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What’s Normal, Anyway?

Some people have this idea of a “normal” life. They just want to live a balanced life, loving their job, loving their spouse (or partner or roommate, whoever), maybe even aspire to buying a house in the burbs, filling it with happy golden retrievers and children’s laughter, and having enough time to go to the gym, cook a 3 course dinner for your family, and have passionate sex in the evenings.

But what if “normal” isn’t normal for everyone? Or what if your idea of normal is someone else’s idea of crazy? My fiance and I live our “normal” routine. Normal consists of him catching a flight once a week for 3-4 days at a time to whatever normal1destination his client happens to be in (lately, that’s been Frankfurt, but it changes up from time to time.) Meetings change, appointments change, so those days, inevitably, also change. Normal for me is about half a week of living la vida single – drinks with friends, going to the gym, chatting on gchat til 1 am. The irony is that I also travel for work, usually about 3-4 weeks at a time (depending on the needs of my project and how long I’ve been away from the project site.) So “normal” for me is always needing a cat sitter, always adjusting to new hours and time zones and changes in weather – i.e. never falling into a routine.

I think what most people consider to be comforting, i.e. routinized days filled with breakfast and dinner at home, lunch with colleagues, typical Tuesday, Wednesday, or Friday activities – to me sounds stressful! How can I possibly know on Monday what I will want to do on Friday? How can I tell you that in two weeks time I will be in Berlin for the weekend – what if I want to go to London instead?

I think everyone defines their own sense of normalcy and what makes them feel balanced and stable. As I’ve learned over the years, I feel most balanced and stable when everything is in motion. Monotony scares me and forward motion keeps my batteries charged, always ready for action.

What is your comfort zone like? How do you define normal?

Repost: Things to Try in Paraguay

This is a repost from 2010. I continue to travel back to Paraguay a few times a year, and people don’t seem to know what to expect, where to go, etc – so here are at least some tips to help you get by!

While living in Paraguay for 6 months, I learned quite a bit about the food culture and travel destinations, which both can be hard to come by and understand as a tourist.

Here’s some tips for what you are eating when you order:

Food

  • Bolitas de Mandioca – Mandioca and cheese rolled up and fried, (like a croqueta)
  • Bollo – Doughnut that is typical of San Bernardino (a lake town about 45 minutes outside of Asuncion) and is filled with cream, dulce de leche, dulce de guayaba, or any other type of filling the “La Alemana” (the famous bakery that makes bollos) chooses to make
  • Borí-Borí – A chicken or vegetable stock with balls of corn flour and queso Paraguay
  • Chipa –  most traditional chipa is made from corn flour, mandioca starch, pig fat, queso Paraguay, eggs and a dash of anis
  • Chipitas – this is the same ingredients as Chipa just in a smaller snack size – great for mindless nibbling because once you start you can’t stop
  • Chipa Guazusimilar to Sopa Paraguaya (see below) but a bit creamier in texture (my preference of the two!)
  • Dulce de Leche – Condensed Milk and Sugar, cooked to perfection – similar to caramel
  • Empanadas de Carne – I assume you know what empanadas are – and then just imagine them filled to the brim with delicious meat (or whatever other ingredients the chef fills them with!)
  • Fruit – Paraguay has amazing fruit trees all over the country, the most typical you will find are: Grapefruit (Pomelo), Orange (Naranja), Sour Orange (Naranja Hi), Tangerine (Mandarina), Lemon (Limón – though this looks more like an orange!), Guava (Guayaba), Passion Fruit (Mburucuya), Mango, Papaya (Mamón), Strawberries (Frutillas), then of course there are always Bananas and Apples available throughout
  • Gnocchi – Just like exists almost anywhere in the world, Paraguayans love their Gnocchi, and so do I – especially when made with Batata (sweet potato)
  • Helado – (Ice Cream) – This is pretty self-explanatory, except that the ice cream here is AMAZING! I recommend Frutos del Bosque (Fruits of the Forest), Mburucuya (Passion Fruit), Or any other type of creamy/chocolatey/dulce de leche -y flavors!
  • Jugo – The juices in Paraguay are outrageous and you can find them on the menu of almost any restaurant place that serves food (see list of fruits above) A popular Paraguayan brand for store bought juice is Frutika – and it’s worth it’s fame!
  • Lomito – a sandwich consisting of thin slices of beef with lettuce, tomato, mayo, and usually served alongside any number of sauces to make this already outrageous sandwich even more delicious!
  • Mandioca – (Yucca or Cassava) – For those who are not familiar with Yucca, this is a potato-like vegetable – can be served cooked or fried (Mandioca Frita)
  • Mbeyú – a mix of corn flour, Paraguayan cheese, and egg that you mix together and cook in a frying pan. You used to only be able to find this seasonally, but now it seems to be available year round.
  • Meat – Paraguayans LOVE their meat! And most of it is delicious!
  • Milanesa – This is very thinly sliced meat (usually carne = beef) that is then breaded and fried to perfection – you can also find some good Eggplant Milanesa which to me is even tastier!
  • Mousse de Mburucuya – Passion Fruit Mouse!
  • Pizza al Tatakua – (Tatakua = Horno = Oven – in Guaraní) – Brick Oven Pizza
  • Sopa de So’o – this is a very typical Paraguayan soup with a beef-broth filled with meat and vegetables, depending on the chef
  • Sopa Paraguaya – despite the name this is not soup, it has more of a consistency of corn bread and is filled with onions and salt
  • Terere – Terere and Yerba Maté are almost one in the same – they are herbal teas very popular in South America (you can see people walking around with their thermos and guampa or mate (cup where the terere is served.) The main difference between the two is that Terere is drank with cold water and Mate with hot, depending on your mood and the temperature outside!

Here’s some tips for what’s worth seeing when you find yourself in Paraguay:

Places

  • Arregua – About 45 minutes outside of Asuncion on the other side of the lake from San Bernardino (read below.) Famous for their Artesania (local Artesan crafts and art) primarily in ceramic, as well as their Expo de Frutillas – Strawberry Festival – every winter (from about August-September) where they feature their delicious strawberries (where everyone in Asuncion buys their year’s supply) in the form of natural fruit (both sweet and bitter), juice, cakes, ice cream, empanadas, liquors, etc. They also have a famous church which overlooks the beautiful lake, which is unfortunately too contaminated to swim in.
  • Arroyos y Esteros – literally translates to Streams and Estuaries – about 1-2 hours outside of Asunción where you can find a lot of waterways and farms
  • Cataratas de Iguazu – The most amazing waterfalls you’ve ever seen in your life in Argentina, and Brazil – but borders very closely to Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este.
  • El Chaco – in Northern Paraguay, the largest territory in Paraguay taking up 1/3 of the land, it has very dry heat year round and a lot of wildlife
  • Ciudad del Este – A city in the eastern region of Paraguay that is famous for having any type of contraband or product you are looking for; i.e. don’t want to pay $200 for that new iPhone, you can probably find it for $50 there!
  • Mbatovi – Nature reserve with eco-adventure-tourism, like ziplining, rapelling, etc. Unfortunately I have not had the chance to go yet as they were closed when I tried, but I’ve heard it’s amazing.
  • San Bernardino (SanBer)- A beautiful lakeside town about 45 minutes outside of Asunción, very popular in the summer. Unfortunately the lake is not swimmable due to contamination (don’t try it) but you can get delicious Dulce de Leche or Cream filled doughnuts at the famous Aleman (German) restaurant in the town
  • San Rafael Reserve, Atlantic Forest – Natural Reserve in the Atlantic Forest that still maintains it’s jungle beauty – more specifically, if you want to stay the night, you should contact ProCosara
  • Pantanal – This is one of the most naturally incredible and beautiful places I’ve ever been. It is absolutely worth the effort, but I must say it is definitely not easy to get to, it’s either 2 days by car, or a small jet can take you in two hours, but I would not recommend trying to organize on your own as the tourist industry is not quite built up. Going on an organized trip through an eco-tourism organization, such as Guyra Paraguay, is definitely recommended.

Friends Get Married

I’ve hit that age when everyone you know starts getting married. Some even start having (gasp!) babies! In the last year alone I’ve been to weddings in Serbia, the U.S., Germany, and Paraguay (oh, and there was that time I met my BFF’s baby in the Bahamas.) It’s expensive to keep up with so many friends and their love lives, but it’s also so much fun!

Every country has their traditions – some of them seem weird (actually, no, they ARE weird, but let’s not debate semantics here) but they are all equally as crucial for the couple getting married and for the guests in attendance. Here is a list of some of the things I found to be the strangest, or most unique, in the “foreign weddings” I attended this year:

SERBIA

Vladi and Ive

Vladi and Iva

  • The first wedding is in a church (pretty standard) and not all wedding guests are invited to attend – this is usually a small, intimate ceremony that lasts about half an hour – the couple must accept congratulations and smile and pose with every guest who came to the church for the photographer
  • When you walk outside the church, there are local gypsy brass bands that come up to the wedding party and play music – their music becomes more insistent the longer they play, often putting the horn of the instrument directly in your ear and playing at full volume until you give them some cash (at this particular wedding the best man also brought the gypsy band to the party, much to the delight of all the guests) – keep in mind, these guys can pull in thousands of dollars a night for a big wedding
  • When you arrive to the reception, the couple once again stands outside and poses with every. single. guest. (in this case about 350 people) Only after every guest had their photo op does the party begin.
  • Lots and lots of different cakes.
  • Oh, and the photographers have printers on hand and walk around the party distributing photos that guests can buy on the spot (this is not so much weird as awesome!)
Brass Band

Gypsy Brass Band

GERMANY

(This was a mixed wedding: half East German half Northern England, i.e. Geordie)

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Ali and Neil

  • Straight from leaving the church the friends of the bride and groom hold up an old bedsheet which has a giant heart drawn in the middle, and the name of the bride and groom inside of that. The bride and groom are each given a pair of tiny scissors and they must work together to cut the heart shape out. Once complete, the groom then carries the bride through the opening they’ve created in the sheet.374396_10152077898159278_1848781778_n
  • German tradition is that as the first true test of marriage, the newly wedded couple must work together as a team to saw apart a foot in diameter log using an old school, massive saw. The first marital row, if you will, ensues.995734_10152077899664278_1485770867_n
  • This might just be East German, not totally sure, but the bride and groom are each given two giant loaves of bread – they must create a pair of shoes from this bread. The first one to walk across the stage (or room) in their new shoes wins!
  • Each guest is given a balloon filled with helium and a postcard pre-addressed to the bride and groom. Each guest writes a message to the couple and ties the postcard to the balloon. Everyone releases the balloons at the same time (great photo op!) Once the balloon finally lands (wherever that may be) it’s up to any random stranger passing by who finds it to mail it back to the couple. (Strangely, our postcard made it back to Ali and Neil from the Czech Republic!)

PARAGUAY

(This was a mixed wedding half Paraguayan half Colombian – so the traditions may be a bit mixed up – at least in my mind)

Nati and Luis

Nati and Luis

  • There is a traditional Paraguayan dance at the beginning of the reception and every guest must dance for a few minutes with the bride and groom (men with the bride, women with the groom) and smile for a photo op!
  • Ligas – this took me a while to understand! The bride has about 20 garters under her dress (one garter for each single woman at the wedding). One garter is special (i.e. a different color) and the rest are traditional white. The bride sits opposite the single women (one at a time) and they each lift their right leg and touch the souls of the shoes. The groom then takes one garter from the bride’s leg and must slide it across their legs and feet and up the thigh of the single lady. His “last chance to touch another woman” if you will! The woman who gets the colorful garter is the next to marry. Ligas in Paraguay
  • Masks/hats/whistles/glow sticks/silly string, etc – Boxes of costume-like hats and whistles, (see list above) are distributed to guests to liven things up. I have to admit, this makes the party a hell of a lot more fun!
  • Whiskey – easy as that, the drink of choice for the night is whiskey, the nicer the better
  • For the Colombian tradition that stood out most, aside from sharing a bottle of whatever they were passing around, is some dance where a woman lies on the floor (or I suppose it could also be a man?) and all the party guests dance feverishly over her. (See example of Mapale here.)

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As I continue to grow my international network of friends, I will continue to observe the oddities of culture, which are never more openly displayed than in time-honored traditions such as weddings!

Finding Your True Calling

How many of you have struggled, like I do, to know what it is you “really” want to do? Do you spend days/months/years trying to figure out what your true calling is? Isn’t it possible that maybe there isn’t just one perfect job for everyone, but rather a job or path that allows you to learn, explore, and push yourself harder to achieve.

I spend so much time worrying about whether I am making the right choices, whether I am on the right path, whether or not THIS job will get me where I want to go, that I often forget to take a break and take a look around me. To realize that even if this is not the “perfect” job or the “dream” job – that as long as I am continuing to grow, evolve, and create, it’s pretty damn good for now.

I have long dreamed about working with animals. To me there was no possible way for me to be satisfied in work unless I was working with/helping/talking about animals. So I pushed (and maybe shoved a little) to find my way to this conservation organization where pandas and tigers are our flagship species. And yet, my day-to-day work has nothing to do with animals at all. It’s a bit ironic, but I have to know in my heart that even though I am not out in the field counting Jaguars, I am preventing the destruction of the habitats of those creatures I’ve so longed to protect. Sometimes you just have to take a look around and realize the impact you have, even if it doesn’t feel like “the dream” straight away.

dream-job

I have a very wise friend who once laid out her view of the different types of jobs one can have; the job you are passionate about, the job that enables you to do the things you want to do on the side, and the job that disables you from living your life while working for “the man”. And in a lot of ways, I think she is right. It’s a matter of knowing where you are in your career and what you want for the road ahead before you can realize the benefits of the job you are currently in (or, in some cases the drawbacks.)

What is your dream job? And how many of you are actually in it?

Fitness First

So even though I haven’t been writing about it much, my fitness experiments have continued undocumented. I more or less stopped going to the trainer – really, my 6 month contract ended and although I was getting a lot of benefits and seeing (at least core strengthening) results, I didn’t want to pay the money to be stuck inside a gym during the most beautiful summer months. I’d rather save it up for when it’s gray and miserable out and I need the sauna to feel human.

So my poison of choice? Running and Biking. Two things I am already very familiar with. The added benefit? A likes to do them too! He’s back on the running bandwagon and motivated to push himself hard, which of course pushes me even harder. While I normally give in to “feeling tired” or “I’m not in the mood” knowing that he’s been out pounding the pavement – or that when I go back home we have a run scheduled for the evening – always motivates me to push a little bit further.

I’ve always believed I wouldn’t do well with an exercise partner, or that I hated going to the gym with a friend – mostly because I didn’t like to be tied to someone else’s time constraints, or didn’t want to feel pressured to do more or less than I was comfortable with. While these things are still somewhat true, (I run out of breath because I work myself up to keep up the pace,) it’s been totally motivating to have someone by my side to push me a little bit further and to hold me accountable for what I say I’ll do.

Another bit of motivation? We signed up for a 10k in Berlin in October. Nothing like the thought of panting and crawling along a race path gets me motivated to get my butt moving and start training hard. I don’t need to be a winner at the end, but making it through without losing composure is definitely high on the 10k priority list!

So the fitness conundrum continues and new experiments are undertaken. Does anyone else have as many start and stop bursts of motivation as I do?

Experimenting with Juice

When A moved in, he bought us a housewarming gift – a beautiful juicer. And over the months we have been experimenting endlessly with juices of every kind, usually the “everything but the kitchen sink kind”. We’ve started to lose direction. Our juices have started to lose their identity.

JuiceNation

JuiceNation

Once a week we make our way to the local farmer’s market, (every Saturday) at Kollwitzplatz and stock up on whatever goodies they may have. Summer is obviously the best time for this as there is an overabundance of berries and fruits and veggies to your heart’s content! We stock up and get home and chow down. Then, whatever is leftover becomes juice.

We used to pick more carefully – selecting flavors and nutrients – then we became a bit more “it’s all gonna mix once it’s down there anyway! So I am here to take back the identity of my juice!

Strawberries from July

Strawberries from July

After much reading and inspiration from friends who “juice” (we will verb that, thank you!) and recipes and ideas and concepts across the internet, I’ve decided to experiment a bit with juice as a meal replacement. Many people advocate for the benefits of detoxing with juice, or juice cleanses (read, 3 days with nothing but the sweet stuff,) but that seems a bit intense for my purposes and I think I could also benefit from the overload of nutrients to replace the otherwise starchy food intake I’ve been known to have.

Juice Number 1 was a search through the kitchen for the right ingredients (anything that’s still good, which might taste good with the other selected ingredients – NOT the kitchen sink at all!) I knew I still had fresh spinach from the market, and I was eager to try out a spinach juice since it’s packed with iron and protein and all sorts of other goodness. So I pulled out the spinach, apples, a peach, wild blueberries, some lime, and fresh ginger root.

The Amanda Spinachberry (or something like that!)

The Amanda Spinachberry (or something like that!)

I used the following quantities (more or less, I didn’t measure exactly!)

  • Spinach (6 Cups – give or take)
  • Apple (2x)
  • Peach (1x)
  • Blueberries (3/4 cup)
  • Lime (1/2)
  • Ginger (Large Chunk)
The end result was delicious, despite it’s rather scary looking deep purple color. It was incredibly healthy (lots of green), sweet (from the apple and peach), and a bit spicey (thank you, ginger!)
Today I replaced breakfast  (about 8:30 AM) with this concoction and only around 11 did I start to feel a bit hungry, so I made some green tea chai to stave off the hunger until lunch. Now I’ll have to run to the grocery store to stock up on goodies for tomorrow’s breakfast!

Diving the Adriatic

What more inspiration do you need?

What more inspiration do you need?

On our third day in Bol, an island off the coast of Croatia, we decided to try our hand at diving in the Adriatic – a first for us both! A is a an Advanced Diver (with about 60 dives under his belt) and I am merely Open Water Certified, this being my 6th dive! For those of you who remember when I learned how to dive last year in Indonesia, and how big of an accomplishment it was for me given how scared I had been initially, I will tell you – I was almost just as scared this time!

Having been “out of the water” for about a year, I started to panic if I would remember all the right signals, how to inflate my BCD (the vest you wear when diving), how to equalize, how to descend. The thoughts were floating through my mind, and the dive school where we were was not particularly helpful in easing my concerns. Since I wasn’t taking the course with them, they assumed I knew all I needed to know and were ready to let me charge in the water and flail! (Okay, not really – they would not have wanted me to fail at diving, but they weren’t quite the coddlers I had gotten so used to at Diversia Diving in Gili Trawangan!)

So I un-confidently put on my wetsuit – full body including hood (apparently the water remains at a cool, even 15°C (59°F) through winter and summer, and the deeper you go the colder it gets, (logically!) I didn’t believe we’d really need it actually (after baking in the sun before we got into the water, but of course once you are about 20 meters down your hands and face are legitimately cold and you are grateful your core is snug and warm. We were putting on the wetsuits when my panic first arose – the suit was too small and tight and I couldn’t figure out if it was the right size or not. It took much help from A to pull and contort to fit until I finally decided maybe the larger size would be easier. It was, but not by much!

Image courtesy of dipndive.com

Image courtesy of dipndive.com

Then we fitted our shoes, fins, masks, and placed our BCD on the air tank, (I forgot how to even do this! The dive master had to help me remember the basics for how the straps went on, etc,) and we walked it all out to the boat. In the boat were about 10 other divers of all different levels of advancement (some at the very beginning and others with years of experience behind them.) A and I were placed in a group with another man from Germany, who had been diving about 7 years, but who wisely chose the “shallower” group as there was more to see and the water was less frigid. As an Open Water diver you really aren’t meant to go below 18 Meters, however we were aiming for 25.

While on the boat A refreshed my memory of the basics, how to inflate and deflate, the symbols for “OKAY” and “Let’s go up”. The dive masters reminded us to tell them when we had 100 Bar and then 50 Bar remaining in our air tanks (you always start out with 200 Bars of pressure and monitor closely as the dive continues to make sure you don’t run out of air – plus, the lower the air in the tank, the harder it is to maintain them, apparently.) So I spit in my mask (to avoid fogging) rinsed it in the salt water, put on my fins, tested out my breathing tubes, and fell backwards into the cold (but clear) water.

I was feeling disoriented, but calmer once I put my face under the water and reminded myself that I could, in fact, breathe and all would be okay. We three divers awaited our Dive Master and began our descent.

Descending upon clear blue waters

Descending upon clear blue waters

I didn’t realize this at the onset, but the Adriatic is not particularly known for it’s abundance of wildlife. Either the water is too cold, (or maybe too salty!) but you tend to see more lobsters, cuddle fish, octopi, and I’m sure nameless other fish lacking in color, but not in diversity. Compared to my previous dive experience filled with brightly colored fish and coral, giant sea turtles, and Nudi Branchs, the diving was somewhat unspectacular. It was, however, a great experience to get back in the water and familiarize myself with the weight of the BCD, the feeling of breathing air from a tank, the sights of fish and water around you, and the knowledge that this is really f*cking awesome!

It took me a while to neutralize my buoyancy and find a place in the ocean where I neither sank nor drifted up. In fact, I probably spent a lot more energy than usual doing just that – swimming instead of floating – and breathing in deep, satisfying breaths. So much so that I was down to 100 Bar in no time. With no watch of my own, I had no way of telling how quickly I was using my air, nor how my fellow divers were doing on theirs, but I let the dive master know and continued on my way. Within what seemed like mere minutes, I checked my air again – 50 Bar. How was time passing so quickly? Or was it… I once again let the dive master know and continued to follow his lead through the ocean, all the while closely watching my air pressure decline – 50, 45, 40, 35, 25. When I was down to 20 I let him know (the PADI books warn you to aim for an exit close to 50 Bar so you don’t risk running out of air and so you don’t damage the tank.) He was calm. I was trying to remain so.

Finally, he must have realized it was time to take me up and alerted the other divers to wait below while he helped me to the surface. I inflated my BCD, a little too enthusiastically, and began to free float to the top. He grabbed my vest quickly and pulled me back down to his level for a minute to decompress – then we floated up together. Once on the surface I could see exactly where were in relation to the island and the boat that brought us there (something about being underwater is so disorienting that you never really know where you are or where you’re going!) He mentioned something I didn’t quite understand involving “run out of air, swim to the boat” and asked if it was clear, I said sure, and he quickly popped below the surface. Wait, what did he say?!

Still a bit confused, I realized I still had about 10 bar to get me safely to the boat (and of course I could float above the surface of the water if I ran our sooner.) Not equipped with a snorkel, I put my face under and continued to use my air, while floating with the current and paddling gently to see if I might be missing anything special underwater. I wasn’t. Well, not if you don’t count other divers below the surface! So I ventured forward and eventually found my way back to the boat.

All in all, the dive was cool. I use the word cool, because it’s the perfect descriptor for the cold water, the relaxed nature of the staff, the fact that I did actually remember how to dive, and that I was officially a diver with more than one location under my belt!

For my next adventure, I’ll look into locations with more sea life and colorful coral. I may just work towards my Advanced Certification sooner than I thought!

At Home Wherever I Go

At Home Wherever I Go