Cu Chi Tunnels, Ben Thanh Market and the train to Nha Trang

My last day in Ho Chi Minh City was the first day of the tour that I joined for 12 days while here in Vietnam. We had met the night before for introductions and a group dinner at an entirely unappealing restaurant in the backpacker district of Saigon. The streets were busy, thronging with life and music, and while the chosen restaurant was completely devoid of personality, the food was good, though overpriced in relation to the endless delicious street food.  I tried Bun Thit Nuong, which was a delicious mix of a noodles, grilled pork, spring roll and fish sauce. Luckily, the people that I’m travelling with are wonderful.

 
At 8 am we all piled on our bus with The Law, our funny, well-spoken guide for our half day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Though Cu Chi lies only 40 km outside HCMC, it took us a solid 90 minutes to get there. On the way, Law gave us a great, and remarkably unbiased story of the war. 

The first tunnel was actually constructed in the Indochina War, as a way for the South Vietnamese to hide from the French. Once the Vietnam War started in earnest, the crafty farmers of Cu Chi realized that the tunnels could be their salvation as well as a great guerrilla tactic against the American forces, and they expanded the tunnel system to include over 200 km of tunnels that contained bunkers, kitchens, toilets, wells, medical rooms as well as dead-end traps. The tunnels of Cu Chi are built into a slight hill in the landscape, and so there are multiple outlets into the Saigon river, handy for flushing out waste and sneaking away.

During the war, many farmers of Cu Chi lived double lives, digging the tunnels or fighting at night, and harmlessly farming during the day. Everyone was expected to help dig the tunnels out of the clay-rich soil, and the networks were diverse and complicated intentionally so that any American ‘tunnel rats’, even if they were small enough to fit in the tunnels if they found an entrance, would get hopelessly lost. The amount of ways that were invented to torture the invading Americans were endless and varied, usually involving spikes hidden by trap doors in the dense jungle. The amount of things people think of to torture each other always surprises me.

Although it was interesting to see Cu Chi; to see just how small the original openings actually are, how tight the tunnels were, to learn about the way life was lived in the earth, I have to admit that it all felt a bit theme park-ish. I know that there are other tunnel systems to visit, and that Cu Chi is often chosen for its proximity to Saigon; I would recommend travelling further afield if you have the time.  

  
After our half day tour, there was time for a quick trip to the market for a late lunch and a last minute shop before the train. I had some sort of pork deliciousness with an avocado smoothie. If you’ve been reading for a while, you will remember my love of these from Bali. They are still amazing in Vietnam, even sans chocolate sauce. (Sadly, no picture, I just downed the thing)

 
Finally it was time for the night train. If you didn’t know, I love trains, so was quite excited that my itinerary would include five of them in total. Our little cabin was cozy but functional, and four of us settled in for a rickety and supremely air-conditioned ride to Nha Trang.

  

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Ho Chi Minh City: War and Culture

Day two in Hi Chi Minh City was just as bustling and busy as day one. After a decent sleep, I woke up early, had pho and toast for breakfast and set out for what would be an exhausting and rewarding day.

After doing some research and reading the night before, I’d planned to visit the Reunification Palace (also called Independence Palace) and the War Remnants Museum, before going further afield to visit the Jade Pagoda, and maybe more.  Walking to the palace, I turned down several offers to hop on scooter tours, but deciding it wouldn’t actually be a half bad idea I stopped to talk to one man. We had a brief chat and discovering the price was only 200 000 VND (about $11.50), I hopped on and we scooted away. 

My visit to the Reunification/Independence Palace was subdued but powerful. I’d recently watched a documentary about April 30, 1975, and to now be standing on the same ground and walking the same halls where so much recent history happened was quite overwhelming.  The final removal of American personsel from Saigon was a dramatic and intense affair, ending with a final declaration of a united (and communist) Vietnam – thirty years after Ho Chi Minh first declared an independent Vietnam to end French, control, and twenty years after America installed itself in the country to attempt to halt the spread of communism. 

 
The Palace has been restored to its former 1960s architectural and design glory. The bamboo inspired facade and breezy walkways offer stunning views of the surrounding park and city. The furnishings straight from your grandmothers house, low, sleek and minimalistic, with chandeliers everywhere and a plethora of different wallpapers.  The self-guided tour brochure took me around every floor, except the first, which was closed for preparations for Vietnam’s National Day, September 2, marking 70 years of Vietnam’s self-proclaimed independence. There were helpful and informational signs for many rooms, and photos were allowed everywhere. The bunker in the basement was the last floor to visit and was quite startling in its maintained detail. Desks, chairs, phones and a ton of communication and transmission devices filled the rooms, even wartime maps of Vietnam, showing areas of involvement and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was definitely an eye opening glimpse into the past.   

 My next stop was the War Remnants museum. I think it used to be called the War Crimes museum, but the Vietnamese, in their seemingly unending spirit of forgiveness and acceptance, renamed it to reflect that the war is in the past. 
Starting on the third floor and working my way down, the few hours I spent looking at pictures and reading captions were pretty heavy. Starting with the end of French rule in 1945, the museum systematically chronicled the next 30 years of war in Vietnam.  As is the case with any national war museum, the story is told from the perspective of the country who’s soil you’re standing in. That said, it’s pretty difficult to rationalize American, French, Cambodian, Korean, Australian and New Zealand’s roles in what started out as a civil war.

Probably my favourite display, if one can favour an atrocity, was the second display, ‘Requiem’, a “collection of war documentary photos taken by 134 journalists from 11 countries, killed during the Indochina War”.  

The photographs are remarkable; sharing all sides of the conflict in black, white and colour. It’s really difficult to put into words how I felt, and still feel about this exhibit, and my experience at the museum in general. I did make a concerted effort, however, to look at every picture and read every caption; I figured it’s the least I could do for the privilege of being able to visit Vietnam.

Somewhat luckily for me, the museum closed for lunch before I had a chance to see the remaining floors. I got to take a break and a bit of a breather and explore further afield from the city centre. I headed next to the Jade Pagoda, and to be honest it was a bit of a let down. Very basic, and crammed between more modern buildings, it wasn’t particularly worth the trip, though whizzing around Saigon on the back of a scooter was pretty awesome. 

I stopped for lunch (bahn mi and Vietnamese iced coffee) and drove over the Saigon River on a bridge and then back across via the tunnel!   

Somewhere during lunch I had a discussion with my scooter driver to discover that the price of 200 000 VND was in fact only for a portion of the day, and so had to hastily renegotiate a deal to avoid getting even more gouged. I rarely fall victim to these types of scams, but it happens now and again – doh!

I arrived back at the museum and tackled the other exhibits, particularly the war crimes: imprisonment and Agent Orange. I won’t go into much detail, but will mention that a visit to the museum is a worthwhile way to spend half a day.

Needing a complete change of pace, I decided to get lost, my favourite thing to do in any city. I set a loose destination of a neighbourhood I though might be interesting (knowing I would never make it there) and started walking. I crossed busy streets and wandered down quiet alleys. Then I saw this:  

Actually the stall was full of all sorts of delicious looking sea creatures, and I knew it was time for second lunch. The two women who ran the little restaurant did not speak any English, my Vietnamese is limited to a garbled three words; I still made it clear that I desired to taste whatever it was that they were making, and laughing, they say me down at a table, and cooked me the delicious things I had pointed at, and showed me how to eat them. This scrumptious meal cost a whopping $4 CAD.   

 As I was enjoying, I espoused across the street a hair salon, and inquired as to the cost of a cut: 100 000 VND or less than $6 CAD. Even if they messed it up, at least my hair would be short again. 45 min and an incredible haircut later, I posed with my awesome new stylist and hit the street again, ready and revived to tackle more of Ho Chi Minh City.  

 

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Pho pho good!

   
Within 2 hours of arriving in Vietnam, I was enjoying a bowl of pho at a restaurant frequented by Anthony Bourdain and packed with locals.  I had dropped my bag off at my hotel and was told I couldn’t get into my room for another 3 hours, so I stopped to purchase my favourite electrolyte drink of all time, Pocari Sweat, and headed to the little park across the street.

   
 
Asking some locals where this pho restaurant was that I desperately wanted to visit, I was told that at 2km away, it was too far to walk. With time to kill, two feet, a heartbeat, and pho in my future, I set off and was handsomely rewarded for my efforts. 30 000 VND ($2.10 CAD) and some happy slurping later, my goal for Day 1 in Vietnam was complete.

Feeling refreshed and energized by the hot air, warm breezes, palm trees and general bustle of the city; a stupid happy grin plastered to my face at being returned to my natural habitat of chaos, I kept wandering and found myself in the old French part of the city, with the Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral both looking resplendent in the midday sun.

   
 Standing in front of the cathedral, I was suddenly a celebrity. A giant in Vietnam at 5’7″, two separate groups of Vietnamese kids (in their late teens I would say) asked to have their pictures taken with me. The second group decided to friendly kidnap me, and made it their mission for the next couple of hours to be my friends. We talked, I helped them say ‘bookstore’ properly, they helped me learn a few words in Vietnamese. We shared fruit they had with them and they bought some drinks for us to share.  One of them serenaded me with a song, I reciprocated by singing along in English to the music on their phone. They even bought me a bracelet, as a reminder of our afternoon!!! 

  
After our goodbye, with promises to keep in touch, it was time for this tired traveller to head back and get some rest. A much needed shower and a quick foray to grab some steam buns and Tiger beer for a take away dinner, bed time was 8pm last night.

Still exhausted, I feel refreshed, invigorated and more alive than I have in months…the desire to explore and experience the new and different stronger  than ever before. These three weeks will be fleeting, a reminder of a past life, so I better get out and get going!

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Vietnam, here I come!

  With less than three hours to go until my very early morning flight to Vietnam, I find myself at the airport, super sleepy and blogging on my phone!
I’m not taking a laptop on this trip, but technology has improved so much since I started this blog that I can now write and post from my phone using free wifi – awesome.

So I’m off to Vietnam! True to my rather haphazard travelling form, I’ve done very little research except from looking up good places to eat.  I did end up booking that your, so transportation and accommodation is taken care of for a couple weeks at least.

The closer I’ve gotten to this vacation the more I’ve realized how much I need it. I’m burnt out from 5 months of intense training, and I haven’t taken a vacation since last June: it’s time.

As usual, follow along for all the updates I can manage! I’ll be primarily writing from my phone, so hopefully it looks ok on your end!

Until Taipei . . . 

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My Tri-riffic Summer

As I mentioned a few months back as I described life in Vancouver, I was training for my first-ever triathlon.  To be clear, I was not training for an Ironman, or even a normal Olympic length triathlon.  No, no, I was training for a sprint triathlon, and a bit of a mini one at that.

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Those of you who know me well will know that I tend to get a bit obsessed with things.  If I like something, if I think I have a chance to succeed, I will go all the way.  I don’t do halves.  I liked singing, so I took over running my choir when the executive quite.  I liked travelling, so I quit my job and travelled.  I liked diving, so I turned it into a full-time job.  I liked training, so I did it 20 hours a week, every week, for three months in preparation for my one hour and 15 minutes of glory.

But let me back up a bit to the beginning of this journey . . . At the beginning of the year, an email came around at work asking who wanted to be a part of the Fitness and Adventure Club at Doctors of BC. Wanting to finish a Sun Run in an hour, I signed up, and arrived at the bike racks at P1 on the appointed day and time. Weekly I was introduced to some new faces from around the organization. The Sprint Kid from Negotiations, the Bike Fanatic from Systems, the Running Chicks from PSP, and my future Tri-Wife from Shared Care.

As the weeks rolled by, it became very clear that only one of the Running Chicks and I were actually interested in keeping up the running . . . we moved our runs to lunch time and solved the problems of the world on a weekly basis, from 1665 West Broadway to either Kits Pool or Cambie Bridge, and back. The Sun Run came and went, goals were met, champagne was popped and it was time to get serious about doing more than one sport.

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My awesome runny buddy and I before the start of the Sun Run.

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Ohhhh so good!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rewind 6 weeks to mid-March, and a Happy Hour meeting at Earls. I can’t tell you the details, as the Cone of Silence was invoked, but suffice it to say that three wine-fueled ladies had all signed up to friendlily compete in a sprint triathlon, the first for two of us.

As March rolled into April, and April into May, the training ramped up. Swimsuits were bought and we had our nicknames: Swoosh and Swirl. Speed swooshes and speed swirls. They make us go faster. No really, we needed (and still need!) all the help we can get.

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Swoosh and Swirl!

Us tri-newbies bought new bikes (Periwinkle and Rocket James), new pedals, new shoes, new shorts, new shirts . . . MEC became a seriously dangerous place as hundreds upon hundreds of dollars disappeared down the Tri Hole. All for a sprint. All for 1/4 mile of swimming, 10 miles of biking and 2.6 miles of running. Averaging 20 hours a week of training, it slowly started coming together. Six am became a standard wake up call. A double lap of Stanley Park before work became the norm. Eating 2300 calories a day. Instead of just finishing the race, our goal shifted to timing. We knew we could do it, barring any external forces, now it became a matter of how fast.

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Awesome work bike gang!

 

Race day arrived. It was that heat wave at the end of June . . . the 30+ degree days? It was then. It was awesome.

We swam and didn’t die. We transitioned to our bikes and didn’t forget anything. We biked so hard I thought I would pass out. We transitioned to our running shoes and ran around a lake. We crossed the finish line and headed straight back into the water to celebrate. We wanted to finish the race in under 2 hours, in reality we both finished in less than 1:15, a fantastic achievement, we were in the top 30% of the race finishers. We were hooked! (Many thanks to my awesome parents for driving me down and back to Padden and for taking all these awesome pictures!)

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Pre-race at Padden, all ready to go.

Pre-race at Padden, ready to swim!

Pre-race at Padden, ready to swim!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two weeks later I did my second, full distance sprint triathlon in Squamish with my cousin. It was overcast, threatening rain, and less than 20 degrees. It was still awesome.

Pete and I all ready for the Squamish Tri

Pete and I all ready for the Squamish Tri

This past weekend, Swoosh and I and the Tiny Dinos headed up to Kelowna to compete in the Apple Triathlon. Started the year before we were born, the weekend has become a huge event with multiple races over two days. Our sights were set on the sprint Sunday morning.

Saturday was a perfect day; sunny, clear, not a cloud in the sky. We picked up our race packages, toured the bike course, racked our bikes in transition, attended the briefing, and tried to get ALL of our gear stolen by leaving the car door open. Thank goodness for the good people of Kelowna, every single thing was still there after two hours of our stupidity. Lakeside dinner and drinks at the El Dorado and a 9:30pm bedtime . . . 4:30am comes early on race day.

By 5:30 we were at the compound. The sun never rose on Sunday in Kelowna, as the smoke from the Washington State forest fires increased the air quality to an incredible 20. A final check on the bikes, pumping tires, laying out our transition towels, checking and rechecking to make sure everything is just where it needs to be. The call to marshal in the starting area, the call to line up on the beach, the airhorn to GO!

More practiced this time, we swam, biked and ran with our heads held high. Triathlons are FUN!!! The volunteers who line the course are so encouraging, the other competitors are kind and courteous even when passing you. Cheering on others to make it up the hill is always encouraged and appreciated.

After an admirable 1:35, we crossed the finish line. Nine am and we were done. We immediately lined up to get our free massages, and ate cheeseburgers before 10am. We wandered around, eating, rehydrating, changing (it was cold!), packing, talking to new friends and cheering on the other athletes. Finally around noon we called it a day, picked up our trusty steeds and went to take a nap.

Seven and a half hours later, if you were anywhere along Grandview Highway from Boundary to Pine, you might have seen us; you definitely would have heard us. Half-crazed from exhaustion, lack of sleep, exertion and a maddening drive in from Hope, our legs resisting every time we tried to get out of the car, we had found a radio station playing hits from the 90s. Ace of Base, Marcy’s Playground, Michael Jackson all pumping from the speakers as we sang at the top of our lungs and car-danced the final few clicks home.

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My first tri season is done now, I leave tonight for three weeks in Vietnam where I don’t have to swim, bike or run for any other reason than I want to. Luckily, I do want to. I’m already planning next year’s season, thinking about which races to do, which distances.  I’ve already signed up for another 10K in October.  For now, though, it’s rest time. Time to eat normal amounts of food, see friends, have a life; my tri-riffic summer might be at an end, but it feels like my tri-riffic life is just beginning.

Check out my photo album here!

Want to see more pictures of my training journey?  Make sure to follow me on Instagram @travelling_twin!

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Organized tour or random wanderings?

I can hardly believe I’m going to ask this, but with my 3 week Vietnam trip coming up in just one month, I find myself needing to ask the question:

Do I take an organized tour?

I haven’t been on a tour in ages, but those that I have been on have been generally pretty good. The reason for this departure from my usual “show up and hope for the best” routine is that I don’t want to miss anything BUT I’m also feeling really lazy, really busy, and I don’t want to plan anything.

Important to note: I haven’t yet planned anything. I have a plane ticket and a travel visa.

So, should I take a 12 day tour? It seems like it would hit up all the spots I would go to anyway. I would have time for a dive, and would either have 4 days or a week at the end to go trekking in Sapa.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Would love some input on this one!!

PS: the tour I’m thinking of is G Adventures’ Vietnam on a Shoestring 

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Backpacker to Bachelorette

So. It’s been a while since I’ve really written anything of substance on here. A long while. Does that mean I haven’t been doing anything of substance. Well, yes and no. Yes, because my life now is certainly not what it was a year ago; no, because my life now is definitely not what it was a year ago. I know, how profound of me.

Last year at this time, I was in England, enjoying my first vacation in over a year, and a week away from moving to my 4th Greek island. This year, I’m sitting at a yoga studio I volunteer at, waiting for the weekend to come – the fact that I even have weekends is still a novelty to me.

But let’s go back. Last summer, I worked on Naxos. The team was awesome, and I made some more amazing friends that I hope to see again one day. I came home to Canada in early September, and slept. And ate. And slept some more. And ate sushi, sushi and more sushi. I talked with my parents, I had tea with my friends, I hiked my favourite trails in
North Van. Then I started looking for a job. That was tough. Try to explain a 4 year absence from ‘normal’ working life – there are a lot of suspicious looks.

I got offered a few jobs at the local ski hills, and near the end of October got offered a job at the not-for-profit provincial medical association: score! Good thing too, I think we had about a metre of snow this past year, one of the mountains never even officially opened. My dream of being a ski bunny will have to wait until this winter.

The job is good. Really good. It has very decent pay, excellent benefits, and most importantly for me: really great people. I enjoy the work I do in finance, I always have. It’s not life-changing . . . but it’s not sitting around for 9 hours a day telling people you don’t have towels . . . but it’s not helping a family from France discover scuba diving for the first
time. Did I mention that I get weekends? I GET WEEKENDS. Every weekend. And when there’s a holiday? I’m not working, though I am still getting paid. That part is pretty magical.

So what have I been doing with all this time and money? Trying to figure out where I belong, I guess. I did a lot of diving in the fall. I was back living at home with good old Mom and Dad, and the availability of a car to haul my cold water dive gear around was very tantalizing and nice. It was great to be back in Vancouver’s Emerald Sea, with the
plumose anemones and the sea stars and giant ling cods.

My sister came home for Christmas and the family had our first holiday together since 2009. It was pretty great. Christmas morning we got drunk off prosecco mimosas and had to have a 2 hour afternoon nap while the turkey cooked. We ate in our stretchy pants and watched Scrooge and White Christmas and went to bed before 11pm. A pretty perfect day.

In January I moved into my very own apartment. Ok, I don’t own it, but I don’t share it with anybody. I haven’t lived in a space I could entirely call my own since 2008. That is 6 and a half years of living with my parents (whom I love dearly), my friends, strangers, and in strange places with strange beds. I haven’t put a nail in a wall in so long I almost forgot how to. Luckily my mirror hasn’t fallen down yet.

But yes, my place, my very own 425 square feet. It’s all mine. Everything in it is mine. It’s quite overwhelming, really, being responsible for so many . . . things. After 4 years of fitting everything into a giant backpack and a small carry on, to have an apartment full of stuff is weird, and strangely not as liberating as I thought it would be. I try not to think
about the fact that if (when?) I up and leave again, I will have to find a place to store all of these things. Those dishes, that vacuum cleaner, a chest of drawers I don’t have to share with anyone. They are just things, though. They don’t define me, and if I need or even want to leave them behind, I will. I don’t owe them anything, and I won’t feel bad if they don’t see the light of day for months or years and I do. Same with clothes. I now have a lot of them. Work clothes, workout clothes, nice clothes, day clothes, lounging clothes, clothes for different seasons. I own more than one pair of high heels. Crazy.

But enough about things. In February’ish, I started volunteering at a local yoga studio. In exchange for 4 hours of mopping floors, filling shampoo bottles and doing sweaty towel laundry, I get a free pass to a large range of yoga and fitness classes, and get to spend those 4 hours a week with new friends, talking about everything under the sun. It’s pretty great, and after all the chocolates I ate over the holidays, definitely needed.

My diving has taken a serious nosedive since the new year. I haven’t been in the water in two months. The last time I went diving was in Washington State with my cousin and cousin-in-law, near a site my Dad and his brothers used to dive when we were little. It was awesome coming out of the water to the crowd of my family wanting to know what we’d
seen. I now proudly display my little cousins’ interpretations of our dive on my wall at the office. Strangely enough, especially for something I used to do every single day, I don’t really miss it. Well, I do, I guess, but I don’t have time to miss it right now. I made some friends at work, and one of them convinced me to try a sprint triathlon. “I can run, and
bike”, I though to myself, “I had to swim in my divemaster course . . . sure, I’ll sign up”. Ohhhh that fateful decision! Running and biking and swimming are all well and good. Practicing those three things in a way that you can actually put them together and do them back to back in less than two hours is another thing entirely.

I’ve been running since February I guess. I ran the Sun Run in April and met my goal of 60 minutes. The following week I went out and ran another 10k, also in 60 minutes, and could still walk the next day. I bought a really amazing one piece bathing suit, with matching swim cap and goggles. My suit has swirls on it, speed swirls, I say. They make
me go faster. I spent over $1000 on a new bike and shoes that clip in to the new pedals on said new bike. I’ve really been enjoying the training, and have pretty much thrown myself into it. Last month I trained pretty much every day, often twice a day . . . maybe a bit much, but I’m loving it. The weather in Vancouver has been amazing, and it’s great to
hop on the bike for a ride, or go for a run in False Creek, or an early morning bike ride over the Burrard St Bridge and back, with a few hundred metre swim at the pool in the middle. I could talk about my tri training for ages . . . and one of these rest days I will, probably in a lot of detail that many will find boring. Suffice it to say that I’m addicted to it for
the moment, maybe it’s another phase, maybe not. We’ll see how I feel after I actually complete one of the things.

Other than that, life is good. I have friends, I do things, I live life. It’s not travelling the world, it’s not as exciting as it once was, but for me, it is somewhat exotic to be in one place again. To have my own place, my own space, to exist in a large city where everyone speaks my language, where life is easy.

Is this the life for me, though? I don’t know. I got braces via my benefits at work, and I still have the old railroad tracks for another 9-11 months before anything remotely keeping me in Vancouver is done. My work contract will be up in October, but they’ve said they’ll keep me around until next April . . . everything is still on a shortened timeline, and I like it that way. I didn’t get the Woods job, and I’m ok with that. Even in this ‘normal’ life, this corporate life, this life of things and possessions and steadiness, I always tell myself I’m never more than two weeks notice away from a change, should I decide I really need or want it. Still full of wanderlust, still planning the next adventure, still dreaming big . . .
one day I will decide what I want to do, but for now, I’m going to ride my bike.

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