13 Unforgettable Moments in 2013

Admittedly, the beginning of 2013 was quite a dreary one. As I wrote in the past, the months of February and March meant the end of an engagement, but also the beginning of a completely new life for me. I realized what it truly meant to love myself, and what I had been giving up in a futile attempt to receive love from another. It was then, in these moments of desperation, that I took to the road again and discovered the path I was meant to be on for years.

It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was more painful than the whole process of having braces, or even having a broken ankle on my 30th birthday. Nonetheless, it was a very necessary part of my life, one which would set me free and allow me to reconnect with old friends, meet new people, explore self-employment, and ultimately make me feel alive again. All in all, 2013 was more rewarding than I ever could have expected. I am nowhere near the person I was just a year ago, and I couldn’t be more grateful. In a collection of photographs and videos, here are 13 moments that define my outstanding year:

1. Visiting the snow for the very first time in my life- Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

I had seen small piles of snow on the side of the road, and I had journeyed all the way to Patagonia, Argentina to see the beautiful, crisp, awe-inspiring glaciers of Perito Moreno. But I still hadn’t visited properly massive mountains smothered with fresh, white, shivering powder until I went to Lake Tahoe to celebrate my older brother’s 30 something-ith birthday.

A beginner's snow angels in Lake Tahoe, Nevada

A beginner’s snow angels in Lake Tahoe, Nevada

2. Roadtrippin’- Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Beach, San Francisco, Portland, Kennewick, Seattle, and Vancouver, B.C.

Two days after I returned from Lake Tahoe, I repacked my bags and took off in my friend’s car to Los Angeles. It had been about four or five years since I had last been there, which seemed like an eternity. I didn’t really know what to make of my solitary, sullen situation, so the only thing I could do was get on the road. Visit friends. Hop on buses. See new sites. Drive farther. Work harder. Think about new horizons and positive potentials. This would be my life from March to June, and it was absolutely beautiful.

A windy night atop the Space Needle in Seattle, WA

A windy night atop the Space Needle in Seattle, WA

3. Committing to writing in a big way- Portland, Oregon.

Late in 2012, I began to take on small freelance writing projects. In 2013, I started to think seriously about my purpose in life. On one of my road trips, I decided it was time. Not only for the permanent ink, but for the eternal reminder of why I was placed on this earth: to write. In Portland, Oregon, Joanne from Martian Arts Tattoo Studio made that possible for me.

Joanne Martian etching

Joanne Martian etching “escribir” into my skin

4. A  serendipitous three month trip- Taiwan and Southeast Asia

Just before I was about to leave on my two country/four state road trip, one of my friends from college contacted me. There was an opportunity to volunteer teaching English in Taiwan that summer. After hearing the details, I was sold. Meetings were set, and my flight was booked. I would be teaching in Chupei, Taiwan for two weeks, staying with a host family. I had no idea where I would go after, or how long I would stay.

My homestay sister and me

5. Going to Malaysian Borneo

Right after my summer camp program ended in Taiwan, I had the opportunity to see orangutans in the semi-wild at Semenggoh Nature Reserve- something I’d been wanting to do since I was 15!   

6. White water rafting in class 4 waters in the Padas River, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.

In the heart of Malaysian Borneo, I boarded a rickety old train and headed down to the river on Borneo’s oldest railway. Once I arrived, I was amazed by the gorgeous scenery- green mountains, foliage galore, and the gentle rush of the river. However, after being tipped and thrown over the raft at least three times- having to ride the currents feet-forward with the boat far out of reach, and nearly being asphyxiated by the GoPro that slipped off of my helmet and around my neck- I realized that this wasn’t child’s play. It was a mind-blowing experience.

Battling the rapids and hanging on for dear life in the Padas River

Battling the rapids and hanging on for dear life in the Padas River (I’m the last one on the right in the red vest)

7. Five weeks in Thailand.

Oh, Thailand. I knew before I arrived that I would love this country. I knew not a word of Thai, couldn’t read the alphabet, and didn’t really know where I would go or what I would do. Nonetheless, I felt drawn to explore and followed my instincts. From the paradise of Phuket’s beaches, to the crazy parties in Bangkok to the lovely friends I met while teaching in Trat, to the gorgeous underwater world in Koh Chang, it was more than I could have ever asked for. I fell in love with Thailand for so many reasons. Kop Khun Kha!

The bungalow on the left is where I wrote in Koh Chang. Best office view ever!

The bungalow on the left is where I wrote in Koh Chang. Best office view ever!

8. Celebrating life and freedom at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Cambodia is a gorgeous country with extremely warm people. And while it is also one of the poorest in the world, ridden with land mines and struggle, the history and beauty are irrefutably powerful. While I was teaching in Thailand, I had a five day weekend, so I booked a ticket and hopped on the bus… to Sihanoukville. This beach town and Siem Reap were on opposite sides of Cambodia.  Hmph. I wasn’t too happy about this, but accepted this as fate bringing me to get to know more of the country.

A day and a half later, I arrived in Siem Reap and settled into my stifling hot, dingy, cockroach-sprinkled room. I realized, while on the overnight hotel bus, that the day I’d be visiting this supposed eighth wonder of the world– Angkor Wat- would be the day I was supposed to have my wedding. I told other travelers and random strangers about this, and their immediate response of compassion and pity would quickly turn into curiosity. Why was I so upbeat? Shouldn’t I be shedding tears instead of smiling with my face, heart, and entire being?

Not at all. This was the best celebration I could have possibly imagined for a second chance at life. The wind and rain fluttered by me as I rode in the tuk tuk, elated to see every monkey, tree, human being, and ancient piece of stone I encountered. Angkor Wat was striking, spiritual, ancient, crumbling, yet still standing defiantly proud after all of these years. I understood and connected with the ruins, and they reassured me that I deserved this feeling of complete liberation. I had earned it, and it was undoubtedly a time to rejoice. Once again, I had found my self and happiness.

Standing next to the Devata Goddess, or guardian angel, at the Bayon Temple

Standing next to the Devata Goddess, or guardian angel, at the Bayon Temple

9. Eating snake heart in La Met, Vietnam for my 32nd birthday.

Yes, I am a vegetarian. But, as you may have already guessed, I’m also a little bit crazy and extremely adventurous. For my 32nd birthday, I wanted to do something that was completely out of character for me- something that I would never forget. I wrote awhile back about some of my culinary adventures, but this “dish” gets the gold medal in nastiness. I feel ill just thinking about it. (If you’re wondering, I have returned to vegetarianism and stepped it up a notch to veganism.) I won’t spoil the upcoming post (part II of the strange stuff I’ve eaten) by showing you the video, but here is a picture capturing our post-heart-devouring session as we sit down to eat snake dinner like normal civilians.

Eating... errr... snake tail in La Met. Never again!

Eating… errr… snake tail in La Met. Never again!

10. Riding on the back of a motorcycle- conquering my fears.

Fear is an awful thing. The more you think about it, the more it grows. I have plenty of fears in life, but I am usually able to get over them rather quickly. However, since 2007, I was petrified of motorcycles. This is coming from a girl who wanted to buy herself a Harley Davidson when she graduated from college. My paternal grandparents owned a Harley shop. Everyone rode- my grandfather, grandmother, father, aunt, and eventually my mother. I thought I would, too, until one summer day when someone I loved died in a horrible motorcycle accident.

Since that day, I swore I would never ride again. The thought paralyzed me and provoked an insurmountable anxiety. But somehow, when I got to Taiwan, I realized that I had to move on. Letting my past go was much more than getting over a relationship- it was overcoming all of the things that had ever tripped me up or weighed me down.

And so, I tried. First, a two minute ride on the back of a moped my 17-year-old homestay sister in Taiwan drove. Then a short, torturous trip through Trat, Thailand, on the back of a real motorcycle on my way to the bus station. Little by little, my courage grew and my demonic fears took the back seat. By the time I got to Vietnam, it was as if I were challenging the devil himself. I hopped on the back of motorcycles, weaving in and out of traffic, at the driver’s mercy, and simply enjoyed the chaotic, surreal, thrilling experience. I was still afraid- knowing that I could die, break my bones, crush my skull- but this fear would no longer hold me back.

11. Retracing my father’s steps in Vietnam.

Vietnam. The Vietnam War. These words, and the power behind them, have weighed heavy on me since I was a little child. My father was 19, and my mother 18, when he received that dreaded letter. My dad was to be drafted into Eisenhower’s war against Communism, or the war to capitalize on rubber while trying to cut off Russia’s global power. The first two years of my parents’ marriage, my dad was fighting for his life in the jungle while my mom lived with her parents, waiting for her husband to come back. I don’t know how she did it.

We all know he came back a changed man. Obviously, I could have never known him beforehand. But the hardships he endured, the living conditions he was forced into, the brainwashing the U.S. Army subjected him to, not to mention the constant presence of death he lived with on a daily basis, would have changed even robotic hearts.

When I entered the country, I worried about how I’d be treated as a United Statesean. Nonetheless, everyone was very friendly, and I had a fantastic time in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. By the time I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, however, I was a bit of an emotional wreck. The south of Vietnam is where my dad fought. This is where I was to trace my father’s steps. I was to crawl through the Cu Chi Tunnels, visit the Bear Cat station where he was based, explore the Mekong Delta, see the War Remnants Museum, and do my utmost to understand what he went through.

My first stop was the Cu Chi Tunnels, originally occupied by the Viet Cong. Torture devices, mock soldiers, and even a shooting range, were tastelessly placed throughout. I crawled through the tunnels, knowing that my father had done so as well- yet he did so in attempt to survive- not to explore a tourist attraction. When he was there, no lights were set up. Vipers and other defense contraptions were strategically planted throughout the confined spaces. Most importantly, people were waiting in every crevice, ready to attack the U.S. intruders. Despite an immense feeling of claustrophobia, I took the experience better than I thought I would.

The War Remnants Museum, however, was a huge mind fuck. While the majority of the museum is definitely skewed from an Anti-American perspective, the top floor crushed me. Photographs, taken by journalists who died during the war, were displayed everywhere. To be sure, I do not have a weak stomach. Throughout my studies of Latin America and La Violencia in Colombia, I overdosed on films and photographs of wars’ destruction (decapitation, disembowelment, torture, etc.) while researching for my thesis.

However, knowing that my father was in this war, in these situations, watching people get shot down, blown up, torn apart, bleeding out, losing limbs, failing mentally and emotionally- it was just overwhelming. I shook with nervous energy, taking in these vivid photos and imagining what it must’ve been like to have been there. I couldn’t take it anymore. I broke down in the middle of the museum, tears streaming down my face, rushing to the bathroom to sob freely. I tried to collect myself, but I couldn’t help but wish that I had someone to talk to. It was one of the few times that traveling alone really got to me; I suppose we can’t always do everything alone.

One of the least assaulting photos in the War Remnants Museum: U.S. soldiers wading waist-deep in the jungle waters, as my father did- day or night- despite leeches, snakes, or more prominent dangers

One of the least assaulting photos in the War Remnants Museum: U.S. soldiers wading waist-deep in the jungle waters, as my father did- day or night- despite leeches, snakes, or more prominent dangers

12. Spending time with family.

Yes, I almost missed my flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Taipei on purpose. And also the flight from Taipei to San Francisco. The thing about traveling is- I don’t EVER want to go back home. On my flight back home from spending eight months in South America, tears dripped down my face the entire last leg of the flight.

Now that I’m almost a decade older, my return wasn’t quite as dramatic. (Just don’t ask my friends or family members to confirm that.) I didn’t want to be back in the U.S. The only thing that forced me to come back was my love for my family. I didn’t want to miss out on Thanksgiving Day with my niece and nephew, whom I rarely get to see.

A portrait of the ladies in the family by my four-year-old nephew

A portrait of the ladies in the family by my four-year-old nephew

13. Deciding to move to Portland.

Ok, what I said above about my return from Asia isn’t quite so true. The reverse culture shock was intense. I would go walking for hours just to feel like I was on some sort of adventure. I spent days and nights looking for teaching jobs in Taiwan, Russia, Spain, Turkey, South Korea, and so on. My bank account was empty but I was itching to get back on the road. I had to make a decision- even though I felt Spain calling me, more than likely I’d go to South Korea because of finances. San Jose was just not an option. My friends and family who live there are very dear to me, but the place is just too full of disappointment and unhappy memories for me.

My mind went back to an idea that I’d had before I even knew I was going to Asia: I would move to Portland. The progressiveness, the art scene, the music, the chill atmosphere, the delicious (and super veggie-friendly) food, not to mention lower living costs, all made the decision a no-brainer. People asked if I had friends or family in Portland. Nope, not really.

So I packed my bags and fit what I could in my Mini Cooper and headed north with one of my cousins- who is also a best friend. I drove eleven plus hours straight, not knowing exactly what I was getting myself into, but that I’d make it work. That was January 2nd, 2014, and here I am in my cozy Oregonian room, listening to the rain fall as I wonder what the rest of this year will bring me.

8 thoughts on “13 Unforgettable Moments in 2013

  1. ladyofthezoos says:

    Talk about unforgettable! Strangely I’m drawn to your description of Portland and your new home, perhaps it’s because I’m doing a West Coast trip in a weeks time and Portland is one of the places I’ll be visiting and can’t wait to explore it!


    • Cristina Luisa says:

      Thanks! It was definitely quite a year! When will you be here in Portland? It’s a wonderful place with much to do! Now that it’s Spring, cherry blossoms are in full bloom and we’re getting less rain. Let me know when you’ll be in town- I’d love to get together for coffee or a drink!


  2. adrianstraveltales says:

    I see a lot of my life reflected in this list. I know I’m a bit late, as you are working on your 2014 year currently, but I love reflections and I enjoy seeing where you’ve been. My Angkor Wat experience was a top day in my life, I lived in Taiwan in 2013 as well, tattoo’s and family time and even scootering and not dying while doing it. I can’t wait to see what 2014 and beyond has/will bring!


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