Thanksgiving Marathon – Florence 2014 (Part 1)

My choice of the Florence marathon was inspired in part by someone I met after my last marathon in May. Having traveled to Europe all the way from Portland, he remarked that I could access so many amazing marathons relatively inexpensively from Paris. He had already run 42 marathons, but emphasized experience over time as his main goal. He said, “I figure that if I just keep going I’ll eventually get faster and stronger. I just don’t want to push myself so hard that I stop enjoying it.”

I thought about that. A lot. And I figured, if I can do two marathons, I can certainly do three. And why not hop over to another country for the experience?

So, this was the first time I traveled internationally for a race and also the first time to race in a country where I didn’t speak the language.

I had never been to Florence, but I already knew that I love Italy. And what better place to carb-load for a marathon? Furthermore, the marathon fell over Thanksgiving weekend, so I was happy for the distraction from the fact that I was far from my family and their traditional celebrations. I made the arrangements five months in advance, which meant I got a great deal on travel, registration and accommodation.

However, it’s been a hard year for me physically and that put a damper on my excitement for this race. Once again, my body shut down a few weeks before D-day. I went to see my doctor and at the first meeting, he said it might not be a good idea for me to run this time. In fact, he didn’t want to renew my medical certificate (required for European races). That was only ten days out and I wasn’t feeling well, so I figured if I didn’t run in the end it wouldn’t be so great a loss. I didn’t feel up to it anyway.

He ran some blood tests and a week later gave me the clearance to go ahead but not without a word of caution: “Just take it easy, whatever you do, don’t go out there and give it your hardest effort. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy Florence.” But when is it ever possible to “take it easy” during a marathon?

I walked away thinking, so I’m really doing this thing? I knew I wasn’t physically in top form, but I wasn’t mentally prepared either. I had burnt out a bit, lost motivation. Hopefully the excitement of it all would give me some energy?

The weekend was nice. I relaxed and strolled around the city. Saturday night I met up with some new friends from Paris. During a training run in Paris a few weeks earlier, we had realized that we were running the same race in Florence. It was fun to have dinner together and talk about the race. I followed their lead for gelato afterwards, although I wouldn’t have done so on my own.

By the time I went to bed, I was getting a bad headache. I tried a hot shower, some standard pain meds, and stretching but nothing was helping. Afraid I would wake up with a migraine, I decided to take my migraine medication as a preventative measure to kill the headache, hoping that the resulting drowsiness wouldn’t get me down too much the next day.

I got a decent night of sleep and was in good spirits in the morning. As much as I try to have things planned out in advance, I left my hotel not quite knowing how to get to the start line, which was 2 km away. I had walked all over the city the last two days, but I just wasn’t convinced that I wanted to tag two more kilometers onto the front end of 42.195, especially since I was already a bit groggy. I thought about getting a cab, but it seemed a bit frivolous. The man at the front desk said I could walk across the street to find a special marathon bus that would take me to the start. Brilliant!

I crossed and saw runners walking this way and that, but no bus and no group of people waiting for a bus. So I asked a couple of runners if they knew where the bus was. “No, we’re taking a taxi!” they said. “Oh, can I share it with you then?” I asked. “Sure!” So I jumped in with them. They were a lovely couple from Austria and this would be their 13th marathon. The taxi dropped us a short walk from the start and the 9€ fare split three ways felt good to me, only that the couple wouldn’t let me pay! So sweet. We walked together and chatted on the way to the start area.

In the starting corral, I met with my French friends and together the time passed quickly as we waited for 9:15 am to arrive. I was a little concerned that I was feeling a bit fuzzy as I waited, but figured it was the effect of the medication and that it would pass. It only took minutes for the 1100+ runners to cross the start line. Yet just after we started our watches, the road got so congested that we had to come to a dead stop two or three times within the first few hundred meters! That was unfortunate. I would have rather waited an extra minute before starting than having that minute on the clock! Finally we were rolling, but as we had decided to join a pacing group, we were elbow to elbow for a while.

The ambiance was fantastic in those first kilometers. The pacers were a bit crazy, yelling and cheering in Italian and even though I didn’t understand a whole lot, they had me smiling and laughing, too. I also quickly picked up on the Italian word, “dai,” which means “come on!” But it sounds like “die,” and later in the race, I wanted to yell back, “Yes, I’m dying!!”

Usually the pace would have been fine for me for a long time, but by 10k, I realized that my heart rate was higher than it should have been and so I started to slow a bit and over the next 10k watched the pacer balloons, along with my French companions, slowly fade away in front of me. I was still in the company of four men who were obviously employing the Jeff Galloway method of running/walking. They were in purple shirts and kept passing me, and then falling behind again when they took their walking intervals. I wondered how this method would work out for them. Eventually they plowed ahead.

I also realized by 10k that I was pretty tired. I shouldn’t be tired already at that pace, or this early in the race. Yet I managed to stay quite steady until 20k. By 15k, I was tired of circling parks and while they were pretty and all, I wanted to be back in the city with more excitement, crowds, etc. When is the party starting? I wondered. I thought they were supposed to have a clap competition here. I don’t see anyone clapping! Maybe they only clapped for the elite runners.

I also realized that I was a bit checked-out mentally. That lack of motivation I mentioned earlier? It was only getting worse. What am I doing here anyway? Whose grand idea was this? Maybe I’m not cut out to run marathons. Maybe I should stick to shorter races. I may have a point there. In any distance up to a half marathon, I can usually predict my finish time within a minute. With marathons, I can be accurate only when predicting within a 30-40 minute window!

I tried to assess where my head was, how I could get rid of the negative thoughts and motivate myself to push forward, or if I even wanted to. And I realized that I wasn’t all there. Still moving, but mentally drifting. It wasn’t like what I had experienced during my first or second marathon, when I was present from beginning to end. It was different, and it wasn’t looking good. I simply didn’t care enough. Oh no, what to do?

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Marathon 2014 – My celebration of life (part 2)

I have a mental strategy for every long distance race I run, telling myself easy for the first quarter, steady for the middle half, and burn for the final quarter. So I was very focused on my pacing myself during the first 10k. I knew that the only way to make it through this race in my physical condition was to go much slower than I wanted to. In the beginning, everyone was passing me up and as a male-dominated race, this meant I almost got knocked over a couple of times (I later heard that one woman did get knocked to the ground at the start). But I refused to let the speed of others influence me. The sun was already bright but most of the time there was a gentle breeze. By the 5k point, the 3,000 runners had spread out enough that I had plenty of space and was at times even on my own during the first half. It was a countryside marathon that passed through numerous villages, so a very different experience from a city race. There is so much energy and hype in a city marathon like Chicago (my first), but this time, it was mostly quiet and peaceful, which is what I needed. I passed a small village around 7k and the locals were lining the streets and all cheered for me. At that point I got a little choked up at their kindness. Pull it together. I really enjoyed that first 10k and smiled and waved at everyone who came out to watch and cheer. In fact, I think I was smiling the whole time.

The next goal was to keep a steady pace until the halfway point. It was getting hotter and I started to regret not wearing sunscreen (sure enough, I got burnt). This was the quietest part of the race for me, but I didn’t mind. I knew I would be catching up with some of the others later on. I was feeling good and positive, but knew that the real challenge was still far off. I continued to smile and draw energy from the scattered spectators. Thankfully the water stations were well stocked (as opposed to Paris!) and so every 5 kilometers I picked up a bottle of water which more than lasted me to the next one. I was breezing by the kilometers and all was well.

I was happy to pass the halfway point. And that is when I started to catch up with people who were burning out. It was also just after the half way point that I saw the first “drop-out” vans. I ran past every one of these stations defiantly. No! Not going to drop out. Defiant, but also thankful that my body wasn’t shutting down and forcing me to quit. I just needed to make it to 30k and then the ultimate challenge would begin. Steady. Steady. During this section the pain started to set in. For a while my back was really hurting. Then my left knee. Then my right foot. There is always the possibility of injury and at the frequent medical stations from this point out there were always several people getting treated for one thing or another. But for me the localized pain came and went, or at least I forgot about it. Toward the end of this section, I really started to feel the burn in my legs.

I reached 30k still going strong and braced myself for the final stretch, knowing that it would hurt. But so far, I was feeling ok. Am I really running a marathon? Is this all it is? Yet I was starting to lose speed by this point and had to tell myself to stop thinking about the time. Still, my plan was to get to 35k and then go all out for the final 7. However, I was losing steam and around 35k I went into survival mode. I didn’t have enough left in me to burn so I resorted to just keep going. No more tracking my pace and my time, the goal was to just put one foot in front of the next. A lot of people were walking in these last kilometers, but I decided that no matter how slowly I was running, I wasn’t going to stop now. You knew it would be hard. You knew it would hurt. Just keep going. I let out some groans in those last kilometers, which seemed to stretch on forever. I tried to focus on reaching the next, and then the next. I convinced myself to rejoice in the fact that I was going to finish and not think about how slow I was going. Nausea set in and my last bottle of water fell out of my hand and onto the ground. One man said, “Just 500 meters left!” and I wanted to yell, “LIAR!!!” because we had not even passed the 41k mark yet.

During the final kilometer, there were a lot of people walking by, many of whom had already finished, encouraging us, “You’re going to finish.” “You’re almost there.” “It’s the last stretch.” “You’re doing great.” At this point was impossible to smile and wave and say “merci” to these kindhearted people, who were looking more like blurry movements on the sidelines. I just did my best to not scowl at them and simply keep moving forward. Finally onto the red carpet, slight acceleration and DONE!

I stepped to the side, leaned on a side rail for a few seconds and tried to catch my breath. Then I turned around, wiping away a few tears and started walking. Ouch. A woman placed a medal around my neck and I choked back tears again but still managed to say, “merci.” It’s over. I finally completed my second marathon. Thank you Jesus.

On the bus back to St. Malo, I met a man from Portland and we talked for the entire journey back. He had completed 42 marathons and was having a blast racing all over the world. We talked about many aspects of running, from injuries to adventure marathons. But one thing he said really stuck with me. “You know, whenever you tell another runner that you run marathons, they always ask about your time. They don’t even consider that your goal might not be time-based. I’m happy to run slower marathons as long as I’m enjoying the experience and I think that I’ll automatically get faster as I get stronger and more experienced. I just don’t want to be so focused on time that I no longer enjoy running.” His marathon goal is 7 continents and 50 states. Very cool.

That was inspiring to hear. I just need to keep going. Even though my training was sub-par this time around, I still ran 22 minutes faster than my first marathon in Chicago almost six years ago. I think that this is evidence that all of my training in-between has made me stronger. Experience also makes me stronger. And the process makes me stronger. I’m already registered for the Paris Marathon in April 2015 and I look forward to continuing this journey.

I will always remember my first marathon in Chicago when my dad and sister kept showing up at different points along the route and also at the finish. They really kept me going. So it meant a lot to me that they both followed my progress online for my second marathon as well, my dad in Indiana (6 hours behind) and my sister in Japan (7 hours ahead). So they still kept me going, even from a distance!

I am thankful for the opportunity to celebrate life this past weekend and for the experience of pushing through something that is really hard because I know that it will be worth it in the end. God refreshed my spirit in the process and reminded me that as long as I keep my eyes fixed on Jesus, I can endure whatever ups and downs still lie ahead on the roller-coaster of life.

Marathon 2014 – My celebration of life (part 1)

I’ve had my eye on the Marathon de la Baie du Mont St Michel for many years. But when I signed up for it a few months ago, I only allowed myself to do so by reasoning that I simply wouldn’t go “all out” this time. I couldn’t. It was March and I had already lost a month of training due to being sick and was about to head to India. So I told myself I’d resume training upon my return, but would make it my goal for this marathon to simply finish, even if I had to combine running and walking to do so.

Unfortunately, I came back from India very sick and lost over two more weeks of training as I recovered. When I was able to start running again, the marathon was only eight weeks out and every run was grueling as my body was still weak. Yet I pushed through and completed all of my runs. Until five and a half weeks later when I set out for the one and only 20-mile run that I had planned. Not even seven miles into it, I got so dizzy that I had to stop running and started walking home (2 miles away). But when I started losing vision, I knew I couldn’t trust myself to keep walking so I had to take a taxi, which I never do in Paris. The lingering dizziness prevented me from running a 10k race that I had planned to do with my dad who was visiting that weekend. As I stood on the sideline cheering him on, it seemed impossible to consider running a marathon in two weeks. Still, I wasn’t quite ready to give up. Maybe I could still do half of it and then drop out.

New strategy? Rest all week and then attempt a 10-mile run the next weekend. If all goes well, try to at least start the marathon. The 10-mile run was a bit sluggish but I felt ok afterwards. Of course, I still wanted to finish the marathon, but I was also keenly aware of my body’s physical limitations and didn’t want to abuse it beyond reason.

7_Plan_parcours_marathon_26_06_2013-300x241I had planned to arrive in Saint Malo two days before the marathon to have some time to relax and visit Mont Saint Michel, where the race would finish. This marathon is unique in that you can see the finish from the start and over the course of 26.2 miles you see Mont Saint Michel getting bigger and bigger.

I had no idea how much I needed to leave Paris until I had left. Leaving gave me time and space to reflect. And I started to recognize how many times I had been “knocked down” during the past five months, and not only physically. I was losing my physical, emotional and spiritual stamina. Most people would probably say I needed rest. But I knew that more than anything I needed a deep renewal and healing that comes only from God. And maybe throw in a marathon, too?

I also reflected upon my life since my first and only other marathon in Chicago in 2008. As soon as I finished, I said I wanted to do another one. And I tried several times. Yet I kept running into physical roadblocks, the most difficult one to swallow was a stress fracture that prevented me from running the Paris marathon last year after 17 weeks of training for it. At the same time, I have experienced many spiritual victories during these years. It really has been a roller-coaster ride; the highs are high and the lows are low, and often I feel whiplashed in the process.

Strategy revised yet again. Running this marathon would be a celebration of life, and a defiance of the Enemy’s constant attacks upon my being. Now I was determined to finish, not because I needed to prove anything, but as a metaphor for spiritual endurance.

“Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne.” Hebrews 12:1-2

The Mont Saint Michel landmark provides a point on which to focus throughout the course. So it brought a visual element to the “keeping our eyes on Jesus” part of this passage.

On Saturday, I spent the day at Mont Saint Michel. 1800+ stairs was perhaps not the best idea the day before a marathon, but I enjoyed my stroll through the abbey and along the ramparts. Then I hid away in a café to carb-load on spaghetti. On the ride back to Saint-Malo, where I was staying, the bus driver mentioned that the marathon was taking place the next day. He pointed out the start (in Cancale) and the finish (Mont Saint Michel) as we were somewhere in-between. It was a daunting sight. That is really far.

From there I went to the Expo to pick up my race bib and packet. And even though it was a full day, I think being out all day helped me to fall asleep that night. I slept for almost seven hours.

2014-05-25 08.15.48Sunday morning I was off by 6:30 a.m., took a shuttle to Cancale and prepared to take on the race. And so here I am at the start line: nervous yet optimistic. I didn’t yet know what was about to hit me.

 

 

Top Ten Things to do in Paris from a Local!

People often ask me what they should see when they come to Paris. Truth is, I feel incompetent to respond as my daily life here is far from the world of tourism, except for being annoyed with tourists ignoring the bike lanes! (Please, watch where you are walking!) 🙂 So I tend to think that people are better off doing a quick Google search for the top ten attractions to make the best use of their vacation time here. Although I have seen many of the touristic sights (mostly before I lived here), “what to see” really depends on your personal interests. There is so much to discover!

However, because some have insisted, here is my own list. If you shadow me for a few days, these are the activities you might find me doing, although some only on a rare occasion. But here’s a disclaimer: these activities are very specific to my life and interests! So they may or may not appeal to you. Also, since I have to live modestly in an expensive city, all of these activities are either free or quite affordable (10€ or less). I hope you will find something useful here.

  1. Go for a run (or walk or bike ride) in the Bois de Vincennes (or Bois de Boulogne)

2014-01-03 16.44.40It’s incredible that you can step just outside of the city and get lost in a 2500-acre park. Year round, I love running in the Bois de Vincennes. There are lakes, paths that stretch on for miles, plenty of trees, a castle, a floral garden, and a hippodrome. It’s a great place to go for a walk, run, bike ride, picnic, etc. In the summer, you can also catch free concerts in the Parc Floral (5€ to get in, then the concert is free). You can access the Bois de Vincennes from Metro line 1 (Chateau de Vincennes) or line 8 (Porte Dorée, Liberté).

However, I would recommend staying out of the park when it’s dark. The streets of both Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne are lined with prostitute caravans at night and this of course significantly changes the atmosphere from of a place of light, families and athletic energy in the daytime to a place of darkness and illegal activity at night.

  1. Stroll through the Belleville open market on a Tuesday or Friday morning

This is the market where I used to buy fresh produce almost weekly. It’s a bit of a jog from where I live but I took the time to go there because it seems to be the cheapest market in Paris. I could fill my caddy with fresh fruits and veggies for a mere 20€ – a real steal! It is also interesting culturally. Step inside and you will find yourself surrounded by Asians at one end and Arabs at the other, complete with multiple languages and clothing styles. Hold onto your wallet and be prepared to be shoved around a bit as you make your way through the crowd. While the prices are fixed, you would be wise to pick your own fruit, as sometimes the quality is less than desirable, especially when the merchants try to convince you of what to buy. If you exit the metro at Belleville (line 2 or 11) or Couronnes (line 2) on a Tuesday or Friday morning, you will find yourself in the market.

In my continued effort to “go green,” I now prefer the market at Bastille because there is an organic vendor where I can even find kale! More expensive yes, but for my health it’s worth it! Located near Metro Bastille, this market is open on Thursday and Sunday mornings.

  1. Rent a bike for a day

The Paris city bikes (Velib) are my primary means of transportation. For a resident, it’s super easy. You pay 39€ for the year and have 45 minutes free every time you check out a bike. The concept is brilliant: take a bike from one station, ride to your destination and return it to another station. So you never have to worry about your bike getting stolen and if a pedal falls off or a tire goes flat or if it starts down-pouring (I speak from experience!), you can simply park it at the nearest station and move on with another means of transportation. The downside to this system is that there is not always a bike or a free spot available when you need it. However, since there are stations all over the city, you can often find another one within a five-minute walk. A new option allows visitors to purchase short-term passes online in advance.

I should caution visitors to be careful while biking in Paris because traffic can be crazy, especially in the roundabouts. There are a lot of bike lanes, but pedestrians are often in the way and much of the time, you have to share a lane with the city busses, which aren’t very considerate at times. 😦 Because of this, there are certain streets that I try to avoid when on a bike, and I always expect that I’m invisible to most of the traffic out there. I now know Paris quite well and can get around easily on a bike. However, I got lost a lot in the beginning. It’s hard to navigate the streets with a map and still be cautious of the traffic. Getting around on the metro is much easier and straightforward for visitors.

However, biking is a great way to see the city if you’re up for the challenge. Guided bike tours are another good option. Check out Bike About Tours and Fat Tire Bike Tours. I have never used these services, but when I see people on the tours, they seem to be enjoying themselves!

  1. Visit a French church

If you’re in Paris on a Sunday and would like to experience a thriving French church, consider attending one of the services at the Eglise Protestante Unie du Marais at 17, rue Saint-Antoine in the 4th arrondissement (in-between Metro stops Bastille and Saint-Paul). The Sunday services are at 10:30am, 5:30pm and 7:30pm. You can try out your French here, but you will be sure to find some English speakers as well.

  1. Have a picnic in one of the beautiful parks in Paris

You can easily stop in a grocery store and pick up cheese, wine, fruits and veggies and some bread from a bakery (boulangerie) for a simple picnic in a park. Some of my favorite picnic spots are: Luxembourg, Buttes Chaumont, and Champs de Mars. On July 14 (the France national holiday) and on New Year’s Eve you can also see fireworks at the Eiffel Tower.

  1. Have a tea or coffee at the top of the Montparnasse Tower

Most tourists go up the Eiffel tower for the view, but if you would like a more classy experience with a panoramic view of the city, I recommend the Ciel de Paris restaurant, at the top of the Montparnasse Tower. It’s free to access the restaurant, but the service is expensive. So on occasion I’ll go up at around 3pm (when it’s not too busy) and order a tea. It will be pricey, but if it’s clear out, you’ll have a great view! And it’s still less than a ticket to go up the Eiffel Tower. It reminds me of the Signature Room at the top of the John Hancock Center in Chicago, which I always suggested as an alternative to the Sears Tower (sorry, I still can’t refer to it by that other silly name).

  1. Visit the Pavé d’Orsay

A little art gallery on a side street in a chic quarter, the Pavé d’Orsay hosts art showings, concerts, acting workshops and other events to promote emerging artists. Check out what’s on and stop in for a visit, especially if you’re in the area visiting the Musée d’Orsay or the Louvre.

  1. Explore the Paris cemeteries

2013-01-02 13.16.40The cemeteries in Paris can redefine an American’s concept of a graveyard. You can almost get lost amidst the tombstones. Whenever I stroll through one of these cemeteries, I always discover so many interesting things, from the old sculptures to the recent pictures and inscriptions. You can also find the graves of many famous people in Paris.

  1. Attend a concert or opera

Catching a concert or opera will take some planning in advance (if you want to get a ticket for a decent price), but most tickets you can buy online and then print out, so it’s simple to do from a distance. There are two opera houses, the old famous one (Garnier) and the newer one (Bastille). The latter hosts most of the opera productions and the older one is where ballets generally take place. For shows at either location, check out the Paris opera website. Ticket sales open on a specific day for each production and if you reserve the same day, you can get tickets for as little as 5€ (although you may have an obstructed view at this price). For orchestral and other classical music, check out these two concert halls: Theatre des Champs-Elysees and Salle Pleyel. And for a vast array of concerts and other shows in Paris, look for tickets at this site.

  1. Get a falafel in the Marais

It’s a bit hidden away, but it’s definitely worth finding for an excellent falafel. You can sit in or pay less for take-away. It’s called “L’As du Fallafel” and is located at 34, rue des Rosiers, 75004, Paris. The closest metro stop is Saint Paul on line 1.

Now for the more touristic things to do in Paris, please ask google!

Qatar

When buying an airplane ticket to India a few months ago, I had a difficult decision to make: should I pay $200 less and endure an 8-hour layover at the Doha airport on my return? Normally, it wouldn’t be worth it. But I was tempted by the location of my layover, and the idea of getting out of the airport and exploring a new country during that time. After all, Qatar isn’t a place I frequent regularly, nor one I anticipate visiting anytime soon.

I conducted some preliminary research on possibilities. Would I even be able to leave the airport? I learned that visitors could buy a visa at the airport upon arrival and it seemed that the city center wasn’t too far.

So in the name of “saving money,” I took the ticket with a long layover, even though I knew I might end up spending what I saved on financing my little adventure. A few days before leaving for India, I searched some more, and I made a plan. I would buy a visa upon my early morning arrival, take a taxi to the city center, get breakfast somewhere (hopefully along the coast), take the Doha hop on/hop off bus around the city, and then get a taxi back to the airport. I started to add up the costs and realized that the expense was getting more extravagant than I had anticipated. And yet since I was carrying my violin and laptop, I knew I wouldn’t want to roam the city on foot for hours. So the day before leaving India for my return flight, I decided to google “Doha city tours” just to see if I might come up with a better option. The result was an unexpected surprise: Qatar Airways offers Free City Tours to Transit Passengers.

It looked too good to be true. And why didn’t I see it earlier? Aha – the article was published just last week, when I was already on my way to India. I found the press release on the website of Qatar Airlines but there wasn’t a whole lot of information there. What time were the tours? Would I still have to buy a visa? Was it really free? I figured that it was worth a try. This service appeared to be new, and it seemed official enough.

I was pleasantly surprised on all accounts. I arrived in Doha at 6:30am and quickly found the “Qatar Airways Doha City Tours” counter. They took my passport and boarding pass, registered my information and told me to be back at 7am for a 7:15 departure. Just enough time to use the restroom and get a little cash out of an ATM.

There were only eight of us taking the tour on this cool morning and we were shuttled to the arrivals terminal and given a card to present at immigration. There our passports were stamped with a 24-hour visa and we paid nothing. Then we were escorted out to a comfy mini-bus where we had more than enough room to spread out. We were told we could leave our carry-on items on the bus whenever we stopped; they would be looked after.

An English-speaking guide led us through the city on a nearly 3-hour tour, and in the end we took the same route as the hop on/hop off bus that would have cost me $50 for a one-day pass. We stopped many times along the route to take pictures and walk around. The brisk morning air and opportunity to walk without carrying my luggage helped to combat the fatigue I was feeling from losing a night of sleep. They even provided us with cold bottles of water. Extra points, Qatar Airways!

Doha was impressive. Most of the city has been built in the last couple of decades and the architecture is fascinating. It’s the most modern Arabic country I’ve seen. At the end of the tour, we had 25 minutes to explore the souk (market), which I found to be very chic compared to what I have seen elsewhere. Also more expensive. The dress is different here, too, with men wearing a white thobe (a long white gown) and the women in all black, sporting a shayla (headdress) and abayha (long dress). The coast was especially beautiful, and when I saw people out running it made me feel nostalgic for the Chicago lakefront. Our tour guide also told us that 75 percent of the population in Qatar is made up of ex-pats that have come to work, and only 25 percent is women.

He also told me that these special transit tours have only been operating for a month, and that sometimes no one shows up. However, even if only one person signs up they will run the tour. The most they have had so far is 22 people at a time. They are hoping that it generates more interest. Other passengers told me that they had discovered the tour by chance, as they wandered the airport trying to kill time. I think that Qatar airlines needs to increase their publicity for this service, both on their website and in-flight. Maybe that’s coming. The press release was already a good move, but not everyone researches things like I do.

So, hats off to Qatar Airlines. This tour was perfectly planned for transit passengers with a 5-12 hour layover at the Doha airport. The convenience and ease that they offered would have totally been worth a fee of $50 or more. I felt like a VIP customer when in reality the free tour was available to me because I opted for the ticket that saved me $200. After the tour, I was happy to settle down for two more hours at a coffee shop where I took advantage of the airport’s free Wifi.

If you ever have the opportunity, don’t miss this experience! Thank you Qatar Airways!

2014-03-13 07.21.252014-03-13 07.01.002014-03-13 08.05.18 2014-03-13 07.16.222014-03-13 09.11.31

Serbia

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy trip to Serbia in July 2010 is easy to write about because to date, it represents the quickest visit that I’ve made to a country.

However, let me inject here that in order to count a country on my list of countries visited, there are certain conditions that need to be fulfilled. For example, an airport stopover doesn’t count unless I actually leave the airport.

My mother and I have an ongoing country-visiting competition between us. She is ahead, but of course, she also has 30 years on me. But a few years ago she was visiting me in Romania and we spent a day in Oradea with my colleagues. When one of my colleagues mentioned that we were only miles away from the Hungary border, my mom got all giddy about the possibility of adding another country to her list. My colleague was all too happy to drive to the border, get our passports stamped, and continue on for about five minutes on a narrow road in Hungary and then turn around.

For me, that’s pushing the rules a bit. It doesn’t really count. At least one purchase needs to be made, and at least some contact with the locals.

But perhaps I’m hypocritical in this assessment because I felt the same giddiness when staying with a friend in Romania very close to the Serbian border. “Can we go to Serbia?” I asked. “Why?” My friend replied. “There’s nothing to see there.” “Just because,” I replied. “I want to see anyway!”

Thankfully, she was up for a quick adventure. We decided to try to squeeze in a visit before I needed to catch a train back to Cluj. So we set out and thankfully, we got through the border with little drama. We spent about a half hour there before turning around. But, to make the visit authentic, we did two important things: we took a picture at the border and we made a purchase. It was hot at the time, so we bought and ate an ice cream. It wasn’t great ice cream, certainly not something to go back for, but I guess you could say we tasted something of the local cuisine.

The most memorable part of the visit, however, was when we got back to the border. On the Serbian side, there was a long wait to get through customs and back into Romania. I have no idea why. But we had a great conversation while waiting, discussing our futures and faith and big decisions. In the end we waited for about two hours, and, consequently, I missed my train back to Cluj. Oh well, it was worth it!

Disturbed

Unsettled, bothered, disgusted, saddened, struck, angered, outraged, confused.

This just begins to describe how I feel after spending a weekend in the Red-light district of Amsterdam. I stayed with an inspiring inter-faith community that strategically lives in the middle of Amsterdam’s sex scene with the intention of being a light in a spiritually dark place. From a window I could see sex theatres advertising “live porn” shows and the street lined with prostitutes posing in windows, and sidewalks swarming with tourists. There were an uncomfortable number of groups of men on the streets. If you only saw the tourists and nothing else, you might think you’re in any major city. However, many tourists on those streets were there for porn shows instead of museums and were buying sex instead of souvenirs. I didn’t take any pictures. I couldn’t.

Disturbed simply to be there in the midst of the scene.

Unsettled because this is not the way things are supposed to be and I don’t feel like I can walk down the street and accept any of this as normal.

Bothered at how “legal” seems to usher in “acceptable.”

Disgusted at the way the men gawk at the women, objectifying God’s beautiful creation as a quick fix for their lust.

Saddened, because the glass she stands behind looks to me like a prison wall.

Struck, because I don’t want to accept that this scene is a reality.

Angered at the distortion of God’s creation and his good gift of sex.

Outraged by the knowledge that most of the women are not there by choice.

Confused because I don’t know how to swallow this and move on. My heart cannot understand.

I’ll never forget the shock I felt when I first entered the red-light district of Chicago to walk the streets and minister to the women. I came home to my dorm in the middle of the night when everyone was sleeping and sat in the lounge for hours trying to process what I had just seen. I never became comfortable in that context, but as I heard the stories of women and encountered both police and pimps, I felt like I started to understand the horror and slavery of their lives. It was a very dark place and there was a certain secrecy to all that was happening. What I didn’t realize at the time was the way in which the darkness reassures you that what’s happening isn’t right. In the midst of so much heartbreak, the darkness brought a strange sense of comfort, because when light shone, it rebuked the deeds of darkness and they fled.

Now on the train back to Paris, I find myself again trying to process what I have experienced, although it feels like a completely new experience, primarily because of how everything is done in broad daylight in Amsterdam, as simply another tourist attraction. Even the darkness of night is shooed away by the many streetlights and red lights in the windows. People swarm the streets, laughing and joking and getting wasted. Prostitution is part of a big party scene, and because it’s legal, no one is hiding. All of this disturbed me. Deeply.

I don’t have a personal solution for my reaction, and in fact, I hope it doesn’t go away. Instead, may it motivate prayer for God’s Kingdom come and action for justice. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!