Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Best Souvenir

No postcard, photograph, or knickknack can stand up against the best travel souvenir: personal growth. On my 3-month trip overseas to Australia and New Zealand, I learned a handful of ideas and practices to bring back to my life in the States.

Summary of Lessons Learned:
- Everyone (no matter their age, race, religion) can teach you something...good, bad, or ugly. These lessons then help us understand others and, ultimately, ourselves.
- Take the positive from every experience (and eliminate emotional responses) to help change your perspective for a more enjoyable life.
- Never settle for a mediocre life—you get out of life what you put into it.
- Most people just want to connect with other people—it makes the world a lot less scary and lonely! So reach out to others in any way you can.
- Feel the fear and do it anyway! Don’t let the things that scare you stand in your way of conquering them.

Currently, I'm at the end of my first week back in the States. I chose to ease into it by traveling throughout California first. I wanted to visit my cousin in San Diego and friends in Los Angeles and Napa. I figured that this plan sounded much better than withstanding a Chicago winter before it was mandatory! Plus, even after all my travels worldwide, California is still my "happy place." My "quirks" in Chicago are normal here.

The biggest challenge when someone incorporates a new way of living while he or she travels is the ability to bring this thinking and lifestyle back home. I know that when I travel, I am my best self. However, in the past, the implementation of this frame of mind into my lifestyle has been the hardest part. It would last for a couple days, but then the Rat Race or whatever other societal pressures I fell back into would overtake my new thinking and deplete all the positive energy surrounding it.

In order to help with my transition back into the States and adhere to the same travel lifestyle, I signed up for classes at a local yoga studio mere blocks from my cousin's house in Ocean Beach. For the past two years or so, yoga has been a way for me to center myself during new life transitions, whether it be a new job, a breakup, or a new city. I have attended yoga classes in multiple places around the world, but this studio in OB seems to fit perfectly with where I am at life right now. Before class, some instructors have each person blindly choose an affirmation from a deck of cards. The card I chose that stands out most includes, "I prosper wherever I turn." In recent months, my life has taken many different turns and the hardest part about being back in the States is the realization that I'm not exactly sure where the road is going to go next. But as I mentioned in previous posts, I am learning to live day by day and trust that I am headed in the direction that is best for me. (And at least now I know I'll prosper there, right?!)

My two biggest realizations this week:
- Gratitude is a magnet. When you are grateful for what you have (as much or as little as that is), you will inevitably have more to be thankful for.
- When you look around and realize that the people that surround you are kind-hearted, amazing people, you know you're on the right path. And I have to say...I have some pretty awesome people in my presence these days.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

You Can Have Whatever You Like

"Your eyes, WOW...I mean, they look so healthy. I want my eyes to look like that. You just glow and you look so happy!"

After three plus months of traveling throughout Australia and New Zealand, I spent my final weekend in reflection and filled with gratitude at an ashram an hour outside Sydney. As I boarded the bus to take me to the ashram, I met a fellow ashram-goer (Liz) and she made the statement above. I laughed as she said it because just a couple years ago a doctor took one look at me as I walked into her office and said, "Well, I can tell just by looking at your eyes that things are not going well in your body. Let's figure that out and work on it." (I later found out she was right...massive food allergies, overall poor health, and unhappiness because of it!) How is it that the eyes can tell people so much?!

It's funny how things come around full circle. I mean, not just the eye thing, but others as well. Let me explain... That same girl that complimented the well being of the whites of my eyes ended up being in the exact program as me at the ashram. We signed up for a 48-hour program called Serve Give Love in which we helped around the ashram (regenerating the bush, working in the garden, helping in the kitchen) as well as had access to all the classes held during those two days. The first night at the ashram, I had a long, in-depth talk with Liz about relationships. I quickly realized that she was emotionally where I was two years ago after a horribly painful breakup. It was actually quite therapeutic to help Liz understand what she needed to do to get her confidence and happiness back up.

As I spoke to her, I realized two things:
1. The personal growth I've experienced in the past two years is almost unrecognizable. I am thankful for the hard times because they've made me appreciate my happy and healthy life now.
2. More shockingly, I haven't opened up myself to another relationship since then. Instead, I've used it as a crutch, often saying, "I'm just enjoying the single life!" or "I have some stuff to do before I get another boyfriend." Well, you know what? The kind of guy I end up with won't stand in the way of my goals and dreams. In fact, he'll encourage me to do more. So why am I making up excuses? Nope, not anymore.

The weekend involved quite a few things outside my comfort zone (including group chanting, a plethora of "oms," and a lack of actual downward dogs/mountain poses), but there were quite a few memorable moments in addition to the one above. My favorite moment of the weekend included a 4-year-old girl named Evie who was at the ashram with her 6-year-old brother, her tall, gorgeous blond Russian mother, and her long-haired, Texan father. In the garden, I was assigned to pick some of the vegetables for the kitchen to use for meals. As I picked the cucumbers off the vines, a very curious Evie came up to me. I asked her if she wanted to help and told her I needed someone to look for the cucumbers in all of the leaves so that I could pick them for all of us to eat. Evie caught on quickly and before I knew it we had 2 full buckets picked. She then proceeded to pick up a few of them, cradle them to her chest, and tell me, "I'm giving them big hugs so that when people eat them later they'll feel loved, too."

Evie then spent the rest of the morning following me around, stopping occasionally to say, "Hug!" (which meant I had to give her a hug at that very moment). I figured she was just the person I needed to help pass on happiness to others, so I taught Evie the word "contagious" and told her to see how many people she could make smile just by smiling herself. She was up for the challenge. She scoured the area and every so often I'd hear her exclaim, "Got one! Got one!"

From my weekend at the ashram, I've adopted a handful of things to bring back home:
-Be openminded. Just because something isn't your cup of tea doesn't mean it isn't someone else's, which leads me to...
-Don't judge.
-Life is about giving...and in return, you'll receive.
-Live simply, both in what you eat, what you do, and what you buy.

Although I don't feel the need to go to an ashram again, I'm glad I went. Doing things outside your comfort zone helps you grow as well as understand others. I know that organized groups and religion may not be my thing, but if it provides inner peace and happiness to others, then who am I to judge? Everyone gets something different from experiences like the one I had this weekend. People from all walks of life in various life stages take something unique out of every experience. At the end of the day, I guess that's what life is all about...compiling what you've learned from multiple experiences and calling it your own. You get what you want out of life.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Lesson of the Day: Keep Calm and Carry On

After two nights of less-than-great sleep, I found myself a little antsy yesterday. It doesn't help that on Monday I'll be heading back to the States for the first time in over three months. I know that in the grand scheme of things three months is tiny, but the past three months have proven to provide exponential personal growth in my life. I've learned more in these past three months than I have in my past 27 years of existence (and I'll continue to learn more and more!). As I drank my morning coffee, I could feel my emotions getting the best of me. So I stopped, reflected, and realized that I was reacting to exactly what I had learned in my time abroad...managing emotions. Here are my thoughts on it...

Life is a series of experiences. We've been taught by society, media, parents, etc. to categorize these events as either "good" or "bad" depending on the emotions that take shape as we experience them. However, what if we looked at each situation differently? What if we viewed each experience as it came to us and eliminated the overwhelming emotional component automatically attached to each? Then, we could automate a "positive" reaction (sans emotion) to every situation instead until it becomes a habit.

I learned early on that when it rains it pours, both negatively and positively. We've all had those mornings in which we miss our alarm, the shower is cold, it's pouring outside, we're late to our important meeting, and on top of it, we forgot to lock the door on the way out of the apartment. Instead of getting caught up in emotion and letting the momentum of the "terrible" day ensue, I've learned to stop the negative momentum before it really starts to take motion through emotional self control. If I miss my alarm, instead of running around with my head chopped off, I calmly contact whoever needs to be notified that I will be late. Then, I think to myself, "What if the reason that I woke up late is because I need to talk to a stranger today that I wouldn't have seen had I been on my normal train?" Things in life happen for a reason. I don't fight this reality anymore. I embrace every experience as part of my journey and have positivity on autopilot, which leads to momentum in a more desired direction.

Furthermore, through our experiences we make decisions. If we harbor emotions from previous experiences, then we end up making poor decisions and let these emotions prevent us from doing really great things. Then, our next step is off-kilter due to the emotional roller coaster driving the decisions being made. Every day we're given a choice. We either go one route or another. If we've already incorporated emotional self control into how we react to experiences, then this technique will carry over into our sound decision-making, thus putting us on track to follow the best path set out for each of us.

In Fall 2012, my experiences and sound decision-making led my path thousands of miles away to Australia and New Zealand. Sometimes I look back and wonder what would have happened had I not made the decision to travel for the past three months. I wouldn't have met all the amazing and inspiring people that I did, I wouldn't have found out what it's like to be truly happy and how to maintain that happiness even when I go home, and I wouldn't have had all the unforgettable experiences I did. Yes, when I go home, there may be roadblocks in my path, sleepless nights, and days of emotional overload. However, I am now equipped with the tools necessary to overcome each of these obstacles. I'm lucky enough to have had the opportunity to travel for three months, and I completely understand that not everyone can take off this amount of time from their life to travel and self-reflect, but that doesn't mean that you cannot grow as a person. You can be anywhere in the world and have the same growth experiences I've had. It's all about one's state of mind, not geographical location. It just so happens that most of my growth occurs when I'm traveling.

I guess what I'm trying to say is work on controlling your emotions. Life's best decisions are made once you gain the maturity and intelligence to take emotions out of it. I'm not saying to become a robot and guard all emotion from leaking out; I'm saying acknowledge and dissect why you feel a certain way before acting on every emotion. Next time you find yourself in a stereotypical "bad" situation (e.g. bed bugs), see how you can change your frame of mind and take something positive from the experience. Life gets a lot sunnier if you do :)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Never Settle for a Mediocre Life

I've picked up quite a few ideas from friends in the past few years about how to live a fulfilling, happy life. I've then compiled these ideas into something applicable to my own life. What I've come up with is Never Settle for a Mediocre Life. 

Back when I was living in Wicker Park, I would meet up with my friend Kandy, grab an iced coffee to go, hit up the local farmers market, and then sit in the park on one of her fun picnic blankets (yeah, Meandering Design!) to discuss the idea of doing the things that make you happy in order to lead a fulfilling life. Kandy always had loads of wisdom to impart, especially to people in their mid-to-upper 20s like myself who are trying to "figure it out." One of her nuggets of insight that resonated included her "hell yeah!" theory. When I would tell her about my weekends that consisted of going to a bar with friends or doing something that didn't interest me, she would say, "If someone asks you to do something and you don't say 'hell yeah!' in your head or out loud, then it's not something that is going to make you happy while you are actually doing it, so pass on the invite." 

Because I am a "yes" person, so many times in my life I would agree to do what others wanted to do in order to make them happy (and thus sacrifice my own happiness). Now, because of Kandy, I'm getting better at living the "hell yeah!" theory. All my friends know that I will leave where ever we are by midnight. From past experiences I know that nothing good happens after midnight and it makes me tired and cranky in the morning. I'd much rather wake up early the next day and go for a bike ride than lay in bed miserable.

On Friday night, I picked up another good piece of advice from a friend, Dan. We weren't supposed to even cross paths again on my trip to Australia, but another friend who I am staying with in Sydney had to drop off her cousin in Canberra and asked if I wanted to tag along. Knowing that Dan lives in Canberra, I decided it was the perfect reason to meet up for a drink. I know Dan through his twin brother who works with the wife of the couple I stayed with in Melbourne. However, I connected with Dan more than his brother, Ben (you'll soon find out why). 

While we sat on a pub patio on a warm summer night, we all started having a Christina Conversation. Essentially, these type of conversations involve deep thought, theories, good energy, and laughing. And for some reason or another, I try to start these conversations in bars where people just want to drink and have a good time versus contemplate how to make the world a better place. One time, I remember starting an intense conversation with some random guy at a bar and asked him what he was passionate about, etc. when my friend pulled me aside and gave me the "Really, Christina?!" talk. I get it. Sometimes my own passion smothers others' passions.

Anyway, all of us had a great talk on Friday night and Dan mentioned something that stuck. He said, "I would rather take chances in life and have the prospect of being truly happy than to settle for something less knowing that it will never bring me happiness." This quote is the exact reason for my trip to Australia! I knew that if I stayed in Chicago doing the same job that I would not be happy because I didn't feel like I was being true to myself. I wasn't sure what Australia would bring, but I knew that I had to try. Regardless, I knew that traveling would help me learn more about myself through learning more about other people. 

I'm lucky to be in the company of so many people that add value to my life. My hope is that I do the same for them! The more I talk to extraordinary people, the more I want to be an extraordinary person. I mean, how can I settle for a less-than-amazing life when I know how truly wonderful it can be? I can't! That's why I vow to Never Settle for a Mediocre Life.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

So much more my style...

And it's one of my 2013 resolutions. Happy Friday, Australia! And Happy Almost Friday, USA :)

I'm off on an impromptu road trip to Canberra!

"Christina isn't allowed to pick the bars anymore...this one smells like vomit."

You know those old school video games where the heavily pixeled man climbs up stairs then goes off screen and then reappears at the bottom of the same screen to then do it all over again? It appears as if the guy is going somewhere, but in reality, he's doing the same thing over and over again and not really going anywhere.

Okay, now envision myself, Mike, and Jim (Christmas gift exchange friends from Queenstown) frantically walking through seven levels of a Sydney Westfield Mall at the bottom of Sydney Tower (yes, another space needle thing) after closing time in search of an exit. We took elevators, escalators, went up and down, ended up exactly where we started and made little progress. At one point, there were no other people around and the walls seemed to be moving closer in, squeezing the life out of us. Dramatic, I know. But seriously, we spent 30 minutes trying to find our way out of that place!

We had this great idea that we would walk up to the 360 Restaurant at the top of Sydney Tower without a reservation during peak summer hours and eat a scenic last meal in town. Good thought, bad execution. After we discovered there was no way we were eating dinner in the Tower, we attempted to make our way out of the mall. It wasn't until Jim found a way to sneak through a security gate and followed other foreigners that we finally saw the beautiful night sky and breathed Sydney air again.

Just before we went to Sydney Tower, we went to a rooftop bar in Sydney where a vomit smell permeated throughout the dodgy-looking establishment. The boys pointed the finger at me for leading all of us astray, but it's all a part of the experience right?! It was their last night in town before heading back to NYC in the morning. Knowing we couldn't let a dodgy bar and getting lost in a mall be their last impression of Australia, we hopped in a cab and went to The Rocks for dinner and drinks.

We found some outdoor (and significantly slanted) seating outside at the Australian Hotel. Our Australian-inspired meal consisted of crocodile pizza with Thai spices, kangaroo burgers, barramundi, and locally brewed beers. All that was missing was some Vegemite! Ha. And as we ate our dinner, a high school acquaintance of Mike's recognized him...yup, nearly 10,000 miles from home and still bumping into people we know. Kinda cool how small this world is! The more I travel, the more I realize that fact...

Not ready to call it a night after a late dinner, we made our way to a week-old bar called Bulletin Place in the CBD near Circular Quay. With a list of five drinks written with a Sharpie on a scroll, we sat up at the bar and picked our first fresh ingredients creation of the night. I opted for the Mango Swizzle with tequila, ginger, mango, and lime. From that point forward, I just had the bartender make other drinks of his choice based on what ingredients struck my fancy at the moment.

Even after our huge feast at Australian Hotel, we picked at the chicken salt almonds at the bar and talked to the owners about their new business venture. Both Adi and Tim were fantastic. Props to Mike for a great find! (p.s. check out Mike and Jim's amazingly funny blog here). Me being me, I had an allergic reaction to something and spent the rest of the night chugging water to counteract the rash forming on my face and chest. Not quite sure why my body rejects so many things. Not cool.

I ended up staying over at Mike and Jim's place last night so I didn't have to trek back up to the Northern Beaches where I'm staying with my friend Susan. As we said our goodbyes this morning when the boys left for the airport, I couldn't help but feel a mini wave of sadness. Between leaving Ashley and Diana yesterday and the boys today, I had said wayyyy too many goodbyes for my liking. I think I am at goodbye capacity for the year and it's only January 3rd. Good thing for a reunion in March! In the meanwhile, I know Mike and Jim will think of Diana and me every time they play a CD in our boom box that we regifted to them. If anyone deserved the Friday Funday boom box, it's them.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years in Auckland

I have to admit...Auckland and I didn't get off on the right foot. In fact, Diana, Ashley, and I weren't huge fans of the city at all. Between having to leave one of the most beautiful places in the world (Queenstown) and the bed bug incident, Auckland didn't have a fighting chance...or so we thought. Then, we we were fortunate enough to stay with a family Diana met at church in Queenstown that lives in the Avondale area of Auckland. This family is of Indian descent, but has spent a majority of their lives in Kuwait and Dubai. When they heard about our bed bug issue, they opened their home to the three of us.

The family consists of the parents as well as their two 19-year-old twin boys (Eddie and Verrell) who go to university on the south island in New Zealand. From the instant we met the family, we knew they were extraordinary and would teach us heaps during our time with them. Eddie picked us up at our hotel on Sunday night, then drove us to the lookout at Mt. Eden to view the Auckland skyline at sunset. Afterward, Eddie drove us to his home and we stayed up for hours talking to the boys. Topics included dating advice (THEM giving US advice...ha!), living/growing up in different countries, and happiness. To say that these boys were "old souls" is an understatement. I've never met such intelligent, level-headed, generous, well-rounded, responsible kids in my life, especially at that age.

On Monday (New Years Eve), the boys took us to Mission Bay to get KiwiYo, which is self-serve frozen yogurt shop like in the States. They knew that Diana and I were giving up sugar in 2013, so they wanted to make sure we got in a last day of sweets before hiatus hit at midnight. We loaded our cups full of cake batter frozen yogurt and piled New Zealand candies (lollies) on top. It was the perfect "last supper" of sugar. After froyo, we walked by the beach. Here's a photo of all of us on Mission Bay Beach:

For the rest of the day, we drove around Auckland and saw the city from a local's point-of-view. The boys took us to their favorite places and we all rocked out to our Friday Funday CD in the car. (I mean, who doesn't love "Turn Up the Love" and "Scream and Shout" and "Africa" and "Wannabe" at full blast?!) And since Eddie and Verrell LOVE everything American, Diana, Ashley, and I taught the boys key American phrases to practice. Our favorite phrase taught included, "Sh*t just got reeeeeeal weird." We ensured they did it in their best American accent as well. We just made sure to tell them NOT to tell their parents we taught them that...:)

Additionally, a portion of Monday was dedicated toward finding New Years hats to wear that night. In America, these hats are in abundance at every bar and store. However, NYE hats and noise makers are not common here in New Zealand. We couldn't find anything saying "2013" or "Happy New Year" or anything remotely close to that, so we bought sparkly top hats instead. People LOVED them when we went out. In fact, multiple people stole our hats throughout the night and we had to chase after them to retrieve them. See festive hats below:

After our day of sightseeing in the city, we went back to the boys' house and got ready for NYE. We decided to make our way to the Viaduct area of the city to celebrate, which is where a strip of bars and clubs are situated on the waterfront and there is a clear view of the fireworks at the Sky Tower. (Side note: what are cities' obsessions with building a space needle-like structure in their skylines?? I've seen quite a few these past couple months..)

We all danced at a bar until just before midnight, then snuck outside to see the fireworks as 2013 made an appearance in Auckland. Cool enough, New Zealand is the second in the world to celebrate the New Year! However, the countdown was uneventful (and uncoordinated), but as I do every year, I remembered that all that matters is that I'm surrounded by good friends...and indeed I was.

The Viaduct area of the city was extremely crowded, so we walked out of the main area to a bar off the beaten path that was playing fun music. Initially, we thought we were going to call it a night, but we were beckoned inside the bar by the intriguing ambiance and crowd. We ended up dancing for two hours. Here's a taste of our sick dance moves:

On NewYears Day, we had a BBQ with our host family. Everyone wore a hodgepodge of fun costumes, including our glitter hats, Hawaiian leis, and our fascinators from the Melbourne Cup. The day consisted of copious amounts of meat (pork, lamb, and chicken...oh my!), a talent show (see below), champagne (the dad rang a bell, Pavlov dogs style, when everyone needed to refill their cups), a "Sunday drive" on a Tuesday (to One Tree Hill), and deep conversations (life is better when you look at everything in a positive light). Basically, it was a compilation of all my favorite things. At one point during the day, I sat there soaking up the environment around me and felt a rush of thankfulness and joy for all the amazing people that surrounded me. The craziest thing is that I hadn't known anyone in that room more than 4 months at this point.

Reoccurring themes of this New Years 2012-2013 included:
-The importance of being open minded: there are fantastic people all over the world that come from different backgrounds that are genuine and look out for others...and one day, you can do the same for them.
-The power of a positive attitude: life can never be bad if you can find the silver lining in every situation and know that everything ends up as it should.

Without these two things, I would have never been able to spend New Years with such wonderful, inspiring people who push me to be a better person and pay it forward to others.

Here's to a beautiful 2013!