Casket Quarry Hike (New Free Thing #1)

Usually, I’d say that hiking and other outdoor activities are the super easy Free Things to do in Duluth. They’re everywhere, and I’m sure some weeks I’ll count new trails among the New Free Things I’ll take in. But I knew this event wouldn’t be easy because of the social aspect and because of my insecurities about doing physical stuff with other people.

I pulled into the parking area by Quarry Park on time, as ready as I was going to be. Hike Duluth and Duluth Parks and Recreation partnered to do this series of Women Hike Duluth hikes. They meet monthly on trails around the city, but January had been cancelled on one of those days that everything was cancelled because it was the time of the Polar Vortex (read: windchills of -40F and below). All the parking lot spots were full, and cars were lining the street for a couple of blocks. The bigger the group, the easier to not talk to anyone – ha!

We’ve had a bit of snow lately.

A woman came confidently striding up to me with a smile on her face and said, “Are you here alone, too?” After answering affirmatively and talking about the fact that neither of us have been to one of these Women Hike Duluth events, we fell into a somewhat awkward smiling silence. The people around us were also having conversations about similar topics, but clearly almost all of them had shown up with at least one known entity.

Parking Lot
Photo credit: Sandi Larson (group leader)

After a couple more minutes of standing around, the group leader told us about the route (up to the top of the ridge, then past the ice climbers below, along the ridge, back down and into the woods before looping back to the parking lot), urging the snowshoers to go first to pack down the snow a bit.

As we started hiking, I was right behind this same woman, continuing a somewhat halting conversation. As we continued to talk a bit, we realized that we knew someone in common, a woman I haven’t been in much contact with since she left Duluth years ago. Funny small town where you are seven degrees of separation from just about everyone…


The hike itself was interesting enough. All 67 of us filed along, seeing ice climbers and artwork, and just being out in nature on a warm enough day. Here’s a video the hike leader took of us up near the top of the ridge.

20190223_13423120190223_134333After thanking the group leader and saying goodbye to the hikers who had already made it back to the parking lot area, I quickly scurried back to my car and drove down to Winter in the West where I saw a group of three women I’d been asked to take a picture of while out hiking. They assured me I had earned the free donut I was eating (do I seriously have to earn donuts??? especially free donuts????? hmmm…).

I figured I needed a rating scale for these events… I’m sure I’ll change it as I go along. Let’s go 1-10, shall we?

1: incredibly painful, either physically or emotionally,

3: it wasn’t great and I sure wouldn’t seek doing it again,

5: it was fine; had good and not-so-good aspects,

7: it was good for a variety of reasons and I’d likely try again if given the opportunity, and

10: one of my favorite events in Duluth, resulting in intense joy or satisfaction.

This would be about a 4. While I didn’t feel connected to the social aspect of it, I did like the hike and being outside on a relatively warm day (20 above!). And even though it was really a separate New Free Thing, I like donuts. So while I absolutely applaud the Women Hike Duluth idea, I think I’ll stick to primarily hiking alone or with very good friends.

Meaty Meaty Meatfest

I gave up meat nearly a decade ago. This time. I’d chosen vegetarianism off and on for all of my adult life, primarily citing ethical reasons (secondarily environmental issues, tertiarily health issues, blah blah blah).

I’ve always been what I call a “loose” vegetarian, though. Example: When friends brought over bacon-wrapped water chestnuts years ago, I justified eating them by telling myself I wasn’t creating any more demand for meat by eating leftovers. Suuuuuuure, Julie. But gotdamn, if that bacon wasn’t delicious.

At home, I’d eat water meat occasionally (fish, mussels, etc.), and when I got here, I loosened up even more. Example: That broth is definitely not vegetarian (but it’s just made up of leftover animal parts that would go to waste anyway, right?). Suuuuuuure, Julie. But gotdamn, if that soup wasn’t delicious.

And then I went to Vietnam on a vacation week.

It all started so innocently with this lovely veg street food consumed in one of the many lovely parks that exist in the heart of Saigon. I knew there was fish sauce in the egg part, and I was fine with that.

And I ordered the pho tofu. Which wasn’t exactly veg (but was exactly tasty).

Then I took a cooking class, and on the way to the market, our guide asked if anyone was a vegetarian. I kept my hand down. So we went to the market and shopped for deliciously fresh veg and herbs. And meat. 

And that’s when the meat hit the proverbial fan. And not just water meat, but all the land meat available to humankind. I had shrimp. Fish. Chicken. Pork. Beef. 

pho bo

We cooked lovely dishes that day, and then over the course of the week, I had all the meats again, sometimes all on one sandwich.

I told myself when I returned to Cambodia, I would eschew meat again, or at least to the extent that I had before I went to Vietnam. My first attempt to get a sandwich without meat? This:


I’ll let you guess where it’s gone since then…

Language Learning

I’m taking a Khmer language class, and it is kicking my ass. Luckily, though, we’re only learning the spoken language and avoiding written language, because the Pali/Sanscrit combo is currently beyond the reaches of my Roman-alphabet-centric brain.

On my first day of class, I walked up the stairs, thinking I was supposed to go to classroom #2 (because I stopped to use the toilet and forgot where I was supposed to go). I walked in the door, and the two Western gals in there greeted me in Khmer and then said, “You’re here for level seven?” I replied, “Level seven? Noooooo. Kickstart. Which is like level zero, right?” They kindly laughed and told me which classroom I was supposed to be in.

The kickstart class, an intensive two-week course, has ten people in it. Four are young gals from Denmark here volunteering with some Christian organization doing work surrounding the sex industry. There are also three other young people with another Christian organization (from the USA and Mongolia) here to do similar work surrounding the sex industry. Then there’s a guy who works for an NGO also doing work surrounding the sex industry. The only other person in the class just happens to be another speech-language therapist. Turns out this gal (I’ll call her SLT2) is working for a woman who’s also involved directly in the work I’ll be doing. Small town of 1.5 million!

Learning a second language is just plain hard when you’re not a young child. Several years ago, when I was going to spend a bit of time in Argentina, I used the Rosetta Stone course to learn a bit of Spanish. I studied. I logged the hours listening to the words and phrases. I answered the questions. I repeated things and let Mr. Rosetta tell me just how jacked up my pronunciation was. But I managed to work my way through several levels, giving me a bit of confidence that I’d be able to get by in trying to communication when arriving.

Man, was I wrong. First of all, the pace of language — real language, spoken by real native-speaking people — is immensely faster than anything ever presented via an online course at the level I was doing. And while the content of online courses is usually applicable to things you’d need while traveling, I never had to actually ask for a teacup. And while I could label the color of anything I saw, somehow the lovely people of Argentina never asked me to dazzle them with this skill.

There are things here that I wonder why are on the list of important things to learn, but I do feel like some of the things we learn are glimpses into culture. For example, in the middle of learning greetings and the like, we also learned the phrase, “Help! Fire!” Huh. Really? As common as, “Hello.” Whaddya know. Although, if you saw the electrical wires on streets here and extrapolated this wiring system to homes, you may no longer wonder at all about the necessity of teaching this phrase.

Our teachers encourage us to talk to people about things on the street. “Ask the woman at the market how she’s doing,” or “Negotiate prices with your newly-learned Khmer number knowledge.” (no specific encouragement was given on the “help! fire!” phrase, though.) So I try. I tell my tuk tuk drivers I am learning Khmer. I ask things like, “How are you doing?” There are two possible responses in this situation. (1) Blank stares, letting me know my pronunciation is horrible or my words are wrong. I’m sure I’m saying things like, “You where goes yellow goodbye.” (2) A string of words in response that comes so rapid fire that I have no idea what the words were, much less what they mean. The one good thing from this? I’m learning very quickly how to say, “Please say that again more slowly.” (note: i usually still can’t understand a damn thing anyone is saying.)

And I know it’s incredibly cliche to say that a smile supersedes language (and all that other stuff about communication being so much more than language) but gotdamn if it isn’t true. And laughter? There are few things I find more endearing than laughing together with locals over how horribly I verbally massacred something.

Charmed life example #328? Almost everyone here speaks some English. And if they don’t, they’re usually willing to go round up a helpful young person who does.

Unrelatedly, I ate one of these tiny fried frogs (skewered through the eyes). No, they didn’t taste like chicken. My strolling partner was forced to eat the rest as we couldn’t even give the rest away. Tiny Skewered Frogs

First Things First

I get antsy. This is no secret to those who know me. Novelty and change feed me.

I know there’s a ton of stuff out there on mindfulness, and on finding novelty in the things you’re already experiencing regularly, but somehow  that itch seems to come back in the end in just about every situation. I don’t deny that I need to train my brain a bit more to find novelty in the familiar (notice the little things! use fresh eyes to see everything!), but daaaaaaaaaamn, completely novel experiences are delicious!

Several years ago, I found myself straining against the confines of Duluth after living there for seven years (multiple years longer than I had lived anywhere else in my adult life). In an attempt to find novelty in the familiar, I started a blog aptly named “One New Thing Each Week: Avoiding the seven year itch in my relationship with this city.” It’s not available anymore to view, but it was a series of new micro-adventures in Duluth (new beers! new restaurants! new events!). The blog kept me accountable, and I did log 52 new things in Duluth in a year. While it was all about exploring and finding novelty, perhaps the best thing that happened was that I pushed myself out of my comfort zone at least once a week in such a strong attempt to be able to stay put. Must’ve worked, because I still permanently live there!

I think as a society lately, people complete glamorize this desire to explore (read the online dating profiles of every man ever and you’ll see some derivation of either the word “explore” or “adventure”, regardless of how they actually live their daily lives). While I have come to recognize that there is a need for change at my core, it has also demolished some of the most amazing things I’ve ever had in my life. In this setting, though, I think I have found an amazing way to both be productive and experience change on a large scale.

There are few things in life that excite me as much as a “first.” But when every aspect of your life becomes firsts, things can become a bit overwhelming. I think this is what we people who are lucky enough to put ourselves into the middle of cultures that differ greatly from our own affectionately refer to as “culture shock.”

I may have mentioned that my current digs are in one of the nicest areas of town, with a high proportion of expats and tourists present. This makes for fewer experiences of feeling like an outsider (feeling like the record scratches when you walk into a space), but there are still so many situations where I do. I wander through the markets. Outsider. I sit down in a small restaurant. Outsider. I step outside of my apartment and smile at the guys playing cards across the street. Outsider. But with a good balance of what feels comfortable and new things, I feel like pushing myself to explore. This doesn’t feel like culture shock. It just feels shockingly good.

I was talking with a guy the other day who has been here about a month and he asked how long I’d been here. When I told him a week, he said he felt like a slouch for not having done any of the types of things I’d done. Now, I haven’t done anything that feels that outrageous, but it all does come from the seeking of firsts.

Every day, something new. A new food (malai helong flowers, mixes of things wrapped in banana leaves, Khmer curries). A new restaurant (that expat one that made me uncomfortable, that Khmer one tucked in the market). A new mode of transport (admission: tuk tuks aren’t new, but they were new to me here, and no driver ever knows where he’s going, a story for another day).  A new person to meet (other people working with kids with disabilities in town, teachers just arriving in town working for an organization that’s sponsoring the course I’m coordinating, random people just about anywhere). A new experience of any sort (going to a new market, volunteering with the Khmer Sight Foundation, running in the city, meditating at a local wat).

Now, these firsts are not typically comfortable, as thoughts like, “What the hell is going on here?” and, “Where the hell am I supposed to be going?” and “Why the hell am I here?” creep into my brain. But ultimately, I know that this mild discomfort that can be inherent in new experiences is what feeds me. Feeds me the most delicious stories one could ever hope to digest.

Outside of town in a tuk tuk
Measuring blood sugar before surgery for Khmer Sight Foundation (I just recorded results)
At Wat Langka where I did an hour-long Vipassana meditation
Malai Helong flowers (and crinkle cut carrots)