Life · Travel

The runner

Photo by Chiara Caldarola on

I had remembered for years the quick 30 minutes I met the Runner. It was indeed not a dramatic story, but I remembered him for some reason. I even remembered what he was wearing, blue soccer shorts, a tank top in the same color with a big obnoxious marathon number tag. He barely had any hair left. The guy was practically bald with a few strings of blonde hair. In his bright blue outfit, he carried a backpack in one arm and a coat in the other. He was trying to squeeze through the aisle and the bunch of people on the train to find a seat. I saw him passing by me, looking left and right. He probably left to another wagon to find an empty bench with both seats empty. The train was getting quieter with the freshly arrived people started to settle down on their seats. I finally could come back to my book.

Then the Runner came back to my wagon. He whispered politely next to me.

“Excuse me, can I sit next to you?”

I put down my book. From the corner of my eye, I quickly glanced all over the wagon real quick. There was no other seat but the one next to me.

“Yeah, sure.” I picked up my backpack on the chair and put it down on the floor right by my feet.

“Thank you, thank you very much.” The Runner said to me while throwing his backpack to the overhead above us. He sat down next to me, getting himself comfortable.

I couldn’t help but stare at him. He caught me staring. I had no choice but to ask.

“Aren’t you cold?”

He was wearing shorts and a tank top. It wasn’t freezing cold but it was still autumn. It was chilly out.

He laughed. “A little, I was still full of adrenaline so I don’t feel much. Maybe I’ll be freezing in a little.”

“Adrenaline from running?” I connected the dots.

“Yeah. I just did the Amsterdam marathon. Amazing event!” He raised his voice in excitement.

“Like today? The marathon was today?” I closed my book completely, wondering “I was there, didn’t see anything.”

“You didn’t know? It was a big thing.” He shifted his legs, trying to stretch them straight “I traveled every year to run that marathon.”

“Oh wow, from where?”

“London,” he pointed at the little English flag on his marathon tank top. “This year, I finally finished the marathon.”

“Oh, I see,” I nodded then I suddenly realized what he just said “You said you finally finished the marathon this year. You didn’t finish before?”

“Nope.” The runner smiled “Never before, but I finally did it this year. I ran all the way to the finish line.”

“Wow. So all the years before you didn’t finish the race? and you still came?”

“Yeah. How else can I know I was better than last year if I didn’t come?”

He was right. My eyes were wide open for a second before they blinked in curiosity. It was that simple. The reason to not come was never as good as the reason to come so he came. Sometimes, that was just it.

“Tell me about the other times you joined the marathon. How far did you get?”


Every time I moved

Source: Nubia Navarro

I have lived on three different continents, visited many countries. Even in the US, I lived in multiple different states. All before the age of 30. For 10 years, I moved apartments 10 times. When I was little, a fortune teller said I had “walking legs”. I just had to keep going places. I didn’t mind. Who had that many chances in life to go as many places as I did? Very few people. Who had the opportunities to just pick up and leave like that? Rarely anyone. I was happy being on the road, on the flight and on the move. My young days were busy and wild.

But I got tired.

There was a difference between visiting somewhere and moving somewhere. The benefits of living at a new place, everyone already knows: learning the cultures, getting to know people, starting with a clean slate…And the disadvantages of moving to new places were hard work and loneliness.

I was a professional house packer. I could pack my whole room in one afternoon, my one-bedroom apartment in one full day. All the boxes would be labeled. I knew all the moving tricks in the book. My furniture was all collapsible or could be dissembled. Blankets and bedsheets were at the bottom so the dishes and plates could be on top, wrapped in the bedding. I only bought the medium-sized boxes from U-Haul. They were a more comfortable size and they were the only size that had handles for easier handling. I carried those heavy boxes down three flights of stairs. I cleared out everything that I thought I could buy back easily. Even things that had emotional values were minimized through times. If someone gave me something this year and I loved it, I would keep it for this year and move with it. But then the next time I moved, it didn’t mean as much to me anymore and I let it go. Every time I moved and cleaned out the house was a time I parted with a little bit of my past. I had no choice. I didn’t have enough space in my car, in my boxes, and probably in my heart.

Source: Bruno Thethe

I wasn’t a cool, in-the-wind person. I didn’t just pack up and move because one day I realized I had to be out there instead of here. Sometimes I chose, but most of the times, life pushed me that way. I went to high school in one state and then college in another. I had my first job in another town. Then my second job was at another state. It kept going like that. I left because there were something else in my future that was waiting for me somewhere else. It was not because I was tired of where I was. And that meant I left so many good people behind. It took me days, weeks, months to get to know people, to build my life at one place. I enjoyed my life and all the companies I made along the way. But when I left, I knew I had to leave. The people I met weren’t like me. Rarely anyone had the opportunities to wander around the country and the Earth like I did. Years after I left, they were still where I met them. They still had coffee from the local shop that had been there for the last 10 years. They would still drive on the same road to work everyday. They lived their lives like they belonged to the place and I was just a vagabond that passed by.

Moving to a new place meant starting over. When I moved for a job, I had something to do during the days and nothing on the weekends. I made trips to the malls and the theater on my own. I didn’t mind. I knew that was how it was. And then some more days, weeks and months more before I could substitute those alone trips with friends gathering. Renting a house was easy. Building new friendships were difficult. Don’t believe anything TV shows depicted about how people saw you one day and you immediately became friends. Everyone needed time to build liking, and then trust, and then friendship. And I never had enough time to stay for the very long run. I had to go.

And I got tired.

This time I moved and I found someone special. This person was a little harder for me to just leave and walk away. This person helped me carrying the boxes when we moved from one apartment to another. This person traveled places with me. We packed our bags to go on trips that lasted for days. But we always came back home. I bought normal furniture without having to worry about whether or not the piece was collapsible. When I bought a kitchen tool, I didn’t have to worry about how to pack it later. Maybe, this time I would stay a little longer. I was tired of the road anyway.


Winter in Maine

5 Reasons You Should Never Live in Maine During the Winter
Source: Q97.9

I lived in Maine for a few years. In fact, I went to high school in Maine, a small boarding high school. When I was there, I couldn’t wait to get out of Maine. It was cold most time of the year. There was nothing much to do but miles and miles of ocean with lighthouses, and one country road after another leading to nowhere. I spent hours and days sitting on a rock by the freezing beaches or in an empty gazebo watching water flowing in a small stream near school. I was born and raised in a big city. So a small town near the Easternmost point of Maine wasn’t enough for me.

I left for a career in environment, thanks to Maine. I didn’t think back about Maine much unless it was memories about all the friends and people I met there. Those, I cherished dearly. Maine to me was only memory, not much of a destination. Until, years later, I lived in New York and people told me it was expensive to fly to Maine. Not outrageously, but way more expensive than another destination with the same distance. I was honestly wondering why. There was nothing there to do, except sight seeing nature, lobster fishing, visiting lighthouses and may be passing by Stephen King’s house. Apparently, those were exactly why people visit Maine. They wanted to see nature, not big crowded cities. Back then, I did all those activities too often that I just thought they were too mundane to even mentioned.

If you ever heard people said that Maine was beautiful, they were absolutely right. If you wanted nature, Maine was gorgeous. It had a beauty of both the rows and rows of leaves changing color trees and the calm endless oceans with undisturbed beaches.

During winter, Maine was a winter wonderland. Not the same type with New York, where it was bright, lively and lit up with people singing carols on the street. Maine winters were frozen lakes and snow covered pine trees. Whenever I could wake up early to see the sun rise, I always tried to do it during the winter. The sun reflected off the frozen mirror-like ice made the whole ice shimmered.

Maine Winter - Summer in Winter - Down East magazine
Source: Down East Magazine

Maine winters were the silent roads lit with a few street lights. It was the warm cup of cocoa in your hands while watching snow silently fell on your neighbors’ roofs. It was waking up and seeing everything around you changed in one night. Everything was covered deep in snow. Before getting back to the digging-your-car-out-of-snow reality, you would get a few moments of the quite scene of snow falling. Not the ugly thin layer of snow that still left the ground exposed the gray asphalt, but the deep white powdery snow that looked like powdered sugar. With that type of snow, skiing was a must. All the hills and mountains that were just there during all other seasons, now serve a better purpose.

Snowy streets of Portland, Maine | Maine winter
Source: Corey Templeton

I would wear my snow boots and walked like a penguin (that was how Mainers taught me to walk in the snow so I wouldn’t fall on slippery spots) to a brewery. There was one thing cold places in America shared – drinking. Asked the Midwesterners what they do in the winter and they would tell you the same. I left Maine too long ago to know what exactly was going on there nowadays. But I heard breweries there are popping up like mushrooms after a rain. Again, cold place and drinking.

So if you have the gut to handle the snow, visit Maine during the winter. And may be you’ll find out why Stephen King wrote stories that were horrifyingly beautiful.


Oil and water will never mix

I met a Lao guy at a truck stop. I was on an eleven-hour long bus ride from New York City to Niagara Falls. The bus stopped somewhere between Syracuse and Rochester. I lost track of where I was. Outside of New York City, every suburbs in America looked the same. All I cared for was a breath of fresh air and a cup of sugary McDonald’s iced coffee. Laos guy approached me when I was chugging my coffee. He said hi, asking me what I was doing in a truck stop all the way out there. I told him I was on a trip to Niagara Falls. Just a quick stop here. I avoided eyes contact hoping this encounter would end soon.

Water exists in three forms: gas, liquid and solid. Oil exists mainly in liquid form. It does not crystallize or evaporate in nature. In daily life, both water and oil can exist in the common form of liquid.

He told me he was a truck driver and that stop was along his route. I nodded and took another sip of my coffee. You know I would have never thought I would be a truck driver one day, he said. He paused, taking a sip from his big red soda cup. I thought that conversation was over, the same way all conversations-with-strangers awkwardly ended in silence. I offered a polite smile and about to walk away.

Where are you from?, he asked just when I was about to turn away.

I looked at him. Out of all the places I had lived and could claim, I’m from Vietnam, I replied. I knew that was the right answer.

I’m Lao, he said. I didn’t need him to introduce himself to know he was at least southeast Asian. He was short with a short nose. His straight black hair was riddled with patches of gray hair. His eyes were monolid with wrinkles at the endpoint, looking like cracked lands.

So we were neighbors, huh?, he said. How do you like it here?

I understood what he meant by here. Us people, we all knew what that meant. I shook my head a little with my shoulder shrugged. It’s ok I guess.

I have been here for 32 years, he said. I didn’t have to ask him for anything else before he started talking on his own. He ran his hand through his hair, not to fix it, but just to had something for his awkward arms to do. I hate it here.

Water is made up of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. There is an uneven distribution of charge across the water molecule: a partial negative charge from its oxygen atom and partial positive charges on its hydrogen atoms. This makes water molecules polar. Especially in liquid form, water is polar and tends to only mix with other polar molecules.

He has moved to the US with his family since he was a young man. In his early twenty, it was a tough time but everything was so bright back then. He thought America was the place to be. Everyone in Laos talked about it. Everyone wanted to be here. His family was one of the few lucky ones that got to come over thanks to some US policies for ex US-pro veterans fighting in the Indochina. The sky looked brighter in the US. The sun was shining and even in the winter, the snow made it seemed even brighter.

His family was struggling here because everything was different. He didn’t have many education opportunities so he worked manual labor jobs. They were not bad, quite fun actually, decent money, he said about his old jobs. Then a friend showed him a long-distance truck driving gig and he has been driving trucks since then. Trucking made very good money, but there was a price to pay.

Oil are nonpolar. They are not attracted to the polarity of other molecules. In fact, oils are hydrophobic, which means water fearing. Oils are not only not attracted to water, but also repelled by them.

Lao guy was married once. His wife was pretty and his children were adorable. They were married for a while before he started trucking. His wife was happy when he decided to be a truck driver. The money was good, he explained. They even gathered enough money to buy a house in Florida. That’s the place that everyone wants to own a house and I did it, he smiled. But he lost his wife. Driving truck, he came home once a month. He barely saw her, didn’t even meet his children. And she left him. In the end, money wasn’t enough to keep love from dying.

Oil and water can't be mixed. They share the same liquid form in nature, but they are different in basic characteristics. When oil is added to a cup of water, the two won't mix. Oil will stays within its own and floats on top of water.

It’s not easy here, you know, he said to me after a moment of silence, breaking away from the life story.

Yeah, I replied, I know.

I used to think it is better here. But I’m so lonely, he said. He put his hand into his jeans pocket and shuffled his feet. I have nobody waiting for me at home, so I work. He pointed at a big blue truck in the lot, telling me that was his home then. It’s even lonelier being alone in the truck, he said softly as a whisper.

Maybe, I don’t belong here, he scratched his head. It’s easier to make money but I’m different, he tapped on his chest then pointed at me, we are different. We would never be treated the same.

How long have you been here? he asked

Close to ten years, I replied.

It has been 32 for me, he said.

I nodded and we both took a sip from our cups in silence. I didn’t know what to say to that. I didn’t know how to react to a life story of a stranger I happened to encounter at a truck stop. The randomness caught me off guard.

Some elements can dissolve into each other or react to each other after a certain period of time. The reactivity levels of the elements depend on their basic characteristics. However, water and oil will not mix and dissolve into each other despite time. When oil is added to a cup of water, it will not dissolve into water regardless how much time passed.

Lao guy didn’t say anything for a little while. I still stood there. I stared at the blue truck, wondering how far that thing had gone.

Uhm…can I have your number? Just like a friend to talk sometimes. He clumsily pulled out a piece of crumbled note from his shirt pocket and handed it to me.

How could you say no to a person who bared their souls to you?

Yeah. I took the note from him and he passed me a pen. I scribbled down then handed it back to him.

My bus was about to get back on the road. I realized that and said bye to him quickly. I ran away.

I saw him waving at me while I ran out the station.

I gave him a fake number.


A little difference in GOAT

In Vietnamese, goat as an animal is called “dê” (read like /ye/). “Dê” also means being perverted. From what I knew, the goats themselves had never did anything to deserve having such adjective as their names or having their names being associated with such adjective. But it is what it is. So if you ever visit Vietnam and try to learn the language, keep in mind that the adjective version of goat in Vietnamese does NOT mean Greatest Of All Time.

There’s to a super short writing on the fun things of languages.


Pigeons in NYC Parks

Do you like pigeons? Have you ever wanted a scene like in the movie in which you run toward a bunch of pigeons and they all beautifully fly away? Do you like the symbol of peace? If you do, then you should take a trip to New York City. (Venice is also an acceptable choice, but that’s international flying – pun intended.)

Photo by Tim Mossholder from Pexels

There are a few animals we can see in the wilderness of urban cities: dogs, cats, squirrels etc…but they are all owned by some other people or they would possibly bite you (despite how cute they are). You have to ask for permission to pet them. The only safe-to-approach animals that you are free to come close in a city is pigeons. Also, you can only approach them if you are around walking, not driving and not riding. And no city in the US would force you to walk around as much as New York City.

We have pigeons in every park of this city, from Central Park in Manhattan to a small little community park in Queens. For some reasons, pigeons love New York City. Many of them would stay in New York City even in the winter. They are still around as long as you are. To quote Danny Castellano from the Mindy Project: “I like pigeons. They are free to leave but they choose to stay here in New York all winter long. Unlike those other coward birds.”

Source: The Pigeon Insider

Not all pigeons are the same. Genetically speaking, pigeons in different places have different genetic makeups. They may look similar enough to each other that they are recognizably pigeons but on a genomic level, they are not the same. For example, though not too far apart, NYC and Boston’s pigeons do not share the same genetic makeup *. Pigeons are homebodies. They tend to stay within a hundreds feet of where they were born. Just because they can fly, doesn’t mean they would fly far away from home. That’s why NYC pigeons are signature to the geographic limits of NYC and the Virginia and Connecticut region.

According to no scientifically accurate source, NYC pigeons are most often unfraid of people and chubby. About the chubby part, it’s hard to avoid when they live in a city that is famous for their pizzas. I can say with an almost guarantee that if they are street animals in New York City, they have tasted pizzas. For some strange reasons, people threw away their pizzas on the street and into the subway quite a bit in NYC. Pigeons and rats are not particularly picky animals. They eat what they can find.

About the part of them not being afraid humans, they are truly not. Do you know how in movies, when you casually walk towards a bunch of pigeons, they would panickingly fly away? Yeah, not in New York City. As long as you don’t dash towards them like a crazy person, they will casually walk next to you and won’t even bother avoiding you. If you don’t want to step on a pigeon, you have to avoid them. They are the kings of the parks. Just like New Yorkers, NYC pigeons just don’t give a damn.

Source: Giphy

Things go both ways here. Pigeons are not afraid of people and some New Yorkers love pigeons (the rest are just not bothered by them). There are quite a few pigeons whisperers in NYC. It doesn’t have to be one of those “famous” people that you heard about through the internet but when you visit the city, you would never see them. The whisperers are actually everywhere, especially during summer. You just need to go to a big park and you would see them casually sitting on benches and surrounded by a bunch of pigeons.

In Washington Square Park

One of the most famous pigeon lovers of the city is the NYC pigeon lady. If you want to find a true advocate for pigeons, she is the one.

That was a lot of reasons for you to like NYC pigeons. So, how about a trip to New York City to see our chubby pigeons eat pizzas?


Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I was waiting in line for a food truck when Martin called me telling me he would be visiting New York soon and that we should meet up. “Of course,” I told him.

Knowing Martin, before he even came, I already knew what we would do: drinking and seeing a play. I liked theaters. I even worked part-time at one for four years just so I could see all the plays for cheaper. But Martin, he was a true enthusiast. He chose a little different path career-wise later in life. But the Martin I met in college was a guy who did theater in high school, major/minor in theater at college, hung out with theater peers and went all out crazy for Halloween.

When Martin was in NYC, one day, he called me while I was at work telling me he won the Broadway lottery. Playing the Broadway lottery was one of the ways to get Broadway tickets for much cheaper. Since classic Broadway performance could easily be a couple hundred. I couldn’t believe Martin won the lottery within the 3 days he stayed in NYC. The pair of tickets were for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I watched Johnny Depp’s Sweeney Todd but never saw the original Broadway show.

The show was at Greenwich House Theater. In theory, a show that was not on Broadway street area of Midtown, was called an “off Broadway” show. But in my mind, as long as they were in the vicinity of Manhattan, they were Broadway regardless. For many classic Broadway shows, the theaters in which the show happened were specially designed and reserved for only that show for the whole period the show was running. Greenwich House was one of those theaters. It was dedicated only for Sweeney Todd for more than a year the show was in town. The building interior was designed to feel like a small, old school, run-down diner/shop. Without the faded small sign in front and the address printed on your ticket, it would be impossible to tell that the building was a theater. It looked like a normal house.

Pic credit:

In front of the theater, there placed an old school barber chair.

The auditorium itself was set up like a diner/pie shop. There were big rectangular tables and audiences sat around the tables, not in rows like traditional theaters. There was no lifted stage. Everything was set up on the same ground level, giving audiences the feel of authenticity. I always thought that stage set up and design was genius. The tickets Martin won was top-notch. We got to sit right by the staircases. We were so close to it that if Martin stretched out his legs, they would definitely touch the stairs.

Why to See Sweeney Todd | NYC's Best Off-Broadway Show
Pic credit: Kickerbocker Hotel

The important point that made Sweeney Todd at Greenwich House stood out was that the show was immersive, making it more like an experience than just a simple show. Actors and actresses stood so close to you, you could hear them breathing, see their sweats and their clothes sometimes even brushed by your arms. In the middle of the songs, sometimes they would jump on audiences’ tables, running between them and yelling their lines at you.

There was a moment, an actor jumped on my table, in front of me and yelled at me “Do you? Do you? Do you?”. I knew it was part of the song but the fact that someone intensely yelled at you made me for a second confused about whether or not I should reply. I glanced at Martin for help and he shook his head real quick.

The singing was outstanding, needless to say. It was true Broadway. Martin was beaming with excitement watching the actors stomping on the stage and the tables. I could not stop smiling in amaze. When the performance was so close to you, you felt a rush no upstage performance could compare. I have seen quite a few musical performances, but Sweeney Todd at Greenwich House was still the best experience I had ever had with musicals. And I had Martin to thank for.

This post was a post for the Discover Prompt day 10: Orchestrate


St. Louis Gateway Arch

Video credit:

I spent 5 years living in the Midwest and I’ve been to St. Louis many times. The Arch was one of those landmarks that sounded silly until you saw it with your own eyes. When you heard people said “the tallest man-made monument in the US”, you heard it but you couldn’t fully imagine it. When you stood underneath the Arch, in the beautiful park, on a sunny Spring day, you just felt grand.

I had to admit, I have never been inside the arch. And to be honest, I didn’t know you can be inside the arch until the 3rd time I visited St. Louis. I heard there was a museum exhibit inside which you could take a tram all the way up to the top. Sometimes, you could also get a package deal that included a cruise on the riverfront. Personally, I couldn’t find the connection between activities in that package.

I lived in New York City and had never been inside the Statue of Liberty. I have been to St. Louis many times and had never been inside the Arch. I believed architectural monumental should be taken in as a whole. How could you see the magnificent curve of the Arch if you were standing inside looking out through a window? It would just be nothing, but a simple very high window.

Years ago, I was doing a road trip with a friend to St. Louis. He worked in St. Louis before and he knew places. He took me to this park on the west side of the city. I couldn’t remember the name or the location of that park anymore. But from the top level of the park auditorium, here was the Arch in full view and glory. Nobody was ever there. You got to enjoy the Arch and the river all on your own. On a Spring day, with the wind blowing through your hair and the sun shining down glimmering the river, the view was nothing short of astonishing.


The waterfall in Kyiv’s sewer

My travel has become stranger but also more exciting over the years. The kind that when I told people, they were both “What the hell?” and “That’s so cool.” The kind of stories that were neat to tell your bartenders but not your parents, for a wide variety of reasons.

When I visited Ukraine, the first thing I did was going on a tour of Kyiv’s sewer system. Tour guy called our little excursion “urban exploration”, while in the US, we would call those trespassing on public property. But when a Kyiv local told you that it was “totally fine” and legal, you had to take his word for it.

The toxic waste green colored boots tour guy gave me were strangely both too loose and too tight. My legs were swimming in the empty space and did not touch the leg panels of the boots in any direction. Thankfully, there were these strings to hold the boots up, so I tried to tie those around my thighs as snuggly as possible, and I could start feeling the blood flow being cut off around my left thigh. With the risk of tripping in the sewage, one thing I didn’t understand was why I chose to wear a white sweater that morning. I stood out from the other tour participants, not in a good way of course.

I lifted up an unmarked sewer lid on the side of the road to climb down the sewer. That was as wild and ghetto as it got and made me wonder about the legitimacy of this again. The sewer was pitch black but surprisingly clean. No rat or cockroach ran around like in the movies. Besides the quiet murmuring of water, it was all a dense silence. The space smelled like soil after a spring rain, earthy, cool and refreshing. Tour guy spoke, and his voice echoed, bouncing off all the walls in the narrow pathway. Most of the time, I couldn’t see him at all. But still, I trustfully trailed along the voice that echoed in the dark.

Tour guy said he had a special treat for us and we should follow him closely. We shined our flashlights in the dark cramped alley, seeing nothing but the back of the person in front and followed his footsteps. Nobody wanted to be left in a sewer in Ukraine. We all tried to enjoy the strange view while still keeping an ear out for instructions. And then I heard the splashing sound of water crashing on cement. The little flashlight shined my eyes onto a rainfall waterfall that dropped right from above into a big circular empty space that livened up the dead silence of the hallway. The splash of water stream bounced off the walls while glistening under the flashlights. It took my breath away. At the end of the tunnel of a part of the human civilization that people often forgot, here was this astonishing waterfall that awoke all the senses. The drop of water from the November rain waterfall landed on my hand. I closed my palm. The little things in life, the hidden things in life, they shined.