A rough night’s sleep in a French mountain hut

Author’s note: This is a continuation on my series of trekking La Vanoise National Park in the high Alps of France. To see all posts in this series, click here.

Sunset over Col de Vanoise.

If you have never been on a mountain hiking trip before, you probably haven’t been properly introduced to “les refuges” or mountain huts. Over the years of my travels, I have stayed at many, some nice and others not so nice. Mountain huts are generally basic shelters in which hikers can sleep and eat for the night at a relatively low cost. Normally mountain huts are quite rustic either with or without electricity, running water and adequate “loo’s”.

The nicest one I’ve ever stayed at was in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. This refugio (as it is called in Spanish) had heated indoor showers, “Western” toilets, decent food and separated bunks.  Some of the worst I’ve stayed at were in Nepal and Peru where a real live toilet was around the bend, under a bush and electricity was a distant dream.

Adventure Travel France Tour de Vanoise TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

In search of the perfect Guatemalan Chicken Bus

I must admit, I seem to have an odd fetish when traveling.  Every time I go to a new place there is something unique that seems to gravitate to me. In China, it was the exotic foods.  In Morocco, the goods at the souq. In Nepal, the prayer flags.

So what was it when I was in Guatemala?  Hands down the funky, multi-colored Guatemalan Chicken Buses that grace the roads and streets throughout the country.  Known as “las camionetas“, the Chicken Buses are decommissioned American school buses that are sent on a long journey south to poor countries in Central America, where they are repainted, refurbished and act as the main source of transportation for the Guatemala’s 13.8 million people.

While researching my trip to Guatemala, I had read about the much loved and hated Chicken bus.  I even googled it and found several silly pictures of these elaborately decorated buses.  I knew that they were cheap, relatively reliable and safe (that is for the most part) but I wasn’t sure where the name came from and whether or not there would be real, live chickens on board.  The origin of the name still remains a bit of a mystery to me today as I never did see anything except people on board.  Then again, I only got to actually ride inside one chicken bus so that is perhaps not very good odds.

Today, while I was tooling around on the internet,  I found an interesting piece on Chicken Buses calledLA CAMIONETA: The Journey of One American School Bus” which offers a rather fascinating account of how the school buses arrived south of the border as well as some rather grueling facts about the dangers Chicken Bus drivers face.  I was warned to never take a bus at night yet I met plenty of young travelers who did.   Not sure how their trips ended up but hopefully they were safe.

Above is my first sight of the Guatemalan Chicken Bus!  I had heard so much about these old American buses that were shipped south of the border and then painted in an elaborate spectrum of colors.  My fabulous hosts informed me that each bus is color coded for its destination.  Pretty clever!  


Spanish crash course 101: How to speak Spanish like the Guatemalans do (Part 1)

View of Xela from the school roof.

I woke up to the sound of the eternally barking dog outside my window, wondering for a moment where on earth I was.  I checked my cheap plastic travel watch and it read 6:50 am.  The sun had yet to light up my bedroom and I was exhausted after a fitful night’s sleep.  I tossed and turned, continually stuffed in my ear plugs and cranked my white noise up yet nothing seemed to help drown out the symphony of noise from the Guatemalan city life.  Unfortunately I’ve always been a light sleeper which got worse after I became a mother.  I swear I sleep with one eye open, listening throughout the darkness of the night for someone to call my name.

My first day at Spanish school was in a little over an hour and I was so tired I had no idea how I’d function, let alone function in another language which I hardly understood.  When I turned off my white noise the sounds of a bustling kitchen filled the room.  I inhaled the delightful aroma of fresh Guatemalan cooking.  Breakfast would not be long.

I slowly cracked opened the door and shyly peered outside.  My room for the week was right next to the kitchen and the family-shared bathroom.  I was still in my PJs in an unfamiliar house with unfamiliar people.  I wasn’t ready to go tramping out the door in plain view of my Guatemalan hosts!  That I reserve for only close friends!

When the coast was clear I made a run for the bathroom and brushed my teeth in a glass of purified water.  There was no way I was going to risk getting another parasite like I did in Costa Rica!  Thus I took every precaution given to me by the travel clinic seriously.  I avoided fresh fruits and vegetables.  Did not drink the water, and brushed my teeth as well only with the bottled stuff.  I flipped on the strange looking shower and got ready to jump in, thinking how good it will feel to wash my hair after a long day of travel.  Maybe the hot water would even wake me up and make me feel better!  I needed any kind of pick me up to start my day in another tongue.


Lost in Translation: My first night in Xela

The moment Luis Enrique rung the doorbell to the tall, green house my stomach dropped in anticipation. What would they be like, my host family for the week? Would they speak any English? Or would they understand my Rosetta Stone beginner level Spanish? Would the house be comfortable? Would I feel awkward and uncomfortable? All these thoughts loomed my head as I waited and waited for the door to open. It felt like an eternity.

Finally after a couple more rings, the door opened. I secretly gave a sigh of relief. I was tired, dirty and hungry. Plus I was eager to meet my new host family who I had heard all about from Ms. May, my son’s school teacher back home who runs the exchange program for Casa Xelaju.

The door creaked open and a dog barked. A young man answered the door and some words were exchanged briefly in gunfire Spanish. All I understood was “Nicole” (my name), “si” and “uno momento por favor”. I entered the dark house to silence and pulling in my enormous red suitcase. I was told to wait there for a moment in the long, narrow hallway, and there I stood for another five minutes waiting for the matron of the house.


The notoriety of being blonde in China

Have you ever traveled somewhere where it was utterly impossible for you to fit in? It is an experience that any avid traveler will face at some point in their travels and honestly, it is an important life lesson that I found truly fascinating and insightful. 

It wasn’t until I began to get off the beaten path a bit more in my travels and become more adventurous, that I began to experience the odd uncomfortable feeling off being “different” from everyone else. You see here in Minnesota, we have a strong Scandinavian heritage and many of us are blond and blue-eyed, fairly tall and hearty looking. You can easily walk down the street and blend in anonymously. Yet once you get on a plane and fly far away to a different place such as China, everything changes. You are no longer anonymous. You are different. You are big. You are tall. Your hair is a funny color one that some people have never seen. You stand out but not necessarily in a way you would like or want to.

For those who have been reading my blog for awhile, you may remember this picture above of me with my newly made Chinese friends on the Great Wall series.  As I climbed up on to the Wall for the first time, I was accosted by a herd of twenty Chinese hikers who nearly fell over when they saw me.  For the next ten minutes, I posed and took pictures with all my new friends.  It took me a minute to figure out why.  My blonde messy hair was discovered under my cap.  

In a country of 1.3 billion in which over 91% of the population is Han (or ethnic “Chinese”), any variation in hair color from the standard black pretty much sticks out like a sore thumb.  Occasionally, you will see a Chinese with dyed red, blond or even blue hair.  But not too often.  Even eye and skin color rarely varies.  Thus, looking “different” in China whether it be skin color, hair color, eye color or size, is an anomaly that for some reason simply fascinates the Chinese people and invites them to take a look.

Thankfully I had experienced this curiosity before.  Last year, I was rudely awakened by the intensity of the stares surrounding me for an eleven hour drive outside of Delhi.  Every single person for eleven long, unending hours not only looked but stared at my long, dirty-blond hair.  It was the most uncomfortable feeling I’ve ever experienced in my life.  The stares were not meant to be rude yet I felt their eyes taking me in deeply and penetrating my soul.  At first I smiled back or even waved hello from the close quarters of my car window (people drive insanely close together in India!).  But after a few hours of the penetrating stares, I felt like some kind of caged animal at the zoo and I buried my head deep inside my pillow and tried to hide.

I have traveled to many places that had never seen a blond-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned person before.  My parents had taken me to rural Mexico many times as a white-haired little girl and I remember the kids chasing me and trying to touch my hair.  I also remember being constantly harassed in parts of France and Italy while I studied abroad as a twenty-one year old American.  I knew that the continual jokes and come-on lines were usually in good humor and that these men were rather harmless.  They had believed that any American woman with blond long hair was an easy escapade thanks to all those bad Hollywood movies.  I ignored them and didn’t let it bug me (except there were a few times when I was unexpectedly flashed and that bothered me immensely!).

Yet, my short time spent in India was different. I had never felt so uncomfortable in my own skin in my life.  Growing up and living in Minnesota, a place that is home to many people with Scandinavian roots,  it was rather unpleasant to be the one who stuck out and was different.

Looking back a year later, I realize that it was probably one of the best experiences I could have ever had.  It taught me what it feels like to be different.  To be misunderstood.  To be the minority.  And to stick out.  I realized how important it is to have this rather unpleasant feeling.  And how I need to seek it out more.

I expected the worst when I went to Morocco last April.  I had never been to a Muslim country before and the anti-American tensions were rising all across Islamic nations.  It wasn’t a good time to be blonde.  So I dyed my hair darker and arrived in Morocco as an even dirtier, dishwater blonde/brown-haired gal.  What was so funny is that no one even noticed the hair color change.  None of my friends said a word nor did my husband.  So basically the point was moot.  I arrived in Morocco not knowing at all what to expect and was pleasantly surprised to see that no one noticed me at all.  I could walk freely, openly and without covering my hair with no penetrating stares, uncomfortable moments or even harassment.  It was a nice change.

So six months later when I arrived in China once again I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Would it be like India or like Morocco?  Would I be treated as an oddity or just fit in smoothly to the crowds of people?  What I discovered that for the most part, no one really cared except the young folks who treated me like a celebrity and wanted their picture with some foreign, blonde stranger, me.

As I was walking along the banks of the river overlooking the glorious Bund on one side and Pudong on the other, I was approached once again by a stranger.  It was a young Chinese woman and her friends.  They couldn’t speak English nor could I speak Chinese.  But one thing was universal:  A camera.  I reached out to grab the camera and prepared to take their picture when I saw a smiling shake of the head.  No.  That was not what she wanted me to do.  She wanted me to be in the picture.  With her.  As her blonde, American friend!

What else could I do but agree and then ask her friend to take a picture of us with mine?

Me, thirdeyemom and my new Chinese friend.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned during my travels is what it feels like to not fit in and to be different. That although we may not look the same, we are all the same in our wishes and desires in life. We all want to be happy, healthy and live a life full of love. It is this common desire that makes us human. Yet our differences is what makes the human race so grand.

Related posts:

Why I travel: An insight into why I became the thirdeyemom

How Nepal Changed Me



Occupy 40: How to turn 40 and feel like you’re 30.

Ok….drum roll please.  Da da da da daaaaaaaaaaaaaaa (pause). Today is a milestone day (breathe).  A day which I have dreaded, fretted about, worried about, cried about for over 365 days.  Today I am 40 years old (gulp).   Yep, thirdeyemom was born on December 6th, 1971 and today marks my fortieth year.

An oldie but goodie.  Me on my sixth birthday receiving my first pair of clogs.  December 6, 1977. 

There are lots of milestones throughout your life.  Learning to walk.  Learning to talk.  Learning how to swim and ride a bike.  Having your first sleep-over.  Learning to drive.  Going on your first date.  Having your first kiss.  Graduating high school.  Leaving home.  Starting your first job.  Meeting your husband.  Getting married.  Having kids.  And, of course turning 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 and so on.

No matter what your age is, I am sure you feel the same way at each milestone birthday:  Excited, scared, nervous and in disbelief at just how fast life seems to be going.  Turning 40 is a big one.  It means you are officially “middle-aged“, you have technically lived over half of your life already (unless you are like my grandpa who just turned 96!), you can remember when your own parents turned 40, and you may even discover your first gray hair (the wrinkles have already long set in).

But….no worries!  What I’ve had to come to terms with over the last 365 days is that of course there is no turning back time.  You’re 40.  So why not decide to be “forty and fabulous”?  Of course there is no real fountain of youth yet there are ways to keep feeling young.

Here is my top ten list of ways to turn 40 yet feel like you’re 30.  For age is all a state of mind, isn’t it?  Life is a journey.  Each day is a gift.  It’s called the presence!  

So, without further delay here is my top ten list of How to Occupy 40:

1.  Exercise daily.  Run, walk, swim, bike or practice yoga.  Just do it.  It will keep you feeling younger, healthier, happier and thinner.

2.  Get plenty of sleep and eat good.  This is huge.  No McDonalds, potato chips, etc.  Instead eat lots of whole grains, fruits and veggies.  The occasional junk food pig-out is fine.  Just don’t do it all the time; you’ll pay for it more!

3.  Smile, relax and laugh often.  Enjoy life!  It’s the only one you’ve got!

4.  If you see a gray hair, dye it!  Why not look in the mirror and look young?  It will make you feel younger!  (Thankfully as a blond, I don’t have any yet.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t make my hair “blonder!”).

5.  Travel as much as possible. Travel keeps you young.  It keeps you learning, challenged and fascinated by the world.

6.  Learn something new each year.  Take a photography class, an art class or learn a new language.  It will keep you challenged and growing.

7.  Volunteer and give back.  It is important to remember those in need.  Helping others makes you feel warm inside and helps the soul.

8.  If you have kids, play with them!  Be a kid yourself again.  It feels great to be silly.

9.  Manage your stress.  Stress wears you down, makes you feel awful.  Try your best to not let the little things bug you.

10.  Live, laugh and love!  Life is short, enjoy it to the fullest extent possible.