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a southern yankee abroad

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Divine Intervention

Last week, I received the sad news from home that my Grandma Dot had passed away. Even though she had been in poor health for some time, it is never easy to hear news like this. It’s impossible to ever be fully prepared to learn of and internalize the news of the loss of a grandparent. I feel very blessed to have known 3 out of 4 of my grandparents for my first 27 years of life, as I realize so many aren’t able to get to know their grandparents as long as I have. I didn’t have the chance to get to know Grandma Dot as well as my Smith grandparents, but I am very happy for the times we had together here on earth. I was able to visit her in the hospital while I was home for the holidays last month, and I’m so glad we had this time together.

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Dot was born and raised in Tippah County, Mississippi, but also lived in California and Texas at different points in her life. She was a nurse during her professional life, spending her time caring for other people. I will always remember her as kind-hearted, good-humored, and thoughtful. She was the biggest Ole Miss fan I ever knew and will probably ever meet. In fact, one of the last gifts she ever received was a personalized autographed football from Coach Hugh Freeze. She was very proud of it. Grandma Dot was a special lady.

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After I heard the news, I found myself numb from shock, but also kicking into gear to organize my travel back to Mississippi for the services, and to read ahead and tie up loose ends at school before heading out of town. On Friday morning, I left my apartment at sunrise heading to Newark airport. My flight would leave at 10am to Atlanta, and then I would connect to Memphis after a 45 minute layover.

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About 10 minutes before we were set to board, the dreaded announcement came over the intercom—“Delta flight 2343 to Atlanta has been delayed indefinitely due to mechanical problems. We don’t have an estimated new departure time, but when we do, we will let you know.” As we all let out a collective groan, the gate attendant added (for good measure), “It’s not looking good, folks. Sorry. We will try to rebook everyone as soon as possible.”

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The flight to Atlanta was packed full, and 50 or so people immediately swarmed up to the gate counter to get a place in line for rebooking. As my layover was so short, I already knew that I, too, would need to rebook. However, I just didn’t have the emotional energy to push my way through this frenzied crowd, so I sat back in my seat and decided to watch, at least for a minute. Through the hullabaloo, I heard (or imagined I heard) an announcement—“Elizabeth Smith, please report to Gate 44.”

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I didn’t think anything of this. First of all, I have never, ever been paged in an airport, and I fly pretty frequently. And there was no reason I would be being paged right now. Secondly, I feel like Elizabeth Smith is a pretty common name. (Some people are shocked to find out my name is actually Elizabeth Grace, and I just go by Gracie as a type of formalized nickname, I guess. It gets confusing!) Newark is a big airport—I was sure there was another Elizabeth Smith about to miss her flight.

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The shouting, shuffling, and complaining continued at the Atlanta-bound gate, and I stayed seated, watching it all unfold. I was about to call Delta’s customer service line to try to rebook to arrive at a decent hour, when I heard it again. “Elizabeth Smith, please report to Gate 44.”

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Why not? I thought.

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I walked over. “Hi, I am Elizabeth Smith, but probably not who you’re looking for?” I started.

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Without missing a beat, the gate attendant looked directly at me and said, “You’re flying to Memphis, right?”

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“Yeah, I am!” I said, surprised. I looked over my shoulder at the 50 other people still waiting to rebook at the Atlanta gate just a few feet away. I was fortunate to be singled out in the best way possible.

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“Great,” she said. “I’ve already rebooked you on this flight through Cincinnati that will still get you to Memphis this afternoon. We’re about to board now.”

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As someone who has been stranded overnight and/or had to cancel weekend trips due to airline failures on multiple occasions, I was truly surprised and deeply grateful. “Wow, that’s amazing! Thank you so much!”

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She smiled as she printed my new boarding passes.

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Then, half-jokingly, I said, “You’re like my guardian angel!”

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As soon as the words left my mouth, goosebumps covered my arm and my hairs stood on end. I thought of my Grandma Dot. Tears came to my eyes.

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Maybe she wasn’t always physically or logistically able to take care of me here on earth as much as she may have wanted to, but this was Grandma Dot’s way of looking out for me now. I had arrived at the point of emotional exhaustion—the point where you need a grandmother’s hug, and maybe some fresh-baked cookies. And, in a different way, that’s exactly what I got there in the Delta terminal. I felt taken care of and looked after in that moment, and I felt my grandmother’s love. I laughed as I pictured her pulling some strings for me up at the pearly gates, intent on making sure I could arrive and reconnect with our family with the least amount of frustration and exhaustion possible.

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Grandma Dot, thank you. I love you. I hope you are at peace and enjoying good health, and are reunited with many loved ones in a place of joy and happiness. Hotty Toddy.

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From Vietnam to Peru

It’s always hard to say goodbye, and I found this to be especially true as my time in Asia drew to an end. I won’t miss the heat or the crazy motorbikes almost mowing me down each time I walk down the street, but everything else I will definitely miss! Even after 3 weeks, I was not yet tired of the food, the culture, the history, and the friends I had made. On our last night in Vietnam, our group had a farewell dinner at Cau Go in Hanoi, which turned out to be quite the posh spot (posh is another word I’ve adopted from my British friends!) I spent the next day packing, saying goodbyes, doing a bit of last minute shopping around Hanoi, and sitting by Hoan Kiem lake one last time.

 

By a fortunate twist of fate, my closest friend from my Asia trip, Nat, was on the same flight as me from Hanoi to Doha, Qatar. It was so great to have a friend on this flight! 🙂 IMG_8529We said our “see you laters” in Doha around 11pm, as he was continuing back to London that evening. I was so happy to learn that Qatar Airways would provide me with free 5 star accommodations for the night before my 8am connection to Dallas. This was by far the “poshest” accommodation I’ve had yet on the journey! Thank you Qatar Airways! While I had initially been nervous to spend the night alone  here, everyone in Qatar was extremely hospitable, helpful, and nice. I highly recommend Qatar Airways! After showering and catching a few hours of sleep in a big, fluffy, clean bed, I returned to the airport for my 16 hour flight to Dallas.IMG_8549IMG_8545

 

Despite some turbulence over Iran and Russia (which I of course freaked out a bit over…hyperactive imagination?!), the flight went very smoothly. I watched several movies and listened to some Bob Dylan on their entertainment system (so on point!), then touched down in Dallas. I had not anticipated how good it would be to be back in the USA even for a few hours!! I even found a special soundtrack for landing 🙂IMG_8567

 

Once in Dallas, I walked around the airport for a couple of hours to stretch my legs and made calls to family and friends. I also realized how completely exhausted I felt, so I stocked up on Airborne tablets and Tylenol. I boarded my flight to Lima at 10:20pm, but we didn’t take off until around 11pm (typical for my experience with American Airlines! Why can’t all airlines be like Qatar?!) The plane did not even have a TV/entertainment system, but it was ok as I finally caught a few hours of sleep. After about 7 hours, I was in Lima, and the sunrise was beautiful from the window.IMG_8580

 

I was so happy to find my checked backpack had made it all the way to Lima from Hanoi, as I had my doubts about all the crazy connections. I made my way through customs and quickly found my driver I had booked transport in advance through my hostel). My driver did not speak English, so I spoke with him the entire drive in Spanish. I was relieved to see how quickly it came back to me (gracias to Senora Sephore from high school and Senora Botero from Vandy!), and I am excited to see how much I will improve over the next 3 weeks.
I arrived at my hostel and checked in, and am now enjoying some coffee on the porch with my new friend Pisco. IMG_8595Sarah arrives at 11pm tonight, and I absolutely cannot wait to see her!! She and I will be traveling together for the next 3 weeks here, and our friend Rachele (also from NYC) will be joining us about halfway. I am so happy to be in South America! Encantada!!

So It Begins: Memphis to Thailand

I’ve finally arrived to my first overseas destination in Northern Thailand! I will be spending a few days here solo before heading to Bangkok on Sunday to meet up with a group. I arrived after layovers in Chicago, Vancouver, and Shanghai, for a total of 35 hours of travel time. Yes, Memphis → Chicago→ Vancouver→ Shanghai→ Chiang Mai. Crazy, but I did it!  

Surprisingly, the Memphis airport was the busiest I have ever seen it on Tuesday afternoon. It usually takes less than 15 minutes to check in and get through security. It took about 45 minutes on Tuesday. Fortunately, I made it to my gate just fine with about 10 minutes to spare. My dad saw me off at the airport. I am so glad I was able to spend time with him this week, as well as with my mom, other family members, and friends over the last few weeks before the leaving the U.S.–it meant so much to me!

Once I arrived in Vancouver, I realized quickly that the Canadian version of TSA is so strict! Even though all of my shampoos and conditioners were in small bottles, they said I had too many bottles, so I had to throw some away. I didn’t want to be “that girl,” but I really wanted to explain to him how picky I am about my hair products, and I needed to take all of these with me to last for 3 months! However, I kept my mouth shut and sadly threw several away in order to be in compliance. I was annoyed then, but now I realize it’s pretty hilarious I had so many tiny bottles in my backpack. Also, my backpack is a little lighter now!

In Vancouver, I boarded a 12 hour flight with China Eastern to Shanghai. Unfortunately, I had looked up China Eastern on Yelp the night before, and was thoroughly freaked out by what I read. It seemed all of the reviews talked about how horrible the airline was, regarding everything from the manners of the crew to leg space to food to safety. One reviewer even talked about how his flight had been in freefall multiple times, and he thought he was going to die as he and the other passengers screamed the whole flight! Needless to say, this made me even more nervous.

However, the flight could not have been smoother. We flew over Alaska, the Bering Strait, and Russia, barely crossing the Pacific (This was important to me, as I get nervous about flying over large bodies of water. If you have to emergency land, where do you go?!) We even flew around the edge of North Korea (!) and landed in Shanghai ahead of schedule. The layover in Shanghai airport was very relaxing, as I accessed the free wifi to text and FaceTime with friends and family and found a Starbucks for a “just like home” coffee fix! The only downside is that I was unable to check both my Gmail and Facebook, as the Chinese government has blocked both. I also wasn’t able to use Google for the same reason. I’ll never take these sites for granted again!

 

Once I finally arrived in Chiang Mai, I hired a tuk-tuk (basically a motorcycle taxi) outside of the airport to take me to my hostel. I was able to bargain with him to reduce the price from 200 baht to 160 baht! He swore he knew where my hostel was, but it was only after 45 minutes of riding around and stopping to ask 6 people that we ultimately found it. I am not complaining though…the ride was fun and I was able to get a good first look around Chiang Mai! The first night in Thailand was a complete whirlwind, mostly due to extreme tiredness and adrenaline. I made friends with a group of Canadians at my hostel, and we went to dinner and then to a “disco” (just a bar really…but it’s fun to call it a disco!) I’m excited to see what the next few days in Chiang Mai hold!!

 

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Tuk-tuk selfie (no shame!) Delirious and excited after 35 hours of travel!
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Asking directions (again). I didn’t think we would ever get there…everyone was extremely nice and tried to be very helpful though!

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