30ish things I have learned from travel

It’s birth-week. I am one of those people who prefer to celebrate the entire month, but especially the week of.   I am hitting the age where people are asking questions such as “Are you ever going to settle down and get married?” [Maybe… Facebook says I’ve already met my soulmate, so I guess that’s an option] “Are you ever going to have kids?” [ NO] “Are you ever going to get a house of your own?” [I bought the hideaway in November, and am currently spending lots ‘o dollars to make it into what I want it to be.]. I am sure all of these questions are not intended to make me feel bad about my decisions to forgo a conventional life, but are just out of curiosity.   At least, that is how I choose interpret it.  So in honor of my 30-ish years on the planet, here are 30-ish things I have learned from traveling.

1. The world is big, and I will never see it all.

Mountains, hiking, clouds, history, photography… these are just a few of the things I’ve encountered while exploring the world.

With each new country I visit, I become acutely aware of how many there are left for me to see. The world is a big, amazing place, and I will likely never run out of places that I want to explore.

2. Solo travel is not that scary

I am an introvert.  It takes me awhile to get to know people.  I don’t always talk to strangers. I don’t like to make plans. I used to think that solo travel wasn’t for me. I didn’t think I could enjoy it. I didn’t  think I could handle it, to be honest. But I underestimated myself. I am a different person when I travel.  Still somewhat quiet, but being alone makes it easier for other people to approach me.  And I DO talk to strangers, and I can make friends.  Now, it’s hard to imagine traveling any way other than on my own.

3.   It’s OK to not love a place

New York City comes to mind.  Yes, it has everything.  Yes, it is the center of American culture.  Yes, it has amazing museums, history, architecture, Broadway, ect, ect.  It was interesting.  It was enlightening, but I didn’t love it. I think it was just too much.  Of everything.  I am glad I went.  And I don’t think I’ll ever go back on my own. And that’s OK.

4.   Technology has changed the way we travel

My first trip aboard was in 1997.  When I learned I was to be in England all summer, I went to the local [English] library, researched day trips, and weekend trips.  I went to the train station and got a copy of the timetables from Stafford.  I wrote letters and sent postcards and used the phone infrequently because international rates were so expensive.  I used a lot of film. Now, I can do most of my research from home on the internet.  I take photos on my digital camera and upload them to my website wherever I have a wireless connection.  I travel with a Kindle and a digital camera.  I use my Kindle to read tons of books, my cell phone to Skype people at home, and Facebook is an amazing way to keep in touch with new acquaintances and old friends.

5.  The world is not as scary as the media would lead you to believe

I no longer watch the news  on a regular  basis because if I did, I’d never leave my front yard, but if you’re like most people and get your opinion of the world from the news and movies, you probably view it as a dark, dangerous, and scary place. A place where terrorism is widespread, people kidnap tourists for ransom, and the likelihood of being robbed, maimed, or otherwise harmed is alarmingly high. The reality, of course, is that the world is not actually scary at all, so long as you keep your wits about you.  At least, no scarier than some places in the USA.

6.  A country’s history is not indicative of its present or future

If that were the case, I would have never visited Colombia.  Or Serbia. Or I may be planning a trip to Mexico.  Certain parts of the world have particularly dark pasts — war, genocide, communism, terrorism… But the truth is, NO country can boast a completely peaceful history. [Especially not USA] Instead of judging a place by its past [and perhaps avoiding it because of that past], it’s better to look at a country as it is right now.  Don’t write a destination off just because of something that happened there 10, 20, 50, or even 100 years ago. By the same token, don’t  automatically choose a destination you loved 10 or 20 years ago without taking into consideration today’s current events. People change.  So do countries. And governments. And policies. [Let’s just say I would be planning a trip to the US if I didn’t live here].

7. I am incredibly lucky to have the passport that I do.

Yes, it was a pain to get my Bolivian visa, and $135 to boot.  Yes, I had to make a trip to the Brazilian consulate in Atlanta to get my Brazilian visa [another $150], but there’s no doubt about it– my American passport is a very valuable thing. With it, I am able to travel virtually anywhere in the world.  Even though I have to have visas for some countries, I realize how lucky I am to have been born in the United States and have all the rights and freedoms associated with my citizenship.

8.  Being an American does not have to be a negative thing

I know some Americans who are ashamed of where they come from — especially when they travel. They say they are from Canada, or wherever.  I have done this once, but only after someone  assumed I was a Spaniard -I didn’t correct him.  Big assault rifles were involved.  People were ‘escorted’ off the bus.  They didn’t get back on.

This one is particularly difficult for me.  I have state pride.  I often readily admit I am from South Carolina, one of the United States, but when I just say USA, a lot of people say California? or New York?  When I say that I am closer to Cartagena than California, people don’t believe me… until I break out a map. But I am getting better.  Most people I’ve encountered around the world love Americans. They don’t necessarily love our government or world policies [and to be fair, I don’t necessarily love our government or world policies], but they love us and are open to learning more about us.

South Carolina has beautiful mountains with many creeks and waterfalls in addition to a gorgeous coast on the Atlantic Ocean.

9.  You cannot judge a culture that you know nothing about

There is just enough true about stereotypes to make them true.  Having said that, I believe that having an open mind will help you realize that stereotypes never fully represent anyone. You cannot judge a culture if you do not understand it — and basing your understanding on a stereotype does not equal understanding. Before you pass judgment on traditions or beliefs, take some time to get to know the culture you are judging first.

10.  It’s OK to keep returning to a place you love

Even though the world is huge with endless places to discover, I’ve realized that some places will keep pulling you back.   I visit the SC coast at least once a year.  I will probably go back to Argentina and Colombia at some point in the future.  You will leave bits of your heart in different corners of the globe, and those places will call to you periodically. And this is OK. You don’t always have to  go somewhere new to be a “traveler.”

I’ve been to London 5 times, and plan to return every single time I visit Europe. It is a magical city.

11.  Having an open mind will take you far

It’s OK to have a plan.  It’s better to scrap the plan if something better comes along.  Traveling with an open mind will allow you to have amazing, unforgettable experiences. Forget what you think you know, and life will be much more rewarding.

12.  We are not so different after all

At the end of the day, things like language, skin color, religion, and culture differentiate us much less than we think. No matter where you go in the world, people want the same things:  To be successful. To be happy.To care for their families.   Keep this in mind whenever you start thinking “us” and “them” thoughts. Because, at the end of the day, our dreams and goals are not that different.  Even if we have different definitions of successful and happy.

13.  People back home may never understand

You are the only one who can truly appreciate your travels. When you return home from a trip and have all these amazing memories and experiences buzzing around in your head, chances are your friends and family back home won’t be nearly as interested to hear about your adventures as you’d like them to be.  They won’t care you taught health classes in Spanish with the Caribbean looking over your shoulder.  They make look at the photos–once, but while you were off traversing the world, they were carrying on with their normal lives. [One friend had a baby.  Another got married. And those with kids already–well, those kids weren’t babies when I returned home.]   They may never understand, and I’ve learned that you just have to come to terms with this.

14.  Every destination has something to offer — you just have to find it

I didn’t love New York City.  Or Lima, Peru. Or Santiago, Chile, but I found something in each place that was cool.  In NYC, it was the zoo and Central Park.  In Lima, it was its proximity to the coast, and in Santiago, it was just hanging out in the main square people watching.  Maybe I’m just an overly positive person, but it’s my belief that every place — no matter where — has something interesting to discover about it. I try my best to discover these redeeming qualities about a place wherever I travel, and I think it helps me enjoy the whole travel process more.

15.  When the universe sends you signs, pay attention

Over the past few months, I feel like I’ve been getting a lot of signs from the Universe, pointing me down this path or that one.  And, finally, I’m starting to pay attention. Whether it’s related to travel or not, if Fate or God or the Universe or whatever is sending you signs, you’d better be listening.

16.  You and your excuses are the only things holding you back

People often tell me how they wish they could take a month off to go somewhere.  My answer:  Well go.  Their usual reply:    I can’t.  I’ve got ___________.  Maybe that’s true.  Maybe its just an excuse.  If you want to travel but currently aren’t  it’s probably because you are making excuses. YOU are the only thing truly holding yourself back. You can make time by prioritizing and planning ahead. You can save money by staying in hostels and using deal websites like skyscanner.com. You can manage the responsibility smartly. You can bring children with you. And you can overcome the fear.

17.  My own country is pretty special

Acadia National Parke, Maine

Zion National Park, Utah

I love traveling abroad.  It has a certain amount of glamour associated with it, but over the few last years I have traveled to Washington, DC and New York City, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Seattle.  The entire USA has so much to see from the Grand Canyon to Florida Keys to Crater Lake to barrier islands. I could never leave the USA and still see something amazing on every trip I take.

18.  Being nervous is natural

Being nervous is natural when it comes to traveling. I’m not any braver than you are. There have been several times when I’ve seriously considered canceling a trip or an activity at the last minute because I was scared.  [OK, I actually did cancel a couple things]  Scared of the unknown because travel is full of unknowns. It’s pushing through this fear and nervousness that really make you brave.

19. You really can make lifelong friends while traveling

Yes, it’s true that traveling long-term often means having to say a lot of goodbyes. Frequently. But it also allows you to meet a ton of amazing people who love traveling just as much as you do. Occasionally, you’ll form bonds so strong that things like distance and time won’t matter. With technology today, maintaining international friendships is easy. And having friends all over the world is never a bad thing.

We were neighbours in Peru; then I vistied her in San Francisco and Seattle.

20.  Getting lost can sometimes be a blessing in disguise

I get lost all the time–even in my own hometown.  Sometimes, though, losing the map and just allowing yourself to get lost can be a great thing. As long as you don’t find yourself lost in a bad neighborhood or otherwise dangerous situation, being lost can help you discover a place in a unique way that you just can’t do by following a map or a guidebook’s suggestions. You’ll stumble across tucked-away restaurants, funny street art, and scenes most people probably don’t see. You may even get to talk to some locals about non-travel stuff!

21.  Being able to read a map is crucial

Despite smartphones and Google Maps and all that, being able to read an old-fashioned paper map is still a great skill to have. Why?  What if you end up somewhere without internet access!  Or travel without a smartphone.  [Although in 2018, everyone has a smart phone]

22.  Hostels are a great invention

I love hostels.  I love that I can have a bed without having to pay for the entire room.   As a solo traveler, I loathe paying for an entire hotel room that charges the same price for one as it does for two or four people. They are affordable, usually centrally located, and allow you to easily meet other travelers wherever you are. Sometimes they are really nice, too.

23.  A travel style can change

Just as there’s no one travel style that works for everyone, there may not even be one travel style that works for you all the time. As you grow and age and gain travel experience, your style may well change. And there’s nothing wrong with that. A backpacker can stay in a 4-star hotel, just as a comfort-seeking traveler can rough it in the bush.

24.  Don’t compare your travel style to anyone else’s

Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that they know the “right” way to travel. There’s only the way that works for YOU. Whether you’re a budget backpacker or a luxury seeker, just travel the way that you want to and ignore everyone else. In the end, you will be a much happier traveler.

25.  No one cares about my eating/drinking habits

I’ve never been a very adventurous eater, and I don’t drink alcohol [anymore]. I always figured people would judge me for this. But I’ve learned over the past few years that trying weird new foods can be fun.  And I’ve learned that most people accept that.

26.   Travel gives you wisdom.  On so many levels.  Culturally, socially, historically.  I can’t think of an area where travel hasn’t helped me in some way.

27.  You will learn patience when you travel

You have to.  I am a fairly patient person to begin with, but traveling and especially taking public transportation in out of the way locations you have to be patient.

28.   Say ‘yes’ even when you want to say ‘no’

I have said ‘yes’ to lots of things while traveling that I wouldn’t have agreed to at home…  Saying ‘yes’ to a date with a matador.  ‘Yes, please’… Signing a lease on an apartment in a foreign country. ‘Yes’ twice–actually.. .Spending the night in a stranger’s house ‘Ummm, yes’ [not without hesitation]… Eating strange foods ‘yes… um ok’.  It is easy to say no, especially when you are out of your comfort zone.  Say yes.  As long as you don’t die, it will at minimum be a learning experience.

29.  People are generally good and it’s OK to talk to strangers

You don’t always have to be on the go in order to meet people.  I love nothing more to park myself on a bench/cafe/ect. and just people-watch.  Sometimes I even talk to them [gasp!]  If you’re like me, you probably grew up listening to the “don’t talk to strangers” mantra and watching videos in elementary school about ‘Stranger Danger’ . But perhaps we should rethink that golden rule. I am living proof that talking to locals and fellow travelers when you travel can only enhance the experience.

30.  We don’t need as much as we think we do

Packing seems to be a major headache for a lot of people.  I pack basically the same whether I am traveling for one week or six months.  You don’t need all that stuff you think you need, and technology comes in smaller and faster packages every day.

 

31.  It takes time to transition to new things

In my first weeks traveling in South America, I felt lonely and unsure of how I would continue to live this new life for so long. Then I transitioned to my new life and the new rhythm of it all and it was okay. I realized that I needed ‘transition’ time every time I changed cities and said goodbye to new friends or even hotel rooms.  I would get to my new destination and would feel a bit uncomfortable and a little bit lonely.  But I knew if I gave myself a day or two, those feelings would go away and I would have new reasons to enjoy where I was and often times, I found I liked it even better than the last place.  This is one of the reasons why SLOW travel is better than flying through an area just to say you’ve seen it.

32.  It’s OK to ask for help

Several times I have been forced to ask for help.  I hate it every. single. time.  I hate having to ask people to watch my cat or check the mail.  I hate having to ask for directions in a new place.  I hate having to ask where the nearest store is, but you know what?  Most people are happy to help.

33.  It’s not always about the money

Traveling is almost always more expensive than staying home, but there are ways to make it more affordable.  Once I showed up in a resort town on New Year’s Day night without a reservation or a place to stay.  I went to hotel after hotel.  It started to snow.  I was getting very depressed. And cold. And hungry.  I finally found a place that had one room left for 400 Euros. 400 Euros! I didn’t want to spend that much money, but I took it.  It was the best 400 euros I could have spent at that moment.  A hot shower and a warm bed did much more than take the chill off;  it rejuvenated my soul.  And I was much more able to enjoy the rest of my trip.

34.  Travel will change you in ways you can’t imagine

There are the things you can think of–such as making you a more educated world citizen, having stories to tell at any occasion, and realizing that people are people no matter where you are.  Sometimes, when the timing is right, when the events line up in just the right way, you can recognize the moment that the change happens. Sometimes it can be profound – you can find a life’s purpose.  For me, it was running my very own health clinic in Peru.  This one volunteer project has changed the course of my life.   Sometimes it’s small, like discovering you like gelato or pretzels or ceviche.  Sometimes, it is just remembering who you wanted to be instead of who you are today. These changes, big or small, alter us as individuals if we let them. And the really cool thing is that it can become contagious.

Wandering– without being lost– Laguna Miscanti, Atacama Desert, Chile 2010

Flashback Friday | A Christmas Miracle

I tightly clutched my St Christopher’s medal, and whispered a prayer “protect me”.  Even though I consider myself Catholic, I’m not a very good one.  Perhaps all this time in these heavily Catholic countries is wearing  off on me.  I gave Christopher one last squeeze, and tucked him safely under my shirt.  In reality, I was praying for a miracle.  A miracle that I would 1. finish and 2.not crash.

I took a drug test [they don’t let anyone under the influence of drugs or alcohol ride], took a swig of some vile-tasting alcoholic beverage, [oh, the irony] sprinkled some of the same liquid on my bicycle tires and the ground, and said a prayer to PanchaMama.  I wouldn’t want to go pissing off Mother Earth with my prayer to the patron saint of travel.

I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.

I  loaded up on the safety gear…elbow pads, knee pads, helmet, bright safety vest, wind-suit….  Had there been more, I would have put it on too.  What in the world had possessed me to sign up for a 40+ mile bike ride from La Paz, Bolivia to Senda Verde, Bolivia…a bike ride that changes in elevation from 15,900 ft to 3600 ft…a bike ride that travels a road with the moniker World’s Most Dangerous Road?  Did I mention that I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 18, and I have never been very graceful on 2 wheels? Did I mention it was Christmas Day? In Bolivia?

To be fair, it’s technically not considered the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” anymore. Due to the construction of a new highway close by, which directs most traffic away from its path, they’ve recently upgraded the trail’s nickname to a much more simple, passive and inviting moniker… “The Death Road”.

I’d hate to see the new road that has earned the name of World’s Most Dangerous Road

The ‘Practice’ Death Road

The start of the Death Road is located around an hour outside of La Paz, high up in the mountains.

The road’s twists and turns through the jungle as it winds down the steep road make it a scary path to travel. There are very few barriers stopping you from falling off the edge which makes it more dangerous than roads in other mountainous areas. The dirt road is full of potholes and scattered gravel meaning you have to stay focused for the entire four hours it takes to bike the road, bouncing over dips and bumps.

It was cold and rainy and as we sped down the highway I became soaked to the skin and started wondering why I’d even signed up for this in the first place. It was so misty that I could hardly see the view of the valley below which gave me a false sense of security because I couldn’t see how steep the drop off was to the right side of me.

All of a sudden there was a large BANG!

The tire of the person who was riding in front of me burst and rubber flew into the air.  As a side note, whenever I am driving on the interstate, this is my worst fear.

We pulled over and the we had a look a the damage. The tire had completely exploded, leaving nothing but loose rubber flapping around the metal rim.

At the top of the Death Road we received another briefing.  “Try not to stand up on your bike if you’re not a confident mountain biker. Try not to grip the brakes the entire time. Leave a good 10 meters between yourself and the person in front of you. Stay alert,” our guide told us.  I mentally calculate how far 10 meters is.  [about 30 feet or so for those wondering]

Under the guide of our tour leaders, we rode slowly five minutes further down the road before stopping for a sandwich and getting a new tire put on the damaged bike.  We piled into the van after this biking practice and snack and set off for the Death Road. It was eerily quiet as we drove.

I’m not sure what was going through everyone else’s head, but I had visions of my tire bursting and me losing control of my bike, being thrown to my death in the valley below.  Or someone else taking me out.  Either would be bad.

Dramatic, yes.  Out of the realm of possibility, absolutely not…

What they don’t tell you:  The Death Road is Quite Stunning

Perhaps one of the biggest dangers of the Death Road is that it’s so damn beautiful.  Valleys of green surround you and with each twist of the road there’s a chance you’ll come across a waterfall  or two cascading down from the top of the mountain.

When the rain stopped and I got hot from the exercise, it was easier to notice the beautiful vistas around me.  But I didn’t want to look too hard – I needed all my concentration to stay safe on the Death Road.

As we bounced down the beginning of the dirt track on the most dangerous road in the world, I began to realize that it was near impossible NOT to hold my brakes the entire time.  I’m the girl who rides my brakes on the Swamp Rabbit Trail; I most certainly was doing it here.  As soon as I let go, I picked up speed and felt as though I was going to lose control.

So the whole way down the mountain I gripped the brakes. Gently at some points and more vigorously at others.

Perhaps this gives you an idea of why I clinched the brakes so much.  At times, I could hardly see the rider in front of me.

My hands are not the strongest part of me.   So listen to me now: gripping mountain bike brakes for four hours was extremely painful.  Excruciatingly painful, but necessary.

So many times I was tempted to give up and ride in the van that was slowly following us down the road, but I held out.

No, we did not all fall over the edge of the cliff…we’re just taking a break.

Almost the end of me

The only time I managed to let go of the handlebars was when I wanted to fiddle with my camera which was slung across my chest…

And this was nearly the death of me.

I’d been recording video on my camera for awhile and wanted to preserve the battery life. So I let go of the handlebar with my right hand and, while looking down, I tried to feel for the off button.  BIG mistake.  

HUGE MISTAKE.

All of a sudden I found myself on the other side of the road, dangerously close to the edge. As I tried to swerve away from the cliff below, I jerked the handlebars too hard and fell towards the edge.

I felt as though I was moving in slow motion.

I think I screamed and tried to right myself but to no avail.

I was falling.

Thud.

I had landed on a patch of ground that jutted out over the cliff. Just behind where I’d fallen, entangled in my bike, was the open air leading to the bottom of the mountain.

In front of where I’d fallen was a sharp drop.   I watch the camera tumble over the cliff.

I’d literally fallen within centimeters of my death or serious injury.

“OH MY GOD. Are you okay?” the guide pulled up behind me, out of breath.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” I tried to laugh. It sounded strangled.

“You scared me!” he said as he helped me up.

“Sorry!” I replied.

The End of the Road

I was shaken after my fall but not too shaken to keep on going. With hands tensed on the brakes, sending shooting pains up my arms, I managed to finish the Death Road with the other people in my group.

It felt like a massive achievement.

But the biggest reward for me was that I was still alive. My fall was a close call and really put a new spin on the term ‘living on the edge’.

Is it an experience I’d ever repeat?  Hell no.  Am I glad I did it when I did?  Absolutely.  Let’s just say I was never as happy to see a suspect swimming pool as I was when we got to Senda Verde lodge.

Flashback Friday | Anglesey Sea Zoo

The Anglesey Sea Zoo is one of the coolest aquariums I have ever been to.  And the fact that it is called a sea zoo instead of an aquarium just makes it that much cooler.  Let’s just go with awesome.  It’s awesome.

There is a very striking stained glass window in the entrance.

asz-6

As you walk in, there are open ponds which contain fish and mollusks.  These first pond contain all fish and such from cold seas like these wolf eels.

asz-7

Wolf eels are not, how shall we say it nicely, cute.  They are quite hideous; only their mothers love them.  Mama wolf eels and their future mates.  We humans could learn a lot from wolf eels. Wolf eels mate for life, and the pair takes special care of its eggs as they develop. Beginning around age seven, the female lays up to 10,000 eggs at a time, then coils around them and uses her body to shape the eggs into a neat sphere roughly the size of a grapefruit.When she’s settled, the male coils around her as an added layer of protection. The female continues massaging the eggs periodically as they develop, helping to circulate water around the eggs to keep them supplied with oxygen. Eggs take about four months to hatch.

Males and Females. Together  for life. Working together to ensure a successful outcome for their children.  All 10,000 of them.  Good thing they don’t have to send the kids to college.

And these well camouflaged flounders merging with the bottom of the tank.

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These flounders are masters of disguise, able to blend into a variety of backgrounds. Their skin can imitate the different colors and textures found on the seafloor. They can look like sand one minute, and a rocky bottom the next.  The can change colors in 2-8 seconds.  The color of the little fishy can also indicated their mood; threatened little fishes are usually pale.  Just like me.  When I’m threatened all the color drains out of my face.  The flounder is an ambush predator. He lays motionless and waits for potential prey to appear and grabs it in a blink of an eye. Little shrimpies have no chance.

The next room contains tanks set into the wall where some striking sea anemones call home.

asz anenomes

And some very fine looking starfish.

asz starfish

Clownfish–made famous in the movie Finding Nemo—I found him…
Anglesey Sea Zoo

In the next room there is a dogfish

And Seahorse-ies.
asz seahorse

Anglesey Sea Zoo was the first aquarium I ever visited. Even now it is still one of the coolest aquariums I have ever seen.

In search of Vlad

The second post in my series of  haunted places…[in case you’ve missed it, I’ve featured cemeteries and other final resting places earlier this month].  This week it’s a story from a little place in Romania…

A story [based in history]

Once upon a time, there lived a prince in a kingdom called Wallachian.  He was no Prince Charming.  His name was Vlad Tepes.  Stories of his cruelty and thirst for blood abound – stories that make even Stalin, Hitler or Ivan the Terrible seem compassionate by comparison…Vlad was a sadistic bastard and gained the name ‘Tepes’ (‘impaler’) honestly.   His favorite form of punishing his enemies included driving a wooden stake carefully through the victim’s anus emerging from the body just below the shoulder in such a way as to not pierce any vital organs. Best to ensure maximum suffering prior to death and his methods ensured at least 48 hours torture before death.

Impalement was Vlad Tepes’ favorite method of torture, but it was by not his only method. The list of tortures employed by our sadistic prince included nails in the heads, cutting off of limbs, blinding, strangulation, burning, cutting off of noses and ears, mutilation of sexual organs (especially for women), scalping, skinning, boiling, exposure to the elements or to wild animals and burning alive.  He was the one everyone warned their daughters about.

Now, to be fair, it is impossible to verify all of these stories.  There was no such thing as facebook and blogs and cameras and such in the 15th century.   Much of the information we have about evil little Vlad comes from pamphlets published in Germany and Russia and the German pamphlets, were probably politically inspired. In fact pamphlets were a form of mass entertainment in society when the printing press was just coming into widespread use. Much like the subject of Some Celebrity’s latest downward spiral into doom, the life and times of the Wallachian tyrant were easily sensationalized and given the numerous reprints.

Vlad– auf Deutch –was portrayed as an inhuman monster who terrorized the land and butchered the innocent with sadistic glee. The Russian version took a somewhat more measured view, however.  Young Vlad was presented as a cruel but just prince whose actions were directed toward the greater good of his people. No matter what language the stories agree remarkably well as to specifics–Vlad the Impaler was a sick bastard.

How Vlad became Dracula:

His princely father, Vlad II, was called Vlad Dracul (from the Latin ‘draco’, meaning ‘dragon’) after the chivalric Order of the Dragon accredited to him by Sigismund of Luxembourg in 1431. The Romanian name Draculea – literally ‘son of Dracul’ – was bestowed on Vlad Tepes by his father, and was used as a term of honor. Another meaning of ‘draco’, however, was ‘devil’ and this was the meaning that Stoker’s novel popularized.

In search of Vlad:

Vlad was born in the Romanian town of Sighisoara.

They seem to be pretty proud of their native son in Sighisoara.

Sighisoara is a UNESCO world heritage site so should Vlad return from the dead today, he’d still be able to find his way around.

Dracula’s Castle [for tourists]–but really Dominic’s house

Bran Castle, situated near Braşov, Romania, is a national monument and landmark. It was built by the Teutonic Knights in (or around) 1212, after they had been relocated from Palestine to the Kingdom of Hungary.  The fortress is situated on the border between Transylvania and Wallachia. In addition to its unique architecture, the castle is famous because of persistent myths that it was once the home to our villain, Vlad the Impaler.  According to most accounts, Vlad  spent two days in the Bran dungeon, as the area was occupied by the Ottoman Empire at the time. Because of the (disputed) connections between Vlad and the fictional character Dracula, the castle is marketed to foreign tourists as Dracula’s Castle.

The castle is open to tourists, who can view the inside by themselves or as part of a guided tour. At the bottom of the hill is a small park to which examples of traditional Romanian peasant structures (cottages, barns, etc.) from across the country have been moved.

The castle passed through royal hands for many generations. For many years at the beginning of the 20th century, it was the principal home of Queen Marie, who, despite her British birth and upbringing, became quite a Romanian patriot. The castle is decorated largely with artifacts from her time, including traditional furniture and tapestries that she collected to highlight Romanian crafts and skills. It was inherited by her daughter Princess Ileana of Romania, and was later seized by the Communist government of Romania in 1948. For many years it was tended to erratically, but after 1980′s restoration and the Romanian Revolution of 1989, it became a tourist destination. The legal heir of the castle is the Princess’s son Dominic von Habsburg and in 2006 the Romanian government returned it to him (Habsburg is currently an architect in New York City and probably never designed something so fancy)

The Real Dracula’s Castle

one final view of the citadel–it was a dark and stormy night day [oh come, oh….you know I couldn’t resist]

The story of how this fortress was constructed also involves a tale of revenge… Early in his reign, Vlad Dracula gave a feast to celebrate Easter. Vlad was well aware that many of these same nobles were part of the conspiracy that had led to his father’s assassination and the blinding and then burying alive of his elder brother, Mircea.  Many had also played a role in the overthrow of numerous Wallachian princes. During the feast Vlad asked his noble guests how many princes had ruled during their lifetimes. All of the nobles present had outlived several princes. None had seen less then seven reigns. Vlad immediately had all the assembled nobles arrested. The older nobles and their families were impaled on the spot.  The younger and healthier nobles and their families were marched north to the ruins of his castle in the mountains above the Arges River. The enslaved nobles and their families were forced to labor for months rebuilding the old castle with materials from a nearby ruin. According to the reports, they labored until the clothes fell off their bodies and then were forced to continue working naked. Yep, ol’ Vlad was a sick bastard.

Lake Vidraru–only 1km away from Vlad’s  fortress… I might have impaled people too for that view… It’s amazing.

In the end, I learned a lot of interesting history–some of it quite disturbing–but I didn’t find any vampires, evil villains, or rich princes [Dominic must not have been home], but I did find Vampire Wine–[oh yeah, I bought some]

Take me out to the ball game

“Whooo!” my dad shouts, cheering loudly with the fans sitting next to him.  I look at him like any teenager looks at their parent when said parent does much more than breathe. A player for the Orioles has just hit a home run, bringing in the two guys already on base home making the score 5-2. The crowd, evenly split between Orioles and Red Sox fans, is a mix of cheers and groans.

I look at him strangely, questioning, “Wait,” I turn to my dad. “Who are you rooting for again?” From early childhood the Orioles have been my team. This game was sort of a peace offering. We haven’t attended a sporting event together in nearly 10 years… before I was even in high school.
His reply “I just want it to be a good game.”


I started playing organized baseball in the form of T-ball at age 5, but I’d been playing at home much earlier than that. My first T-ball stand was constructed from a wooden table leg. I got pretty good a whacking the ball because too many misses damaged the stand. I started league play at 5, was the only girl playing Little League at 8 and switched to softball to play on the high school team beginning at age 13, in 7th grade.  Baseball has always been a part of my life.


I’m on the bottom row all the way on the left. I’m a whopping 5 years old. And 12 years later, the boy on the top right would be my prom date. [Ahhh, the joys of small town life]

I have been a Baltimore Orioles fan and a baseball fan for as long as I can remember.  I’m not sure why Baltimore became my team as I grew up more than 500 miles away from Baltimore. While other girls had posters of the latest teen heart throbs decorating their childhood bedroom, I had posters of Cal Ripken, Jr, Brady Anderson, Mike Mussina, and a few of my favorite Cubbies too.

We didn’t have cable when I was growing up, and even if we had, I sincerely doubt Orioles games would have been broadcast in South Carolina. Instead, I listened to the games on the radio… WBAL to be specific [an AM radio station… I was still barely within reach].  When Camden Yards opened in 1992, I was ecstatic. It is [in my humble opinion] one of the best baseball stadiums in the USA.

I was determined to see a game during the inaugural season. As a youngster in the 1990’s, and by youngster I clearly mean a time before my driver’s license, I saved up all my pennies [and I do mean pennies] in a cardboard box creatively called ‘The Baltimore Box’ and when I had enough for a baseball ticket, snacks, and transportation, I bought a round trip Greyhound bus ticket to Baltimore and treated myself to an Orioles game. I saw the Orioles beat the Detroit Tigers 12-0. I came and went in just under 24 hours. And it was awesome. [Oh, I was such a sneaky child. I look back on some of the things I did as a kid and am amazed that I did not die. In my defense, I said that I was running away; it’s not my fault no one actually believed me.]

In 1995, the streak captivated me.  I was glued to the TV every time I could find an Orioles game. [which wasn’t very often, mind you] How could one person play in more than 3000 consecutive baseball games is beyond me, but Cal Ripken did it.  I still remember watching the unveiling of 2131. That was September 1995. I watched it on ESPN. I was in awe. Even though for the past 15 years the Orioles have been one of the most laughable teams in the major leagues, they have still been the team I rooted for… kinda like a marriage… for richer, for poorer… and it’s been hard times, people, hard times.


We found our seats – right behind home plate. As a former catcher, I staunchly refuse to sit anywhere other than behind home plate.  Maybe higher than field level, but sitting behind home plate is a must. A few drinks, hot dogs, and pretzels later, we  settled in, intently watching every pitch, predicting where all the fly balls would land, and analyzing strategy. For a few hours for two days, we had something to talk about. Something that we both loved; something that used to unite us. Sport– it this case baseball, a game that I know intimately.

I think it’s for this reason that I always seek out sporting events when I travel. I’ve been an athlete or fan my whole life, and I  know the power it has to unite [and divide] families, communities, and friends. Whatever the sport, even if it’s one I don’t truly understand, I find that I really get into it and really enjoy the passion and zeal of the fans and the strategy of coaches.

I’ve never been one to shy away from doing things on my own, but going to sporting events alone is hard.  I’ll still go, but it’s hard. Partly because sports remind my of my childhood, and partly because sports are a community event. I will go to sports pubs on my own to catch some games on TV when I’m out on my own because I think sport is fabulous insight into a community’s culture.

 

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo

Every May 5th, Americans bring out their party sombreros, make tacos or burritos, and celebrate with copious quantities of margaritas and/or tequila and Tecate and XX beer. Mexican restaurants capitalize on the holidays with mariachi bands, extended happy hour, and Cinco de Mayo specials. But why do we in the United States celebrate the 5th of May?  It’s not as if Americans are experts in other countries’ histories.  Most Americans have a pretty grim grasp on their own country’s history.

Many Americans have no idea that Cinco de Mayo celebrates the ill equipped Mexican army’s victory over a much stronger French army in Puebla on May 5, 1862, and it marked the first major victory by the Mexicans. Many think that 5 de Mayo represents Mexican independence day, but actual Mexican independence day is celebrated on September 16. Back in 1862, the US was mired in another war at the time, and did not have the energy or resources to care about what was happening south of the border. Back in 1862, the US, despite it’s modern day reputation, was not the strongest armed forces in the world. Nor did it generally make other countries business it’s own. So, despite a modern-day reputation for debauchery, Cinco de Mayo was originally a celebration of military valor and anti-colonialism. Even though they lost the city to the French the very next year, they still celebrate the bravery of their forefathers and the battle fought on May 5, 1862.  It was a quintessential victory for the underdog…and everyone loves an underdog.

Interest facts about Puebla

  • The was established by the Spanish in 1531 on the main route between the port of Veracruz and Mexico City. Puebla has an appearance of an European city since it was built by Spanish designers rather than having it built on an existing city.

iglesia de san francisco

  • Today it is Mexico’s 4th largest city behind DF, Ecatepec, and Guadalajara.
  • Puebla, or at least the mountains around it, has the world’s largest pyramid–the Cholula pyramid– which measures 450 meter across.  It’s partly obstructed by mountains and is Aztec in origin.

  •  Mezcal’s, a drink made from the agave plant, certified origin is Puebla.  It has been produced in the area since colonial times. Mezcal and tequila, while not the same, are very similar. Tequila is technically a mezcal, but there are differences in production technique and in the types of agave used. Tequila is made from a single type of agave plant  [the blue agave] and can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and in small parts of four other states. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be produced from up to 28 varieties of agave [including blue agave] and is made around the city of Oaxaca and can also officially be produced in some areas of the states of Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas. Most mezcals are made from the Espadin agave, although some mezcal producers blend agave varieties to create a distinct flavor. Mezcal has a very unique, smoky flavor that makes it fairly easy to distinguish from tequila. It also tends to taste sweeter, or richer, than tequila.
  • Cuexomate, a geyser often mistakenly called the smallest volcano in the world located in the middle of the city. Rumor has it that in ancient times the bodies of those who had committed suicide were thrown into the geyser’s crater as it was believed they didn’t deserve a proper burial.
If Cuexcomate was a volcano, it most certainly would be the smallest in the world.

 

Inside the world’s smallest ‘volcano’– home of more marijuana plant than anything volcano like… and yes, you can walk inside it

 

Orchids in Ecuador

A plant person, I am not, and I’m even less of a flower person. However, Ecuador is a bio-diversity hot spot, and I would be amiss if I didn’t at least check out some of Ecuador’s offering. I would also be de-friended by one of my best friends who not only has a master’s degree in plant pathology [I can’t even], but also grows orchids in one of his many home greenhouses.

Whilst in Ecuador I went to not only the Orchidarium in Cuenca, but also the Mindo Cloud forest about an hour north of Quito, and my favorite flower by far is the monkey faced orchid.  I’m sure it has a fancy  scientific name, but I like the monkey face name.

See that cute little monkey face. Talk about a flower with personality! And when it’s in full bloom, it smell like an orange.  How perfect! These orchids grow in the cloud forests of Ecuador and Peru at 1000 to 2000 meters above sea level. The monkey faced orchid (along with all tropical orchids) is an epiphyte so, like an air plant, it depends on other plants for support.

Below are some of my favorite orchids from both the cloud forest and the orchidarium.

 

Wandering around Lake Titicaca

I am known for being *somewhat* spontaneous at times.  Other times I suffer from an the lack of ability to make a decision as simple as what I want for dinner.  What can I say, I’m a study in contradictions

After a spontaneous 100 km trek to  Machu Picchu, I headed south towards Bolivia.  On my own once again for the first time since arriving in Peru, I wasn’t quite ready for solitude just yet.  Through the traveler grapevine, I’d heard of home-stays on Lake Titicaca, and thought that would be something worth checking out. Onward to Puno. 

Look at that amazingly blue water

Puno,  a small town in the southern Peru, is bordered by Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable body of water. The town, at 12,500 feet above sea level is breathtakingly [and I mean that literally] beautiful. It is alive with bright colors and friendly people. Boats lined with neon colors and shops filled with alpaca sweaters and scarfs give color to the town. The Uros Islands, the man-made floating reed islands, can by spotted from the shoreline and people from all over visit to get a taste of the island traditions.

Puno is small and as such most visitors only stay for a day or two. The main draw to the town is the opportunity to visit the islands and do an overnight tour with a local family. You can, of course,  visit the islands on a day trip, but as it is relatively  inexpensive to do an overnight home-stay, I recommend you do the overnight stay.

The overall experience is pretty touristy, but informative. We arrived to the first island and were greeted by the “Island President” who explained that each island only has room for 5-10 houses, so the families that reside on each island form small committees and work together to remain afloat.

The president demonstrated how each island is anchored down by heavy square blocks of reed roots so they stay in Peru and don’t float to Bolivia.  He also explained that the islands are made up of layers of reeds and a new layer has to be added to the ‘island’ every fortnight. Each island has a committee, and the committee divides the chore of laying out new reed layers between the residents.

How the Floating Islands are made Lake Titicaca Puno

The local economy consists of trout fishing, quinoa, yucca, and potato farming, tourism and artisan handiwork.  Most of the people who live on the islands also have a house in town where they stay during the week and travel to town by speed boat; island residents are not as segregated as they seem.

After a lesson in Uros culture and reed house construction, we were divided into groups and invited in the houses to see an example of island living. The construction was simple and each house is one giant room. Each house is powered by clean energy– an individual solar panel soaks up the bright mountain sun all day and is used to provide electricity to the house.  In the past candles were used, but you can imagine that the fire + straw combo was a bad idea…

The houses contained artisan work and the couple that was showing us around sat silently stitching in the corner.  I felt as there was some pressure to buy something but as I wasn’t headed home, and didn’t need anything, I resisted.  I got a few dirty looks, but I try not to buy things I don’t need just for the sake of buying it.  Maybe had I visited the Uros Islands prior to setting up my apartment in the north, I would have been in the market, but as it was, I was going to be backpacking for at least six weeks and I like to keep my load to a minimum.

Reed boat construction is rather fascinating.  The reeds are rather flimsy and they soak up water quickly so at first glance not the obvious first choice for a vessel to navigate the frigid waters of Lake Titicaca.  But someone had the truly genius idea of filling the frame of the reed boat with empty plastic water bottles.  Thus adding a layer of security to the reed frame and second, and just as important, finding a way to recycle some of the overwhelming number of plastic bottles in  Peru.



Best piece of advice during this tour… take minute, set down your camera, find a quiet corner of the island and just sit. Sit and appreciate the beauty of nature. Take time to appreciate the massiveness of the lake, the warm [almost hot] high, mountain sun, the bright blue water and the incredible floating island energy that surrounds you.

 

Photo tips 2

Often I wonder if I travel to take pictures or do I take pictures as an excuse to travel.  For me the two are intimately interconnected and I almost always have a camera on me no matter where I am.  I freely admit that I prefer taking landscape and scenic photos to photos of people, but it is the photos of people that make for a more telling story.  So when I travel, I really try to do both.  Below are my non-technical tips for taking great photos.

    • Don’t ask people to pose. Captured shots look so much better.  Yes, sometimes people will get angry if you take their photo without asking, but take that risk.  The results are worth it.

Would this photo have worked if the little girl looked up and smiled?  Maybe, maybe not?  But this way definitely works.

 

    • Go where the people are. [ok, this one is obvious]
    • Stop. Observe. Take a step back. Wait.

Had I just been taking photos of the parade I would have missed this decorated [and almost] naked lady dancing her way down the street.

  • Never go with the first shot.
  • Try a different angles–get on the ground, climb a few [hundred] stairs, get in the middle of the road or river.  Use glass or water as a mirror and have the image reflected.  Get close.  Or step back. A change in perspective can sometimes make all the difference.  You’ll never know until you try out different ways of photographing the same thing.

  • Show off the results.  Especially with kids–>Kids love to see photos of themselves.  Even if you delete them all showing off the results can result in a little good will that may lead to a spectacular photo
  • Edit with vengeance.  Nobody really wants to see 500 of your travel photos.  Not even your mom or best friend.  Even you will start to go cross-eyed after looking at them.  Edit to about 25-50 and not only will people think you are an awesome photographer, but they will be easier to show, too.

30ish things I still need to learn to do

Last week, I wrote about things traveling has taught me.  Today, it’s about things I still don’t know how to do despite my 30+ years on the planet.  When did being an adult get so complicated?

  1. How to dance.–Even though my best friend is a dance teacher.
  2. How to cook anything that isn’t tacos.–I mean I can follow a recipe but those people who can whip up amazing dishes with random ingredients in their pantry a la Chopped!–those people have real talent.
  3. How to flirt.  It is shameful the things I don’t know about flirting.
  4. How to say no to something I really don’t want to do.  I have been on a few dates with people only because I couldn’t say NO without making up something or coming across like a bitch.  I have also done things I  wasn’t overly thrilled about doing just because I couldn’t say no.  And I’ve worked way too many extra shifts and done way too many extra projects because I didn’t want to say no.
  5. How to wear make-up.  You’d think that every female alive would know how to apply make-up properly.  I am not even talking about special occasion make-up.  I don’t even know how to do much more than put on lotion.
  6. How to run. Properly. Seriously, who can’t run.  That would be me.  I have never managed to eek out more than 0.25 miles before collapsing in a heap of rubble thinking “Who would do this on a regular basis?” And I have managed to trip over a root and break not one, but two bones while running.
  7. How not to take criticism personally.  I try.  I really do, but when someone say to me “That poem sucked.”  or “that photograph is pretty generic” or “this dish is rather bland” what I hear is “You suck. You are generic and bland.”  and then I think no one likes me.
  8. How to sew. Clothes.  Skin I can manage, and I did learn to darn socks when I was a child, but who does that anymore?
  9. How to air-kiss.  I mean what’s the point.  Kissing should involve lips and tongues and attractive men.  Otherwise, what’s the point… just shake hands.  Or hug.  I only wish people in France, Brazil, or basically anywhere not in the USA [or Japan] would come around to my way of thinking.
  10. How to change a diaper.  And I work with kids.  In a hospital.  Where diapers are being changed constantly.  Who knew people at home didn’t actually weigh the diapers to see how much pee it contained.  They just tossed them away.  So cavilier–these people we call parents.
  11. How to use a budget.  I can set one up just fine, and I always have a very good estimate of how much money is in any given account and/or how much I owe. I am just not every good at following a plan.
  12. How to drive a stick shift.  I am ashamed to admit it.  It has held me back in some of my travels.  I have only owned 3 cars in my lifetime and none of those have been stick shifts.
  13. How to manage time well. I often get distracted by things that are much more fun than the task I am currently doing.  Cleaning out the file cabinet–boring.  Reading all the stuff I found stuff in the file cabinet–much more interesting.  Let’s not even get started about all the things I find on the internet at 3am.
  14. How to have meaningful conversations.  I am sarcastic at times. Snarky even.  I make light of serious subjects.  Humour is a defense mechansim and I use it well.  Becuase when the time comes, how do you really bring up serious conversations.  And if you can manage to braoch the topic–how do you have a honest conversation about the serious parts of life.
  15. How to tell people what I want.  Whether in the more personal aspects of life or the more general.  How do you say no, I really don’t want to go to that party with you.  I’d really rather just stay home.

  • 16.  How to ask for help.  I grew up super independent.  No one ever had to check my homework, wake me up for school, or tell me it’s time for bed.  I probably went years without asking anyone for anything.  Now that I am an adult, there are situations that I am in where I really need help.  At work—you can’t save a dying person by yourself.  At home–Molly and Lucy need someone to look after them when I travel.  In life–maybe just how to do all these things I don’t know how to do.
  • 17.  How to say I love you.  Especially when I really mean it.  I can tell the kitties I love them all day long, but people–especially the ones I am closest too–saying I love you usually causes me to break out into an episode that looks strangely like a heart attack on an EKG.  But to those people–and you know who you are–I love you.  I am glad you are in my life.  There I said it.  Just don’t think this will be a regularly occurring event.
  • 18.  How to tip people?  I mean why is this even necessary.  [and yes, I have worked in the service industry where most of  my income was from tips]  I am not going to tip someone for getting a bag out of the car for me.  Or turning down my sheets [not that this happens often as I don’t usually take taxis or stay in fancy hotels]  But why should I tip someone for doing their job.  No one tips me when I save their life or their child’s life and I’d argue that CPR is one damn important service.  I don’t even get a ‘great job on the rescue breathing’ or ‘those were some awesome chest compression you did’ so I don’t see the rationale behind giving a tip to the person who cuts my hair or cleans my hotel room.
  • 19.  How to break up with someone.  Hasn’t been much of an issue of late because generally the guys break up with me.  And while that sucks.  At least I am not the bad guy.
  • 20.  How to select produce or meat.  Grocery stores present a huge challenge for me.  I usually walk around looking lost.  And I don’t generally buy more than bananas.  It’s the only thing I know I can’t mess up.  Unless I select a plantain by accident.
  • 21.  How to match shoes and purses with my outfit.  Which is possibly the real reason I don’t carry a purse. Or have a wide variety of shoes to choose from.
  • 22.  How to really work my cell phone.  It’s a phone, people. And that is what I use it as.  Occasionally I use it to look up something on the internet or post something to Facebook, but that’s about it.  I don’t tweet, pin, or do much more from my phone other than talk and occasional text.  I know… I sound so OLD.  [I am getting better at this one though]
  • 23.  How to do cool things on the computer.  Ok, so I have a blog.  I am fairly good with a camera, but Photoshop–I have no clue.  Making cool videos–no idea.  I can crank out research papers with the best of them, but figuring out how to present them using SMART technology is beyond me.
  • 24.  How to work an ipod… or any MP3 player.  I am probably the last person in the USA who has never owned a MP3 player.  In fact, I have no apple products of any kind [see #22–what would I do with an iphone].
  • 25.  How to pack a real lunch.  I always end up packing too much or too little.  It’s never just right.  Especially since I work the night shift at a place that has no cafeteria service overnight, I have to bring everything that I might want. [Well, they do still have soup, applesauce, and milk]
  • 26.  How to walk in heels.  Especially the spiky ones.
  • 27.  How to network. I am horrible at this.  I hate talking about myself in general, and I especially hate promoting myself.  But I have taken small steps to work on this.  Baby steps are better than no steps
  • 28.  How to use a fire extinguisher.  Only because I have never had to.  I have to take the yearly competency exam at work.  I know what PASS stands for, but what if I can’t get the pin out?
  • 29.  How to kick someone’s ass when necessary Literally and figuratively–I struggle with this.
  • 30.  How to properly start a fire without matches –and I call myself an adventurer… [shakes head in shame]