About Me

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Hello, Ciao,안녕하세요, Hallo, Hola, Selamat tengahari! My name is Rachael and I am a travel enthusiast. Ever since I can remember, my parents have taken my brother, sister and I on good ol' American road trips. It's safe to say that was where my interest in new places, people and experiences was ignited. As my parents always encouraged my siblings and I to explore and ask questions, I developed a sincere curiosity for new adventures. In addition to seeing much of the United States with my favorite travel companions (my family), I had the opportunity to spend a semester in Rome, Italy, as well as a semester in Seoul, South Korea during my college career. Now, I am honored to be taking part in a Fulbright ETA Scholarship to Malaysia for a year! My family's favorite motto is "Life is all about the journey, not the destination." I invite you to join along in my journey of cultural exchange and mutual understanding in Malaysia! After all, the more, the merrier.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Journey Along Route 3

Map of Terengganu, Malaysia. If you look on the far east coast line of Terengganu,
you will see a red line right along the South China Sea indicating Route 3.
Route 3 allowed the other Terengganu ETAs and I to stay well-connected, as well as explore
the mainland and islands. At the far north is Besut. In the central is Kuala Terengganu. Far south is Kemaman.
Photo: Google maps

Typical view while driving along Route 3. 

Route 3 is the largest road that runs down the eastern coast of Peninsular Malaysia. To be exact, the highway starts in Kelantan (the northern most state of Malaysia) and runs down to Johor Bharu, a large city in Johor, which is near Singapore.

Route 3 was near and dear to the Terengganu ETAs’ hearts, because it allowed us all to stay very well connected despite the miles that separated most of us. The Fulbright ETAs were placed in districts that extended down the coast, and Route 3 allowed us to drive and/or take bus trips from one place to another. Route 3 connected Christina, Michael and I in Besut to Jordan and Nick in Setiu, to Hannah, Nazeeha, Chelsea and Jonathan in Kuala Terengganu and Julie and Marquitta in Marang down to Kamayani, Katie and Kate in Dungun and finally to Melissa and Morgan in Kemaman. To give you an idea, to travel from Besut in northern Terengganu to Kemaman in the south took about 5-6 hours.

Melissa, Michael, Jonathan and I with the Malaysian
McDonald's clown. I've always thought that he was
a creepy guy, but it was elevated when he started speaking
in a heavy Australian accent with creepy faces.
I always looked forward to the quick trips down Route 3 to visit friends in other places. I especially looked forward to spending time with my fellow friends. A ride down Route 3 passed through beautiful mountains, interesting ‘kampung’ (villages), beautiful coastline and even one McDonalds, which was a big treat at the time.

Ironically, one of my favorite memories of Route 3 was in February, at the beginning of our Fulbright experience. Nick and Jordan’s landlord was nice enough to offer them an SUV to use, so Christina and I piled in and we headed to Kemaman to meet up with other ETAs. On the return journey from Kemaman, we stopped at McDonalds to enjoy one last bite of somewhat American cuisine before heading back to our villages in the north. When we went to start the car after enjoying our meals, it would not start. In addition, we could not get in touch with any of our mentors and contacts in Malaysia. So, Jordan and I quickly searched for some sign of a car or insurance book in the vehicle. I had never had vehicle issues in USA, let alone abroad before.  I found a number to call and tried to explain in Malay that we were stuck and still had a three- hour drive ahead of us. No luck. I wondered what I would do about school the following morning, and I wondered how the heck we were going to make it back. Eventually, Jordan and Nick’s landlord called a friend of a friend of a friend in the area, who showed up in the parking lot to provide help. Although a few hours behind schedule, we did make it back. But honestly, I could not help but laugh. Never did I think I would be stranded in a McDonald’s parking lot in Malaysia calling a Malaysian automobile company for car support.

The group together in Cherating, Pahang, Malaysia.
It was accessible by Route 3 through Kemaman in
southern Terengganu. Cherating even had a bar called
Litte Bali and we were able to wear our sundresses and
The bumps, curves, straight-ways and memories of the one and only Route 3 allowed us to build strong friendships, camaraderie and a solid support system. Many of our weekends in Malaysia were filled with little road trips down the coastline, visiting one another, gathering together as a group and enjoying each other’s company. Those were probably some of my favorite memories from my time in Malaysia!

 After months of
food that bore no resemblance
to American cuisine,
McDonald's was a treat.

The view from Kemaman, Terengganu in the south.
Cherating, Pahang, Malaysia.
This is a restaurant on the beach there.
It is accessible by Route 3.
Northern Terengganu near Besut. 6 hours south from here
were Kemaman and Cherating, Malaysia. (as shown above)
Melissa and I (with my sunburn) relaxing on the
Perhentians together.
Walking along the shore of Kapas Island. It was
as if we had a private island.
The lodge that ETAs stayed in while on Kapas Island.
It was always a great place to catch some shut-eye and chat.
Christina, Kamayani and I got enthusiastic about nuts
we found in Chinatown, Kuala Terengganu.

Jonathan, Kamayani and I! We loved snorkeling and
swimming in the South China Sea!

The Terengganu ETAs hanging out at me and Christina's
house in Besut. And no, the TV didn't work.  We spent our nights
together on the mainland simply hanging out and chatting.
Terengganu ETAs getting creative in
me and Christina's kitchen. Julie made
mac n' cheese, with Velveeta cheese
sent to her from America, and Michael
made beans!
Christina and I had a neat watermelon ball. To pass time
together, we sometimes played games in my house. Here,
Jordan, Jonathan, Hafiz, Nick and I were playing four square.
It is remarkable how one can keep herself/himself entertained.
One of the many road trips in the SUV with Nick and Jordan.
Sometimes, I got stuck sitting in the back. 
Marquitta, Morgan, Christina and I nice and cozy in
the SUV! It would become quite hot at points along
the journey.
After not seeing each other for a while, it was always
nice to be reunited with one another!
The female ETAs hanging out around the fire on Kapas Island. 
Route 3 allowed Terengganu ETAs to access the Perhentian
Islands in Besut (north), as well as Kapas Island near
Kuala Terengganu. (central) The islands were a great place
to unwind and relax.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A New World: Adventures in Scuba Diving

Our Padi Open Water Diver team sporting some of the scuba signals.
Left to right: ETAs Owen & Kate, Paul from Great Britain, our instructor Hugo
and ETAs me & Julie.
Quiver Dive Center, Coral Bay
Perhentian Island Kecil
In March 2012, I had the wonderful opportunity to earn my Padi Open Water Diver certification. Myself, as well as three of my friends, set out to the Perhentian Islands for a three-day course! Our instructors at Quiver Divers Coral Bay on Perhentian Kecil were excellent. While we enjoyed learning the basics of scuba, we also enjoyed getting to know new people. We met Paul from Great Britain who was in our course, as well as Hugo, our scuba dive instructor from Spain. For three days, we watched videos, studied scuba logistics, descended deep underwater, explored the South China Sea, hung out at the dive center and ate toast with cream cheese. It was a blast! I learned a new skill and hobby, and I also was able to check something off my bucket list – learn how to scuba dive. I learned how to dive at the Perhentian Islands, but I was also able to dive in Boracay, Philippines.

In the water with our gear on before our first class started!
Romantic Beach, Coral Bay, Perhentian Islands
 Friend and fellow ETA, Julie, and I on the boat before our dive!
Boracay, Philippines
Learning how to scuba dive was not only exhilarating, but it allowed me access to a whole new world- the underwater world. And, believe me, it was worth it. I will continue to be amazed by the vividly orange clown fish (Nemo), the ample pink and purple coral and the bright environment full of rich colors and so much life. Overall, although descending deep underwater with scuba equipment was nerve racking at first, it actually became a hobby that allowed me so much relaxation and awe. I learned the importance of remaining calm under pressure and not over reacting to situations. Under water, I needed to listen to my body and slowly descend while putting trust into my equipment. As I glided through the underwater world,  I needed to be aware of my movements and yet gentle at the same time. Overreacting or too much movement would suck up oxygen and make it more difficult to descend comfortably. Scuba diving may be a great hobby, but it is also a great lesson in how to calmly and proactively react to situations. I cannot wait to see what underwater world I will experience next! 

Lapu Lapu Dive Center
Boracay, Philippines
Posing in front of the dive map before we went on
our adventure dive!
Coral Bay, Perhentian Islands.
I am so blessed to have learned to dive in my little corner of Paradise!

Finish Lines

So happy to have finished the race before my goal time!
Clement and I after I crossed the
finish line! I was so happy to have
 his company for the last two miles!
 In late June, after my family’s visit to Malaysia, Christina (my roommate) and I knew that we needed to have something to work towards and keep us occupied. Despite the tropical heat and having to wear very conservative clothing, we decided to start running. Moreover, we decided to train for the annual Perhentian Island Challenge in October 2012. In addition, I decided to train for the Singapore Mizuno Wave Run 16K in September 2012.

Crossing the finish line! Finished 10 seconds
before my goal time!

The Singapore Mizuno Wave Run 16K was the first race that I ever participated in. I spent the weekend with my friend Clement and his family in Singapore. The morning of my race, Clement took me by his motorcycle to the starting line. With my jersey on and Ipod buds in my ears, I ran with the thousands of others. It was so exhilarating to be running alongside so many people from all over the world, and it was awesome to be running 10 miles around Singapore! In fact, the racecourse lead right in front of Clement’s home. When I ran through his neighborhood, I was overcome with happiness to see Clement and his dad cheering me on and taking photos. As I smiled at them, Clement ran up next to me. To my surprise, he kept me company for the final two miles of the race. He ran alongside me and encouraged me to keep running, even when I was tempted to walk! (Thanks Clem!) The Singapore 16K was one of my favorite memories from my year abroad, because I crossed the finish line 10 seconds before my goal time!

ETAs and friends, Adeel &Kristin, and I after the race! 

Friend & ETA, Adeel, came
to Singapore to cheer us on!
He even made a shirt

I dedicated my run to my
dear Uncle Jerry!
We finished the race and earned medals,

Kristin and I before the race!
I was feeling a little nervous!
After the Perhentian Island
Challenge, I was sore and
 itchy to say the least.

The Perhentian Island Challenge took place in October on the Perhentian Islands. Three female ETAs and I decided to sign- up and train for it. The only catch – it’s a challenge, so they do not tell you what the course entails until the morning of the race. So, we did our homework and looked at what the challenge had entailed for the three years prior. From what we could gather, it would be about an 8K to 10K run around the island. “We got this,” we thought to ourselves. Needless to say, we showed up at the starting line on the day of the race only to discover that for this particular year it was a 21K run/jungle trek with 70% incline. As you can imagine, we were shocked, but we set off and began the race anyway. Within the first twenty minutes, the four of us became separated. Even more, it was three hours before the first water station. The Perhentian Island Challenge was completely different than we had expected, and I can honestly say that I felt as though it was some sort of cruel joke. On the particular day itself, none of us found it very funny. However, now, three months later I think it is hilarious. Although many of the participants ended up with typhoid and I was terrified after hiking through the jungle for forty-five minutes all alone and witnessing the largest snake I had ever seen and climbing up muddy slopes, it was an adventure. That’s what life is all about.
*(By the way, out of about 240 participants, only about 60 actually finished. And, no, my friends and I were not some of them.)

Sometimes you reach your finish lines, and sometimes you even surpass your goals. Other times, you do not reach that moment of victory and may not even accomplish your task. But, it is about giving it your all and remembering what you learned even in the midst of so-called failure. Then, taking what you learned and trying again. 

Boat ride back after the race. My friends and I
did not make it to the finish line, but we gave it
our best try. That's what mattered, and I was happy for
making it as far as I did in ~ 7.5 hours. AND, I was
especially happy that I had the typhoid vaccine!
These were the bands I received for the levels I made it to
within the challenge. Two bands symbolized two water
stations / 7.5 - 8 hours in the jungle.
I did not come out looking 'pretty' to say the
least. The bushes and thorns left us with
some lovely rashes and scrapes.
Ouch! Thorns in my hands. Because it was
a challenge, we did not know what the race
entailed until right before starting. Therefore,
we did not have proper gear! Next time, I will
remember gloves!


Living in a rural, Islamic village with unreliable internet and a 13- hour time difference from Chicago did not provide many opportunities for distractions. As I mentioned in early posts, I did not have my regular spin classes, Tuesday $2 draft nights with friends, frequent text messages vibrating my phone, train rides and adventures in Chicago or my familiar community of family or friends around me. All in all, it was perhaps the most ‘quiet’ I have ever experienced in my life.

I am from a family that keeps its doors always open. With that, life in America is full of people, laughs and splendid little moments each and everyday. Therefore, as I acclimated to a ‘quiet’ life in Malaysia, I strived to find things that could keep my mind occupied after school hours. For someone with my personality, it was not easy, but I did it. And, overall, looking back, I realize that the ‘quiet’ I experienced allowed me greater insight to me, myself and I. Without so many distractions, I was faced to nurture a relationship with myself and in essence, really get familiar with who I was.

In fact, earlier this week I explained my ‘quiet’ experience to a dear friend. I explained that the lack of ‘noise’ in my life made me feel very much alone at times. However, it is neat to have experienced a long-term, intensely quiet and seemingly lonely experience. Without ‘noise’ (even working Internet at times and a sufficient television), I was faced to sit with myself and my thoughts. Not many individuals get so much time to build a relationship with themselves. That in itself is neat, mind boggling and eye opening all at once.

Now, with that being said, I think ‘quiet’ was a once in a lifetime experience. Therefore, I probably would not rush to sign up for having so much ‘quiet’ again. Also, in no way would I romanticize the experience either. Parts of it were tough. Really tough. All in all, I am merely mentioning that if you allow yourself true ‘quiet,’ you may be amazed by how much you can learn about yourself. 

I had a great deal of quiet time this year. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

My Little Corner of Paradise

The clear blue water of Pulau Perhentian. It was ideal for snorkeling
and scuba diving.

Enjoying a fresh coconut!
As I mentioned in my last blog post, Besut, Kuala Besut was the jumping-off point for Pulau Perhentian. Although many Americans have not heard of Pulau Perhentian, or the Perhentian Islands, it is a very popular vacation destination among Europeans. Pulau Perhentian is known for its white, sandy beaches, its beautiful, crystal blue water and its rustic feel. Not to mention, it is renown for its scuba diving and snorkeling, which I took advantage of on many different occasions.

The beach and dock at Coral Bay!

During my stint living in Besut, I ventured out to Pulau Perhentian at least a dozen times. Throughout my visits, I got to know the people there very well, and it became sincerely comfortable to go there. It was a place that made me feel very much at home as well as relaxed. Sometimes after adapting to a culture so different than my own on the mainland, it was comforting to put on a sundress, layout, swim in the clear, blue water and hang out with friends drinking a Tiger or Chang beer on the beach. Overall, the feel of the island was rustic, yet so seemingly familiar.

Amin, Wan and a guest singer at Monkey Bar on Long Beach!

Mama D and I at Ombak Cafe
on Coral Bay, Pulau.

Mila, Norlin and I at Ombak Cafe!

My favorite restaurant on the island was Ombak Café, and I was able to get to know Mama D, Mila and the entire crew there. I remember weekends biting into their delicious pizzas, while watching a live, outdoor movie. They always greeted me with hugs, and we would converse about the last few weeks since I had last seen them. During the day, I loved going to Panorama restaurant and sipping on one of their cold, fresh mango juices or sipping milk out of a coconut. When the sun went down, I always could be found sitting in the sand with my friends listening to Amin, Wan and the gang play live cover music of popular Western music, including Jason Mraz and Bob Marley. After listening to music, my friends and I would wander on down the beach to Black Tip and dance under the moon with our toes in the sand and the waves rushing over our feet.

The long dock from the boat to
Coral Bay beach on Pulau.
Whenever I ventured to Pulau, I always enjoyed getting off the boat and walking down the long dock to Coral Bay. I would say “hello” to my friends at Sharila Resort such as Rosi, Faizul and Emily, as well as Iss and Jeremiah at Stephens Divers. I will never forget sharing some of my stories and questions from my experience on the mainland and being able to have truly meaningful and comfortable conversations with them.

Pulau Perhentian introduced me to the warm sun, scuba diving, tranquility, simplicity, underwater discoveries and immense beauty. Often, I swam and floated in the clear water at Long Beach and looked out at the mountains and vast jungle that spread over them. I would think about my experience in Malaysia as well as my life back home.

Pulau's rustic feel was unlike anywhere
I had ever been!
My last ride from the Pulau Perhentian to the mainland was one filled of tears and happiness. In some way, whether big or small, Pulau and the people there allowed me such peace, comfort and friendship. I considered it ‘my place.' Over the course of my visits there, it became a place that allowed me insight to myself. Pulau Perhentian will always be my little corner of Paradise. 

Entrance to Panorama chalet and restaurant!
A little cafe on Long Beach, Pulau.
Panorama restaurant! Huge monitor lizards could often
be seen climbing the trees around here!
During high tide season, people can be seen surfing on Long Beach.
The peaceful water during low tide season.
The boat ride to Pulau Perhentian.
Coral Bay, Pulau Perhentian. View from the long dock.
Jonathan, Michael and I enjoying
the moonlight and sand on Long Beach!
Christina, Melissa and I relaxing on the beach!
The sunset over Long Beach, Pulau.
The sunset over Coral Bay, Romantic Beach. 
The Terengganu female ETAs having a girls' night
during our final trip to Pulau Perhentian.
Saying 'jumpa lagi' to Pulau Perhentian as the boat
pulled away from my Paradise.
Christina and I enjoyed a juice in the warm sun!
The view from a chalet on top of the mountain on Long Beach.