Driving a Region Less Sought [Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania]

Personal Life, Travel

The time of year had come to plan for another worldwide adventure. My friend Robyn and I had heard a lot about Croatia as a popular destination, leading us to research the region. The U.S. Dollar was also strong against the Euro and most European currencies, so it was a perfect time to travel to Europe. Our past experiences, as you might know, had been to Latin American countries, so it was time to switch it up.

We of course wanted to hit up Croatia, but we researched the region and were fascinated by the recent history of the breakup of Yugoslavia. After much research of several of the Balkan countries and looking at flight schedules and cities, we landed on Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. For those wondering where these countries are on a map, they are just to the east of Italy across the Adriatic Sea and north of Greece. SIX countries in ONE trip? Yes, if you look at a map, it’s almost the equivalent of driving from Chicago to Kentucky, so it wasn’t that bad. The terrain, however, differs quite a bit (I’ll talk about that later). After a couple of days of looking at flight/cost scenarios and learning all the rules and regulations of border crossing between countries, we clicked “book trip” and were set to travel to Southeastern Europe in late October.

Before the Trip
Those friends who we reached out to from the region were SO excited to hear that we were visiting their former homeland, as it’s not popular among Americans for tourism. Most asked, “Why are you going in October? The best time to go is in the summer!” Well, when you live in Chicago, you have to spend summers in the Windy City because the rest of the year is pretty much freezing. Robyn and I also don’t need sun and a beach for traveling, as it’s more about the experience and adventures. I also reached out to my colleagues at the Google Croatia office in Zagreb. They provided me with wonderful recommendations regarding rental car companies, watch-outs, and points of interest.

Robyn and I did quite a bit of research about driving in the Balkans. We had to make sure that the countries we were traveling to allowed entry and exit across borders. We chose Sixt as our rental car company and double-checked pick-up and drop-off locations. We were especially concerned about travel in and out of Kosovo, as it’s still a disputed territory. Also, the region still has some leftover tension from the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, ranging from religion, warfare, politics and alliances. While we didn’t receive any criticism as American tourists, we were vigilant that our car had a Macedonian license plate. Keep in mind that we did not travel to Serbia (excluding Kosovo), a big player in the breakup of the former Communist region.

To prepare for the trip, I learned the Cyrillic alphabet, as some of the region uses this in communication, signs, and everyday language (especially Macedonia). For example, here are the translations of the countries using the Cyrillic alphabet:
Macedonia = Македонија
Kosovo = Косово
We knew we would struggle with the language barrier in this region (and we definitely did!).

We also prepared for the continuous change of currencies throughout the region, as most of the countries do not use the Euro: Macedonia (Macedonian Denar), Kosovo (Euro), Albania (Albanian Lek), Montenegro (Euro), Croatia (Croatian Kuna), Bosnia & Herzegovina (Bosnian Marks). Don’t try to use Macedonian Denars, for example, in Montenegro. They will look at you like you are nuts! The currency exchange locations throughout the region were a bit snobbish if you tried exchanging a foreign currency in which they despised.

All of our lodging we booked through Airbnb, a home-sharing site that has become super popular over the past year or so. With this option, we were able to keep prices low while still finding unique and convenient places to stay across the region.

October 22, 2015 – Crossing the Atlantic to Zürich

We left from Chicago’s O’Hare (ORD) airport in the evening for an overnight trip to Zürich, Switzerland. The last time I had been on a flight across the Atlantic was my return flight from London in 2011, in which I began to have reflections of the leg room agony of a 6’5″ adult. I sat in the middle of the airplane and quickly connected my headphones as a girl to my right was in full breakdown mode (tears and all); I think one of her relatives/friends was not allowed on the plane because of an expired passport. Whoops. The passengers consisted mostly of German or Swiss-German speakers. I watched the Hunger Games knock-off movie “Divergent” to pass some time before falling asleep. I woke up again when we were flying over France, a quick shot to Zürich from there.

October 23, 2015 – Settling in Skopje (Or at Least Trying to)

By the time you travel eastward across the world as the globe turns in the other direction, you lose pretty much an entire day of your life. Anyways, we arrived in Zürich and transferred to our flight to Skopje, Macedonia. The passenger clientele changed quite a bit from our previous flight; dark features, fashion differences, noticeable religious preferences, and the all-so-obvious language change in-which-I-know-you-are-not-from-a-place-I-am-familiar-with.

The flight took about 2.5 hours from Zürich to Skopje. A few Germans got rowdy in the front of the plane, influenced by the quick downing of European spirits. The flight surprisingly offered “lunch,” which included a brick of bread with chicken pieces and sauce spread in-between. I believe a word related to “schnitzel” was thrown around, but I’m not sure the dish deserved a name.

Quickly we landed in Skopje, the first city in our adventure through the Balkans. Luggage arrived <THANK GOD> , check. As previously mentioned, we chose Sixt as our rental car company and received our white Opal Astra from the airport. The attendant was super nice and helpful, but of course had to scan our lives away (passports, driver’s license, paperwork, etc.).

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Robyn volunteered to start us out on this trip, and I gracefully let her have the honors since I drove first when we traveled to Costa Rica. Keep in mind that Robyn and I do not have a car or drive in the United States. In the Garmin we punched the address of our first Airbnb reservation, which was located in central Skopje. Despite it being cloudy, the drive from the airport to the city was beautiful, with green mountainous countryside and unfinished homes showing up sporadically alongside the road. The signs, as expected, were headlined in Cyrillic letters but also translated into English.

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Once we arrived in the city, traffic was low, but the traffic signals were hard to understand. People would honk even if it was a red light, so we erred on the side of caution and just waited for a green signal. The buildings looked run down with graffiti covering the lower levels of the cityscape. We navigated to where Garmin took us, which was obviously not where we needed to be. We asked some locals for driving directions (who were likely staring at us because of Robyn’s red hair). I contacted the Airbnb host and met her at the Greek Embassy, which was about a block away from our stay. We parked, and she showed us around the apartment. We were on the top of a five-story building and had a great balcony with a view of the city. She was so welcoming and excited to host us.

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We walked around the city to make the most of the day we had left. The streets were dark with lots of stray cats. We went to a mall/supermarket to buy some water and snacks and also got some local currency (denars). Robyn and I later purchased some cheap cigarettes, as EVERYONE in the city appeared to be smoking. When in Rome! (Disclaimer: Mom/family/friends – I do not smoke in the U.S., so do not be concerned about the subsequent mention of cigarettes 🙂 ) I took my first selfie with a graffiti backdrop to commemorate arrival in Skopje.

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Later on, we ran into the Macedonia Square, a beautiful city center flanked with a Greek-style triumphal arch and statues. Alexander the Great on a Horse stood on top of the city center fountain, lit up with red and yellow colors (from Macedonia’s flag). This area is a recent development in the late 2000’s to commemorate the 20th anniversary of independence from Yugoslavia. At times, the fountain and muffled music would coincide to create a light and water show; this was neat, but also seemed like a desperate attempt to excite tourists. Nearby is the Vardar River that intersects the city, with the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia lit up in the colors of the flag as well. We went down toward the Stone Bridge where we snapped our first “travel buddy” pics.

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We ate at a restaurant near the plaza called La Terrazza. I had a stuffed meat Macedonian dish with a Metaxa to drink. The Metaxa (a strong brandy) cleared up the pipes, that’s for sure. As we went to pay, I realized I did not have my driver’s license (cue the panic button). Robyn then questioned hers as well, and realized she didn’t have hers either. CRAP. I knew it had to be at the airport when the attendant was so excited to help us Americans that he accidentally left the DL’s on the copy machine. We called the airport and he denied that he would have left them there. He soon after went to check and found them where we assumed; later that night, they drove them to us from the airport. CRISIS AVERTED.

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We walked home with a little pep-in-our-step as the streets were not well-lit and the graffiti-dominant surroundings weren’t the best of backdrops to feel secure. When we arrived back, we went up to our floor and got out the key to open the door. I tried a couple of times but couldn’t get it to open. Robyn then tried. Then I tried. Then PANIC SET IN. Were we being stupid about opening the door? What did we do wrong? We double-checked to make sure we were on the right floor. Yep. We tried a few more times before calling our host who actually lives in the bottom of the same building. The host came to try and couldn’t get it open either! He then had to call a handyman to help out. We were nervous because it was a national holiday that day and it was late (around 11 p.m.). The hosts invited us to their place to wait for a bit; we played with their gigantic house dog and chatted about Skopje and the region. Luckily a large man in a bright red sweater showed up to help open the mystery door. He essentially had to saw off the lock to get us in. Apparently the door has multiple locks the more you turn the key, and one of the locks got stuck. Luckily we made it in but had to sleep with no door lock, which we didn’t even care at that point. What an interesting way to start out the trip! I was, however, excited to be in a new culture, adventure and part of the world.

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October 24, 2015 – Anticipating the Unknown in Kosovo & Albania

We got a good night’s rest to catch up after all of the flying and first-day exploring. Luckily, the sun was out and enticed us to explore some more of Skopje before we jumped back in our Opal to the next city.

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Robyn had heard about the Old Bazaar in Skopje, a Turkish-styled bazaar on the old stone streets of the city. We woke up early enough to snap some daytime photos of the city on our walk. A lot of the buildings resemble the old Yugoslavia architecture: simple, efficient, non-stylized and practical. The Old Bazaar was close to where we were in the Macedonia Square the night before; we crossed the Stone Bridge and eventually stumbled upon stone pathways to the bazaar. Not many people were out and about yet, so we grabbed a coffee. So, coffee in this area is much much different from what we drink in the U.S. They do not drink cups or mugs of coffee, but rather drink shots of espresso or small servings of coffee (I’ll get more into Bosnian coffee in a later post). We looked around an antique store and eventually the bazaar started to come to life.

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Most of the market included practical things for the locals (shoes, cleaning supplies, sundries, clothes, food, etc.). The few tourist or souvenir shops included the mass-produced Macedonian products that we are not so interested in, however, Robyn did find some unique antique vases that survived wartime Yugoslavia.

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We headed back to our car to head off to our next destination, Kosovo. It was of course my turn to drive, but I was ready for the challenge. We were excited, anxious, and uncertain about what to expect in Kosovo. As you might know, Kosovo is a disputed territory just northwest of Macedonia. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, however, only about half of the world recognizes Kosovo as its own country; Serbia still considers Kosovo part of its jurisdiction. You might also recall that the U.S. occupied Kosovo during unrest in the 1990’s. With all this history in mind, we were not sure what to expect.

We arrived at our first border crossing. There is an exit “station” for the country you are exiting and an entry station about 50 yards after for the country you are entering. We were given advice to bring money for border crossings as there is a charge, however, we were not asked at all on our whole trip to pay! One has to show his or her car documentation, insurance, and passports when at the border crossings. We did have our International Drivers Permits as well just in case, but we never were asked for them. After we excited Macedonia, Kosovo seemed gloomy and grey. The first thing we saw appeared to be a factory that was polluting the nearby foliage. After about a mile, the grey turned into pure beauty. The colors of red, orange and yellow from the fall trees provided guided access along the road. At points, we would see a dusting of snow alongside the road, bubbling brooks making their way down the mountainside, and beautiful snow-capped mountains.

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The drive was a little bit cumbersome, as I drove back and forth down switchbacks on the side of the Šar Mountains. There was a point when Robyn wanted to stop alongside the road to take pictures, so I began to pull over. Out of no where came a man in uniform wearing an assault rifle across his chest. I quickly vetoed her request and kept going, but thought, WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?! A lot of other countries have police force dressed in such attire and are armed, but we were in Kosovo and didn’t want to take a chance. A few more miles, some trees had fallen into the road, likely from a storm, but thanks to my practice from Costa Rica’s driving adventure, I was able to Mario Kart around the obstacles. The road later included a “cutout” on the right hand side, where it looked like they were placing cables or something. I had to keep close to center, back and forth on the switchbacks.

We eventually made it to our daytime destination, Prizren, Kosovo. It is a beautiful city at the bottom of the mountains with red-roofed buildings and alongside the Bistrica River. First duty: parking. If you look at a map of Prizren, it looks like their urban planner took cooked spaghetti and threw it on a map and said, “Here, these are your streets.” Parking had my blood pressure through the roof, but we found a spot after about 10 minutes. I think Robyn wanted to jump out of the car a few times, but she stuck with me 🙂

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We walked down toward the river on the sunny day to find some lunch. There were a lot of people out and about sitting outside for lunch, taking advantage of the beautiful autumn weekend. We found a spot for lunch and took in the bustling atmosphere, my favorite being the call for prayer at one of the city’s mosques, the Sinan Pasha Mosque. Like most cities in the region, an Old Stone Bridge allowed us to cross to the other side of the city, which is called the Shadervan. We walked around and looked at a few tourist shops, most of which boasted the Albanian flag. Ironically, about 80% of the population is Albanian; less than 1% is actually Serbian. Prizren is a really colorful, clean and beautiful city with much life. On our way back to our car, we stopped in a Muslim store, where a guy was really eager to help us. He showed us several religious gifts including the symbol for Muhammad. Soon enough, the guy was trying to sell me black market Armani cologne; he even gave me a sample and was rubbing it on my neck! At least I smelled good for the rest of the day!

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It was Robyn’s turn to drive again, and it took us some time to get out of Prizren. The spaghetti-shaped streets also included tiny spaces to drive and multiple cars trying to get through. In the late afternoon, we drove to Albania. The highway to Albania was superb! It seemed recently constructed and allowed a higher speed limit than what we expected. A few of my references said that driving in Albania can get a little wild, but we did not experience too much craziness from other motorists.

Some of the drive through Albania included steep hills, but the beautiful backdrop of the sunset on mountains and rivers made the drive absolutely stunning. The drive also had long covered tunnels that carved out the mountains. The sun started to set, and we were anxious to get to our night’s stay in Kotor, Montenegro, yet another country border crossing. After we traveled through Albania, the drive in Montenegro became interesting/terrifying…

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[See my next post to learn more about Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina]

-Michael

Delightful Life South of the Border, No Resorts Necessary [Jalisco and Guanajuato, Mexico]

Personal Life, Travel

Hello! In case you were curious, I did adjust back to my habitat of Chicago after spending a couple weeks in Peru’s grueling elevation. After the holidays and New Year, I got the travel itch again but wanted to do something more attainable. Mexico, being nearby and closer to me than even some parts of the U.S., has been on my travel wish list for some time.

I met a new friend Chav (Salvador Ascencio Sánchez) last summer in Chicago. Chav was spending a six-month stay in Chicago with his family in the Cicero neighborhood, a Hispanic-dominated area southwest of downtown Chicago. Chav is from the State of Jalisco, Mexico, the same state that is home to Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta. Throughout his time in Chicago, we compared our life experiences. Even though we grew up in different countries, we found common ground as we both grew up in small towns in agricultural regions, close to family and dreaming of what it was like to live in a big city.

On a random Thursday in March, I was curious how much tickets to Guadalajara were running, and to my luck, I searched on a day where one airline had a big sale for all flights. I called Chav and let him know I was thinking of visiting Mexico since tickets were so cheap. So, I booked my trip to Mexico right away and arrived in Guadalajara less than 48 hours after deciding to come.

March 14, 2015 – Chicago > Atlanta > Guadalajara

One of my favorite things to do (and I advise you to do if you can) is to travel to places where you know someone and use them as a guinea pig to show you the city and immerse yourself in the culture. Sorry Chav! My flight left midday Saturday and I had to fly to Atlanta before heading south to Mexico. While in Atlanta, I made a couple friends (mom & daughter) who used to live in Chicago and have family in Guadalajara. They actually gave me some great recommendations of Mexican eateries in Chicago – Lalo’s and Allende Restaurant. They were so excited for me to experience Mexico and to enjoy the food.

I had a pretty good flight to Guadalajara. The flight mostly consisted of Hispanics, most of whom were visiting family. I sat next to a middle-aged man who was visiting his wife and kids; we had an intermittent conversation. When dinnertime came around and the flight was passing out meals, I was joking that I wished they had pozole, a Mexican soup made with hominy, pork, chili peppers and seasonings that I’ve had at a few authentic Mexican places in Chicago. (Note: Pozole is a specialty dish and takes a lot of time to make). He chuckled and got a good kick out of my joke, and when the flight attendant came around, he joked with her and said (in Spanish), “This young man would like some pozole.” The attendant and people around engulfed in laughter and commented in Spanish. I felt like it was a great way to start the trip and being involved in Mexican comedy, even though it was at my expense!

When we touched down in Guadalajara, it was dark and I went through immigration and customs. As with most countries, walking through the doors to the public is like a runway for models, with crowds of people lined up waiting for their loved ones or friends to be home. Except this time, it was me, a 6’5″ foreign caucasian/Native American guy, generating several confused looks from the Mexicans. I looked through the crowd of 5’6 (+/- 2″) people for Chav, but couldn’t find him. I waited around 10 minutes, and then he arrived (luckily because my cell phone was not activated for international use). We loaded my bags in the SUV, and I was surprised to see that his sister Ivonne and her two girls, Isabella and Vanessa, had joined as well. Chav speaks pretty good English, although broken at times, but his sister and her kids do not know English, so I tried to put my classroom-taught Spanish skills to use.

Chav and his family live in Tepatitlán de Morelos, a city of ~100,000 about one hour northeast of Guadalajara. Upon arriving to “Tepa,” we dropped Ivonne and her kids off and went for some late-night tacos at a place called Tacos Rizo. THIS IS WHAT I HAD BEEN WAITING FOR: authentic Mexican food, freshly-made tortillas and fresh meat. I had my share of steak and pork tacos with the addition of salsas. Fun fact: In Mexico, red salsas are spicy, green salsas are not. Chav lives with his parents José (José de Jesus Ascencio Rojas) and Esther (Maria Esther Sánchez Jiménez) in a small, two level home in the city. When walking into his home, I noticed that Mexico doesn’t make tall-people friendly doorways, so I had to duck here-and-there.

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March 15, 2015 – Exploring Tepatitlán, Guadalajara and Zapopan

After a long day of traveling, I took advantage of sleeping in. Chav’s mom owns a restaurant called “Las Cazuelas” near the city center of Tepa, so we hung out there for a while and had enchiladas and chilaquiles for lunch. Because it was Sunday, everyone in the town was out and about in the streets. Like all Latin American cities, the town had a prominent “plaza de armas” flanked with grand churches. It was a beautiful small town where everyone knew everyone. After a while of walking around, I had somehow lost my debit card (likely when I pulled something out of my pocket), so I had to find a phone to call and cancel it. Crisis averted.

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We borrowed Gerardo’s (husband of Ivonne) truck to make a quick trip to Guadalajara for the evening. Seeing the Mexican countryside in the daylight for the first time was breathtaking. The variety of lakes, hills, plains, mountains and rivers made driving an hour through rural areas not so bad. When we arrived, it was raining, so Chav took me on a quick tour through downtown Guadalajara and then to Zapopan, a wealthy city connected to Guadalajara. For dinner, we ate at Las Alitas and had spicy salads; then off to a coffee shop for a late night smoothie. Back to Tepa we headed to end the day.

March 16, 2015 – Rain-washed Tepa

When Chav was in Chicago last year, we often got brunch at a place called Stella’s near my apartment. So, on Monday we decided to catch brunch at a local cafe. I had an omelette with cheese, onion, potatoes and peppers with chilaquiles on the side.

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Chav showed me around some of Tepa’s key landmarks including the San Franciscan church and Temple of San Antonio. The city is painted in a variety of colors, which probably keeps people so happy! In Chicago, all of our buildings are either brown, black or glass. Maybe we should invest in some paint colors! Later in the day, it rained quite hard, flooding water down the hills of the city. For dinner, I finally got what I had previously spoke about – pozole. I also ordered a couple enchiladas, a salad and atole, a creamy sweet corn drink. The food coma later knocked me out earlier than usual.

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March 17, 2015 – First Job Interview & A New Favorite Mexican Dish

Before this trip, I had been looking for my next career adventure after working at an ad agency for more than three years. I wasn’t expecting any interviews for the week in which I was in Mexico, but something came down where I landed a phone interview. Given that my cell phone did not work, Chav’s sister allowed me to use her home phone for my interview (she gets free calls to the U.S.). I called my interview contact from the Mexican land line and performed a phone interview, which would later end up being the job I landed when I returned to the U.S. So, I can thank Maria de Guadalupe for all the luck!

Chav’s sister, Ivonne, has a beautiful home with tiled floors and modern design. They have a golden retriever dog named Gaston, a beautiful well-behaved family dog who will give you a handshake. Once lunchtime rolled around, we headed to downtown Tepa, where we ate in a two-story market. Here I discovered one of my new favorite dishes, a gordita. It consisted of a thick homemade corn tortilla covered in cheese, refried beans, nopales (sliced cacti), cut steak and french fries. SO GOOD. And the Taco Bell “gordita” is not even real. To drink, I had freshly-squeezed guayaba (guava) juice.

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After my excitement subsided from that amazing meal, we toured El Señor de la Misericordia church’s art and history gallery. The exhibit showed modern paintings from local artists and old artifacts from La Guerra Cristera (Cristero War).

I noticed that the city shuts down from 2-4 p.m. for their “siesta” or rest time. Most stores open back up at 4 p.m. and stay open to 6 or 7. For dinner, we tried sushi at Du Bar (I won’t lie, I was a bit skeptical), but it was actually quite delicious. As a palette cleanser, we went to Bistro 77, a cute New York-style bistro, for a coffee before calling it a day.

March 18, 2015 – Daytime in Guadalajara & Nighttime in Tlaquepaque 

Las Cazuelas tended to be our first stop of the day to grab coffee and a quick lunch. I wanted to head back to Guadalajara to see the city in the daytime and explore. It is tough for Chav to travel sometimes, as he had sold his car a while back to help out his family financially. All family cars were occupied, so we took a bus from Tepa to Guadalajara. We hopped off at the side of a main road in the city and negotiated for a taxi to take us to the place where we were renting a car. The car had a manual transmission, which is a key travel skill that I lack, but based on the insane Mexican driving, it was probably a blessing in disguise.

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In downtown Guadalajara, the main city center was bustling with people, even on a weekday. The city plaza again included a large church, Catedral de Guadalajara, and a large fountain. This city seemed more tourist-friendly but Chav said most tourists are from within the country (so I continued to stand out). GDL seemed like the hub for shopping and dining in the area, attracting many visitors from surrounding towns. I noticed in a beauty store that you can buy face cream by container size. You basically scoop out Nivea, for example, from a huge bucket based on how much you want. It seemed somewhat odd, but why not buy your beauty products in bulk?!

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As the sun began to set, we got caught up in rush hour traffic on our way to nearby Tlaquepaque (such a fun name for a city!). The small town is known for being a destination for late-night activities or for a nightly stroll. We saw many couples enjoying street food, relaxing at the dimly-lit city square and sharing laughs. One of the street vendors was selling fresh corn, cream and cheese, so we got a cup of that along with soybeans (similar to edamame). I purchased a ceramic painted skull (common art in Mexico) and some gifts for friends as well. Back to Tepa for the night, the eve before we took the rental car for more adventures.

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March 19, 2015 – Lake Chapala & The Movies

Now that we had a rental car, we were a little more free to explore Jalisco and beyond. Before coming to Mexico, I noticed a large body of water near Guadalajara called Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest freshwater lake. We made the drive from Tepa to Lake Chapala, giving me ample opportunities to take some photos of Mexico’s beautiful and ever-changing terrain. Over the few days I had been there, I noticed the clouds were so strikingly white and large. I’m not sure why this is; it might be due to the 5,000 ft.+ elevation.

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We drove over a large hill and could see the outstanding views of the lake, the sun creating picturesque reflections on the water’s surface. We parked and ate lunch at one of the restaurants that overlooked the lake. Cows grazed on the grass next to the water, water fowl posted up in the sun and white cranes gathered together on perches. A pier allows people to walk out on the water to take in the views. I purchased a replica boat from a street artist for cheap, and we spent another hour or so looking around the area before headed back to the city. In Guadalajara, we went to see a movie called “Focus” featuring Will Smith. Lucky for me, the audio was in English with Spanish subtitles. The movie popcorn options were buttered or spicy chili flavored – SO Mexican.

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After a long day away from Tepa, we grabbed some late-night tacos from a street vendor before going to bed. I think I might have gained 10 pounds by this point.

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March 20, 2015 – Road Trip to the State and City of Guanajuato

We woke up with the intention to put some more miles on the rental car and explore. Chav is originally from an area east of Tepatitlán, so we drove that way to check out some more of Jalisco. We arrived in the city of Arandas, a town of about 45,000 people with the stereotypical look and feel of a Mexican city. A large spired cathedral and Liberty-looking bell stood at the front of the main square while a primary school band marched around the square to practice their songs. For a quick snack, we grabbed some tequila-flavored ice cream before moving on to our next pit stop.

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The region is also known for its blue agave fields which are crucial to the production of tequila. Months ago, Chav and I randomly ate at a restaurant in Chicago called Tecalitlan where they serve 3G (Los Tres Garcias) tequila. Part of the Garcia family owns that restaurant in Chicago and the other part of the family works at the 3G tequila factory near Arandas!

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We drove off of the main highway over a few hills to Chav’s original hometown, Josefino, a town of about 1,000 people. It reminded me of my hometown in Kansas, where everyone knows everyone and they double-take at anyone new to the town. It was so eerily quiet like a ghost town.

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Back on the road we stopped at an area where we could get some water out of a well. I noticed large clusters of prickly pear cacti growing nearby and scooped up a few baby ones that I hoped to take back home with me.

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The drive past this point was interesting. The highway had so many potholes that it was almost dangerous to drive, especially in our small economy car. As we neared the Jalisco-Guanajuato border, I became a bit nervous as I’ve heard stories of Mexican drug cartels guarding state borders and creating havoc with drivers. To our luck, the state line was noted with just a welcome sign and we entered Guanajuato. The terrain quickly changed to low plains surrounded by bluffs and lakes. Irapuato was the next largest city on the trip and was bustling with traffic and people; quite the change from the small towns we had just witnessed.

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Our main stop of the trip was next: Guanajuato City. Upon arriving, I noticed colorful houses on the high hills/mountains that looked similar to the favelas of Brazil combined with the beauty of Cinque Terra in Italy. It was such a beautiful sight and photo opportunity to capture the colors of the homes with the backdrop of the green mountains.

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We walked around the narrow stone streets of the city; it had the villa feel of Paris and had the stone quality of Cuzco, Peru’s streets. Guanajuato City had a lot more tourists from all over the world, as it seemed more of a destination for honeymoons and family trips.

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After having a plate of enchiladas, we walked down through the people-filled streets, encountering street artists, bands, students and people hanging outside. The beautifully-lit Teatro Juarez was hosting a show that evening, so a lot of people were waiting around for the event. As darkness came around, we needed to get back in the car and head toward Tepa, as we were quite far away from home. The route home went through the well-known city of León, Lagos de Moreno and San Juan de los Lagos. I had a wonderful day exploring so much more of Mexico.

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March 21, 2015 – Saying Goodbye to Chav, His Family and Mexico

Well, my week in Mexico had come to an end. My flight was later in the day, so I had some time to stick around and enjoy the warm weather for a bit longer. We of course ate breakfast at Las Cazuelas, and I sadly said goodbye to Ivonne, Isabella, Vanessa and Esther. We grabbed some food at a taco stand on the outskirts of the city, where we ran into Ivonne’s husband Gerardo.

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Chav and I headed toward the airport in GDL where we returned the rental car and waited for my flight. Chav’s friends were picking him to go to a friend’s house in León later that day. I said goodbye and thanked Chav for such an authentic experience for my first time in Mexico. My flight home was direct, so that saved some time even though I arrived at 2 a.m. the next day. Remember those cacti that I brought from Josefino? I marked them on my customs form, but the customs officers did not care and let me go free. Now I have two thriving cacti in my apartment to remind me of this trip.

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Final Thoughts & Extras from the Trip

Tepatitlán was such an authentic Mexican city. After a few days there, I started to notice things that were not normal to me as an American. There was a recurring time every day that I heard what sounded like bombs going off. The sound was so loud that it rattled the neighborhoods and woke you up if you were sleeping. Chav said that there is a cannon that goes off to signify church service. Sort of a, “Get the hell up and come worship Maria de Guadalupe!”

That was not the only noise that came to be all-too-familiar. Every morning I would hear the same noises that seemed so weird to me. The first one was a truck that drove through the neighborhood blasting what sounded like a jingle, “Ze-ta Ze-ta Ze-ta Gas!” If you needed gas for your home, again, you better get moving and flag down the truck. Their were also certain songs that signified the milk and water trucks that came by within another hour or two. They still have a milk man! How cool.

In terms of expenses, everything in Tepa was so cheap. Unlike Chicago, eating out might actually save you money! Young kids walked around trying to sell little candies or trinkets while their parents worked at the family business. Here, you are known by who your family is more so than who you are as an individual.

My life goal, as many of you know, is to be as culturally and professionally diverse as possible. This trip was eye-opening to me for many reasons. Like I saw in Peru and Costa Rica as well, people are so happy with their ways of life and seem to love and enjoy everything regardless of status or wealth. Chav mentioned that he sold his car to help his mom and sister buy things that they wanted. They would do the same for him. It’s being selfless to another level. I would definitely help out family and friends if needed, but would I go out of my way to sell my car? Probably not. After being in Tepa for a week, I didn’t want to leave. I felt so welcomed and happy in the city despite my appearance and lack of Spanish fluency. I would find myself taking pauses throughout my time there to witness the happiness and pride of the Mexican people and wished America would be more like it. This experience in west central Mexico will always stay with me, and I hope it reminds me to enjoy life and maximize happiness. Until the next adventure, adios!

Reaching New Heights and World Wonders in the Preserved Culture of the Incas [Peru]

Personal Life, Travel

Hello all!

It feels wonderful to write again after a long absence. Over the past couple months, my life has taken some detours, but travel always seems to bring everything back into perspective and is a breath of fresh air. During the summer, my friend Robyn and I searched for our next Chicago winter escape. At first, we were looking at Morocco, but the long flights and travel package weren’t as attractive as our eventual destination, Peru.

You might remember Robyn from my last international trip to Costa Rica. She is a fellow Kansan-turned-Chicagoan and is the perfect travel companion: adventurous and logical. We share similar traits – intermediate Spanish fluency, independent personalities, rational-minded, and the need for SPF 50 sunscreen. We booked the Peru trip through Valencia Travel Cusco, a 13-day Peruvian experience showing the best of Peru and Machu Picchu.

Before the Trip
Last year, I knew that Costa Rica would be a relaxing, beautiful and warm trip that required T-shirts, shorts, sunscreen and a rain jacket. Packing for Peru was a different story. Our itinerary suggested packing a gamut of clothes ranging from T-shirts to sweaters, sandals to hiking boots and sunscreen to bug repellent. Our trip in November would be during Peru’s short “spring” season, with temperatures heating up as the northern hemisphere cools. Its location near the equator would indicate scorching temperatures, right? Well, if you’re familiar with Peru at all, it is located on the northwest side of South America, where the longest mountain chain in the world, the Andes, exists down the Pacific coast. Not only were we dealing with temperature variation, we were dealing with elevation, which I’ll get into much more detail later.

On Halloween, I attempted to pack for the two-week adventure. I did end up packing the full range of clothes and also checked the temperatures in Peru on my Yahoo! Weather mobile app. The temperatures seemed pretty consistent, ranging from 40-70 degrees.

November 1, 2014 – Flight to Miami
Our trip actually began domestically with a flight from Chicago to Miami. In the afternoon, we boarded the American Airlines flight to Miami. During the flight we played a game on Robyn’s iPad that made the trip seem like only one hour. After arriving in Miami, we retrieved our luggage and eventually found the LAN Airlines international check-in station after about a mile of walking. We were all set for our trip outside the country; just had to play the waiting game until boarding time… which was about two hours later.

November 2, 2014 – Stepping Foot in Lima, Peru
The agony of no leg room and terrible airline food ensued soon after. I sat in the middle of the large commercial plane, and given the time of departure (1 a.m. EDT), I found a position to sleep and did so for most of the flight. We arrived in the capital Lima at 5:40 a.m., went through customs and immigration, and looked for our guide Victor. The remaining folks in our group were as expected, older and dressed in fanny packs and baggy cargo pants. We boarded a charter bus that took us to our hotel to drop off our things, and then set out to explore Lima.

Our first stop was at an ancient ceremonial and archeological site called Huaca Pucllana. The site is a pyramid made of adobe and clay bricks that are settled vertically. The pyramid in the Miraflores neighborhood served as a religious and administrative center for the Lima culture in the early 100’s A.D.

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The city is cloudy about 300 days of the year, and we experienced one of them. Our next stop was the historic center of Lima, where natives asked us to take pictures with them. Maybe it’s because we’re tall… or white… or because Robyn has striking red hair.

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On the ride to the next stop, we traveled by Peru’s National Team Football (Soccer) Stadium and a cat park, which as you guessed is a park full of stray cats. Robyn loves cats and wanted to stop, but a full schedule and the fear of catching foreign diseases kept us moving… Our next stop was the Plaza Mayor, the city’s center including the government palace, the archbishop’s palace, the cathedral and city hall. When we arrived, we noticed a marching band and ceremony going on near the palace, so we went over to check it out. The city had its weekly changing of the guard event, where officials rode in on beautiful horses in formation.

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We walked down a narrow street to the central bank museum and the San Franciscan church where we received a guided tour of the church. Because it was Sunday, we could hear the hymns and scriptures being read during our tour. The courtyard in the middle of the church was beautiful, with naves covered in frescoes and ornate tiling that dates back centuries. We then explored a cave under the church where catacombs house human skulls and bones of important church members. It is thought that the spirits of the deceased live within the current life of the church. While interesting, it was nice to escape the eery part of the church and into a place where I didn’t have to duck from hitting my head!

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After quite the morning of touring, we headed to a restaurant for lunch. Peru is known for its seafood, especially ceviche, so I stuck with the seafood theme and ordered a delicious plate of grilled octopus and potatoes. After lunch, we wanted to see some of the ocean since most of our trip was inland. After a long trek down hills, we reached the shore, where a herd of surfers were taking advantage of the wind and waves. Even though the “beach” was made of large rounded rocks, we posted up next to some surfers and took in the beautiful sights and smells of the Pacific Ocean.

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Back at the hotel, we finally were able to take a shower (last shower was almost two days before!). We headed to a dinner nearby, where I enjoyed braised chicken, beet salad and potatoes. To wash it down, I order a camu camu smoothie; this fruit is native to the Amazon and is similar to guava (bright pink in color!). We scurried back to the hotel after a long first day in Peru, knowing that the next day would include another flight.

November 3, 2014 – Down South in Arequipa
It was another early morning for us, but we returned to the Lima airport for our domestic flight to Arequipa, which is a city on the south side of Peru. Our flight had breathtaking views of the Andes Mountains, as the terrain turned more rugged and dry. A Polish lady sitting next to us on the flight spent more that half the flight taking videos of the window view, but I didn’t care because I was in the front row with more leg room than I’ve had in years.

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Arequipa was warm, dry and rugged. The city is surrounded by mountains and volcanoes with a river splitting the city in half. The city is known for its white buildings made of volcanic stone. This second-largest city in Peru was bustling with business on a Monday, with lots of people in the streets enjoying the weather. After arriving to our hotel, we took a quick walking tour down the narrow beautiful stone streets. Again, the main square in the city is always full of life and action. Arequipa’s main square is enclosed by the Cathedral of Arequipa and two-floored buildings with balconies. It was a beautiful day on the plaza, so we grabbed lunch on the second floor of the west side of the plaza, where I had rocoto relleno (my favorite dish of the trip). The dish is a beef stew-stuffed red pepper with scrambled eggs and potatoes on the side. To wash it all down, I treated myself to an Inca Kola, which tastes like cream soda and is Peru’s favorite soft drink.

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Following lunch, we took a lot of time to walk around. The streets were full with vendors, selling anything from pencils, to scarves, to chicken feet. We went into a large city market of crafts, clothes and food. We first walked down an aisle of plants. We then walked down an aisle of cheese. We then began down the next aisle, only to bolt the other direction and find refuge in the fruit aisle. The aisle we had avoided was the meat aisle – an compilation of chicken, beef, fish, guinea pig, llama, alpaca and other foreign meat smells. Not only did I question the sanitation of the market, I questioned why people would eat their lunch there! Throughout our walk that afternoon, we noticed that the vendors seem to group themselves together – the cleaning supply vendors were clustered together, same as the egg vendors, and same as the fire extinguisher vendors. Yes, there were about 3-4 stores that were selling fire extinguishers.. not exactly sure how often these people expect fires, but I guess they’ll be ready!

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At the end of a long day of walking and getting lost, we ate dinner at a speciality potato restaurant. There were six different types of potatoes in my dish, ranging from buttery, to purple, to sweet. Covered in chicken and curry sauce, the dish was a nice end to a great day full of a typical Peruvian lifestyle.

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November 4, 2014 – Elevation Takes Its Toll
An early morning? You guessed it. Driving back through Arequipa, we were able to take in some lasting views of the beautiful city. Knowing that it would be a long road trip through high elevation, we stopped at a convenience store and picked up some water and coca candies to assist in the ascension. Yes, leaves that produce cocaine (in moderation) are legal in Peru, but no mom, I was not doing full-on lines of cocaine! The coca leaves have been used for centuries to alleviate the ailments of altitude sickness. It would take tons of those candies to even make the effect of a line of cocaine.

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Alongside the road as we exited the city, folks gathered in groups waiting for someone to provide them with work, such as construction or manual labor jobs. Beneath the mountains on the outskirts of the city were small, boxy homes with no sign of humanity. According to a local Arequipan, people created a community outside of the main city and are staking claim to ground should there ever be a chance the government issues permits to allow citizens to live there. People visit their “boxes” every weekend if possible to make sure someone hasn’t moved or interfered with their area. Arequipa is becoming expensive, and the people of the city are hoping for a better life outside the city should the government ever grant these dreams.

We headed for Chivay, a small town in the valley of the mountains. It was a long day of drinking water and sucking down coca candies. Our first mid-highway stop was to view vicuñas, beautiful white and cinnamon-colored animals that are relatives to llamas and look similar to deer. Their furs are the finest of all wool in South America; a blanket made of vicuña fur would probably cost more than $10,000. After snapping some photos of the animals and the views, we continued up the mountains, and after a nap (or two) we hit our next pit stop, a small shack stop in the middle of nowhere called Fundo Chapioco. We ordered what they call, “Triple Tea,” a mixture of coca, nuña, and chachacoma teas/plants, which help with the altitude. We sat outside at a small table, with nothing in sight besides a winding road and mountains. It felt like we were stranded in the middle of New Mexico, with no gas stations for 100 miles and no cell phone service to even hope for. After consuming the concentrated tea, I rolled up eight or nine of the coca leaves into a joint and chewed them next to my cheek (again, it supposedly helps with the whole experience of being “high”). Quickly after we departed, we saw a herd of llamas and alpacas. They are peaceful, harmless beings, and even have gotten the hang of taking the selfie photo pose with tourists!

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Others on our bus at this point were getting sick, looking tragic, and peeing every five minutes. I couldn’t judge them though, because the elevation was affecting us all, except for the 80-year-old from Denver who never lost a step the entire trip! After 15 minutes chewing my “cud,” I thought I felt okay, but the elevation was finally getting to me. We were headed to the highest point of our trip, Pata Pampa. We stopped there at the outlook; I rested and took in the views from the bus due to my lightheadedness, but before you call me a “wuss,” let me put the elevation of this trip in perspective for you:

Here are some familiar places and their elevations above sea level, compared to points on this trip (in italics):
Denver: 5,500 ft.
Kansas City: 910 ft.
Chicago: 594 ft.
Mexico City: 7,380 ft.
Lima: 5,090 ft.
Arequipa: 7,761 ft.
Chivay: 11,926 ft.
Puno: 12,556 ft.
Cusco: 11,152 ft.
Pata Pampa (near Chivay): 16,109 ft.

Do you see Pata Pampa on the list?! Over 16k feet above. sea. level. To put that in even more perspective for you, I was a) higher than all but six mountain peaks in the U.S., b) 2,000 feet higher than ANY point in the contiguous 48 U.S. states, and c) higher than any point in 49 out of the 50 U.S. states (exception Alaska). And as you can see from the pictures, this isn’t a peak of sorts. This is just a point alongside the road that is the highest we hit. No. big. deal.

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Okay, I digress. In as much breath as that took me to write, I would have died if I was writing this on top of that hill.

We continued down the hill on a switchback, a fancy word for a road that zigzags up or down a steep hillside. When we got to the “bottom,” still at 11,ooo+ ft., we were welcomed to the city of Chivay, population 4,500. We had a nice buffet lunch, including the favorites of potatoes, alpaca and quinoa. After lunch, we got to the hotel, which were small wood cabins with stucco walls. We took our time to recoup after an exhausting day and then went to dinner a couple blocks away at a pizzeria (did I mention Peruvians love pizza?) I had a quinoa soup for dinner and listened to live music while eating. A young girl and boy did several dance rituals for our viewing. Little did I know, I would be the first participant chosen from the “crowd” to join the pair. It was a dance where the boy gets poisoned and the girl whips him to wake him up and then dances over the boy with her skirt (it’s a little hard to explain, and I’m probably still bit confused by what went on myself). It was fun to be involved and experience the dance with the locals. After watching a couple more dances, I was chosen AGAIN to participate in a different dance, where the girls dressed as boys and the boys dressed as girls. We danced in circles, holding hands and created a chain link of arms around the restaurant. At least I know my dancing is appreciated somewhere! (or painstakingly being ridiculed!) Returning to the hotel, I bundled up under the blankets to adjust to the cold nights in the valley of the mountains.

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November 5, 2014 – Indescribable Views

We woke up early enough the next day to catch the sunrise and watch the green valleys soak up the morning sun. Within the valley are crop terraces, some still existing from the days of the Incan Empire. From afar, the views look like a patched quilt of green rags. The ancestors and modern day inhabitants utilize 100% of all land that is arable, planting crops like maiz (corn), quinoa, potatoes and other vegetables. We stopped a few times along the way to take in the views of the valley (and of course posed once again with an alpaca). After a short while, we made it to our morning destination: Colca Canyon at the point of Cruz del Condor, which means Cross of the Condor.

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From one stance, you could see the top of the mountain range and peek down over the edge to see water carving the bottom of the valley. Due to the great weather, we were able to spot a few condors in action. Condors are the largest flying birds in the Western Hemisphere and are sacred to the Peruvian people, despite their vulture mentality. Robyn and I hiked down to a lower vantage point to take some macro photos and made a “rock pile” along the way (it is custom in Peru to stack three or more stones and to make a wish). I can’t put into words the beauty of this site and the breathtaking views it provides. Personally, I’ve never felt so enclosed but so free at the same time.

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On our way back to Chivay, we stopped a couple more times, once at another viewpoint (where we saw a condor close-up), and next, to a small village.

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Back in Chivay, we had a quick lunch near the city square. Luckily we ran out of time before I was tempted to eat the ice cream that was being sold in the market (I heard it was not safe and that I’d get sick!). A group of us boarded a bus and headed to Puno, our next stop in this long journey. I slept most of the way, but I woke up in time to see the sunset and the city lights of Puno.

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Upon arriving to the hotel in Puno, a marching band took over the street next to us and took over my nerves, too! We walked a few blocks away to grab dinner; as we were walking, a local artist stopped us to show us artwork. It apparently was Puno’s art festival that week, so Robyn and I bought a couple of paintings off of him to support the trade and to bring back an authentic souvenir.

November 6, 2014 – Cruising Lake Titicaca and Unconventional Lodging

I looked forward to this day’s activities the most when we booked the trip, so of course I woke up not feeling well and with a temperature that was all over the place. I HAD to stick it out, though, because I wasn’t going to miss a day on one of the most recognized lakes in the world.

After throating down some unwanted breakfast, I pulled it together and walked a block from our hotel to a line of pedicabs waiting for us. The pedicab took us through insane morning traffic (there are few traffic rules in Puno), where we potentially lost our lives about four times. The pedicab driver took us to the port of Lake Titicaca, where we purchased household items at a shop that we would later give to our host family. Oh shoot, I forgot to mention that WE ARE STAYING IN THE MIDDLE OF LAKE TITICACA WITH A LOCAL HOST FAMILY!!! We purchased some sugar, margarine, fruit, rice, pasta and children gifts that would essentially serve as our payment for staying there. After gathering our goods, we boarded a boat that would take us out on the largest lake in South America.

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The lake is so crystal clear and fresh, a lot more sanitary-looking than my neighbor Lake Michigan. You could see water grass and plants growing through the lake and fisherman trying to bring in the day’s catch. About 40 minutes into the lake, we stopped at the Uros floating islands. Yes, there are floating islands in the middle of the lake where people actually live. The islands are made of dried reeds that grow in the lake and are anchored in the water. Stepping off the boat onto the island, our feet sank about a foot into the reed piles. We sat on some reed “couches” and learned a bit more about the islands from a guide. Here are some more interesting facts about the islands and the people that live there:
– the islands last about 20-30 years, after which they have to work on creating a new island nearby
– there is a specific school for the floating island communities that is hosted on one island; the kids take small boats and paddle there each day
– there are about 4-5 small huts on each island; inside they keep their clothes, blankets, crafts and utensils
– the island we were on has one small TV powered by a solar panel
– the inhabitants are heavier-set, likely due to little mobility
– women cook, make crafts and usually help with any extra manual work
– men fish, collect reeds, build, and make necessary trips to Puno

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We took a quick reed boat ride on the lake, which was calming, smooth and unbelievable; Robyn’s favorite part of the trip.

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We said goodbye to the natives and took our modern boat to Taquile Island. At the dock, we were greeted by the natives, and began a walk up a steep hill while checking out the agricultural habits and land. At this island, they grow potatoes, wheat, corn and different types of fruits. One kind of weed on the island actually helps with altitude; you take a few leaves and rub it in your hands and it releases a pungent flowery smell that you take in through the nose. (Again, I was just practicing custom, but not actually sure if it helped or just made me woozy). It was a long walk across the island. At the top, we took in the views of whitecapped mountains in the distance, which actually lie in Bolivia. Scaling down toward the shoreline, we stopped to have lunch: omelette, bread, coca tea and quinoa soup.

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The men on this island actually are well-versed in knitting and sewing, as they have to create a cummerbund made of their wives’ hair and thread. Men wear different colored hats depending on their marital status, although, it is not considered a good thing to be single on the island. Outside, a man showed us how to make homemade soap using plants and water, and a group of people performed a local dance to our liking. We learned a few words in the island’s native language, Quechua, an ancient indigenous language similar to Spanish.

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Down a small hill, we encountered our first sand beach and took some time to rest amongst a beautiful lake and mountain backdrop.

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We re-boarded our boat and headed to a peninsula called Chucuito, where we would be greeted by the people of the small community of Luquina Karina. It looked like a small farm community on a hill that might not be totally certain that we’re living in the 21st century. We walked up a hill to the local school building, where we rested on the benches of the soccer/basketball court. Five or six local boys came out and challenged us to a soccer match. We had three guys under 30 years old in our group, and the rest were probably over 60, so I was not confident, to say the least, that we’d last five minutes without quitting. Soccer was one sport that I did not play growing up, not due to interest, but due to time and the sport’s unpopularity in Kansas. After about five minutes of giving decent effort, none of us could breathe. In the back of our minds, we knew that the next 36 hours or so were going to be spent at this altitude of 13,500+ feet, so it was definitely hard to give much effort. The natives scored a goal to lead 1-0 at “halftime.” Toward the end of the second half with hands-on-hips and wheezing breaths, we had somehow remained only down 0-1 despite being attacked the whole game. With about a couple minutes left, I was able to break past one of their defenders and slotted a low shot past the goalie to tie it at 1-1. Never had I scored a soccer goal of any kind on American soil, so why not wait to score one in clutch time on a peninsula in the middle of Lake Titicaca against a country who lives for soccer? A couple of teammates carried me around like a kid who just finished a race in the Special Olympics, but hey, it was a proud moment in my dismal sports history.

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I think I made the locals a bit competitive after my goal, as they wanted to continue in a rematch, but we agreed to take them on in one of our nation’s sports, basketball. We had the height advantage for sure, but the lack of a referee didn’t keep the natives from hanging on our arms to prevent a score. We won 4 goals to 3, and here’s a shoutout to my dad for all the countless basketball practices, as I scored 3 of our team’s 4 shots. Following sports, the natives taught us a couples line dance, which I’m sure was both laughable and tragic for anyone watching.

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We paired off with host families, who took us to their homes for the night’s stay. Our host father was Jesús, a soft-spoken short man with a welcoming heart. We saw others quickly arrive at their homes, but I’m pretty sure Jesús has the penthouse on that peninsula because we climbed nearly to the top. The incline on the peninsula is incredibly steep, so walking at elevation and after an hour of sports was unfortunate. Upon arriving at his “settling,” he showed us around. There isn’t one central house, but rather rooms that are not connected to one another. Our room was small with two small beds and tons of blankets. A bathroom was connected to it; to flush, we had to scoop water out of a bucket and pour it down the toilet. No shower; no sink water either. We rested a bit and then joined Jesús and his wife Natalia in the kitchen “room,” which includes a wood fire stove and a small table to eat. <Of course none of the facilities were built for anyone above 5’10”, so we had to watch our height most of the time. For dinner, Natalia cooked us some potato soup with quinoa, vegetables and rice. I am ever thankful that Robyn and I know decent Spanish because we were able to communicate with the family and learn more than we would without language skills. The locals usually go to bed around 8 p.m., so we joined in their custom and passed out early. The area gets really cold during the night (around 35°), so we smothered ourselves with blankets to avoid the cold air seeping in from the novice insulation. Nothing could keep out the whine of the family’s dog Chato and his donkey friend.

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November 7, 2014 – Working during Vacation

Robyn and I both woke up with the look of, “Where the f*ck am I?” I believe I muttered something like, “No problem, just waking up in a mud brick hut in the middle of Lake Titicaca!” We woke up around 7 a.m. and walked over to the kitchen for a breakfast that included fry bread, hardboiled eggs, peaches and hot tea.

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Right by the living quarters is a similar “room” that the sheep are held in. It is a makeshift structure of tin, tarp and old signs. We were set to help Jesús and Natalia with their typical morning of herding sheep and leading them out to eat in the pasture. Jesús unlatched the sheep gate, and sheep of all sizes started pouring out; each one had a rope tied to its collar. The sheep started in a direction together, as it is likely engrained in their minds of where to go. Remember that steep incline we climbed to get to Jesús’ house? Well, we had to run after the sheep down that incline all the way to a grass pasture near the lake. Jesús and Natalia were quick to run after them, but Robyn and I took extra caution of the rocks and mounds that were bound to twist our ankles.

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We made it to the pasture soon after and helped keep the sheep in one general area. Jesús took a couple sheep and tied their ropes to a metal post that he inserted in the ground. After all the sheep were settled, we walked all the way back up that incline to the house (and hoped we never had to do another lap!). We rested for a bit in the sun and watched people walk their herds of sheep, pigs and cows down the road. Jesús returned and let out his pigs and piglets <so cute!> so they could eat, too.

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Robyn and I said under our breath, “We better not have to go down that hill again and get those damn sheep and then come back up again!”

Well, it was only half as bad. We walked halfway down the hill to an area of land that Jesús owns and where his newborn crops live. I saw a field infested in weeds, and in a flashback to my grandma’s gardens, I was pretty sure we were going to weed the field. Well, instead, he took us to an area nearby where we saw a huge rock pile that separated fields. Jesús instructed us to pick up all of the stray rocks that were displaced in the area and throw them on the pile. While we did that, he chopped down two or three woody shrubs that were going to be used for the stove fire. Nothing is more thrilling than throwing rocks onto a rock pile… but if it was to help out Jesús and his family, we were all for it.

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We returned up the hill to the living quarters and took a walk down a road to get a better view of the lake. Again, it was nice to know Spanish so we could communicate our thoughts to Jesús. Lunch was ready for us when we got back. I had run out of bottled water the day before, so my thirst was dependent upon the hot tea. We were instructed not to drink anything non-bottled that wasn’t boiled, but I was so dehydrated that I had to drink the cold purple-colored drink offered by Natalia. It was sugary in taste, and she said it was made from maiz, water and sugar. Robyn looked at me as if I was crazy to drink it, but I had to have something! I ended up just fine, luckily.

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What goes up, must come down, and so we did. We said farewell to Jesús, and Natalia took us to the dock, where we went as a group back to Puno via boat. The rest of the day was pretty much dedicated to rest, rehydration, TAKING A SHOWER and looking for something other than Peruvian food to eat. We eventually found “American” food, but as expected, it did not taste close to the original. Once my head hit the pillow that night, I was out.

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November 8, 2014 – A Road Trip Full of History

We departed from a bus station in Puno and began our journey toward Cusco. The trip included several stops along the way where we’d visit a few of Peru’s historical landmarks. While boarding the bus, we prayed that we would not be sat next to the notorious man who avoided the application of deodorant. Luckily we had decent seating in the back, away from the stank.

Pukara – our first stop. After seeing no towns for about an hour or so, we arrived at a decently-sized town in the middle of the altiplano (land at high elevation). Near the middle of the city center is a museum that houses several interesting Incan sculptures and tombs. Here we learned about Pachamama and Pachapapa, sacred characters created by the Incas. Pachamama is the fertility goddess who presides over planting and harvesting. Pachapapa embodies spirit, for which the condor represents heaven, the puma represents earth and the snake represents hell. We also saw several pairs of bulls at the top of buildings, which are meant to bring good luck and safety to the home.

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La Raya – stop number two. The drive from Pukara to this point is very beautiful, with yellow-green plains surrounded by the Andes mountain range. At a pit stop along the road, we reached La Raya, a view of a snow-capped mountain called Apu Chimboya. This was the highest point of the road trip at 14,200 feet and is the geographical border between the Quechua and Aymara cultures.

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Sicuani – Our stop for lunch. A large touristy restaurant sat in the valley of the mountains.

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Raqchi – church in the woods. Now mostly in ruins, this Wiracocha God Temple is an Incan church of monumental dimensions; 100m long, 26m wide and 14m high. The stone portion, as you can see in the pictures, is still original from the Incan time period. The roof has been renovated since, but depicts something similar that would have covered the church. While a lot of the scene included just pieces of what used to exist, a lot of the surrounding rock walls still lie intact. Earthquakes mostly have affected the site’s stability over the centuries. Nearby, at the top of a large hill, stands a rock border wall still intact since its construction. The Incans created the wall to keep invaders out and for privacy.

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Andahuaylillas – yet another church. Our last stop before Cusco boasted a large Sistine chapel, which is one of the most beautiful depictions of Andean religious art. While the church has an amazing view on the outside, the inside is just as breathtaking. Heavily influenced by the Spanish who invaded Peru centuries ago, the church tells stories of heaven and hell through frescoes on the back walls of the church. The front of the church has a large display of religious figures made of pure silver. Scenes of the Bible on the sides of the church are made of wood but painted with gold leaf. While every town has its own church, this small town has something to be really proud of!

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Cusco – our final stop. Our first glimpse of the city indicated that it was the most modern of places we had seen on the trip. Digital billboards, completed architecture and clean public facilities make it a pleasant place to walk around. A lot of people were outside and active when we arrived at 5:30 p.m. The streets are made of cut stone, and the narrow city streets create a “villa” look and feel. After getting settled at a hotel near the city center, we found a nice Chinese place for dinner and then the local McDonalds for some soft-serve ice cream. The city center square is vibrant, flanked with large churches and two-level commercial buildings.

November 9, 2014 – A Day to Ourselves

This was the first day we stayed in a hotel for consecutive nights, so it was nice not to wake up, re-pack and head out. It was also the first day we slept in, which those who know me, I am not a morning person! For brunch. we ate at Jack’s Cafe, where I had huevos rancheros and a nice cup of South American coffee. We waited until Cusco to buy our souvenirs, so Robyn and I spent the rest of the day in several markets and put our bartering skills to the test. At San Pedro market, we found some ceramics and textiles to buy. The Peruvian currency, called a “sol” for one or “soles” for plural, got us pretty far when purchasing goods. About 3 soles equalled $1 USD at the time. Within these markets, we ran into some foul smells, and after seeing fresh meat hanging near the textile aisle, we quickly went out for fresh air.

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It was mostly sunny out that day, so we spent a lot of time walking. Later in the afternoon, we ran into a street market full of people, and full of chicken feet, eggs, fresh meat, and snack vendors. Needless to say, we stuck out like a sore thumb, but knowing we likely wouldn’t find any non-perishable souvenirs in the area, we headed to the largest souvenir market. Here, vendors solicit their goods, many of them selling the exact same thing. We were able to go to one place, check out the price of an item, and then go to the next place and check out the price of the same item. From there, we leveraged the pricing of one vendor to get the other one to lower the price. Smart, right?! We thought so, too. Robyn purchased pots, vases and some scarves. I found a painted/carved gourd for a gift.

We stopped in a bar for a drink around happy hour. Pisco sour, a famous Peruvian drink made of bitters, lime juice, egg whites and pisco liquor, was our first drink choice. Our second drink was a called an “extintor” a bright green mixed drink made with maracaya juice. After a couple of drinks combined with the elevation, we were a bit “toast” but continued to peruse the city looking for souvenirs. We ran into a carnival, where Robyn played a ring toss game (with rules made up by a 10 year old); needless to say she “lost” even though she threw the ring over the target. Nearby, we saw a large crowd watching a live skit, so we used our height to peek over and watch for a bit. Following dinner later that night, we got lost a little bit in the dark, but managed to make our way back to the hotel after nervously “fast walking” through city alleys.

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November 10, 2014 – Trek to the Rainforest

This day we would head toward the famous Machu Picchu landmark. We took a bus from Cusco to a small city where we would catch a train called the Inca Rail, a small traditional coach train where you sit at tables facing one another. Along the way, the terrain gradually changed from dry land to a vegetated green rainforest.

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Upon arriving in the town of Aguascalientes, we grabbed our things and headed to our hotel, a brand new hotel at the bottom of green mountains. At the beginning of our trip, I assumed Machu Picchu would be one of the highest elevation points in our trip, but believe it or not, it was actually one of the lowest at about 8,000 ft. Later that afternoon, Robyn went to get a massage. I took my time to walk around the hilly town, going through markets and small stores. The skies opened and downpoured for about four hours or so that afternoon. I took shelter in a small cafe and made some friendly conversation with a couple of Germans over a cup of cappuccino. That night, we went to bed quite early, given that we had to be up super early to head to a Wonder of the World, Machu Picchu.

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November 11, 2014 – Machu Picchu, in All of its Glory

Despite the 5:30 a.m. departure, I was SO excited to finally see Machu Picchu. Over the years of learning about it in class, seeing it on TV and reading about it in magazines, it became something I hoped to someday see. We waited at a bus stop in Aguascalientes for the first group of buses to depart to the ancient site. The drive up the zigzagged roads to the top took some time, but we eventually arrived, waited in line to be checked by security, and then hiked up steep hills to a vantage point. The sun was peaking through the mountain range, and when I got my first glimpse of Machu Picchu, I gave the biggest smile and felt emotionally overwhelmed that I was actually there. I had to pinch myself! Our guide talked more about its purpose and construction by the Incas, but we took more time taking pictures to savor the moment than we did listen. We continued to walk down through the ruins. Structures with high-precision stone masonry were for higher-class individuals and ceremonial sites, and structures with jagged rocks and novice masonry were homes for the middle class and animals. I could go on and on about the history of this place, but I’m sure you’re pretty familiar, so I won’t bore you! Our guide took us to see several caves, aqueducts, corrals, and a sun dial. Across the way is Huayna Picchu, another mountain that is steep and climbable (only a couple hundred tourists are allowed to go up it each day).

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We had a couple more hours to look around the site. We first went to get our passport stamped with a Machu Picchu “I’ve been here” stamp. We contemplated going on an optional hour-long hike to Inti Punku, a site that sits atop a mountain overlooking Machu Picchu. We first lathered ourselves in sunscreen and mosquito repellent and set forth up a gradual incline. We were both exhausted on the way up, as the “stairs” and incline were made of stones that were not necessarily flat. It was certainly rough on the shoes! We eventually made it to the top, feeling like we just climbed Mount Everest, but hey, we can say we made it to the Sun Gate. The views are outstanding; from the outlook, Machu Picchu just looks like a pile of rocks.

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As we started to head back down, we passed some makeshift stairs with a railing. As I looked back, Robyn was struggling with the fear of heights, as these stairs had a drop-off cliff. I had never seen her struggle with heights before, but I think she noticed the drop-off when we made our way up the mountain. This certainly wasn’t a place where we could take a taxi back home or call mom and dad to help out! After a few tears and deep breaths, Robyn conquered her fear and made it down those stairs, clinging to the inside. Even though she was super embarrassed, I was so proud of her for getting past that moment of fear. I can totally relate to similar situations where you envision the worst possible outcome and then you can’t get your mind past it.

Once we made it back to the bottom, we caught a bus back to Aguascalientes for lunch and wasted some time until our train departed back to Cusco.

In Cusco we treated ourselves to a nice dinner near the city center at a placed called Greens. We had some delicious colorful potato gnocchi with a fresh fruit smoothie. SO good – and only about $10 USD (30 soles). What a great day filled with a World Wonder and beautiful weather!

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November 12, 2014 – Goodbye Cusco, Hello Airplanes!

We had until the afternoon to spend more time in Cusco. I had been looking for authentic souvenirs, so we found a legit place that had an assortment of ceramics. I purchased one of the aforementioned sacred bulls for my grandparents, coffee mugs, an Incan calendar cross, and a Pachamama statue for my “mama.” Robyn’s boots were a bit beat up after herding sheep and climbing mountains, so she got a high quality shoe shine from a street vendor; they looked like new! We made our final purchases before heading to the airport for a flight back to Lima that night. We said farewell to our main guide Victor and made the quick plane ride back to Lima.

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November 13, 2014 – Return to USA, Lower Elevation

At the Lima airport, we had a few hours to burn before our international flight back home. It was wonderful looking at the tourist stores and how much they were charging for similar items we had bartered for. We got our souvenirs for about 75% cheaper than those places! We then boarded the LAN Airlines flight and headed back to Miami. We had a long layover in Miami before returning home to Chicago, but with our mobile phones reactivated, we had plenty to catch up on!

Upon arriving in Chicago, we waited for our luggage at the turnstile. Robyn retrieved hers. I waited, and mine never came out. I thought, “Just my luck!” I checked with the baggage claim desk, and they said to check other belts for it, but I didn’t find it. A woman then came after me and said they actually had it in their office! Apparently it was put on a different flight to Chicago that came earlier in the day! Phew. I spent the rest of the day scrubbing the layers of filth off of my skin that the sun, wind and dirt had applied. I was then home, but had accomplished my goal of every trip: come back more cultured than before. Check. Thanks, Peru!

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Intrigued by the City with Historical Superstitions [New Orleans]

Personal Life, Travel

What better to do on a snowy weekend in tundra-stricken Chicago than to write about travel to somewhere warm?

A few weeks ago (mid-January) I traveled to New Orleans, La., for a volleyball tournament, but also to explore the culture and diversity of the city in the South. It was my first of a few planned volleyball trips in 2014 and it didn’t disappoint. Even though I reside in Chicago, I played with an Austin, Texas, team. One of my best friends from college, Luke, lives in Austin and invited me to join his team as a middle blocker/hitter. It was a nice reunion with Luke, whom I hadn’t seen since late 2012.

To make it a longer weekend, I took off Friday knowing that I had off Monday for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Escaping the bitter cold of Chicago, I left Thursday evening and met Luke at MSY airport, took a taxi downtown to the team’s hotel, and met a great group of teammates. We were all intrigued by this “Bourbon Street” talk, so we couldn’t waste a night out! We walked a few blocks to party land, with dried alcohol, vomit and broken beads below our feet. We first stopped at Tropical Isle to enjoy a popular drink called a Hand Grenade. Making our way along the street, we were solicited for strip clubs, every bar’s best deal and to flash folks peeking over the balconies above. Our first night out showed us the fun side of New Orleans, but I definitely wanted to see its culture and history, too.

The next day, after struggling to get enough rest, the team got brunch at a place called Ruby Slipper. Being from Kansas, I was quite confused eating at a cafe in New Orleans named after the very prize of our girl Dorothy. We were able to pick up the Southern accent from our waiters, a slower way to talk for sure! After lunch, we decided to walk around the city and explore. On our way to the famous St. Louis Cemetery, one of my teammates spotted American Horror Story supreme Jessica Lang walking down Canal street! She didn’t want any pictures taken, but was kind to shake hands.

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The walk to the cemetery wasn’t too far, but we made it before its early closing. The cemetery is protected by a tall fortress, of which you can see the giant graves peaking over. Walking through is almost a maze, or I guess you could call it a tour. Some stones were cracked and in disrepair, while others were new from the late 20th century. Some famous New Orleans natives like Marie Laveau are buried here, some with flowers at their feet and others with “XXX” on their tombs. The cemetery closed a while after we arrived, even with a few hours of sunshine left.

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Next, we made our way toward the French Quarter but stopped at the Wax Museum. It depicted numerous events in American History, some wax figures looking way too real for comfort. The dark hallways made it seem like a haunted house, and there were definitely a few times it seemed that the eyes on the wax figures followed me.

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It was a decent walk to the French Quarter, but it was neat to see the architecture on the way. We stopped at a souvenir shop and picked up some voodoo dolls, which we would later try to use on our volleyball opponents. Dolls in hand, we visited Marie Laveau’s home, where the famous story says she held and mistreated slaves. I need to read up on my NOLA history, because most of the stories are mysterious!

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The French Quarter Market alongside the Mississippi River reminded me of River Market in Kansas City, with numerous food stands and street vendors. One of my teammates wanted to try alligator sausage, so we all took a taste. I didn’t mind it too much, but it was really hearty and chewy. We made our way alongside the Mississippi River and headed back toward the hotel after a long day.

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The next day we began pool play at the volleyball tournament. We played teams from all over the U.S. and went 6-2 in pool play, earning the 4th-overall seed in our division (out of 30). The following day we begin bracket play without star-player Luke due to injury. We won our first game then ended up suffering losses in the next two. The tournament had a high-level of competition, and it was great to see some teams and talent I typically don’t see in Chicago.

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Finishing a bit earlier than desired, we went out for a team dinner near Bourbon street and got some classic Cajun cuisine. Of course we hit up the area for some after-dinner drinks. Let’s just say New Orleans does not hold back and nothing is off limits!

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A late night out made for a tough awakening in the morning to make it the airport. I said goodbye to my dear friend Luke and new friend Julian, hoping to see them at an upcoming tournament. On the way home, I looked out the airplane window as the ground faded from green marsh to brown fields to the white frozen tundra of Chicago.

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The subzero temps already gripped the tunnel off the plane. This is home.

-mrf

When Nature Makes the People Pure [Costa Rica]

Personal Life, Travel

Greetings from 26-degree Chicago! Just a week and a half ago I was enjoying mid-80-degree temperatures in Central America. Now I’m blaming the sub-freezing temperatures for the demise of my decent tan.

In 2014, I planned out my vacation days so that I could enjoy the summer in Chicago (while the weather is nice) and save my vacation to avoid the dreary, windy, frozen days in northeast Illinois. In early October, I started to look around at potential destinations for vacation. My friend Robyn, who is from western Kansas but also lives in Chicago, was also looking for a getaway around the same time. We joined forces on a brisk Sunday afternoon at a coffee shop and looked online for a good deal. After a couple hours of browsing, we were set on a Costa Rican getaway, which included airfare, hotels and breakfast. My old college roommate is half-Costa Rican and his mother is originally from there, so I knew a little about the country. We booked the trip from November 6-13, a nice time away from the office and the hurried life of the city.

November 6, 2013:
After a long night of packing bizarre items for November (swimming trunks, short sleeve shirts, bug spray, sunscreen, tank-tops), I was able to grab a couple hours of sleep before getting up around 2:30 a.m. to prepare for a 5:30 a.m. departure at Chicago O’Hare airport. We arrived at the airport even before Spirit Airline personnel, but made damn sure we weren’t going to miss our chance to escape! Our first flight connected to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., enough time to get a couple naps in on the plane. I sat next to a pregnant woman on the plane, pregnancy being one of the things that makes me queasy.

Fort Lauderdale – we made it. I remember visiting the city in 2004 with family, but forgot how awful the airport is. We had a short layover before departing to San José, Costa Rica, around 10:45 a.m. The flight to Central America was about the same in time as the first flight, giving me more time to rest. We filled out the blue cards for customs, where I used my passport for the first time since London 2011. Our luggage had arrived (thank God), and we changed some of our money to Costa Rican colones – which, by the way, is beautiful money (bright colors with rainforest animals adorning one of the sides). Upon exiting the airport, a crowd of people greeted us yelling, “TAXI TAXI TAXI.” I felt like Brad Pitt on the red carpet. We found our car rental company, who shuttled us to a nearby location to pick up our rental car. We named her Cher. Don’t know why, but it needed a name. If we were going to make it through this trip unscathed, it needed a name. To decide who drove first, we flipped one of our new money coins.

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It was me. I was scheduled to drive a car for just the third time in 2013. I don’t even drive or have a car in the United States. How was I supposed to drive eight days in a foreign country? Luckily Costa Ricans drive on the same side of the road, but what about their signs? Their roads? Their aggressive driving style? We had no idea. I put Cher in drive and embarked on the best adventure of my life.

Getting out of the rental car area was a bit of mess. A small road merged onto a main highway; once I made an aggressive move to get on the highway, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I had just passed the first real test. Our Garmin helped us along the way; it was mainly highway for some time. Robyn and I looked in awe at the views of the country – a mountainous rainforest with a third-world feel. The Garmin only really messed us up a couple times (telling me to go left, when it was a one-way going right).

We were on our way to the Arenal volcano region, which was about three-ish hours away. The somewhat normal highway then turned into almost three hours of curvy roads up and down mountains. I felt like I was in an arcade, slipping a coin into the game slot, and going for a curvy ride around the race track. Thankfully Robyn kept her lunch down; also trusting me not to drive off a cliff. The roads have no shoulders, so there was no slacking off. I remember going through countless “angostos,” which are one-lane bridges where you have to watch for oncoming traffic, as only one car can cross at once. People and stray animals also walked on the highway. I can’t remember being that attentive to the road since driving the pot hole-stricken road to my parent’s house back in rural Kansas.

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We stopped for lunch at a bar and grill-like restaurant within the hills. I ordered a fajita-like dish with a Pepsi (pronounced Pec-si). When we left, some of the natives looked at us like “WHY THE HELL ARE THESE GRINGOS DRIVING IN OUR COUNTRY?!” We continued on our long journey to Arenal. La Fortuna was the city closest to the hotel we were staying: “Lomas del Volcán,” which is literally at the foot of Arenal volcano. We checked in at sunset, then made our way to our awesome cabin. SO beautiful; the view of the volcano and plants was unreal. Due to darkness coming early, we ate dinner at our hotel restaurant (with a couple drinks, of course). It was time for bed after accomplishing a couple firsts: 1) Driving in a foreign country 2) stepping foot in Central America.

Lomas Del Volcan

November 7, 2013:
That was the best sleep I had had in a long time. Maybe it was the bed. Maybe it was the idea that work didn’t greet me for the next 12 days. Regardless, I was energized for our first full day in Costa Rica. Our first adventure included a guided walk up the side of Arenal volcano. The shuttle drove us 25 minutes away to the other side of the volcano, which is the active side. It was just Robyn and me, along with two nerdy New Yorkers and tour guide Edwin, on the walk. The walk followed a blazed dirt trail surrounded and covered by pampas, flora, large trees and random flowers. From time to time, we’d see bright-colored lizards and birds. The large ficus trees we saw reminded me of Jumanji; fun fact: the trees in Costa Rica don’t have rings because there are no seasons. Edwin taught us a lot about Arenal. The volcano erupted violently in 1968, destroying the small town of Tabacón below it. It has had a few explosions since, with some emissions as late as 2010. Nothing has been seen since, but three years isn’t long in volcano years.

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Walking Tour
WalkingTour

We eventually made it to this lookout (a pile of large lava rocks) where we could see Arenal and a large lake on the opposite side. Due to its height, Arenal’s top is sometimes hard to see because of cloud cover. Arenal Lake was beautiful though, with reflections of nearby green mountains.

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Arenal
Mountains
Robyn and Me Lookout
Robyn and Me Arenal

The trip back down the trail was the same. The two New York nerds started holding hands (I assume this was a honeymoon) while I focused on snapping some photos and looking for wildlife. Our shuttle took us back to La Fortuna for lunch, where Edwin suggested Soda Hormiga, a local place for lunch. Lunch was pretty basic, including rice, beans, chicken and some fresh fruit juice. Random dogs and cats walked through the “restaurant.” Everything was pretty much open – not many places had true doors or closure. After lunch we walked around La Fortuna, which is a small town. Kids hung around during the school day, in what seemed to be lunch hour. A small, open church is at the center of the town, creating a beautiful backdrop against the volcano. For Robyn and me, it seemed similar to our hometowns, small and quaint where everyone knows everyone’s business. The people were very welcoming.

Arenal
Small shops
La Fortuna
La Fortuna
La Fortuna: Soda La Hormiga
La Fortuna
La Fortuna
La Fortuna

The second half of our day included a safari boat tour down Río Peñas Blancas. Our tour guide José was a middle-aged man who was very eager to get on the river, as he loved doing his job. The shuttle took us to the river, where it was just Robyn, José and me in the raft on the quiet river. Soon after we got on the water, we spotted an alligator! According to José, it was a pretty rare find. We also saw Jesus Christ lizards skip across the water (they get their name because they can walk on water). Water fowl was also common, as blue herons speared fish with their beaks and other bright birds sang in the trees above. The water was so peaceful. This wasn’t what I envisioned at all. It was just us three on the river looking out for wildlife. There were points where we’d be quiet for minutes, waiting to hear something. The quiet was a nice divergence from the city.

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Safari Boat Tour: Jose
Safari Boat Tour: Ficus
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Safari Boat Tour
Safari Boat Tour
Safari Boat Tour

The quiet had paid off. We heard a group of howler monkeys in the trees, so we helped José paddle to grab onto a stick so we could watch them. They are pretty lazy monkeys, but they make a lot of noise regardless. Next, we saw a group of white-faced monkeys, which are the swinging from branch-to-branch type. They’d stop and stare down at us, trying to figure out what we were doing in their habitat. We pulled off to the side of the river, where Robyn keenly saw a tropical rat snake in the tree. José was so excited because he said he encounters one on a boat tour probably 2% of the time! Both being scared of snakes, Robyn and I were fine to move on… At the end of the trip, José brought the boat up to land, and in the meantime, we saw these huge iguanas in the trees, both bright orange and lime green in color.

Safari Boat Tour: Howler Monkeys
Safari Boat Tour
Safari Boat Tour: Howler Monkeys
Safari Boat Tour: Cows
Safari Boat Tour: Waterfall
Safari Boat Tour: Howler Monkey

The last part of the boat tour included a trip to a family’s home that was nearby. The family is self-sufficient for the most part, raising a variety of livestock (horses, cows, goats, chickens). It was a ranch-style home with a young father and mother and two adorable identical twin boys. The 3-year-old boys were mischievous, knocking over stools and plants and wrestling with the cat. The family fed us some fried plantains and cheese and a yucca plant dessert, which was actually quite tasty.

José was a really wise man. He was so prideful of his country’s decision to invest in ecotourism. A while back, they were deciding to cut down the forest to make money for the province. But they decided, if you cut down the forest, sure, you’ll get money, but the tourists will no longer come. If you leave the forest, the tourists will continue to come for years on end. He’s right – and I thought to myself, “This concept can be applied to life and work.” The more time we spend investing in the future, the brighter the future will be. We made our way back to our hotel, and the skies opened with a huge thunderstorm. It probably dropped five inches of rain, but how lucky we were to do all of the activities in one day without rain! After the storm, we got ready for dinner. I had a nice steak with garlic sauce – and piña coladas galore!

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November 8, 2013
After waking in the morning, we had our first breakfast at the hotel, which included fresh fruit, omelets and again, the ever-so-common fried plantains. It was a very humid morning, my shirt half wet just from perspiration. The tour on this day included zip-lining within the forested hills of Arenal. We were the only two from our hotel that went, but we picked up an older man named Doug from a nearby hotel. Doug jumped in the shuttle and began telling us his life story of living part-time in the Philippines, working for Chevron and leaving his wife at home during his travels. He mentioned he had zip-lined before in the Philippines (his skill later proved contrary). We arrived at the zip-lining lodge, where we went through a quick practice zip-line. We walked up to the first canopy, the shortest line of the tour. While I’m not scared of heights, I had never zip-lined before and didn’t have a chance to evaluate the security of the ropes.

Ecoglide Canopy Ziplining and Tarzan Swing
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Ecoglide Canopy Ziplining and Tarzan Swing
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Flying down the lines across a forest, legs dangling below, was a feeling I had never felt before. It was a feeling of thrill mixed with carefree. We made our way halfway through the course (Doug surprisingly did, as he wasn’t properly braking when approaching the tree canopy, giving us and the tour guides quite the chuckle.) The halfway point meant we were ready for the Tarzan Swing. From atop a canopy, you get hooked up to a rope and swing freely back and forth over the forest. Robyn’s shriek after being released is classic (I’m thinking about making it into a ringtone). I was most nervous for this, and my long legs almost hit the top of a neighboring tree. The last half of the tour included the longest zip-lines with the most amazing views.

Ecoglide Canopy Ziplining and Tarzan Swing
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Ecoglide Canopy Ziplining and Tarzan Swing
Ecoglide Canopy Ziplining and Tarzan Swing
Ecoglide Canopy Ziplining and Tarzan Swing
Ecoglide Canopy Ziplining and Tarzan Swing
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The high adrenaline morning built up quite an appetite, so we went back to La Fortuna and ate at a place called Nene’s. By then, it had gotten really hot and humid, but we decided to walk from the town back uphill to our hotel (probably 2km away). Struggling to the top, we were ready to jump in the pool with some poolside drinks! The cloud cover had cleared and the cone top of Arenal was clear as day.

La Fortuna
La Fortuna
La Fortuna
La Fortuna
Lomas del Volcan
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Since it was Friday night, we wanted to go out on the town. We asked our hotel receptionist if it was safe to walk in the dark to the town, and he said, “Oh yeah, it’s lit the whole way.” WRONG. Robyn and I walked downhill through the dark, counting the steps until the next light pole. Robyn followed in my path so that I would clear way of snakes. We made it to a restaurant, grabbed a snack, and moved on. We then stopped at a hippie-like souvenir shop right before it downpoured; across the road we saw a bunch of women enjoying themselves, practicing some moves on x-rated objects in the yard for a bachelorette party.

A few people had written down some bars to check out in the town. We couldn’t find one, so Robyn asked a boy where it was. He walked us to it and then asked for 5,000 colones ($10 USD) – we weren’t THAT stupid, so we said no and walked on. The bar El Mango was quiet; very few people out enjoying beverages. The bar was showing Animal Planet on TV; a couple of the town drunks were already three drinks in. Another bar Lava Lounge looked more entertaining, but still no one was out. (We later found out that people go out on Saturday night instead). We waited for a taxi while walking in the direction of our hotel. No taxi was going our way. Remember, there are no shoulders or sidewalks, so we are literally walking on the highway like hitchhikers trying to flag a cab. We made it about halfway to our hotel and see a man smoking outside of his hotel, talking to a hotel worker. I knew it was Doug. I could tell by his smoker voice. Trying to avoid him, he flagged us down, and you wouldn’t doubt that he TOLD US HIS PHILIPPINES STORY AGAIN. Maybe Doug was our good karma: A taxi pulled up and dropped people out, and we quickly jumped in – cutting Doug off from telling another repeated tale of his past. We made it home alive – the last night at Arenal.

November 9, 2013
Breakfast was again delicious that last morning near the volcano. We packed up our things, loaded Cher, this time ready for Robyn’s driving experience. The drive from Arenal again included winding roads – the storm, in places, had displaced some debris and mud on the highway. For the first 30-45 minutes, the road went around the perimeter of Arenal Lake. Our destination was Playa Carrillo in Guanacaste, the Pacific side of the country. The terrain started to change slightly into more grasses than trees. The roads eventually became pretty straight; the homes in this region were more ranch-style, most likely because of the graze-friendly land for livestock. At one point, the Garmin wanted us to off-road on this dirt road with no end in sight. We made the decision to continue on the highway, even if it took longer.

Drive to Puerto Carrillo
Drive to Puerto Carrillo

Not many towns came along, but we eventually made it to Nicoya, a bustling town with a lot of street traffic. We drove partway through the town, until a couple of police officers detoured us around, which was fine. We turned as requested, only to see the streets filled with people, officers on horses (that walked like donkeys), cows hooked up to chariots and a few cars trying to make their way through (including us). We made our way to the end of the town, trying to find back roads to get to the highway we needed. We got around most all of the commotion, until we met a parade of strange-looking horses and cows pulling chariots making their way out of the city. Was this some kind of ceremony? The chariots carried old women wearing prom-like sashes. The cows had ribbon bows on their heads. It reminded me of old Central American movies where they are on their way to the temple for sacrifice. I tried looking up current events in Nicoya, but nothing came up. Oh well – quite a sight! (Robyn did awesome maneuvering through the car, livestock and foot traffic).

Drive to Puerto Carrillo
Drive to Puerto Carrillo: Nicoya
Drive to Puerto Carrillo: Nicoya

After hours of driving, we finally saw a glimpse of blue over a hill. It was darker than the sky, so we knew we were close. Overcoming the hill, we both gasped as we saw the sunset on the Pacific. Rows of palm trees lined the beach; much like computer desktop wallpaper options. We needed to get to our hotel, which was about 4km inland. Hotel Leyenda was nicely tucked away; a very quiet location in the hills with a backdrop of green mountains. We had yet to eat so we went back to a beach town called Sámara to grab some food. We found a spot right by the beach and ordered some tacos while it downpoured for probably 30 minutes. Stray dogs walked through the restaurant, waiting for any food to slip through my hands.

Pre-planning our upcoming days, we went to the “supermarket” to purchase some snacks and drinks for the beach. Of course we purchased some rum and coke, to make our beach time a little more exciting. Rum translates to “ron” in Spanish, so we soon treated “Ron” as an actual person. Ron, like Cher, was one our companions that made the trip great. I drove back to the beach, where we enjoyed a sunset evening, scavenging the shore for our shell collection. It was the first time I had touched the Pacific; the sand had a silicon-like texture, almost like sand mixed with oil. After the sun went down, we returned to the hotel. We had eaten a late lunch so we relaxed with our iPads on our beds for a bit.

Playa Carrillo
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I was then staring at Robyn. Our beds had shook a foot each way, the wall hangings rattled above us and we sat up, looking for answers. The plexiglass windows had warped during the shake. What was it? Were people working on the building below? Was it over? We concluded that we had just experienced an earthquake and had a plan of attack if it continued. Robyn did some research on a Costa Rican seismic activity website and found out we had just survived a 4.3 magnitude earthquake, with our hotel close to the epicenter. Another first for my trip! Nothing was damaged, but it sure shook our minds for an instant. Later at dinner we asked our waiter if it was common, and he said somewhat, but they hadn’t experienced that large of a shake in about four months.

November 10, 2013
It was finally beach day! A traditional breakfast started us off. The sun was beaming, and we were ready to bring back a nice tan to the States. Robyn and I drove the beach, lathered up with sunscreen and soaked up some rays. At early afternoon some cloud cover came in, appearing to be a storm, but it never rained. There were very few people at the beach; Robyn had found online that Playa Carrillo is one of the top deserted/secret beaches in the world! When bored, we played some games, one which included thinking up Spanish words that begin with the last letter from the previous said word. The beach was decently small; we collected a lot of cone shells and spotted a lot of snails and crabs in certain areas. After a long day of exhausting the sun, we drove back to the hotel and pretty much passed out from tiredness.

Hotel Leyenda
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Playa Carrillo
Playa Carrillo
Playa Carrillo
Playa Carrillo
Playa Carrillo

November 11, 2013
Yet again it had to be a beach day. It was almost a mirror image of the previous day, except it was cloudy. We made our way out into the ocean, diving under waves before they broke. We felt the places where we missed sunscreen the day before, and proactively covered ourselves with an overpriced bottle of sunscreen that a nearby convenience shop sold behind the counter. Ron accompanied us again. We returned to the hotel and swam at the outdoor pool – throwing a Disney princess inflated ball back and forth, swigs of Ron in-between. Robyn was too “borracha” for dinner, so I ate alone, pigging out on a nice steak.

November 12, 2013
Our time at the beach had ended. We checked out, and it was again my turn to drive. Our final destination was San José, the capital of the country, about 3.5 hours away. I drove a similar route that Robyn did back east. Following long stretches of highway, the pavement suddenly ended around a curve. It was then just dirt with patches of gravel. I put our poor Toyota Yaris in a lower gear so that she could get up the steep hills. There were a few points I was unsure we would make it. There also was no way to know how long this would last. After about 12km of cursing and sore hands of gripping the wheel, pavement arrived. To add more anxiety to the stretch, we were on our last “notch” of gasoline.

A town appeared and we stopped to fill up, which was enough to make it to the capital. Traffic and toll roads eventually became more prevalent. Roads became more complicated; we came within a few blocks or so of the hotel, but due to one-ways, it was hard to make it there. Robyn helped navigate until we made it to the hotel, where we’d spend one final night.

Again, hungry, we took a cab downtown in heavy traffic to Mercado Central. The streets were filled with people. Merchants were yelling from side to side, trying to sell the most random things. One guy was trying to sell toothbrushes. My thought, “How much profit is he really making on something people buy maybe every six months?!” Several vendors were trying to sell TV remote controls. I mean, we all misplace the remote, but how often does it go completely missing?! Anyway, I digress.

Mercado Central
Mercado Central

People would just stare. Blatantly stare. Maybe it was because we were both tall, Caucasian and foreign. I’m not sure. None of the other places we went were this eery. People would stop in their tracks to take a glance at us; even some people got out their phones to take photos. At first it was somewhat flattering, but then it turned creepy and intrusive. – Pretty much a snapshot of Britney Spears’ career.

After walking around the market, we became pretty uninterested. We finally found a sit-down place to eat (Chinese, go figure), which was sub-par food for our big appetite. Near the Post Office, this drunk guy approached us and chatted us up. He then tried to give me an unwelcomed hug, patting down my back side. He shook Robyn’s hand, trying to see if he could snatch a wallet, but we weren’t that naive. I had my wallet in front and Robyn had her wallet attached around her wrist like a bracelet. We walked around some more and saw Teatro Nacional (The National Theatre), which was quite beautiful from the outside. The architecture had a Spanish feel and there were a lot of plaza-like areas for people to loiter.

San Jose
San Jose Church
San Jose Catholic Church
Teatro Nacional

It got a bit chilly after sundown, so we went for a coffee. McDonalds was buzzing, so we went in for a cup of joe. (The McDonalds there was like a high-end restaurant and much nicer than in the U.S., might I add!) Both Robyn and I agreed there wasn’t much else to do in the city, so we took a cab to our hotel, rested a bit, then went to Denny’s (yes, Denny’s) for dinner. It was attached to our hotel, so it was super convenient. Our waiter had worked at Denny’s for 15 years. Note: Costa Ricans love their jobs, regardless of what it is. Take note, Americans!

November 13, 2013
The final day of the trip had arrived, but I didn’t have the empty gut feeling I typically do when I leave a place I grow to love. I think it was because I fulfilled everything I wanted in this adventure, made a lot of memories, and came back to the U.S. with another perspective of the world.

We drove Cher back to the car rental place, said goodbye, and rode the shuttle back to the airport. Ironically, the pregnant lady from our first flight, was also on the flight returning, but at least I didn’t have to sit by her. We ate in the airport, boarded, then off to Ft. Lauderdale we went.

Pan American Highway
Pan American Highway
Pan American Highway

We had a decently-long layover in Florida before returning to Chicago. Robyn and I caught up on our missed communications, and within time, we were on a flight back home. Exiting the plane, I could feel the cold air chilling the tarmac. Thankfully our luggage arrived with us. We took a cab back to our neighborhood in north Chicago, and realized that the wet leaves on the ground were no longer palms.

I know I’m only typing this, but I’m out of breath. Until the next adventure…

A Peninsula Jam-Packed for Laid-Back Days [San Francisco]

Personal Life, Sport, Travel

Wow, it’s been quite some time since I’ve written. From time to time I think of my blog and how my little changing day-to-day life doesn’t provide much inspiration for a post. I also think that my Instagram and Twitter accounts hold smaller snippets of my life, even if that’s 140 characters or less.

Well, now I have something exciting to write about! This might as well turn into “Michael’s Travel Blog,” as I find my trips more interesting to write about and generate the most site traffic.

As you can tell from the blog post title, I spent some time on a long Memorial Day weekend in San Francisco, Calif. Last October was my first time on the West Coast when I visited Seattle and had a great visit. This being my second time to the West Coast, I knew that I wanted to visit California. A former coworker from Chicago recently moved to The City by the Bay when her agency account moved offices. We used to work together briefly on the State Farm account in Chicago, before she switched over to Nintendo at Zenith.

Our agencies were gracious enough to grant us Friday off, making the weekend four days with the Memorial Day holiday.

Thursday evening, the night before I left for California, I participated in the JP Morgan Chase Corporate Challenge 5K Race in Chicago. Wearing OMD-designed neon yellow shirts, we ran the 3.6 mile race downtown on Columbus Drive. I felt pretty good the whole race and ended up with a time of 30:15 and a 8:39 min/mile. This was a personal best for me, so I was content going into vacation mode. The weather was most odd compared to neighboring days, with the temperate in the high 40’s during the race. Regardless, I went home, packed, and got a few hours of sleep before waking up to depart from Midway Airport.

When I woke up the next morning, my ankle was a bit sore, but when I looked, the bottom of my foot toward my heel was purple and a little swollen! I knew it felt a bit funny at the end of the race, but didn’t realize its severity. Nevertheless, I departed about at 8:30a CT. On the flight, I sat next to some newly-engaged, newly-married, and hopelessly-single ladies who were on their way to another wedding in Napa. Toward the end of the flight, a line of small vodka bottles lined their tray tables, until the flight attendant came by and forced them to finish, as the plane was descending.

Throughout the flight, I saw some amazing mammoth lakes, mountains and basins:

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Upon landing, I retrieved my bag and rode the BART train to my friend Meredith’s apartment at the north part of the peninsula. The trip from the airport to downtown reminded me a lot of Seattle, with lots of green hills and clean air. Moving north, I was surprised to see what seemed to me like favelas, a shantytown of bright-colored boxed homes. All homes were of pastel colors, with a few less daring with natural/earth tone colors. Moving into the city, I got off the train and trekked to Meredith’s place. I was well-warned by those who had been to San Fran, advising to wear comfortable shoes for the steep hills. My time at the University of Kansas prepared me with the daily climb up Mount Oread, and San Francisco certainly had a few “Mount Oreads.” Chicago, being flat, doesn’t require much calf usage, but with my semi-sprained ankle, I was sweatin’ bullets upon arrival to Meredith’s. She lives in a quaint apartment near Japantown, but a great and accessible location for all of our excursions. I sat down for a breather, hoping my calves would recover in the moment.

Hungry and anxious, Meredith and I went to a restaurant nearby called “Dunya” for some nice Mediterranean food. I got an adana lamb kabob with a Coke as a refresher.

The weather was perfect. If you’re not familiar with San Francisco, the weather really doesn’t change all year. Highs around 65 and lows around 50. After lunch, we took a walk to Delores Park in the Mission District. The park boasts a fairly-steep hill where citizens can relax, play with their dog, or hang with friends, all while viewing a panoramic of the cityscape. Meredith and I took some time to catch up and people watch.

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After a rest, Meredith and I walked down to get a good view of the north peninsula at sunset, with view of the Golden Gate Bridge. To round out the day, we enjoyed dinner at a Peruvian restaurant called “Fresca,” where I had sangria and Chuleton y Carapulcra – grilled pork chop, sun-dried potato stew, peanuts, sautéed spinach, tamarind glaze. Running on a few hours of sleep, a long plane ride, and a pretty-eventful Day 1, I was glad to check in for the night!

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Sleeping in a few extra minutes was nice on Saturday. After gathering ourselves for Day 2, we took the cable car transit to Open Market at the Ferry Building. In the courtyard in front of the building, local vendors, farmers and performers showcased the best of San Fran. We browsed for a bit before smelling food and thus, became hungry. Several options were available, including seafood, Mexican, vegan, pizza and American. I chose Mexican, where I ordered carnitas tacos, homemade tortilla chips and a strawberry lime drink. We sat next to the bay on the dock and devoured our food while enjoying live music. Walking down the dock to get a closer look at the bay and crosstown neighbor Oakland, we snapped a few pictures before noticing that a man on a bench was doing a few lines of cocaine. We thought this was a bit public, but admired his audacity!

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Meredith had booked day tickets to Alcatraz Island weeks before to secure a spot on the tour. We had some time to kill so we walked up and down the numbered piers until our time was called for the ferry to Alcatraz. San Fran has their own “Navy Pier” of sorts at Pier 39, across from Meredith’s work. We boarded the ferry to Alcatraz Island, along with a bunch of foreigners. On the ride across the bay, the wind was almost unbearable, but we got fantastic views of the city and Golden Gate bridge.

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Upon arriving to Alcatraz, we walked up a sloped hill where some of the prison buildings remained in ruins. Our audio tour inside the prison itself, though, was well-preserved and educating. The cells showed minimal conditions for inmates, and some of the stories on audio indicated the creativity and insanity of the inmates. Outside was a recreation area for inmates, as you can see the patch of grass for baseball is still intact. Some of the stories on audio included the few but intense attempts to escape. A couple of men actually did escape the prison, by using a steel kitchen spoon to scrape away at the concrete and escape through the utility hallway. To this day, these men have not been confirmed dead or alive. Stopping the audio for a break, the panoramic views of the city were best from Alcatraz. The dining area was called the “gas chamber” by inmates, for gas nozzles were in the eating area in case any nonsense broke out. The prison was later closed because of high costs to operate.

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We took the ferry back to the peninsula and caught a cab to the nearest (and probably only) Chicago bar (called Monaghan’s) to watch the Chicago Blackhawks play in Game 5 of the playoffs. They ended up winning, forcing a Game 6 and hopes alive for the Stanley Cup. The bar was interesting, as we were planning to just watch the game. Upon walking in, a golden retriever and an English bulldog were hanging out and catching any popcorn crumbs on the floor. Apparently the crowd was pounding drinks while Meredith and I were at Alcatraz, because it turned into a bunch of messy girls and desperate guys! A Game of Thrones themed party later showed up, giving us our cue to leave. We went back home, got some pizzas from Whole Foods and called it a night. We both enjoy the show Parks and Recreation, so we took some time to catch up on the episodes.

Again, we slept in a little bit. Little did I realize I got a little tan color from being out in the sun! The temperature was never hot, but I think being outside all day gave me a little flavor. We knew that Sunday was time for baseball! Similar to Meredith getting the Alcatraz tickets, I had purchased Giants tickets weeks before for the Sunday game against the Colorado Rockies. I strategically-planned the location of our seats, so that we could see the field, the Bay Bridge, McCovey Cove and all of the sights. I had a margarita and burrito bowl for lunch. One of my goals, for those of you who don’t know, is to visit all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums. My proof is to purchase a pint glass from each stadium, in which someday my kitchen cabinet will only have MLB glass pint glasses. After finding that, we found our seats and “oooh’d” and “awwwe’d” at the view. So far, it’s the most beautiful stadium I’ve seen. Located right along the bay, a homerun will splash the water. The fans are attentive. The reigning World Series champions are beloved in the city and it was great to share that feeling. AT&T Park marks the sixth park I’ve been to (Kansas City, Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee and Minnesota being the others). I have quite a way to go to get to 30! My friend Luke and I (who I previously traveled with on an MLB trip), plan to do another trip soon, so maybe I’ll get to 10 by then.

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We went back and relaxed for a bit, before dinner came around and we went to B Star, a Burmese restaurant in the Richmond neighborhood. We had a starter Tea Leaf Salad (romaine, ginger, garlic, peanuts, sunflower & sesame seeds, tomatoes, lentils, jalapenos, dried shrimp, fish sauce, and fermented tea leaf) and I had some Dragon tea. For an entree, I had Pumpkin Pork Stew (natural tender pork stew with kabocha squash & ginger with coco rice.) It was one of the best plates I’ve had! We took a look around the neighborhood before going home and having a cider before bed.

Monday – my last few hours in the city were here! I cleaned up and packed my things up to have ready for later. Meredith and I had a final meal at Toast, where I had the Polk Street Omelet (avocado, spinach, bacon, onions, and cheddar). After that, we made a long walk to “The Painted Ladies” which are across from Alamo Square and are well-known as the intro background for the TV show Full House. Fun fact, the actual Full House house is actually about a mile away, and is commonly mistaken as one of the Painted Ladies. This was a unique part of my trip for sure. It started to rain lightly for the first time all weekend, and we made our way back to Meredith’s so I could get my things to leave.

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Knowing that the walk back to the BART was downhill, I was a bit relieved going into my departure. Riding the BART from downtown, through the “favelas” and finally to SFO, I browsed through my Instagram at some unique and amazing photos I had captured during the trip. I had a connector flight in Los Angeles (LAX); I arrived in LA at 6:45p PT. The Blackhawks were then playing in Game 6 against Detroit in a must-win situation. I had to shut down my phone before the third period had started, so I did not know the result until I arrived in Chicago at 1:15a CT (they won!). I couldn’t sleep on the flight, so I read my KU alumni magazines from front-to-back and failed miserably to complete this one level on Angry Birds. It did pass the time, though!

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Riding in a cab back to my apartment past downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan, I realized how much different San Fran is than anywhere I’ve seen. I enjoy expanding my views of the country and world, and San Fran certainly was unduplicated in my eyes! My next day at work was filled with “How was San Fran?” questions, and I was excited to talk about it <and show off my slight tan!>

Much thanks to Meredith for the hospitality and being a great friend/tourist-in-crime!

Until the next adventure…

Michael xx

The Rain Doesn’t Stop Exploring the Sound [Seattle]

Personal Life, Travel

About a month ago in late October I had the pleasure of taking a weeklong vacation to the Pacific Northwest. I had yet to use a bulk of my vacation days from work, so I thought it appropriate to take a nice trip to get out of the Midwest. That is really my main goal when traveling: go somewhere that the eyes have yet to witness. I had a few friends from KU that moved out there after graduation, so I booked my trip to Seattle and spent some time two time zones away.

When I first arrived, my friend Daniel met me at the airport in Tacoma and took the “Link” rail to downtown Seattle. Daniel was gracious enough to let me stay at his place, which ended up being a perfect location for my tourist self. Here are some of the highlights in photos…

View from Daniel’s apartment: The Wheel and Puget Sound

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The original Starbucks

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Pike Place Fish Market throwers

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Pike Place fish counter

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Seahawk flying over city

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Puget Sound

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Boat on Puget Sound

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Downtown Seattle

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Space Needle

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Interactive fountain near Needle

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Totem pole near Needle

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Pike Place Market entrance

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Pioneer Square

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Train station and city bus wires

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CenturyLink Field (where Seahawks and Sounders play)

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Street art

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Seattle view atop Columbia Tower

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Seattle Public Library

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Puget Sound

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College friend Joe and me on Halloween weekend

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Overall, I loved Seattle. It has such different weather and a distinct culture compared to the Midwest.

If you go, definitely try the coffee! I went to Starbucks, Seattle Coffee Works and Cherry Street Coffee when I was there. Out of all I think Seattle Coffee Works was the best, but it’s the best I’ve had of any city.

The nightlife is relaxed and niche, as different areas/neighborhoods of the city have distinct bar cultures. Definitely worth asking around before you go out on the town.

I bought some Pacific Northwest Native American artwork that I just got framed. I’ll post pictures soon to my Twitter feed. It’s awesome!

Also, Google or Wikipedia the “Seattle Freeze.” It’s a phenomenon that Seattleites are flaky and independent. Apparently they are warm at first but are not long-term in regard to making plans. Interesting stuff.

It rained off and on, but not too much that it made the trip a mess. It was actually about right in sun-to-rain ratio.

It’s hilly. Chicago is completely flat, so my calves were a bit stressed after Day One.

Seattle is surrounded by water, as it is a peninsula. In the distance on a clear day, you can see Mount Rainier, a volcano that marks the highest point in Washington.

Let me know if you have any questions about the city, as I probably didn’t remember everything I did. Other than that, stay tuned for more blog posts in 2013 about my next destination!

New Year Under Lady Liberty [New York City]

Personal Life, Travel, Work

Wrapping up 2011

Wow, what a busy end of 2011 it was. At work, we were preparing for advertisements to go live on January 1, and since our last day of 2011 was December 22, we had to have everything ready for day one of 2012. We spent several late nights at OMD to prepare for this. For the first time in 56 years, State Farm updated its logo, so we had to swap out all of the old logos with the new ones, so that took some time as well. When we arrived back to work on Jan. 3, most went well for what we planned, and now we are working toward moving forward for Q1. Though during our time off, I had the opportunity to travel about…

After work finished in December, I took an Amtrak train home from Chicago to Kansas City. Early in the morning, I boarded the train at Union Station in Chicago and went southwest toward St. Louis. The train went through many small towns like my hometown, many of which come see the train go by. Once in St. Louis, I had a four-hour layover, so I walked around, got lunch and later boarded to Kansas City. By then, the view out of the train was black on the Missouri River Runner train. The last stretch made me very tired, but thankfully my parents were at Kansas City Union Station to drive me back home.

Home for the Holidays

It was nice to get home again and have some time to rest. The first day back, I spent time helping grandma get ready for Christmas lunch at her place. The church Christmas Eve program was held on Saturday night, a program that has been going for about 70 straight years. For a rare occasion, Christmas day fell on Sunday, so we returned to church once again the following day. We raced home after service to open gifts before the big lunch. My main gift this year was an Xbox 360, something I’ve missed since leaving college! Clothes, headphones, hockey tickets and money highlighted the other gifts. The day after Christmas my sister Jeni and I helped grandma take down her holiday decorations. Grandpa’s birthday is soon after, so she has always made an effort to separate the holiday season and his birthday. The next day Jeni, mom and Jeni’s friend Kaila went on a trip to Knoxville, Tenn., to see a University of Tennessee women’s basketball game. I traveled with them to the airport in the wee hours of the morning to catch my flight, which was headed more northeast.

New York

To be honest, my trip to New York was a nightmare. My flight was slated to leave at 7 a.m. from Kansas City directly to the Big Apple. I boarded the plane, where we sat there for two hours waiting for maintenance to be completed. Then, they told us to exit the plane and wait in the lobby while they worked on the plane. Another two hours in the lobby area… The flight team then came out and told us that the new part wouldn’t sync with an older plane, so the flight was canceled. All rushed to the ticket counter to rebook a flight. My reroute was through Minneapolis. Unluckily for me, my flight to Minnesota was delayed because the sink was leaking in the lavatory. I waited not as long as the first attempt to flight, and finally got off the ground and out of KC. When I got to Minneapolis, I had to rush across many terminals to reach my next flight, which was just boarding when I arrived. I quickly got off the ground again and headed to my destination. Once we got near New York and started to descend, the plane went through some terrifying turbulence because of high winds and a storm. The plane behind us made an emergency landing in Boston, but we went ahead and attempted to get to New York. Nothing to me has been as life-terrifying as that flight. I have no problems with flying, but that was a bit shaking. I took a cab from LaGuardia airport to my friend Chelsie’s place in TriBeCa.

She lives in a large apartment that two older ladies use as their workspace. Rent, as you know, is ridiculously high in the city, so most of your income goes to rent. We chatted a bit, watched a movie and then went to bed. She had to work most of the week, so the next day I met her for lunch and walked around a bit. My friend Duane from KU also moved to NY recently, and he was just flying in from Kansas City. He was bringing home Chase, the dog I used to look after sometimes in college. Apparently Chase got loose on the tarmac and cars had to chase him down over the runways.. what a mess! I met up with Duane and the dog for dinner. The next day my friend Cherie, also from KU, met me in the city and we did a bit of sightseeing. We started out at Chinatown, went south through the Financial District and Wall Street, and walked by the construction of the World Trade Center site. The WTC site is still an eyesore, as walls are up for construction. The construction of Freedom Tower is also underway, but someone told me they are having trouble selling office space there because of the potential terror threat and the constant memory of September 11 right outside the windows. After that, we went down to Battery Park and caught the Staten Island Ferry, which has a view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Cherie and I did a bunch of sightseeing that day, and we ended our day at Times Square to check out the lights (and thanking ourselves for not going there for New Year’s Eve!)

                                

On the 30th, Cherie and I went to lunch at a diner close to the Empire State building. A new clothes store UniQlo was nearby, and I found the best fitting pants I’ve ever found! I got a few pair and called it good. Our friend Duane works at Columbia University in Harlem, so we met him to check out his office and later went back to TriBeCa to meet Chelsie and friends for drinks. New Year’s Eve Day we spent relaxing before going out on the big night. We got ready to go to Chelsie’s place for appetizers and drinks before leaving to Chelsea Piers. At 10 p.m. our yacht left the pier from Chelsea and went down to the Statue of Liberty for midnight. For the countdown, we went to the top of the yacht and counted down to 2012. In our view was the Statue of Liberty with a long fireworks show. Can’t get much better than that for New Year’s! Because of the chilling wind off of the Hudson River, we went back in the yacht and drank, had dessert and danced into 2012. At 3 a.m. the yacht docked and we got off. I was ready for bed after a long night.

                

On the first day of 2012, I slept in, had lunch at a diner and walked around Central Park with friends. It was a good way to end the trip and the weather was even more pleasant. My flight was that evening, so I packed up and headed back to LaGuardia. My flight home was not as bad as the previous experience, thank goodness. Gaining an hour based on time zone change, I got home to my apartment at midnight. Glad to be home, but loved every minute of New York!

    

Now my next break is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but I’m content with getting back into routine. Here’s to a great 2012!

Packing London and Bringing it Home [London]

Internship, Personal Life, Travel

Hi there,

I’m no longer writing you from six hours later time. I returned to the United States on Saturday evening to the welcoming arms of my parents and sister. Even though I’m back, I want to update you through my final days in the Kingdom.

Wicked: Right after I last wrote, I went to Wicked The Musical at the Apollo Victoria. The EUSA program provided us students with free tickets to random events across the City. I chose Wicked as my free event because I had heard a lot of good things about it, and why not see something that relates to the Wizard of Oz being from Kansas? Wicked is the preface to the Wizard of Oz and explains how Glenda (the good witch) and Elphaba (the bad witch) came to be, as well as the tin man, lion, scarecrow and Dorothy. Like the last musical I saw, the voices were outstanding and acting was spot-on. I still think that the original Wizard of Oz is better though.

  

Last day at M2M: Thursday was my final day at my internship with M2M. Most of the people during the day were packing up, much like me, although, they were heading to the floor above. The company has grown and expanded enough to add another floor. My last day consisted of pulling some final reports and chasing clients for documents needed to make deadlines. At the end of the day, the agency surprised me with a gift. Everyone had signed a card with nice notes. Along with the card were four movie DVDs, all Momentum Pictures productions, one of our clients. One of the movies was The Fighter, a movie that gained rave reviews. From there we went to a social at a park not too far away. Awaiting us was Pierre, a Frenchman who works in digital media. His job was to inform us how to play pentanquet, a game similar to boules. Each team alternates trying to throw a heavy ball near the “jack”. The closest team’s ball at the end of the round wins. My team did quite well to start out with, but was defeated on the last throw by the opposing team. It was a great time, and I got to know some people even better. Drinks were provided, and of course I had some Pimm’s.

Farewell party: From pentaque, the other intern Grace (from Buffalo, New York) and I went to our student farewell party located near King’s Cross station. The place was called Smithy’s, where we were served bangers and mash for dinner as well as free drinks. I spent the rest of the night watching British television at our place.

Friday’s class and field trip: I entered my last full day in Britain with a lecture about power and sovereignty. The final field trip was to Tate Britain, a modern art gallery. A lot of the modern items included objects, lighting, abstract art and perspective. One of the pieces was literally a trash bag with pink paint on it, although, the pink ‘paint’ was made of women’s products like toothpaste, cooking ingredients, cleaning materials, etc. My favorite item was an Native American headdress made of the metal from a wash bin.

      

Hyde Park picnic: Friday afternoon, Paige, Chelsie and I created a wonderful end to a great trip with a picnic in Hyde Park. The weather was near perfect, and the swans were out on the lake. Our meal included brie cheese, salami, baguette, English black grapes, beets, pasta salad, chocolate minstrels and boxed French wine. We all spent a while laying in the grass looking up to the British sky for a last time. For me, it was a time to collect my thoughts before the subsequent day of jet lag. From the park, you can also see Kensington Palace, an official residence of the Royal family.

    

Dinner in Soho: Not long after our picnic, it was time for dinner. We went to Piccadilly Circus and walked to Soho where we would find a nice Italian restaurant. I ordered a sausage pizza and olives with wine. After that, we went to none other than Snog, the recurring location for my late night frozen yogurt cravings. I needed to go home to pack, and so I did. I made a pile of what I needed to take home, things I needed to throw away and things I wanted to donate.

The day of departure: I woke up to finalize my packings and to clean up the room before I left. To be honest, I will not miss the room I stayed in because of its size, along with the bathroom for the same reason. I said goodbye to Chelsie, who was staying several weeks past the program to peruse Europe with her mother. My suitcase was quite heavy, but everything fit that needed to. Paige and I, who traveled together, made our way to our Gloucester station and headed to Heathrow Airport. We arrived in plenty of time and waited to board the plane to Minneapolis, our first and only stop. The nine-hour flight nearly drained me. First, the audio did not work on my screen, so I couldn’t watch the movie to pass the time. Second, I’m too tall to have sufficient leg room anywhere. I was able to doze off in 30-minute increments, but that’s about it. We arrived in Minnesota safe and sound, but goodbye in-shape people and British accents. The Minnesota airport greeted us with thick northern Midwest accents and unflattering clothing. There wasn’t much of a wait until we headed to Kansas City. The flight to KC seemed like a car ride across town, after surviving nearly half a day on the first flight. I sat near a baby once again, but the flight was short enough to keep my sanity. After walking off the plane, I was back home. My mom, dad and sister stood waiting for me, probably expecting me to look different. I don’t think I did, but I’m sure I looked a bit weathered. We left, got a quick snack, and after a while, I was back in my childhood home; back in my 6’5″-friendly bed; and back to rural life.

And welcomed by American debt politics on TV.

Lucky me.

Perusing the City Subdued by European Tragedies [London]

Internship, Personal Life, Travel

Heading into the last few days of my time here in London is a little bittersweet, but don’t worry, there’s still plenty to do. Since my big trip to Germany, I have embraced my current home in the UK’s capital.

Cricket: The week I returned from Germany, I planned an excursion to a cricket game at The Kia Oval south of Central London. I had heard about cricket from many of my Indian friends at KU, but had never seen or understood the game. So, one day after work, Chelsie and I made our way to the Oval to watch Surrey and Kent battle it out. I spent the first half of the game trying to figure out all of the 50 numbers on the scoreboard and why people cheered when a “batter” hit the ball on the ground past the oval markers. Kent ended up beating Surrey 181-166, but I really had no idea what happened. The atmosphere was very sophisticated with many people in suits and dresses. England recently played India in a multi-day match.

    

Imperial War Museum: Many of you older folks who are reading this blog would be thrilled to visit the Imperial War Museum in London. The museum, as part of our weekly class trip, includes artifacts, videos, facts and information from many of the main European Wars, conflicts and worldwide relations. When first approaching the museum, large cannons surrounded by a garden set the scene for visitors. My first look before entering the museum was a section of the Berlin Wall that says “Change Your Life.” I didn’t spend much time in the museum reading about every war, but the Holocaust exhibit drew my attention. While walking through the dark rooms watching video after video of survivors, my mood shifted swiftly. Leftover items from the concentration camps absolutely show the distress and anguish the Jewish people experienced. Helga, who I visited in my Germany trip, honestly said, “It’s our fault,” [‘Our’ referring to the country of Germany.] I don’t know if she as an everyday citizen should take so much blame, for the rise of Hitler was through public officials.

    

The National Gallery (again): The first time I attended The National Gallery, our class assignment was to look at the portrait portion of the gallery. Don’t get me wrong, the portrait gallery has a great collection, but the “beasts” are found in the main entrances. This was not a required trip, but I had studied several items that are located there, so I wanted to see them first-hand. My courses in Italian Renaissance art provided me with the knowledge to properly understand the items. Works from the hands of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Monet, Titian, Rembrandt and van Gogh amazed me. Unfortunately the gallery has a strict policy for taking pictures, so you can check the items on its website if interested. My favorite painting at the gallery was “Venus and Mars” by Sandro Botticelli. Google Image the work if possible, and take a look at the ornery puti who are hypnotizing Venus and Mars. Below is van Gogh’s “A Wheat field with Cypresses” made with actual nature and a quick snap of Leonardo’s “Madonna of the Rocks.”

  

Portobello Market: I had been to the area once before briefly, but this time, I wanted to spend a bit more time looking through the quaint shops. On the way to the main market street, you can see George Orwell’s former home, a black door small home in Notting Hill. I didn’t get anything besides two things that I wanted to get in France and Germany. For each country I go to, I get a flag (ironically I need to get a USA flag when I get home!) Much to the displeasure of the local Brit clerk, I purchased a French and German flag at a British store. I’m surprised I made it out alive!

Last week’s pubs: One of Chelsie’s guy friends visited this week. Matt works in Canada at Archer Daniel’s Midland seed (competitor of Cargill’s). After work, we helped him become accustomed to London afterwork life at the pubs. We purchased Pimm’s, ciders, beers and food. Surprisingly, last week was the first time I had fish and chips. And many of you who know me, I do not like fish, although, the fried taste of the fish didn’t taste too bad! At least I can say I tried it, as I’m sure many locals will ask about it when I return home.

Victoria & Albert Museum: The past week’s slate included yet another art gallery, but I didn’t complain. The V&A Museum is a world-renowned gallery located near my London home. The class lecture before the trip was about the difference in sport, fashion, music and leisure between the U.S. and the UK. The lecturer criticized the U.S.’s inability to ‘export’ its sports. We took all of Britain’s sports and made them our own: Rugby > Football, Cricket > Baseball, Association Football > Soccer. It’s true, but it goes back to when we differentiated ourselves from Britain with anti-monarchy policies. Our sports were made our own, but they aren’t worldwide sports like soccer and rugby. In terms of music, a video in class highlighted the rebelliousness of British youth against a music swing in the U.S. And in fashion, it is said that Americans dress ‘down’ to show rebellion, but the British dress up to do so… The museum trip included many items like the British Museum. Again, I was most interested in works of the Renaissance period, including flattened reliefs by Donatello, Medician medallions, casts of Michelangelo and cartoons by Raphael. After a day in the museum, I spent a while in a central courtyard, where the sun actually felt warm for a change…

          

Spitalfields Market and Tower Bridge: Saturday I spent alone. Chelsie traveled to Italy for the weekend, so I spent time browsing my interests. I slept in after a long night out in Fulham Broadway. At Spitalfields Market, I browsed through neat stores and sat down to eat some Burmese food. It’s like Chinese and Indian foods combined. After that, I walked by Camden Town and then over to Tower Bridge. I had seen the bridge from distance, but wanted to get a few snapshots close-up. It’s a beautiful bridge with a lot of tourists. Adjacent to the bridge is the Tower of London, a Robin Hood-looking old stone fortress. I didn’t go inside, but it was neat to see the outside architecture.

    

I went home and heard the news…

Amy Winehouse dead at 27: I logged onto Twitter and saw the news that singer Amy Winehouse had died in her home at none other than Camden Town. A little bit eerie that I was in the area at the time she was found, but reports say that she had been dead for nearly six hours before being found. Tragedy in London. London had lost one of the most unique and famed female voices of all time. Her apartment in Camden Town later became the home of piles of flowers, pictures, alcohol and cigarettes. Unfortunately for Amy, drugs got the best of her. Her family was even aware that she could be dead in the next few years if she did not begin rehabilitation. She had started but later quit, leading to her recent demise. To celebrate her life, some of us went out in Camden Town that evening. “Here’s to Amy,” we said. RIP.

A day before in Olso: Tragedy hits to the North. I also caught this one when it was recently reported. Like most, I thought it could be another terrorist attack on innocent people. At first, I heard about the bombing in the city of Olso, Norway, but was surprised to hear more damage was done on an island with teenagers. The Prime Minister came out with a strong statement saying that Norway would not relinquish its democracy and government. I found it an unusual statement because no details had been given about the attacker. Recent reports of Anders Breivik in London shed light on his inability to admit guilt or remorse for his killings. One statement hurts the most: “It’s better to kill too many than not enough.” It was the headline of a daily newspaper in London. Think about this: The event is a complete dichotomy of the al-Qaeda attacks. This man is right wing, Christian Fundamentalist and anti-Islam. He warns the world of a Christian war in the future. I, like the rest of you, send my thoughts and prayer to the victims and families of the attacks. The weekend was a somber one with both the attacks and Amy’s passing.

Entering the last week abroad: Saturday marked a week before the return to America. Sunday, I organized some of my items and prepared for a smooth transition home. I wrote out an agenda for the final week to complete any last-minute events. To be honest, there isn’t much left on my wish list for London. I conquered this city, and I’m glad the last week won’t be rushed.

M2M work picking up: The past couple of weeks at the internship, I’ve been unusually busy with several projects occurring simultaneously. I’ve been doing a lot of Microsoft Excel work with trafficking and coremetric sheets for clients, social media monitoring, contacting clients and compiling creative files. I’ve been moving desks quite a bit, as people come and go from holiday. Friday, after my last day at the internship, the company is expanding to another floor and moving. Too bad I couldn’t be there to help, but instead, I’ll be packing my own bags. The job search is still in progress, as I’m just beginning conversation with potential employers. It’s hard to get too involved, as I won’t be readily available when I return because of my planned wisdom teeth extraction.

My five London tips/fun facts of the week:
1. To say five ‘bucks’, you say five ‘quid’.
2. Common words/phrases of English: “To be honest…”; “Basically”; “You alright?”; “Thanks, cheers, bye.”; “Wicked”
3. Almost all galleries and museums in London are free [and full of tourists!]
4. Public display of affection is very common in London. Couples will be quite intimate on transit, in stations, at restaurants, etc.
5. M&M World just opened in Leicester Square. Yellow M&M shopping bags are taking over London!

  

Hope all is well and that you are bearing the U.S. heat. You may think I’m crazy, but I’m looking forward to it. 1) because I want a summer tan and 2) because I want to wear shorts again!

MRF

Inside the Natural, Charming Lives of Rural Germans [Germany]

Personal Life, Travel

(continued from previous post…)

Helga had given us a fantastic look inside German lifestyle, but the Heldusers were just about to add to that. We took a train from Neustadt to Marburg, where Jürgen would pick us up. Before arriving, we stopped in Manheim and Frankfurt. The train view was outstanding, with green crops and bloomed wildflowers along the way. A small layover in Frankfurt allowed me to get out of the station to see the large city, soon to be the location of the Women’s FIFA World Cup final.. I had never met the Heldusers before. Unlike Helga, they had not visited us in the U.S. because they recently found out we existed. My parents, aunt and uncle, and grandparents though did stop by their homes in 2008.

  

Once arriving in Marburg, Chelsie and I exited the station looking for Jürgen. Having no idea what he looked like, we looked for someone who was looking for visitors. I spoke his name loud enough to be recognized and then we met. He seemed excited to meet us and take us around the country. He suggested that we see a bit of Marburg first, so we loaded into his car and winded up on the hill of the city where we would see nothing other than a Schloss! From my previous post, you would know that Schloss means ‘castle’ in German. Jürgen spoke decent English, and we were able to communicate our thoughts for the most part. At the top of Marburg was Marburger Schloss, the castle where the two main religions split into a new reformed faith. We took several photos overlooking the city and of the castle, and our host showed us the area where his wife Ingrid works as a gynaecologist. We sat down at a restaurant on the hill for a beer (Paulaner and Veltins) and then headed off to the small village of Bromskirchen. Another winding car ride it was, but we arrived in the village, noted by a small sign like my hometown.

    

Bromskirchen has about 2,000 inhabitants, several which include my family. The city looked like a master hand had dropped a handful of houses on the top of a hill and they settled in the valley. Red roofs and white houses dominated the town. Only about three streets into the city and we turned left up a hill, and we were there. The house looked familiar from old photos, as my ancestors from Germany had lived in the home centuries ago. The home of course had been modernized, but the outside aesthetic looked similar to the photo. The first house we went to was home of Heinz and Helga Helduser (yes, another Helga!) They welcomed us in, and we immediately went to the back porch where the host served us coffee. We quickly met Thomas, a quite comical character, who was headed off to work at a nearby sawmill. He constructs pretty much anything with wood in a modern technique. He discussed how Germans like American music, but none of the lyrics make sense. I’d have to agree! Manuel and Thomas are brothers and the sons of the house. Manuel volunteers as a firefighter for the village. Daniel, the son of Jürgen, came roaring in on his motorcycle. He and the other young boys spoke decent English, but Heinz and Helga did not. Daniel tried to translate as much as possible.

  

Three desserts stared us in the eye. All were wonderful, especially with a cuppa coffee. We visited for a while, then Heinz and Helga gave a tour of the home. They had recently added onto the side of the house with a new dining room and space for more furniture. The basement is still in old-fashioned condition, but it seemed like Heinz’s “man cave” as Americans might say. A garage connects to the side of the building and a shed holds a tractor and farm tools. Around the side of the house is Heinz’s pride of a garden. He picked sweet cherries from his cherry tree, and carefully crafted rows of vegetables and herbs lined the back yard. Later we would see how the garden provides most of the basis for the organic meals.

    

We then left for a special behind-the-scenes tour from Daniel and Manuel while the family prepared for an evening barbecue. The BMW SUV started down the countryside through meadows with sheep and farm buildings. We got near the bottom of a valley where couple of random small buildings appeared. A semi-steep slope was green, but it is where Bromskirchen’s Ski Club performs in the winter. They both enjoy the winter months in the village. We weaved through the countryside as if it were a bus tour. A large pond at the bottom of bluffs lies near an old saw mill. A cabin-like house sits on the lake, where natives hold parties and functions. Two horses greeted us at the top of the city, and we could see the red roofs in the valley. We petted the horses and snapped some computer wallpaper-like photos and headed back to the village. The Bromskirchen church bell still powers at the hour at the very old building. Daniel showed us his tractor project, where he was painting and replacing parts much like my grandpa Marvin does. At the home, Jürgen was out grilling the meat, and Daniel invited us to help feed his five goats. Four of them were more than eager to eat, but the baby goat was not excited about the company and stayed her distance. Three of the names included Yoshi, Mo and Thor. In the house, the ladies prepared one of the best meals I think I’ve ever had. We sat down for an organic feat. The meat was barbecued on the grill, the salad greens were unique and decadent, a pasta salad with pine nuts was a personal favorite, and grilled tomatoes with goat cheese topped it off. The potatoes were native of the family farm, and it’s admirable that they use no chemicals when farming to keep produce more natural and fresh. German beer and fine Austrian wine lined the table. We had a great visit with the whole family, half the table in English and the other half in German. Heinz gave me heck for being so tall, while Jürgen told me I needed to eat more. Believe me, I was being fed well but was getting no shorter! We said goodbye to most of the family, as Jürgen was taking us to the train station early the next day.

               

Chelsie and I got a good night’s rest and woke up to another good breakfast with coffee. We traveled quite a way through winding forest roads to Cologne (Köln), a large city in western Germany. We arrived and bought our train tickets to the airport. Jürgen took us to the Cologne Cathedral (Dom). It’s a large gothic-style church that took more than 600 years to complete. It still looked like some construction was going on. The height of the church was amazing, almost as if it was touching God. After that, we said goodbye to the host and grabbed a quick meal to eat before the train departed.

      

We crossed the Rhine River on the way to the airport and arrived within 20 minutes. Chelsie and I had some trouble going through security, as we had to check the wine bottles as a bag instead of part of carry-on. When we arrived to the men who checked the passports, we also had to stop longer than usual. When we took the train from Paris to Germany, we didn’t have to go through immigration, therefore, we didn’t have a stamp on our passport. They understood our situation and stamped us there so we could get through when we arrived in Britain.

The plane ride was quick into Gatwick airport. and we took the train home.

It was the highlight of a trip within a trip, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to see my family and the country of Germany. I hope to go back someday, but for now, I’d like to bring back some of the lifestyles and practices of the German people.

To sum it up, live simply.

Biologically German, Realistically Foreign [Germany]

Personal Life, Travel

(continued from previous post…)

Helga, an 82-year-old cousin of my grandfather who was wearing a pink Lacoste polo, stood waiting for us outside of a large garage-like door while the taxi pulled up. I got out and embraced her, as I had met her in the early 2000’s (I think 2003) when she and her son Helge traveled across the pond to our Kansas home. She was more than welcoming of my friend Chelsie, and we proceeded through the outside door into a courtyard where her home stands. It’s a four-floor slim building that is mirrored by her neighbor’s similar-style home. Finally, we had a place to call home, even if it was for two days. She showed us her home briefly. A tall winding staircase connects the floors. The ground floor contains her bedroom, the first floor stands the kitchen, living room, dining room and porch, and the third includes a guest bedroom and living area. Antique trinkets surround the walls. Her fondness for art and painting was evident with the Northern-style landscape paintings. The American presence was quite obvious as well. On the wall was a bird pin that my great-grandma Esther had given her, and on the dining table was none other than an American flag-painted wood star that my family had given them on their USA visit. After acquainting myself with the unique German home, she quickly warmed up a meal she had prepared earlier. The meal, called Tafelspitz, is a common dish in Germany. It consists of meat slices, potatoes and horseradish, mushroom and leek sauces. After finishing a full plate, the host insisted I eat another. (Let’s just say we were well-fed with the Germans.) Helga’s husband Dieter was not present because his sister had died, and he was attending to those needs. Her son Görge is married to a Slovakian and has a daughter named Laurean. Another son Helge was busy at the North Sea Jazz festival or else he would have been present. Her daughter Inke sees an older British man and lives in Brussels.

      

We were completely satisfied with a meal, so we prepared to clean up. Oh no. Helga had desserts lined up. Rice pudding topped with fresh raspberries and a dutch-style cake stared us in the eye. One modern thing in Helga’s house was her espresso machine. She whipped out cappuccinos and Americanos with ease. Chelsie saw quick to head to bed after a nice Paris-cleansing shower. Helga and I were the night owls. We stayed up until 4:30-5 a.m. chatting about the things we missed since her last-decade visit.

She has a strong interest in politics. She keeps an opinionated stance on Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her street is too busy for her liking. As a former interpreter, she enjoys studying languages and lectures. Late night programs about art are interesting to her. ‘The War’ seems to define time, either before the war or after the war. Or maybe because of the war. She shared some Nazi Germany stories. She thinks my English is hard to understand compared to my family. Don’t know why. I made a promise to learn German before I return. Better start now. Ladies and gentlemen, she texts. I’ve texted her twice. She wears a Kansas state quarter necklace (the buffalo and sunflower). Again, she takes blame for the war.

We made an agreement to go to bed. I also showered to remove the Parisian filth.

We woke up to none other than a feast. Helga had prepared fried eggs on King Louis toast, topped with mountain cheese. Croissants in a basket tasted well with her homemade raspberry jam. Coffee again was present, as well as the european standard mineral water (carbonated water). Next to my place sat a packet full of family pictures, most black and white and few in color. She explained the story of how we became related. She knew everyone in each picture and their stories. So-and-so died after getting struck by a falling tree. A widower married a widow to extend the family tree. Surprisingly, we aren’t too far away in relation. I took photos with my iPhone of the pictures she had. Most important to me was a family tree that was designed recently. The history lesson ended with a tour of her porch, which had perfectly-bloomed flowers and bushes. Atop the newspaper headlines of Die Rheinpfalz was Germany’s loss to Japan in the FIFA Women’s World Cup playoffs.

            

That day we loaded into her Mercedes, and she took us across to a connecting town called Hambach. The cities lie next to a large green wooded forest. Through spaghetti-winding roads, we found our way near the top of the mount, where Hambacher Schloss still exists. It is a castle that overlooks Hambach and marks the birthplace of democracy. Chelsie and I spent the time above taking in the clean air and the view. After that, we drove back to Neustadt and went the other direction to Bad Dürkheim. On the way, we saw endless fields of grapevines preparing for a new wine festival. Helga knew how to fly on the ‘Bahn. She parked near a wooden structure that looked like quite eccentric. She earlier had said it was a spa, but my idea of a spa is women laying down with cucumbers over their eyes. We paid a small fee to walk up to the ‘spa’. The place was called Saline Jradierwerk. I will try to explain this, but I think the pictures will be more revealing. Bundles and bundles of black thorn branches from the Ukraine are tightly fit into the tall structure. Water drips from the top through the branches, releasing a salty, sea breeze smell. It seriously smells and feels like you are seaside, and it is good for your skin or if you are sick. The branches last almost yearly, and it adds to Germany’s organic lifestyle. I think in English these are called graduation towers. Wikipedia it.

                

It was about time to eat (again), and Helga drove a couple of parking lots over near the world’s largest barrel called Dürkheimer Riesenfass. Inside the barrel is a nice restaurant, where we stood out as Americans. Several people noticed because we had the waitress wait until Helga explained the menu items in English. Germans in general, were receptive and welcoming, but maybe it was because we were visiting a small non-touristy town. We ordered three dishes (pork, chicken and sausage) and shared them all. Chelsie was fond of the sauerkraut, and I liked the wine. Helga of course insisted we had dessert, so we ordered Black Forest ice cream. During dinner, Helga chatted about her friendships and the people she’s met in her years. She said she met a man at St. Paul’s cathedral in London who would still remember her. She also visited a former classmate at a lecture. I get the feeling she makes lasting impressions. She had studied and worked in Scotland, as they had better education and books for her to utilize when Germany was depleted. She also knows French and Italian quite well.

After yet another filling dinner, we went back to Neustadt. Chelsie and I had to find a place with Internet to do our weekly assignment for our study abroad program, so we found a casino with access. Ironically, we sat next to a couple of Texans who were ‘just biking through’. From there, we walked home to Helga after the heavy rain stopped. We sat in front of ‘the screen’ (or TV) and chatted a while about our next trip north to the Helduser family. Helga had an album of her Kansas trip on an old boat ladder she made into a bookshelf. After sipping on some coffee, she surprised us with gifts she had secretly bought at Hambacher Schloss. She had purchased two pint glasses for Chelsie and me and a bottle of wine that was native to the area. She also gave us some tin glasses she’d never opened that were similar to her place setting. We were so grateful of her generosity. We didn’t stay up very late that evening, as we had to get up to catch a train.

Again in the morning, she had a similar breakfast ready. We loaded the car and prepared to leave Neustadt. Before our train arrived, we had time to spare. She told us to visit her town church near the city plaza. Most German churches have two spires, and this one overlooked the main city centre. We made a quick return back to the station where she walked us to the platform. It was hard to say goodbye after such a short time there, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to see her life. We hugged goodbye, boarded the train to Manheim, our first stop. She waved aimlessly as the train departed and headed back to her Neustadt home.

          

She told me to fulfill my promise. I promised to learn German. Like I said, I need to get started soon.

Danke Helga for the memories.

(Stay tuned for the next German family.)

Battling the Parisian Dawn [Paris]

Personal Life, Travel

Welcome back! I’m sure you’ve been waiting to hear from my most recent trip to France and Germany, and I certainly have a lot to share with you. First off, I want to say that it was the most brilliant trip I’ve ever taken, so much as I need to break it into separate blog posts.

When I last left you, I had gone to see a musical in London. Last Thursday I spent packing and preparing for my journey south. Some of you may know my analytical personality, and naturally I made a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to map out the important times like train/plane times and check-ins.

Friday’s lecture and field trip: Despite being overshadowed by eagerness of the upcoming trip, the Friday lecture and field trip still found its way onto my Canon Powershot camera. The lecture demonstrated and compared Britain’s class-conscious, liberal and secular society with America’s individualistic, conservative and religious lifestyle. Taught obviously by a Brit, the lecturer blatantly described each situation. 70 percent of Americans say they are middle class when 40 percent actually are. This is because one-third aspires to be part of a group in which they do not belong. In the UK, 35 percent define themselves as middle class, a more accurate guess that shows that Brits are class-conscious and do not live ‘the dream.’ Another point the lecturer made was the struggle for America to combat simple issues like abortion and gay marriage. Unfortunately for the USA, its conservative mindset and use of religious context hinder the progress of such issues… So, on to The British Museum we went. The museum looks a lot like The National Gallery and its artwork is quite similar. The museum is full of artifacts from different regions of the world and different periods. My favorite exhibit were the Latin American carved stones.

        

Paris trip begins: After a rushed experience at the museum, I scrambled home to gather my belongings and head to the station to buy train tickets to Luton Airport, a small port west of London. Whist arriving at the station to buy tickets, my travel buddy Chelsie and I became worried we would miss our flight. We boarded the train and made it to Luton in decent time, but we waited in the check-in line just minutes before it closed. Fortunately for us, several were behind us, which made us feel not as behind. The plane included us, as it took off on time, headed to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.

This was my first time in a country where the native language was not English. How would I fare? Chelsie had been to Paris before, but did not speak French. Gradually the frequency of English fell to French. It was our second time flying EasyJet. EJ sounds like the Dollar Tree of planes, and in some ways, it is: cheap but decent. The plane landed fine, and we waited for a bus to take us to the city centre. By the time we reached midtown, it was quite late. The bus dropped us off just a look away from the Arc de Triomphe. I snapped a few night shots of it, then headed down the streets with Chelsie to find a decent hotel or hostel.

Another journey began within a journey. Chelsie is one to go right up and ask, which is helpful when I’m tired of asking for things. Place after place, we were disappointed with the outrageous pricing. After checking several, the cheapest place was €75. The place looked like cockroaches were slowly sucking away its time on earth. Tired and hungry, we stopped at a restaurant called Hippopotamus. It sounds like a kids playroom, but it served decent food for the time being. I ordered a margarita to get me through a few more hours. By the time we finished, it was nearing 2 a.m. Chelsie wanted to go to a hotel of €120. Being rational as I am, I thought, why pay that amount for just about 6 or 7 hours of sleep on a bed we don’t know? I got her to keep walking.

We made our way through the Champs Elysees and crossed by several palaces in the dark. Eventually we made it to the Seine River and crossed it to where we could still somewhat see the Eiffel Tower in the city lights.

We agreed to be homeless.

First we wanted to potentially sleep under the Arc de Triomphe, but it was blocked off. Then, we thought a night under the Eiffel Tower would be quite unique. The park near the Tower had whispering voices through the bushes and drunk teens going about weekend business. Mind you, this whole way we lugged our bags in this foreign city. Eventually we needed to sit down. Chelsie used a skirt to wipe off a wet bench overlooking the Seine River, where we would station for the night. We knew we would not get much sleep, but it was the best thing to do because we had to get up early to prepare for the journey to Germany, or so we thought. Chelsie laid down with her head on my chest as I sat up and chatted while she dozed off. A police car approached to check to see if we were homeless people on public property, but because I was upright and chatting, he thought we were just a couple chatting under the moonlight. To pass time, I took her book, ironically called ‘An Idiot Abroad’, and read it aloud to pass the time. We alternated dozing off phases, and watched an actual homeless woman haul her hoarded cardboard boxes to her bench near us. Time actually went by, and Chelsie suggested we wake at 5:30 to ‘get ready’. I looked at her with my blackened eyes in an are-you-kidding-me gaze. Get ready? It’s not like we had a water supply or changing room to exactly prepare for the day. Anyways, we wandered around, the first ones awake to see the city. First we went back to the Eiffel Tower to get better snapshots and then looked for a breakfast place. It seemed as if the owners were pressured by us to get their businesses running. The Eiffel Tower is quite tall as expected with a beautiful garden surrounding it. Chelsie took advantage of morning tea and toast, while I took advantage of a bathroom sink.