Monday, February 22, 2016

My First Big Island Experience

Last week I had the privilege of island hopping to what Hawaiians refer to as "Big Island". The real name is actually the Island of Hawai'i, which the state is named after and it's the largest by far of the 8 main islands that make up the most famous and cherished island chain in the world. Known for its active volcanos and delicious coffee, it's a delight for the millions of tourists who visit each year. And after a quick 40 minute flight, I got to be one of them for the long weekend.

We stayed in the charming and historic beach town known as Kailua-Kona on the west coast, which is the most popular city to visit and seemingly the most contemporary on the island. The main strip of hotels, boutiques, and restaurants are lined up along the turquoise waters of Kona Bay. The weather is almost always perfect, which explains why Hawaiian royalty used to escape here. There are some incredible beaches, such as Kua and Hapuna, just up the coastline. However, driving just a few minutes outside of town will remind you that you're on a volcano that is young and still constantly growing. Black soil and lava rocks make up much of the landscape on the island, a stark difference from the other Hawaiian islands that are mostly lush green and red clay dirt. You may even feel like you’re on another planet since the scenery is so unique. For this reason, many people prefer other islands over Big Island but I found it fascinating and beautiful.

The only other large town (which is still relatively tiny) on the island is Hilo, on the east coast. It takes a little less than two hours to drive across the island between the two cities, which is several times more than it would take to drive across the island I live on. Everyone warned me that Big Island is a LOT bigger and involves more driving than what I'm used to on Oahu, but nothing could prepare me for the 16+ hours I drove over the four days we visited. I didn't mind it for the most part, since I was among such gorgeous sights and in full explorer mode.

Walking around Hilo is like stepping back in time. It's a very sleepy little town, and far less modern than Kona. However, it seemed to be a lot more laid back and old fashioned. What I love was the abundance of hippies and natural lifestyle type stores and restaurants. We also encountered a fantastic farmers market, which not only had fresh produce but also lots of goodies like jewelry. We could have spent all day there, as we loved the vibes. However, we were not impressed with the food selection from what we could see. Also, this is not the best place for beaches. But if you’re a nature lover like me, it’s a treasure with luscious forests and waterfalls nearby. We got to check out Rainbow falls and Akaka falls, which were both super quick and easy so I highly recommend them.


Unfortunately for us, during the time of our visit the island was (and still is) dealing with an outbreak of Dengue fever. So one of the attractions I wanted to see most (the extremely sacred Waipio Valley) was closed. But since I definitely did not want to get eaten alive by mosquitos and infected by any disease, it was best. We still got to visit the breathtaking Waipio lookout to see the iconic view of the valley and cliffs right on the ocean, all while doused in bug spray of course. Hopefully next time I go, the efforts to get rid of Dengue on the island will have worked and I’ll be able to actually visit the valley. It’s definitely a must-see.

On the bright side, I got to do the coolest thing on the island, which is visit Volcanos National Park to see one of the most active volcanoes in the world, Kilauea. It’s not what you’d probably expect of a volcano, but it was an amazing experience nonetheless. We could not get close to the caldera but we saw it from a distance, including the smoke and at night you can definitely see the lava glowing. Hawaiian legend for this revolves around Madame Pele, the goddess of fire. It was all pretty fascinating, and it was especially trippy standing on lava flow.


However, what topped this and became one of my favorite things I've ever done was going on top of Mauna Kea to watch the sunset from above the clouds, at an altitude of 10,000 feet. We wanted to go even higher to the summit, which would have been 14,000, feet but we got there just a little too late. Next time for sure, because this was such a dope experience, even despite the altitude sickness. The key is to get to the visitor center early (around 4) and give yourself a good amount of time to acclimate before heading to the summit. This is the tallest mountain in the world from the ocean floor (33,000 feet) and the most sacred place for native Hawaiians. You can certainly see why when you feel the powerful energy and look down at the clouds, as if you're in heaven. It was simply spiritual. After the sun sets, this is the best place in the entire world for stargazing. We could actually see other galaxies and millions of stars with the naked eye. Just incredible. I was in awe for days after this, and probably always will be!

Another highlight for me was of course centered around food. There are a plethora of great choices in the Kailua-Kona area, especially for carnivores like me since Big Island is known for its grass fed cattle, so beef is really fresh. The best meals were the ono (Hawaiian word for yummy) kalbi short rib omelet at Broke Da Mouth Grindz (which translates to amazingly delicious in Hawaiian pidgin), the roasted pork at 808 Grindz, and the guava ribs and chicken at Splashers. However, I must say favorite part were the many quaint little coffee shops on every corner that all sell irresistible Kona coffee. Since I gave up coffee about a year ago, it’s nice to indulge while on vacation and this is some of the best I’ve ever had, by far. So I may or may not have had 2-3 cups a day. This stuff is super expensive and a hot commodity most places, but a cup of 100% Kona coffee will only run you about $3 while in Kona, so don’t let the hotel rip you off.


Of course we were visiting during the Super Bowl, so we spent much of our last day at a sports bar watching the game and meeting other tourists from all over the world. After all the driving and running around we did, it was a nice way to end the weekend and get ready for our short journey back to Oahu. Plus, what better way to watch a game than with the ocean and palm trees right behind you?

Although many tourists opt to skip Big Island for the more popular attractions on Maui and Oahu, this island really has so much to offer and I truly enjoyed it. The pace is much slower and the people are even friendlier, so it is the true aloha spirit I always envisioned of Hawaii, which is not always so common these days in other busy parts of the state. While I am definitely a city girl, it’s always nice to escape to the country, breathe in fresh air, and relax. This short trip was just what I needed and an unforgettable experience. I’m already looking forward to returning again!


Friday, February 19, 2016

Travel Budgeting 101

So you decided you want to take a trip somewhere amazing. Congratulations!
If you’re looking to plan the entire thing yourself like I always do, the first thing you should always do is set a budget. This allows you to figure out how much you need to save up and it can really make or break your experience.

The process I am about to share is my personal method for budget formulation. I have used it for countless trips and it has always been successful for me. I have never gone anywhere without enough money. In fact, I usually spend exactly what I set for my budget, or sometimes even come home with a little extra leftover.

Everything will really depend on a wide variety of factors, including where you’re going, the time of year, how much you have to spend, what activities you want to do, and whether you’re trying to be frugal or going all out. Also, this is all based on estimates so your actual expenses may be less or more.

To simplify what can become quite complicated, I am dedicating this post solely to budgeting. I will release several other posts to accompany this, such as booking flights, picking hotels, and ways to save money. This post is just to show you how I set a budget, what categories you need to consider, and what to research. Follow these steps to get an idea of how much your ideal trip will cost, and then there are ways to trim it down if need be, which will be listed at the end.

1) Pick a timeframe. Gathering this info first allows you to gage what time of year you should go. Google “best time of year to visit ___”. Thankfully, there are a plethora of sites that have everything outlined for you on any destination. You need to find out what the peak season is, since prices rise significantly then for most cities and you may want to avoid those months. You also want to consider weather, since it would be a waste of money to visit certain places during monsoon season when you may not be able to do much. In addition, certain events or holidays could drive costs up. If you’re going for a specific event, such as Essence Festival in New Orleans, you can pretty much expect costs to be significantly higher than normal due to everyone else and their mother going at the same time.

2) Set a tentative itinerary. A lot of people may argue that this part comes later, but I strongly believe it’s necessary to do this at the very beginning of your planning. That’s because it allows you to figure out the number of days/nights you’ll need for your trip, which directly determines your costs. Most places you go have certain “can’t miss” attractions or tourist things to do, and if you’re like me you’re all about getting in as much sightseeing as you can. So this will include activities, excursions, tours, shows, museums, and general exploration.

Google “top things to do in ___” and pick your must-see items, then others that you may or may not be able to squeeze in. Everyone sets their own pace for their trips, meaning how much you cram in or whether you prefer a leisurely pace to just “go with the flow”. If you’re going somewhere like Paris where there are endless attractions and museums to explore, it’s hard to fit everything in both time-wise and financially. So read as much as you can about each activity/attraction, as some will take a few hours and others will be all day ordeals.

As you’re looking up activities, jot down a tentative itinerary of items for each day and night, and also be sure to jot down price estimates for each activity while you’re at it. Many, such as parks or museums, may be free or have reduced prices on some days. Other activities such as sky-diving, a live show, or guided tour could cost you $100+. These items will most likely change or get moved around but it gives you a good idea to start with.

Be sure to also factor in travel time (generally you won’t be able to do too much the day you arrive and the day you depart, especially with jet lag), as well as some downtime so you don’t overdo it and exhaust yourself, and so you have some flexibility. You may want to plan an entire day just to lounge by the pool and enjoy your hotel’s amenities, or a free day to just roam around and shop.

Here is an example for visiting Honolulu:
Day 1:         Arrive 12PM, Check in, Hit Waikiki beach
Night 1:      Dinner @ hotel
Day 2:         Historic tour ($60)
Night 2:      Sunset Cruise ($50, dinner not included), Dinner
Day 3:         Sunrise hike (free), Museum ($5), Pool (free)
Night 3:      Live show ($25, includes dinner)
Day 4:         Dolphin excursion ($90)
Night 4:     Luau ($60, includes dinner)
Day 5:         Surf Lesson ($80)
Night 5:      Dinner
Day 6:         Shopping in town, Depart 4PM
This determined that I’ll need 6 days and 5 nights. Also, I’ll only need dinner for 3 nights, since 2 activities include dinner.

           3) Do a preliminary check on flights and hotels, since these will likely be the biggest expenses. Flights vary substantially, so I will be doing an entire post to go over that later. But you’ll need to monitor them for a while to get the best deal. Hotel rates on the other hand usually stay pretty consistent, so just get a general idea of the range that works for you (i.e. $100-130/night for 3 star accommodations). I like using websites like Kayak who will shop around for you and get you the best rates, and then Trip Advisor to see which hotels are rated the best (I will do another post on selecting hotels later too). Be sure to consider taxes and fees that will also apply, since most people miss this. Finalize some estimates for both categories (e.g. $850 for flight, and $200/night for hotel).

       4) Check out food options. Look online to see how much the average meal costs. Websites and guidebooks out there do a great job of letting you know the price range for a meal in any given city (e.g. $ = $5-15, $$ = $16-25, $$$ = $26-45, $$$$ = $46+). Generally, breakfast and lunch can be pretty cheap or may even be included at your hotel. But dinner will make up the majority of your food budget, unless it’s included in some of your evening activities (like the two meals in my step 3 example). Some folks try to really save in this area, but if you’re a foodie like me, you’d rather skimp in other areas so you can splurge on some good meals and try the best local restaurants. There are some places I’ve been, like Costa Rica, where I could get a huge plate of food for $5. But in general, if I’m in Spain, I am willing to pay for good paella and sangria. That is a major part of the experience for me personally. Staying away from tourist traps is a good idea, since I’ve seen $30 burgers in Times Square just a block away from a much more delicious burger for $10. Finalize some estimates for your daily food budget (e.g. $10/day for breakfast, $20/day for lunch, $30/day for dinner, total: $60/day).

      5) Check out ground transportation options. Look up average prices and compare fares for each method of transportation at your destination. This is harder to find than other categories you’ll research, but the info is definitely out there, especially in guidebooks. For most cities, trains and buses are the most efficient and cost-effective method for getting around. However, you can also research the cost of renting a car (which should include gas, parking at your hotel, and parking wherever you go) just to compare. Some places you go may not even have train systems to use so you’ll have no choice. But usually, public transportation saves you a ton of money, time, and hassle. In many cities you can even get a day or week pass for unlimited use, which I jump on whenever I can. Another option is taxis, which are easy but super expensive, so I only use them as a last resort. Finalize your estimate for daily transportation (typically $20-30 per day).

6) Check out airport transportation. Is the airport close to the city center or far away? In many cities I’ve been, such as London and Tokyo, it’s actually far away. Many people forget how much time and money this can involve, so be sure to consider the best way to get to and from the airport. It may cost you $40 a week to park at the airport in your home city, but if you can arrange for someone to drop you off, then it’s free. Once you arrive to your destination, you may be able to catch a free or reduced shuttle bus to your hotel, take the train, or may just be close enough to catch a quick taxi. In Tokyo, I was able to get a round-trip ticket on the Narita Express for about $33 round-trip and it took about an hour. So don’t forget to get an estimate for this expense.

      7) Decide how much you want to spend on souvenirs. This is another cost that could really set you back if you don’t plan for it. It’s really a personal preference. Some people like to shop for themselves and others, while others skip this completely. I used to buy souvenirs for everyone, and then I realized how little people actually appreciate them, and how most keychains and magnets get tossed. So now I don’t really buy for many, but there are a few items I seek because I like to bring them back as mementos for myself (magnets, picture frames). I typically budget $100-300 for souvenirs, depending on where I’m going and what items they’re known for.

      8) Decide how much to set for incidentals (optional). This is everything from souvenir photos, a daily latte, exchange rate conversion, ATM fees, etc. All of these things seem nominal, but they add up so I like to account for this and leave myself some cushion. And if I don't end up using it all, it can go towards a splurge meal, souvenirs, or I can just take it home with me. So I typically set about $20 a day in incidentals.

      9) Plug in your estimates into your categories. Here are my estimates for my example trip to Honolulu.
Flight: $850
Lodging: $200/night for 5 nights = $1000, plus $50 resort fee: $1050
Entertainment/Activities: $370
Food: $60/day for 6 days = $360, minus $60 for two dinners included: $300
Ground Transportation: $20/day for 6 days: $120
Airport Transportation: $40 for parking, free shuttle to hotel: $40
Incidentals: $20/day for 6 days: $120
Souvenirs: $200
Total: $3,050

Other things you may want to consider and put into your budget include:
-         Baggage fees
-         The cost of getting a passport if you don’t have one already
-         Visa or entrance/exit fees
-         Parking at hotel
-         The costs of buying things for your trip, such as travel sized toiletries, sunscreen, new outfits

Remember, the more research you do the more spot on your estimates will be, but when in doubt, round up. For me personally, it’s always better to overestimate and have a little extra than to feel restricted because I did not bring enough. When I travel, I really like to enjoy myself and see/do as much as I can, and budgeting has truly helped me make it possible. And the great thing is, the more you travel, the better you’ll get at doing this and creating really precise budgets that are close to, if not exactly, what you’ll actually spend. If you’re tight on cash, a budget allows you to set targets so you’ll know your limits, and to stay on track maybe you can skip on a $10 glass of wine or souvenir photo with your budget in mind. I learned the hard way whenever I tried to just wing it or said "all I'll need is $500" and ended up regretting it. So putting in this effort to plan and prepare a budget means I don’t have to worry about it later on when I’m actually on my trip and instead, I can truly enjoy my time!

If your budget total ends up being way out your league, there are many ways to reduce your costs that you may want to consider, such as:
-         Reduce the number of days/nights. If you cram more into less time, you may exhaust yourself but you’ll definitely save money. This is the best way to save.
-         Inviting other people to join you and split the cost of lodging. Sometimes you may even get group rates for activities. Solo travel is my favorite but it's more expensive.
-         Stay at a hostel. While this has a negative connotation for many, there are actually several high end options now at many destinations.
-         Specifically choose hotels that eliminate costs and come with freebies, such as ones with breakfast included or ones that provide transportation to/from the airport for free. Also, choosing a centrally located hotel where you can walk to most places helps to reduce ground transportation costs.
-         Plan trips to visit friends or family so you can stay with them for free. They're also a free tour guide that can show you around and possibly get you local rates or hook ups. 
-         When you arrive at your destination, go get some groceries so you can make sandwiches and have snacks instead of always eating out, which greatly cuts down on food costs.
-         Find out where there’s a swap meet or market to buy super cheap souvenirs.
-         Instead of buying tours, try to plan your own sight-seeing for free. Choose cheaper excursion, shop around, or try to get them using rewards programs for discounts. Always check for groupons at your destination.
-         Use airline points to redeem free flights (more on this in my upcoming airfare post!)

Ultimately, you can go as extravagant as you want or keep it simple in order to spend less. Either way, I advise you to never let money to be a deterrent. Even if you have to thug it out and sleep on someone’s couch, there is no pricetag for the incredible experience of seeing the world and exploring a new city/country. It's ALWAYS worth it! I urge you to use these budgeting techniques as a tool to plan, so you can save and make your dream trips happen one by one! Enjoy and good luck :)


Saturday, January 23, 2016

How Moving Far Away Became the Best Thing I Ever Did

Today marks the one year anniversary of the day I left everything and everyone behind, spread my wings, and moved to paradise. Looking back, it ended up being the best thing I could have ever done for myself. But even still, I'm not gonna act like I wasn't sobbing when I had to say goodbyes to my family, or nervous when I boarded that one way flight. And I admit, it hasn’t all been rainbows and sunshine. I honestly wasn’t ever really scared to make this move, as my intuition reassured me that it was the right decision. But for a while, there were many times I felt alone and isolated. It only took a couple months after moving before people seemed to forget about me, and to this day I don’t really speak to anyone from back home regularly besides my mom. I didn’t realize I would be essentially starting over, living an entirely new life all on my own. But miraculously, it all came together. I eventually made some incredible new friendships, I not only survived but I thrived amongst an entirely new culture that isn’t exactly welcoming to outsiders, I discovered my passion and purpose in life, I unlocked levels of my own consciousness that have blown me away, and I’ve had some unforgettable and life-changing experiences. But above all, I have really become genuinely happy, and undergone a revolutionary awakening.

I am not exaggerating in any way when I say that I am a completely different person from the girl who got off that plane last year. I do not mean this because my life now consists of beach days, aloha spirit, and an endless tan. The obvious perks of living here are phenomenal, but it goes much deeper for me. Hawaii has been the perfect place to find myself. I honestly attribute this to the magical energy here, which natives have always referred to as “mana”. It has been powerful, healing, and really connected me to nature and the universe in a way I never dreamed of. 

I didn’t realized how drastic this shift was until I went back home to Maryland for two weeks. The place where I was born and raised somehow looked and felt so strange. After being gone for eight months, amazingly nothing had really changed there and everyone still seemed to be carrying on exactly as they were before I left. Yet after my transformation, my previous life was almost unrecognizable.  It was great to see my friends and family, but I realized I could no longer relate to anyone from back home. I wondered, had I stayed, would I be in the same old rut too? Complacent with my 9-5 like everyone else, and never demanding more from my life or searching within for answers? East Coast Amanda used to be concerned with extremely trivial things like gossip, going out, drinking, chasing boys, rocking the hottest outfits, buying expensive things, making lots of money.  None of which matter at all to me anymore. These days, the kind of things on Hawaii Amanda’s mind are entrepreneurship, art, organic food and nutrition, sustainability, volunteering, native cultures, social activism, and most of all spirituality. What a difference. I now see the world with totally new eyes.

I always joke around that “moving to Hawaii turned me into a hippie” but in all honesty, it pretty much did. I am so at peace with myself, with my life, and with the world, that I find myself just smiling for no reason. This journey I’m on has been so liberating. It began years ago, but evolved to new heights here. Most of this is due to having to be totally self-reliant and spending so much time alone, which led to exploring and contemplating nature; focusing on my spiritual studies and research; and lots of inner work. This got me to the point where I no longer care about conforming to society’s norms, fitting in, or money and material things. I no longer have a huge ego to feed, which is quite an accomplishment for a prideful leo. A lot of people may judge me for still being single at 28, for going on solo vacations, for having lots of tattoos, for listening to heavy metal, for saying “fuck” a lot, for being into “new age” philosophy, for basically being a walking paradox. But for the first time in my life, I am so completely comfortable with who I am that I accept and love myself unconditionally, and that’s all that matters. It’s complete freedom.

Would any of this have happened if I had stayed in my little comfort zone in Maryland? It’s pretty doubtful. Had I not been thrust into a lot of solitude and reflection, I would not have heard the voice of my own soul and explored myself as I have over the past year. It took being in a new and foreign place 5000 miles away for me to get here. Along the way, I have had a ton of fun and adventures, and pushed myself to be fearless (such as swimming with sharks) and rediscovered my true passions (such as writing and helping others). I have come to appreciate how strong and brave I am, and now embrace my authentic self, instead of who the world convinced me I should be. I could not ask for anything more fulfilling.

I now like to tell people these ironic stories of how when I was a little kid, I saw this tiny little island chain on the map in the middle of the Pacific ocean and said, “who the heck would actually live there?” Or how when I initially got presented with the opportunity to take a job in Hawaii, I immediately wrote it off due to the cost of living. But my life now is proof that remarkable things come when you stop playing it safe and take some risks in life. I know most people are perfectly content to stay settled in their hometown for the rest of their lives, which is fine. But I discovered I am just not one of those people. I know I would have never been happy settling for the status quo. I would be perfectly content being a gypsy and moving around the world for the rest of my life, or maybe staying here. But I honestly don’t know if I could ever return home. The door is now open to unlimited possibilities.


“She crossed an ocean to follow her heart, and she found her soul.”



Monday, January 11, 2016

RIP David Bowie

Rarely am I so affected by the news of a celebrity's death that I burst into tears instantaneously when I heard the news. That's how much David Bowie meant to me and to the world. This was a legend, an icon, a visionary, a hero, not only for pop music and rock n roll, but for anyone who ever dared to be different, a voice for the weirdos, freaks, queers, and outcasts. This was a man who didn't care what people said or how they received him because that's what being a true artist is all about. This was a man who paved the way for the glam rock and punk movements, and countless musicians across all genres. This was a man who challenged the status quo, who lived fearlessly regardless of society's taboos (i.e androgyny, sexual identity, and interracial dating). This was a man who took music to another level by not only having themes and characters for each album, but by completely reinventing himself time and time again over FIVE decades. Each of his many projects were profound in some way. Yet in interviews he was always kind, humble, and maintained a great sense of humor with a cool, calm demeanor. He refused to let any one identity define or constrict him, as he was constantly evolving and innovating. He changed the game and made that okay. This tremendous impact has touched millions on a person level, including me.

I guess the reason I was so emotional is because in a world of mediocrity, I still cherish real artists, individuality, originality, self expression, and aunthenticity. David Bowie was as real as they come, and they just don't come like this anymore. He's one of those people you think will just live forever, because he simply has to. So this really rocked me to my core. His music (especially Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs) changed my life, and I will forever be grateful for all his incredible contributions and his brilliant legacy. The world took a great loss when he left. Sending love and light to this starman in the sky. ❤️

When you rock and roll with me
No one else I'd rather be
Nobody here can do it for me
I'm in tears again
When you rock and roll 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Why Travel is Good for the Soul

There are many things one can do to get in touch with their soul and progress as a person. Meditation, yoga, and prayer have been powerful tools for me personally. However, the most life-changing and transformative thing I’ve ever done is travel. When I started visiting different places around the world, it was all about fun and adventure, which will always be the case. But I started to realize it was changing me in ways that I never even imagined were possible and singlehandedly led to my spiritual evolution. Here is why it can do the same for you too!

It will expand your perspective. We tend to all live in our little bubbles. Our views are limited to our own reality; our experiences based on our lives. We are familiar and comfortable with where we are from and our own culture. But someone else from across the world has a completely different reality than yours. It’s easy to assume that life all over the planet is similar. I know for me, that was the case. As an American, I was conditioned to be arrogant with a nationalistic attitude. Many of us are convinced that our country is the most influential and that we have it all figured out. However, when you get out there and see firsthand how different life is in other places, any ethnocentric approach you possess will be challenged. It can really rock you to your core. You realize how little your city where you’re from actually is. You realize people all over the world live different ways, and they’re not necessarily wrong just because it’s not what you’re used to. In fact, in many cases you will find other customs more appealing. You may like the simplicity of the European lifestyle and their extremely efficient use of public transportation systems, or how Japanese show so much respect for where they live and refrain from littering. There are in fact many things that other countries do better than Americans. And then it hits you. It’s not even about who’s better. Slowly, you experience a paradigm shift. Your viewpoint will drastically change to a worldwide angle. You begin to see that your home country is just one of many on this huge planet we share, and each of us is in this together. Your way is not the only way, and the universe actually does not revolve around you and your bubble. My favorite a-ha moment when it comes to this was when I was in Paris. I was talking to a Muslim guy from Tunisia who was making me a sandwich at a deli next to my hotel. He was telling me how bad Muslims have it there, and how they’re discriminated against and treated as unwelcome. Then he looked me in my eyes and genuinely asked, “Do you all have racism in America?” I was floored. What an incredible thing perspective can be.

It humbles you. As you explore the world, you will empathize with different groups of people and see from their point of view. Each country and culture has so much to offer. There is not a single place I’ve been that is better in pictures or on TV. Everything is far more amazing and stimulating in person. There is nothing to replace actually experiencing a place it its entirety, with all the sights, smells, sounds, and really being immersed in its culture. If you’re open-minded, it will fascinate, dazzle, and enlighten you. You will fall in love with the people, the architecture, the language, the food, the music, the energy. It gives direct access to humanity. Despite our differences, we all share the same planet. By seeing all the world has to offer, you’ll connect with it and all of its inhabitants. That is how you truly appreciate your own membership in this human race.

It will push you out of your comfort zone. New environments will challenge you and force you to try new things. Being somewhere unfamiliar and feeling uncomfortable makes you to learn more about yourself than you ever will at home. This is where you find out what you’re really made of and how adaptive you are. Do you have what it takes to survive in a place without speaking the language, without understanding the norms, without knowing anyone? You may even surprise yourself. This helps you grow stronger and more resilient, and causes you to evolve into a more cultured, worldly person. You can always tell people who have been around and seen a few things, from those whose outlooks are limited to their own surroundings. It’s such an admirable trait to be more wise, experienced, sophisticated, and well-traveled.

It will make you appreciate things differently. As much as this is about expanding your horizon, it can also do a lot to change the way you look at your own life. You may find a bunch of things you like better in other countries, but at the end of the day, there’s no place like home. You will gain new respect for things you didn’t even realize you took for granted about your home country, like the convenience, the comfort food, or having family close by. You’ll also have more appreciation for how good you have it, especially when you visit less fortunate countries. Your problems don't matter anymore. Just from witnessing the struggles of others, you can be healed.

It will uplift you. One of the most beautiful lessons for me as a world traveler has been to witness certain universal values inherent in all people regardless of boundaries that separate us. Love, compassion, family, and spiritual purpose always prevail, regardless of cultural differences. This is what really matters most to all of us human beings no matter where you go. It transfers across any religion or border. Sometimes when you visit countries that have the least [as far as material possessions], they still appear to be happier than those of us from wealthier countries. And they are. Their lives are not complicated by technology and consumed with greed. They’re happy just to have what they need and to be together with their loved ones. It’s so incredible and refreshing to witness. It makes you look within and question your own existence in the grand scheme of things.

It will inspire you. Traveling is not about escaping your life, but rather escaping the soul-numbing routine many of us have been cast into; and cultivating a life of passion and purpose. When you see how other people live and how other parts of the world operate, you'll be driven to find and live your own mission in life. Travel is not about looking elsewhere for inspiration; but rather looking within. When you realize you're merely one soul wandering this great earth among billions of others, you'll feel more urgency to make your moments count and take advantage of every blessing. It’s hard to grasp the immensity of the world. Yet despite this, you will know for sure that you serve a distinct purpose and significance among it all. We all do.

It will awaken your spirit. I like to think of travelling as soul searching in a way. I have never heard my soul speak to me and guide me more than when I was traveling abroad. Somehow you just instinctively ditch your ways and wander. Your spirit will flourish the more you rely on your intuition, the more compassion you gain on each journey, the more you find yourself, the more you think outside the box, the more you gain gratitude, the more your awareness expands and your consciousness develops. Taking a trip allows you to slow down and listen to your inner being. It can be exciting and thrilling, but there are also opportunities for reflection when you’re facing a majestic mountain, an ocean view, or one of the Seven Wonders of the World. For me, it is the moments when I see a beautiful sight and am moved to tears when I feel the undeniable presence of my soul and cannot deny its existence. Even if it doesn’t induce waterworks for you, it’s still nourishing to your spiritual being and beneficial to your spiritual path and personal growth.  You will feel more alive and connected to the universe than ever before.


Lessons Learned from my Grandma

January 9 will always be the hardest day of the year for me. On this day three years ago, my beloved Grandma Jin passed away in her sleep, after many years battling COPD and several other health issues. I was glad she went peacefully, considering all the time she spent in hospitals, and the many times doctors told me she wouldn’t make it. But I was a wreck. This woman raised me and we were always super close, but especially since I had been taking care of her for several years beforehand, we developed a bond like no other. So most years on the anniversary of her death I turn into quite a mope. But this year I felt different. Yes, I miss her terribly and I’m not gonna lie, it hurts like hell. However, I realized I should be celebrating her life and the many things her legacy taught me and my family. Here is a list of just a few of the many fabulous lessons my amazing grandmother would have wanted the world to know.

To always be considerate. My feisty Grandma would always get worked up about people with no “consideration”. I guess that was her pet peeve. I always remember hearing her use this word but I never truly knew what it meant until I got older. It’s a simple concept of respect and being caring and thoughtful of other people and their time. She taught me to always to think of others before myself. Surprisingly, I have learned that most people float on by without the considerate trait and have absolutely no respect or awareness of others around them, but it truly makes a huge difference. And it is now my own pet peeve too!

To always look fabulous. I always tell people that my grandma would ask “Mandy, where’s your lipstick?” to which I’d reply “Grandma, I’m only going to the supermarket.” And then she’d scold me, using her classic line, “You never know!” Anyone who knew my grandma knew she always dressed to the nines. Having her hair, makeup, and nails done; wearing a fly outfit, and accessorizing was her thing. Back in her time, people would always dress up and look their best. So she was a real diva. Always classy, elegant, poised, and absolutely gorgeous. It is not about being pretentious, but instead it taught me that how you present yourself to the world says a lot about you.

That behind the smile, there is always some pain. When you look at the many photos I have of my beautiful Grandma, you’d probably think she had a good life. She was usually dolled up and smiling or laughing. There were plenty of good times for her, but I hate to say she actually endured a very rough life overall. She lived through the devastation of the Korean War where her and her family starved. She told me she was literally skin and bones as a child. Then her parents died when she was young, so she had to take care of her siblings. She never even got to go to school. Later on, her life of being married to an Army Officer and moving to America may have looked glamorous on the outside, but she was actually dealing with mistreatment, infidelity and betrayal beyond what most women can bare. She ended up as a single mother in a place where everyone was racist towards her and tried to take advantage of her. Despite it all, she kept her head held high and persevered with a smile on her face. I respected her so much for all she went through and how she still kept such a joyous spirit. No one would ever know of the challenges and struggles she faced because of how resilient and upbeat she was. That’s just how it goes: you never know what someone has been through.

The value of an education. One thing Grandma Jin engrained into my brain was how powerful an education is, especially since she was denied the privilege herself. She urged me to be good in school and to spend much of my own time reading and studying. As a kid, I remember what a kick she would get out of me reading random things out loud to her, since she never got to learn how herself. I will never forget how proud she looked when she got to see me walk across the stage and graduate college. It meant the world to her because of the many opportunities she missed out on, and now it means the world to me.

The value of common sense. Sometimes she was a little hard on herself. She would say, “I’m stupid, no education, but I have some common sense.” I would argue with her that it takes a LOT of common sense to make it without knowing how to read or write. You have to be pretty freaking remarkable to adapt in a new country the way she did and survive all those years. It taught me the difference between book smarts and street smarts, and how equally important each are. Grandma was the wisest person you would ever meet.


To enjoy a good meal. Grandma could throw down. She was the center of every occasion with her delicious cooking. Even when we went out to eat, it meant a lot to her to gather, say thanks, and share a nice meal together. She grew up in extreme poverty and did not believe in wasting any food, so she taught us to appreciate things in a way most kids didn’t. She would tell us how blessed we were to eat, and how God made all these things so they could nourish us. During the period where she got ill and I became her caregiver, I remember bringing her many meals from her favorite place ever, Popeye’s. Sometimes I would bring her a bowl from Chipotle and we’d chow down together, or sometimes I even got to take her out to eat her other favorites, seafood and Italian. Each time, she savored and appreciated every bite, and cherished being able to simply eat together. Now I cherish those simple memories like no other.

To take care of myself. At the time when I was taking care of my grandma before her passing, I was also going to school full-time and working full-time. I had a LOT on my plate. Even on the days where I didn’t see grandma in person and we just talked on the phone, she would always drill me on what I ate and how much sleep I got. She would lecture me to rest and that I had to listen to my body. Over the years, I learned the hard way how right she was and how important it is to take care of myself first and foremost.

To make every moment count. When I was a kid, I remember my Grandma Jin was always on the move. She worked hard, took care of me, my sister, and my mother; and was an active member of her church. She also made a lot of time for prayer and keeping her home immaculately clean. She was superwoman to me! She was always busy. To witness her health deteriorate over the years, and see her lose her independence as she could no longer drive, then she could no longer cook, then eventually she could hardly walk or breathe on her own. It was hard to see this, and very humbling. It made me realize how precious our lives are, and made me vow to make every moment count, because life passes you by quicker than you realize.

Unconditional love. This is the greatest thing my grandma ever showed me. No matter what, she was there for us. With anything our family went through, she was our rock. Growing up, I had a difficult childhood and she was the one I could always turn to. She lived her life in complete service to us and with the utmost loyalty to her family. No matter how badly she was treated, betrayed, and taken advantage of, she forgave everyone. Even at times when she couldn’t understand me, she never failed to show me love and support. She told me every single day how much she loved me, and always uplifted me with encouragement and praise. She would never, ever turn her back on us, no matter what we did. Even when she was hard on us, it was that tough love that we needed and later understood. This is how she instilled values and principles in us. The best way I can describe her and her role in my life is simply as unconditional love. I would not be half the woman I am today without having this. It taught me what kind of mother, grandmother, sister, friend, and neighbor I’d want to be.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Year End Reflections

                There is something so exciting and magical about a new year. Yes, as some pessimists love to point out, it’s just another day in reality. And yes, those “new year, new me” resolutions usually don’t make it halfway through January for most people. But even still, it’s a rush like no other and a legitimate new beginning for many of us.

                For me, it’s a very important time of deep reflection. I have a distinct process I follow every New Year’s Day that has become more refined over the years. I reserve the day to reflect back on the previous year and take inventory of the things I’ve accomplished. Even more important than this, I spend a lot of time setting goals and intentions for the year ahead. I meditate, read enlightening material, rest, and basically take a “me” day to practice self-love. It's an awesome way to start the year off right!

                Planning and preparing have been critical steps in achieving my dreams and desires. It really works, guys. I promise! So here are my tips for your own special “New Year” routine that I highly encourage you to make time for.

1. Review the goals you set for the last year. If you didn’t set any, then shame on you! If you did, then sit there and really analyze what you did and did not accomplish. For goals that you knocked out, you absolutely deserve to celebrate and feel proud of yourself. It’s an amazing feeling to earn something you set out to do and worked hard at! For things that did not come to fruition, simply let it be a lesson learned. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT beat yourself up about it! It’s called life. Every single one of us will miss targets we set or have things come up that prevent us from achieving goals, or maybe we just didn’t get around to it. Perhaps you didn’t lose weight or get into shape, or get the new job you wanted. It’s absolutely fine, as long as you don’t dwell on it or feel guilty. Instead, channel that energy to crush a lingering goal in the next year. I even go as far as to grade myself on how well I did on each goal, and I use negative scores to motivate me. Being honest is key!

2. Revisit and reevaluate your long term goals. Again, if you don’t have any or don’t write them down, get on it! This is so important, it’s not even funny. Each one of us should have a list of things to accomplish not only in the next year, but also in the next 5 year time frame. These could be things like make X amount of money, pay off debt, volunteer, buy a home, earn a degree, start a business. Items that you may not be able to realistically accomplish in one year, but are actively working on. Also remember to be flexible, as sometimes your goals change as you grow and your direction shifts. I used to list having a kid and buying a home as important goals, but those things are no longer on my list at this point in my life. That is totally okay! Even further, writing down your bucket list of things to do before you die (places to travel to, learning to play an instrument or speak a language, running a marathon, etc.) is also helpful and even fun. We all have a million things we say we want to do eventually and usually never get around to, but actually putting in on paper and organizing your aspirations makes it official. This way you are far more likely to go after these things and make dreams a reality, no matter how big or how small.

      3. Benchmark yourself. Compare where you were at this time last year with where you are today. In what ways have you changed? Is your life better, worse, or the exact same? Are you happier? Goals are crucial, but it's what's on the inside that counts. We should always be able to say we have grown, evolved, and become better in some way. Complacency is dangerous! Always make sure you are progressing into the best you. A new year is the perfect point in time to assess where you were and where you stand now.

4. Set new goals for the coming year. What are you seeking to accomplish this year? This can be continuations of already existing goals, such as working hard in your career, but also make sure to add some new ones too. Push and challenge yourself. The sky is the limit! However, remember to keep your goals attainable, realistic, measurable, and practical.

5. Set your intentions. This goes even deeper than goals. Goals are what you want to do, while intentions are what you want to be, kind of like goals that are intangible or more internal. What priorities do you want to focus on in the new year? What specific areas are most important? Your health, family, spirituality, finances, hobbies? Or maybe it’s just self-love and confidence? What vibes are you setting for how you want to live your life? Do you want to live more positively, live in the moment, or get rid of toxic people and learn to say no? Do you want to spend more time on gratitude, eat healthier, save more money, or be better about time management? Picking a few areas of focus will really set the tone for the coming year.

6. Dig deeper to ask yourself some tough questions. It’s not like most of us do this often throughout the year, so this time of self-awareness and conscious effort is the perfect opportunity to get heavy. Here are some I use for myself:
o   What am I grateful for?
o   How have I changed for the better?
o   What things do I need to work on?
o   What is holding me back or preventing me from things I have not been able to accomplish?
o   Where do you I see myself in 10 years? 
o   What am I doing to make the world a better place?
o   What are my core values?
o   What do I want people to say about me when I die? (a REALLY heavy one for ya!)
o   Who is important to me?
o   What do I need to let go of?
o   How do I make people feel when they’re around me?
o   What is my ultimate purpose in this lifetime?

7. Create a vision board, or work on your existing one. A godsend for us visual folks. This is done many ways for different people, but for me it involves cutting out words or pictures from magazines that embody my goals and dreams and piecing them together in a large presentation. I place this in my bedroom in a place where I see it every day. Doing this makes these things become more ingrained into your mind so you think about them constantly, which is important since our thoughts are vibrations that attract similar vibrations. Don't underestimate how powerful visualization is. It’s a highly effective tool that will channel your energy to manifest everything you look at on this board every day. My mother taught me this when I was younger but I just recently realized how important this is, and the more I work on mine, the more it helps to brings amazing things I want into my life.

      8. Write in a journal. Making lists is one thing, but sometimes it’s also great to just let yourself write. This is something that no one ever has to see, and something you yourself never have to read again if you don’t want to. So be honest and let it flow freely. You’ll be surprised at how much comes out and how therapeutic it can be. It’s been the greatest tool for healing and self-discovery for me personally. Also, if you're struggling with forgiveness, write the person who wronged you a letter that you'll never give to them. Let it all out. It works miracles and is the key to letting go and moving forward. 

9. Meditate. I know people have different feelings and experiences with meditation, and believe me it’s something I still struggle with and do not make nearly enough time for. But it’s so imperative! Even if you just sit in silence and observe your thoughts, it is truly incredible how transformative and peaceful this can be.

      10. Pray. This is another powerful tool and what better time than during this process? Pray for your goals to manifest and for guidance along the way. Whether you use crystals, oils, or just simply talk to your Creator, ask for blessings, clarity, focus, prosperity, success, love, and anything else you'd like for the new year.

I know all of this is difficult for some people to do, and others may scoff at how cumbersome this can be. But for many of us it’s absolutely necessary to our success and really helps. I personally cannot imagine how anyone can get ahead or live their dreams without putting in the work to strategize, plan, and look within. It has been extremely effective and profound for me in so many ways! Definitely worth the effort and the small investment in time.

A final tip is that this does not have to be limited New Year’s Day. A new year can definitely facilitate transformation like no other time. For me, this is what works best since I like to take advantage of the tremendous energy shift that occurs at this time. However, it could be whenever your heart desires or when the mood strikes. This is all about you and what works best. Also, it’s also just as important to spend time throughout the year to review and reassess everything periodically to make sure you’re on track. A monthly check-in and mid-year review work great for me.

Good luck and Happy New Year to each of you! Hope 2016 is filled with positivity, blessings, good vibes, and everything you want to manifest!