My 40s began in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I was an ajarn (professor) in the Humanities Department at Chiang Mai University, I had gone from vegetarian to vegan only months before and I had just survived dengue fever after getting bitten by an infected mosquito on a solo weekend trip to Ayutthaya. I was in the middle of an active and adventurous life. Little did I know then all the triumphs I would celebrate, as well as all the challenges I was to overcome in the subsequent ten years. As I say goodbye to my 40s, I reflect on the victories and hurdles of the past decade.
I turned 40 while living in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I was teaching a variety of classes including phonetics, English for tour guides and critical thinking at Chiang Mai University. Perhaps the most unique job I had in the past decade was teaching English to mahouts (elephant caretakers) at an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand.
Once stateside again, I got a job for a few years at a local language school in Tampa, until it became apparent two years later that the owners were fraudsters. They suddenly and unexpectedly shut the doors to their some 11 schools in Florida, stealing lots of money from international students and still owing teachers at least a month’s worth of pay. I, among others, were interviewed on the local news about this shocking news.
Towards the end of my 40s I was able to secure an amazingly rewarding job at Learning Empowered, a grant-funded, non-profit organization that helps green card-carrying immigrants prepare for their citizenship interviews. During Covid, my job moved to online, allowing me to be able to spend time with people from all over the world right from my home or from wherever I happen to be traveling.
In the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of being a part of a life-changing event in people’s lives: becoming a US citizen. I’ve been able to help monks from Cambodia, an actual French chef, Russians wishing to retire in Florida, a Moldovan who wanted to be close to her grandchildren, Vietnamese families, Mexicans who fell in love with someone on this side of the border, a Laotian who loved to dye her hair fun colors, refugees from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Pakistan and Cubans who are excited about being able to cast a ballot for the first time.
My favorite part of the job is when I receive a message from a student saying, “I passed!” I also enjoy pictures from their oath ceremonies. My favorite of these pictures so far was of a Costa Rican man in his 60s all dressed up in front of the immigration office in Tampa. In one hand, he proudly holds up his citizenship certificate, that he spent an entire year studying for, and he is holding his small grandson in his other arm. The two-year old is holding a US-American flag.
Volunteering, Protests and Other Accomplishments
Over the past decade, I was able to do some volunteer work in Thailand, Cambodia and Ireland, as well as in New York, Tennessee and Florida in the United States. Towards the beginning of my 40s, I frequented Elephant Nature Park where I performed a variety of tasks from cutting down sugarcane and corn, preparing food for elephants, cleaning out dishes, gardening, taking care of pigs, dogs and cats and navigating questions from visitors.
I did similar work for a week in Surin, Thailand helping out with a project that tries to improve the lives of captured elephants, as well as a week at Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary just outside Siem Reap. There, I was able to build a garden, plants trees, care for gibbons and elephants and any other job asked of me. My favorite experience from this week was walking in the jungle with Kham Lin.
After moving back Stateside, I continued to volunteer at animal sanctuaries. I spent a month in Watkins Glen, New York volunteering at Farm Sanctuary, and a week at The Pig Preserve, now called the Odd Man Inn in Tennessee. I was honored to visit Eden Farmed Animal Sanctuary in Ireland for a few days – what an incredible place! Once I decided to stay in Florida (I had originally wanted to move to Vermont), I began volunteering at Noah’s Ark Potbelly Pig Sanctuary in Port Richey on a regular basis.
And just before the start of the Covid pandemic, I visited Florida Rescue Farm in Duette, Florida, a place I would love to further support in some way. I celebrated my 48th birthday at Peacefield, a farm sanctuary near Gainesville in Newberry, Florida.
I attended many protests and demonstrations over the past decade. After learning about the plight of Asian elephants in Thailand, including the phajang “ceremony” (the crushing of an elephant’s soul), one of the first protests I attended in Florida was to protest the use of animals in the circus.
I also flew up to Washington DC to participate in the first Women’s March! What an amazing and empowering event to attend!
Caring for a baby pig named Sodsai in Thailand helped me to learn more about the horrors pigs face in the meat industry, so I joined a vigil outside a pig slaughterhouse in southern Ontario, Canada.
After the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, I learned the Westboro Baptist “Church” was to make an appearance at some of the funerals of the victims where they planned to harass the victims’ friends and families. I am proud to be one of hundreds of people who participated in a protest of Westboro. It was at this protest where I saw a shift in the way the general public views gays and lesbians. People seemed to finally be able to see past sexual orientation and empathize with the grieving family members they saw on TV.
While visiting Poland, I was proud to join a demonstration at Umschlagplatz in Warsaw in remembrance of the men, women and children who were rounded up in the Warsaw ghetto and taken by train to Treblinka.
I attended several demonstrations in St. Petersburg, Florida against the unfair and inhumane treatment of immigrants entering our southern border, in addition to women’s rights protests. I also attended several Pride parades and even got to participate in one on the back of a motorcycle.
During the past decade I wrote and compiled a book of short stories, taught myself how to create my own travel blog, saw a solar eclipse, and celebrated my 10th veganniversary in Santa Fe. I bought and sold a house, officiated a wedding and learned how to drive a tractor.
Other random skills I picked up in my 40s include learning how to turn elephant poop into paper, how to play 4 chords on the ukulele, how to make Ethiopian injera bread, how to do Mayan backstrap weaving, and, thanks to my Mom, how to can food. I managed to pick up a little Thai, a little more Spanish and had a few opportunities to practice my German.
When it comes to relationships, I could have never predicted all the events that would transpire in my 40s. Because President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law in 1996, I could not sponsor my Canadian wife. So, I spent much of the time living outside the United States. Despite all the protesting and fighting for my right to live in my own country with my wife, I had resigned to the fact that it most likely wouldn’t happen in my lifetime. The best I could hope for, or so I thought, was being able to retire at home.
I was still living in Thailand on June 26, 2013 when the Supreme Court overturned DOMA, deeming it unconstitutional. I was in shock and for the first time, I felt far from home. I immediately began the paperwork for US green card sponsorship for my spouse. It was a dream come true.
Three years later, I attended my wife’s oath ceremony in Florida. At that time, other than my wedding day, this was the happiest day of my life. Little did I know then that only a short time later, and in the height of Covid, my wife would walk away from our marriage and the life we had built together. We were a few months away from celebrating our 14th anniversary and had been together for almost 16 years. I was devastated and heartbroken.
Without a doubt, this was the most difficult and challenging time for me in my 40s and hopefully, it will be the hardest time in my life. With the help of wonderful friends and a lot of hard work, I have been able to navigate these painful years.
The universe did not leave me hanging, however. I was led to Chrissy and got to experience falling in love again. We got engaged and moved in together.
Chrissy and I have laughed together, encouraged each other to rediscover ourselves and have enjoyed getting to know each other. Thankfully, she shares my love for travel and so we have traveled both domestically and internationally. We’ve been to New Hampshire to visit her family and Vermont and Baltimore to visit mine and have done quite a bit of exploring our own state of Florida, from snorkeling with manatees in Crystal River to vegan fine-dining in Sarasota to feeling the power of the Atlantic crash upon us in Melbourne Beach.
Internationally, we have traveled to Mexico several times, spending our first Valentine’s Day in Cancun. We visited the Pyramids in Giza, took a hot-air balloon ride over Luxor and the Nile at sunrise and camped out in the Egyptian Western Desert. Together, we explored three different parts of Brazil, including the Amazon, Rio de janeiro and Iguazu and most recently, we celebrated New Year’s Eve in Oslo, Norway before experiencing a few days of 24-hour darkness in Svalbard.
About halfway through my 40s, my best friend Erick and I celebrated our 20 year friendaversary in New Orleans, the city in which we first met. A couple years ago, he moved in with me while he got ready to move to Mexico. During this time, we both got and survived Covid.
Helping Erick move to Cancun was very exciting, yet emotional for me. On one hand, it’s fun to reinvent yourself in a new country, but on the other hand, I would no longer have my friend living 10 minutes down the road. Since then, I have visited and enjoyed watching how he’s created a new life for himself. Together, we have done quite a bit of exploring the Yucatán and learning about the Maya.
My favorite travel experiences with Erick include traveling to Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the USA and to Puerto Rico. We even explored Castañer, where my grandparents lived, volunteered and set up a hospital that still stands today.
I very much physically changed in the last decade. I began with light brown hair and for the majority of my 40s, I kept it that way.
But towards the end of my fourth decade, I began trying different colors on my hair from blonde to midnight purple to aqua. I turned 50 with purple hair and aqua highlights.
When I turned 40, I visited my 40th country, the Philippines. Even then, I knew that I would continue to travel to new places in the world as it’s simply in my nature and I’d traveled throughout my 20s and 30s, so why would my 40s be any different? I actually made a goal of hitting 100 countries by the time I turned 50. While this did not happen for several reasons, I did manage to travel to 20 new countries spanning four continents.
In the past decade, I was able to travel above the Arctic Circle twice reaching as far north as 78° degrees Latitude in Longyearbyen, Svalbard and as far south as 27.1127° S Latitude in Rapa Nui (Easter Island). I explored Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest as well as Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth.
I saw the sunrise at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, while hiking to the top of Masada in Israel and while camping in the Sahara Desert in Western Egypt. I saw the sun set in the mountains of Kotor, Montenegro, off the shores of Koh Lanta in Thailand and from North Beach in Honeymoon Island, Florida. The longest day of sun I experienced was in Barrow, Alaska (6:30am to 10:15pm) and I visited Svalbard during it’s dark season.
I explored below sea level a few times during the past 10 years. I saw a mantaray while scuba diving in Donsol, Philippines, a large clam while in Talipanan Beach, Philippines and a sleeping green sea turtle while diving off the northern coast of Bali (near Pemuteran). I snorkeled with sea turtles in the Gili Islands, kayaked with bioluminescent plankton in Puerto Rico and swam with manatees in Crystal River, Florida.
I white-water rafted in Croatia, floated in the Dead Sea, paddled on the Rio Negro in the Brazilian Amazon, took a boat tour of Skadar Lake in Montenegro, jumped off a cliff into Crater Lake in Oregon, dipped into cenotes in the Yucatán, witnessed geysers in the Atacama Desert in Chile, ate lunch in an ice-cave 20 meters under a glacier in Svalbard, waded in the shores off Caladesi Island, kayaked in Siquijor, Philippines, canoed in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota, experienced hot springs in Beitou, Taiwan, rode the high waves on a ship to a glacier in southern Alaska, experienced the sea organ in Zadar, went skinny-dipping in Lost Lake in Whistler, Canada, was sprayed with water from Iguazu Falls in Argentina, waded in the Jordan River where John the Baptist supposedly baptized Jesus and went tubing down the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng, Laos.
In the past decade, I also managed to reach lofty heights. I enjoyed views from the top of Elephant Mountain in Taiwan, Williams Lake in Taos Ski Valley, Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine, the Uvac Special Nature Reserve in Serbia, El Yunque in Puerto Rico, Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, the mountains of Whistler, Canada, Chimney Rock Trail at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico, the Kotor Fortress in Montenegro, Mount Terevaka in Easter Island and the Tatra Mountains (Polish Alps) of Zakopane, Poland.
Loftier still, I walked Jesus’ footsteps in Jerusalem, donned an abaya and prayed in the women’s section of a mosque in Jakarta, took communion for the first time in a Catholic Church in Rapa Nui, attended a Jewish Torah service in the famous Berlin Synagogue and meditated in Wat Umong, my favorite Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai.
Over the past decade, I have experienced a wide variety of accommodations. I slept in a hammock in the Yucatán, on a single cot with pregnant sheep in upstate New York, in a traditional Ifugao hut in the Banaue Rice Terraces, Philippines, at a Shariah Law hotel in Jakarta, in an AirBnb in Jamaica, in a bamboo hut in Cambodia, in a sleeping bag in the Boundary Water Canoe Area in Minnesota, at a boutique hotel in Novi Sad, Serbia, in a hostel in Taipei, in a traditional Sasak-style bungalow in the Gili Islands, at a homestay in Ubud, Bali, at a a lesbian-owned inn in Fort Klamath, Oregon, in a tree house in Chiang Mai and I shared a seaside wooden shack on stilts with resident bats in Koh Lanta, Thailand.
I had the privilege of trying many foods in their country of origin. I ate gado gado in Indonesia, ayvar in Croatia, a spinach borek in Slovenia, a big soft pretzel in Germany, an English breakfast in England, a spinach coxhina in Brazil, pierogies in Poland, Penang curry in Penang, Malaysia, pickle bread in Spreewald, Germany, pad Thai in Thailand, ital food in Jamaica, falafels in Israel/Palestine, tacos in Mexico, koshari in Egypt, lumpia in the Philippines, and “stinky tofu” in Taiwan, a popular local dish.
I drank tequila in Mexico, aquavit in Svalbard, blueberry brandy in Slovenia, caipirinhas in Brazil, pickle liqueur in Germany (Spreewald), moonshine in Tennessee, rum in Jamaica, and pox (a Mayan spirit) in the Yucatán.
I was fortunate enough to see wild camels in the Sahara, coati and iguanas in Mexico, flamingos in Chile, manatees in Florida, reindeer in Svalbard, fur seals in Alaska lounging on chunks of ice, elephants in Thailand, tarsiers in the Philippines, a marmoset in British Columbia, macaques in Malaysia, a rock hyrax in Israel, bighorn sheep in the Valley of Fire, Nevada and even happened to be on the beach near Ocho Rio, Jamaica at the time sea turtles were hatching. It was so wonderful to watch them make their way to the water.
I rode song taws in Chiang Mai, tuk tuks and jeepneys in the Philippines, an electric car in Scandinavia, a train across Java, a gondola in Taiwan, a hot-air balloon over the Nile in Egypt, the tube in London, a motorbike in Laos, the subway in New York and a bus on the road of a 1000 curves to Pai, Thailand.
I visited Majdanek Concentration Camp, Umschlagplatz, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, and paid my respects at the 9/11 memorial in Manhattan, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Germany, the Slaughtered Animals Monument in Wrocław, Poland and Yad Vashem in Israel.
I also made it to some iconic locations, including Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, the Statue of Liberty in New York, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Bean in Chicago, Newgrange in Ireland, the Luxor Obelisk in Egypt, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, Buckingham Palace in London and the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles. I enjoyed a road trip along the famous scenic California One Highway from San Francisco to Santa Barbara.
I was privileged to experience some memorable musical events in my 40s. I finally made it to Tanglewood in the Berkshires of Massachusetts and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. I also got to see the Gypsy Kings (sorry about my use of this offensive term, but as it’s part of a name, I didn’t know how to avoid it) perform live in Clearwater, felt honored to witness a Pueblo performance in Albuquerque, was invited to a trance dance in Pemuteran, Bali as well as a temple gamelan performance in Ubud and I finally heard the oud (Middle Eastern stringed-instrument) in real life in Cairo. The biggest musical event I attended was experiencing Wagner’s Ring Cycle. (see more below)
I’ve had some interesting random experiences in the past 10 years. I came across a polar bear incisor on Barrow Point, visited Obama’s elementary school in Jakarta, tasted an olive directly off an olive tree in Tel Aviv (not recommended), got a bag of blue “meth” from the RV Breaking Bad tour I took in Albuquerque, ate dinner in complete darkness at O Noir in Berlin, released a dragon from a castle in Ljubljana, was jumped on by a macaque in the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, tried to walk on water in the Sea of Galilee, got a knife massage in Taipei and was an extra in the Hollywood movie No Escape in Thailand with Pierce Brosnan, Lake Bell and Owen Wilson.
Crossed Off Bucket List Items
In the past 10 years, I managed to cross off some items on my ever-growing bucket list. Skydiving had been on my list for quite a number of years, but fear had always prevented me from making a reservation. Well, I finally jumped, not once, but twice!
I also finally saw Wagner’s Ring Cycle in its entirety. Experiencing this major operatic event was no small feat as it involved getting tickets at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera a year in advance and booking flights and a week-long hotel stay across the street from the venue. In addition, I spent an entire year researching leitmotifs and Norse mythology in preparation.
I managed to cross off two more of the 7 wonders of the world in the past decade: Petra in Jordan and Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Perhaps my biggest bucket list item was seeing Iguazu Falls on the border of Brazil and Argentina. Wow! What an unforgettable experience!
Overcoming Challenges and Hardships
I overcame some hardships in my 40s, reminding me that I am stronger than sometimes think. I survived a motorbike accident in Chiang Mai, resulting in what I refer to as the “Thai tattoo” on my elbow, a painful divorce, my Grammie passing away, my best highschool friend Jeanne passing away under horrible circumstances, the loss of what was to be my forever home, a macaque bite in Lopburi prompting me to get a series of rabies shots, and a potentially dangerous anti-gay church service on the streets of Jamaica. I entered my 40 having survived dengue fever and left my 40s having just fought off Covid for the second time.
Not everything went completely according to plan while traveling in the past decade either. My motorbike ran out of gas on a country road outside Vang Vieng, Laos, I was stuck in traffic for 7.5 hours trying to cross the Serbian-Croatian border, I survived a boat fire on a ferry to Talipanan Beach in the Philippines, and got shot at while driving in eastern Jerusalem. Luckily, it turned out to be a bb gun rifle, but I didn’t know that at the time the young man raised his gun behind my car.
I survived a tornado in Grand Rapids, several hurricanes in Florida including Irma and Ian, a few monsoons in Southeast Asia, a crazy hail storm in Žabljak, Montenegro, and an earthquake in Chiang Mai.
One of the many amazing experiences I had over the past decade was releasing a lantern at Yi Peng, a long-standing Lanna tradition, in northern Thailand. To Westerners, this event is known as the Lantern Festival because the most spectacular part of this festival is the release of tens of thousands of lanterns en masse, each carrying a worry someone would like to let go or a wish for the future.
And so, in the spirit of Yi Peng, I say goodbye to my 40s by watching my video of this magical event.
Here I am, having survived and flourished in another decade. I wonder what the 50s will bring. On my 60th birthday, what will I have accomplished, experienced and overcome in the 10 years prior? I’m confident I will travel to new lands and will reach the 7th wonder of the world and I anticipate planning a wedding soon. I hope to finally experience a Wagner opera at the Festspielhaus in Germany and to experience the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca. I also wish for good health.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned in my 40s is that change is inevitable and the firmer your footing on a particular path is, the more challenging it will be to embrace bumps or unexpected forks in the road. I think for my 50s, therefore, I’m going to set fewer goals and instead attempt to be more of a leaf, constantly adjusting to the breeze. Sometimes, a strong wind might test my resilience. Sometimes, I will be thirsty or cold. But, until it’s time for my release from the tree, I will experience as much as I can and enjoy the sunshine on my face.