A Perfect Day To Paint

Hey y'all!

After months of design and planning, my buddies at BannanBlasko are starting on another beautiful mural for a local University in dowtown Spartanburg, SC. And I get to help! 

 [Start]

[Start]

Public Art has been a side passion of mine for a while now. 

I was on detail duty. 

This is our fourth project together. Seriously, these guys are so great to work with.

I'm so grateful to get away from the computer for a bit and spend time painting and socializing in the sunshine.

The weather was perfection; a pleasant temperature and cloudy skies. And scaffolding shade is always nice! But don't get me wrong - I still got plenty sweaty.

We spent seven hours today start to finish. We got a lot done, but there's still lots left to do! 

 [Finish]

[Finish]

Enjoy the journey!

The Hardest Thing To Brand Is Yourself

I would consider myself pretty good at branding and design considering I've been practicing it for my whole educational and professional career. I have so much fun designing logos and developing the look of new brands. 

Until, of course, I quit my full-time job to freelance instead and had to develop my own brand. Only then does it become a massive struggle. 

It's like this insane little voice in your head saying "YOU are a designer, your brand has to be the best thing ever in the history of things! It has to appeal to the masses, yet stand out and be different, it has to perfectly capture your personality and all of your expertise & experience, it has to be versatile and simple yet different from every other creative person and it has to convince clients to pay you money to do work for them." No pressure, right?

My logo and branding looks incredible simple now, but it's taken at least two years to get there. Unless you're a creative yourself, you may not realize that for every finished product you see, there are bazillions of unfinished, rough drafts, sketches, scribbles, hidden layers, alternate versions and countless abandoned thoughts and ideas. 

I feel like I finally had the breakthrough for my current logo when I stopped trying so hard. I was literally doodling in the dirt with a stick in Nepal or India or somewhere when I made this M shape the looked like a rune. And I've committed it ever since then. 

Anyways, I thought it would be fun to look back at the evolution of my Mirambling brand. It's both humbling and hilarious. 

Moral of the story: Keep doing, learning and growing, y'all. 

I'm happy with where I am now, but it was and still is a journey of personal development. 

Which of these is your favorite? How would you brand yourself? 

Much Love,

New Tee & Bag Designs for Hub City Co-op (200 Words)

Just wanted to share my latest design project for Hub City Co-op.

I designed these t-shirts and tote bags based on the original mural I painted inside the store. They came out so great and hopefully they are gonna fly off the shelves. 

I put a lot of thought and research into sourcing these.

The tees are super soft polyblend material that people will actually love to wear. They are manufactured in Nicaragua by Next Level, a socially and environmentally responsible and WRAP certified (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production) which means no sweat shops, no child labor and environmentally responsibility. 

The 100% organic cotton tote bags by econscious donate a portion of sales to non-profit Partners like 1% for the Planet, the Rodale Institute the Organic Trade Association and Green America. 

They were printed and delivered by a local business, Carolina Headwear

Not only are they fun & functional merchandise, but they also serve as grassroots marketing, as long as customers wear and use them in public. My focus here has been ideas and promotions that are win-win-win and benefit all parties involved, especially the local community. 

So thankful that these peeps let me keep experimenting with and expressing my creativity! 

Mural Methods, Madness & Monsoons (550 Words)

I'm a little late in writing this. I'm still getting acclimated to the full-time freelance schedule which entails a really inconsistent but exciting work-life balance. 

 The original design.

The original design.

Anyways, Hub City Co-op liked the first mural I painted outside enough to commission me to paint another one inside. The space is approximately 17' x 9' (5.1 m x 2.7 m). They requested a creative way to display the Seven Cooperative Principles, which are supposed to guide all cooperatives. 

In retrospect, I slayed this project. It took me five days from concept to completion. Most of my git-er-done motivation came from the fact that the block party to celebrate the first mural was being held that Saturday and I couldn't stand the thought of the mural being seen as anything less than awesome by all the people I anticipated would attend the event. 

 Projecting/tracing: my least favorite part. 

Projecting/tracing: my least favorite part. 

In contrast to the rainbow garden of yummy colors outside, I kept this one much simpler. It's important to consider the mural surroundings when planning the design. I selected just three fonts and two colors to contrast the hodgepodge of endless products surrounding it that are already competing for your attention. 

 WIP

WIP

I picked shapes that, to me at least, represent traditional Southern cooking and culture: a lemon (lemonade), a skillet, a mason jar, etc. I knew there were some obstructions on the wall but I wasn't sure exactly where so I intentionally created a design with puzzle pieces that I could move around if necessary. Of course it ended up being necessary.

So here's how it happened:

Monday: Design (5 hours)
Tuesday: Projection & Tracing (4 hours)
Wednesday: Painting (6 hours)
Thursday: Painting (10 hours)
Friday: Painting (17 hours)
Total: 5 days, 42 hours

See what I mean about the inconsistent schedule? Now I wish I had started at least one day earlier to save my sanity during that last marathon painting session where I started talking to my wall, specifically, Missiour Poulet, the French-speaking rooster. (Read the full, funny story on Buzzfeed.) 

 WIP

WIP

When you look at the finished product, it looks easy. Except that it's not and its a pretty tedious process: paint 2-3 coats of white, outline with black, fill in with multiple coats of black. Each "puzzle piece" averaged about 3.5 hours to complete. 

But it's totally worth all the effort. I'm happy with how it turned out!

 Finished! 

Finished! 

I just wish I could say the same for the Block Party. The party had infinite potential but attendance was no doubt hindered by what seemed like a monsoon sent by some spiteful, mural-hating deity that I must have unintentionally offended.

It literally hadn't rained a drop all day until minutes after the celebration started. There was thunder, lightning, a diagonal deluge of rain and all of our smartphones chimed in unison with flash flood warnings. I had an epiphany and realized where the term fair weather friends must have come from. 

I want to thank all my friends and family who did come, especially my bestie Christina who is a face painting pro and helped me transform kids into butterflies, cats, dogs and other assorted, creative creatures. We did it for free but had a tip jar that collected $51.51 which we donated to the Children's Advocacy Center here in Spartanburg. 

I definitely earned my monthly massage for July!

 I really enjoy creating public art & design and think more places should have it, but obviously I'm biased. What do y'all think? 

Rocky Mountain Wedding Retreat (300 Words)

Colorado is my favorite of our 50 United States, so I was beyond thrilled when my friend Bianca (and her fiancé Chris of course) decided to have her wedding there. 

The venue was amazing; a retreat called Wild Basin Lodge that was hidden so deep in the Rocky Mountains that there was no cell reception. I shared a room with Michelle and Mary and we slept with the door open all night, enjoying the cool night breeze and the sounds of the water rushing in the river below. The balcony was perfect for my morning yoga sessions set to the soundtrack of nature. 

Instead of buying a stereotypical wedding knickknack, I prefer to offer my time and talents as a gift instead. I was happy that B felt the same way and did my best to beautify some handmade wedding signage. 

It was a lovely, little ceremony surrounded by only a few dozen close friends and family and tall, alpine trees. What followed was your typical dinner, dancing, mingling and desserts; but the fun, casual kind that included a s'mores bar, giant Jenga, Cornhole (aka Sack Toss) and polaroid pictures with props. 

The next day, Mary and I went hiking in the Wild Basin Natural park because that's what you do in the Colorado mountains in the summertime. The temperature was tolerable amongst the shaded trees but didn't block all of the scorching sun. Eventually we took a break to dip our toes in the water. Mary is far more acclimated than me so I had to take turns dipping my feet in then thawing out my toe-cicles. 

I had such a wonderful week(ish) out west and wish nothing but the best for the newlyweds! 

My First Solo Mural (600 Words)

I'm back to my regularly scheduled blogging now that I have completed both my European wanderlust and painting this 130 x 10 foot (40 x 3 meter) mural in my hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina. 

 

It's incredible that less than two years ago I was planning and organizing this massive mural project for Whole Foods Market in downtown Miami, secretly fantasizing about doing street art myself, and now it's reality. 

 

I was home for Christmas during a break from my year-long travels. My dad excitedly told me about a call for mural design submissions in the local newspaper placed by a local Co-op opening soon. I immediately started brainstorming and sketching since the deadline was about a week away. 

I first researched the top fruits and vegetables grown in South Carolina to speak to the fresh, local produce and the important community-owned and supported aspects of Hub City Co-op. These foods include: corn, wheat, peanuts, oats, peaches, strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, squash, beans and sweet potatoes. 

 

I nixed two of my original three ideas since the designs didn't really answer the brief nor work well on the wall, which was rife with obstacles like windows, doors, fences and other equipment. My final submission included designs inspired by Mandalas - or “Mirandalas” when I design them in my own style.

 

In traditional Indian art and culture, mandalas represent microcosms of the universe working together in harmony, but have become positive symbols of happiness and relaxation in the west due to the recent popularity of adult coloring books.

 

The collages of produce also represent a diverse yet cohesive community. I felt it was important to incorporate the business name to maximize the potential of the space and attract new residents and visitors that might not otherwise be aware of Hub City Co-op.

 Work in Progress

Work in Progress

I submitted my design in March, a few days before boarding a plane to India and didn't receive any further correspondence from the Co-op until I was in Nepal in April. I was ecstatic that my idea had been selected despite the fact that I wasn't able to start the project until June when I returned to the States. 

 

I arrived home on Saturday, June 4th, slept most of Sunday and then had a meeting with the client bright and early Monday morning. It turned out to be great timing, since the buzz around the store had died down since their April 1st opening and this would be some fresh, local (pun intended) publicity. 

Everyone I worked with at the Co-op was helpful and friendly including Russell, kind of their mural consultant, who ended up doing me a solid by helping me project, trace and therefore tame the intimidating wall beast that night. I'm also thankful that he introduced me to Jamarcus Gaston, who invited me onto his local show to talk about the mural

So 109 hours over 15 hot and (thankfully) dry summer days later, I can say I successfully completed my first official solo mural project. I've been a longtime admirer of the street art community and now I can say I'm a member of it and have a deeper/more sincere appreciation of it. 

 

I have to give a quick shout out to all the artists I've met and worked with that inspired and/or helped me to pursue and achieve this dream: Jessy NiteAtomikJenny Perez, Jorge-Miguel Rodriguez, Kazilla, Luis Berros, MONz, Nate Dee, Noah Levy, Rei Ramirez, Trek6, Yuhmi Collective, Paul Walsh, Russell Bannan and Eli Blasko

Keep dreaming, y'all! 

Painting Tibetan Thangka in Kathmandu, Nepal

If you've been to Nepal, you will see some beautiful, incredibly detailed paintings for sale everywhere from the urban capital in Kathmandu to the rural villages. Thangka (also sometimes spelled tangka, thanks or tanka) is a traditional Tibetan Buddhist art form. Paintings of Buddhist deities, scenes or mandalas are painting on cotton or silk and used to be displayed only in monasteries and during religious festivals. They can be also be used as teaching tools or for meditation, but nowadays are mostly sold as souvenirs to tourists. (And they are worth every rupee, by the way.) 

But wait, why are they all over Nepal if they are Tibetan? Ever since China annexed Tibet in the 1950s, many refugees, including the Dalai Lama, fled the country and many ended up in neighboring Nepal. 

Many of the galleries that sell these paintings had signs advertising schools so I assumed that they would accept foreign students, if for nothing else than the money. Many of these studios were understandably clustered around Boudhanath, the famous Buddhist stupa on the outskirts of Kathmandu which is one of the largest in Nepal. It's normally a very impressive structure but it was under renovation, partially due to the earthquake last year so I mostly saw scaffolding during my visit. I inquired about painting at one of these schools and was advised that it would take 7 days and cost 5,000 rupees (about $50 USD). This was a bit out of my budgets for both time and money and was too far to travel from my home stay in Swayambhunath (aka the Monkey Temple). 

 Swayumbunath Stupa (aka the Monkey Temple) near Kathmandu, Nepal

Swayumbunath Stupa (aka the Monkey Temple) near Kathmandu, Nepal

When I got back to my home stay, I explored the immediate area hoping to find another Thangka school since Swayambhunath is also home to a Buddhist stupa. I found no schools but I did discover Swayambhu Environmetal Park, which was free to enter and enjoy and boasted three huge Buddha sculptures representing (left to right) Avalokiteshvara, Amitaba Buddha and Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche) all over 19 m (60 ft) tall. 

 Swayumbh Park (or Buddha Park) near Kathmandu, Nepal

Swayumbh Park (or Buddha Park) near Kathmandu, Nepal

The next day I searched the internet and found a supposed school located just inside the city and well within walking distance at around 3 km/1.8 miles (one way). After walking the dogs, I headed into town in search of said school. When I arrived, I found it boarded up so I kept walking and ended up at a school in Durbar Square. I was thrilled to find a secret entrance where I wouldn't be hassled by the tourist police to pay the 10,000 ($9.50 USD) rupee World Heritage entrance fee, which I had already paid upon my first visit during Holi, but no longer had my ticket to prove it. 

The owner of the shop, Dev, gladly agreed to let me paint my own and we bargained a price of 3,000 rupees ($28 USD) for the process and supplies. After I looked at a few paintings for inspiration, he agreed to prep a canvas and sketch out a simple mandala shape based on what I liked. I agreed to come back the next day at 10:30 AM.

 Day One

Day One

When I arrived the following morning, my canvas was waiting and the pencil-sketched skeleton on it was about 20" x 20". (I actually still haven't measured the full canvas.) I could tell he used a compass for the circles but freehanded all the straight pieces so I had to spend a little time erasing and realigning parts of the sketch with a ruler. 

I had an assortment of acrylic paints but kept a limited palette of blue, orange, green, red and black. I sat next door on a cushion on the floor of a shop that sold masks and singing bowls. Everyone was very friendly, not to mention curious about what I was doing so I frequently had an audience of locals watching me paint, all offering words of praise and encouragement. I painted for five hours that day, stopping only for a quick lunch break from a nearby vendor who make me a fried egg sandwich which others called a 'Nepali Burger.' I finished the first layer of colors (phase 1) and most of the '[out]lining' (phase 2). 

 Day Two

Day Two

On the second day, I arrived around the same time and painted for six hours. I got through the majority of the gold detailing. This color was literally powdered 18 karat gold mixed with a bit of water. I wanted a gradient of blue rings around the main image so Dev MacGuyvered a compass together out of string and pushpins and penciled in some perfectly circular guidelines. 

One day three, I walked to town with two other girls from my home stay. I showed them my painting-in-progress and Dev bought us all tea. We all chatted for a bit while I started working and once their cups were empty, they headed off to find the Horse Festival. Gotta love Nepal! Another day, another festival!

 Day Three / The Finished Product

Day Three / The Finished Product

It took me about three more hours to design & paint the outermost gold border and paint the blue rings and the background. I was so thrilled to paint those final few brushstrokes around the edge of the canvas. Even though I knew I had just spent days doing it, the painting still didn't feel real. All the locals that I got to know over the past few days complimented me on my work and one even volunteered to take pictures of me holding the finished product. 

The painting process itself was somewhat meditative - especially the intricate detail work with the tiniest of brushes. It's complete focus and concentration, trying to translate the design from my mind to the paper. Maybe one day I'll be able to return to Nepal or Tibet and study at a proper school with a Lama. In the meantime, I'm going to keep seizing every opportunity I have to be creative. 

My Taj Mahal Experience

Greetings from one of the most famous and most photographed places in India. 

Our train was a couple hours late arriving at the station in Agra so our Taj time was cut short but I still managed to get some decent shots. Except one. I started doing a handstand and was stopped by a guard. Apparently you can only stand upright for pictures here. 

The money shot, sans scaffolding

Taj Mahal translated from Arabic means Crown Palace, which is misleading because no one actually lived here. Quite the opposite, actually. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the mausoleum built in 1632 to house his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal. He was later buried there as well. 

I always thought it was just the white centerpiece and surrounding four towers topped with minarets but the complex encompasses 42 acres and several other structures. It's flanked by two red sandstone structures on each side; one is a mosque and the other is thought to be a guest house. It took 20,000 workers over 20 years to complete the project and would cost 52.8 billion rupees ($827 million USD) by today's currency (source: wikipedia). 

One of the reasons for this insane pricetag is that all the colored details are not painted but in fact it is inlayed marble. No wonder this incredible piece of architecture is a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

 Don't forget to look down

Don't forget to look down

Ha Long Bay & Hanoi, Vietnam

Is it just me or do all the cities in Vietnam start with H? (Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hanoi, Ha Long…) Anyways… 

The day after arriving in Hanoi, I was picked up early in the morning and took a three hour bus journey to Ha Long Bay (translation: descending dragon bay) for a 2 day/1 night cruise. This was definitely my biggest splurge in Vietnam but totally worth it because the area is a unique Natural Wonder of the World and UNESCO World Heritage site. There are close to 2,000 limestone karsts and isles that jut out of the water like mountain peaks that have been swallowed by the sea. Kinda reminded me of the end of Waterworld. 

There were several boats constructed to resemble the old junk boats with their distinctive, ridged sails, but I was a bit disappointed that the only time the sails were up was when they were docked in the bay whilst transferring tourists. My room was nice - all wood with an ocean view and my own bathroom with hot shower. 

Each meal seemed to have a five course minimum and was pretty meat-heavy, but they gladly accommodated my vegetarian diet. It was a tasty blend of traditional Vietnamese dishes with some western supplements, but honestly it was too much. I had to find the balance between trying not to waste too much while still avoiding a full on food coma. 

On day one, we set sail (figuratively) around 1 and cruised through the monolithic karsts for a few hours. Later we arrived at the Vung Vien Fishing Village where locals paddled small boats full of tourists past floating houses and bunches of boats. Later we had the option to paddle around ourselves in bright blue kayaks, so a new French friend and I spent about an hour exploring the karsts in the immediate vicinity of our boat. It was a bit of a challenge to find our specific boat again because they all kind of look the same as the government mandated that all the boats be painted white a few years ago. That night I opted to be a recluse and relax in my room with my book instead of participating in a "cooking class" to learn how to make spring rolls - again - and the subsequent happy hour and squid fishing. 

Day two involved an early morning Tai Chi class on the top deck (which I supplemented afterwards with some of my own yoga), a buffet breakfast and a trip to Hang Sung Sot, known as Surprise Cave to the hoards of tourists that are herded through it daily. I was a bit disappointed at first because we were packed in like sardines in the first chamber but eventually spread out more in the later, larger chambers. It's the biggest cave I've ever seen and the spectrum of colored lights strategically located throughout the space really enhanced the ambiance. After that it was time to pack and we headed back to the dock to disembark. So it was more of a 24-hour cruise rather than 2 days. 

A few notes on Halong cruises: You kind of get screwed as a solo traveler. They consider the rooms double occupancy so you get charged extra if you're by yourself. My boat charged $110 per person if you're a pair or couple but $160 if you're single. I also booked my trip online before I even got to Hanoi via the Hanoi to Halong website. However, once I arrived at my hostel in Hanoi, I found out that I could have booked cheaper, not to mention more last-minute, through them. It would have cost much less because they pair you up with other solo travelers if you book alone. I wouldn't exactly call it a regret, though, because I did like having my own room without mystery roommate who could have turned out to be awesome, but also could have been a nightmare and tainted my trip. Most of the boats and the itineraries seem to be pretty much the same. 

Hanoi in Northern Vietnam is geographically the largest city in the country but has a slightly smaller population than Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). It's still just as chaotic with traffic and you are still risking your life when you attempt to cross the street but overall I preferred Hanoi to its aforementioned, southern counterpart. 

Perhaps it's because I really enjoyed my hostel and the immediate surroundings. I had my own private room with a big, comfy bed and bathroom at Golden Time Hostel for just $16 per night. It was next to a park, which was next to a large & lovely lake, around which was built most of the sites and social scene. 

Upon the recommendation of my sister, I saw a water puppet show on my first night in town, which could alternatively be called Synchronized Marionette Swimming. It's a tradition that dates back to the 11th Century and there's a popular theater in Hanoi that still hosts several performances per day. They have live music and all kinds of puppets from people to dragons to birds, some with special effects like breathing fire or spitting water. All of the singing and speaking is in Vietnamese of course, but it seemed to be a combination of life and legends specific to the country. The puppets grow rice, row boats, catch fish and have a few comedic skits mixed in. This Wikipedia entry features pictures from and information about the actual show that I saw. 

I spent a day walking around the city seeing museums. My first stop was the Vietnam National Museum of History which was a mix of interesting and 'meh.' My favorite exhibit explained the significance of sacred and mythical animals throughout Vietnam. This included relics and descriptions of 27 animals total including everything from elephants and tigers to dragons, phoenixes and garuda birds. Overall worth a quick visit. One other museum is included in the ticket price for this museum: The Museum of the Revolution, which I do not recommend. It's not very well executed and even though I was like literally the only person walking around their half-assed hallways, they kicked me out after about 30 minutes and said the museum was closed. They offered no further explanation so I can only assume it was a lunch break - or maybe the staff just wanted to go home. 

I left and easily found a pedi-cab driver - the most eco-friendly form of transport in the city - who would drive me the 4 km length of the Guinness Book verified world's longest mosaic mural. The work began in 2007 and was created to celebrate the millennial anniversary of Hanoi in 2010. 

I find the idea of many different artists collaborating on a single mural project very communist but I found the corporate sponsorship to be decidedly capitalist.  Still it's pretty impressive, albeit hard to enjoy safely since it's located along one of the busiest roads in the city. And how do the residents show their appreciation for this achievement? By literally pissing on it. I came upon a guy who I thought was admiring the wall as well, only to discover that he was relieving himself. Many other parts of the wall bear the same unmistakable stench of urine as well. Sad. 

My last stop was the Women's Museum, which was fantastic and I highly recommend it. My only regret was not getting there earlier because I only had two hours to explore the multi-story museum. The museum has well-executed exhibits on traditional fashion, domestic and family culture and the women's significant involvement in the wars. 

I really wanted to visit Sapa and see some natural beauty but I didn't have enough time so I instead opted for a day trip to Tam Coc which was much closer and easier to access. We saw a few old temples then toured the area by boat and bike. Locals paddled us in pairs through three natural caves created by the water and karsts similar to Ha Long Bay. And also tried relentlessly to sell us stuff, which was kind of annoying since we were literally a captive audience unless we jumped out of the canoes and swam away. 

The bikes were a bit questionable but we proceeded with the tour anyways. The scenery was lovely and then I couldn't help but laugh uncontrollably when one of the pedals fell off of the bike that another lady on the tour was riding. Our guide ended up switching bikes with her and getting towed back to the base by another guy on our tour. Teamwork! 


Saigon/HCMC, Vietnam

I arrived via the airport in the biggest city in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City, traditionally known - and still widely referred to today - as Saigon. I took a cab to my hostel in the heart of the backpacker district on Bui Vien street located in District 1. 

Saigon has about twice as many districts as Panem in the Hunger Games. The city has 24 total: 7 named urban districts, 7 numbered districts and 5 outer, suburban districts. And each had its own kind of identity. Districts 1 and 3 are in the heart of the city where most of the action is. I later stayed at a friend's place in District 2 which is a short ride from the city and packed with ex-pats who want to live in a quieter area. 

And once I visited the 250 km Cu Chi tunnel network in a village about and hour and a half outside the city, I was like "OMG there's even an underground "district" strategically used to win a war - just like District 13 in the book!" FUN FACT: Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins' father actually did serve in Vietnam so my theory is totally plausible! 

 Cu Chi tunnels

Cu Chi tunnels

Despite the infamous war ending exactly 40 years ago, there are reminders of it everywhere and the tourism industry thrives off of it. Much of the art in the Museum was obviously influenced by it. The War Remnants Museum is a must-visit and it was incredible to see the war from the Vietnamese perspective. There were some pretty graphic pictures and stories and also some pretty staggering statistics pertaining to the death and destruction that took place here. My favorite display was the collection of anti-war protest and vietnamese propaganda posters from around the world - some great graphic design pieces there. It seems humanity just can't learn from it's mistakes because there is still so much unnecessary war and violence today. Oh, and despite being American, never did I feel like I was resented for my nationality. I encountered so many people that were just genuinely nice and hospitable. 

 http://www.vnpropaganda.com/

http://www.vnpropaganda.com/

The most prominent of these awesome people was Tat. So here's how that connection happened: A girl from America (me) meets another girl from London at a meditation retreat in Thailand who's brother was best friends with this guy from Vietnam who also lived and studied in the UK. And Kevin Bacon probably fits in there somewhere too. She introduced us on Facebook and I ended up staying in his otherwise vacant apartment for a few days which I totally appreciated beyond words. Even though I would do the same if the situation were reversed, and I did host several friends and family at my homes in Florida over the years, I have trouble accepting others' sincere generosity like I don't deserve it or something. 

Anyways, every Tuesday, Tat buys pizza for the local orphanage and organizes fun, engaging projects for them. I helped distribute the culinary treat, topped with cheese, shredded shrimp and quail egg, to about 40 orphans ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers. Then he led a project instructing the kids how to make multi-colored origami stars which only about half the kids that started had the attention span to actually finish. I made two and gave mine away to the littler ones. I practiced a bit of English with some of the older ones and the smaller ones just wanted attention and often tried to climb me like a tree. Kids just want to be cared for and about no matter what country they're from so I'm glad I could make even the most minuscule impact on their lives. 

I serendipitously met another really cool dude from Nepal at a Vegan restaurant near my hostel. His name is Sramdip and he's a tattoo/street artist as well as fellow vegetarian so we were fast friends. He showed me around the two main street art areas in Saigon. 

The second was a food and music venue called Saigon Outcast which ended up being only about 5 km away from Tat's place in D2. I ended up changing my flight so that I could attend at least the first day of a two day Melting Pot music + arts festival taking place here over the weekend. My favorite of the musical performers was Suboi, a pretty cool and widely-known female Vietnamese rapper. I definitely had to do something artsy/cultural that week because I was missing my own beloved Art Basel back  home in Miami for the first time in several years. 

Anyways, Sramdip (@sramdip on instagram) and another artist Kris alias Frenemy (@frenemylife) from Austin, Texas did some impressive live painting during the event and the air was perfumed with the familiar smell of spray paint fumes. I also met Jimmy, an ambassador for Lovebot (@lovebottherobot), a street art group based out of Toronto that wants to spread love and kindness across the globe. 

I also saw Dennis - alias My German Stalker (lol) - again as this is city number three in which our paths have crossed. We had a drink and caught up at a rooftop bar which overlooked the park, which was packed with people and pop-up venues so we decided to check it out. We took the lift down to street level then explored what turned out to be the Taste of the World Festival, where they had neon-lit kiddie rides, food and drinks from a few other countries and a main stage with a variety of performances from trick bar tending to fire twirling to salsa dancing. 

I spent one day touring the Mekong Delta well outside of the city. I was pretty disappointed not to see a "lively" floating market as promised but the boat and bike rides around the river were ok. I'm glad I got to experience it, but it's mostly just muddy water that seems to flow forever in all directions. 

Altogether I spent a full week in Saigon and miraculously managed not to be trampled by any of the herds of wild scooters roaming the city streets. It's really not a pedestrian-friendly city so I ended up using cabs and Uber (no tuk-tuks here) for the majority of my transportation needs. 

Adventures in Chiangmai, Thailand

After two weeks at the temple in Fang, I took a minibus on Sunday back to Chiangmai, which consisted of a three hour journey and two military checkpoint stops. 

I stayed in a capsule hostel on the edge of the city that cost $4 USD per night. It had great reviews on Hostelworld but I wasn't a huge fan. Especially when two French dudes stumbled in after midnight and woke up pretty much everyone in the dorm. 

After at least a dozen different Mirandala (Miranda + mandala) sketches, I was finally satisfied enough with a design to have it permanently etched into my skin. It's more of an abstract lotus to represent this incredible journey during which I feel like I've started blossoming and it's located approximately where my heart chakra would be. 

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I went to the Master Tattoo shop and a cool dude named Aan took just over two hours to transfer the design in the traditional Thai style, using a piece of bamboo dipped in ink instead of a mechanical needle. It feels like exactly what it is, someone slowly and methodically stabbing you with a sharp stick. The pain was comparable to a modern tat and particularly hurt around the spine area and when he did the dots and the thicker lines. I'm super happy with how it turned out but it wasn't the cheap Thai prices you get accustomed to for everything else. It cost me 5,000 baht or about $140 USD, but with my limited knowledge of American ink, I think it still cost me less than it would have in the States. It you want to make bank in Thailand, be a tattoo artist. 

That night I saw my first Muay Thai fight, which is basically Thai kick-boxing. The ring was a proper underground venue that had bars on all sides and smelled like cigarettes, sweat and tiger balm. I paid 600 baht for my VIP ringside ticket and happened to sit next to three Chinese guys. 

There were 5 warm up fights, a main mens fight and a ladies' title fight between a Thai and a Canadian. The guys were all Thai, progressing from the lowest weight classes that barely broke 100 lbs up to about my weight. Yes, I was a bit shocked that I weigh more than I think all but two of the fighters but Thai people tend to be smaller and some of the first few kids couldn't have been over 18. 

There was an intermission of sorts where two guys choreographically battled it out with swords, presumably because they both showed up wearing the same outfit: blue boxer briefs and a red bandana. I instantly thought of a Liu Kang vs. Liu Kang Mortal Kombat fight, sans the levitating bicycle kicks, and actually yelled "Finish Him!" at one point. After that was a comedic Blind Boxing match where three small guys and one fat guy walked around the ring punching each other while blindfolded. 

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It was a late night because almost all of the fights lasted 4 or 5 rounds and there was only like one knock out. The Canadian "Cocoapuff" ended up winning the belt in the Ladies title fight and I rode in a tuk-tuk back to my "crap-sule" just after midnight. It's a bit out of character and my first live fight but I have to admit I really enjoyed it. 

Midweek I transferred to new accommodation in the heart of the city, which turned out to be one of my most favorites throughout my whole trip. I was searching for yoga in Chiangmai and came across a 3 day package that included a morning and an evening group practice, my own little private bungalow and a daily green smoothie and bottle of local Kombucha. Only moments after arriving at Bluebird Eco Village, I was smitten and impulsively extended my stay to 5 days, encompassing all the time I had left in Chiangmai. (More on this in the next post about staying and eating sustainably in Chiangmai.) 

Despite loving the location I was in, I got a bad case of the Traveler Blues (not to be confused with the harmonica-loving 90's band of the reverse name). I guess if you travel alone long enough, you are bound to get lonely. I tried everything to shake it. Checked social media, still not happy. Morning yoga class, still not happy. Meditation in my room, still not happy. Reading my book, still not happy - although admittedly it's a book about the Pol Pot regime so I wasn't really expecting that to cheer me up. Ate healthy food, still not happy. Ate not-healthy food, still not happy. Took a walk outside and visited some local museums, still not happy. Took a nap, still not happy. I finally snapped out of it when I met some really interesting people that later checked in to the village. 

The Blues are the worst part but the best part of travel is meeting people that are way more interesting and inspiring than you are. I first met a chick from Canada who stared traveling the same time I did around June, except she is on a hiatus/sabbatical because unlike most of 'Merica, employers in our Northern Neighbor Nation actually believe people should have periods of enjoyable breaks from their jobs. Anyways, she brought her own bike and cycled/camped across Europe for three months before flying to Southeast Asia and peddling across Vietnam and Cambodia. She also came to some of the yoga classes. 

Then I met a super cool, super talented kid from Colorado that was on a bit of a break as well... from dancing in Taylor Swift's 1989 World Tour. Wait, what? Yep. Wow. They all get a few days off between China and Australia so instead of going home, he decided to stay in the area. I'd already been in Chiangmai a few days and have extensive tour guide experience from my days working at the Admissions Office during University so I volunteered to show him around.

We ate dinner at one of my favorite Veg joints nearby then strolled around the main streets of the city. Then we headed back to the Muay Thai venue, because everyone just needs to experience this while in Thailand. I'm making it mandatory. There were a lot more KO's this time and the 'lady fights' were far better and more entertaining than the mens'. Again there was a Canadian chick, who I suspect may also work as a lumberjack back home based on her size and strength, but she lost on points to her smaller yet faster and more agile Thai opponent. 

The next day we rented scooters and ventured out of the city towards Mae Rim to find some more "nature-y stuff." My scooter was much more bad-ass than the old beat up ones I had in Bali, and resembled a scooter version of the Bumblebee autobot, which I half-expected to transform at any moment. (But it didn't.) 

We followed signs up winding, mountain roads to the Tard Mork waterfall. All green everything! And the mountain air was so fresh and so clean (clean).The scenery was amazing and we hiked far off the beaten path near the falls. Despite the ominous high grass with mystery burial mounds and hidden holes, a handful of thorns and two leech attacks, I still had a blast. 

As we were riding back down the mountain towards the main road, we came upon rather festive occasion with loud, live music happening in the shadow of a large temple. We cautiously pulled in on our scooters and the group of questionably-sober, middle-aged Thai people beckoned for us to join them. They immediately offered us chairs and poured us some rum drinks, which we watered down because we still had a ways to go on our scooters. This was so much fun and my friend ended up in a dance battle with a little, old yet very spry Thai guy in a baggy blue suit. Another Thai guy that was missing most of his teeth was very seriously and intently explaining something to me in Thai, and I kept telling him I didn't understand but he would just nod and keep telling me and pointing in the opposite direction. I finally asked one of the ladies at the table to translate and it turns out he was trying to direct me to the bathrooms. 

It was all a bit surreal - like we totally crashed this Thai party and everyone loved it and now everyone has a great story to share with all their friends and family. You're welcome (lol). They took a ton of pictures of and with us before we graciously made our exit. We stopped at a simple, roadside cafe for dinner and I forgot to ask if the veggies were spicy so of course they burned my face off when I tried to eat them. We rode the rest of the way back to the eco-village in the dark and even through a brief rain shower that bordered on refreshing. 

Conveniently located next to the village was a temple which happened to host a "Monk Chat" on Saturday and Sunday evenings where they were clearly targeting tourists to come learn more about Thai culture and Buddhism. The two of us headed over and talked with a monk named Bin for probably close to an hour. It was really interesting and insightful and I think everyone left at least a little bit more enlightened. 

I spent the night packing up my laundry - my incredible, intoxicatingly fresh, machine-washed and dried clothes - the first proper wash they've received in 6 weeks - before falling asleep a little bit too late. I woke up early to return my rented scooter and then it was time for me to take a red Thai open cab to the airport. There's one of those crappy parts of traveling again - having to say bittersweet goodbyes to awesome people (this includes the adorable owner of the village) that you meet. I definitely left part of myself in Thailand - beyond just the buckets of mid-day sweat and the bit of blood lost to the thorns and leeches.  I totally could have hung around there for another day or two. Le sigh.


I Heart Street Art | Chiangmai, Thailand

Found quite the collection of Street Art in Chiangmai, Thailand so far. There are also some galleries and lots of tattoo shops so I'd consider this a pretty creative city.

I guess I like street art so much because it challenges the traditional idea of art being hidden away in a gallery or museum and/or only accessible to a privileged few. It's often a healthy dose of civil disobedience and it's up to the artists themselves and the public to deem what is art, not just a few critics or curators. As long as it's not outright offensive, and especially if it has a good message behind it that can provoke thought and conversation, I like that street art is free and always available to the masses.

Many times, I prefer it to the 'modern art' (ex. a straight up piece of rope nailed to the wall) or rather homogenous antique paintings that I've seen in legit museums. Don't get me wrong, museums and galleries are cool too but you expect to see art when you go there. I like turning a corner and unexpectedly seeing a mural like "Oh hai! Here's a little eye candy for you. You're welcome." If I find a few murals here and there, it becomes like a little urban treasure hunt and I always try to find more! 

The Harvest Collection

Every other day a group of volunteers is rounded up to go harvest banana trees that we feed to the elephants. So how do you make harvesting banana trees fun? Turn it into a photoshoot! The fashion catalog is fake but the blood, sweat and tears is real! 

Mirambling Muses: Singapore

Well that week pretty much flew by. It was so nice to catch up with my sister and just let my guard down and relax for a bit. We didn't have anything really specific planned beforehand, so I just kind of made things up as I went along. 

The typical Singapore tourist comes here for perpetual shopping trips, fancy hotels and/or cosmetic surgery. Therefore, I didn't notice a ton of backpackers and probably wouldn't have stopped here had my amazing sister not been here with a free place to stay. However, there is a ton of budget-friendly culture, fun and excitement to be had if you know where to look.

Here are my highlights:

Red Dot Design Center

If you're a design geek like me, you have to visit the Red Dot Design Museum. It's a bright red building on the outskirts of Chinatown and it's full of all kinds of innovative and modern design including industrial, product, packaging and concept. There are lots of interactive iPad displays and you can touch and play with everything! There's some neat stuff in the shop as well. I picked up a couple letterpress postcards and seriously considered a recycled vinyl laptop sleeve. Learn more about Red Dot and their international Design Awards here

Chinatown

Of the designated traditional ethnic areas, Chinatown was the most fun. The streets are lined with lanterns small shops selling everything from silk robes to custom cut paper portraits and any & all kinds of Singapore and traditional Chinese souvenirs. And there is also no shortage of meal options. You'll find fresh produce (including the spiky, stinky-foot-smelling fruit, Durian) street food vendors and more traditional restaurants. I'm quite sure I need to start employing a food chaperone that is more familiar with these exotic foods, because I've made some regrettable decisions. The most memorable being a delicious-looking mountain of rainbow snow cone bliss, which turned out to be more like miscellaneous, dessert nachos. The base was beans, mystery jelly and pieces of mangosteen supporting an odd-tasting assortment of flavored ice and then topped with creamed corn. Taste, texture, everything, was just weird. 

The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is a must-see with its colorful, ornate decor and literally hundreds of statues and I was quite surprised to see people square dancing (to modern, English pop music, no less) near the Chinatown Complex. 

Gardens by the Bay 

These giant greenhouse gardens are located in the shadow of the huge and hideous (IMO) Marina Bay Sands Hotel. There are actually two Gardens by the Bay, the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. Jamie and I opted to only do one as we were short on time and didn't want to pay double the cost. The cloud forest was a nice respite from the city summer heat and we walked past the waterfalls, up the ramps, around the top and back down to the educational area. The flora was immaculately maintained and they even used misters to simulate foggy clouds. At the end, there is a dark room full of colorful, projected info graphics that educate you about the environment and it's biggest threats and you end by watching a short doomsday video about climate change where they describe a dying earth over the next hundred years. Then they rewind and give you hope again saying all that can be avoided if we take action today. They're preaching to the choir with regards to me and my sister but I hope it had an impact on everyone else passing through. This time, I didn't mind exiting through the gift shop because they had a bunch of awesome & eco-friendly stuff. I found some beautiful post cards designed by Peranakan Inspirations as well as this awesome little travel backpack that folds up into a small pouch. 

And I can't forget the super trees! They are these hybrid plant/solar structures that stand about 16 stories tall and collect solar energy so they can light up at night so they're self-sustaining. And the look pretty cool too. 

Street Art

I found the biggest concentration of street art in the Malay/Muslim district on Haji Lane. While admiring the incredible colors & designs, I turned the corner and found a group of  girls with American accents doing inversions in front of one of the murals. Turns out, one of them is kind of a big deal and teaches all over Asia but is based in Sinapore. Marysia invited me to one of her classes at Pure Yoga and I enthusiastically accepted her offer. I actually ended up doing two classes in a row the following morning; first a moderate Hatha class followed by a class called Upside Down, which is the hardest class I’ve ever attempted. The main focus was handstands and arm balances. I got a ton of tips from both Marysia and a pretty petite yet bad ass yogi next to me named Sen. The poses seemed almost effortless for her and she had short black hair with blonde streaks and an asian/egyptian pair of eyes tattooed at the base of her neck that stared at me everytime we posed facing the left wall. I was so satisfied with and grateful for the classes and really feel like I made significant progress in my practice. 

 

Public transportation is plentiful and my sister and I took trains, busses, Uber and cabs. My biggest gripe is that stamps and letter boxes are nearly impossible to find here. 

Mirambling Muses: Cairns, Australia

I had so much fun in Cairns that I wanted to share my favorite cheap, free, local, sustainable, inspirational and/or must-not-miss things to do there. It's incredibly tourist and backpacker friendly, boasting tons of hostels, rentals & hotels and there is free community wifi in several spots throughout the city. The main part of town is relatively compact and easy to walk to all of the locations listed below. Oh and one last tip: the locals drop the i and the r pronounce it like cans

7. Snoogie's Vegan/Vegetarian Restaurant 

This gem is a bit hard to find, tucked away in the Main Street Arcade (82 Lake Street) a bit north of Gilligan's. I found out about it myself after chatting up a local shop owner after lusting after her lunch. It's pretty much the most affordable and delicious healthy food and juice bar you'll find in Cairns. I really wish I'd discovered it sooner because this was my favorite food place. And I'm not alone; it's ranked #1 out of 381 restaurants in Cairns based on its 42 glowing reviews on Trip Advisor

6. Cairns Regional Gallery

An eclectic Art Gallery with a variety of exhibitions where you can escape the sun or the rain and see lots of work from Aussie artists. Admission is only $5 per adult and they're open 7 days a week. Or just visit the shop which offers a unique collection of design, crafts and jewelry by local and national artisans. You'll find much better souvenirs and gifts than the generic, tacky tourist shops you'll find everywhere else. 

 Image Source: Trip Advisor

Image Source: Trip Advisor

5. The Night Market

Located 71-75 on the Esplanade, the quirky Night Market is not to be missed! There is a self-serve food court serving up a variety of Asian favorites, hair and nail services, lots of souvenir shops and the famous $15 massages. You can find everything from locally crafted clothing & jewelry to custom airbrushed hats to postcards to kangaroo scrotum keychains. Shops are open 5-11 PM, Food Court from 10 AM - 11 PM and Massages from 12 noon - 11 PM. 

 Note: I do not endorse the sale nor purchase of these. I just needed pictorial proof of their absurd existence. 

Note: I do not endorse the sale nor purchase of these. I just needed pictorial proof of their absurd existence. 

4. The Esplanade

A super fun and free place to hang out, situated along 2.5 km of the Cairns coast. The lagoon is a free, public swimming pool, there's a boardwalk for exercise and/or people watching, plenty of open grassy areas and playgrounds and free community wifi. I often saw street performers and lots of people relaxing with a book or enjoying a picnic. If there are any events or festivals going on, they'll most likely be here. There are some free Active LIving classes you can take advantage of as well. I participated in yoga on Fridays at 6:30 AM. 

 The Lagoon

The Lagoon

3. Graff Alley

The largest concentration of Street Art I could find in Cairns. Located off of Grafton Street almost across from Gilligan's (the biggest and most infamous hostel in the city). Amongst all the murals, there's also a rather popular coffee shop called Caffeind and the Alleyway Paint & Skate shop. 

2. Rusty's Markets

Great place to buy local groceries or grab a bit to eat. I found all kinds of foreign fruits I can't get back home and I found the stall owners are really friendly. There's also a fresh juice bar and reflexology & thai massage as well as jewelry and clothing for sale. However, it's only open on the weekends; Friday & Saturday 5 AM - 6 PM and Sunday 5 AM - 3 PM. (Also located just past Gilligan's on Grafton Street.) 

1. The Great Barrier Reef

The harbor is packed with boats that will take you to see and snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. I can recommend Passions of Paradise ($159/adult + $10 reef tax) since that's the eco-certified boat that took me out to discover their natural treasures. But there are other sustainable options like the Reef Daytripper ($124/adult + $15 reef tax) and Ocean Free Green Island & Reef Pinnacle Tour ($190/adult includes reef tax). There's a full list of options on the Cairns Visitor Centre website


Athletes & Artists

So I seem to have developed a habit of automatically waking up at 5 AM. It happened again this morning so I headed down to the common area to use the free wifi. The night guy on duty asked if I had just woken up or just gotten back from partying, lol. I confirmed the former.

I ate a simple banana and granola bar breakfast in my room and left a little bit later to head to the Esplanade to watch the Ironman Cairns competition. The most ridiculous endurance athletes in the world compete in these races. I got to watch Sam Appleton cross the finish line in just under 4 hours to win the 70.3 race which consists of a 1.2 mile (1.9 km) swim, a 56 mile (90 km) ride, and a 13.1 mile (21.1 km) run. And that's just the half course!

A full Ironman is a whopping 2.4 mile (3.9 km) swim, 112 mile (180.25 km) cycle and a marathon distance 26.2 mile (42.4 km) run. I got a small taste of this when I took up sprint distance (.47 mile/750 m swim + 12 mile/20 km ride + 3.1 mile/5 km run) triathlons a few years ago in Miami. Of course my races would just be leisurely warm ups for most of the men and women I witnessed swimming, cycling and running today. 

The finish line was started to get crowded so I meandered off on a mission for lunch. The rain suddenly surged from sprinkling to soaking so I took shelter in the Cairns Regional Gallery of art which was only $5 ($3.40 USD) entry. The first floor held an eclectic collection of watercolor paintings. I looked at all of them but didn't love any of them. The second floor was more my style, titled Resolved: Journeys in Australian Design and displaying a collection of modern and minimalist design pieces. I particularly liked the colorful collection designed by Marc Harrison called Husque which incorporated crushed macadamia shells (which would otherwise just be discarded at harvest) into resin and shaped into beautiful bowls and dishes.

 image source:  husque.com

image source: husque.com

The third and final floor featured works by an emerging Artist named Nickeema Williams. She did beautiful charcoal portraits of several family members in addition to a few color photographs that honestly reminded me of instagram. When I exited the museum (through the gift shop of course) the rain was back to sporadic sprinkles. 

I found a food court on the way back to Calypso and got to break in my reusable bamboo chopsticks on some Thai food that was just a tad too oily. Back at home base, I caught up on some writing and uploaded some pictures. I also looked up the definitions of 101 words that I didn't know and had underlined while reading the last three chapters of Walden. I wish I had been more acquainted with my homeboy HD Thoreau in high school because he uses a ton of vocabulary that you're likely to see on the SAT. 

Anyways, that night the hostel hosted a BBQ where for $5 AUD you could eat barbecued crocodile and kangaroo. I had less than zero interest in this so I splurged and binged on Indian food at a nearby restaurant instead. I had naan, a mango lassi, basmati rice and Subzi Malai Balar; translation: mixed veggies in a creamy cashew sauce. I waddled back to my room and had to unbutton my pants to make room for the food baby I had just conceived. 

Earlier in the day I told myself that I was going to do some yoga before bed tonight but if I attempt anything that involves inversion right now, I'm quite certain I'll see my dinner again. I need to at least find the energy to pack as tonight is my last night in my single room of solitude and I'll need to check out tomorrow as soon as I return from my early morning excursion. 

Sidenote: I found this particularly amusing. In case you forget how to use a toilet, these helpful illustrations are posted throughout many of the public restrooms:


A few more pictures from around Cairns: