It’s been about three weeks now since I came home from Mongolia, but it still feels like I’ve been constantly moving about. These past couple of weeks I’ve been snaking my way back and forth between the New York countryside and the city via train. This past weekend, my mother and I also hopped aboard Amtrak and darted through upstate NY straight into Montreal for a short 5 day getaway. While I was exhausted from constantly traveling, when I arrived in Montreal it quickly became one of my favorite cities in the world. Here are some ramblings about what I did on this trip.
I’m very sad, for today I’ll be leaving Ulaanbaatar.
At the UB Post, I wrote an article on my first impressions of Mongolia for my internship. For that article, I concentrated on my overall experience and addressed it from the a racial perspective. However, I didn’t address many other things that shaped my experience here, such as the people, the food, and outside trips/locations. There was a lot of good and admittedly there was some bad, but overall this has been such an empowering experience that has helped me grow and flourish in unimaginable ways. Thank you so much to everyone who helped make this happen again – you guys are amazing! Here are some highlights of my trip that I feel were key in making the experience what it was.
While I haven’t uploaded any of my articles in a while, this past weekend has been filled with amazing opportunities for interviews and coverage of fascinating events. In particular, I had the chance to interview the regional director of the UNFPA Asia Pacific region and attend the launch of the #HeForShe campaign in Mongolia.
Already a month has passed, and I have only a month more to go. It took me forever, but on Thursday I finally took my first trip out of Ulaanbaatar to the countryside. I hopped in a white sedan with a Mongolian tour guide who spoke no English and a Japanese traveler for a two hour ride to Aglag Buteel. Founded by the monk G. Purevat, the monastery offers a sweeping view of the valley below and a peaceful environment for meditation. The problem was that it is couched in the heart of Daliin Khavtsal Mountain. I looked up at the rocky staircase winding to the temple, the snaking trails leading to the peak. I looked down at my battered sneakers. I was definitely not prepared to hike.
Approximately three weeks ago, I arrived in Ulaanbaatar for Wellesley’s Luce in Asia internship program. I am now working at The UB Post as a journalist intern, writing articles and exploring the city. While initially, I wanted nothing more than to come home, these past few weeks thus far have reminded me why I travel.
Truth be told, even though I have been studying French since forever, I didn’t have any expectations about the country. Well, except for the food. If the food were bad, it couldn’t be France at all.
Actually, I’m lying. Of course I had expectations, but I always try to set them much lower for myself in order to avoid disappointment. However, in setting low expectations for myself and others, I often simultaneously set myself up for missing out. There’s also the fact that my fear of being optimistic or excited about certain things pulls me into a semi-permanent state of apathy: sometimes, I fail bring myself to care for fear of being disappointed, be it in friendships, choosing schools to apply to, or touring Paris.
As For Paris…
Let’s start with the negatives of having low expectations. Getting out of Charles de Gaulle made me cry twice, and trying to board at Montparnasse was like undergoing soul surgery without anesthesia. But I had anticipated the horror to begin with. Had I been more positive about it to begin with, during my moments of weakness I could’ve simply said, “This isn’t the worst that could’ve possibly happened.” I could’ve also used my French skills rather than resort to English. I did so simply because I lacked the expectation of success in being understood. The time I would’ve saved had I just opened my darn mouth, honhon nasalization style.
But I am glad at the same time that I was able to be pleasantly surprised because of my moderated expectations. I really wasn’t expecting my journey to Paris to be that great – kinda thought it would be like Tokyo. An bustling, overwhelmingly urban place, even a bit overrated (sorry /hides). I had also heard from friends it was very dirty. But that wasn’t the case at all.
First, the flight on XL Airways was nowhere near as bad as the Yelp reviewers made it out to be. Granted, it was 11:55pm and I was exhausted, so if there was any horribleness I was not gonna notice. But the moments I was awake, it was perfectly fine – no one on the staff was outstandingly rude (they were quite nice, in fact), the seats weren’t any more narrow than any other economy class plane I’d flown (though I am a bit small and I only remember my recent flight to Canada), and even though there wasn’t a giant screen attached to every seat they still gave you in-flight entertainment via free Wifi on your phone (which sleeping me did not really need in the end).
Then, the hotel I stayed at – Hôtel Port Royal – was perfectly charming. It was family-run and passed down four generations apparently. There was a little garden in the middle of the building, and in the vicinity was a bustling but nevertheless charming, old neighborhood with lots of greenery and old apartments. In that small room, with its yellow curtains and all, it really did feel like I was living in my own little piece of the world. It was just me and the garden, an indulgence of my introverted side – pure, unadulterated peace.
Rue de Mouffetard was just around the corner, a lovely place with crepe shops. I literally survived off of these (delicious) crepes save for the day after, when I had a nice breakfast at Cafe Lilou around the corner. While I had no idea what I was doing, the owner was obliging and showed me what was available for breakfast – a petit déjeuner français for 8€. It was delicious but simple – baguette, orange juice, croissant, café au lait (see oh so non skillful photo).
I then returned to my room on the corner of Rue Mouffetard, and I spontaneously decided to book a free tour. Given my past experiences with free tours (*ahem* Kyoto), I wasn’t sure how this would turn out. And then of course it began to downpour and stupid me didn’t bring an umbrella since I’m a hardcore New Yorker (what does that even mean lol). But what a stroke of luck – a wonderful, kind, talented young woman named Melanie, also from the USA, offered to share hers with me. We talked about the incomparable beauties of the city, the perils of traveling alone. All the while, we listened to our interesting and very enthusiastic tour guide talk about the Fountain at La Place St. Michel, the Notre Dame de Paris, Palais Royale et La Sainte Chapelle, the Seine, the Pont Neuf, the Louvre… the tour guide and the young woman inspired me to keep traveling and pursue what I love. They both proved to me as well that you don’t need a fancy education or prestigious job to see the world, nor to change the world in small increments.
After, Melanie and I decided to see the lights of the Eiffel Tower at night, meeting at La Place Trocadéro. In between was a hectic mix of receiving a wire transfer from Western Union and getting kicked off of the métro at Raspail on the way because of a bomb threat. But that incident in itself led to positive occurrences and a forever elevated image of Parisians in my eyes: a young Asian woman on the metro tried helping me get a bus, and a guy with a fashionably scruffy beard hailed a taxi for me and even spoke English to me. It was so kind, it’s restored my faith in men (almost, but not quite LOL). It certainly dispelled the stereotypical notion of the “snobby” or “cold” Parisian.
Maybe I’m a cliché tourist at heart, but seeing the Eiffel Tower glow and sparkle at night was one of the happiest moments I’d ever experienced. There were scam artists swarming around trying to sell knock off plastic Eiffel Towers and there were enough tourists to fill the Mediterranean Sea, but it was lit up against the night and, honestly, just simply very beautiful. And it made me think, too – I’ve always wondered why humans are attracted to little glowing lights in the distance, from Christmas lights to stars. Perhaps it’s because they remind us of the fact that in even the blackest expanse of our lives, there is warmth somewhere out there. Warmth in a fire, or warmth in another person’s embrace.
After Tour Eiffel, we saw Arc de Triomphe, another majestic sight that most certainly lives up to its fame at night. We walked a quarter of the way down the Champs-Elysées and then stopped in the side street café, Le Victoria, for some nutella crepes. Perfect balance of crispy and melty, with thick, sweet nutella in the center. Finally, we walked back down to the subway and parted.
I made my first meaningful travel relationships in Paris. I’ve never experienced that sort of strong yet fleeting feeling of friendship before with people I’d only known for less than a day – less than a minute in the case of the people I met on the stopped Raspail metro. What’s even more interesting is that it is something I never expected, period. I am a lonely introvert who does have some trouble opening up to people I don’t really know well. The irony of it all then is that even if we “moderate” our expectations to minimize disappointment and maximize excitement, it is only in the completely unexpected that we find the greatest pleasure.