It’s been a while

“Your plans are never certain until you’re stepping onto a plane”. I was a little taken back when my sister told me this a few weeks ago, but it pretty much hits the mark. It’s not that I always want things to be this way, sometimes it just happens to me. This past year my life changed dramatically; I thought my life was heading in one direction and within the space of a week everything changed. I was blindsided and I felt as though everything was ripped out from underneath me. My world was changing and I had no choice but to accept it.

This is life I guess – you can’t ever count on anything or anyone to always be there. Somewhere along the way I forgot that. So now I’ve had to totally change focus. I shouldn’t have had to though – this is where my focus should have always been. I should have never lost sight of the things that make me happy. It’s so simple and yet so easy to forget.

One thing I had neglected was my writing – I had completely stopped writing, in my journal, on my blog and even to people I cared about. Friends had told me I should start again, but I couldn’t; instead I was too focused on menial things. Now, all I want to do is write. It’s cathartic. I’ve been writing in my journal every second day and it really grounds me. This post however is the first time I’ve put my writing back out in the public space – and I want to make sure I keep at it. I want to document all the things I’m doing and reflect on them. If I don’t I feel like it‘ll all slip away from me.

I’ve also decided that 2013 is going to be an amazing year – I’m going to make sure of it. I will be turning 30 and I want to make it one to remember. I want to look toward the year with excitement, not dread. I’ve been in one place for too long, I need to get out into the world and travel around again, to do the one thing that makes me truly happy. I want to see some of the beautiful people that I haven’t seen in so long; people that bring so much happiness and joy into my life. And if I’m lucky I might pick up a few more keepers along the way.

Here goes…..

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The Red Hero

“Do you like Jason? I think he likes you,” the teenage girl tells her friend in an American accent.

“No, he is always out in the night clubs partying,” her friend replies flicking through the pages of the New Yorker. “I think he’s stupid. I want to study so I can get into Harvard and make some money for my parents.”

I’m sitting in my favourite cafe and I am fixed on two teenage girls across from me chatting about life. They are both in summer dresses, sipping iced tea, talking about boys and their plans for their summer holiday.

Then the conversation changes, and I remember that I am in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and these girls are in fact Mongolian.

“It would be so much easier to live in the U.S. forever; I feel like we have to come back here to help the country.”

Ulaanbaatar (also known as Ulan Bator), meaning ‘Red Hero’, is home to 45 percent of the Mongolian population. Mongolia has only been a market economy for 20 years and has one of the fastest growing GDPs in the world; the IMF forecasts a 9.8% growth for 2011. Mongolia is going through a ‘mining boom’ and money is flooding into the country. And Ulaanbaatar is the centre of it all. Skyscrapers are being erected at lightning speed. Hummers and Land Cruisers line the streets. This new found wealth can be seen all over the city from the Parliament Building with the gold trimmings and grandiose statues of Chinggis Khan to the Louis Vuitton store sitting proudly on the east of the main square with elaborate window displays.

I have been transfixed on these girls for way too long; I decide to leave as I am on the verge of becoming a stalker. As I walk home I look around at the city. The strong economic growth isn’t having an impact on the poverty levels; one third of the population are considered to be in poverty. Outside the footpaths are held together by cracked cement. Homeless alcoholics are passed out on the streets, many without their limbs which were claimed by frost bite after losing consciousness in winter. There are children with dirt caked on their faces, tears in their eyes, asking passersby to buy gum and other wares. On seeing this, my mind wanders back to the girls and I can’t help but wonder if they will come back to help this country.

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Inappropriate

Inappropriate seems to be my favourite word at the moment. I find myself saying it over and over these days. I say it when I wear heels on the ripped up Ulaanbaatar streets. I say it when I recall myself dancing on table tops at 3am. I say it after I tell my friends ridiculous jokes. Last night however I must have said that word over 100 times.

“No, I don’t want any more beer, thank you.”

“Yes you do.” He turns to my colleague. “Go get her another beer.”

“Please, I really don’t want one.”  I argue.

“I will just get you a small one. You drink it. I am boss.”

He shouts something to my colleague in Mongolian, and that was that. I had lost the argument. The beers keep coming. My colleague returns and mouths the words ‘I’m sorry’– she has no choice either.

“You are young, you have nice body”. “You very nice girl. Very nice.”

This is so inappropriate I think to myself. I sit at the table and nervously peel the bright red polish from my fingernails. How am I going to get out of this situation? Sweat runs down the back of my legs. I have the added predicament that my boss and I live in the same apartment building…. he already told me he is going to take me home. I can’t let that happen, I need an exit strategy. I start to panic.

In this day and age, I don’t understand why some men feel they can treat women this way. It makes me hate men. No, actually let me take that back. I don’t hate men. I have many generous, kind, strong, supportive men in my life: my father, my brother, close friends. I hate men that use their power to manipulate women, take advantage of them. I am sure these men have special women in their life that they would die to protect. So how can they disrespect women in this way? How would he feel if a man did this to his daughter?

There’s a knock at the door of our VIP room. My friend Nick pops his head in, I’m so relieved to see his face. I had managed to call him to come and save me from that uncomfortable situation. I believe I am a strong independent woman, however when something like this happens, I feel vulnerable, inferior and scared. As much as I hate to admit it, I need saving.

This morning as I walk to the office, I can’t help but doubt myself. Is this dress too revealing? Should I not wear high heels? Will I get in trouble for abruptly leaving last night? Was I overreacting? What should I have done differently?

Now I am left with the predicament of what to do. Do I make a fuss? Or do I forget it happened and get on with it? Logic is telling me to take this further, but will this just cause trouble for me? Will there be any point? I’m in Mongolia, not Australia, it isn’t the same. I don’t want to get the blame for this. Is it easier to stay quiet? I feel weak, I don’t know if I have the strength to stand up to this man right now.

It makes me think of the Kristy Fraser-Kirk case; a woman was sexually harassed by the CEO of one of the most prominent companies in Australia. She took the company to court to sue them for over $35 million, but eventually settled out of court for $850,000. She stood up, took on a super power, lost her job, and was highly criticised by the media throughout the case. I can only imagine how demoralising this all was.

As I look at my own situation, I wonder if Kristy is happy with the decision she made.

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Growing up is hard to do

My alarm goes off at 7:30am. I don’t want to get up.  Today is my first day back in the office after an amazing three week break. It also doesn’t help that the night before I only got two hours sleep – another crazy night in Ulaanbaatar city.

Even though I hit the snooze button several times, I still make it into my office by 9am. It’s onto coffee and I can’t seem to get motivated to work so I start to complete my tax return. I work on it for several hours and realise I will be getting a lot more money back than I had expected. I’m ecstatic – this has effectively extended my travels for another six months. At this thought my mind starts to wander, back to a very different time. I am riding my bike through the canals of Amsterdam with tears streaming down my face.

That was the day I left my husband. I felt like the cruelest and most selfish person in the world. It broke my heart to see the pain in his eyes as I left our apartment for work that morning – for the last time. But I had to do this, I couldn’t continue living that life any longer. I was suffocated and needed to get out. Once I reached my office I burst into tears on the shoulder of my boss. I had known her for 4 months, but she was the closest person I had in the country at the time. That day I was scared and lost and I cried for hours on end. I thought the pain and guilt would never leave me. What the hell was I going to do with my life now? My life had been planned out for me by someone else for so long, now I had to make my own plans. I was terrified.

That was almost three years ago. I spent a long time running away from that pain and guilt. I ran away to South America to escape my mistakes, I just wanted to forget that any of it happened. I didn’t want to play the role of the 25 year old divorcee.  I wanted to be the young carefree 25-year-old with not a worry in the world. I pretended to be that person for a long time.

“I think you have grown up so much lately.” It’s 6pm and I have a Skype date with my parents. I laugh at my Dad’s words – I was just pulling faces into the webcam, I haven’t grown up at all. We talk for over an hour, it is food for my soul.  I have been so busy these past weeks that I haven’t had a chance to speak to them. I get the worried emails from Dad asking if I’m ok – I feel like I’m such a bad daughter sometimes. I get a pang of guilt- I should be at home with my family instead of gallivanting around the world. But I just can’t do it, there’s too much out there in this world to explore.

The full effects of my Dad’s words don’t sink until 11pm when I’m writing in my journal.  Maybe I have grown up a bit. I feel like I have finally stopped running. I still have pain and guilt in my heart, but I know I made the right decision. The road since that day has been a bumpy one. Most days I feel lost, but at least I’m living life on my own terms. I’m where I am as a result of the decisions I have made. I don’t know where I’ll be in six months, but I’m totally ok with that. I wouldn’t give up this feeling for anything in the world. I’m no longer using travel to escape a bad situation. I’m no longer running away. I’m now using travel to broaden my mind, to enrich my life, to challenge myself and get out of my comfort zone.

As look down at my journal I stare at the words about my hopes and dreams for the future. I’m optimistic about the future. I can go anywhere from here, do anything. I’m alone in bed with my journal and my dreams, and I couldn’t be happier.  As I lay my head down to sleep I wonder, where will this life take me next?

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What not to do in a Mongolian office

Working in Mongolia can be frustrating. Really frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mongolia and the people, but working in this country can be quite challenging. Every place has it challenges, but here are a few tips to help the transition into the Mongolian working life a little easier.

Don’t expect things to be completed on time. It seems Mongolians thrive on leaving things until the very last minute. You may find yourself doing very little, and then suddenly five things need finishing within the hour. You need to learn to go with the flow, be ready for anything and be patient. This is vital. If things don’t happen readily, don’t be surprised or put off. Rather than trying to change this, or becoming frustrated, you need to take a step back. At first this may be quite a challenge, but you should see it as a benefit as you learn how to improvise and think on your feet.

Don’t be too prompt. Times for meetings will change or be cancelled altogether without warning. It is a good idea to confirm and re-confirm meetings via email and phone, especially the starting times. Often meetings will start an hour after the original agreed time.  Therefore, try not to schedule back to back meetings, and it’s also best to avoid times around lunch. Traffic within the capital Ulaanbaatar is often most congested then, and you can guarantee a meeting will never start on time. If you can, try to schedule meetings in your workplace, so you can keep working until your business contacts arrive.

Don’t lose focus. Because of this rather different relationship with time, it becomes very difficult to keep motivated. Keep focused. Remind yourself of what you want to achieve and make a work plan, stick to it, and go over it regularly yourself and with your supervisor. At least once a week reflect on what you have and haven’t achieved. There were weeks when I felt like I achieved nothing at all and I became so de-motivated. Reviewing what I actually had done in the past week made me realise that I was moving forward, it was just a little slower than I am used to.

Don’t refuse food when it is offered to you. Mongolia’s nomadic heritage has resulted in a culture of giving –they are extremely generous people and they will share everything (this has been my experience however some city-dwelling Mongolians don’t adhere so closely to tradition). In the office accept everything as it is considered rude to refuse. Even if you don’t like something, accept it, try it, and then discreetly discard it. Mongolians live communally, so bringing some food to share is also a good idea, especially if it’s something from your own country. This isn’t expected but sharing something universal like food is a great way to bond with your work colleagues.

Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. If you don’t, they will!  Mongolians are rather shameless when it comes to laughing at other people’s faults. I remember sitting in my Mongolian language lesson trying to count to ten without much success. I couldn’t believe it when my teacher then started to laugh at me for not being able to count! I was quite embarrassed and really annoyed, but over time I have realised that this is their culture and it isn’t a sign of rudeness. Now in my language classes I sit there and laugh a lot in class (especially when my teacher tells me I’m a bad student), it makes the classes much more fun!

Don’t gossip. This was a piece of advice I received very early on. I haven’t been told this advice since I was in high school, but office politics exists here as it does everywhere else in the world. This seems somewhat obvious, but don’t get involved in these conversations. It is much better to be a silent observer – especially when it comes to ‘discussing’ the boss! And as Ulaanbaatar is such small city, it is very likely that the person you are talking about is right behind you.

Don’t forget to take your own toilet paper everywhere. Not a lot of toilets have toilet paper in Mongolia – even the ones in my office building. I haven’t quite figured out why this is, but it is always good to be prepared with lots of toilet paper or tissues. Sometimes I forget or run out, and it is be quite embarrassing to ask your business contacts for toilet paper.

If all else fails, there’s always vodka! Mongolians love their Chinggis Khaan (or Gengis Khan outside Mongolia) vodka. It’s actually something of a necessity to learn how to drink vodka when in Mongolia. It isn’t unusual for a bottle to appear in the office, or at a company dinner. It’s seen as a way of bonding. One small problem however, is that they don’t just sip vodka: they drink about 100ml in only three gulps, and no more. And no mixers! For most people it would be difficult to do this more than once without passing out on the floor. So, if you don’t want to drink vodka, raise the glass to your mouth, let the vodka touch your lips and pass it back – this means you politely refuse.

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The beginnings of a writer

It’s week one of my writing course and I am attempting my first assignment. I’ve been procrastinating (again) and I just can’t complete it because I’m struggling with my writing style. I keep asking myself: How do I want to come across in my blog? How can express myself that is true to my character? How do I write without sounding like an idiot?

I know that I want to be a good storyteller. I want to be funny, witty, genuine, speak with passion and challenge the way people look at things. I want to be open and honest, and I want my real thoughts and opinions to come out. I don’t want to force these things though, I want them to come out naturally. I know that I have these things in me, I just need to express them in my writing.

The problem is that it’s in my personality to try and fit in, to be accepted and liked. I guess it’s a survival technique, I don’t really know. But these days it really annoys me because it is inhibiting my writing. I am afraid that people won’t like me if I say what I really think, that they will judge me for the way I write.

I am slowly realising however, that it’s so much better not to be liked than to be boring. I don’t want to be boring. I am not boring. But I must fight my instincts to stifle my character. I don’t want to do that anymore. I don’t want to be afraid of making mistakes or sounding stupid. I need to dig deep down and find what is inside of me so I can bring it out in my writing. That person comes out when I am chatting with my best friend. I need to visualise having a conversation with my best friend when I am writing. Tell my story to her. Make her laugh and cry, bounce ideas around and help me process my thoughts.

Even though we aren’t on the same continent right now, every time I write in this blog, I am going to think of her. Well, little blog, you’re not quite the same, but you’ll have to do for now.

I miss you Stacey.

Casey and Stacey

Back in the old days...

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Things to do before I die

This is a piece I wrote about six months ago, but as I didn’t have a blog then, I am posting it now. I have been thinking about writing a blog for the past six months. Yes, that is a long time, but I am the absolute Queen of Procrastination. I have used ‘The Fear’ as an excuse for way too long. What is the harm in starting to write? Nothing, so here goes!

I am sitting at my desk at the moment, bored out of my brain. I am so over working a nine to five – it just isn’t right for me. For many years I thought it was me that was wrong. I know now that the desk life is wrong for me, I need to escape. It will take a few months before I can actually do that, so in the meantime I have decided to ‘escape’ mentally. I’m such a daydreamer I know, but I love my private little fantasy world. Sometimes I wish I could live there. Anyway, back to my point. I have decided to write a list of all the experiences I want to have in this lifetime. Maybe this will help to give me that final push to get away from this desk job. Maybe it will just entertain me while I try to get through the day. Here is what I hope to achieve in this lifetime (I’m sure I’ll add to this, but it’s a start):

Learn another language

Visit the pyramids, Giza

Visit the Greek Islands

Paraglide in Brazil

Learn how to crochet

Learn how to ride a motorbike

Learn how to make my own dresses

Have a child

Fall in love

Have my heart crushed into a million pieces (ok, granted, that wasn’t in the original list and has been added after the fact, but I think it’s an experience I needed to go through).

Visit every continent

Live in every continent (except Antarctica)

Hike in Nepal

Change someone’s life

Learn to take beautiful photos

Drink Dom Perignon

Eat paella in Valencia

Learn how to salsa

Drive through Italy (Amalfi Coast, Tuscany)

Hike in Patagonia

Learn to Scuba dive

Read the Iliad and the Odyssey

Take a graphic design course, or at least learn how to use photoshop.

Visit Japan and take a calligraphy class

See the Taj Mahal

Study Buddhism

Visit Angkor Wat

Volunteer – I mean REALLY volunteer

Visit Angel Falls

Live in Colombia

See the Northern Lights

Learn how to cook in Thailand

Go skinny dipping

Learn to paint

Run a half marathon

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