Adventures in Guatemala

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These are the craziest roads. Each seat is crammed with three people; we twist and turn through the hills of Guatemala at a speed faster than I am comfortable with. It is like constantly playing the corners game; hold on so you don’t fall off your seat, brace as your momentum attempts to carry you into the aisle.

My knees are jammed against the metal piece in front of me, the back of which says, “Blue Bird” – is that the company that made the bus? Perhaps. There is a sign that says “Canadian Blue Bird” above the front door.

Is there a better way to travel than immersion? Undoubtedly, this is both the cheapest and most efficient.

Do what locals do. Eat their food. Follow their customs. Wear their clothes. Try, and fail to speak their language. Take their buses.

Maybe I feel a little nauseous. Maybe a local advised me to take a plastic bag with me just in case. Maybe it is not the most comfortable. But it is good. So, so good.

Break neck speeds. Twists and turns. Ups and downs.

It is exciting. Interesting. Exhilarating. It makes me feel alive. I love living like this.

Welcome to the Adventure.

I believe we need more of it in our lives. More of the new and thrilling. We need to step out of our comfort zones and imagined boxes, and step out into the unknown. Great things reside in the unknown, waiting for us to discover and experience them.

The assistant runs to catch up and jumps back on the bus like he does it every day – effortlessly. He must do this for a living.

We pass a broken down bus, engine exposed. I pray that we do not end up like that, stuck on the side of a mountain waiting for someone to help. I wonder if our driver is a good mechanic.

I grab the metal bar with both hands to keep from slamming into the man seated next to me. When we clear the line of stopped vehicles the bus goes careening down, now clear of the blockage.

We pass another chicken bus. Back and forth, we wind down the mountain. The elevation affects me and the air is brisk. Cold, fresh air is better than hot and stagnant, any day. I’ve been on enough busses to know this is preferable, so I’m thankful.

Certainly, travel like this is a novelty. I sit and wonder as the foreign foliage rushes past. I wonder what it would be like on this bus every day. Going to and from school. Between home and work.

The winding, gorgeous countryside – does it become commonplace after enough sightings? Do the people acknowledge the extravagant beauty of this place on a daily basis? I hope they notice, because I am blown away by it.

Guate! Guate! Guate! The man yells out the window as we slow to pass groups of people gathered on the side of the street. If someone boards, the driver gives him or her the moment necessary to step onto the bus before racing away. If not, the driver up-shifts and continues.

The journey from Santa Cruz del Quiche to Antigua is in two parts; one must take a bus from Quiche towards Guatemala City, get off in Chimaltenango, then board a separate bus from Chima to Antigua. Simple enough, straightforward, and inexpensive. The whole trip costs less than five U.S. dollars.

I’m thankful for this trip because I know that monotone, dull, tedious existence is unfulfilling. We can get caught up in nine-to-five jobs and success-ladder climbing. We easily can waste away, as the days and hours blur without distinction. Somehow, we fail to notice it is even happening.

But what we need is an escapade, an exploit – to re-start our soul, to captivate our senses, to expand our understanding.

Adventure might look differently to others. Today, for me, adventure looks like traveling in Guatemala. It is an unfamiliar escapade with unique sights, and sounds, and tastes.  

It could look like playing with the neighborhood kids. Or taking a weekend trip to somewhere new. Maybe it is going to a restaurant you have never been to before. Perhaps it is as simple as asking your coworkers over for a home-cooked meal. Or it could be skydiving. Or quitting your job to follow your dreams.

Do the unusual and exciting and daring things that call for enterprise and enthusiasm.

Whatever it looks like, test your boundaries.

If you want, head to Guatemala and take a chicken bus. Sometimes, it is exactly what we need.

What adventure, big or small can you take today? Where can you step out of your comfort zone?

Hospitality, Kindness, & Cinnamon Rolls

Working at an establishment that is full parts Bed & Breakfast, Cafe, and Wine Bar, is a daily adventure. It means I often become a one-woman wonder of a show, juggling reservations, liquor orders, phone calls, and waitressing. All at once. No two days are ever exactly the same.

I wholeheartedly believe working in the service industry should be a requirement for all people. Before getting your driver’s license, or graduating college, it should be a milestone – spend one year at minimum serving random strangers in some capacity.

Having left my logistics office job back in Georgia nearly two years ago, I find myself now managing a Cafe & Wine Bar in Branson, Missouri. And, if you’ve ever been here, you’ll agree with the sentiment that it is an odd place. That’s another story for another time, however.

Branson’s nuances and quirks aside, I have spent these two years working in the service industry. From being a barista at Starbucks to a sales associate at Fossil, from a server at a downtown restaurant to this position, my waking hours have revolved around how I can serve other people.

How can I make your dining experience, your shopping trip, or your stay here more enjoyable? What can I do to help you, serve you, or essentially bend over backwards to accommodate you?

These questions are daily a part of my life. They float around my brain while I walk down the street – I constantly am analyzing situations, mentally calculating beer costs, and buying groceries. While the rain comes down at night, I’m awake in my bed wondering if our guests are sleeping soundly.

Truly, I am made for this. A wooer by design and study, I am a 10 out of 10 on any extrovert scale you can throw at me. I thrive on being around others,  I enjoy the energy, banter, and company. My mind is consistently the home of names, faces, small-world connections, and lists.

I take pride in doing hospitality well; it’s a life skill I appreciate greatly and am thankful to have picked up from my mom. I relish in going above and beyond the call of duty, and doing what I can to ensure people are well taken care of,  listened to, and heard.

Of course, it can wear on you. Not every customer cares, and not every day is easy.  Some days, we lose our faith in humanity to be kind, and go home with the words of disgruntled people weighing on our shoulders.

So, when a guest arrived one morning with a present for me from the local bakery, I became a giddy child.  I cannot tell you how absolutely spectacular it was to be handed a cinnamon roll that Tuesday morning.

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Perhaps it doesn’t seem like much. A small gesture of kindness from a stranger. A delicious, gooey treat. A few dollars worth of their money.

But to me, in that moment, it was pure bliss.

These are the moments when I remember giving is fun. Whether it be my time, my smile, my energy, my money, or my kindness, moments like these are when I am reminded there is a joy which comes from the art of giving.

These are the moments when I remember that the effort is worth the while. When the days get long, and the customers get rude, when the rain ruins our plans and the appliances ruin themselves, these are the moments that get us through.

Moments of connection. Moments of simple gestures. Moments of love.
This is what we’re meant for.

So today, I am resolving to pass the moment along. I will find a way, because I know there always is one. My hope is to impact another the way this wonderful woman impacted me, and impart some joy.

St. Louis for 7 Hours, Then Home

ROAD TRIP RULES:

#1 – The amount of time spent in transit must be equal to or less than the amount of time spent at destination.

#2 – Please refer to Rule #1

Okay, okay, I hear your guffaw from here. Yes, I am aware of the existence of other rules. Not to mention, there are suggestions, best practices, ideals. However, let’s be honest for a moment. If we are sane, rational adults, then this is the cardinal rule. With our busy lives, scheduled days, and limited vacation time, we must evaluate and weigh the options.

We must decide which trips are worth our time, our energy, our planning, our money. We compare flights, map out miles, and calculate hours. Do we fly to a destination, or drive? Do we drive ourselves, take a bus, carpool with a friend, or catch a train?

Months ago, when my dear friend Megan asked if I would take her to St. Louis in the middle of June so she could catch a flight home to Georgia, I happily said yes. Of course I can put that in my planner, take Sunday & Monday off, and meet with our friend Samantha. I would love to drive you! It is only a four hour drive one way, after all. No biggie. My pleasure.

Except, when the weekend came, there was an unavoidable complication.

Work.

I had to be at the hotel for breakfast Sunday morning, which meant we were unable to leave until after 10:00 am. And, as it turns out, there was a once-a-month, mandatory training I was required to attend, Monday morning, at 9:00 am.

Which, of course, left me with the decision of breaking the cardinal rule. I would have fewer than 24 hours to get us to St. Louis, visit in the city with Megan & Samantha, get myself back, and sleep before a six hour training.

Obviously, we hopped in the car and made the trek.

Can I let you in on a secret?

Come in close, near enough to hear me. This is one you won’t want to miss. I cannot promise you haven’t heard it before, but I can bet that you, like me, need a reminder every once in awhile. Are you ready? Yes? Lovely. Here it is:

People are worth it. Always.

Brene Brown puts it this way: “We are hardwired to connect with others. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”

January of 2013, after coming home from the World Race, and packing my belongings into a car, I moved down to Gainesville, GA to begin working with Adventures in Missions. I had never met Megan or Samantha before, but I found myself sharing an apartment, and we quickly became friends.

Fast forward three and a half years. We have moved out, moved away, moved back, and traveled internationally since then, currently landing ourselves far from each other, and from Gainesville, where it all started.

Yet, despite the distance (which has, at points, spanned oceans), we continue.

You see, there’s this common ground, this connection, this sisterhood bond that simply won’t diminish, or fade. We have put in hours, days, and years. There have been bouts of laughter, and long evening strolls, lake days, and snotty sobbing. We have seen each other in, and out of relationships (and, in my case, an engagement). We have battled insecurities, prayed for and with each other, sat together in silence when words have failed.

Being known, being seen, being heard – it is what we crave. We are designed to connect, we are designed for relationships, we are designed to love each other, deeply.

Seven hours in Saint Louis was well worth it. In a summer of non-stop work, 15-hour days, and a string of first date fail stories, it was an afternoon of pure bliss.

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For the three of us, rest looked like discussing work over Turkish food, and our love lives over iced lattes. It looked like tourist pictures at the Arch. It included a trip to Urban Chestnut, and the saga of my Tinder dating.

It felt like home, though. More like home than my actual bed, which I did not fall onto until past 2:00 am early Monday morning.

These women know me, my flaws, my character, my strengths, my shortcomings, and my thought-processes. They have seen the ins and outs of me as a roommate, coworker, girlfriend, daughter, and friend.

The time I spent with those two women was well worth the lack of sleep. It was refreshing, revitalizing, and rejuvenating.

This weekend, I broke Road Trip rule #1. I spent more time in a minivan than I did in St. Louis. I put sleep on notice, ignored common sense and threw logic out the window. What resulted, was an adventure of a day with two of my favorite people, and a heart filled to the brim with love.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

A Date in Copenhagen

It was his shaggy light brown hair and his hidden smile, which I could tell wanted to break out, that drew me to him. He sat alone on the ledge with his back against the glass, his hard, shiny carry-on suitcase in front of him. Though he looked content enough with his solitude, I noticed him looking our way every so often.

Little did I know I would find myself in a local pub with this man in just a few short days.

My friends and I were outside the gate, waiting for our flight; we took up a few more than our allotted four spots, but no one seemed to mind.

Our day had begun before dawn, with a minivan and too much espresso (if there is indeed such a thing as too much), in small town Missouri, and brought us here – John F. Kennedy Airport, New York. I was tired, and restless after our day, but exhilarated at the prospect of the adventure awaiting me.

Through that gate, a plane would bring me to Denmark, to five weeks of European travel, to people, museums, and palaces. Exhaustion had no hold on me – I was ecstatic.

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I made my way down the terminal in search of a snack, and returned triumphantly to my spot with hummus and pretzels.

Happily satiated, with food to spare, I spoke to him and offered to share. Briefly, a look of surprise crossed his face, but the smile emerged and he took the container from me, audaciously asking if double-dipping was allowed.

“It’s all yours. I saw you eyeing it and wholeheartedly believe in sharing. Of course you can double dip.”

The interaction amused me, and we struck up a conversation. After all, strangers are simply friends I have not yet met.

I found myself sharing pretzels with a fellow North American who is one part musician, one part scientist, and full parts student, traveler, writer. Outgoing, and funny to boot, I obviously enjoyed our brief time together.

Plus, as a single, adventurous, travel-obsessed, woman, it is no secret I love to meet those who shares similar interests. Extra points if their passport isn’t from the same country as mine.

Then tragedy struck.
Boarding.

We parted ways, with 25 rows of people and 8 hours of flight between us. I fell asleep, lulled into a dream while watching Inside Out. By the time I woke, we were landing in Copenhagen.

As we left the plane, I looked for him, scanning the crowd for that shaggy hair.
Alas, no such luck. He was gone.

You might think I gave up, shot down by fate and destiny and the sheer improbability that I would ever see him again.

Well. That is not the story I have to tell.

Sometimes, fate and I disagree, and I decide to take things into my own hands. After very little debate on the topic, I decided to contact him and ask him to show me around his lovely city.

Just as I had hoped, he accepted.

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This gorgeous city made me feel like a little kid in Neverland – it was colorful and vibrant and alive with wonder. Naturally, I was excited at the prospect of having a local show me around the nooks and crannies that make Copenhagen unique. We set a time and place; that was that.

A few hours before I boarded a bus for Berlin, I found myself in a dive bar with a Canadian I had known for a mere three days. Pure bliss.

For an hour and a half, we bantered, discussing Kurt Vonnegut, European culture, indie music, and our lives as single young adults who are simply trying to find our way in this world. We drank Carlsberg beer, inhaled a little more second hand smoke than I’m used to, and laughed easily.

It has been three and a half years since I sat in tiny plastic chairs on the streets of Saigon with fellow travelers, but this feeling is familiar. I can picture those tables, those faces, those nights, as if they were yesterday. I can recall those conversations, and as I spoke with this shaggy haired Canadian, I felt at ease.

Somehow, in a foreign city, with a man I barely knew, I felt at home.

Every opportunity I have to genuinely connect with someone is a blessing. I may never see him again, it is true. Regardless, that evening is one of my favorite memories in five weeks of Europe.

Life, I continue to find, is made up of moments. And it seems to me, all the best moments include other people. This was one I certainly am glad to not have passed up. It would have been easy enough to do, surely.

Long ago, I resolved to make my life about God, and people, and I’m not going to miss out on any chance for that to happen.

What I received in return was far more than I could have asked for, and all it took was a little bit of courage, trusting my intuition, and sharing my pretzels.

“Elementary,” Said He

Reading is my obsession. 

It is an addiction, a fixation, a passion in my life. Without relent, reading has been something I spend more time doing than is likely considered healthy. During college, it was easy to tell I had an important paper, project or exam soon because I could be found reading a book from start to finish within days of the due date. You know, just for fun. Just because I had time to “spare.”

From jennamalinen.theworldrace.org
I often pretend there is nothing pressing in my life and I read until the very last moment. On rainy days I can be found snuggled into the couch, latest novel in hand. I drink something hot, wrap myself in a blanket and get lost in another world.

If I start a book that I enjoy, I shall be the most introverted, anti-social person to ever walk this planet until I’m finished. There’s no reasoning with me, no convincing me to do anything in the real world until the one I’m engrossed in is gone, and the tale ended.

When I was an adolescent I would go to the public library and check out over a dozen books every few weeks. Books on language, religion, history, myth, poetry – whatever piqued my interest that day. I wanted to know everything, wanted to read it all.

One of the most difficult things about the World Race for me was not reading. Forget being sweaty and uncomfortable, disregard the stares and awkward conversations – they were not nearly as unfortunate as not reading. Not reading was dreadful. At times, I felt trapped without any escape, stuck behind this fence.

From jennamalinen.theworldrace.org

A few years ago, I found what have become my favorite stories. I dropped off the face of the Earth to read them. To me, they were (and actually still are) the best thing since sliced bread. Better than chai tea lattes. Better than Peter Pan, The Bell Jar, or Harry Potter.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in all his brilliance, created the greatest stories I’ve ever absorbed.

I flew through both volumes of the complete works of Sherlock Holmes last summer, engrossed in them, obsessed with them, fascinated by them. Absolutely riveted.

Holmes is the best detective in the entire world. Sure, he’s fictional, but let’s be honest, if he were real, every government would be dying for his skill set. He always knows the answer and can follow clues that other people don’t pick up on.  He can see things that everyone else misses.

From jennamalinen.theworldrace.org
The way his mind works astounds me and by the end of each tale I am flabbergasted. Floored by his brilliance and the way that the story takes place, I wonder how I missed each bit of evidence. I’m continually dumbfounded by the tales that Doyle has created and the ability of his protagonist.

It’s fiction that splendidly falls into the place between reality and dreaming. The locations are real; I can just imagine Holmes and Watson wandering the streets of London, residing at their apartment on Baker Street.

Sherlock is a character whose abilities are bordering on miraculous, whose mind is balancing the fine line between genius and madness. And Doyle? Oh, he is the mastermind behind it all, the one who holds my attention and demands the continuation of it. I’m walking down this path that I cannot diverge from.

From jennamalinen.theworldrace.org
Once upon a time, in Kenya, I went to see the second Sherlock Holmes movie. And, as you can imagine, I loved it. Yes, the books are better than the movies, and no, the movies don’t follow any one story line exactly, but the adaptation is brilliant and Robert Downey Jr. makes my dreams come true when he depicts Holmes. So I’m in.

It was during that film I realized one of the reasons I adore these stories. Yes, I love the way that Doyle writes, but there’s more to it than that.

It has been my discovery that Holmes, and to a greater extent Doyle, remind me of God. The way that Watson and I (as the reader) are always a step behind Holmes, discovering things after he does, is a lot like my life.

I cannot tell you how many times God has brought me down a path that I haven’t understood, revealing things to me one at a time. With a hindsight bias of 20/20, it’s easy to see where the pieces fit together, how they were working for good, and what happened. When Holmes finishes a case and has come to a conclusion, he will piece all of the evidence together for Watson, for the Scotland Yard, and for me.

Generally, this is the moment when I freak out.
I audibly gasp, physically shake my head, or verbally declare his brilliance.

It’s like he’s pointing right at me, wondering why I didn’t understand. For a moment it bothers me, and then I realize that he’s Sherlock freaking Holmes and I’m simply not that brilliant.

From jennamalinen.theworldrace.org

In “A Scandal in Bohemia”, Sherlock remarks to Watson,
“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”

When God lets me in at the end of a story, that’s how I feel. Like I could see, but I was missing out on the obvious things that led me to that point. Like all of a sudden, my eyes are able to pick up on something that was right in front of me and I couldn’t focus on. It’s a Voila! kind of moment.

The thing is – God doesn’t care that I couldn’t see the end; he was the one leading me by the hand all along, unmasking evidence piece by piece. I get to trust him as he leads me through the windy, foggy streets of life.

I imagine up in Heaven God will do a fist pump and say, “By Jove, she’s got it!”
And when we’re at the end of it, I’ll get to look back and shake my head at his brilliance.

*All photos were taken by me, except the bookstore picture. 

Turning 22 Abroad

December, 2015.

This year, I turned 26; I hit my “late twenties,” and life certainly is different than what I anticipated. Yet, I have no sadness about getting older – birthdays, and the subsequent celebrations hold a special place in my heart, and always have.

When I turned 22 abroad while traveling on The World Race, I’ll admit it was one of the best weeks of my life. Consequently – I cataloged the entire week, and remember it fondly.

Of all of the birthdays to date, this one still stands out above the rest.

It began on a gorgeous day in Romania with the most marvelous breakfast ever to be eaten. Home made French toast with apple & grape syrup, oatmeal, fresh juice (complete with pineapple pieces), and hash browns. There was only one word to describe it: sublime.

From that moment on, my birthday lived up to every expectation I could possibly have imagined. In the course of a few days, I watched an orchestra perform, attended a local soccer game, witnessed a Hungarian wedding, visited the 15th century Corvin Castle, and wandered the Transylvanian town of Sighisoara (home of Vlad III the Impaler).

I hope to celebrate another birthday abroad, and cannot wait to see what these next years hold.

Where have you celebrated your birthday? Where do you hope to be in 2016?

From jennamalinen.theworldrace.org

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A Child’s Joy

From jennamalinen.theworldrace.org

Her fingers seemed to be permanently stained. Living in the dirt and trash and muck will do that to you, apparently. She was eight years old and spoke no English, though she would attempt to repeat my words and looked adorable doing so. I taught her to say “Jesus loves me” and “I’m beautiful.”

Her name was Corina and her joy made being on the other side of the world worth the while. Four years ago, I spent a month near Targu Mures, Romania and visited her nearby village a few times each week. I had the privilege of playing with Corina and dozens like her; each time I saw them, my heart melted.

I had seen pictures of poverty before. Having grown up in American suburbia, I was exposed to the news. Yet, poverty was something that did not seem to affect me. It was foreign, and distant.

Poverty like that, in that manner, was somewhere else affecting someone else. It was contained in a box outside of my life and daily routine. My worlds collided, and there it was, right in front of me.

Children ran around, some of them clothed, some not, all of them dirty. The few children between eight and thirteen held constantly crying babies. Parents paid no heed as dozens of kids flocked to us for attention.

Despite having no possessions, and likely no opportunity, Corina smiled. Maybe she was unaware of her situation and naïve of the uncertainty of her future. Or perhaps, she simply was unconcerned and unwilling to worry. Her joy was infectious; her excitement exuded from her entire being.

I wondered how she could be so happy with nothing while people with much more are discontent. Seeing her carefree manner taught me a lesson, one that sounded cliché, even in my own mind, but held true.

Sometimes, the small things are what make life
amazing, good, and beautiful.

Corina was happy just to play with a dozen twenty-something year old strangers. She was happy to have a hand to hold. Her face lit up when I twirled her around or hugged her.

It was humbling to see such joy in the face of such hardship. A longing  to love the little things and see the beauty in all situations rose within me. I never thought I would learn such a valuable thing from an eight-year-old gypsy, but I was wrong.

Isn’t it funny how that happens? How humbling. I love how different people, situations and places teach me lessons.

Corina’s joy spurred me on to look at my own life, my stewardship, and the way I live. It made me question my priorities and my expectations.

My hope is that I never forget her joy, despite life’s unending trials.

From jennamalinen.theworldrace.org

From jennamalinen.theworldrace.org