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If you don’t work in the automotive industry or are otherwise a car enthusiast you might not find yourself planning a trip to Wolfsburg, Germany. Let’s be honest, you probably have never even heard of this city, and that’s OK. Lucky for you, I just got back from there, and I’m here to tell you just what it has to offer.

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If you’ve ever flown from the United States to Germany you probably took a “red eye” flight, tired from your day at home, but equally excited to touch ground and get those feet on European soil. Well, this was how I’d spend the better part of my last weekend, starting Saturday night. I first flew to Amsterdam, where I had a few hour layover, and then on to Hanover, in northern Germany. From Hanover I got in my rental car and drive about an hour to my final destination, where I had to promptly get ready to start the work week abroad. Before having to turn myself over to work, though, I was determined to do something exciting before the end of the weekend.

 

Although I’ve traveled fairly extensively throughout Germany in the past, I actually had never been to Hanover. So, based on the time I landed and factoring in for luggage, rental car and the need to not arrive to my final destination too late in the day, I determined I had approximately 3 hours to explore Hanover. But is 3 hours really worth it? It turns out, it sure was!

 

During my layover in Amsterdam, I had gone online briefly to scope out my possibilities in Hanover with a 3 hour window.  I scoped out a few restaurants as well as some sites I might want to explore, all the while knowing that I was going to have to play it by ear given the time constraints and my complete lack of knowledge whatsoever about this city. Upon arriving to Hanover, I picked up an orange VW T-ROC, a crossover vehicle that could be likened to a Tiguan, only a bit sportier. (We don’t have this model in the US, in case you were wondering.) From there, I started the car’s navigation towards what looked like a lake (Maschsee) in the middle of the city. This is probably a pretty area, I thought to myself, as I fumbled with the clutch of a car that responds much differently than my 2003 Toyota Celica.

 

My assumption of beauty at this lake destination did not miss the mark!  The path from my car to Maschpark (Masch Park) was simply gorgeous. It certainly didn’t hurt that it was a glorious 77 degrees in the middle of October.  I passed by many beautiful buildings in traditional German half-timbered architecture before arriving at the Niedersächsischer Landtag (State Parliament of Lower Saxony), aka Leineschloss.

Here I saw a memorial to August Heinrich Hoffman from Lebersfallen, a German poet, who wrote many children’s as well as political songs around the time of the 1848 Revolution. There you could see a bronze plaque for August which reads “Meine Waffe war das Lied,” which translates to “My weapon was the song.”  Above the plaque in large letters reads “Einigkeit, Recht, Freiheit” or “Unity, Law, Freedom.” With google and wikipedia as my tour guide I learned that these words of his are particularly meaningful to the Germans as they became a part of the third verse of the German national anthem.

Across the way from Leineschloss was a gorgeous city square that I couldn’t help but stop to photograph. In the park itself, the leaves were just starting to turn and the entire path around Maschsee (the lake) was filled with slightly different, but equally spectacular views of the Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall).

 

Cobblestone streets and beautiful buildings…

Niedersächsischer Landtag (State Parliament of Lower Saxony); also called Leineschloss

Memorial to August Heinrich Hoffman from Fallersleben that appears on the Lower Saxony State Parliament building

Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) from side facing Maschpark

Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) from the other side

 

Just a shot of a tree with some beautiful early fall colors in an open square!

After my stroll around Macshpark I headed back to  Zeitfür, an excellent restaurant situated in Leineschloss right where the Leine River that runs through the center of Hanover. The atmosphere could not have been better. I watched the sunset on the river over a tasty traditional German specialty called Currywurst. If you’ve never had this traditional dish imagine the best hot dog you’ve ever had covered with ketchup mixed with curry spice. Normally it’s served with fries, but since I’m ketogenic and all, I asked for a fresh side salad instead. The waiter recommended a white wine to pair, and I was happy as one could be in this picturesque setting. I opened my computer to catch up on some emails and watch a bit of my daughter’s soccer game that was live streaming from back home in the states. If you’re looking for an intimate place to get a high quality, traditional German meal with your loved one, then you should check out Zeitfür.

Dinner at Zeitfuer with the ambience of the sunset over the Leine River

The famous German “Currywurst”

According to my physical activity app, I ended up walking about 5 miles, more than reaching my steps goal for the day. I was equally relaxed and satisfied by the views and delicious food to boot! And all this was just from 4-7 pm on a Sunday afternoon. All in all I can recommend a visit to this city if you happen to be planning a trip to Germany. Next time I’m in the Hanover area I’ll be planning a few more days to see what more this city has to offer.

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Imagine sitting at home chatting with your significant other about your next travel destination. With a warm cup of coffee in hand, you both talk of exotic popular places that could be your next stop–maybe Hawaii, Aruba or even that European spot you want to experience for a first or even a repeated time. I get it, I’ve been there.  What you probably haven’t found yourself saying is “Gee honey, I really think the get-away we’d enjoy most would be to Chattanooga, TN.” But just yesterday, I told my wife that I wish she could join me on my next trip to TN, because it has way more to offer than I had anticipated. But Chattanooga?

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Thanks to my daughter’s athletic talent we get to travel a lot to see her play. This time it took us to Milwaukee, WI. The weather was a gorgeous 70-some degrees and sunny pretty much all weekend and her team kicked butt. What did we do other than watch soccer games you might ask?

 

Well, we had a team lunch outing to what I can only guess is a popular college sports bar. I take no blame for this one as it was my wife’s suggestion. The place is called Who’s on Third. When my wife publicized her suggestion almost every parent of my daughters’ teammates thought she meant “Who’s on First.” After clearing up that confusion we spent the usual amount of time trying to find parking in a major city and then eventually decided to pay $10 to park across the street. This place was clearly not prepared for 20 teenage girls and their parents at 11 am on a Saturday but we had no other place to be so we waited for them to process out ginormous order. In the end, the food was pretty darn good so I can’t complain too much that it took like an hour and a half to get my order of 2 eggs, bacon and a side of avocado slices.

Our entertainment while waiting for lunch at Who’s on Third? A large dog with pink glasses riding a motorcycle. Could hardly believe my eyes…

Afterwards we teamed up with another family and decided to explore downtown Milwaukee. I was in search of my standard “new city souvenir,” otherwise known as, a cheesy as hell shot glass with the city name on it.  Yes, I got into this habit 20 some years ago and I just haven’t been able to break it. I keep saying I’m going to display said shot glasses one day but for now they are all accumulating in a box. But I digress…

While walking along the Milwaukee river we stumbled upon what looked like a native Milwaukeean and asked her where we could find the object of my desire. I might was well stop saying “we” because everyone else was just along for the “Julie wants to buy a ridiculous shot glass” ride at this point. It turned out that this young lady was headed to a Public Market Place that had exactly what we were looking for and then some. Not only did I find a shot glass but they also had all kinds of interesting local foods to try and buy. The place was bustling and in addition to the pleasant ambience it also offered me one of the best lattes of my life. Who knows what kind of coffee it was but the locally sourced milk was, no joke, some of the best I’ve ever tasted.  As Americans we know that Wisconsin is known for their dairy but i’m here to confirm that the cheeseheads do not disappoint!

 

 

 

Just another boat on the Milwaukee River

Some art on the Milwaukee River banks

View of the Milwaukee River

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Moran, MI (Aug 22- 26, 2018)
August 282018

Where is Moran, MI you may ask? Well it is in the UP! A place that I admittedly have not explored much even though it is a part of my home state! It was only a 4 day trip but it definitely hit the perfect ratio of relaxation, exploration, and laughs…many many laughs!

 

The cabin style house we stayed at was right on a lake. Although we did have a considerable amount of rain while we were there, the view was both beautiful and peaceful. Most of the time we cooked food and socialized at the house but we had two very entertaining excursions. One of them was the mystery spot. I thought this was going to be kind of disappointed but it actually delivered. This spot had some weirdly altered gravitation force that leaned to the east (or at least that was how it was explained). They built a house with a bunch of weird angles to illustrate the strangeness. I felt woozy after this excursion but it was interesting enough to make it worth it.

 

The next day we went to Tahquamenon Falls. I’ve seen falls all over the world and these are definitely up there in majesty. It was a rainy day but still a lot of fun to walk through the park and take lots of pictures. Walking through parks is one of my favorite vacation activities so I was really happy to check this box.

My favorite pic of the Lower Tahquamenon Falls

Since this friends-trip is starting to become a tradition I forced this group for what is our 2nd annual commemorative photo. Can’t wait until next year’s trip!

“The Group”

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Friday we went to the Big Beach. At this point in the trip our daughter was really getting into the boogie boarding and we thought let’s give her some big waves at the Big Beach. Unfortunately, she came back after just a few minutes as one of the waves had pummeled her. A few minutes later someone came on a portable loudspeaker telling the beach-goers that the waves are breaking hard at the shore and it was unsafe to board. Whoops! That was a bit of a bummer but we hung out on the beach for a while anyway and watched the crazies that chose to ignore the warnings.

For lunch we hit up a food truck that was literally sitting in the beach parking lot. I think it was the first time I’d ever tried fish nachos. Pretty much anything with fish or seafood in it on this island was phenomenal and the fish nachos were no exception to this rule.  In the evening we took the kids to a traditional Luau in Wailea. I will admit that this was the only meal I ate the entire 9 days on Maui that didn’t quite settle in my stomach just right. And that’s saying a lot as I have what you might call a sensitive digestive track and I was eating raw fish nearly every day!  Anyway, the weather, the gorgeous sunset and the talented dancers at the Luau made for a very enjoyable evening

Luau background at sunset

Luau dancers 🙂

Since we’d been eating breakfast at the condo most days on our last full day on Maui we decided to go out to breakfast not far from our condo at 808 Bistro. Here I got a deliciously savory dish with banana bread french toast on the side. Afterwards, you might have guessed that we went back to the beach. But this afternoon we did actually do something else. We hopped on a boat and went whale watching! A woman came up to me before we even left the dock asking if I was ok. I might as well have had a sign on my forehead that said “I AM MOTION SICK.” Luckily I’ve learned know hot to keep it in check for the most part. The area we went into was a whale sanctuary. We saw lots of big tails waving to us, baby whales learning to jump (just thrusting up their heads) and adult whales making full leaps. The adult leaps were few and far between but the 3-4 times it happened it literally took my breath away.

whale watching doesn’t necessarily lend itself to whale photographing but we tried

View as we were docking after whale watching

On day 7 we could’ve rested for what was bound to be a very long day (red eye flights back to the continental U.S.), but instead we decided to hit as many additional tourist sites as we possibly could in the daylight hours. First we drove up the Haleakala crater. I was worried about how cloudy it was but Maui guy said you always have to drive through clouds but that at the top it usually clears up. Boy was he wrong. Well he was right that we’d drive through them but nothing cleared up at the top. So I guess that hour and a half that my wife was hugging the steering wheel because the road was so close to cliff was all for nothing. I did take a few very cloudy pics here and there but I can’t say I have much to show for this adventure.

I looked up online what this view should’ve looked like and cried a little :-/

After the somewhat disappointing Halekala trip my wife and I figured we should sooth our souls with some wine from Maui’s only winery! We did a tasting of several different wines including a delicious syrah. But most unique were the pineapple wine offerings and the raspberry desert wine that was like 20% ACV. Dizamn that was strong! Luckily we were able to soak up some of that alcohol right across the street at what was clearly a cute little store and farm to table pub!?! We had fresh lamb and bison burgers with kimchi on the side. I can still taste it…yum yum yum!

After lunch it was off to a lavender farm. This adventure was on my wife’s list to do and while I wasn’t against  I figured we’d just see blankets of purple, take a few pics and call it a day but there were so many more interesting plants to see. Many stunningly unique views provided a plethora of photo ops.

beautiful view

utterly cool lookin’ tree

love these plants

My and my daughter at the lavender farm

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Wednesday was day three on Maui for us and something very rare happened that day. Both my wife and I cooked a meal together. Our daughter was quick to take a picture of this obviously noteworthy moment. Unfortunately I had to go to the dr due to an infected hang nail and sat out of the going to the beach with my family this day but I did make a turn around for evening festivities. I just needed a little treat to make me feel better. If you’ve been to Hawai’i maybe you guessed that the treat I’m talking about is called “shave ice.” I will say that there was day’s of arguing with my wife whether the correct term was “shaved ice” or “shave ice” but in the end I was atypically right with “shave ice.” Sometimes grammar loses.

OMG – we are both cooking. AKA – I am cooking too!

shave ice!!

In the evening we had some excellent drinks and dinner at Pi Artisenal Pizza in Lahaina with my friend and her destination wedding guests. After all, it was my friend’s wedding invite that brought us to Maui and this welcome dinner was a fun night for all. I even got to see the US Women’s National Hockey team win the Olympic gold medal when we got home from dinner. The day definitely turned around for the better!

The weather on day four was a bit odd. The morning was just a touch cloudy but the afternoon brought some light but long lasting rain. Since we had to get fancied up for a wedding in the evening we decided to stay close and literally walked across the street to Charlie Beach. After some sun bathing and boogie boarding we got changed and went to the wedding at Olowahu Plantation House. The rainy mist continued through the ceremony but cleared up during the reception. I  will never forget drinking fresh coconut juice right from the the coconut nor will I ever forget the dude who hacked the coconuts open for like 1.5 hours straight. What a job!!

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We arrived Sunday evening to some rain and really only had time to pick up some take out and head to the condo we rented in North Kihei. Monday morning was our first full day. With the 5 hour time difference we were waking up naturally at about 4am which lent itself nicely to watching the sun rise over Haleakala from our balcony.

 

Sunrise Over Haleakala

We elected to spend the rest of the day a bit further north up Maui’s western coast at Hanakao’o Beach The journey to this beach was absolutely stunning.

View from the road on the way to Hanakao’o

Beach time!

After laying around at the beach for the afternoon we headed back towards Kihei and stopped at Keawakapu Beach to watch sunset.

Sunset at Keawakapu Beach

After having a relaxing first day we wanted to take on the famous Road to Hana on day two of our trip. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t experience some motion sickness on the 600 and some hair pin turns over one way bridges with blind entries. But it was certainly worth it. I will just highlight a few of the many beautiful stops along this journey.

The first site, which our app guided tour actually said we could pass up if we were short on time, was Twin Falls. It was a short hike in from the road to these stunning falls. We left wondering what must be to come if the app didn’t consider this stop a “must see.”

Twin Falls

Shortly after Twin Falls Maui guy pointed out that we’d see some rainbow eucalyptus trees. I was struggling to understand what this was going to look like but the bark actually looks painted. I’ve never seen anything like them.

Rainbow Eucalyptus Tree

The Ka’anae Peninsula was truthfully one of my first OMG moments. The ocean, volcanic rock cliffs next to super green trees and plants in Hawai’i is simply unparalleled. I could’ve stayed here all day, but the Road to Hana travels on.

Ka’anae Peninsula view 1

Ka’anae Peninsula view 2

We saw at least 3 or 4 sets of falls on this day trip, but the Upper Waikani Falls, also known as 3 Bears Falls, was one of the most majestic. The falls were very close to the road so my daughter and I even climbed the rocks right up to the water. We didn’t have bathing suites in hand to join the swimmers who looked like they were freezing, but just getting that close was an awesome experience.

3 Bears Falls

Next major highlight? Wai’anapanapa State Park. Black sand beaches, caves, a blow hole that threw water at me from like 20 ft away! This park was nothing short of amazing either. Every time I thought I had seen my favorite thing the next site blew me away again.

Wai’anapanapa State Park

My son and I at Wai’anapanapaState Park

After the state park we had another gorgeous beach to visit called Koki Beach.

Koki Beach

Our app tour guide, who we affectionately nicknamed, Maui guy, told us that many people reach Hana and turn around but he advised us to go a bit past Hana to visit ‘Ohe’o Gulch (7 Sacred Pools). It was a bit difficult to capture the beauty of this place even with a DSLR wide angle lens but I definitively decided this was my favorite site of the day. What a great day to show my daughter how to use her new DSLR camera. Her extraordinary efforts to capture the right perspective for her pictures can be appreciated in the picture below!

Just a fraction of the 360 view at ‘Ohe’o Gulch (7 Sacred Pools)

My daughter getting a pic from the volcanic rock ground view

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Our first morning was nearly a picture perfect Caribbean day. After waking up we went directly to the balcony to see the view. Since our hotel was situated on a corner, every room had an ocean view. Some rooms faced the hotel beach area while ours faced the bay and also gave us a nice view of the capital, Bridgetown. Eager to get some color we brought books and sun tan lotion down to the beach. We sat, laid, lounged and swam a bit with a few tasty rum drinks here and there. For the most part it was a wonderfully lazy day. The most exciting part of the day was in almost losing my Maui Jim sunglasses. Being an expensive gift, I only really wear them on vacation thinking that will make me less likely to lose them – ha!  We searched for them, catching glimpses now and again in between the waves, for about a half an hour. At the point that I was about to give up we heard another tourist say “What an unlikely find!” We quickly ran to him as he was trying on what he might have thought were to be his new sunglasses. He was right about one thing, though. They were an unlikely find indeed. Very glad he was there and that I hadn’t given up yet!

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The view from the hammock on the beach at our resort…pure bliss!

That evening we headed north to Oistins for the amazing fish the taxi cab driver told us about. We decided to take a ZR van, one of the public transportation options available on the island. This turned out to be quite an experience. These little white vans are not even as big as an American minivan but boy were they optimized to pack in passengers like sardines. Even the aisle ways turned into seats once the van was nearly full. I couldn’t see the speedometer but the driver took turns like this thing was a little race car, with his colleague standing at the sliding door opening and closing while the vehicle was still in motion. $2 Barbados, or $1 US, takes you anywhere on the island. On the way there the door master, as I’m going to refer to this position, let us know when we were in Oistins but on the way back we were not quite sure where to get off. I looked up, though, and noticed there were doorbells wired into the ceiling of this minivan so that you could indicate when you needed to get off. I got a good laugh at this surely aftermarket creativity and told my wife to give me her best guess at when I needed to “chime in” that we’d like to get out because she is a far superior navigator to me! Managing to keep down my exceptionally fried fresh marlin dinner I was able to enjoy the ZR van adventure. Before turning in we grabbed a few bottles of the award winning local brew, called Banks, and retired to our balcony for a unique night cap.

DeRedSnapper

We had our fresh fish dinner at De Red Snapper. They pronounce the like de and so it shall be written that way too!

The homemade bus stop bells in the ZR van- awesome DIY if i don’t say so myself.

After having already tried the hotel breakfast buffet, on day 2 we decided to just grab a quick pastry from the Cuppa Cafe coffee shop. From there we took a cab to Harrison’s Cave for a tour. The cave was quite a bit inland so we got to see more of the island on the way. At the cave we learned that Barbados, in contrast to all the other Caribbean islands, was not formed from any volcanoes but rather from the collision of the Caribbean and Atlantic plates. This also explains the caves that were formed. Conveniently the limestone caves serve as a natural water purification system for the island. We took many pictures of the stalagmites and stalactites that we were told formed over many thousands of years. Simply amazing to imagine how long this work of art has been creating itself.

 

Harrison's Cave

Some amazing cave views…

After the cave tour we decided to check out a Spanish named restaurant, Tapas, in the nearby city of Hastings. We had shark, along with some of our other seafood and fish favorites. Everything was super fresh and simply delicious. I had a mango rum drink that was to die for and the ocean side location didn’t hurt one bit either. Being only about a mile north of the hotel we decided to walk back on shoreline to our hotel to meet my parents who were just arriving on the island.

 

 

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The shoreline view from Tapas restaurant

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Walking back to the hotel from Tapas on Hastings beach….Maui Jim’s in tact!

That night we treated my parents to one of the favorite restaurants of our initial cab driver. The restaurant was called Brown Sugar and it was everything you’d expect in a restaurant with home cooking. According to our cab driver, it was a true representation of what the locals eat at home. We had a creole chowder, a grapefruit papaya salad and herb crusted snapper. We even opted for a banana crepe dessert!

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Dinner with the parents at Brown Sugar

 

On our last full day on the island we went on a tour of Bridgetown followed by a rum tasting tour.  I have to say that while there are plenty of tourists on the island at all times there are almost no “tourist shops.” We walked blocks and blocks until we found what I believe to be the one and only place where i could buy a shot glass for my collection. This is the first time I’ve ever had to try so hard to find one. It was almost exciting for it to be such a rarity! After some shopping and your typical downtown monuments we were on to the rum tour! Now by day 3 we had already sampled various rums, learning that rum can be made from cane juice as well as the molasses by-product. Our tour was of the island’s most popular rum, Mount Gay. Mount Gay rum is made from molasses and in contrast to many other rums it’s flavors come only from the traces of what’s on the island combine with the flavor that can be infused by the reused bourbon oak barrels. And just as any fermentation process, the yields depend on how long the rum is aged. Although, the climate in the Caribbean, we were told, ages the rum much faster than a cooler climate would.  I have to say that rum is probably one of my least favorite alcohols but that was before I tasted some of Mount Gay’s offerings, but then again with a name like Mount Gay, how could you really go wrong?!!?!?  The top two rums we sampled were the best I’ve ever tested. We were so impressed, in fact, that we broke down and spent a small fortune in order to bring a few more samples home.

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Mount Gay Rum Distillery

That night we were to attend a dinner event with my parents. Little did I know that this event was in a hanger that was storing none other than the famous Concorde. I had heard about this plane that flew so fast it caused sonic booms. We ate dinner under one of its giant wings and even got a quick tour of it. It was a uniquely cool experience and of course there was no shortage of rum or more good food this evening.

All in all we were really impressed with the climate, landscape and authentic, yet still charmingly sarcastic, Barbadian people.  I highly recommend a Barbados visit to all!

 

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Concorde cockpit

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Dinner in the concorde hanger

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Clearly it has been quite some time since my last post. I appreciate more and more each day the years of travel I was able to pull off in my 20s before settling down to a more grounded and stable existence in my home country, which I, by the way, also treasure. I miss traveling sometimes but also love not having to do the hard work of constantly moving and adjusting to different culture norms all the time. Ok, back to the post at hand. I recently had the pleasure of traveling to Panama City, Panama with my family. If you’re familiar with the weather in this region you might be wondering why we decided to go there during the rainy season. Our primary purpose was not a vacation but rather to take our son for his second round of stem cell treatments to help treat his cerebral palsy. His first round was back in 2009 in China. Although the China trip was very successful we wanted a closer and slightly less time consuming option which turned out to be in Panama.

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Our first several days were our vacation. We attempted to walk around the city but there is a very real lack of sidewalks in this city as well as many areas of pavement that are so damaged that they might as well have not been paved at all. Having said that, there is a beautiful boardwalk that we walked down on the first day. One day we decided to do a tour around the city and the Panama Canal. We got to see the new locks that were recently opened in order to more than double the capacity of the canal. This new portion had just opened about a month before we arrived! One of our favorite parts in town was called Casco Viejo and we returned there on another day in order to see the museum which outlined the history of the Panama Canal. We also walked around the streets and bought some souvenirs and saw some traditional dancing in the center square. We had a reasonably priced lunch with some of the best mojitos I’ve ever had! We managed to pick the one day it didn’t rain to rent a car and drive slightly north to a beach called Santa Clara. The water as very warm and the beach was very clean. It was a wonderfully relaxing day. I also wanted to mention that we found the Panamanians to be incredibly hospitable. One of the servers at our hotel practically treated us like family each day at breakfast!

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After a few days of relaxing and lots of sleeping our son started his stem cell treatments. He was not feeling so great the first day but tolerated the next 3 days of quick IV injections quite well. On the third day he started showing advancements. Before the treatments he was able to get off of couches or low beds by scooting off to his knees then falling to his butt. On this day, however, he scooted off a very high bed right on to his feet and was able to stand at the side of the bed as long as he stayed leaning on the bed. Later that day he picked himself off the floor and onto his knees and was leaning on the bed again, also something he has never been able to do unassisted.
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I’ve been lucky enough to raise this child for the past 5 years or so of his 10 years of life and seeing his breakthroughs is truly one of the happiest things I’ve ever experienced. He’s such a beautiful soul. Thank you, Naji, for making this vacation such a memorable one. I probably won’t remember where we ate dinner or the facts I learned at the Panama Canal museum but I will never forget watching that video of you getting out of the bed to stand on your own two feet. I can’t wait to see your continued advancements. A special thanks to everyone who donated and/or otherwise lent support for this trip and his treatments. You have played a huge role in Naji’s life and we are all eternally grateful.
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The trip ended a bit early for my daughter and I who returned home before my wife and son to get back to the day to day…work…soccer try outs…life!
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Day 4 was a special day. Our group rented out the resort’s private island: Palomino Island. I’ve never been on an island with so many fun activities available. Not only could you rent kayaks and jet skis but you could also play ping pong, basketball, volleyball, paddle ball, chess, bean toss, and mini golf. I might even be missing some activities since there were so many! We also had free drinks all day and lunch. Ahhhh…..that was the life I tell ya! I got my butt whooped as usual playing Dad in ping pong. Then Naomi and I decided to try out the jet skis. Before this occasion I had only ever been on the back of one so I was excited to try out driving one. It was a blast at 30 mph. Unfortunately Naomi got a much slower jet ski but didn’t seem to mind too much as I drove circles around her.

Love the human sized chess boards!

 

 

Jet Skiing!!!

Another cool thing about the island was all the iguanas. I got up real close to take many pictures and they didn’t seem the least bit scared or interested in my presence. Despite having so many activities we did spend some time just laying out. Our beach chairs were only 7-8 feet from the waves rolling in and there was a nice strong wind that made us blissfully unaware of how much our skin was burning. The fairy ride out had some roller coaster like moment but the ride back was smooth sailing and what a beautiful view of the island it was from the fairy.

View of Palomino Island from the fairy

Two happy ladies!

That night we had cocktails and dinner outside on a beautiful terrace. Another wonderful vacation day had by all. Although we have another day left in Puerto Rico I will spare you all the details as it is the one day I have to spend in meetings. All small price to pay for such a wonderful vacation!

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Puerto Rico (day 3)
March 52014

That night we had cocktails and dinner outside on a beautiful terrace. Another wonderful vacation day had by all.

For our first full day with the parents we decided to rent a car and venture to the capital city of Old San Juan. The drive was only about an hour and it sure was worth it. Old San Juan is pretty small and we walked through just about the entire city in one afternoon.The highlights? The fortress that still stands around much of the ocean front was very scenic. The cute little houses and cobblestone streets also brought a level of charm that is surely hard to find. At a local restaurant we had our first taste of Mofongo, a Puerto Rican dish that stuffs various meats and/or seafood into mashed plantain. After a leisurely stroll through the city we had some exceptional cocktail at El Toro Salao, a Spanish-Puerto Rican fusion of a bar restaurant. I had a Summer Thyme – nothing beats fresh herbs in a cocktail. Nothing!

 

So much beauty in this city!

Loved the view uphill this cute little street!

Spanish-Puerto Rican Fusion at El Toro Salao

Mom and Dad enjoying drinks at El Toro Salao

 

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Puerto Rico (day 2)
March 42014

On day 2 we were ready to explore. We got up early had breakfast with cafe con leche, of course, and then headed to the lobby to meet up for our tour to the El Yunque Rainforest. As soon as we got on the bus and heard our very lively tour guide speaking English with a strong yet totally understandable Puerto Rican accent, I know it was going to be a good time. This was the kind of tour guide that is clearly entertaining enough to himself that entertaining us is a mere bonus. He told us his name but quickly told us to just call him Tooouer Guyyyyde. Typing doesn’t really do the accent justice but I think you can catch my drift. I really enjoyed his Spanglish in many sentences. It was like he didn’t even realize that he was switching between the two languages. It occurred to me that I’ve never been to a country with such impressive bilingualism. Whenever we got out of the bus he said “Vengan guys!” with which he meant “Come on guys!”

 

On the bus ride we were quizzed about the most common and most popular fruits and given lots of information about local sites. He also had us guess whether or not it was going to rain in the rainforest while we were there. I have to admit that this made me a little nervous as I hadn’t brought a rain jacket or a my water pouch for my $1500 camera. Luckily we determined by the humidity, the clouds and the lack of cows that it was not going to rain. Phew!! The hike we went on was about an hour. We walked down the La Mina trail to a small waterfall and then back up and out through a different trail. Many of our fellow tourers went swimming in the waterfall but I was not feeling that adventurous. Throughout the hike we saw many lizards and lots of awesome views. Being on an island the Puerto Rican Rainforest didn’t really have any mammals, which was interesting and also much less scary than say the Amazon (see my Iquitos post). At the end of the hike we went up the Yokahu Tower and had another beautiful view. On the bus ride back the tour guide suggested we stop for some local street food. Naomi and I got very excited and quickly opted in for the fried meets, rice, beans and tostones (fried plantains). Yum!

Hello little lizard!

Toooouer Guyyyyyyde does tarzan!

love the rocks, water and colors

 

As we arrived back at the hotel a frantic young man handed me a piece of paper and said “Here, take this. Its for two free drinks.”  Who could say no to that? We promptly went to the poolside bar and ordered our drinks. Afterwords we put on our suits and hung out poolside. It was a nice bit of relaxation time before my parents arrived. They were visiting some friends in Florida and were finally arriving in Puerto Rico to join us for the rest of the trip. The ended up getting in a bit late but still made our reservation at the resort’s seafood restaurant called “Stingray.”  I took the chance to try a fish I had never had before and it was delicious! Just another day in wonderful sunny Puerto Rico.

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Puerto Rico (day 1)
March 32014

We took our time getting out of bed the first morning and were stunned at the beautiful view out our terrace (see banner picture above). After facebooking our view to make all of our friends jealous, we leisurely headed down to a buffet breakfast. Still tired from the previous work week and our travel day which turned out to be a little longer than expected, we decided our first day in Puerto Rico should be one of pure relaxation. So after taking a few pictures of the surroundings of the El Conquistador Resort we booked a couples massage!! Wow, we both agreed that the two masseuses that worked on us did the absolute best job of releasing our chronic back pain. They were amazing and I wanted to take them home with us so that I don’t have to deal with so much back pain. We definitely took advantage of the foot soaking after the massage which was accompanied by white wine and candied fruit. There we met a nice couple from Atlanta with whom we exchanged exciting travel stories and even some professional tips as the guy was a chef by trade and has been in the restaurant business for 20 some years (opposed to us in our first year!) After that we headed back to the concierge to book a tour to the El Yunque Rainforest the following day.

View of the golf course located at El Conquistador Resort

 

For dinner we chose the Asian steakhouse which was one of several restaurants the hotel had to offer. It was Benihana style where they cook your food at the table in front of you but instead of the shrimp trick we got spinning eggs. The guy spun an egg and then lifted it up on his metal spatula and flipped it in the air several times while it was still spinning and then he turned it to the side and let is land on the side of the spatula so it split it open – hello chicken fried rice! We were so hungry that we ordered sushi as an appetizer and then got a chicken and shrimp dish on top of it. We ended bringing most of it back to the hotel room – oops!

View from the Atlantic Terrace of the hotel

 

After dinner we could not help but head over to the ginormous game room that the resort was taunting us with. With only a few people there the cupid shuffle and Karaoke left a lot to be desired but we did enjoy the FREE air hockey and fussball (even if the table was not quite level). We also bought some tokens to shoot some hoops and take some photobooth pictures. Our first day was wonderfully relaxing and fun.

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After a crazy work week and an extra day of work on Saturday, I was not at all looking forward to packing late at night and then getting up at 5:30am to head to the airport BUT when you are headed to Puerto Rico during the most insanely cold and snowy winter of the past decade, it seems like a small sacrifice to make. Getting up at 5:30am is somewhat hard for a non morning person (ein Morgenmuffel as they’d say in German) like myself but then again it is almost better than 7 or 8 am because at 5:30am I don’t really feel like I’ve been fully asleep yet – ha!

 

Anyhow, I promptly got up and headed to my disaster of a snowblower. Only having lived in my current house since September, I was a bit worried that I might make permanent enemies with the neighbors for busing out the snowblower at quarter 6 on a Sunday morning but the 4 inches on my driveway were definitely enough to cause issues getting out of the driveway so what are ya gonna do? Let’s see where was I? Ahh yes, so before I could get on with starting the most tempermental piece of machinery I’ve ever known- that is my snowblower, I had to get through the worst ever invention of a gas can that I wish I had never bought. Do you know the ones where you have to twist and pull in order for the gas to even come through the nozzle and then as if that weren’t hard enough to manage the damn thing leeks all over the place no matter how tight I twist the cap on. Seriously? And I presume this invention was supposed prevent spillage? My magical powers of careful pouring have never failed me like this piece of #@*$ invention. Now, getting back to the snowblower that requires a gentle priming and then 10 minute relaxation period before choking and starting or else it will literally blow out parts of the engine (I know because it happened twice before I learned this delicate procedure).

 

Ok, this has been a major digression in my travel blog as I haven’t even left my house yet, but I just had to share. Needless to say we left the house for the airport about a half an hour later than we should have. We did our best to carefully drive fast on the not so perfectly plowed and salted roads but when we arrived at the airport the line just to drop off baggage (of course we had already checked in online the night before) was like a mile long. My fiance, who is admittedly a bit bolder than myself, immediately asked the next person in line if we could cut. I mean, I probably would’ve picked out person 9-10 but this is why I picked her as a partner, no? She went for the best solution without hesitation. We got lucky and this couple let us cut. After that we were posed with the dilemma that my fiance was TSA pre approved and I was not. With another stroke of luck I got to go through the pre-approved line since we were traveling together. We managed to bypass the huge security line in record time.

 

After riding the shoulders of my fiance’s great work it was now my turn. I was given the go ahead (yes this has happened before) to then run to the gate so we didn’t lose our seats. Nothing like a marathon run first thing in the morning when you aren’t wearing a bra (so not comfortable on a plane!) I made it with some time to spare so that turned out to be a touch unnecessary but at least we were on the flight.

 

Once we were on the plane I started to get comfortable and into my “travel routine” if you will. It consists of going to sleep as fast as I possibly can and staying asleep for as long as possible. Sometimes I can manage to not even have to be conscious for take off and landing – what I deem a truly successful travel experience. So I fall asleep for what doesn’t feel like long and realize we haven’t moved yet. The captain comes on the speaker “We are de-icing the plane. Thank you for your patience.” Ok..back to sleep. A few minutes later “We have a mechanical issue and will have to return to the gate.” It is now an hour after our original take off time. Clearly we are not going to make our connection from Atlanta to Puerto Rico. We get off the plane and convince, yes convince the air line agent to put us on standby for a flight that goes out a few hours later even though it was already overbooked. We get lucky again and get on the flight. Pfew… now we have a few hours to spare before we go through the stressful process of getting all ready and then waiting at the gate to see if you will be allowed on the plane. We did, in fact, get lucky again. I will never know if it was my Skymiles that had us as such high priority on the standby list or my fiance who managed to obliviously sneak to the front of every line when we had to rebook flights, but I do know that we make a great team regardless. And this team will be arriving Puerto Rico tonight after all!

No selfies in the airport but stay tuned for pics once we arrive!

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After a bit of crazy busy time in 2012, my fiance and I finally managed to get away on a real vacation. Not the kind where you actually have work to do but take a few extra days or hours to see some sites and visit cool places, but the kind where the sole purpose of the trip really is to relax and be away from work – YAY! Since we were looking for some sun in the middle of a Midwestern winter, we decided to head to the Dominican Republic. The flights were just about the right price so that we could cover the costs with the vouchers we received last summer after being bumped off a flight to Austin, TX. Both our leaving and return flights routed us through Atlanta so we took advantage by spending our first night in Atlanta with some close friends. We had a wonderful Spanish tapas dinner in Decatur and lots of relax time and good laughs. The next morning we were off to the sunny skies and beautiful beaches of Punta Cana.

The entrance to our hotel

We arrived in the early afternoon and got settled into our hotel. We actually switched hotels at the last minute and don’t at all regret going with the cheaper, but likely equally luxurious option. The MT Hotel suite that we booked was just $70/night! The room was extremely spacious and was equipped with A/C, jacuzzi, free cable, a small table with chairs, mini fridge, safe, walk-in closet. The price even included a small, yet tasty breakfast each morning. The hotel was located in a plaza with 3 restaurants that we also found impressive, especially the small chicken joint (Solo Pollo) and the German bar (Restaurant Bavaria).

Our Suite

…another view

Jacuzzi!!

This place really was a steal with one drawback – the distance to the beach was advertised to be about 2 km, but it was actually about 2 miles. What a difference units make! We walked down to a part of the beach called El Cortecito. Here we found almost all of the restaurants that we saw reviews for online. They were beach-side restaurants as this beach was tiny and there really wasn’t room for anything else…no sun-bathing, playing frisbee, sitting under a palm tree – nothing. You had to either patronize an establishment or be a part of one of the resorts which then had some area extended inland for such activities. We had a drink at one of the locales and then headed back of the road wondering if we could find a taxi back as we were so tired from the walk down.

 

Taxi? Well we couldn’t exactly find a taxi but we did notice that there were many men and boys taxiing people on mopeds and super small engine motorcycles. Did we really want to hop and and hold on to a stranger’s love handles? No, but it sure seemed to beat the idea of walking home in the dark. I only have a few words to say about it – it was an EXPERIENCE. It made us a bit sad to see these people and the tourist shop owners begging and pleading for money. Outside of the huge gated resorts, it was obvious to us that the country was very poor. As one of the natives told us on our way from the airport to the hotel, the Dominicans have very few public beaches. Most of the coastline is apparently owned by Spaniards who build these huge resorts with walls on all sides. That night we ate at Italian restaurant in our plaza. Gluten-free at this place was challenging, but it was edible for sure.

 

After learning our surroundings on the first day, we decided we should rent a car to go find the oh-so-rare public beach 25 kilometers north. The beach was called Macao and as soon as we arrived a nice man came and offered us a table, umbrella, two chairs and fresh fish. The fish was quite possibly the best we’d ever had. The chef called it Putu but I have not been able to figure out if it exists elsewhere and if so under what name. We devoured that fish as if we hadn’t eaten in weeks. Yum yum yum! That night we went back down to the Cortecito and had dinner at a French restaurant that had some pretty good reviews. It was romantic despite the view of the road (as opposed the beach!). We had wine, fondue and a nice relaxed evening.

Playa Macao

This beach was simply beautiful

Fresh fish on the beach!

The following day we wanted another adventure and thought we’d try out the suggestion of the woman who rented us our red mini. We drove about an hour south to the south side of the island and took a small motorboat from Bayahibe to Saona Island. It took us about a half an hour and the first 10 minutes were a bit scary. I’ve never hit the water so hard on a boat. My core was tired and my spine was whacked but we did manage to make it without getting too wet and more importantly without falling overboard. On the way we stopped at a natural swimming pool. The water really was as clear as a swimming pool. There we found and took pictures of huge starfish. Very cool! When we finally arrived at the island we were in heaven. The beach we stayed at most of the day truly lived up to its name- Playa Bonita. For lunch we ate fresh lobster, chicken and the traditional accompaniment: tostones (plantains mashed up and fried as little patties). After we got back from the island we had Mojitos and then walked to a public area of the beach to watch the sun set. Another lovely day it was! We went back to our plaza for dinner and were pleasantly surprised at how good the German restaurant was. Naomi had a very flavorful pork chop and I had some German sausage.

Star fish in the natural swimming pool

The palm tree that everyone wanted to model at

Sunset at Bayahibe

On our last day we decided to just stay at the hotel and take in our last bits of the sun pool-side, which really was a great atmosphere as well. It was a well rounded, yet relaxed little trip that didn’t break our bank. Two thumbs up for the Dominican Republic!

last day…at the pool

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Philadelphia (Nov. 15-18)
November 182012

Art Museum and Rocky steps

Wow, my last post, of Japan, seems like forever ago. I am happy to say that I finally managed another trip with the justification of going to a work-related conference. No, it was actually a pretty good conference. It had been a long time since I had been to the City of Brotherly Love and this trip, albeit short, ended up being my most thorough Philadelphia trip to date.

Liberty Bell!

Naomi and I spent most of our time in sessions learning about the latest and greatest in foreign language teaching, but when we had a free hour here and there we walked around Philadelphia and saw some historical/touristy sites like the Liberty Bell and the art museum (along with the Rocky steps of course). Also we had some AMAZING food. I gotta hand it to you Phily, you enticed me with your Phily Cheesesteaks but you kept me coming back for me with your Cuban, Chinese Dim Sum, Malaysian wonderfulness and oysters galore!!! Foreign languages, a very walkable city (populated by Philadephians and all the people participating in the Philadelphia Marathon), and culinary delights makes for nearly an ideal weekend away for this lady! Hope to visit you again Philadelphia!  Loved it!

Just beautiful!

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From Hiroshima we took the fastest Shinkansen to to Japan’s former capital–Kyoto. We had free time the first night we arrived and I thought I would finally take the opportunity to look for some shoes. Having heard that it is hard to find large shoe sizes here I mistakenly thought it would be easier to find small sizes. No such luck! But we did find some T-Shirts with cool sayings written in Japanese Kanji. I’ve never payed upwards of $40 for a plain T, but I figured I may never return to Japan so what the heck!?!? We ventured out on a bus that night and then ran out of money paying for the fabulously overpriced T-shirts. So we did what we had come accustomed to doing in Japan–we searched for a 7-Eleven where we could take out money without extra charges. Unfortunately we came to find out that we were in the only place in the entire city where there wasn’t a 7-Eleven within a 10 minute walk. I think we must’ve walked for almost an hour before we found one. We were tired and hungry so we did the only logical thing to do. We decided to buy “Chu hi” a wine-cooler like beverage that you can buy in just about any convenience store. Then we got back on the bus to get closer to home before seeking out a restaurant for dinner. We got lost for a few minutes on the way back since the bus dropped us off in a different spot that we got on but at least we were able to make it back to the hotel. At that point we had no energy to go back out and ended up eating a very good yet expensive hotel meal.

5’1″ = Japanese giant

Day 2 in Kyoto was rainy but we still were excited to head out on our optional tour to experience first hand Buddhist Zen meditation and see some of Kyoto’s most famous temples. The rain was ideal for our meditation practice. We did a 10 minute round and then a 15 minute one. It was hard for me to not give into my eczema but in the end I only moved a couple of times. The best part of this experience was when the monk who lead us told us about how he could help us concentrate better if we were having trouble. He then pulled out a huge piece of wood (imagine a rounded off 2×4). One of our guides demonstrated. We were to bow our heads, put our hands together as if we were praying in order to request his help. I thought for sure this piece of wood was going to be used to correct our posture but the monk, who was standing right in front of me, laid the wood on our guide’s back and before I knew it he flogged the man hard about 4 times as I recall. The sound was loud and it looked incredibly painful. I was in such disbelief that I started to laugh. Was this guy for real? Would anyone in our group actually ask for that? Wait. Would anyone ask for that in general?  But they did! I kept seeing his shadow behind me with the piece of wood and had to hold back laughter as I was actually a bit scared this guy was going to hit me even if I didn’t request it. Afterwards another one of our guides told us that he hit her even though she didn’t request it. “Maybe he think I not concentrate enough,” she told us. Wow…

The monk that showed us what zen is really about!

 

On the way up Fushimi Inari

After our “zen” experience we headed to two temples –Ginkaku ji (Silver Pavilion) and Kinkaku ji (Gold Pavilion). The second temple was particularly special because the outside was covered in 24 carat gold. Even on our overcast day this temple shined. The water and trees behind it only added to this beautiful scenery. It was hard to take pictures in the rain but I thoroughly enjoyed this site. Our temple viewing experience was followed by a traditional Japanese meal. We sat on the floor and everything. We received a variety of small plates of mostly sushi and the main course was tofu that we were to dip in soy sauce with some other herbs to flavor it. It was actually quite good.

Cool rice bowl at lunch…

Naomi on the famous “Philosophers Walk”

love taking pics of flowers in the rain!

Temple visiting in the rain…

Lunch was followed by a visit to the handicrafts center which consisted of two buildings full of Japanese souvenirs. Naomi and I were a bit disappointed as most everything was quite overpriced but we purchased a few gifts there anyway not knowing how much time we’d have to shop later. This visit concluded our tour but we were still pumped to see one more temple–the Fushimi Inari temple. This temple had orange gates one after another leading a pathway up to the top. We got there just before dusk and didn’t have the energy to make it all the way up. It was still very unique and very enjoyable though. Afterwards we ventured out to an izakaya near the hotel. An izakaya is a restaurant in Japan that serves drinks and small plates. The one we went to only had 3 or 4 tables and was full of locals besides us. The server spoke English pretty well and seemed very excited to serve us American tourists. We tried some interesting yakatori (skewered and barbequed meats). It was a great finish to another excellent day!

 

The next day was our last full day in Japan. We had a wrap-up meeting in the meeting to discuss our experiences as well as provide feedback to the sponsoring organizations and afterwards we were on our own. We decided to head back into town to do some more shopping at slightly more reasonable rates than the handicraft center in order to get the rest of the things we wanted to take back from Japan. It was a nice relaxed day. We even had one last chu hi. That night was our farewell dinner which was another very traditional Japanese meal. We had 90 minutes to consume all the beer and sake we could. I must of had a couple of beers and then 7-8 shots of sake. How I didn’t feel drunk I still do not know but I was still pretty sober when we headed out on the town for some Geisha sighting. One of the guides took us out but Naomi and I got separated from the group when we went into a shop to by a gift. We did manage to see a Geisha on our own…looking pretty raggedy I might add!

Have you ever seen a cane store?!?!

 

 

Naomi got stuck with all the bags! Even mine..haha

The next morning we only had time to eat breakfast and pack up before heading to the airport. Sayonara Japan. It has been the trip of a lifetime!

Farewell dinner with our guide Mari and our tour buddys Steve and Jan with whom we hung out nearly every day

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Shinkansen (train)

Shinkansen! That’s what the Japanese call their fast trains. They also have special names denoting how fast they go. The fastest”bullet train” is called nazomi but we took a slower one for our trip to Hiroshima. From Toyota it took about 2.5 hours because the slower train’s max speed was “only” around 240 km/hr and made several stops in the smaller cities. I was pretty happy about this down time as I was finally able to update this blog for you! After arriving we went on a hunt for the city’s specialty–Okonomiyaki. It took a while to find it though because I asked three different people at the hotel where to find Okonomiyoki. Note to self (and future tourists): one vowel wrong and you have made yourself completely incomprehensible! Finally someone realized what I was trying to say and we got a map and were on our way. That was not the end of our hunt though. It was dificult to figure out just which building this restaurant was in and since the name was not written in English characters I had to match up the Kanji to make sure we were walking in the right restaurant.

 

Okonomiyaki for those of you who don’t know is the Japanese version of pizza. It is made of rice tortillas with a variety of  topings along with noodles if you like and then topped with a Japanese sauce. They are cooked in the kitchen but then served on a stove top in the middle of the table which is at 120 degrees during the entire meal. Might I also add that the middle of the table starts about 4 inches from the end. No elbows in this table while eating!!! Luckily the menu at Goemon was in English but the servers had difficulty understanding us to say the least. We ordered two Okonomiyaki and a beer each to start for four of us. They were so delicious that we attempted to order two more but ended up receiving four. We tried our best to finish them and felt terrible wasting what we couldn’t finish since that is clearly against their culture to do so, but we just couldn’t quite eat the last one! Oh well!

Ringing the bell for the Hiroshima victims

 

The next day we set out for a tour of Hiroshima including the Museum which details the Atomic bombing that devistated this city at the end of World War II. It was an emotional tour very much reminding me of the tours I had done in the past at concentration camps. We even got to here the story of a “Hibakusa” (survivor) of the A-bombing which was pretty amazing and miraculous. 140,000 people died within 6 months of the bombing. I know it’s history at this point but I was less than proud to be an American on this day. So many innocent people died and so many more were permanently damaged by the radiation. The suffering they must have experienced due to the hate waves is unimaginable to me. I hope that no country ever drops one of these bombs again. I believe humans are capable of less destructive solutions to their conflicts. Let’s hope I’m right!

Hiroshima memorial

Before the A-Bomb…

…and the only remains after the A-Bomb.

To pull us out of our Hiroshima History depression we got a boxed lunch on the box and promptly headed to a happy place –the island of Miyajima. Miyajima was absolutely beautiful. There is a gate there that actually lies in the ocean water. The island also is very picturesque with many temples and shrines scattered throughout nature. We were also able to find a shot glass and a Sake set with Miyajima written in Japanese. There was also had the biggest, freshest and most delicious grilled oysters I’ve ever had in my life and the dark Karin beer we had along side the oysters was pretty darn good too. We also got to try maple shaped Japanese cakes filled with many different flavors of paste.

On the way to Miyajima

Sake barrels!

The friendly deer of Miyajima

Naomi and I at the top of the Daishon Temple

Gate in the ocean on Miyajima. Too bad it was low tide!

Beautiful Pagoda on Miyajima

The streets of Miyajima

That night we were craving Udon noodles and went to a place recommended by our guide although she was uncertain they had any menus in English. Fortunately the did have English menus and we each got the Udon soup of our liking. Delicious. Afterwards we explored the city a bit to see the castle (Japanese temple style of course) that was lit up. Our cameras didn’t do this view justice but we took some pictures anyways and then headed back to the hotel for a drink. We first tried to go to the top of our hotel (the 33rd floor) but never made it past the menu which displayed alcohols ranging from about $50 a bottle to around $4000. We ended up in the 1st floor restaurant sipping some sweet and more reasonably priced Sake to end the night. What a great day it was!

Our last time in Hiroshima was spent in the Calbee factory where the make Japan’s most popular snacks – shrimp crackers. We were told that “Cal” stands for calcium and “bee” stands for vitamin B1, but most of us weren’t convinced that the snacks were really healthy. Although the do back the crackers and then spray the fat on rather than deep frying them so we will give them SOME credit. This was definitely an interesting tour as I had never seen a food production facility in person. Many of the conveyor belt systems were, however, familiar to me from my family’s business. The best part of this tour was tasting the fresh snacks right as they came off the line. Once bagged I was less impressed by them though. The company’s success was remarkable. They started from nothing a few years after the bombing and now they are very successful just recently having entered the public stock exchange.

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The second stop of our Japan-in-10 days-trip was Toyota. What better place to see daily life in a smaller city than the automobile capital of Japan. On our way to Toyota we stopped at a beautiful hotel to eat lunch. The lunch was delicious and the description of it was even better (see picture below). As soon as we arrived in Toyota we did a fairly extensive tour of the plant which was certainly cleaner and more efficient than the US plants I’ve seen. Afterwards we hit the Toyota museum as well. I was disappointed that they didn’t have a Celica (my car) but the Japanese were very appreciative when they heard that I own a Toyota Celica and a Suzuki motorcycle. During my short stay in Japan thus far I’ve noticed that the cost of living is very high but it is interesting to note that the Japanese cars here are still cheaper than the ones in the US. Hmmmm…

Some very entertaining grammar mistakes on the lunch menu…

We were admittedly all a little scared of what staying with a host family was going to be like but we were pleasantly surprised. Both my and Naomi’s host family were very friendly, funny and hospitable. They were friends with each other and members of an international group that enjoys doing international exchanges via home-stays in order to learn other languages. How perfect I thought!! There were two 30-year old daughters in my family and both of them had done exchanges in the US in their teenage years. My host mom and I exchanged words in at least 3 different languages albeit mostly greetings and expressions relating to food. She also liked to laugh especially at herself–a characteristic to which I am always drawn.

 

The next day we spent the entire day visiting schools again. It was interesting to see some subtle differences between Tokyo schools and Toyota schools but I was pretty schooled out well before the day was over. I also set a personal oolong tea drinking record as it was the only beverage we were offered all day. That night I went to Naomi’s host family’s house as we were to have a barbeque together that night. The first thing her mom offered me was oolong tea and I promptly refused with explanation. We hung out a while, playing some card games with Naomi’s 13 year-old host brother Yushi until the guests arrived. In the end there were many people who came to this party and we were of course a main attraction. Communication was labored at times but still possible and even enjoyable!

Naomi and her host mom

Me and my host mom

The next day our host families met again and we all went to a look out point of Toyota city together. Afterwards we grabbed lunch and headed to meet our group again. My host mom gave Naomi and I gift (even though she had already given me some neat Japanese coasters that morning) and we said our goodbyes. The two days that we were all somewhat dreading turned out to go by much too fast. I was very impressed with the Japanese culture and hope some day I will be able to be a host to them as they have been to me.

Saying good bye to our host families

 

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After an unfortunately long hiatus I have finally had the opportunity to travel again. This time I was lucky to be able to accompany my girlfriend on a business exchange to Japan. I long thought I would never make it to this distant island of a country but I am so glad the opportunity presented itself because I am really enjoying this beautiful and clean country as well as it’s polite and super friendly culture. And I’ll be honest–I don’t mind the sushi either!

 

Our first stop was the country’s capital–Tokyo. The evening we arrived was pretty much lost as most of us had hardly slept on the 13-hour flight over and the 13 hour time difference had our bodies thoroughly confused. I was so exhausted and dizzy upon arrival that I left my suitcase in the hotel lobby and had to have my girlfriend get it for me as I passed out around 8pm local time.

 

After a good night’s sleep we were slightly less exhausted and became very energized by the amazing hotel breakfast buffet. The hotel served the biggest selection I’ve ever seen including Japanese-, European- and American-style buffet all in one. We gorged ourselves with several plates of food and then headed to our program orientation. Afterwards we went on a city tour of Tokyo. Still tired we were glad to be hauled around from site to site on a bus and then after we had our own time to explore the various Shinto temples in Asakusa. Once night time hit we wandered the streets in search of a unique yet delicious dinners. Many places looked empty but then we saw a group of Japanese people headed to a very tall building called “Cheers!” It was a building that had a different cuisine on every floor. The food of each floor was highlighted at the bottom of the building and we promptly decided to head to the floor with Korean food. They had no English menu so we pointed to what we recognized and/or what looked edible. Alongside some beers of unknown brand we thoroughly enjoyed the Korean food and authentic atmosphere.

Wine rack at the breakfast buffet at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel

On day 2 I visited an elementary school and my girlfriend visited a combo junior high-high school. I observed several lessons in Japanese ranging from writing Kanji to table manners. I was even able to teach an ESL lesson myself to a group of 5th and a group of 6th graders. Although the Japanese are typically not at the level of many countries in Europe, I was impressed with how much English they knew already at such a young age. This group of children was the most enthusiastic group of learners I’ve ever seen, especially when it  came to learning English. Culturally, it was interesting to note that the classrooms were much louder than is typical in the US but they weren’t misbehaving. Also the students carried out nearly all of their routines without any guidance from the teacher. They even solved disputes on their own with the use of “paper, rock scissors.” Perhaps most interesting was their sense of ownership of their community’s school. By this I am referring to the fact that there is no need in Japan for school janitors as the kids–yes the kids–clean the schools themselves. Wow, wow and wow! We Americans could certainly learn a thing or two from this culture.

On the third day we were finally starting to overcome the jetlag, but were still waking up about 4:30 in the morning each day. My girlfriend and I decided we would take advantage of this situation and head to the biggest fish market in the world which opens early in the morning. Unfortunately we realized once we got there that they close every other Wednesday and unfortunately it was one of those Wednesdays. We soon forgot about our disappointment though since the day’s excursion was trying on kimonos. First we watched a Japanese woman show us how to put them on and then we watched them again as they put them on us. It is certainly a process that one must spend a lot of time learning and perfecting! I was surprised at how much I liked the kimono I tried on! They really were absolutely stunning. After our kimono experience we walked around town for a bit of shopping, had a tour of a museum of historic Tokyo from a very cute old Japanese man, and walked through a lovely park. For dinner we went to one of many Ramen noodle restaurants near our hotel where we had a unique (at least for an American) ordering experience. We ordered our dinners from a machine and simply handed the waiter the receipt that the machine printed for us. Talk about efficiency!

Pastry hotdog?!?!

 

Japanese Snacks!

Nightlife in Tokyo

It is now day 4 and we are sitting on a spacious train on our way to Toyota. There we will visit Toyota Motor Company and meet our host families where we will be for the next couple of days. Stay tuned!

Kimonos!!!

 

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Boston, Massachusetts
August 72011

Pond in the park

Between living in Austria and moving to Bowling Green I got to have a weekend away with a special person. I had never been to Boston so I was really looking forward to exploring this new city. Unfortunately my allergies had been acting up ever since I got home from Europe and they chose this weekend to turn into pink eye. The weekend therefore went a bit different than planned as I needed to go to a clinic to get medication for my eyes that were nearly swollen shut. BUT I have to say that there were still many good times had. The piers were beautiful and the lobster equally delicious. The park in the middle of Boston was also a very welcoming space with lots of greenery, flowers and a big pond in the middle that had a large section where the public could swim during the day. I went out shopping one day and bought two pairs of jeans. We ate at a wonderful Italian place and a great fish place and I got to meet Naomi’s friend Michelle and her daughter. Every place is better when you can share it with other people! Well Boston it was short lived but i’ll be back and I won’t be there to visit the local clinic again!  (I hope!)

Alone on the pier

Naomi and I on the pier 🙂

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The one day excursion to Quedlinburg and Thale was unfortunately our last and as our luck would have it, it rained AGAIN. Luckily not the whole day though. We had a nice morning and early afternoon in Quedlinburg touring the city and having a lazy lunch. That night we went to Thale and took a chairlift up to see the famous Rosstrappe (hoof print in English). The Rosstrappe itself was less than exciting to me but the view from that spot was pretty spectacular. We ate at a restaurant up top as well and of course we had to have another flaming liquor before returning back to the bus to listen US women’s soccer team kick some butt!!!

Cute couple in a cute lil town!

Sinking ground = crooked house!

New friends from the conference 😛

The view from Rosstrappe!!!

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Koblenz, Germany
July 72011

After 2 years I was finally able to see my “German son” again. I call him that because he lived with me for a  year between 2008 and 2009 while taking part in the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange or CBYX Program. I had taken part in this program in Germany back in 2005- 2006 and wanted to be a part of providing that opportunity for someone else. Now back to the trip. The seminar in Leipzig afforded me the chance to visit Thomas in Koblenz, where he is currently living and studying. I was also excited about meeting his parents for the first time in person. We all spent an entire day together at the Bundesgarten (BUGA), which is a festival of flowers that is held in a different city each year in Germany. We saw so many beautiful flowers and arrangements. It was also a spectacularly sunny yet breezy day. His parents were very generous with me — I felt taken care of that day!

Just some of the flowers at BUGA Koblenz

Thomas and I together again at last 🙂

 

Amazing view of where the Rhein River meets the Mosel River

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Our first official excursion of the conference was to Dresden and Meißen, Germany. I had been to Dresden before but this cold, rainy, windy summer day made the city seem foreign to me. We had a brief city tour for about as long as we all could take it. The wind rendered my “travel” umbrella broken and useless which led to me buying a new expensive cheap “travel” umbrella that may or may not make it through its next trip. Having said that we still saw some neat sites and had a lovely dinner including a flaming liquor!

This picture doesn’t do this building in Dresden justice….

Meißen is a small town that I had never heard of before this trip. Unfortunately due to the unceasing poor weather we spent most of the time in a museum, but it was quite a museum. I’ve been to many of them in Germany and Europe in general but this one had a stunning mix of amazing frescoes, unique architecture and elaborate decorations.

What amazing ceilings! Awesome museum 🙂

 

Outstanding architecture and decoration in this historic building of a museum

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Leipzig, Germany
June 252011

After my year abroad in Austria I decided to attend a conference in Germany about foreign language testing practices and standards. Admittedly I really wanted to get home already but since I was selected to participate in this 3 week conference at no cost outside of some meals and transportation to and from, I figured I could handle getting home just a little later.

 

My host mom in Leipzig was about the same age as my 86 year old grandmother and this woman is still living it up I gotta say. She told Sylvia (another participant from the conference who was also being hosted by super-grandma) and I that she couldn’t understand people who get old and feel lonely because she still has a circle of friends of over 30 people that she’s known for 30-40 years. Although struggling with a slight hearing problem she was otherwise impressively sharp and active.

 

Our first official conference day consisted of a nice lunch and a tour of Leipzig. Our tour guide reminded me of just how inappropriate eastern German humor is from an American perspective. I certainly had a good laugh along with a lot of memories of my days living in eastern Germany back in 2005-2006. We ate at Auerbach’s Keller which is famous for its supposed part in inspiring Goethe’s Faust, which we read in our German Literature and History class in my first semester in Austria. We were to have 2 full excursion days (one to Dresden and Meissen and the other to Quedlinburg and Thale) during the conference as well as a free weekend, on which I went to visit my “German son” in Koblenz.

One of the rooms at the famous Auerbach’s Keller

The National Library in Leipzig is shaped like a book!

Over the 3 weeks I met several like-minded teachers and lovers of German language and culture.  It was refreshing to see that other such people exist! At the end of the conference I realized I would definitely miss these people that I had come to know but I also know that our careers may bring us back together again. But until then…Alles Gute!!

Flowers in the main square

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One whole school year has now gone by and I must bid my home in Salzburg adieu. There were many moments that I felt like the year wasn’t going by fast enough but now that it’s done it seems like it did go by fast after all. I can’t say that I miss living in a shoebox but I had adapted. What used to be a nerve racking 15 minute walk to the doener stand at the train station across the street from my dorm is now no longer possible and therefore my doener cravings will not be fulfilled.

 

Although it was a tough load I will miss taking so many linguistics and foreign language classes and of course my friends in Salzburg that I barely got a chance to know since I was always so busy studying. I will miss this culture that cares so much about our environment and that puts such high importance and value on friendship especially in comparison to my home land. I will not, however, miss the lack of customer service. I know that it is acceptable for many who are raised within the culture but I must return to my roots for that “the customer is always right” feel that I can only seem to find in the good ole US of A.

In any case the beauty of Salzburg’s landscapes and the comfort of its quaint yet diverse atmosphere did capture my heart and in my last weeks I went out to photograph the city one more time before heading off to Germany for a conference and then moving back to the US for the foreseeable future.

 

Sundown from Kapuzinerberg

 

Historic downtown just after sunset (Hi Toni!)

Sunset out my window over the main train station

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Berlin, Germany
June 52011

Since our school program’s trip of the semester this year was Berlin I made my third appearance in this very large, diverse and historically very interesting city. We went on a long weekend during the public holiday of Christi Himmelfahrt (also known as Ascension Day). My religious beliefs are questionable but I sure wish we had this holiday in the US! Anyways, we went to many museums as well as spending nearly 4 hours on a river tour. I definitely could’ve gotten off after 2 but I’m sure it helped my tan to stay the extra 2. It also have me a chance to have a a ginormous glass of beer. As far as musuems go we went to the Alte Nationalgallerie (Old National Gallerie), the Pergamon Museum and the New Museum. I took thousands of pictures of course.

The group in front of the Konzerthaus at Gendarmenmarkt

 

Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral)

Bode Museum – one of the only museums we didn’t actually go inside

Awesome paintings at the Alte Nationalgallerie

How real does this painting look?!

Got to say another painting from one of my favorite artists – Monet

I found this picture very interesting – the title was something like Hell Island if i recall correctly

Loving the sculptures with babies 🙂

My favorite part of the Pergamon Museum was the Islamic art collection

 

at the Neues Museum -> walk like an egyptian 🙂

The hostel we stayed in was very close to a lot of the downtown monuments but the wifi had some serious issues. In fact, my number one complaint about Berlin is that there is no Wifi that works like anywhere in the downtown. I walked around for hours one day trying to find it and I ended up a very frustrated Julie to say the least (and I will say the least..lol). Well i’m going to keep it short because I have a lot of pictures to post and I think they speak for themselves for the most part.

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As much as I wanted to go from the moment I heard about this excursion through the university, I truly didn’t think I could make it happen with my crazy end of the school year exam preparations.  But at the last minute it all worked out. The trip consisted of a nice loop starting in Salzburg and going south to Werfen to see the ice caves and castle, then to Piesendorf for a great hostel in the mountain-filled countryside experience, and last but not least to Halstatt (in the Salzkammergut region) to see the world’s first salt mine and this beautiful lakeside city with a long and interesting history before heading back to Salzburg.

 

I was in my heaven with all this great landscape to shoot but I must admit that the ice caves were the only disappointment. The lighting was so minimal that you could hardly appreciate all the ice and they did not allow pictures of any kind, which I found fairly unjustifiable. It was an interesting experience though to get to the top of a mountain in the summer time and have it be snowing!  Love it! The castle, on the other hand, was very tourist oriented. Everyone was dressed up in their mid-evil attire and despite our large group’s wandering habits, did their best to entertain us. Although the weather was not ideal (too calm) we were even able to watch a bird show with a variety of birds. Being so close to the birds yielded some great pictures, but due to the lack of wind, I presume, one of the birds came awfully close to my head during its take-off. Stupid me didn’t flinch as I was determined to get a great picture out of it. Probably not the smartest move after we had just been given a safety speech about how dangerously fast these birds are.  Luckily the gust of wind that gushed over my head was the only thing I felt, although I admit I was a bit shaken up afterwards!

The view from atop Hohenwerfen (The Werfen Castle)

Not your average summer day in a castle…

Puttin’ on the breaks!

The salt mine in Halstatt was very entertaining even if we did have to wear some unusual clothing to get in. Inside we heard many “cheesy,” yet entertaining stories, about the history of the mines, got to ride on a little train out of the mine, and even saw a pretty impressive light show. After the salt mine we went on a city tour where we learned how the people of this city solved a lack of space problem for burying their dead. They have a room full of bones and skulls. And the skulls were fired up like pottery and decorated. Kinda freaky but not a bad idea, right?

The whole group on the boatride to Halstatt!

So many great views on the boat to Halstatt

 

Halfway up to the salt mines we got this great view

 

Salt mine light show – there’s a first time for everything!

 

Space efficient way to honor the dead

 

View of Halstatt from the salt mine gondola

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For my birthday I decided to take my first full day off of schoolwork in…I don’t even know how long. Quite possibly since the semester started?  I didn’t sit around and watch TV though. Oh no. I went hiking with my friends Josh and Brandis. Brandis traveled all the way here from Milan, Italy where she is studying so I had to make sure to show her a good time. Seeing as how I didn’t quite make it the last time I tried to climb a mountain, I thought this time I would just try to descend one. 6 hours later I realized that that isn’t necessarily any easier for me. My poor friends listened to me whine and complain for the last 2 hours or so of the approximately 8 hour adventure. So I’ve decided I just shouldn’t ever go on a hike that takes more than 5 hours. Yup that’s my new plan! I think…but don’t quote me on it!

This view left me speechless 🙂

This little bridge somehow made this picture great

When we started the hike we couldn’t see 5 ft in front of us and I was pretty disappointed as I had seen pictures of the amazing view at the top of the mountain. We even had to hike a few hours with our umbrellas out, but about halfway down it started to clear up and the mountain revealed to us its momentous beauty.  We veered off the path for a bit to check out a stream that caught our attention. And when we got to the bottom we were greeted by many farm animals that I couldn’t help but take pictures of. Josh tried several times to pet one of the cows but the cow was not having it!

This chicken had quite the swagger

The cow that got away from Josh…

After that crazy long hike we showed up like 1.5 hours late for my birthday dinner (whoops!) I even had a couple beers. It was WILD!  Thanks to everyone for that special day. It was exactly what I needed!

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Rome, Italy (again)
April 302011

Our last night was a dinner show. This time the opera singers were quite impressive — particularly the soprano. The show was very interactive and many people in our group, including me, were invited up on stage as a part of the performance. I danced with the host while he continued to sing opera a millimeter away from my face. Then the tenor cut in and the host gave me a butt push that actually did hurt. One of the guys in our group has a video of the whole thing — you’d think I was acting — my dad’s ham in me certainly came out that night. On the bus one of the women in our group recited a little poem about all the funny things that had happened in our two weeks. It was a good laugh for sure. When we got back to the hotel we all hugged, kissed and said our good byes. You spend every day of your life with these people for two weeks and then suddenly it’s as if it never happened. Will I ever see these people again? I don’t know but I’m glad that I met them and was able to share some once in a lifetime experiences with them. Bonding at it’s finest.

This guy must have regretted not shaving before the show

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Capri, Italy
April 292011

loved this angled rock formation with the pure aqua marine blue water

look at all the little boats lined up on the shore!

The next day we headed to the island of Capri (with the emphasis on the first syllable). The perimeter of this small island is only about 10 miles. We of course went around with a local guide to see some of the views and all kinds of tropical fauna. Afterwards we grabbed “Caprese” salads and paninis and got on a boat that went around the whole island. It was either that or visit the Blue Grotta and see nothing else. We stopped near a few caves — the Green  Grotta for instance. We also passed through the lovers arch (too bad I was loverless at that moment). I really would’ve liked to have seen the Blue Grotta but time just didn’t allow. Regardless I was able to take many a great picture on the boat ride as well as enjoy the cool wind on a sunny day.

Our group all aboard and ready to cruise around Capri

What a beautiful island…

Speechless…

Dad stopping for a fresh lemonade

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Amalfi Coast, Italy
April 292011

Weather = bad, Amalfi Coastline = still good!

Our final day on the tour was on the Amalfi Coast. As luck would have it the rain came back and the views were a bit hazy.  I still got some great shots but I had to imagine how it would have been on a clearer day. After taking some above the coast shots from just off the highway, we went into the city of Positano. It was really neat to see an old city literally built on the  lushly covered mountains and limestone cliffs of a jutting coast line. This city also had some wonderful flowers blooming. The pictures came out especially nice as they were accumulating water droplets from the days’ on and off showers.

Learning the benefits of shooting just after rain showers!

There is certainly no space going to waste on the Amalfi Coastline

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Sorrento, Italy
April 282011

Our travel day to Sorrento was a rough one. With rest stops only it took about 10 hours to get there. Of course this happened to coincide with my worst  health day of the trip. What was 3 weeks of strep is now going on a week of a sinus infection. I’m running out of drugs again so I am hoping my body will get in the game soon. Despite this rough trip I managed to read another book for pleasure — one that my dad brought with him and read a few days earlier. I have to pause to reflect on how I manage to travel and site see an average of 10 hours/day and still have made time to read 3 books and several other school assignments while being sick. Either I’m having one of my amazing moments or this is the exact reason I can’t seem to return to good health. My ego prefers the former. And now back to the travel stuff. I am writing this blog on the bus just as we are arriving in Sorrento. It’s a bit hazy today but  much improved from Taormina’s weather. Some of the coastal views we just saw here from the bus were spectacular. I hope my shooting through the window will capture its beauty.

On the way to Sorrento…not bad for a “through the bus window” shot eh?

(Later that night…) Dinner was to be Sorrento’s specialty: Pizza. We were served 3 different flavors as well as multiple “bready” appetizers. I don’t think  I’ve ever seen so much pizza in my life! But in my opinion the highlight of the night was not the pizza but rather the desert. This place had the best tiramisu I’ve EVER had and that is saying a lot because I’ve had a lot of it in my life.

Have you ever seen a Pizza of this size?!!? The served us like 4 of them!

The next day a bunch of us went into the city to shop and had the most wonderful gelato. I got a mixture of two of Sorrento’s own: Sorrento Walnut and Ricotta Pear. My mom was even able to find dairy-free chocolate gelato. I bought several things that I don’t really need such as biking gloves and a wallet.  What can I say? I was having one of those days where I really wanted to purchase things. Luckily that was the only day that I felt like that! That night we went out for another nice dinner in Sorrento. There I had the most tasty appetizers of the whole trip. Unfortunately I was pretty much full by the time my  main course came but what else is new!?!? I drank some coffee with our lemon puff of a desert so that I could try and stay awake for a musical that I didn’t really want to go to. It was an interesting mix of folk and opera. It was a  a bit lacking in the professional department but entertaining nonetheless.

Mom holding my and her gelato – not sure i’ve ever seen her happier! Hehe

Shopping in Sorrento (Janet and I)

Our tour guide (Milli) and driver (Francesco)

Mom, Dad and I at our last dinner in Sorrento

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Taormina, Italy
April 272011

Downtown Taormina was very cute!

Greek ampitheater in Taormina with a beautiful view that we couldn’t see

In Taormina our beautiful weather streak took a serious turn for the worse. Taormina, supposedly one of the most picturesque parts of Sicily, was barely  visible through the fog. Did i mention it was raining the whole time too? This didn’t stop us from our tours though. First we went to an Ancient Greek amphitheater which was clearly different from the Roman amphitheaters in that the spectator seats were built into the hills instead of being built up on flat ground with roman arches. On day two we got in the bus for an hour and a half to see some craters at about 6000 ft high on Mt. Etna. Our hotel in Taormina had a beautiful view of the coast — at least I think it did. After two days in the hotel I only saw a bit of the coastline the morning that we left. I guess we had to accept a few bad luck days.

Despite the fog at Mt. Etna I did manage to find a bit of color

There was still snow on Mt. Etna at the end of April – clearly people ski here in the winter

The only upside to the abundance of clouds were these pictures….

Sunrise on our departure day finally showed me the picturesque coast right outside my hotel window

 

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First glimpses of the sea salt producing city of Marsala

A pile of sea salt being protected while it dries

Our next overnight stop was Agrigento on the south western coast of Sicily. But first we made a stop in Marsala on the way to see how sea salt is captured and dried. I bought some mixed with sage as an edible souvenir. In Agrigento we did a tour with a local guide through the ancient greek city of Agrigento (formerly Agrigakas). Being the non history buff that I am I had no idea there was so much Ancient Greek history in Sicily. I have been enlightened! Some of the pictures I have of this area rival what I got when I visited Athens years ago. Interestingly enough this areas also was displaying a modern Polish sculptor. Many of the statues I found quite interesting with the exception of one that was put right in front of one of the Greek temples. Who does that?!?!

The very well preserved ancient greek Temple of Concordia

Contrasting old and new

 

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Palermo, Italy
April 242011

After arriving in Palermo via faerie we went straight to the hotel to unload and have breakfast. Then we headed on our tour of the city. We started in my person favorite cathedral — the Monreale Cathedral, also known as La Basilica Cattedrale di Santa Maria Nuova (please see previous Palermo post for pictures!). I even bought a mosaic from a local store to have a souvenir of my favorite cathedral!! We also visited another similarly styled chapel called Palatine Chapel (Capella Palatina). Much of the rest of the tour was from the bus but we saw many of  the most important buildings. I was excited this day and took an extraordinarily large amount of pictures. We saw a few churches, one in the Norman Palace, which we barely managed to get in a visit before they closed the church to tourists for an Easter mass. The other, Palermo Cathedral,  was holding a mass when we walked in. Many of the tourists were taking pictures but I just didn’t have it in me to do so during a mass.

Fountain outside Cathedral Monreale

Some of the most impressive grafiti i’ve ever seen

Inside the Palatine Chapel

In the afternoon we were given  more free time than usual presumably because it was, after all, Easter Sunday. We walked down the street of our hotel to find somewhere to eat. We ended up  in a fish place with a waiter who should’ve retired long ago. He messed up every part of our order imaginable but the fish, at least, was very good. Mom  and I went out to find some Sicilian specialties after lunch while dad went upstairs for a nap. Unfortunately we didn’t find any such specialties and  ended up walking back to the hotel empty handed. I then decided to take a nap and a bath. I even finished the book I brought to read for homework out on  the balcony overlooking Palermo’s coast. It was definitely a high time for me even if I still was fighting illness. I didn’t realize my health would go downhill from there. The decline started with a restless night due to some idiot in the parking lot screaming to cram in cars all night. The hotel room  and view was spectacular but clearly costs were cut when making window insulation decisions!

The view out my hotel window

Dad and I infront of the coast AND a very large tree stump

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Pompei, Italy
April 232011

The next stop from Assisi was Pompei but it was quite a bus ride to get there. My new antibiotics were making my stomach do somersaults and I wondered if I was going to be able to keep down breakfast. I was given a granola bar and candied ginger by some very nice people in the group. I slept for about a third of the trip, did homework for another third and, well, consciously prayed to not throw up the other third. Thankfully I was able to keep the food down and, although a bit tired, made it through the two hour guide through Pompei that followed the bus ride. Pompei was one of my favorite stops on my tour back in 2000 but I admittedly wasn’t quite as impressed this time. I think maybe more of the stuff was removed and brought into the museum but my terrible memory does not allow me to say for certain if that is true. I did still enjoy it and with 72 degree weather in April (as it has been nearly the whole trip thus far) one really can’t complain! I enjoyed a cafe latte before the bus departed for Napoli, where our overnight faerie to Palermo awaited us. Hopefully my stomach can handle some overnight cruising…

Welcome to the ancient city of Pompei!

Ancient sinks?!!? How cooooooool

I think this is what I would do if molten lava was about to cover me

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Assisi, Italy
April 222011

Out the window on the way to Assisi (love how it gives a birds eye view of the landscape!)

Just outside La Basilica di Sant’apollinare in Classe

More byzantine that I love at La Basilica di Sant’apollinare in Classe

From Venice we stopped at La Basilica di Sant’apollinare in Classe along the way to Assisi, where we were to stay overnight. I believe my first tour of Europe ten years ago also visited this city but my memory was very vague. We visited the Assisi Cathedral (Cattedrale di Assisi) where everyone was shhhhhhhed to death and then headed back for a hotel dinner. I was a bit late for dinner having had to see the doctor for a persisting illness that I’ve had for 3.5 weeks now. It of course started raining on my way to the pharmacy. Not sure if this doctor really knew what was wrong with me but I do know that he prescribed me multiple extremely strong medications so I will hope for the best. He also informed me I have a piece of wax in my ear that is about 2 inches long. I guess I should do something about that when I get back to Austria.

The streets of Assisi

My parents in front of the Assisi Cathedral

The group got a bit rowdy again given the unlimited wine at dinner and our table was told to quiet down. I was surprised that Americans in Italy were being told to be quiet at a restaurant but I suppose I have witnessed stranger occurrences in my almost 29 years on this earth. We only stayed one night in Asissi but we did get to SLEEP IN until 7am this time. Grazie a dio!

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Venice, Italy
April 212011

Our first night in Venice was to be a fairly laid back night and it was for the most part.  We went out to have a Venician dinner. On our way the tour guide showed us a few quick sites to work up our appetites. I couldn’t get over how close the buildings were built together but there are after all no vehicles in Venice with the exception of one island. Some of the allies were no wider than two people wide. It was definitely something to see. The food quality at the restaurant was a bit under the quality of most of the dinners we’d had but it was certainly edible. We were served prosciutto with melon for an appetizer and tiramisu for desert just as we have for nearly every dinner and I have to admit that I’m getting a bit sick of them. The up side for many was that the unlimited drinks were included in the excursion price and most of the group certainly took advantage. Unfortunately I was and still am on antibiotics so this vacation is pretty much alcohol free for me.

Cool building on the way to dinner

My parents and I after our first dinner in Venice

After dinner our guide did something that was probably not wise — she decided to show us some more sites on the way home.  Intoxication and site-seeing yielded some unfortunate results as we managed to lose two gentleman in the process. We spent a long time waiting for them and trying to find them but to no avail. Everyone had a theory as to how they got lost and where they might be. At about the same time we lost these guys I observed a bit of bargaining for one of those slingshot glowing light things that they sell in the main squares. The drunkenness lead to great annoyance to the seller as we tried to bargain lower than what was clearly his LOWEST price. In the end we got a sarcastic as hell “Grazie” along with the corresponding F-U gesture. I didn’t find out until the next morning that the gentlemen did eventually find their way back to our hotel (which was by the way on a completely different island that could be reached only by water taxi).

 

The next day we got up early AGAIN to put out the luggage, eat and head out on our official tour of Venice. The Doge’s palace was truly remarkable but I was a bit disappointed that we weren’t able to get in to Saint Marc’s Basilica, despite having a reservation, because they were cleaning for an upcoming visit by the pope.  We did get to see some extraordinary glass making though. I was tempted to buy some glass jewelry but well I couldn’t justify the expense seeing as how I don’t wear that much jewelry.

The glass master shaping a horse – now that is art!!

One of the stairwells in Doge’s Palace

That afternoon I skipped the gondola ride (guess I’ll just have to come back with someone special for that) but went on a lagoon cruise that night on the way to dinner in Burano. Burano, unlike the center of Venice, was very quaint and quiet. The houses were painted very bright colors and no two houses next to each other were the same color. It was simply a very picturesque island. The dinner was very good and I even found some nice souveniers and gifts. The area is also known for hand-made lace. I definitely appreciated this high level of craftsmanship as well but once again decided to pass — lace is not my style.

No, this picture has not been altered:Leaning tower of Pisa eat your heart out!

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Florence, Italy
April 192011

We departed our Hotel Albani at about 8 am and headed for Florence. In my last tour in Italy it was one of my favorite cities so I was excited to come back. The bus ride was about 3.5 hours with one stop, most of which I spent doing homework. When we arrived we were taken to exactly the same gold and leather store as my tour 10 years ago. It was a very interesting case of deja vu. I remember buying a leather belt for my father last time as well as leather pants (that I never wear). This time I thought maybe I would make a more classy investment. I found a leather motorcycle style jacket. It was fine tailored leather that was brush painted tan. I tried it on, despite my better judgment, and of course loved how it looked in me. I knew it would be expensive but I didn’t realize that it would, like dinner the night before, be completely unaffordable for me. But luckily for me Mom and Dad came to the rescue. We negotiated, like we do, it to be an early Christmas present (note: my birthday next month was already accounted for when I wanted an expensive lens for my digital camera last Christmas) and I happily left the store with a beautiful Italian leather jacket.

That night there was a dinner excursion offered but we chose once again to go to another one of our agents’ recommendations. Before doing so we headed over to Ponte Vecchio, a very old (possibly the oldest) bridge in Florence. It was quite a site to see because it had little buildings built all the way across the bridge. The shops had old wooden covers that could be propped open during business hours and then pulled down to shut at closing time. It was a bit touristy but worth the short visit. Our dinner venue was called Paoli and was definitely a better value than the night before. It was very modestly priced and had excellent food. But most interesting was the environment inside. This restaurant, the oldest restaurant in Florence, used to be a church and the walls were painted and decorated as such. The waiters spoke English very well so I was relieved of most of my translation duties for the night.

Dad and I in front of the old-church restaurant

The next day we went back into Florence, as our hotel was a bit outside of the city center, and briefly visited the museum of fine art (which houses Michelangelo’s David) and then took a short walking tour by the beautiful marble dome called The Basilica of Saint Maria of the Flower (La Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore) and through the Signora Plaza (Piazza Signora). The Signora Plaza was a unique site due to all the statues outside in one small area making it an open art museum of sorts. When our tour ended we had a quick bite to eat and I finally allowed myself to splurge on a cafe latte before heading back to our bus and hitting the road again. This time — the road to Venice.

The copy of the David in the open art gallery of Piazza Signora

La Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore

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Rome, Italy
April 182011

This entry marks the beginning of a two week trip through Italy compliments of my lovely parents Jim and Mary Ellen. After arriving in Rome at about 2pm I was transferred to the hotel where I met my parents and took a quick nap before the tour group’s first meeting. We introduced ourselves and headed off to a welcome dinner at Mino’s. Although I had already become acquainted with Italian dining in previous trips to Italy I remember being particularly impressed with the number of courses we were served at this place. I kept thinking we were done until I looked down at the pieces of silverware I had left. By the time I was served the main course I could only eat a few bites because I was so full. Little did I know this was going to become par for the course for my Italian dining experiences for most of the trip.

The next morning we toured Rome’s most important sites. It’s obviously impossible to see a lot in just one afternoon but we saw many of the ruins in the historical center including the Colloseum of course. After touring we went to a very nice restaurant near our hotel where I ended up doing a bit of translation to help some of the others (mainly my parents) order their food. We then opted out of our optional afternoon tour to take a “break” before eating at a place that our tour agent recommended. During the break I took a nap and did some homework since my professors clearly don’t think this two week holiday should REALLY be a holiday.

This was the scenery just before heading into the museum at the Vatican

 

Collosseum from the inside

That night I argued a bit with my parents about having to dress up for dinner as I had already dressed up the night before. Anyone who knows me knows I like to keep the dressing up to a minimum but this place certainly warranted the nice clothes. The restaurant, called Imaggi, was on the top flour of a building with a beautiful view of Rome and was very modernly decorated. My mother and I discovered rather late that the menu my father was given was the only one with prices and as I glanced over to look a them I quickly realized why. We didn’t order every course but the chef must of appreciated how much we DID order because he sent us several extras. I once again could not eat my main course after being filled with appetizers and tid bits, most of which I hadn’t ordered. The flavors were original and exquisite but I am pretty sure I will never eat quite like that again. I have been to Italy before and will likely come again but that dining experience was certainly once in a lifetime (Thanks Dad!)
That night I had a bit trouble sleeping on a less than wonderful mattress and certainly didn’t enjoy having to get up 6:45 am in order to eat, put my luggage outside the room and check out of the hotel, but I did what I had to do! The next morning we visited the Vatican. The Sisteenth chapel was as amazing as always and I really enjoyed some of the sculptures in the museum. And Florence here we come!

Statue from the musuem at the Vatican

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Paris, France
March 232011

After years of missing out on one of Europe’s finest I finally managed to get to Paris. The beginning of spring brought some wonderful weather when I arrived and I can honestly say that those first few days were some of the best days of my life. Some prior experiences and many preconceived notions of how the Parisians treat Americans had me worried but I was pleasantly surprised at how nice everyone was. I stayed in a trendy area that was definitely as cosmopolitan as the city itself but touristy it was not. I had some of the tastiest dinners those first few days. I really did fall in love with Paris.  I took it easy on day one since it was a travel day but on day 2 I saw Notre Dame de Paris and the Eiffel Tower. It was sunny and 65 and I was loving life.

Notre Dame de Paris!

Eiffel Tower

Day 3 brought something very unexpected – strep throat.  Tis the season I realize but strep really did put a hamper on the rest of my plans for Paris.  I spent the next 3 days of the trip in my room watching episode after episode of HBO’s Big Love, which I enjoyed don’t get me wrong but I had much greater plans for my long weekend in Paris. The night before I left I forced myself out mostly to get something to eat but also to see one last site: the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris. Being the highest point in the city there was a pretty descent view below. Unfortunately the weather had changed and thus matched my sick feeling but I managed to get a few photos in between rain showers.

Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris

Despite some level of disappointment I left with a very high opinion of Paris. While I was sick I ate food from bakeries and fruit markets that made meals better than many a fine dining experience. The subway has the coolest Halloween looking signs I’ve ever seen. The city is beautiful and I didn’t encounter anyone who seemed irritated with my lack of French mastery.  Hopefully I will return to Paris some day and make up for that bit of lost time.

How’s this for a subway sign?

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As a kid I knew that my great-grandfather was from Sicily and although he died when I was very young I do remember him saying something to me in Italian (or most probably in Sicilian). And no – I don’t remember what he said because I didn’t know a lick of Italian I just remember it being Italian and not understanding. I definitely internalized the fact that great-grandpa must not speak a lot of English. Recently I decided to expand my knowledge and got in touch with a sicilian relative and planned a trip during my in-between-semesters break to Palermo and Partinico – the city that my great-grandfather came from and where most of the family still lives.

Fiorella and I touring Palermo

Partinico is about 35 km southwest of Palermo and much smaller of course. My cousin Fiorella graciously hosted me in her house and was so welcoming and helpful. I will be forever grateful for her hospitality and the stories she shared with me about our family. She also forced me to speak quite a bit of Italian which was great practice for me. A friend of hers took us on a tour of Palermo for nearly an entire day which I didn’t expect but ended up really enjoying. She also took me around Partinico and showed me where my great-grandpa lived and where his sister had a jewelry store. It was a bit surreal to imagine but fascinating as well. Her brother is a fabulous cook and made me two wonderful sicilian dinners that rival even the cooking of my grandpa that I have so missed since he passed a few years ago. And her parents were equally welcoming and gave me a beautiful scarf to take home with me.

The inside of Cathedral Monreale was AMAZING

A glimpse of Partinico

Where my great-grandfather lived before he moved to the US

Unfortunately I was only able to spend 4 short days there and one of them I wasn’t feeling well but I will surely return some day. That day will likely be in the summer instead of the winter though – Sicily is one of those places that isn’t cold enough for good heating but not warm enough to not freeze your #[email protected] off in the winter. But I loved the mix of cliffs (that looked climbable!) and ocean. Beautiful scenery beautiful family. I WILL be back!

Pizza dinner with cousins Fiorella and Benedetto

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This school year was different from any other I’ve had in that the entire month of February was off between the winter and summer semesters. I had been told that many European countries have similar setups but I must admit that this is the first time I’ve experienced it myself.  I wouldn’t be exaggerating in estimating that I spent half the month doing work that should have been done last semester and even some that should have been assigned during the semester so that it would be possible to finish it during the semester and not have to do it in the break but I digress.  Despite this reality I decided to go on “vacation” anyways. And after my first week of the next semester I am STILL trying to finish things from last semester.

So back to the vacation – although I have been before I decided to return to Italy with the intention of learning some Italian and meeting some of my cousins in Sicily that I had never met.  I was slightly embarrassed that even though I’m half Italian (according to my ancestry), Italian is officially the 5th language I’ve taken up.  I can’t really take full responsibility for this though – my high school didn’t offer Italian so I took the closes alternative – Spanish.  Then I got to college and realized that Spanish didn’t really go with my Engineering major so I switched to German.  After many years of commitment i did become fluent in German and then went back to Spanish thinking I should finish what I started as not to really confuse my developing multilingual brain?  After some level of fluency I moved back to a German speaking country and started Arabic on the side.  And now…finally I am getting to Italian.

In order to pass into Italian II here at Universitaet Salzburg this semester I decided to do a 2 week intensive course in Bologna, Italy.  I must admit that my Spanish and even some of my German background helped me to start to pick up Italian relatively quickly. The language school I attended is called Cultura Italiana and one of my favorite things about the school was that they had cultural events almost every night! This certainly helped me avoid be lonely since I was traveling there by myself. I did stay with a host family minus the family. It was just a woman living along and I could barely communicate with her at all when I arrived (or before I arrived when I called to tell her when I would be arriving but you get the point). By the end we even had a few entire conversations in Italian.  I also had the pleasure of seeing some old friends who came to Bologna to visit me after several years of not seeing each other.

My room in Bologna

The city of Bologna is pleasant.  It’s a nice size – not too big not too small.  Those who know me well know that I like these kinds of cities.  On the down side it is a very expensive city. Yet another reason to just stick to the cultural activities of the language school!  I went on a few tours of the city including churches and museums as well as attending lectures on Italian literature and music. I had about 3 hours of Italian class per day and studied on average of 2 more hours every day on my own.

Loved this view

 

Inside the museum at night

When Brandis and Maria came to visit we first went out for pizza of course. The waiter was very cute and flirty – he gave us free shots of limocello and was the first experience that got me thinking that Italian men would really do anything for women. After that we went to a bar which was supposed to be a jazz club but it wasn’t.  We drank and smoked some hookah and entertained ourselves as if it hadn’t been 5 years since we’d all been together. The next day we had the great idea to drive to the western coast to see the Cinque Terre I guess none of us realized just how far it was but after 3 hours of driving we all wondered what we were doing.  The weather chimed in with rain and fog so thick we could barely see anything in front of us which was not ideal considering that at that point we were driving on winding non-paved roads barely big enough for one car let alone 2. Oh AND we didn’t really know where we were going. As the gas tank approached E we decided to stop and ask for help and were told that we were thirty kilometers away from any gas station that had anything other than diesel.  After a brief flip out session the carefree Italian says to us: “Come on. You’re young so this isn’t REALLY a problem.” Haha….I guess it’s all about perspective.  I was so hung over and hungry that I couldn’t even consider getting worked up over it. Luckily we made it to the gas station and paid a ridiculous price for gas but we were all relieved regardless.  I was so excited that I made it a photo op. Eventually we made it to the coast and found some more pizza to eat. The weather was still terrible but we all took pictures anyways and I took a nap in the car.  And then… you guessed it…we headed straight back since we had another 3 hour drive ahead of us.

Reunited after 5 years in another country with alcohol and hookah

 

Holy expensive gas

 

Excited to see beach even with the bad weather!

My last week in Bologna was a bit sad. I said my goodbyes to all the teachers I’d had. I didn’t think 2 weeks would be long enough to really miss anyone but it was somehow. I really wish I would have had time to learn more Italian in such an immersion setting but my time had run out.  My host lady burned me a CD of her favorite Italian music. I took my last pictures of the city and packed up for a 4 day trip to Palermo.

Piazza Maggiore (part of it anyway)

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Budapest, Hungary
December 72010

The inner courtyard of the awesome buliding we stayed in

Being the ambitious grad student that I am, I don’t get out much, but I did finally manage to get to Budapest on a very long 5-day weekend at the beginning of December.  Originally I had planned on going with two of my fellow grad students Toni and Jordan but after a ticket debacle, in which the train tickets were accidentally sent to my address in the US instead of my address in Austria.  After trying nearly everything to not have to buy all new (and much more expensive) train tickets, the solution ended up being that Jordan generously gave up his tickets so that Toni and I could still go without having to pay too much more than originally planned.

The overnight train to Budapest was relatively uneventful and cold.  The person sitting next to me left a few hours in and I was so fortunate to be able to lay across 3 seats for most of the night. I had to take out my sleeping bag to keep out the cold but was otherwise relatively comfortable. The man who remained was a German whose wife was Hungarian.  He told us how they met and where they had lived over the years as well as some other interesting tidbits. It was almost 9am when we got in and we made no detours on the way to the hostel. The hostel was on the 2nd floor of an old building (we later found out that what looked like an indoor patio from out our window used to be an apartment but had been bombed at some point). We were greeted warmly and waited a few minutes for our room to be ready. We got some maps and started checking out the possibilities.  I promptly fell asleep.

Budapest has some super cool bridges

A few hours later we explored the city and boy was there a lot to see – so many beautiful old buildings and bridges and random marble staircases. We walked and took pictures, then walked  some more and took more pictures. For lunch we stopped at a local diner to try some homemade goulash – it bit greasy but good.  Little did we know that was the BEST Hungarian food we’d have!  For dinner we bought groceries and cooked with the only spice we could find – curry!

The next day we went down to an area that is being made into the city’s cultural center. For now there are two brand new modern buildings: the Ludwig Museum (or the Museum of Contemporary Art) and the new National Theater – both stunning. In the museum we saw a photography exhibit of Martin Munkácsi, a Hungarian who became popular mostly in Germany and the US.  I was amazed at how many famous people he had photographed and at how good “old school” photography could be.  It was inspirational to say the least!  When we left that night it was FREEZING but we still took a few pictures of Budapest’s future cultural center.

At sundown we got some amazing views from the bridge

 

Pig tails anyone?

 

You wouldn’t know by looking at it that these thermal baths are natural

Much of the following day was spent in a market that we just happened to come across while wondering near the shopping district. Many a Christmas gift was bought here.  It’s always interesting to see a market in an old building such as this one was; the entire bottom floor was a food market. We quickly discovered that the Hungarians do not let anything go to waste – in fact we saw for sale every single part of a pig that you can imagine!  We made the mistake of trying another “traditional” Hungarian meal here and new very soon after finishing that our digestive tracks would need days to recover from the greasy fattiness and we couldn’t help but ask ourselves: do Hungarians eat any vegetables?!?!

We also managed to hit up a circus and some old thermal baths in the courtyard of a huge palace. It was definitely unique. We wanted to go in but weren’t willing to put out the cash just to look around since neither of us had our bathing suits with us. The circus was strange but there definitely were some talented people.  We of course caught a few good stunts on film (digital film that is).

The next day we were headed back to Austria.  Our original train was supposed to leave at 11am but we found the same train leaving at 9am.  I looked at the tickets over and over again and couldn’t decide if they would work for either train or not. There was no time listed on them which made me think they would. So we got on the 9am train and about an hour into the ride the controllers came and of course told us we were on the wrong train.  We tried to reason with them but they were asking us to pay for new tickets (what?!? again?!!?) Finally we asked if we could just get off and wait for OUR train and they said yes.  So we got off in the middle of nowhere Hungary and sat a few hours in mall until the next train came.  Oh the adventures of traveling…

Circus fun!

 

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With this entry I would like to begin a series of entries that will be dedicated to the next year of my life, which will be spent in Salzburg, Austria (and hopefully a few other choice european destinations as time allows). I cannot believe it has taken me a month to get an entry up but to put things into perspective – it took about the same amount of time to get my internet working and to get health insurance again. So the first weeks have been difficult: deciding on (and FINDING) classes, locating the nearest stores of weekly importance, purchasing a means of transportation, suddenly reading large sections of foreign books weekly, and trying to decipher what the hell Austrians are trying to say to me in – wait that wasn’t German was it?

My room is about half the size of my parents’ bathroom. Truthfully I’ve slept in smaller rooms but never without a secondary room -a living room, dining room, maybe a sitting room? I guess technically the shared kitchen could count as a secondary room. I do spend a considerable amount of time there cooking and studying with Jordan and Toni (my fellow grad students that live here in Haus Merian with me). For those of you who don’t know – I am doing a Masters in German through BGSU (Bowling Green State University) and while I’m not so bad at the german language in general, the reading, writing and general expectation of historical background knowledge are a bit tough for an Electrical Engineering undergrad major. I knew it was too good to be true when I was told I didn’t have to take any more history and literature classes about 10 years ago now. Haha – all kidding aside I entered into this on my own free will. I may be lacking in knowledge but not in motivation and curiosity. I want to know what I’ve missed out on and transform myself into something I never imagined I could be.

Here is my room – yes the vast majority of it CAN be captured in one shot!

The city of Salzburg is in many ways “my kinda city.” It’s multicultural and internationally recognized (and surrounded by the Alps!), yet small and quaint. You can get anywhere in the city in an hour or less by foot and with a bike, bus or car you can make it nearly anywhere within a half an hour. With the exception of the typical european store hours (closed by 7pm on week nights and all day Sundays), it is relatively convenient to live here. Last weekend we went on a school excursion to Vienna. I certainly enjoyed my trip several years ago to Vienna hanging out at the Christkindlmarkt with friends of friends during the Christmas season, but this time I got the more educational/touristy visit, in which I went to several museums and on a pretty comprehensive city tour (for such a big city at least!)

Die Festung Hohensalzburg (The High Fortress of Salzburg) – fitting name!

Just a small portion of the Parliament in Vienna

My class schedule is a bit insane. As I recall, I never had more than 5 classes during my undergrad years (and most semesters I had 4), whereas now I have 6 (YIKES). I have 3 required courses which are basically History, Literature and German (language) – all relating to German of course. Then I have elected to take a course on language instruction/acquisition research and a course about the physco- and neuro-linguitical aspects of foreign language acquisition as these two classes relate to my future thesis topic -or so I hope! Then I am taking Arabic (for fun). Yeah I know what you’re thinking but there is something about starting a new language that is refreshing, almost as an ego boost as it’s something I feel i “know how to do.” We’ll see if I still feel that way after a semester of it!

This week we’ve had two days off for All Saints Day and All Souls Day. This 5 day weekend (since I don’t have class on Fridays) has been a nice chance to try and catch up since I wasn’t feeling well last week and consequently got a bit (or a lot) behind in my work. I went to Salzkammergut (very beautiful area just outside Salzburg) with another program participant and our program coordinator/professor – Thanks for inviting/driving! Other than that I’ve been reading, studying and putting up lots of dates up on my timeline. Oh, yeah – I almost forgot to mention the timeline. Since I am so historically clueless I have built a timeline (see picture of my room above) to remember the most important points relating to my classes or just things that I should know as a human being with basic cognitive abilities (lol).

Salzkammergut – it was a bit of a dreary day but still beautiful scenery in fall colors

Well I’ll have to say Auf Wiedersehen for now as I really need to do some research. Bis zum naechsten mal meine Freunde!

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After a brief stop in Santiago I took off for my final south american travel destination – Bariloche, Argentina.  Since this was originally one of the places I was considering moving to when I decided to do a year in South America, I had to see what I missed out on by choosing Santiago over this lovely argentinean resort town.  This place is a nature lovers heaven with the winter highlight being skiing and snowboarding. I regret to inform that I abandoned my typical photographer’s duties on this trip as I was afraid of biting it on my snowboard and breaking my precious camera.  But I will attempt to describe what I saw and experienced through my writing. The white snow covered mountains were complimented nicely by patches of trees here and there. Atop the mountains you have a view of and irregularly shaped lake of deep blue color. I remember getting to the top and having to take a few minutes in my butt looking out at the view in complete awe. Wow what a beautiful place!

The landscape alone made me think that I may have made the wrong choice of south american homes, but then I had the pleasure of staying with 2 argentineans who were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met traveling. We ate dinners together and exchanged many ideas about our cultures and lifestyles, but most importantly we shared a lot of laughs. Thanks to Paula and Agusto for showing me such a great time in Bariloche. I won’t soon forget such a wonderful experience!

my new argentinean friends Paula and Agusto

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When choosing a night bus from Puno to Arequipa Wendy and I were careful not to make the same mistake twice….or so we thought. We chose first class this time and wore considerably more clothing to shield us from the nights’ chill.  When we saw our seats we were painfully reminded of life’s relativity. It turns out that first class in this bus was just about the equivalent to the economy class on the last bus – go figure!

We arrived in Arequipa at about 3 am and headed to our hotel which I had communicated our potential late arrival earlier that day.  When we arrived, however, the hostel owner knew nothing of our late arrival nor our reservation.  As luck would have it, he had no space for us and had to call another hostel.  Luckily there was a hostel that had just opened recently and they were able to take us.  The next day we went searching for a tour to Colca Canyon.  We stupidly ignored the hostel owner’s advice and went to a closer tour agency that was listed in Lonely Planet.  We ended up paying almost twice as much as the people that went to the agency he had recommended but by this point we were so tired that we couldn’t even muster up the energy to be too angry at ourselves.

The Colca Canyon tour itself was good although slightly less active than we had thought. The first day we bussed from place to place with our overly chatty tour guide babbling all kinds of information in Spanish and English about the surrounding area and local people. We were able to see quite a few vincunas (llama mixed with alpaca), which I didn’t even know existed. When we were about to reach the highest point he guided us through altitude sickness prevention by chewing coca leaves. What are coca leaves you ask?  Well, coca is what is used to make cocaine when mixed with other chemicals, but in its natural form it is quite healthy and does seem to prevent altitude sickness and give you a burst of energy. It doesn’t taste wonderful but it’s certainly bearable given the benefits. I even brought some coca tea home for everyone to try!

Once we arrived at the hotel we had about 20 minutes to get ready for our 1.5 hour hike to the thermal baths. The local tour guide who took us seemed in a bit of a rush.  He didn’t speak English at all so I had to translate what little he mumbled to everyone else. The sun was setting quickly and we still hadn’t reached the thermal baths.  As you can probably imagine we had very little sun by the time we reached the baths and as nice and hot as they were, we all suffered quite a bit on the ways in and out.  But hey… sacrifices will be made for natural thermal baths now won’t they? We only had a half an hour in the baths and then our guide insisted we had back before it got too dark out.

Trekking…

The next morning we up early again and headed out on the bus to catch more of Colca Canyon’s main attractions.  The highlight was probably the lookout of the canyon where all the condors liked to hang out. I was sad to not have had a zoom lens for this event but I have some cool, albeit distant, shots of the condors flying by.  In comparison to the Grand Canyon I was a bit disappointed with Colca. It didn’t seem quite as special nor beautiful although it could be because I was visiting in the dry season. Apparently the canyon is much more colorful in the wet season. But even still, Colca is a very narrow canyon and is therefore quite difficult to appreciate its great depth. But you can’t beat the coca sampling now can you?!?

Nearing the edge of Colca Canyon

At the end of our Colca Canyon trip, Wendy, sadly, had to head back to California. I decided to change my itinerary and hang out a while longer in Arequipa just so that I could try and recover from the craziness.  In my extra time in Arequipa I did a couple of exciting excursions -white water rafting and downhill mountain biking. White water rafting was something I had wanted to try for as long as I could remember. I was a bit hesitant to do it in the cooler season but was told I’d be comfortable in the morning sun so I signed up for the morning time slot. The agency then called me later that day to tell me that I needed to switch to the afternoon as I was the only one signed up in the morning. I knew I was in for a rough day but I reluctantly agreed to the switch.

The weather was nice when we started out but the sun quickly hid behind the rocks and every little splash sent chills through my body.  The level 3 waves seemed very calm and I was even a bit disappointed with the lack of excitement, however, I could imagine level 4 and 5 waves really giving me the rush I was craving. The worst part was getting stuck on some rocks in such a way that the waves were pouring into our raft in such a way that we couldn’t get unstuck to do the weight and force of the water. Now, had it been a beautiful hot sunny day this would have been but a minor inconvenience but that water that was now covering us all from the waste down was FREEZING cold. It felt like a thousand knives were stabbing me over and over again for a good 8 minutes straight until we were able to get free from the rocks. I actually thought I might have permanently lost feeling in my feet after that but my body recovered remarkably with a towel and some warm tea afterward.  That night I even hung out with the chilean and argentinien tour guides over a few drinks.  Mission accomplished!

White water rafting the Chili River in Arequipa

Me and the guides afterwards!

The next day I was to downhill a local volcano known as Chachani. The bus ride up the volcano was slow yet charming and at the top I bundled up a bit before putting on all the necessary padding. It took us about 2 hours to get down with a bit of walking in between for uphill sections of pure sand. The highlight, though, was when we hit the beautifully paved open road near the bottom. I must have been going 35 mph on a mountain bike. It was a little frightening but VERY exciting. After a nice taste of the outdoors in Arequipa I packed up my stuff and headed back to Santiago to prepare for the last stop in my south american tour: Bariloche, Argentina.

Mountain biking down the Chachani Volcano with the Misti Volcano in the background

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Upon returning to Cusco from our Machu Picchu trip, we promptly packed up our things and headed on yet another night bus to Puno. We had the choice between first class and economy (please note the difference between the two was only about $3.50). Figuring that we didn´t NEED first class, we stupidly, chose economy. I wish I had checked the temperature in Puno before reserving this bus but after so much traveling many details managed to fall through the cracks, such as this one. I was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt with my nice warm fleece but it wasn´t nearly enough. The company gave us a paper thin fleece blanket but a couple hours into the trip I woke up freezing my &%$ off. Sitting next to the window was also a pretty bad call. I pulled back the window curtain at one point and saw that the windows were covered in frost. It was like Michigan in the winter in this bus minus proper clothing and heating. When we finally showed up at 6:30 in the morning we checked into our hotel and slept for another 4-5 hours. The hotel was cold too but at least had ample blankets. I must say that I´ve never been somewhere this cold that didn´t have heating. We checked the internet the next day and found that the overnight temperature traveling from Cusco to Puno was about minus 26 degrees!!!

That day Wendy and I were both tired and hungry and had difficulty making decisions. We weren´t crazy about our hotel but decided to stay for purposes of convenience. We then planned to have breakfast/lunch in Puno, watch the world cup final and then go do a short hike to a nice lookout. After lunch, though, I was feeling less than stellar and needed to relax the rest of the afternoon. We hit up a few shops, made tour plans for the next day, ate dinner at a pretty good restaurant then called it a day.

The next day our tour bus came to pick us up at 6:40am and of course we were running late with breakfast. The bus picked up about 15 of us and took us to a port. Before we knew it we were on a boat in Lake Titicaca, headed to the floating islands of Uros. We were greated in the Aymara language but I responded in Spanish anyhow not remembering how the guide had told us to respond. The boat ride was pretty but nothing truly exceptional until we reached the islands. We were given a presentation as to how the islands were and continue to be built of reeds. The locals must be continually building the island as the reeds rot from the bottom. We even got to taste the reeds before they were dried – apparently they are very good for your teeth. Who knew? Standing on the islands was comparable to either a trampoline or a waterbed – take your pick. Either way it was a bit surreal to think that people live that way. The winter nights in Puno, as you may have gleened from my earlier comments in this post, are pretty harsh, making life on these islands all the more impressive.

Approaching Uros Island

Presentation – How to Build Island out of Reeds

Eating reeds – yummmmmmm

After the islands we headed to a Taquile. Here we walked from the dock up many stops to the highest point where the city was. There was a decent view and we had lunch at a local restaurant. There we learned that every restaurant serves the same lunch menu for the day and also about the customs of the area. The people there dress in a very particular way and the men even wear hats that signify whether they are single or married (much easier than the ring business I must admit).

During the tour Wendy and I met some Brasilians and also a couple from eastern Germany (yay!) I spoke some German with them of course but was embarassed by my pauses as I couldn´t remember all the words as quickly as I would´ve liked! The night was unremarkable as we went back to pack up and take off for the next stop: Arequipa.

View of Lake Titicaca from Taquile

Wendy and I leaving Taquile

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The flight from Lima to Cusco was not at all bad but upon disembarking the plane and entering the airport I felt a little funny.  Despite taking altitude medication (thanks Wendy!) and sucking on coca candy, I was still feeling the 10,912 ft of elevation in Cusco. Luckily it didn´t seem to last much longer than the taxi drive to our hostal – Teatro Inca.  This was one of the more expensive places we stayed at about $35/night for a double room (2 beds), but I actually quite enjoyed it.  It was a little chilly at night as there was no heat but the heavy blankets seemed to compensate. I especially enjoyed the friendly service and the 24/7 coca tea and internet availability. The hostal also arranged our Machu Picchu tour, which was overall very good in spite of a few hick ups here and there.
          Our first day in Cusco was a short one after arriving late due to a delay in our flight. We really only had time to check in to the hostal, make our arrangements for our tour of the sacred valley and machu picchu, eat and sleep but it is noteworthy to mention that we had dinner at a delightful restaurant in town and although we ate very little due to the recent altitude change, we did get a birthday serenade with dessert for Wendy´s 28th.

Wendy´s 28th!

The next day we explored Cusco on our own hitting up a couple of important historical sites such as Qorikancha and Sacsayhauman.  Qorikancha highly resembled some of the religious temples i´ve seen in Europe but upon closer examination you can see the Inca architecture in the walls.  I suppose this makes sense since the Spaniards came in and either destroyed or tried to convert from the former beliefs held by the Incas and earlier peoples in this region. Nothing against the Spaniards of course – the did just win the World Cup after all and quite deservingly!

Inside Qorikancha

Puma paw built into a wall of Sacsayhauman

The following day was to be our big tour day and we started out early in the morning of our tour of the Sacred Valley including Pisaq, Urabamba and Ollantaytambo.  Urabamba was merely a middle ground for lunch but both Pisaq and Ollantaytambo involved quite a bit of climbing but the ruins and views of the surrounding mountains were breath-taking. For this tour we had a very good bilingual guide, which was a bit surprising to me as I thought it might take away from the tour.  But what actually happened was quite a blessing for my ADD. That is, I got to hear everything twice so whenever I spaced out during the first version I knew I didn´t have to worry because I was going to hear it again!  It was also good listening practice for my spanish-something I really don´t get enough of.

Pisaq – before climbing up!

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After our tour of the Sacred Valley we hopped on a train to head to Aguas Calientes (the closest city to Machu Picchu). I met a nice Argentinian family on the train and briefly enjoyed the nice view we had of the Urabamba River before it got too dark to see. Upon arriving at our Hostal we did have a slight misunderstanding about the plans for the following day as we were told that someone would stand in line for us in the morning to get into Huana Picchu so we didn´t have to get up too early.  After a bit of discussion all was cleared up, or at least, so I thought.

The next morning we were running late. We were supposed to catch a bus at 5:30 but didn´t make it out til about 5:37.  We started to really get nervous though when we saw the girl who was supposed to be waiting in line for us in the hostal that morning.  Apparently she was only waiting in the bus line for us and not the line at Machu Picchu. We then rushed out of the hotel to try and catch the next bus. Since the girls had been waiting in line for us we were able to cut in front of the huge line of people waiting.  The bus we finally got on was the 5th bus! We weren´t sure if we were going to make it because there is a limit of 200 people who get to climb Huana Picchu in the morning.

At the entrance we luckily received our ticket for Huana Picchu. There were, in fact, more than 200 people in front of us but most of them opted to climb it at 10 am instead of first thing in the morning. This worked out perfect for us because we had a tour of Machu Picchu scheduled at 10 am and wouldn´t have been able to do it then anyways.

We aimlessly found our way through the ruins to the entrance of Huana Picchu and climbed for a little over an hour more or less straight up (7875 ft at the top – note Machu Picchu is surprisingly much lower in altitude than the city of Cusco itself). We did stop several times to take pictures of the steep and windy trail up this mountain and of course to catch our breath.  While climbing we realized why everyone wanted to climb it at 10 instead of 7 am.  We couldn´t see a thing because it was completely foggy around us.  When we got to the top we were a bit disappointed with the lack of the view but we popped a squat and had a well deserved snack. As we headed down to meet our guide, the clouds did start to drift away and the beatiful view was revealed to us.  It was not the view of Machu Picchu that you see on most post cards but rather the view of Machu Picchu from the mountain that is usually in the post card view. The mountain accross from us is where most of the classic pictures of Machu Picchu are taken and apparently is also a much easier hike.  It´s now officially on my list of things to do on my NEXT visit to Machu Picchu. That´s right – I will come back!

The way up Huana Picchu

View of Machu Picchu from Huana Picchu

The view on the way down is so nice that I we stopped even more often to take pictures and ended up having to run through some of the ruins to get back to our guide by 10am but we did make it. We’re just THAT good – sometimes. The tour itself of Machu Picchu was interesting. We visited all of the identified temples and discussed their likely uses as well as how the Incas may have lived, why the city was most probably abandoned, etc. This place definitely takes you back activating the power of your imagination. I was also fascinated by this lifestyle because anyone who knows me knows that if I were to decide where to build a residence it would most definitely be high up in the mountains – just like the Incas!

After our tour we were again in a rush to eat, buy a souvenir and catch our train back. This time we sat with some fellow americans and definitely welcomed this familiarness that we haven´t really had much of on our trip. They were a bit older than us, traveling with kids and definitely liked the bottle a lot.  We didn´t talk much with the wives, but the husbands, who were sitting next to us, were both business owners and I found myself feeling even more comfortable since I’m apart of a very similar family.

My final words on Machu Picchu are that there is that it lives up to the hype.  And although you will be admist hundreds and thousands of others in visiting this place, you will not be disappointed. It is so unique and refreshing that you will fork out the cash and the time and feel good about it – I promise!

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The first thing I saw when I got to Lima were clouds, clouds and more clouds. I know it´s winter and all but Lima´s winter is right up there, or should I say down there, with good ´ole Detroit. I arrived in the morning and decided to go to the hostal and then into the city center for a bit before meeting Wendy at the airport. Not being entirely sure about the mark up on taxi costs in Lima, I got completely ripped off on the ride to the hostal. I did, however, have more luck once I reached the hostal. The nice lady at the reception gave me several maps and verbal directions into the city and told me where I could change those pesky chilean pesos that I´m still carrying around.
          I don´t know if I was already put off by the taxi situation and the weather but I didn´t feel very comfortable in Lima. People not only looked at me but rather starred invasively and one woman started trying to talk to me in horrible broken English (and she wasn´t even selling anything!) I just gave her a dirty look and continued on. I was able to exchange my money but got lost multiple times searching for a supposedly nearby museum afterwards. Lima by far has the worst organization of streets and addresses Í´ve ever seen. Every street sign has two names on it but don´t be fooled there are usually at least a couple more that the locals use to describe the streets. In any case, when I finally made it there I only had about 50 minutes to rush through the Museo Banco Central de Reserva del Peru but I do recall some stunning peruvian art and a few artifacts. The best part though was that I didn´t pay a cent to enter!
          Afterwards I went and picked up Wendy from the airport and we spent the night at our hostal near the airport as we were to leave the next morning for Iquitos. We had some descent chinese food that night. I honestly didn´t know before coming to Peru that the Chifa´s (what they call chinese restaurants) were so popular here. To read about the Iquitos jungle trip check out it´s blog entry.
          After a few days in the jungle and a day and a half in Iquitos we were ready to head back to Lima. First I had to make another pit stop to change more money but afterwards we ventured out to find some of the sites listed in Lonely Planet. I wanted to find the really neat sounding water and light show but not only were there no shows on the day we went but it was also too early in the day. To top that off the gaurd standing at the gate also told me that they were completely closed for maintenance for another week and a half. Well…that was a triple bust I guess but we did stumble upon an amazing restaurant for lunch afterwards which made the whole mess up worth it. There was no sign outside but the restaurant was called El Senor Pallar. Another amazing lunch ¨menu¨for about $3.50 and the dessert blew me away. It resembled rice pudding but was made from Quinoa. All smiles from me!
          After eating our large and wonderful peruvian food we called Wendy´s friend´s peruvian cousin who happened to be in Peru although he now lives in Italy. We agreed to meet up with him after a trip to Museo Larco. Inca pottery and sculptures galore at this place. I could´ve spent days in there but found myself having to rush after reading everything in the first two rooms and realizing that I was almost out of time. Also not to be missed is the separate erotic art section. Wow! It is one thing to imagine how the Inca´s lived it is another to imagine how they procreated and and…stuff.  I´m going to leave it there I think!

Erotic Inca Pottery – nuff said!

To top off the night Rolan, the peruvian, met us at the museum and took us into Barranco – the hip drinking part of town.  He showed us a neat area with many cute restaurants along side each other leading up the ocean. We had a few drinks and talked as well and despite our best efforts he managed to pay for everything – even our cabs!  Upon saying our good-byes Wendy and I picked up our laundry and then caught another cab to an upscale cliffside mall in Mireflores (the touristy area we decided to stay in). There we perused the mall, remeniscent of Somerset in Michigan and had a very good dinner with an even better dessert.  Lava cake (I ate the lava mostly) with fruit and vanilla ice cream.  It was a heavenly end to our time in Lima.

Amazing lava cake dessert at Mango´s in Mall LarcoMar

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After meeting up with Wendy in Lima we took off the next day for Iquitos to get our first taste of The Amazon. Having no real plan going in we asked around about tours and accomodations. The city was pretty full and many places were already fully booked.  We were eventually referred to a travel agency across the street from a local americanized diner and a friendly young gentleman came to the diner to explain to us what our tour would consist of. After finishing our drinks we followed him back to the office to look at some pictures and discuss the details. It quickly became apparent that this was an inexpensive yet equally rugged type of tour.  Obviously there were things to be seen on this tour but i´m not sure either of us were really looking forward to roughing it in cabins with poor ventilation and beds with mosquito nets BUT time was a tickin´ so we decided to go for it.

Our campsite

Day 1, or more accurately, night 1 was spent getting to our campsite. We had to take a bus from Iquitos to Nauta (southwest of Iquitos) to board a small motorboat.  Once on the motorboat the sun was setting and we begun to wonder how on earth we were going to find our way in the dark.  What was to come was one of the most impressive light directing systems I´ve ever seen.  It consisted of a man in the front of the boat directed the one in the back with a small flash light. He ocasionally spanned the horizontal waterline in front of us and then directed with quick vertical shakes.  Words really don´t do it justice – it was truly amazing. Upon arrival we were welcomed by a friendly tarantula and served a dinner plate of fresh fish and plantain (by our guides – not the tarantula!). We ate up and headed straight to bed after an exhausting day of travel.

Tarantula crawling on my arm!

 

Fishing for piranha!

Day 2 started with pirana fishing and in our group of 4 people Wendy and I were the ones that didn´t catch any!  I was a bit disappointed until we saw a hawk overhead. One of the guys threw out one of the dead pirana and I was able to snap a photo of the hook swooping down to retrieve it.  Technically it´s not one of my best photos but it sure was a site to see!

Hawk swooping in for dead piranha

In the afternoon I wasn´t feeling so hot (ok I was feeling HOT but not so well) so I sat out of the afternoon excursion but I know that Wendy redeemed herself by finally catching a piranha. A bat encounter was also apart of this excursion i´m told. I spent the whole time in a hammock that I had deemed too smelly to lay in the day before, but by this time I was so damn smelly that I no longer cared! I did manage to get up briefly to hold an anaconda that our guides had caught but that was about it until after dinner.

Holding the anaconda

At night we went out on another excursion to look for snakes in the wild. We were, unfortunately, unsucessful but we did see a baby bird and a bull frog up close.  Regardless, I actually quite enjoyed the rustic canoo rides in the dark scanning the riverside with our head lights.

Bull frog spotting at night

Day 3 was our last day in the jungle and after watching a demonstration on how to build a rat trap in the jungle, we decided to go to see the pink dolfins that gather near river crossings. Unfortunately these babies were much too fast even for my high speed multiple shot mode but they were the most beautiful underwater giants I had ever seen by far.  Afterwards we headed to a local village to visit a boy who had a pet sloth named Anita. On the way in we were introduced to a plant that is used as red dye but of course I cannot remember what it´s called!  The slot was cute as can be be his claws were challenging to separate from my shirt after our little cuddle session.

Holding Anita the sloth

Building a rat trap in the jungle

After the village visit we hopped back in our canoo and headed back to the campsite for lunch where we would say our good-byes.  There was still much more of the jungle to explore but our adventure was coming to an end. I won´t lie we were just a little excited for enclosed rooms, beds without mosquito netting and hot showers but there was a bit of sadness not having seen all the wonders of the jungle!

We spent our last night and next morning in the city of Iquitos.  We walked around the town (which takes all of about 15 minutes) and down to the village of Belen where there is a local market and many clothing stores.  We snapped a quick photo of the area where the people actually live but were warned by several people not to walk through there due to the danger of being robbed.  That was all I needed to hear!  Getting robbed one time in South America was plenty for me!

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After a few days in Vilcabamba the truth is that I really did not want to leave but having to make it all the way to Lima in a matter of a few days to meet Wendy procluded me from extending my time.  So I first took a bus back to Loja and then boarded an overnight bus to Piura (a coastal city in Peru near the border of Ecuador and Peru). This bus was indeed quite a bit more comfortable than the one I took previously from Guayaquil to Loja.  I slept fairly well until I was awoken at about 3:30 in the morning to go through customs/immigration in order to enter Peru. Of course I got back on the bus after about 45 minutes to go back to bed as quickly as possible.

Upon arriving in Piura I had only two tasks to accomplish. Get some peruvian soles from an ATM and get on another bus to Chiclayo. Fortunately something rare happened when I got off the bus: a friendly taxi driver advised me where I needed to go to catch the next bus, offered to drive me there and stop at an ATM on the way AND he only charged me 10 soles for everything (like $3.25 US).  I was pleasantly surprised to say the least after experiencing so many greedy taxi cab drivers that make a living off of ripping off the tourists.

It took about 2 hours to get to Chiclayo at which point I had a new set of objectives: find a hostel and buy a peruvian chip for my cell phone. It turns out that my luck was to continue.  As I was getting off the bus I saw a Movistar store right across the street.  I lugged my backpacks across the street and left a swarm of eager taxi cab drivers bewildered as I confidently told them that I did not need a taxi at that moment.  Card in hand I headed  to one of the hostals that lonely planet had recommended and met one of the nicest hostal owners. He not only gave me advice on where to go to lunch, but also personally walked me into town to see if I could exchange chilean pesos into soles.  It turns out that I couldn´t but I really appreciated his efforts and kindness.  Such things do NOT happen enough when traveling alone.

For lunch I had a uniquely flavored fish-stuffed zucchini along with soup, appetizer, juice and dessert -all for $3.50 US.  I think the large, yet cheap and delicious lunch ¨menus¨are my favorite part of multiple countries in South America.  Afterwards I went to an internet cafe to check if my only contact in Chiclayo, Diego, would be available to meet up for dinner.  Poor guy so graciously offered to host me in his house but due to my horrible scheduling and inability to call him before I had the peruvian chip, I wasn´t able to call him in time.

Since it was my lucky day (overall) Diego was, in fact, able to meet up with me. I took a few pictures (literally only a few) of the main square in Chiclayo which was somehow both peaceful and lively while waiting for Diego to meet me for dinner. We got to know each other a bit over a nice dinner and even moreso over a few drinks afterwards. I tried a very refreshing drink called a chicha morada, which I believe is made from corn, sugar and some herbs.  It was delicious!

The main square in Chiclayo

Unfortunately I had to catch a flight the next day to Lima to meet up with my friend Wendy but I really do wish I could´ve stayed a bit longer in northern Peru.  The people were kind, the atmosphere welcoming and the climate quite comfortable. Maybe I will find my way back some day and Diego – you´ll have a chance to host me after all! Thanks for everything – I will not soon forget such a pleasant experience.

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From the Galapagos Islands I flew to Guayaquil (a bit further south in Ecuador).  After spending a day in the bus terminal I took a night bus to Loja and promptly hopped on another bus to Vilcabamba.  Although completely exhausted after all the busing and lack of sleep, I perked right up to the green mountainous landscape surrounding all sides of this beautiful little town.

Wow…is all I can say!

The most cooperative stick bug you´ll ever meet!

Upon arriving I met a fellow traveler and made some collective plans for the day. After sharing breakfast with my new travel buddy I met my soon-to-be second travel buddy who was my roommate.  We all ended up going into town together and afterwards a refreshing hike and lunch. Afterwards I rushed back to th hostal for a much needed 75 minute $18 massage.  God I want to live in this place!!!  That night I had a  drink with Danny and Annabelle and hit the hay.

What happened the next day I was in no way prepared for but that is nothing new for what has become an impromptu mad dash of a trip through South America. The three of us wanted to go zip lining in the mountains and off we went for several hours on horseback to reach our  lunch destination. Once again I got the crazy fast horse which was fun a first but down right scary at times. My leg muscles and knees were already killing me after th horserid but then we took off on foot to find the zip lines. The trail was rough to say the least – Annabelle lost hr balance on a tre trunk bridge and was told by the guide that she was lucky the tiny mettal wire she used to catch her balance actually held. This was crtainly not th only accidebt/injury of the trip, but I wont bore you will the details.  After hiking for about an hour we arrived at a very disappointing display of 2 small zip lines.  It was hardly worth the hike and on the way back my tendonitis was killing me from such a demanding day.  After all that my two friends decided not to say the two extra days in the mountains as they´d planned and returned that night with me. I was more than a little perturbed that we had to ride the horses back down for another 2.5 hours much of which was in th dark and the guide left many of us on our own and when we finally arrived it was 2 hours later than planned.  Having said all that, it wasn´t all bad- just hard to focus on the good due to poor planning and execution of the tour overall.  I still am in lov with this town and am grateful to have bonded with two great people.  Until we meet again Annabelle, Danny and VILCABAMBA!

Me and my new friends at our ¨highest¨point

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Although not quite feeling like I had enough time for Quito, I continued on my adventure and headed to The Galapagos Islands.  I must admit that I was a bit worried, not having had time to plan any accomadations or tours ahead of time but I figured I´d show up and see what kind of deal I could get.  Luckily enough I ended on first-class yacht that holds about 16 people and I´m certain I paid less than the passengers that booked it in advance.  The cruise was one extra day in The Galapagos and I made the compromise in my schedule by pushing my return flight out one day so that I could make the most of my time there.  I arrived on a wednesday and was to join the other people on the cruise the following day.  Of course I did what I do when I have a day to spare – figured out the town, ate and went to the internet cafe to update my blog with the previous destination.


          Since I arrived in the Baltra airport, my first day was spent on Santa Cruz island in the city of Puerto Ayora.  It was a cute little city and I ran into a guy in the street that offered me a private room for $15/night.  I walked about 30 feet down the street with my 40lbs of luggage thinking I was going to find something else and promptly turned around to take him up on his offer. The hotel/hostal was called Hotel Elizabeth and the friendly gentleman did deliver on his promise. I regret slightly not going to the Charles Darwin Research Station but I really just wanted some R&R before I embarked on the ¨super cruise.” I know i´m young and all but this thing was so jam packed that I started wondering if I was going to fall asleep right in the middle of a snorkeling session!

So let´s talk about this jam packed yet highly enjoyable 3 day cruise. In Santa Cruz we went to a park area to see the giant tortoises and what a sight they were!  We also went to see a large crator with lush vegetation. The daring Australian, Tom, and I followed the guide down a crevice that led to the face of one of the sides of the crator.  The view was spectacular and I was happy to engage my rock climbing skills even if for only a few minutes.  Once we returned to the boat I was presently surprised by the very lovely dinner the cook had prepared. My time in Ecuador has made me a lover of plantains cooked and prepared in every way possible.  There seemed to be no trouble avoiding wheat products – YAY!

The giant tortoises that can be found on Santa Cruz Island

Day 2 was my first full day on the ship and it kicked off with a bang, well a rooster call, at 6:15am by our very entertaining guide. First we went to Rabida Island to check out the sea lions, full seals, pelicans and crabs. Once we returned from this little early morning excursion we quickly suited up in snorkeling gear to sea the rest of the animals that live underwater. I unfortantely do not yet have an underwater camera but I did see a white tipped shark, a black manta ray and many beautifully colored fish. Later that day we headed to Santiago Island for some more snorkeling.  At this point I finally started getting used to  only breathing through my mouth and I even dared dive down 5 or 6 feet to get some closer looks at my water loving friends. For the last event of the day we ended up on Chinese Hat Island. Being one of the more recent island´s created by the ever continuing volcanic eruptions from a hot spot that lies beneath The Galapagos, we were able to see how the lava had formed the island.  What a day!!!

Sweet slumber of a sea lion on Chinese Hat Island

Loving the iguanas on Santiago Island!

After day 2 I wasn´t sure if I´d make it through day 3 but I still managed to get up early wanting to catch some good pictures of the sun rising.  Completely unbeknownst to me there was a beautiful view of the moon at about 5:35 am.  Closer to 6 am came the sun and I was happy having had a 2 for 1 photo op.  After the morning rooster call and blaring music, the first stop on day 3´s agenda was Bartolome Island where we climbed to the top of the highest point of the island, with the help of some wooden stairs, to see a beautiful few of some near islands. Here I spent much time trying to master the jumping off a fence picture.  I finally get a descent picture but my quadraceps are still sore from how many times I jumped!  Afterwards we went snorkeling again.  I didn´t see many new things in this snorkeling excursion but I did chase down a swimming penguin which was one of the highlights of my day.  I was swimming nearly as fast as I could just to keep up with the penguin who was swimming casual. I didn´t realize this of course until he sped up and was out of sight in about 3 seconds.  After that hard work I had a much deserved break laying on the beach after a brief trip to see some sharks swimming near a nearby shorline.  Having walked around in my bathing suit most of the day I managed to get many mosquito bites on my back and upon returning it was quite apparent that I was about to break the island rules of not carrying sand from one island to another.  I had sand EVERYWHERE and even after the unexpected hosedown upon returning to the boat, I still had sand in unreachable crevices that I will spare you the mentioning of.

Sunrise from the cruise ship

The life of a pelican on Bartolome Island

The view from Bartolome Island…along with my 43rd jump!

Day 4 was really only a morning excursion but I found it to be one of the most enjoyable.  We took a dingy, just like every day, to North Seymour Island, where we went on a little hike to see frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, sea lions and iguanas.  I was able to get some great pictures of all of the above and I truly enjoyed playing with my settings on this day to get great pictures after having learned from all my mistakes of the previous 3 days. Photographer in progress but I still have much to learn!  I will miss the warm weather, the amazing scenary and animals, the very entertaining guide and all my newly made friends on the Yolita II.  Thanks everyone for making it a memorable experience!

The first thing I saw on North Seymour Island was this friendly bird who clearly wanted to tell me something!

Frigate birds – the male is trying to attract the female by puffing up his little red balloon

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I arrived in Quito on Fathers Day and not surprisingly had very little to do.  Having read a bit about Quito during my layover in Santiago I knew that the city was pretty darn cheap.  But as a foreigner, I have to admit, that every single taxi driver tried to rip me off. I got out of one cab when the  driver refused to give me a fair price and on my way to the airport upon leaving Quito I pretended I didn’t have the extra 40% “stupid foreigners fee” and left this taxi driver awfully upset with me.   In any case, let me back up and talk a little bit about my experience in Quito.

I kicked off sunday night with a few drinks with my host, Luis, and promptly went to bed. Monday was the first day I could really do anything. It was very cloudy so I opted to explore the historic downtown. Some of the architecture was quite stunning and I must say that I love that so many of the buildings are painted in beautiful bright colors. Charming. My tour was cut short by rain clouds but it was a good thing I had just bought some rain gear!

I love to see the mix of the architecture with historical monuments!

This street was particularly colorful and cozy

Tuesday I wanted to do EVERYTHING but the late start that I got having felt the need to sleep in a bit definitely prohibited me from doing it all. In any case, I first went to the TeleferiQo – a tram that takes you to the top of Cruz Loma (4100m). The view was great and the weather was also much better than the previous day’s. I took some pictures, had an empanada verde (cheese empanada made from plantain instead of wheat), and strolled around a bit. I would have liked to have hiked but time did not allow it. On the tram ride down I met some very nice ladies from Guayaquil (an ecuatorian city south of Quito) who were also heading to my next stop – La Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the World). Yes, for those of you who haven’t worked it out yet, this would be the GPS point 0′ 0′ 0′. No doubt it’s an excellent tourist attraction. Here I had a wonderful lunch (2 course meal for $2) with my new Guayquilian friends, watched a planetary show in Spanish and went to the museum inside the  monument that is to represent the center of the world. The museum depicted all of the indigenous peoples in various parts of Ecuador. It was very interesting to say the least since I knew next to nothing about these cultures before.  And let’s not forget the mountainous view from atop the monument – spectacular as always!

The view atop Cruz Loma

My new friends from Guayaquil that accompanied me to La Mitad del Mundo

Me straddeling the equatorial line

That night Luis and I had indian food and beer (or rather I had the two and he just had beer) and shared our views on life, people, happiness. I felt such peace in knowing that there are people all over the world that share my views. Suddenly geography seems so insignificant. And i´m off totThe Galapagos Islands!

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To kick off my seven week trip I got on a plane from Santiago to the ever mysterious Easter Island. Although owned by Chile, it`s 2300 miles from Chile’s coastline making it one of the most remote islands on earth! Upon arriving at the airport I received a lay and at first thought to myself – well of course i´d get a lay, i´m on an island after all, but then I realized it was a REAL lay made of fresh flowers and stems. My day was immediately brightened after a just so-so flight.


I met my friend Christina, who arrived a day earlier, at our hostal – Camping Minihoa and we quickly headed off for some grub. Afterwards we wandered up the southwestern coast of the island and saw a few Moai -the native culture’s (Rapa Nui) name for the islands´ famous statues. Lonely Planet chapters in hand then lead us to a cafe called Micafe for some wonderful homemade ice cream. At night we couldn´t find the restaurant we were looking for and I was very disappointed with my extremely expensive yet unpalatable beef dish at Haka Hono and the service was equally unpleasant.

 

The next day we did a half day tour with an anthropologist to see some of the sites just north of the island´s only city – Hanga Roa. Our very knowledgeable guide first took us to Puna Pao, the site where the indigenous people constructed the Pukao (the red cylindrical shaped looking hats that are found atop some of the Moai). Nobody knows for sure what these ¨hats¨ signify but polynesian culture apparently associates red with royalty, which has become a popular explanation of the Pukao.  This was the point where I realized that I pulled a major Julie idiocy as I had left my camera at the hostel. I hit myself a few times and then continued to our next stop, Ahu Akivi, to see the only original Moai on the island that face the ocean. One of the theories as to why this might be is to act as a lunar calendar. From there we briefly looked at the remains of the boat shaped houses the people used to live in. The foundations were still very apparent even in some of the houses that hadn´t been restored at all.

 

The next two stops were the most exciting of the day for me because they were in caves. The first cave had an opening in the top that let it sun and water and clearly was a place to grow plants and food. This cave, Ana Te Pahu, was very large and very dark at some points (very glad to have had my camping headlight with me). We entered from one end and climbed out the other passing a fire pit at each end that was clearly used for cooking purposes – nothing like adding a little adventure to our learning! After the tour we decided to take a little break since we were planning to see a cultural show at night and have a full day in the morning. The second cave was called 2 Ventanas and was situated near the face of a cliff that meets with the Pacific Ocean. There are two openings to the ocean hence the name 2 Ventanas. The view was stunning and slightly scarey at the same time. Getting back to the cultural show – it was, well, testosterine-packed to say the least. While there were woman as well, the dance very much revolved around the men. I enjoyed the show but would´ve liked to see a better male/female mix but maybe this is representative of the culture. Who am I to say?

Christina and I in the 2 ventanas cave

 

Cultural Show

The following day we got up nice and early to head out on horseback to the highest point on the island – Maunga Terevaka. The horse guide was a little crazy but amusing. He asked us both if we already knew how to ride horses and we said yes but then he asked a few more times to make sure which made me a bit nervous. Finally I admitted that I had only done it a couple of times and Christina said she did as a kid but that she couldn´t remember anything. Apparently her explantion was better than mine because she got the ¨automatic pilot¨ horse while I got the 2-time award winning fastest horse on the island that needed a ¨strong¨ rider to control him. Grrrrrrrreeeat I thought. I almost fell off that horse 3-4 times but was proud that i did eventually learn to control him (or so it seemed). I still can´t properly move most of my body but it was certainly an experience. And not JUST the horseriding. The guide had no shame in asking me about my sex life (or lack there of) in south america and tried hard to convince Christina to hook him up with an English woman. Needless to say, the horsebacking ran late and we hurried back to the hostal to eat a quick snack and then head back out with our favorite guide. At this point we definitely realized that 2.5 days is just not enough to see the whole island but our guide promised to take us to the most important points in our remaining 1/2 day.

Me and Easter Island´s fastest uncontrolable horse

Maunga Terevaka – Easter Island´s highest point

 

First stop – Rano Kao – a volcanic formed crator filled with water and interesting plant life just off the island´s coast. What a site! The guide books don´t lie – it does, in fact, look like a giant witches cauldron. Afterwards we headed to Orongo – one of the most well-known ceremonial sites. Here we could see a different style of house that was built later than the boat shaped ones on the other part of the island. These were made with stones and topped with soil again making them appear somewhat underground. The constructions were very unstable but definitely looked like what you might build if you really only had a bunch of rock to work with. From Orongo you can see three small islands – a spectacular site. This part of the island requires you to pay an entry fee which is quite hefty for foreigners at $60. Luckily we were able to get the chilean rate ($20) since we had residency in Chile.

Rano Kau Volcano

Semi-underground stone houses in Orongo

 

After Orongo, which is located on the southwest tip of the island, we headed up the east coast to Rano Raraku – the volcanic site where the Moai were built. This place is truly one of the most impressive on the island. You can see hundreds of Moai at various stages of the sculpting and transporting process and many of the Moai are 2-3 times bigger than they appear since the ground has covered many of their bases over time.

Rano Raraku – the birth place of the Moai

 

Lastly, with the sun just barely still peaking through the clouds, our guide took us  to Tongariki. This is another very impressive presentation of ocean side Moai – the biggest on the island with 13 Moai lined up in a row. Only one of them is wearing a Pukao but apparently this was a restoration project funding by the Japanese that was never quite finished.

Tongariki

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UPDATE: Due to a bit of travel exhaustion the following stops unfortunately had to be eliminated from the itinerary below: La Paz, Bolivia; Santa Cruz, Bolivia; Sucre, Bolivia, Potosi, Bolivia; Uyuni, Bolivia; San Pedro de Atacama, Chile; La Serena, Chile. The trip in Arequipa was, however, extended by several days.

While I generally limit myself to actual trips, today’s blog will be a bit of an exception. I’m currently planning (better late than never!) a trip through a large part of South America. I leave one week from today and still have plenty of planning to do but I wanted to write a sneak peak of sorts to evoke jealousy from my fellow traveling buddies. Hehe! So here it is my friends. If I make it through it alive it will be my longest trip EVER at 50 days or just over 7 weeks.
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1. Santiago, Chile – 0 days                               14. Cusco, Peru – 1 day
2. Easter Island, Chile – 3 days                      15. Puno (Lake Titicaca), Peru – 2 days
3. Quito, Ecuador – 3 days                              16. Arequipa, Peru – 3 days

4. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador – 3 days       17. Santiago, Chile – 2 days

5. Guayaquil, Ecuador – 0 days                     18. San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina – 5 days

6. Vilcabamba, Ecuador – 2 days                  19. Santiago, Chile – 2 days
7. Chiclayo, Peru – 1 day                                 20.  Detroit, MI USA
8. Trujillo, Peru – 2
9. Lima, Peru – 0 days
10. Iquitos, Peru – 3 days
11. Lima, Peru – 2 days
12. Cusco, Peru – 2 days
13.  Machu Picchu, Peru – 2 days           
Specific lodging and activities have not yet been planned so please feel free to offer me advice and/or your blessings!

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7 Tazas Bike Tour
May 252010

Well folks, this past weekend I just had to take advantage of another saturday holiday here in Chile and after much effort to find a way to make the best of the mountain bike I bought, I finally found a group and a lovely excursion to 7 Tazas for 3 days covering aproximately 120 kilometers.  I will forewarn that the recent earthquake definitely has changed the landscape of this area a bit since it’s so close to where the epicenter was, but all in all it was still breath-takingly beautiful.

Day 1 was a rude awakening for ‘lil ‘ole Julie.  I think we did some 50-60 kilometers and at one point I was so tired that I had to hull the bike up by foot – sheesh!  That night we built a campfire and I became so enthralled with keeping it going that everyone in the group was convinced I was a pyro!  It was pretty cold but the campfire kept us warm and we all slept in tents that night trying desperately to get the rest we needed before another big day of riding!

Good times by the campfire

With day 2 came the rain.  The thing is I don’t mind cold and I don’t mind rain but I HATE cold rain and this is pretty much what we got.  Furthermore I felt as weak as a house made of cards wondering at what moment the whole deck was going to collapse.  I struggled more this day than the first and wondered how I could really be THAT out of shape.  I was no longer riding with the group but well behind them.  I finally stopped on a bridge above the rocky river, took some pictures, looked up at the steeeeep slope ahead of me and decided I better get in the van and take the ride up a few kilometers!

Nothing like taking a break here!

Finally we reached 7 Tazas and I was loving the waterfalls that I saw. We walked up and down and through the park. Unfortunately at this point I didn’t have my camera but it was interesting to see how the park had changed, or so I was told, due to the earthquake.  There used to be several cascading waterfalls and now there were considerably less. The remains just looked like little pools of stagnant rain water, but the cascades that remained, the rock formations and the plant life were still something to see.

The most beautiful view at 7 Tazas

After dinner we played silly games that made us all feel like idiots at some point or another but we defintely had some good laughs.  Since there was no heat in these cabins, the gas stove we had previously used to cook food doubled nicely as a space heater. The cabin coziness was so inviting that some of us decided to ditch the tents and sleep there the second night. And you guessed it – I was one of those people!

The 3rd day was objectively the easiest but still challenging.  The day started out beautiful and sunny but soon became cloudy, cold and rainy.  During the climax of the sun’s heat I regretably took off my fleece and nearly froze my &$# off later. And it wasn’t until this day that one of the friendly guides told me that the seat on my bike was set too high for me.  Finally the mystery was solved as to why I couldn’t make it up the hills and truth be told I wasn’t in THAT bad of shape after all!  THANK GOD for that!

After about 40 kilometers we reached the town of Molina and had a very tasty and large meal at a restaurant. We reminisced about the trip – laughing and joking with each other over our meals.  After 3 days I felt like I was just getting to know these people and feeling comfortable and then POOF the trip is over.  Until we meet again my friends!  Thanks for the good times and not calling me a niñita for getting in the van! *smile*

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          Waking up on day 2 was not easy and taking a shower outdoors was even less enjoyable but getting the sand out of every crevice of my body was quite necessary. Having such a late start I decided to not to a tour and instead asked the locals what I should do. I was told there was a beautiful green valley called Cartape about 7-10 km from the city. Excited, I rented a bike, bought some snacks and headed out with a homemade map the guy at the bike rental store gave me.

The view on the bike path

The path there was remarkable. I stopped near a tree for my snack and took many pictures of the landscape and the pretty nice looking bike I had rented. The only sounds I could hear were the wind and my own body movements. I felt very at peace.

The tree that provided me a shaded lunch 🙂

After about an hour or so on the bike I veared left at a fork in the road as my map had indicated and started to head through some very interesting rock formations. Carrying my camera and 1.5 liters of water quickly became tiring as the slope gradually became steeper and steeper. Where I ended up was certainly not the luscious green valley of Catarpe -I eventually arrived at at a small tunnel about half way up a some very large mountainous rock formations. I could see Cartarpe in the distance along with San Pedro’s most magestic volcano – Licancabur. It was one of those times when getting lost really paid off !

Rock formations and the beginning of slope inclination

San Pedro de Atacama - View from tunnel

The view outside the tunnel of the dunes and the Licancabur Volcano

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My roomie/friend Christina and I decided about a month ago that we needed to do so more traveling before our time here in South America runs out!  Unfortunately Christina elected not to go due to spontaneous health concerns so I got on the 1600km domestic flight from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama alone.  It felt like being in the states – traveling that far in one direction and still ending up in the same country!
          The first night was a bit rough since my room shared a wall with what must have been a really popular night club. I tried to drown the music out with my iPod, which would’ve worked if it were just the noise that was keeping me awake.  It turns out the vibration from the excessive volume was just as troublesome as the volume itself. Oh well – what can you do?!?

Atop Pukara de Quitor

To begin my first day I decided to hike to a popular point about 3km from downtown called Pukara de Quitor. Once I arrived, I paid about $4 to get in. After eating a $2 box of diced peaches (expensive town – ahem!), I read some of the informational signs about the native peoples (the Atacamens)  and then headed up the trail to the lookout. I saw lots of rocks and sand, took numerous pictures and met some friendly chileans from Antofagasta who graciously offered me a ride back to town in their truck and afterwards invited me to lunch.

         Later that day I had scheduled a sandboarding tour in Death Valley which was followed by a short hike to aDeath Valley - Sandboarding lookout of Moon Valley at sunset. As avid as a snowboarder as I am, I had trouble with the sandboarding at first. There are some basic concepts that are completely the opposite in one versus the other. But in the end it was a faulty binding set up that inhibited my progress. For the last run I requested a screwdriver and fixed the bindings up how I like ’em and conesquently the last run was, well i’ll brag – prolike. Too bad the bus driver shot pictures of me the second to last run! After a few hours of riding, well a few minutes of riding and almost 2 hours of hiking up and down the dunes, we were off to catch the sunset. Moon Valley was stunning – it really did live up to its name. I felt like I was on the moon. The rock formations were random and numerous with huge valleys of sand in between them. The icing on the cake, quite literally, was the evaporated salt at the surface.  At this point in the tour we were each given a glass of pisco sour. I had 4 and then took my good sweet time trying to get down from the off-trail lookout point.

Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna)

That night the tour group went out to feast, drink and tell our travel stories. Oh and I remember fixing a pair of glasses with duct tape for a fellow traveler. The group was fascinated by my idea to cut the tape thin and wrap the frames in a figure 8. What can I say- former engineer = genious!

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So after 8 months in Chile I finally found someone who shares my love of the outdoors and who invites me to join him on a trek in the Andes. Woohoo I say! But truthfully I had no idea what I was getting into. I only have just taken up backpaking/hiking these past few years but I thought rather nonchalantly “Wouldn’t it be cool to get to the top of a mountain?!!” I mean most of us agree that it would but clearly I had no regard for how difficult it might be to get there. Well, I’ve backpacked about 14 miles in a weekend once, how bad could this 1.5 day trip REALLY be? HA HA HA the mountain laughs at me!
          The trip we embarked on was to a summit in the Andes called Punta de Damas. At 3149m, it’s certainly no cake walk to reach (at least that’s what I hear). I only made it about 1000m – or so I’m told. You can imagine how disappointed I was to hear that after I had already been hiking, what felt like straight up, for the better part of 8 hours. The reason I didn’t make it is not that exciting (hence why i’ve thus far left it out). But let the record state that my tendonitus in the inner part of my left ankle started acting up until I couldn’t seem to go more than 4 or 5 steps without feeling a shooting pain.
          Oh well I say. Dago, the one that had invited me, so generously offered to head back to where we had eaten lunch and camp with me there. We met up with the other 4 guys on their way down the following day. Needless to say the way back down was much easier than it was going up, although my knees probably wouldn’t agree with that statement. They have already told me many times during snowboarding sessions that they don’t appreciate being used as brakes. Too bad for them – I never listen!
          I suppose I shouldn’t be too disappointed with my “performance.” As i’ve done next to nothing physical in several, I reapeat SEVERAL months. The most amazing part though is that I don’t have a single blister to speak of. I would therefore like to take this time to acknowledge the wonderful hiking boots I recently purchased – they are a pair of Mammuts (Gore-Tex). I wore one pair of hiking socks with a liner (thanks Jillian!)
          The night camping was soooooooo relaxing. Dago and I camped near a stream, made a little fire, cooked food and tea, enjoyed the view, took pictures, discussed life, relationships and our love of nature. All in all I had a great time despite my temporary injury. Don’t get me wrong – there were certainly those moments when I asked myself “What the hell am I doing??!” but then there were the others – the ones that brought a smile to my face without a single thought. The mountains and their grandeur…I may never know why something that makes me feel so small and insignificant, also brings me so much joy and relaxation. They just do..they are my “happy place” Nothing better…nothin.

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One of the best parts about living in Santiago is how close it is to the Andes mountains and the quaint little towns and regions that surround them.  Cajon del Maipo is a very popular mountainous get-away and is just south of Santiago.  This past weekend my good friend and roommate Christina and I set out to Cajon del Maipo to a small villa called Baños Morales for some thermal bath action surrounded by mountains.
          Without too much of a problem we found out where to catch the bus and settled in for about a 3-hour trip to the baños.  The most remarkable thing about the bus ride was the pit-stop we took at a hutlike vender who was cooking empanadas on an open flame.  It was almost as if I was on a roadtrip and not a public bus.
          Once we arrived we bought some bottled water and heading to see the “thermal baths.”  There was a small entrance fee of about $2-3 and once we were standing next to the baths we saw that everyone else had brought little picnic lunches. It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were starving as well. No worries though – we saw a nice little restaurant where we had gotten off the bus and headed back there for some grub before hitting the baths.

On the way to the baths

The food was excellent and that is coming from someone who often complains about chilean cuisine! Christina and I shared a lot of stories and laughs and she insisted on getting a picture of my devouring me food like I hadn’t eaten in months.
          The view and atmosphere was amazing albeit a touch cold for swimming. Good thing the baths were thermal, right?!?! Well no, no they weren’t. They were definitely full of minerals but awfully lacking in the heat department. I went in for a while but also spent a good portion of time wrapped in my towel with only my feet in the bath. At least that way I could take advantage of the sunshine.  And it was there that I had a good chat with a nice chilean guy. We discussed a bit of mountaineering and I hope to join him on a trek in the near future.

The view from the baths

Now…I don’t want to drag down the pleasant mood of this entry but there was one downer in this 1-day excursion and that was that we went on sunday and when we went to get on the bus to go back, everyone and their brother also wanted to come home after spending all or some part of the weekend there. At first I couldn’t even find a seat when I boarded the bus about 40 minutes before it was scheduled to leave. Seeing as how I get motion sick enough from SHORT public transportation trips, I was really fretting having to stand for 3 hours. In fact, I wasn’t going to. I plopped my butt down on the steps near the back door. Not the safest option but, for me, it was certainly better than standing. Before we talk off the busdriver had mercy on me and found me a seat  – and the day was saved!

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