Monday, December 30, 2013

My Year in Review- 2013

“Would the seed of a new kind of life, scattered here by the wind, take hold?” 
Tulips in Holland at Keukenhof (May)

As 2013 comes to an end I thought I would take some time to reflect on the year and remind anyone who reads this that your current condition is only as permanent as you make it.

To some, a year flies by like nothing, but to others it drags on and on seeming to never end. Mine was a bit of both. When I made a list of the big events that occurred in each month I realized that though this year was a struggle for me, there was an awful lot of good that came out of it. I've never done one of these before, but here are some of the awesome things that happened this year.

Fireworks on the street in Amsterdam.

January- After ringing in the new year with new friends in Amsterdam, I had a lot to occupy my mind. Life in the Dam was not getting any better. I made the choice to travel as much as possible and make any real decisions about keeping my job or not slowly and carefully.

Fuengirola beach just outside Malaga.

February- I spent my February Crocus Break in Wales where I made the final decision to quit my job and change my life. Later in the month I decided to seek out the sun and headed to Fuengirola, Spain to clear my head. It was a month for initiating change and gaining some perspective.

Mumford & Sons in Rome, Amazing!

March- Keeping to my goal of increased travel, I headed to Rome for a Mumford and Sons concert. I met lots of great ladies working all over the world. My sister Kate also came to visit! Now that I knew I was quitting my job I initiated a new goal of making the most of Europe while I was there.

Queen's Day festivities in Amsterdam

April- Spring was sort of starting, but not really. My parents came to visit at the beginning of the month, and I was a super tourist in my own city and on a day trip to Belgium. On a whim I also decided to take a trip to Wales for a weekend. The weather was amazing, and it was the perfect way to recharge and get out of the city for a couple days. Finally, to end the month, Queen's Day was quite an event with the induction of a new king and lots of orange.

Wawel Castle, Krakow

May- May was another big month with tulips finally blooming after a very long and cold winter. I took a visit to the acclaimed Keukenhof which was pretty spectacular. It was like the Disney World of tulips. Later in the month I visited Krakow, Poland with a great friend. What an amazing city it was filled with so much history and hidden gems around every corner. It was never on my radar, but wow what a place. I'll be blogging more about this one in the coming year.

Tuileries Garden, Paris

June- This was my last full month living and working in Amsterdam, and boy was it a full one. It started with a visit to Valencia, Spain, a surprise trip for my partner Tim. It was sunny and warm and a great place to go for a bike ride to the beach. The rest of my month was a bit of a blur filled with packing and a visit from my other sister Jess.  We did get a chance to escape to Paris for a couple days and take a couple afternoon jaunts to the nearby towns of  Haarlem and Leiden.

Summit of Shirley Canyon Trail, Squaw Valley

July- The adventure was only just beginning. On July 1 I moved from Amsterdam back to the states. There, I spent my time mostly in the Northwest in Squaw Valley, Portland, Seattle and Sequim. I also spent a few days with family back home in New Jersey. Travel was starting to become the lifestyle. I officially had no home base (except for my parents), and I was living out of a suitcase. Reality was starting to set in, but I ignored it because I was having too much fun.

Hot air balloon in Sequim

August- This was a relaxing month for me with lots of time in both Sequim, Washington and Sparta, New Jersey visiting with family. I got to ride in a hot air balloon and paddle a kayak for the first time.

Cape Cod looking for clams

September- Life had finally set in, and I realized that I didn't have a job to go back to at the end of the summer. Everyone else did. But I didn't want one, so I took up running even though nothing was chasing me. I also went to Cape Cod for a weekend of family fun.

October- Alas, summers have to come to an end, so I decided to book more travel. I headed back to the Netherlands oddly enough to erase the negative feelings and visit friends. It was also my transition to temporarily moving to Aberystwyth, Wales. It was my new home until December.

Edinburgh, Scotland

November- I thought November was going to be a quiet, boring month. It was absolutely not. I participated in Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) and drafted a whole novel. I also took a very long bus ride to London to visit a couple fabulous people. And who could forget my week in Edinburgh, Scotland where I developed a fondness for haggis. It's a very fine food.

Me and a falcon in a desert near Dubai

December- Wrapping up the year I did something to help me focus my life a little. I went to Dubai for The Creativity Workshop. It was one of the best decisions of the year maybe even my life. I'm serious. And after that workshop it was like my life started to open up. I landed a travel writing job, and I have moved from Wales to spend some time living in the Pacific Northwest.

So much can happen in a year. If someone had asked me last year where I thought I would be a year from that moment, there is no way I could have predicted where I am now. It's been quite a ride but totally worth it.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned from 2013 is that anything can happen, and it can happen fast. Within one year I went from being a teacher in a job that made me very unhappy to changing my entire life. I no longer go to a job in the morning, and I'm not tied to someone else's calendar. My life has become completely flexible, and I'm loving it. Once one decision was made, the rest sort of just rolled out easily like sugar cookie dough.

“In life you can either choose to follow your heart or not. There is no middle way.”

Pottery in Valencia, Spain (June)
Quotes from the book One Day the Shadow Passed by Jonathan Reggio p. 151 and p. 138 respectively.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Bench of Left Behind Travelers

I knew I only had an hour from when the plane touched down in Seattle to get all the way through customs and out to meet my shuttle to Sequim.  I couldn't hear out of my left ear due to a lingering cold and an enormous amount of sinus pressure. I had been traveling for about two full days, and I wanted nothing more than to curl up and go to sleep. Sleep, however, was not in my near future.

"Do you live in Sequim?" said the border control agent.
"No I don't live there. I'm just visiting for Christmas," I said still not able to hear very well.
"Well where do you live then?" he replied.
"New Jersey. No actually, my parents live there. I don't live there any more. I'm moving to Washington. It's complicated."
Yes, I actually told Mr. Border Patrol that I couldn't tell him where I lived because it was too complicated. Knowing that he wasn't getting anywhere with me and seeing the ever increasing line behind me, I was sent through with a nod and roll of the eyes.

All was going well, and I was moving through the various lines fairly quickly. But it wasn't fast enough. There were just too many people arriving from all sorts of international locations all at the same time. Dragging myself through the whole airport out past baggage claim to door 00, I was met with freezing temperatures and no shuttle bus. I was 20 minutes late. Luckily I had a back up plan, but it wouldn't arrive at the airport for a couple of hours.

I found the perfect spot to rest until my ride arrived. It was a set of 3 chairs connected to each other in true airport style. I was soon joined by an older woman probably in her 60's. And soon after that, a third woman a little older than me filled in the third chair. There were plenty of other seats available, but for some reason the three of us sat together.
"What day is it?" the older woman turned to me and asked with a hint of confusion in her voice.
What she didn't realize, however, was that I wasn't really sure what day it was or what time zone I was in. The only reason I knew I was in Seattle was because there was a big sign that said I was.

I looked at her and said, "That all depends on where you are, but I think it's the fourteenth."
"So it's not the fifteenth then?" she replied.
"I don't think so. I'm pretty sure it's the fourteenth, but I've been on a plane for a really long time." I said.
The other woman laughed, and suddenly the three of us were sharing a moment.
"I told my kids to pick me up on the fifteenth," the older lady said to me.  "I guess I'll have to call them and tell them to come and get me today."

She fiddled with her phone and laughed about her mistake. I have no idea how long she had been sitting in the airport. It could have been hours. The baggage claim area had cleared out, and all of the people on the arriving flights had left except for me and the two women sitting in the adjacent seats. We were the bench of left behind travelers like the island of misfit toys in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
The older lady began to tell her story.

She had spent the past four months with divided time between Greece and Iraq, but it was the two months in Iraq that I found particularly interesting. There was nothing different about what she was telling me and the pictures she was showing to me, but that's why it piqued my interest. While most Americans view Iraq to be a dangerous and barren place, this woman weaved together a beautiful image of the northern part of this previously off limits nation.

"We went to a beautiful hotel and had a nice lunch meeting with important government officials," she said as she flicked through the photos on her phone.

I sat silently as I looked at pictures of a city that could have been pretty much anywhere. There was traffic and buildings and people walking around the sidewalks.

"A lot has changed since I was there thirty four years ago. I couldn't even find my school, but it's a beautiful place."

The other lady and I sat on either side of her smiling when we saw pictures of family members and nodding when she told us about the things that they did.

"One day, my family and I went up to the mountains. We had a campfire. The children had machine guns. It's just what they do there. There's no one around, so they shoot the guns as a game. One of the little boys shot the gun, and it backfired. It scared him, so he will probably wait until he is a little older until he plays with the machine guns again. Everyone has the guns. It's just how it is over there."

Immediately I began to think about how wrong I had been to think that entire countries in the Middle East were the way I had seen them on the news with constant bombings and unstable situations. I should know better being the traveler that I like to think that I am, but I'm guilty of being an American and letting my knowledge of a place be guided by some news clips.

The other lady got up then to check to see if her ride had arrived. The older lady went back to the task of trying to call her children to see if one of them would come pick her up. Within minutes we were strangers again. There was no goodbye. They simply left with no expectation of having to adhere to any social standard, and we were all ok with that.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Culture Shock of Grocery Shopping

The aisles never seem to end!
Variety is the spice of life right? Variety is one thing, but having too many choices can put you over the edge. Grocery shopping for most is a routine and many times mundane activity. It's one of those things that in your home country you rarely think about. But the minute you are faced with grocery shopping in a country that is not your own, it makes things much more interesting and sometimes very stressful.

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to go to the local markets to find the great things that aren't sold at home. Even local grocery stores can be a great spot for gifts to bring back for friends and family as long as it's not perishable.  But that's traveling when you have unlimited amounts of time to wander aimlessly.
Boroughs Market in London

What's not so fun is when you are living abroad and you have just worked a very long day, and all you want is some taste of home. Armed with your google translate on your phone (if it's working), you go to the store hoping to find something that resembles a familiar meat or anything really that could be thrown together in a reasonable amount of time. Let's face it, shopping for food takes exponentially longer when you are away from home. The peanut butter is never the same, and you won't easily find Kraft mac and cheese. But you adapt. You find new things that you like and can't live without like that Old Amsterdam cheese I came to adore.

Just Mayo! 
But what about when you come back home after living abroad? To me that was even more traumatic than figuring out that the word for chicken in Dutch was kip. My first trip to a grocery store after I got home was to a Stop and Shop in Northern New Jersey. I felt like I had just stepped onto Mars. There were little remote controls to track your purchases, computer screens to order items from the deli, and aisles upon aisles of pretty much everything. There was even almost a whole aisle devoted to mayonnaise. I was floored. I walked around the freezing cold store in the summer with my mouth open shaking my head in disbelief.  My mom, who I was with, wasn't the slightest bit fazed by the whole ordeal, and she thought I was the crazy one. Is it really necessary to have that many things to choose from? In my mind it's just too much.
My personal cheese man, Fred

I quickly realized how spoiled I had been living abroad. Sure it was hard to find the specific brands I was used to, but nothing beats having a cheese man in Amsterdam who I knew on a first name basis. I missed trolling the endless open air markets in the various places I had been. I missed the Saturday market where I would buy a bag full of produce for under 10 euros.

So my little nugget of information here is that I advise you to seek out your local farmers' markets and specialty shops. They may cost a little bit more money, but you are getting a better product (most of the time) and you are helping local businesses stay afloat. It's easy to go visit the big guys because they have everything, but what they are missing is that human connection you get when you visit a vendor who grew the tomatoes himself or helped to harvest the honey and knows the backstory of the bees.

Market in Cuzco, Peru

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Dubai Desert Safari

I pride myself on trying to find off the beaten track sorts of things when I travel. I enjoy meeting locals and exploring without an agenda. With all of this said, I couldn't go to Dubai without seeing the desert, so I booked a desert safari. I knew it would be a tourist trap, but I did it anyway. And even though it is nowhere near authentic, I would recommend going on one if you happen to find yourself there.

Here's how it went:

I booked the excursion from, gasp, my hotel with a friend from the workshop I was taking. We were picked up from the hotel in an SUV with four other people. I was fortunate to be told by the very large man in the red shirt, we will call him Big Red for storytelling purposes, that I should sit in the front. Score!

Out of town we drive with Big Red talking loudly on his phone and me admiring the change of scenery from ample sky scrapers to barren desert. It was fantastic. We soon pulled up to a small grocery store and were informed by Big Red that we needed to go to the wash room. We all obediently followed orders. Upon our return to the car we were each given a plastic bag. We were informed that it was in case we got sick on the ride in the dunes. Yet another reason I was happy to be sitting in the front seat. I had also taken a motion sickness pill before we left. Off we went into the desert.

Me, my new friend and a falcon.
The video doesn't really do the whole experience justice. It was pretty intense driving around the dunes, watching other vehicles get stuck and slide down the sides. Big Red would point out various vehicle troubles to me throughout the drive. I told him that I was happy that I had a safe driver. He said that his company never got stuck. I wish I could say that I was alone in the desert with my thoughts like the photos suggest, but I would be lying. There were nineteen other SUV's caravanning along with us. But we did get to stop at various places along the way to meet a falcon or admire the sun setting over the sand.

Hubbly, Bubbly Shisha Man
After a long and windy drive up and over many sandy hills, the ride was over and my stomach was very happy for that. We then drove about twenty minutes further on a road to the campsite. My friend, Kate,
Desert Campsite
Belly Dancing Show
and I were the first to hop out of the car and up to the camel riding spot. Up we went seated on top of the poor guy. It was not a smooth ride, but it is just one of those things that you just have to do. Getting down is the tricky part, not for you for the camel. I wish I had a video of that because you have to see it to believe it. Luckily it was a short ride, and my bucket list item was complete. I felt sorry for the camel though because his night was just beginning. In the campsite there were different tents with things to do like henna for the ladies and hubbly bubbly shisha (better known as hooka). After some tea and relaxing pillow-side next to the tables, a large buffet barbecue dinner was brought out. It was barbecue in the sense that there was lots of grilled meat. Everything else was a local dish of some sort including a lentil curry, hummus, tabbouleh and a whole lot more. The night ended with a belly dancing show and a quiet ride home. It was a perfect way to end the week.

Me and Kate on a camel sporting our new pants.

Dubai: A City of Contrasts

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in Dubai. I was there for a workshop on creativity (cool right?), and it's hard to think of a better place to discover that there are truly no limits on what can be accomplished. I have to start out by saying that it is an amazing place, like no other in the world. It's as though pieces of successful businesses have been siphoned into this new creation. But it seems as though it will never be done. The powers that be will never be satisfied because something bigger and better will always be on the horizon, and so they build.

The city is a mass of construction sites and cranes making it difficult to find your way around by walking. Everyone takes taxis and likes to spend time in the air conditioned buildings. I do not. So on my first afternoon I decided to walk to the beach. I knew it wasn't far, and the concierge at my hotel, Marina Byblos, told me the direction to walk. "It will be right there," he said. But when I got there, all I saw was a wall with construction equipment on the other side. I knew that if I could find an opening in the wall I could get to the beach, but I didn't want to be traipsing around active construction sites to get there. So I walked. And on my walk I passed many fast food restaurants that one would see in the states. I saw huge hotels and apartment compounds with stores galore selling fur coats of all things. I must mention that it was about 85 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time I was there. I was so close to the beach, but I just couldn't find a way to get onto the sand. Finally I reached a Hilton that surely had beach access. A man pointed me in the direction of a small space between construction sites through corrugated walls to finally arrive at the sand. By that time I was quite tired, so I plopped down on the sand just in time to see a magnificent sunset. What a contrast it was between beach and development. There were working cranes silhouetted by the sinking sun in front of me and the construction sites that made it so hard for me to find the sand behind me. It was one of those highly disturbing yet utterly beautiful moments. Does progress really help us progress? I'm not so sure.

Dubai as part of the U.A.E. is only forty two years old. They just celebrated their national day before I arrived. They are such a young country, but they have done so much. It seems that many things about this nation were well thought out. I don't necessarily agree with them though. Status is extremely important, and it can be seen in many areas of the city. People's salaries are dependent upon their nationality. Emirati are paid the highest (they only make up about 19% of the population interestingly enough), next in line are U.S. and U.K. nationals, and it goes on from there. Teachers are also among the highest paid workers in the nation. They seem to have their priorities straight on that one. The license plates are also a way to show status. The fewer the numbers, the higher your social standing. The sheikh has just one number. But the average joe expat will have five numbers.

I must say that I think I will be more likely to travel in the Middle East after this trip. I met people from Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt and other countries in the area that could be considered risky for travel. I have become a bit fascinated with the cultural contrasts especially with the women. Dubai is not strict when it comes to traditional dress like other areas of the U.A.E. or surrounding nations. It is very common to see Russians in very short and tight outfits looking very comfortable among women wearing burqa. But for the Emirati women, it is abaya (long typically black dress) and hajab (head covering also in black) all the way. Walking around the malls one will see these women with their abaya dripping in crystal or diamonds for the extremely wealthy. And that's just part of the show at the malls.

These malls (there are too many to count) are not just for shopping. They are full days of entertainment. At the Mall of the Emirates you can go skiing while at the Dubai mall you can go ice skating or visit an aquarium. While I was at the Dubai Mall I saw a fountain show in front of the Burj Kalifa (tallest building in the world). It would be difficult to find someone who wasn't impressed by the show. But besides all of the unique architecture and never ending malls, there is a somewhat hidden gem. It's called Old Dubai. Now, I know what you're thinking. Just a minute ago I said that the country is only forty two years old. It's true, I'm not talking about old as in Delos in Greece B.C. old. I'm talking Dubai old, but it's still pretty charming, and a respite for the wallet because everything is much cheaper here.

The first thing to do is visit Ravi Pakistani restaurant. For lovers of the hole in the wall local establishment, this is heaven. The food is fantastic and authentic and soooo cheap. Four of us ate for what it would have cost for one of us somewhere else in the city. Pakistani food is pretty similar to Indian food, so things like butter chicken and balti are on the menu. Once bellies are full, it's time to visit the old souks. To get there, hop a dhow (type of boat) to go across the creek. It only costs one dirham which is pennies if you convert to USD. Sunset is a perfect time to do this. I was lucky enough to have a friend who lives in Dubai and speaks Urdu (more widely spoken than Arabic because of the majority of Pakistani and Indian people who live there), so he did all of the negotiating. Don't be afraid to haggle, and spend some time in the little shops. Have a cup of tea with the shopkeeper; it's completely safe. The best things to buy there are spices, gold and textiles like scarves. It can be incredibly overwhelming, but if you take your time and don't give yourself a time limit, it can surely be one of the highlights of the trip. It was for me.

Dubai was a city of polarity for me, but perhaps that is what makes it so special.

The Creativity Workshop in Dubai

Dubai hadn't been a place that I really wanted to spend much time. I had been to the airport a couple of times on layovers, and I felt that was enough. I wasn't really into the glitz and glamour or all the tall buildings or extravagant shopping malls. It just didn't seem like my kind of travel. Then something happened; I had a reason to go.

How I found The Creativity Workshop is not important, but why I decided to go is. Last spring, I quit my job and quit the profession that I worked for a decade in which to be successful. I found myself with no job and a scary sense of freedom. Since I had spent the last ten years not working during the summers, the fear really didn't hit until around September when I realized that I truly had nothing to do and no path to take. I had no passion, nothing to work toward. I was, to put it simply, lost. I was originally scheduled to take this workshop in July right after quitting my job, but plans changed, and I put it off. Then September happened, so I knew I had to take action. I registered for the workshop in Dubai hoping for a spark. Then I forgot about it.

I went to Wales and had all sorts of small adventures in the small university town of Aberystwyth. I went to London to visit two lovely people whom I had come to know during my time in Amsterdam, and I started to write. Things were going well. Then it was time for my seven hour flight.

I planned on spending most of the time I was in Dubai by myself, so I had a list of things that I wanted to see and a contact from my dad's company in case anything went wrong. I thought that it would be a trip similar to Istanbul where I found a couple tours but mostly wandered around alone. I was most definitely wrong. I believe there was some divine intervention that occurred when I decided to choose my seat on the first day of the workshop. I met Kate first. And while I didn't tell her this (she'll read it now), she will be a person I will cherish forever. Throughout the workshop and during dinners and a desert safari, she encouraged me in a truly sincere way to the point where I feel that I have gained a sense of direction for my life again. Then there was Zamin who came in late the first day and sat sort of behind me. We became instant friends, and I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard. We had inside jokes together before there were jokes. It was magical. To be totally ridiculous: he's my brother from another mother, truly.

So what did I learn? What did I do? In those four days in a place that I never would have thought to go, I found myself again. I found motivation again. I found humor again. The workshop, and our amazing leader Kirpal, taught three basic things: play, process and pleasure. If you do not have those three things, you do not have creativity. And creativity comes when you least expect it from the most unlikely places. So let your mind wander and enjoy the process of creating something. For me it has become writing. I have a renewed spirit and motivation for writing that I hope I can nurture in the weeks and months to come.

And while I don't know if I am a professional writer, I am something. I got more than a spark that week, I got a whole campfire.

Friday, July 19, 2013

From Squaw to Sequim

I spent a week at Squaw Valley, CA, and then I moved on to Portland, Oregon. Over the past two years, I have been to Portland three times, and each time I like it more and more. I have yet to be there during a winter, however, so I'm not sure if I would retain that feeling of love.

Portland was a whirlwind, meeting new people and catching up with an old friend. But I guess that's what this summer has been for me so far, lots of new people, catching up with old and busy all the time. It isn't the sort of busy that filled my work days though. It is the type of busy that is relaxed with places to be and people to talk to, but it is calm for the most part. There's downtime without stress where you can let your thoughts wander, or not. You can read a chapter of a book or just stare at the bird cutting through the intense blue sky. And that's what I have been doing.

Amsterdam seems like a distant land full of distant memories especially since I am now on the other side of the world in Sequim, Washington listening to a babbling fountain, sitting in the sun with my computer and a dog named Jessie to keep me company. Life is good here, but it has been much too easy to completely disengage from thinking about my future plans. I feel like a recent college graduate with no prospects. The difference now is that when I first graduated I had hundreds of things that I wanted to do, but now I don't have the first clue what I want to spend the next decade doing.

But like Cheryl tells me, it's all about the journey. And since she is one of the smartest people I know, I tend to trust her judgement.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Hiking Squaw Valley California: Shirley Canyon Trail

I am not a hiker. I don't like to sweat. Bugs buzzing in my ears drive me mad. That said, I do appreciate nature, and I do like being out there once I'm there. Luckily I have a very good motivator to get me to put my sneakers on.

Earlier in the week, I went on a .3 mile hike up to a waterfall. It was beautiful. The water was crystal clear and crisply cold. Lounging on a flat rock nearby was just what I needed, and I was actually excited about going on a bigger hike later on in the week.

The beginning of this bigger hike up the Shirley Canyon Trail started out like any hike with lots of wildflowers, such as Indian paintbrush and mule's ear and many ancient, towering evergreens. The broken tree branches scattered on the forest floor looked like sleeping snakes hiding away from the blazing sunlight. There were four of us trudging though the terrain with the creek on our right and the Lake Tahoe mountains (home of the 1960 winter olympic games) on our left. The day was perfect with not a cloud in the sky and a cool breeze to provide relief from the sun. We were doing exactly what we set out to do: go on a leisurely hike.

Four turned into three when we stopped at a small waterfall to drink the last of the one bottle of water we had between two of us. While the guys lounged like lazy lizards on the rocks, I noticed that the water was flowing over the smooth rocks like yards of clear silk down the side of the mountain that we had just breathlessly climbed. That quiet moment of reflection didn't last long, however, because soon we were off again in search of a lake. 

The next stretch was going to be the most difficult according to what our local guide, Melinda, had told us before she left. When we got to the steep granite cliff faces (I thought of them that way, but they were really just large rocks I'm sure), I saw a chipmunk and was motivated by his agile movements over the rocks. With a burst of energy I scampered up the stretch of steep rock feeling quite proud of my catlike movements. It didn't last long, however, because the incline never ended. "A few more feet and we'll be at the lake," I kept telling myself, but a few feet turned into a half a mile and then another half a mile. Each time we saw a fellow hiker that was the reply. I was beginning to think that there was no lake at all. 

Eventually we came to the lake which actually looked to be no bigger than a pond. While beautiful, it wasn't worth stopping for more than a couple minutes. What we were really thinking though was that if we stayed any longer we weren't going to make it up to the top of the mountain. Fatigue was starting to set in and we still had at least another mile to go. We were hoping that we would have some relief and some more level ground, but we were not so lucky. We soldiered on. 

The older man, Alan, the mathematician who was with us, seemed to be faring much better than me. At least two decades my senior, it was a bit embarrassing to have to be the one to initiate the breaks to catch my breath. With biting flies coming close to my ears, buzzing around my head, we continued to climb the 45 degree incline. 

Wheezing, sweating, dehydrated like I had never been before, we finally reached the summit. Standing  proudly at a par 3 frisbee golf flag (there couldn't possibly be real golf up here) to smile for the camera, we had made it in one piece. That small feeling of triumph quickly faded as we crossed to high camp. 

Just as I thought, a beautiful hike filled with all things nature was quickly dashed by the smell of chlorine and the sound of resort life. The giant pool and tourists clouded the victory, so we descended down a flight of stairs to find a water fountain and a place to sit before we could catch the next tram down the mountain. 

After a slightly scary, but lovely cable gondola ride to the base of the mountain, we said goodbye to Alan and dragged ourselves to the pizza restaurant to have a celebratory beer and "mountain top" pizza. Then, with muscles aching and slowly tightening, we shuffled back to the room like two elderly people.  After a dehydration-induced nap, Tim went to get fluids and came back with coconut lime juice and a coke. Perfect. Stretching ensued (in an effort to be able to move in the morning) on the floor after many protests from me. Shots of coke were had and the work of the night, reading manuscripts, resumed. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Notes from Amsterdam: Riding a Bike

Riding a bike is like, well riding a bike. I fell into the category of expat who didn't get a bike right away. Then winter came. So here is my take on riding a bike in Amsterdam. 

Do I have to ride a bike in Amsterdam? That is one of the questions that I asked myself before moving here. At first, I was excited to be able to get around town by just my own leg power. There was a romance to having a shiny bell and a basket to carry things like bouquets of flowers, wooden shoes, or miniature windmills.

When I arrived, however, the romance was still there, but the reality also hit. Amsterdammers were very serious about their biking. While it is fun to do and a great form of exercise, riding a bicycle is the primary form of transportation in this city. So it can be a little intimidating hearing ringing bells and watching people fly down the paths darting in between other riders.

My first bike riding experience happened yesterday (January 11) after almost 6 months of living here. How could I have managed for so long? I asked myself the same question. Was it laziness? Was it fear or intimidation? What ended up happening was that I had built up the bike riding experience as something that was more than it was. Because I didn't buy a bike right away, I began to put it off. I had put it off for so long that I learned other ways to get around, and soon, riding a bike snowballed into something that began to feel like an insurmountable task.

The time had come. I was going out with friends after a training workshop, and I was the only one without a bike. The brewery was too far to walk to, and there wasn't any direct public transportation that I knew of. One of the girls offered to let me take her bike while she rode on the back of another. The first thought that entered my mind was that it had probably been almost two decades since I had been on a bicycle, and this made me very nervous. Luckily it wasn't raining, and there was no ice on the paths. I hopped on the seat and gripped the handlebars tightly; I was off. I was very careful and a little wobbly, but riding a bike was what they say, just like riding a bike. I pedaled hard, feeling the icy air in my face and feeling as though my hands were becoming numb. My bag slowly slipped down my arm, but I couldn't stop; everyone was getting far ahead. My legs soon started to burn, and muscles I hadn't used in years were beginning to scream. I was cold yet sweating, and about ten minutes later I was there with the waffled handlebar pattern in my hands from holding on so tightly. I felt both a sense of accomplishment and relief that I didn't cause any accidents along the way.

Will I be buying a bike as a result of my first ride? That is still undecided at this point, but I did prove that I could do it. So do you HAVE to ride a bike in Amsterdam? No, you can absolutely get around without one, but it definitely makes you feel like more of a local if you do.

I never ended up buying a bike while I was there, but I did develop a strong appreciation for all of those bikers around town especially the ones wearing heels or fancy business clothes. 

Notes from Amsterdam: Fred the Cheese Man

This post is taken from my other, mostly unknown blog Amsterdowd. I met Fred my first week in Amsterdam, and he remains one of the highlights of my time there. 

The first time I went to see him he gave me a little Amsterdam house on a key chain. He told me it was my first house in Amsterdam.

The second time I saw him he gave me a small wheel of young cheese to share with my class. I didn't share it with my students; I used it for cooking instead.

The third time I saw him. This is what he told me...

Advice from Fred:

The first thing you need to know about your boyfriend is that he needs to be good in the garden, a good cook, and have a good job.

The second thing you need to know about your boyfriend is that he is there to support you when you need it.

The third thing you need to know about your boyfriend is that he should make you laugh.

The fourth thing you need to know about your boyfriend is that he should be good in bed.

And the fifth thing you need to know is not to tell your boyfriend about the other four guys.

Then he gave me some free Camembert to share with my girlfriends.

If you happen to visit Nieuwmarkt Square during the week, be sure to stop by and see Fred.

The End of an Era

About a year ago I embarked on an international journey and moved to Amsterdam. I had ambitious goals to blog every week about my experiences. I even started another blog with a witty name, but it never got off the ground. Life happened, as most often times it does. Amsterdam was not the amazing international experience I thought it was, so I stopped writing. Now, sitting at a shady picnic table in Squaw Valley, California and chatting with some locals, I am trying to find my voice again.
Squaw Valley Inspiration

While life abroad wasn't quite what I thought it would be, there were some really fantastic things that happened and inspiring people along the way. Since last year I have also amassed a slew of other travel stories that I will try to catch up on over the coming months.

There is no doubt I am blessed, and things do tend to work out for me as my sister's boyfriend reminds me. But I have worked very hard to get where I am. Where is that exactly? I have decided to take some time off, to write, to explore, maybe to find a passion that I didn't know that I had. For ten years I devoted myself to being an educator, and while I'm still a BadAss Teacher (some of you will know what I mean), I just have to get out. Education is in my blood, and I'm sure I'll come back to it someday, but for now I'm an explorer. I'm scared, I'm excited, but above all I know I am doing the right thing.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Aberystwyth, Wales

View from Aberystwyth Castle

Aberystwyth has been for me what an ashram is for yoga practitioners. It's an odd comparison I know. It's strange for me too that a place with such miserable weather, moldy, damp walls, and up hill both ways walking would be my sanctuary. But it is. I have been lucky enough to come here at two different times, once in October and once now in February. Both times the weather has been cold but sunny, windy, but clear.  I haven't seen much of the surrounding area, but that's not why I was here. 

Student housing along the beach
Wales has been my hideaway from reality and a dream job that turned sour. A three and a half hour train ride from the Birmingham airport transports me to another world. When I'm here, I can walk on the rocky beach watching the frigid, foamy waves or sit on the grassy field and watch the sheep frolicking in the sun. Being here is like taking a trip back in time. The town is filled with old shops selling "vintage" items that no one is calling vintage. The book stores are stocked with spotted old volumes with prices no one would even think of paying. And the pubs speak to another time altogether boasting names like "Ship and Castle," "Cooper Arms," and "The Scholars."There is even the remnants of a castle that has seen better days. It's a university town with the requisite old Hogwarts-like buildings and idealistic students. It surely isn't the bustling city of Amsterdam where I currently reside, but it definitely feels more like home. 

There are some really great cafes like The Tree House which serves wonderful fresh organic food and Salt, a great place to grab a burger and a pint. It's a summer tourist destination for UK beach-goers, so the promenade is lined with shops, restaurants, and B&B's. You can always find a group of hungry seagulls circling the nearby fish and chips shop which is a favorite among locals and tourists alike. 

In the sun, Aberystwyth is stunning, but in the cloudy rain you want to do nothing more than curl up with a good book and a heavy blanket. But isn't that what hideaways are for?

The Best Welsh Pub

What's a trip to Wales without the search for the best pub? Now you could spend days, weeks even trying out each little hole in the wall establishment. Why do that though when you can spend your time in one great one? The Scholars is the place to be in Aberystwyth, Wales. It's spacious and roomy for a pub, and they show all the best football matches on flat screen TV's. They even have free wifi. But that's not why The Scholars is the best pub in Aber. It's Sunday Carvery! After church and after the hangovers have subsided, locals wander into this establishment to spend the afternoon with a pint of Rev. James and a heaping plate of Thanksgiving-like fare. It's heaven. That's where I have spent two of my Sundays in this lovely ocean side town, eating potatoes mashed, fried, and fried again. Green veggies are in short supply, and carbs rule, but it is well worth an afternoon tucked away inside a tiny booth with mismatched chairs. Families quietly eat their plate-fuls while rugby players shovel piled high mounds of turkey, pork, and beef into their hungry mouths.  The guy behind the carving itself is great as well, truly enjoying his work on Sunday afternoon. It is a sight to be seen.
Tim enjoying his carvery fare!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Top 10 Most Romantic Destinations According to Me

It's that time of year again, you know the one where the little baby in the diaper with the bow and arrow causes millions of people to spend a ridiculous amount of money on things like flowers and chocolate. That's right, it's Valentine's Day. And while some may scoff at the mere thought of the day, why not take an opportunity to relive some magic travel memories? While most of this top ten list is made up of destinations where I traveled alone or with friends, they are definitely places where sparks can fly. This list is a bit Europe heavy, but what can I say, it's where I'm living these days. These destinations are in no particular order, but consider this a "best of" list of my travels up to this point in my life.

10  Zanzibar Beaches
In addition to this being a fascinating spice island, Zanzibar has some absolutely stunning beaches with crystal clear water and old fishing boats washed up on the shore. Here you can live large, or enjoy the scene on a budget. Either way, you will have a wonderfully relaxing time.

9   Greek Islands
All the ones I have visited have been absolutely stunning. Some are known for the party crowd, and others are known as honeymoon havens. Santorini tops the list of typical tourist destinations, but Tinos is a diamond in the rough. The best place to stay here is the Tinos Beach Hotel, minutes away from the port and steps from the salty Aegean Sea. Amazingly fresh food and a beautiful backdrop can't be beat for romance.

8   Amsterdam 
Amsterdam is full of all sorts of surprises for both the experienced and novice traveler. The city itself is beautiful, full of hundreds of really old (we're talking 1600's here) leaning buildings and lazy canals. You could spend days just wandering around the little neighborhoods like Nieuwmarkt, the Jordaan, or de Pijp. If you don't feel like walking, there are tons of boats for hire where you can pack a picnic lunch and love the one you're with.

7   Belgium 
Have a Belgian Beer With Your Honey
Not only can you find some of the best beer in the world, you can also find some of the cutest small towns in Europe. Belgium, in my humble opinion, is highly underrated. It's easy to get to from surrounding countries, and it is easy to take a day trip there. It is also just downright angelic in the winter when the snow covers the gabled rooftops.  It's great fun to just wander around or go on a brewery tour.

6   Paris
Eiffel Tower
'Nuf said, but there are some truly great spots that don't include waiting in line at the Eiffel Tower. Just about every street in the city has a cafe and a bakery. Choose one and make it your home for a week. Get to know the locals and practice the sultry sounds of the French language. If that doesn't strike your fancy, the National Archives has a lovely courtyard in the center of the building where you can sit among the well manicured gardens. There are many spots like this around Paris including small parks and museum gardens. I highly recommend walking through open doors throughout the city because you never know what will be on the other side. It's an Alice in Wonderland sort of approach to travel.

Costa Rica

5   Costa Rica 
If adventure is more your speed, then Costa Rica is the perfect place to go. This country has the best of everything, relaxation, diverse landscapes, and a lot of fun. Zip lining is a great way for couples both new and established to take a risk and be spontaneous. You can climb the side of a volcano, go on a wildlife hike, or just bask in the sunshine. Anyway you slice it, Costa Rica is perfection.

4   Venice 

No list of romantic destinations would be complete without Venice. Who wouldn't want to eat some fabulous Italian food and watch the pigeons in St. Mark's Square? But there's more to this location than all the tourist hype of gondola rides with singing gondoliers (although I highly recommend spending the money to do this). The overall feel of the city, especially at night is one that can compare to few others. Walking through the dark labyrinth of alleyways, you hear the echoes of others talking, getting lost in the moment.  The canals are calm and quiet in certain areas of the city, and the lights provide a calming backdrop to this truly unique locale.

Hurricane Ridge

3   Olympic Peninsula 
I only allowed myself one U.S. destination for this particular post, and keeping with the spirit of adventure, hiking in Hurricane Ridge topped my list. Even in the spring, snow tops the mountains providing some fantastic vistas. It's not uncommon to see deer wandering free and coming quite close it you are still enough. Pack a picnic lunch and strap on your hiking boots for a lovely trek through the mountains.

Tented Camp in Tanzania

2   Tanzania
One of the best once in a lifetime (hopefully more than once) experiences is a safari in Tanzania. Picture a Hemmingway-esque tented camp complete with hot water and all of the essentials including three beautifully catered meals per day.  You spend your mornings and evenings on game drives and afternoons napping by the pool. Surrounded by some of nature's most exquisite wildlife, you forget all of the troubles and stressed surrounding daily life. If being with your partner doesn't quite take your breath away, being just feet from a lion will.

And the # 1 most romantic destination according to me is......

Wherever Your Honey Is
Take it from a girl who has spent the last year and a half in a long distance romance, this one beats all. No really, it does. The best destination is anywhere in the world with the one you love.  You don't have to travel long distances to find a romantic destination; where you are is sometimes the best place to be. Yes, it can even be the living room couch.

Have a very Happy Valentine's Day, Galentine's Day, or whatever you may celebrate!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Weekend Getaway in Spain

Amsterdam is a cold, miserable place in the winter as most countries in the north are at this time of year. It just seems like it is dark all the time, and sometimes there are several days in a row when you don't see the sun. I needed to get out. One of the fabulous things about living in Europe is that you can be in a new country in just a couple short hours.  Taking advantage of this, I decided to go to Spain for the weekend.

I flew into Malaga (just a 3 hour flight from Amsterdam) by myself after work on Friday evening. I decided that I didn't really want to see sights and spend time in a city, but I did want to spend some time at the beach even if it meant being fully clothed and in a coat.

Spanish Tortilla, Pulpo, and an Icy San Miguel Beer

I used airbnb to book an affordable apartment for the weekend. I love this site because you can not only find interesting places to stay that make you feel more like a local, you meet new people too. From Malaga Airport, I took a train about 25 minutes to a small beach town called Fuengirola.  The apartment was literally around the corner from the station.  I was starving when I got there so I went across the street to a restaurant and sat down. I was surrounded by Spanish, and it was great. Actually, I was really proud of myself because I understood a lot and was able to use a little bit of it too.  This place was absolutely perfect.

The town of Fuengirola is a beach town, slow in the winter, but I could tell that it is the place to be in the summer. Many of the restaurants and shops were closed up for the winter, but there was still enough for me to do while I was there. I liked it that way actually. It wasn’t crowded, and I always got a nice sunny table wherever I wanted.

Constitution Square

I’ll start with the sun. While I had told people in Amsterdam that the weather wasn’t bothering me as much as I thought it was, it was not until I walked the couple of blocks from my apartment to the beach when I realized that yes, the weather had been bothering me. I missed the sunlight and warmth on my face. The sky was that beautiful clear blue, and while it was really, really windy while I was there, it didn’t matter because it was beautiful.

I tried to sleep in Saturday morning, but I couldn’t. I was out exploring the town by 9:30 am. I was starving, but I was even more hungry to walk around and see some things. After a little while I found a bakery down a side street and ordered a café con leche and a pain au chocolate (called something else here of course).   I found a little plaza called Constitution Square with a nice little church and fountain. Two blocks away was the beach. That’s where I spent most of my time walking along the promenade past beach cafes and British tourists sunning themselves.

I walked for what felt like hours and ran into a castle of some sort. I still have no idea what it was for, but I walked up to the top of the hill and sat on the wall for a while. I let everything and nothing swirl around in my head while the sun beat down on my pale face. I sat there for a long time looking at the ocean and realizing how happy and at peace I felt. It was a feeling that I haven’t had in a long time.

The rest of the afternoon was just like that, walking around and stumbling upon things. I found the bullring (closed), oranges growing on the trees that lined the streets, and a zoo. I didn’t go in the zoo though because there is a zoo in Amsterdam that I haven’t gone to yet, and I wanted to wander around some more. After a full morning of walking, I went to the grocery store to get some things for dinner. I dropped it all off at the apartment and went out for a late lunch. I was sort of disappointed in my dining options. I wanted some Spanish tapas, but my options were limited. Most of the restaurants catered to the Brits and the Dutch. There were plenty of pubs and UK flags hanging around. I found a place by the port. It didn’t have an ocean view, but it was run by an abuela who spoke to me in Spanish (I understood most of it), and every time she walked by my table she would squeeze my arm. I liked her very much. Her grandson was riding his bike back and forth in front of the restaurant, and every so often, I could hear a little voice yell, “abuela!” I spent the rest of the afternoon between that place and a spot on the sand.

By the time I got back to the apartment I was really tired. It was that good tired though. It was the kind where you feel like you have really done something.  The town was cheap, and I was able to eat and drink everything I wanted from the time I got to the Amsterdam airport to the time I left Malaga for under 100 euros. I think I even have about 15 euros left over.

The next day was much of the same except I hung out at the apartment until about noon. I didn’t have to leave for the airport until 5, so I still had plenty of time. I didn’t feel the need to see anything else because I had pretty much seen it all the day before. What I did want to do is find a nice café with a view of the water for a coffee. After a walk I did just that. I liked it so much that I stayed there for lunch.

After I left, I found a spot to sit on a short wall. It was facing the sun, and it was much warmer there than walking in the shade. I was just sitting there thinking when I was approached by an African man selling DVD’s. This was not a new occurrence, but all the other times as soon as I said no he would walk away. Not this time. For a while I shook my head, but then he asked if I spoke English. We got to talking, and I found out that he was from Senegal. He sat on the wall with me and we chatted for a while. His name was Mustafa, and he had been living in Spain for 8 years selling things on the street. He spoke English, Spanish, French, and I’m sure a local language of his home. He said he had to in order to do his business. His family is all still in Senegal, but he can’t go back because (from what I could gather from his story) he doesn’t have a passport. We talked about missing our families and friends from home, but I was hit by a very sharp realization about the two of us. While we were united in our experience of being away from home and learning to adapt to a new culture, we were from different worlds. I am free to travel the world, to come and go in most any country. I can work anywhere too and make quite a bit of money. I have the ability to travel on a whim, and I can visit my family tomorrow if I needed to. My life, while in my eyes is hard sometimes, it does not compare to the difficulty that Mustafa has had to endure. Our definitions of hard do not match. When he came to Spain he left his girlfriend in Senegal with the hope that they would be together again someday. She grew tired of waiting and married someone else. He told me that eventually he wants to go back to Senegal and get married because he would never get married to someone from Spain, “they are rude.” So eventually I bought one of his DVD’s, and he was on his way.

I spent some time writing after that just sitting on the wall in the sunlight burning my face. That moment was another affirmation that the place doesn’t matter; it’s the people. While my interactions here were short, I felt a connection.

Fuengirola Beach