open ones we just walked through) and read the sign at the entrance. This was the long neck village. The sign explained that the occupants of this village were granted a "work" visa by Thai immigration, but are not granted citizenship and are considered aliens by the Thai government. 16 woman and their husbands (and some have had children here) were allowed entry to the country for the purpose of working in this village but were not allowed to leave unless applying for, and being granted permission by immigration officials.

Basically, these people were brought here to this make shift village to sit on their door steps and have tourist take photos of them. The village is about 50 meters long and as wide as a one car width road with huts lining each side. They will be arrested and deported back to Burma if they leave this area.

Burma is a horrible place and many of the Karen tribe escape Burma and take refuge in a camp on the Thai side of the boarder (which explains the "main village near the boarder" explained to me earlier). In short, we were walking around a concentration camp for women seeking escape from either a corrupt and violent Burma, or refugee camp alternative.

The feeling of being cheated on a crap tour quickly turned to a dirty greasy, guilty feeling of being a part of this. The feeling was mutual throughout the 5 of us in the group and we silently hung our heads while we walked away. We felt like like terrible tourist. We made some purchases of their crafts hoping that the money would eventually help them out of this situation, but I could only take a few photos before it just wasn't right and I couldn't take anymore. Not knowing what to do or say, we just left.

That pretty much put a damper on the rest of the day and it never really got much better.

Besides the strange long neck experience, Chiang Mai has been amazing. I did a Thai cooking class, went to the night bazaar, had a facial, foot massages, Thai massage and endless great Pad Tai. I know that sounds like a lot of massages, but at $6 an hour, it would be a crime not to. Last night, although I think she made a mistake, I had a 1 hour foot massage followed by a 1 hour Thai massage for a total of 170 baht. That's just about $6.

Speaking of which, last night walking home from my massage, it was about 10pm, and although much of the shops and things had closed up for the night, there was still action in the streets. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me and I cursed myself swearing I would never leave the house without my glasses ever again, but they weren't playing tricks, there actually was an elephant walking down the sidewalk towards me. He was following a boy. Of course. I seemed to be the only one who cared or even looked up.

Today I leave for Koh Samui and in one week I head home. I'm ready for home now. I miss Anthony and think I would just have more fun if he was here with me. We'll have to come back again next year. Two weeks isn't long enough anyhow.

More photos of Chiang Mai here:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Cambodia/Thailand - Oct 17

The bus trip from Siem Reap was an interesting one. When I purchased my $11 ticket for the 8 hour journey I was diligent in my question asking because as I've discovered, and as I continuously read about, bus trips are easy scams for agencies. Foreigners buying one way tickets who are usually on a schedule to catch a connection or move onto another country are very unlikely to come back and complain. Plus, you don't have to impress them for repeat business. And at $11, you get what you pay for.

Anyhow, I asked a bunch of questions and made sure I knew the kind of bus I would be getting on was one of the cleaner, newer, less likely to breakdown on the road in rural Cambodia types. I was assured it was just like the one in the shiny new red one in the photo and went ahead with my booking. Sure enough when the tuk tuk dropped me off, there was a group of foreigners looking just as unimpressed with the heap of junk parked in front of the pick up spot with a Cambodia/Thailand boarder sign in its window as I was. Oh well, at least this time there are people that speak English with me on the bus. I'm just hoping it has air con.

When we finally pulled away at 8:25 for our 8:00 departure, with no apparent reason for the delay, we spent the next 45 minutes driving around Siem Reap picking up and dropping off people that were probably someones friend or cousin that just needed a ride to work, then we stopped roadside for a good 10 minutes waiting for someone who later turned out to have just needed a lift to the next town, we were on our way. After 35 minutes of finally being on the road, we stopped at our first pit stop to use the toilet and get a snack. This was a shack on the road and obviously run by friends of the driver. All of us on the bus just rolled our eyes, no one really got off the bus and 10 minutes later we were FINALLY on the road to the boarder.

The scenery though rural Cambodia is breathtaking. The rice paddies were as far as the eye can see and the population exists in small shacks on stilts with only dirt as a front yard. I've learned that to grow rice the terrace needs to be flooded (although the frequency or level of flooding I never sorted out) so it was normal to see water levels in the fields reaching up to and sometimes over the roadway. People working in the fields were often wading through at waist height and I'm certain many of them spent the majority of their day like this.

What I couldn't figure out was if the flooding around their homes was intentional because of the surrounding rice terraces, or if living in devastation like conditions was in part contributed by the wet season. Homes were flooded to the door fronts and beyond. Children stood barefoot in front of homes looking around with no where dry to walk. Those that had homes on stilts often hung hammocks below the house and an entire family would swing there keeping dry. After hours of the same thing, it was difficult to keep looking out the window.

When we finally arrived at the boarder after two additional unnecessary pit stops, we were told that we'd be changing buses on the other side (small detail skipped by my tour agent, and an overlooked question on my part). We were all given small pieces of tape - either red or yellow - to stick to our shirts, some had initials on them, others were blank, but none of us new what any of it meant. We unloaded, grabbed our bags and headed to the line up of people leaving Cambodia.

Not knowing what to expect, just the surroundings of the boarder gave me the willy's. With no questions asked, actually not even a glance up at me, he stamped by passport and waived me through. After a long walk through no mans land I stood in line at the Thai immigration office with my fingers crossed they would not ask anything about me leaving Thailand. Technically, Canadians do not require a Visa to enter Thailand, they only need proof of onward travel. I got caught in Miami with this, they wouldn't issue us a boarding pass until we showed proof of leaving Thailand. Thankfully I had a printed itinerary of our flight to Vietnam on me, otherwise it would have been a much bigger hassle. It seems though that the lady at the US Airways information counter was more concerned with following the Thai customs regulations than the Thai officials were. There were no questions asked, not even a glance up at me. This was what I was told was going to happen (when I asked around before planning my trip), but I was just hoping that I wasn't standing in the line of the officer going for the "Customs Agent of the year award" and would throw the book at me. Phew. I kept $50 US on me just in case...

On the other side, a guy making sense of all our red, yellow and encrypted stickers was corralling us into groups. I was hoping it wasn't the "looks vulnerable", "looks rich" and "looks gullible" groups and more the "Bangkok", "Pattaya" and "Surat Thani" groups. Thankfully it was the later.

We followed our new "guide" to our next mode of transport which ended up being a mini-bus. We jammed our bags in this thing to the gills and crammed our bodies in the 12 pax van. I made the unfortunate mistake of getting in first and put myself in a window seat near the back. Being claustrophobic, this was a worse idea than "chancing it" at the Thai/Cambodia boarder without meeting entry requirements. As soon as the doors closed I had uncontrollable flashes of vomiting, being trapped, crawling viciously over the unsuspecting and innocent people in front of me and all of a sudden I couldn't breath and I was shaking. I yelled "stop! I have to get out!" Followed by "OUT OUT OUT OUT" repeatedly until the confused guy at the door opened it and I leaped out (I'm sure) kicking people along the way. Apologizing profusely, the kind soul sitting in the front changed seats with me. He was probably 6 foot 4 and sat like a pretzel while I stretched out in the front with a nice view and the A/C directly on me. I did feel bad, but like I explained later at a pit stop, he would have probably chosen sitting like a pretzel over the smell of sweat and vomit for the 3:30 hour trip. He agreed.

We finally arrived in Bangkok without further incident and I killed time on Kao Sun road before getting to the airport to catch my flight to Chiang Mai. That trip was uneventful and I arrived at my Guesthouse ready for a nights rest.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Siem Reap - Oct 13-17

I loved this place and I'm sad to see it go, but its time to move on. When I arrived here the mini-bus dropped me off at a small travel outlet where the hotel sent a tuk-tuk to get me. My first impression of the city was not a good one. Even more poor than Phnom Phen, but not nearly as busy, the streets are less packed with stalls and more bare and spread out. I wasn't sure about it all until I arrived at my hotel which could be considered luxury at this point. Brand new, high ceilings in its beautiful lobby, swimming pool and clean spacious rooms. What does luxury cost you in this town? A whopping $15 a night. Nice.

My tuk-tuk driver also turned out to be my driver for the next few days touring the temples. Right away he took me out to buy my 3 day pass and into the temples to watch the sunset (this wasn't a romantic trip... He stayed with the tuk-tuk and I joined the 100 or so other tourist:). Once you buy your pass, its free to enter after 5pm. The sunset wasn't great because of the clouds, but the view of the rain storm heading our way was fantastic.

The next day Nit my driver took me around from temple to temple. He's not a "tour guide", but at least he knew what temples were what so I could read about them in my book. I was ready to head back to the hotel after 6 hours of exploring. The next day we did the outter loop, less temples, but further away and it took the same time. I wasn't yet "templed out" as they say, but they were all starting to look the same. For my third and final visit, I saved the best for last. I rented a bicycle (despite the morning rain and threats of a storm) and rode into Ankor Wat. This is by far the largest temple and holds the greatest religious significance. I've never really been interested in the whole mythology and religious history, but its sheer size and beauty was impressive enough. I sort of regretting not hiring a guide for a few hours which probably would have been really interesting, but instead, I just wandered around marveling at the beauty. On my way out, I stopped in one of the library buildings situated on either side of the long pathway to the temple. The view was great, it was quiet and provided relief from the sun. Not long after sitting down in an empty window sill, it started to rain. While I watched the others flea, I decided to open my book and wait it out. So there I sat, with a great book, in a quiet Ankorian library with an unobstructed view of Ankor Wat. Pretty cool.

Back in town, Siem Reap has so much to offer. The "Old Market" area is bustling with foreigners and caters to them with chic restaurants, lively pubs and spa services galore. I tried the fish massage by sticking my finger in, but there's no way I could bring myself to do the full foot massage/pedicure. They do seem to be popular though.

I could have stayed in Siem Reap longer. Right up until the last night I was discovering new cool parts of the market and loved killing time on many one of the many patios during the day. I stumbled upon the night market which after the first wonder around didn't seem any different than any other market until I just about tripped over someone getting a foot massage practically in the middle of the laneway. When I looked up, I saw the sign reading "Seeing Hands massage by the blind", then the best part - 30 min for $2! Without skipping a beat I was reclined in a chair enjoying the best foot massage ever. Seriously. This massage out classed any massage I've ever had. It was so good that I asked if she could another 30 min on my back and shoulders. Right there in the market! Such a cool experience.

Siem Reap created some pretty cool memories. I met great people and had a wonderful few days. Sunday morning I was off on the bus to Bangkok where I would catch my flight to Chiang Mai.

Lots of pictures of Ankor here:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Phnom Phen cont'- Oct 12

My second day in Phnom Phen was less eventful. I started the day up at Wat Phnom, a temple in the center of town with an interesting story. Its atop a hill (a small one) and houses 4 Buddha statutes that a woman named Phen found floating in the Mekong. The word "Phenom" translates to hill, so this city was literally named after "Phen's Hill". The story was more interesting than the temple, but a visit here is supposed to bring good luck.

I moved on to see the Central Market which was supposed to be spectacular, and even though I was not interested in shopping, especially at another market, Phenom Phen was running out of attractions for me. I was able to walk there and was glad that I did. The walk killed some time as the market wasn't nearly as busy as others I've been to, a fraction actually. Still fresh with consumer senses overload from Vietnam, I didn't stay here long. The product was of really poor quality anyhow.

Walking around I saw another girl on her own who seemed to be doing the same thing as me. We crossed paths a few times and eventually we ended up chatting. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant called "Friends". Its a training facility for disadvantaged youth and helps keep them off the street. It teaches them service skills, hygiene, food prep and cooking. Once completing the program at Friends, many go on getting jobs at hotels or upscale restaurants. The whole place is run by the kids and their teachers. Pretty cool.

I had the whole afternoon still and on advice of my lunch date, I decided to check out the Russian market. I didn't really want to do yet another market, but as she confirmed (what I was thinking), there really isn't much else to do here.

The market was another bust. Dark, dirty and garage sale quality goods.

Phenom Phen was an interesting place to visit. Its extremely poor and still recovering from an inconceivable past, but a place I'm glad I had the chance to see. Despite an uncomfortable feeling right from the boarder, no one actually did anything that gave me reason to feel unsafe. It was the images, the poverty, the living conditions that you see these people in that you associate with crime and danger. In fact, the people here have been friendly and helpful. I wouldn't call this a "warm" place, I was still on edge and had my wits about me at all times, but I think it was more a matter of me feeling out of my element and in an uncomfortable environment more than there was a issue of concern for my safety.

Nonetheless, two full days was enough and I booked my mini-bus ticket to move on to Siem Reap and Ankor. This is something I have really been looking forward to.

Phnom Phen - Oct 10

I finally arrived in Phnom Phen after my 6 hour bus ride lasted just over 12 hours. Turns out it was a National holiday and as my barely english speaking seat mate put it - an "unlucky" day to travel. We sat pretty much at a stand still for over 5 hours waiting for a ferry that I didn't know we were waiting for. Apparently you have to take a boat over the river to get into Phnom Phen. You can imagine my surprise in the dark of night when I asked the guy next to me - "are we on a boat?!". It gave him a good chuckle but as the only foreigner on the bus and even the host only speaking broken English, it made for an uneasy journey.

Arriving at night meant that the bus stopped right on the river in hotel/guesthouse central rather than a little more into town at the market. This was good news for me as it was now 9pm, dark and pouring rain and now I didn't have far to trek to find a hotel. In fact I found the one I was hoping for (as recommended by my Frommers guide) just a block or two from where I got off the bus.

This morning I got up and made my way to breakfast in the pouring rain and tonight, I made my way to dinner in the same condition. The weather broke briefly during the day, but not for long. To keep occupied and dry, I checked out the National museum first. I tried making it there by foot since I knew it wasn't far, but since the rain was so thick I could barely see down the road, I opted for a $2 tuk-tuk instead of wandering lost and getting soaked. The museum wasn't great, but for the $2 admittance it was the perfect dry attraction.

After a quick wander around the streets during the first brief period of dry, I caught some lunch and ended up meeting a couple from Edmonton. They were headed to Vietnam doing the south to north route with a few of the same stops we did. I offered some advice, raised caution about shoe makers in Hoi An and we said goodbye.

I did a visit to the Royal Palace as well since it was across the street and the rain was still on hold. It wasn't worth the $6 entrance fee, plus, I think I got hit on by a monk.

With still a few daylight hours left, I decided that I would check out the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum and former prison. This was something I had previously decided to avoid completely given the reading I've been doing about the Khmer Rouge. This is something I've just learned of recently and is likely responsible for my uneasy feeling in Cambodia. I've been reminding myself that the people have moved forward and the Pol Pot reign is now a part of their history. However, this gruesome past being only 31 years ago gave me no comfort. Looking around, I was always trying to estimate the ages of the local faces and realized soberly that if they were between the ages of 31-36, they were likely born in a concentration camp. If they looked 36 or older, it's very possibly may have lived through the nightmare of what was called the Cambodian holocaust. It was very rare to see old people. They simply did not survive the genocide of 1/4 of Cambodia's population from 1975 - 1979.

I thought that visiting this old high school converted into a detention facility used for interrogation and brutal torture before prisoners where shipped out to the killing fields would be similar to most museums. I assumed it would hold some original artifacts, provide information but mostly be a preservation of the past for the purposes for learning for the future, but more so a tourist trap. I was quickly corrected.

The actual sight came on me quickly since it originally was a middle school. Its in the middle of a busy neighborhood with not much foreground like you might expect a national exhibit to have. The excess in barbed wire over the enclosing walls garnered my attention and a double take, but it was pissing rain so hard that I practically ran through the gates, grabbed my ticket and straight into the first building on the left side of the "U" shaped compound.

Looking up for the first time, I was inside a barren classroom that had been used for torture. It had only a bed frame with rusted shackles on it. There was no electricity in this particular building and the dark rain clouds made it even harder to see. I could tell however that there was a large picture on the wall but needed to take a picture of it (with flash) to make out what it was. Only after viewing the playback on my camera could I see it was a very clear, very graphic and very real picture of a recently brutally tortured dead body, likely from in that very room. Immediately I was second guessing my decision to visit this place.

The entire first floor of this building was the same. Room after room of torture facility each displaying large graphic and (again) very real photos of what took place. Glad to have made it through those halls and eager to move onto the next building (which I could see had electricity) I darted out and moved on. The next set of rooms displayed what was described as the "nazi-like" documentation of prisoners. Every prisoner that was brought here was photographed upon arrival. Every one of the photos (originals) where displayed in the next few rooms. Starting in 1975, the photos looked like most mugs shots do. Deadpan expression, passport quality smile. As the years progressed, and the devastation of Pol Pots reign plagued the country, people knew more and more about S-21 (its official name) and what went on there. The photos slowly turned from deadpan to unimaginable fear. It was difficult to even look at some.

From what I understand, Khmer people (Cambodians) think its important to preserve the S-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide museum as a reminder of a life/country they will never return to. They think that by showing, in grave detail, the horrific nightmare that once was, people will never allow that sort of revolution again and that people will learn never to be that brutal and inhumane.

After passing through the final room, which housed floor to ceiling glass casings full of human skulls, I'm not sure how I feel. I'm certain that the images I saw today were things I wish I didn't. But at the same time, I'm not sure my generation, and especially those from the western world, could ever understand, comprehend or even take seriously something like this. I say "take seriously" because to us (well, speaking for myself), war is something found in textbooks or on TV on the other side of the world. Our parents may have (or may not have) had a related experience with, but mostly, nightmares are things found in good Hollywood films. We have nothing that makes this sort of thing a reality for us. Genocide, torture, random arrests and daily killings, evacuations and complete fear. We just can't relate.

Despite the nightmares I'm sure to have tonight, I'm glad to have seen and felt a part of history. I gained a little perspective today, a little appreciation and a lot of gratitude for the world in which I live. Wow, that doesn't seem to scratch the surface of it.

More pictures of Phnom Phen and the genocide museum here: