So where art thou these days? I've been kickin it back in Tampa the last week and a half, and I can say that this is my favorite place thus far for a variety of reasons.
We left Fort Myers last Wednesday and headed here. I left the hotel early enough to make it here for lunch. Coming into town was actually kind of scary because there were some intense bridges that I had to drive over, and that's something I'm not used to. There was one that was like a ramp going up into the air, so it was pretty crazy. After that, every road was completely surrounded by water. It's so awesome driving on a road and looking to the left and right and seeing nothing but beautiful blue water.
I arrived to Tampa and went to Bahama Breeze- overlooking Clearwater. I met my two cousins who I hadn't seen in 13 years. Yes, I was just 9 years old the last time I saw them. So, I might have grown just a tad bit and changed since then. That didn't matter though because we picked up right where we left off. We enjoyed a delicious lunch, then they drove me down to a little restaurant on the beach where we enjoyed some refreshing drinks and listened to an amazing guitar player that was singing. He played Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud," and I looked over to see a bride and groom dancing in the middle of the floor. Beach weddings are pretty common here, so that was my first experience seeing that. Pretty cool.
After that, they drove my up the coastline showing me different food places and houses and things to do. It's gorgeous here! Later in the day, they drove me to my hotel and I unpacked my suitcases for the first time since I left home. Lets just say its been nice having a little living room, kitchen, and bedroom the past week.
We checked out the mall that's across the street on Thursday and just kind of hung out. We worked on Friday & Saturday, we had an event at the same dealership both days. We got to hang out with David Prince, a Paralympic athlete that currently holds the record for the 400m. He's an awesome guy and luckily we got to spend time with him those two days and at our event today.
Sunday I went to church, where I met a group of some pretty incredible guys. I could tell they were visitors there because they were filling out the same sheet that I had filled out, so we started talking because I was in the same boat. They're in Tampa for the summer for an outreach program. They all work days at Busch Gardens, and then they also go to the beach and other places throughout Tampa to share their faith and pray with those around them. One of them just so happened to grow up in Bloomington, and even went to the same church there that I did. Talk about a small world. They invited me to a rally at their hotel that night.
We went to eat at a restaurant on the beach for lunch, then we went to a little beach area and hung out for the afternoon. Once I got back and ready, I headed to the hotel for the rally. I got to meet some of the girls that are part of the program, and everyone there is amazing. I felt like I was back at IWU at DRL, and it felt like home. They were playing music beforehand and everyone was just singing, dancing, and conversing. There was worship at the beginning and end, and the message was just what I needed to hear.
At church and at the rally, the messages were pretty relevant to my life. They focused on staying strong in faith, no matter the temptations around us. Whether it be the people we are surrounded by, the things we have the choice to do, or even the things we spend our money on, there are so many things that try to sway us and drag us away from our staying true to ourselves. It does get hard and sometimes we have no one around us to be that positive influence we need, but it's important to stay strong and be true to ourselves. We turn to functional saviors that promise us a good time, but that typically leave us with feelings of guilt and regret. We don't trust God to run our lives because we think we can do better by doing what we think will satisfy us. However, only Jesus can satisfy and He proves his love to us through his life, death, and resurrection. There are people around you who look up to you and follow you, even if you don't realize it and even if you think no one looks up to you. We might be placed in a tough spot, but we can't forget that God places us in that spot for a reason, and maybe you will be the only resemblance of Jesus that one ever sees. Sometimes someone doesn't even know that they need help and are struggling, but if we remain strong in our faith and spread his love to everyone around us, then they will feel the love and grace of God. I was and still am so thankful God put me in that place to meet them because just hearing their stories and being around them was something I needed and something I have missed being around.
Monday we went to Busch gardens for the day. We were walking into the park, and whaddaya know, I see one of the guys from church. He gave me a big hug, and we were off to the park. One of the guys on my team had it all planned out what rides we would be going on. The first was Sheikra. Let's just say I wasn't happy with him as we were on our way up the 200 ft. climb, where we were left to hang for a few seconds before it dropped down a straight 90 degree angle. Talk about freaking out. The other 4 I went on after that didn't seem nearly as bad.
Busch Gardens is so cool because while the rides are cool, it's also like a zoo. There's a tiger exhibit that has a glass circle in it where you can climb up in it so it's like you're in the pen with them. The tiger was sleeping up on the glass, so I got right up next to his face. He was so adorable and put his paw up on the glass as he laid there. There were also giraffes, huge turtles, kangaroos, and all sorts of animals. We walked around and explored it all, and stayed until the park was about to close.
Tuesday was a rainy day so I didn't do much of anything. I worked out and laid around, skyped a little, and then I went to my cousins house. We went to dinner and then I got to meet their son (well, I met him when I was little but clearly dont remember him.)
Their son has 2 little girls and a boy, and they are SO adorable. The 3 year old was my little buddy and we played with her little Elsa doll and she was cracking me up. She just broke her arm the other day so she has a little pink cast on it, and she was just all wound up. The 7 year old learned that she was my cousin and sat right down next to me and the first thing she said was "So tell me about yourself!" It was like 20 questions, and her first question.. The most important thing, "Do you wash your hands?!" It was so adorable and funny, and kids questions definitely have to be the best thing. All 3 of them were the cutest.
After that, we just sat at my cousin's house and talked until nearly midnight. I'm thankful that this job not only gives me the opportunity to see this beautiful part of the land, but also that I've gotten to spend time with them. It's been 13 years, but it felt as if no time had passed. They are so welcoming and make me feel as if I'm at home. They are two of the sweetest and loving people I know, and their love for each other is something that is rare. They met 50 years ago, but you'd never be able to tell. He still treats her with so much love and respect, and they're so sweet to one another. They care for one another- the true definition of in sickness and in health. If I can have even half the marriage that they have at that age, then I'd be happier than I could ever imagine. I love them to pieces and I'm so glad to see that love can and should be that strong after so many years.
Wednesday we went to Cigar City brewery and did a tour of that. It's one of the top 10 brewers, so it was pretty cool to see where they package and make the beer. After that we ate and I went to the pool for a few hours. Last night we watched the Blackhawks game out on the patio of our hotel. Me and one of the guys decided it was vital we had DQ to watch the game so we ventured off to find that. After our GPS led us to the campus DQ that was closed, we had to drive 15 minutes to the closest one. An hour later, we were finally back to enjoy it and the 3rd period of the game.
The Hawks finally stepped up their game and scored 2 goals in 2 minutes. There was another Hawks fan out on the patio that went nuts when they won, so that was an entertaining time. Today we had an event, and we'll be keeping busy with work tomorrow and Saturday. My mom got Skype on her phone, so I was finally able to see her, my dad and brother today for the first time in a month, so that made my evening! :)
As our time in Tampa comes to a close, I know I'll be the most sad to leave this area. Between the friends I've made here, the time I've gotten to spend with family, and the incredible views from the beach and our suite, I know it'll be hard to leave. However, I'm thankful for this time here and the people who've impacted my life in so many ways.
Until next time!