You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2009.

It’s been one hell of a year, hasn’t it? In 365 days, I’ve been to nine countries on two continents, held down my first post-college job and baked hundreds of chocolate chip cupcakes. It’s been a good year.

I kicked off 2009 in Seoul, braving frigid temperatures alongside thousands of Koreans. There were fireworks and cotton candy and lots of policemen in storm trooper suits. Suffice it to say that the insanity of New Year’s Eve 2009 set the tone for the rest of the year. This was the year to explore the world, to figure out my limits and push them and to grow in ways I wouldn’t have been able to in America.

You’d think that the travel bug would be kicked by now, but no. After a month and a half in New York, it’s biting again. Any takers on accompanying me to India in March and April? Anybody? Hmm? Bueller? Last year took me across East Asia. Who knows where I’ll wind up this year. 2010, game on.

As far as personal relationships go, 2009 was largely the year of making mistakes and learning from them. I’ve messed up plenty of times, both with friends and romantic partners, and I’m not going to make those same mistakes in 2010. I will also not be dating anyone who carries a gun in his back pocket on our first date. Like I said, lesson learned.

Speaking of things I’m going to do in 2010…my resolution. I don’t ever make them, because I think resolutions are lame. I resolve to get a job, I resolve to lose 10 pounds, I resolve to cut down on my drinking. No. While admirable, those are not things I’ll resolve to do. But I will make one resolution–just one, and hope that over the course of the year, I will accomplish it. I resolve to be braver. I want to say what I mean and do what feels right. If something bothers me, I want to be able to express that. Conversely, when I’m happy, I want to share that, too. I’ve never been good at expressing feelings, and so that’s what I am going to work on this year. I’ll revisit this at the end of December 2010, wherever I am, to see how I’ve made out. I hope that those of you making resolutions have made ones that are cooler than mine.

Here’s wishing all of you a happy, healthy, safe and exciting New Year.


This is it, friends. We’re at the end of my southeast Asia photos, which means I’ll have to come up with new and clever posts for 2010. Oh no!

After Jeanette and I parted ways in Phnom Penh, I boarded a six-hour bus to Ho Chi Minh City, where I found myself completely alone in a new place for the first time since my trip to Shanghai in May. The previous six weeks had prepared me for Vietnam–I knew how to move from city to city, how to befriend strangers and how to seek out good, cheap food. I didn’t, however, know how to get off of a moto. (There are no pictures of the infamous leg burn, but next time you see me, ask to see my leg.)

The trip began in Ho Chi Minh City, where I didn’t take nearly enough photos. In fact, I only took two. And one was of a froyo chain.

The Reunification Palace, formerly known as Independence Palace. It was here that power was handed from the South Vietnamese to the North during the Fall of Saigon in 1975.

I left Ho Chi Minh City and headed to the central Vietnamese city of Hoi An, where I went to town getting custom-made clothing.

James and I headed down to the river, only to find the streets flooded, a result of Typhoon Mirinae. Just past the two men hoisting up their pants stands the bridge, partially submerged by the rising water.

Getting fitted for my coat. My look of shock was not at the lady measuring me, but at a particularly gorgeous fabric that Rach (the photographer) was holding up.

Rachel selecting fabric for her jacket.

Vietnamese coffee is seriously underrated, says the girl who hated coffee until this trip. Aesthetics may have played into my newfound appreciation for coffee. Can you blame me?

Then onto Hanoi, but not before a harrowing plane ride and subsequent guesthouse-searching at 2 a.m.

Night market in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.

Hell hath no fury like a Vietnamese motorist. Taken from a pedicab wedged in between a car and a motobike.

The prison where John McCain was held for several years during the Vietnam War.

Old meets new in Hanoi.

My last photo from my trip, taken just a few hours before my flight. The rooftop cafe we sat at overlooks the Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of the city.

And that does it for my photos. Here’s hoping for many more trips (and subsequent photo posts) in 2010! New Orleans, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico are on deck…

I’m at the Internet cafe in Hoi An, Vietnam, catching up on e-mails, working out plans to meet up with friends the next day and wondering how I’m going to watch Game 6 of the World Series. It’s raining outside, but I’m used to it. The rain has been a regular part of my time in Vietnam, even though we celebrated the end of the rainy season a week earlier in Cambodia. My new friend James has already left the cafe and is wandering around town. James was the only other young-ish, sole traveler on my flight up from Ho Chi Minh City. At baggage he struck up conversation and we agreed to share a cab into Hoi An. We arrived in town and booked rooms opposite each other at a guest house on the main road. He’s nice enough, though his thick English accent is occasionally hard to follow.

It’s raining harder now and I’m silently worried that the cafe is going to flood and then the computers are going to electrocute us all. The river has already flooded the streets nearest to the bridge. After we put our bags down in our rooms, James and I walked the block and a half to the river to take pictures of the rising water. We’d stumbled across this cute little Internet cafe just as the rain started and decided to duck inside to wait out the storm.

Forty-five minutes later the rain is still coming down. James is ready to leave but I’ve got a few more Facebook profiles to stalk. We agree to meet in another half hour at the guesthouse to get some food. James is gone for all of five minutes when everything goes black. The storm has knocked out the power at the cafe. But no, not just at the Internet cafe. In Vietnam, in small towns in Vietnam, if you don’t have power, nobody has power. The cafe owner uses the light on his cell phone to help me count out the dong for Internet, then I wander outside to find James. It was still light when we went inside the cafe, but now the sun has set and the streets are dark. I stick to the sidewalk, not yet underwater, and round the corner to my street. There’s light coming from one of the shops, and it illuminates the street in front of it, making the cobbled road glitter in the rain. I head toward the light and very nearly bump into James, on his way to find me. The shop with a light is Treats, a local bar/cafe that I remember reading about in Lonely Planet. Hoi An’s famous backpacker joint is the only place in town with a generator, which at the moment guarantees dinner, working toilets and a warm place to dry off.

James and I grab one of the last tables and check out the menu. I’m hungry, having not eaten anything since my tuna steak lunch, which while delicious, was not as filling as hoped. At this moment, everything, absolutely everything, looks fantastic.

But wait! What is that? Inexpensive wine on the menu, you say? “Are you red or white?” one of us asks the other, hoping for a split. I’m white, James is red and not keen on a rose, either. We could each order by the glass, probably a safer bet. But we’re in the middle of nowhere on the Vietnamese coast, no jobs, no responsibilities, no obligations. Hell, we don’t even have power. We each order a bottle with our burgers.

The waitress brings over our bottles a few minutes later. James pours his first glass, then sheepishly hides his bottle under our table. “We can’t have people thinking we’re each drinking an entire bottle ourselves, can we?” I point out that the red wine is noticeably different than the white in mine, and my bottle remains on the table, so it looks as though I’m outdrinking him, and what sort of Englishman gets outdrunk by a Yank, anyway? He laughs and sets his bottle on the table as a couple of Aussie girls at a neighboring table look over and give us the thumbs up.

So we drink and we talk, and we drink more and then we eat our burgers and there’s more talking and more drinking. We boarded our flight in HCMC that morning as strangers but have become fast friends as the day progressed. I tell him about my family and life in Korea, and he tells me about his job and friends and we talk about Thai beaches and travel mishaps and before we know it, the wine is gone. A glance across the street, and the power’s come back on. But we’re not ready to go yet, so we order a couple more drinks. American music sets the tone, and I hear the opening to “I Gotta Feeling.” Living in the world of K-pop, I’m oblivious to any music that’s come out of America since the fall of 2008. At first, I think it’s Journey or Billy Joel or someone else who’s been singing since I was in the womb, but James laughs and tells me it’s none other than Black Eyed Peas. Black Eyed Peas? In Vietnam? Seriously? I go with it, because they’re telling me that tonight’s gonna be a good night, and who am I to believe otherwise? We tap along with the beat and continue talking. What we’re saying becomes less important than the fact that we’re two complete strangers who have found a common ground in an uncommon place. Our friends, our family, everything familiar to us–it’s all thousands of miles away. It’s just us, our wine, our backpacks in the guesthouse and our conversation, which is becoming fuzzier as the wine takes hold.

At some point, we agree to call it a night. We split the bill, fumble through our wallets for cash and stumble out the door. Our guesthouse is only a few doors down, and we bid the other a good night and retreat to our separate rooms. I turn on the television just as Sex and the City starts, but I don’t have the desire, nor the attention span, to watch it. My clumsy, numb hands struggle to hit the power button. The television goes silent and I fall back into darkness. But there is no moment of silence. The rain is falling again, hitting the windows, lulling me to sleep. This is the happiest I’ve been in ages, and perhaps the happiest I’ll be in a long time.

What? Melissa isn’t finished posting pictures from her trip? Nope, I’m not, but I promise to be by the end of this year…er…week. Same thing?

So after our time in Siem Reap, Jeanette and I hopped an early bus to Phnom Penh, where we immediately boarded a minibus to the beach. Total travel time: 10 hours. Eeesh!

n route to Phnom Penh, we stopped at a Cambodian rest stop (ie. squat toilets and market stalls). When we wouldn't buy fruit from the kids, they'd put tarantulas on us. No joke.

Sunset in Sihanoukville

The dirt road leading down to our guesthouse and the beach. Of course, monsoon season turned the road into a treacherous, rocky slope. Highlight: sitting sidesaddle on a moto going down that thing.

After a few days at the beach, we headed back to the capital, Phnom Penh for a couple days of sightseeing before Jeanette left for Scotland.

Independence Monument in Phnom Penh

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly S-21, Pol Pot's infamous torture prison.

Barbed wire to prevent escape.

Rows of cells at Tuol Sleng.

No smiles allowed.

Stupa at Choung Ek. Inside the stupa are 9,000 skulls recovered from the Killing Fields after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Bone fragment on the path at the Choung Ek Killing Fields

"Mass grave of 166 victims without heads"

Lots to think about after our day at S-21 and Choung Ek.

The next day took on a much different tone. To celebrate the end of the rainy season, tens of thousands of Cambodians flock to Phnom Penh to watch boat races on the Mekong River. We schvitzed our way through the hot afternoon…

enjoying the boat races…

watching kids play in the water…

and walking around the royal palace grounds…

Happiness is lounging around with your best friend, drinking a bottle of champagne for no reason and surrounding yourself with dozens of Santas. Or so I learned last night in Tori’s living room.

Also spotted: Elmo Santa, black Santa, two Grinch Santas. I’m not the first friend of Tor’s to say this, but maybe part of the reason I’ve softened to Christmas is because of her family. It’s hard not to love a woman who insists that she and Santa are friends, as her mom does. It’s also hard not to love people who have ornaments on their tree with your name on it. I don’t love Christmas, and I probably never will. But I’ll continue to drink champagne and enjoy my time with Elmo Santa, underneath a sign that says “Forever Christmas Eve.”

Here’s the deal friends. Little Melissa is growing up and needs a new name for her blog. The URL has already been changed to (so change your own blogs accordingly). Now, as I’m no longer baking cupcakes with/jailing/teaching frisbee to Korean children, this blog needs a new name. I’m turning this over to you, as recently my creative juices haven’t been flowing as I would like. Consider the following:

I’m going to get a job and settle down in America (most likely).
My traveling days are far from over.

That’s really it. Lay it on me, friends. No idea is a bad idea (except for my terrible, terrible ideas, of which there are many) and all brainstorms are welcome. There’s a secret prize for the winner, too, if that’s any incentive…

The thing I love most about Christmas isn’t what you think. It’s not the trees, it’s not the music, it’s not the food, it’s not even the Christmas spirit. Oh, and it’s not the Chinese food and a movie that my people love so much. It’s Christmas decorations on front lawns, lights dangling from overhangs and blow-up Santas waving to passing cars. Yep, I’ve caved to the commercialism of Christmas. It’s that allure of all things bright and shiny, I tell ya.

Every year, the Daily Freeman prints a map of Kingston, highlighting the best-decorated houses in town. The “Holiday Lights Tour” has been a highlight every December for the Weiss family. Last night, we bundled up, packed in the car and took to the streets. Special thanks go to my mother, who stopped at nearly every lit house along the route so I could go out and snap these photos:

This house had an electronic countdown to Christmas! (Right above the entryway)

Now, this house played Christmas music all night. Definite bonus points right there.

But even better than the music was the illuminated North Pole mailbox that opened and closed all night. That house was a definite win.

Christmas decorations after my own heart. Twenty-seven world championships!

The sign reads "SANTA STOP HERE." I hope he does.

I'm such a sucker for candy cane lights. They make me hungry.

Santa hanging in a tree--mildly sadistic, or artistic license?

The ever-classy simple white lights. Love them.

The ever-classy simple white lights. Love 'em.

The lights this year were alright. We weren’t terribly impressed with much of what we saw (nor the confusing directions in between Broadway and the Strand), but as always, a few houses impressed. Meeting up with friends for drinks at Keegan’s and the Basement brought the weekend to a solid close. On the schedule for this week: lots of gift-wrapping at the mall and a Jewish Christmas with my college roommates in the city. Bring on the Chinese food!

What? Melissa hasn’t finished posting pictures from the great Asia tour yet? No, not by a longshot. Two countries down, two to go. In Siem Reap, we stayed with friend-of-many-friends Bethany, a fellow teacher/adventure-seeker/yid.

Sunrise from Bethany's deck

Most of our time in Siem Reap was spent at Angkor Wat, and most of our time at Angkor Wat was spent like this:

Mr. Loeun and his tuk-tuk

Our host, Bethany, and Jeanette in the tuk-tuk with our old friend, Lonely Planet. (And apparently not happy with what they're reading.)

Angkor Thom, where Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed.

Angkor Thom from a distance.

Large stone faces appear on dozens of towers surrounding the center of the Bayon at Angkor Thom.

Typhoon Ketsana washed out paths and roads throughout the complex. Solution: wooden boards resting on tree trunks. Oh, Cambodia.

Watching The Princess Bride at Bethany's school, outside of Siem Reap.

I didn’t get a chance to tell you about Bethany’s school when I first blogged about Cambodia, and it would be wrong of me to post about Siem Reap without mentioning the Jay Pritzker Academy. Had I known about this school when I was first looking into teaching, I would have applied there. JPA admits high-testing students from low-income families, pays for their schooling and transports them to and from the academy every day. A normal school day in Cambodia doesn’t last past noon, leaving kids out on the streets hawking souvenirs and begging every afternoon. But JPA keeps kids in school for a full day, with teaching standards comparable to, if not exceeding, those in America. Any student who graduates from JPA will have his college tuition and expenses paid for, regardless of where the school is. Bethany was kind enough to invite Jeanette and I into her classroom while we were in Siem Reap. The class had just finished reading The Princess Bride and as a treat, Bethany planned to show the film on a Saturday to anyone who wanted to come in on a weekend and see it. Surprisingly, all of her kids (including two sick ones) showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in their cute little uniforms at 8 a.m. The kids were friendly, talkative and well-behaved. A lot of tourists to Cambodia have a hard time getting past the conditions in which children live. The abbreviated school day, the street begging, the fact that kids walk around barefoot because they just don’t have a pair of shoes–it all wears on you. It’s hard to enjoy a country when you are surrounded by such extreme poverty, when the only kids you meet are the ones chasing you down yelling, “Buy postcard! Very good price!” Visiting JPA and spending time with some of the teachers and students shows me that the world has not yet given up on Cambodia.

Sunset at Angkor Wat on our final day in Siem Reap.

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”–Jane Howard

No Hanukkah is complete without a get-together with the Solomon side of the family. Usually Solomonukkah occurs in January, after the holiday rush, when all of the things that were hot sells during December go on the sales racks. (Go ahead, call us a stereotype.) However, with the newest addition to the family due in mid-January, we were forced to hold Solomonukkah during, God forbid, Hanukkah.

Thirty miles east of Poughkeepsie, we met with bad weather. Freezing rain turned the highway into a sheet of ice in minutes. I’ve never seen so many cars sliding off the road, hitting guardrails, hitting lampposts, hitting each other. It was only after we came within inches of slamming into the car in front of us (complete with my mother screaming, “We have no breaks! We’re gonna have an accident!”) and slid into the ditch in the median that we pulled over to debate the options.

Everyone else had the pull-over-on-the-side-of-the-road theory, too.

The idea of food and family proved too alluring, so we continued on. And besides, they had already closed the road behind us, so there was only one option. What is usually a two-hour drive took five and a half hours. In those hours, there were complaints, there was whining, there was frustration and there was terror. But there was black-ice-skating in a Valero parking lot, friendly banter with other stranded travelers and the unheeded “You’re better off going back where you came from,” courtesy of one of the 911 responders. (Oh, did I mention I had to call 911?) There were also Facebook/Twitter updates from the side of the road, talk of eating the icebox cake in the trunk (photo below) and some singing of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “10,000 Miles.” (Cue the opening scene from Fly Away Home.) And then there were stories about my mother and grandmother getting stranded somewhere between New York and home in the middle of an ice storm, angry relatives and fleabag motels. Something tells me that a few years down the line, my sister and I will be telling our kids about that one Hanukkah when we were convinced we were going to die on the side of an icy highway outside of Danbury.

After a couple hours of sheer hell, the sanding trucks finally arrived and made the highways driveable. We made it to cousin Jeff’s house just in time to eat dinner. And of course, to open Hanukkah presents.

Debating the ways one would die in a plane crash. Sadistic Solomons. And Saccocias. You really don't want to know how long this conversation lasted.

Proof that I win for best present of the night: Guy's pure glee at receiving a bottle of Lao alcohol, complete with a dead scorpion inside.

But the true champion of the night was Grandma Jackie's icebox cake.

The judge teaches Becca that it's OK to stick your fingers in the dessert tray.

Teaching Becca the way of the funny-face-self-photo.

Showing off what she's learned. True story: I first taught her how to do the monkey face four years ago. Go ahead, call me a good influence.

Who knew Jewish advent calendars existed?

To sum it all up…

“A great miracle happened on I-84”–I-84 נס גדול היה

I had great plans for today’s post. Yesterday was a clear day up here, so I snapped a photo from the mall parking lot, where you have Ulster’s best view of the mountains. Then came the forecast for bad weather, so this morning I woke up and took a picture of the six inches of snow outside. But then I read about Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch penning a song about Hanukkah, and that trumps everything else. In the world.

Ya gotta admit, it’s a pretty good time for the Jews. A Details article published this month titled “The Rise of the Hot Jewish Girl” claims “the Fran Drescher rep has given way to a more smoldering image” of Jewish women. (It should be mentioned that this article is currently the most read, commented and e-mailed story on the site.) Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and the rest of the semitic Apatow gang have climbed the Hollywood ranks with such recent hits as Pineapple ExpressSuperbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Israel is closer than ever to securing the release of captured solider Gilad Shalit.

But you know things are looking up when a Mormon senator from Utah writes a song for one of your holidays. And not even an important holiday (but we don’t let the goyimknow that)! Hanukkah doesn’t get a mention in the Torah. It doesn’t have its own book, like Purim does. Hanukkah gets its own little sections in Target and Hallmark because it’s a December holiday. But Senator Hatch, if you want to pen a ditty about the Festival of Lights, then you go right ahead, sir.

Hanukkah is all about miracles. The oil lasted for eight days, the weak, inexperienced Maccabees defeated the Antiochus and his army, we don’t all suffer massive heart attacks during the eight days of latkes and doughnuts. But Tablet‘s Jeffrey Goldberg notes the latest miracle: “a Mormon senator in a studio with an Arab singer and a bunch of New York Jewish background vocalists recording a Hanukkah song of his own making.” Who ever would have imagined that scenario? So thank you, Senator Hatch, for reminding us that this Hanukkah is all about the unexpected.