Let’s get honest: traveling solo

Today is Valentine’s Day–a day where couples celebrate their love, or for the more cynical among us, a day capitalized on by card makers, candy purveyors, and jewelry hawkers. Despite any appearance I may give, I’ve been coupled up [and mostly happily coupled] every year since I was 19 years old.  My sole year as a singleton, I happened to spend in Italy–a placed designed for romance.  I survived asking for a table per uno when dining alone in Tuscany.  I was treated to a free tour and then some by an amazing vespa driver who decided no one should be alone in Rome, and no one should be alone on their birthday.  Never-mind I was meeting a group of people for a tour the very next day.  What happens in Italy, stays in Italy [you know, at least the non-travel parts].

Overall, I am a private person and just because I choose to be on the internet doesn’t mean my partner does.  I respect that.  My current partner hates airplane travel, and doesn’t really enjoy long car rides– the most distance we’ve traveled together is Florida [about 8 hours in the car together].  And you know what, that’s OK.  That means I have an automatic support system at home.  I have someone to feed the cats and check the mail.  I have someone who can contact banks and such if  I’m abroad.  Sure, we haven’t invented a way to literally ‘reach out and touch someone’ but with technology being what it is, I can video-chat, talk, text, or whatever anytime I’m gone.  And missing someone makes coming home so much sweeter.  And there’s always someone to pick me up at the airport. So, I am not a solo traveler.  Or at least not by choice.  Given the opportunity, I would rather share amazing sunsets or  discover interesting things or go on hikes with someone than do it alone.  But I’d rather do all these things alone than not do them at all.  And therein lies the quandary.

At the Olympic Stadium in Berlin

Long-term solo travel is still an uncommon practice in the United States [as compared to Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, but getting more popular every day] so when I announced my plans to travel around South America for a year plus my news was met with trepidation more than excitement.  Perhaps the main issue was that most of my friends, co-workers, and family had never heard of someone taking a year off and heading off without concrete plans.  Add in the media hype of danger at every turn outside the US borders and I can *somewhat* understand their concerns.

However, sixteen months after leaving, I returned, all in one piece, only having one real story of danger to report. I have since traveled even more extensively, to places where I don’t speak the language, and *somewhat* off the tourist trail. I have not found the media view of danger at every turn to in fact be a fact.  BUT in the early days of planning every time someone told me of ‘something’ happening ‘somewhere’ I wondered if I needed to be prepared for that–whatever ‘that’ may be [‘That’ ranged from the plague to kidnappings to earthquakes].  Eventually I said fuck-it-all, and just went with the fact that I’ve successfully gotten myself ‘un-lost’ on several occasions, have survived natural disasters, and have even managed to disentangle myself from unsavory characters while at home.

DSCF0298

So while safety was always the first thing someone brought up upon hearing my plans, the ‘solo’ aspect was immediately next as in ‘aren’t you afraid to go by yourself?‘ or ‘what if you get lonely?‘ or several other well-meaning but misguided questions. The truth of the matter is that as an only child who grew up in the country instead of a neighborhood full of other kids being by myself is the least of my concerns.

For me, it was always the opposite.  I am/ was worried other people would get on my nerves and I’d have no alone time.  I have since learned that as a solo traveler I can have as much or as little ‘alone’ time as I want, and it’s always easy to meet up with other travelers for activities, day trips, or whatevs.


At 19, I planned to go to England with my then-boyfriend.  I worked my entire freshman year of college to save up enough money for flights, train tickets, souvenirs, ect. A last minute change of plans on his part meant either go by myself  or not go at all.  And so I went.  By myself.  Which was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. I hate asking for directions, or talking to strangers.  I don’t trust easily. But I went anyway. And I had fun.  I learned to trust my judgement.  I learned not to be scared of everything and everyone.  I hung out in pubs in England.  I discovered the joys of hiking in Wales. I discovered Harry Potter in Scotland. Sure, I read some when I was out eating.  I didn’t eat a whole lot of dinners in restaurants.  I was 19!  I wouldn’t have felt comfortable eating in restaurants with someone.

sleepy kitty at the farm
At Muckross Farm in Ireland

What I did learn is that young, solo female travelers are pretty much on the lowest of the low of  in terms of travelers. Couples have safety in numbers, even groups of 2 or 3 females traveling together have it made compared to the single traveler, and male solo travelers — well, it’s just different for a solo man. And as I’ve gotten older, well, let’s just say I attract less attention than I used to– and I am more than OK with that. Of course I still get nervous if I get lost and followed by strangers; that’s just the evolutionary equivalent of being chased by saber toothed tigers.

Taking Risks

There is no one-size fits all rule. Life, and travel, is about constantly assessing a situation, making predictions, observations, and acting based on those assessments. I do this everyday at work. Seeing people, assessing the situation, making decisions based on those assessments. Traveling [and working in healthcare] has greatly increased my ability to size up a situation and a person and make an accurate judgment. In talking to people from all walks of life, all cultures, backgrounds, attitudes I have created a mental book of knowledge from which I pull when I encounter something new. If safety is the topic, then I have only increased my safety by traveling and added new experiences from which I can draw in uncertain situations.

So what have I learned

  1. Understand local cultural norms…. don’t expect them to conform to you.  I always try to learn a bit of the local language before I arrive– even if it’s just hello.
  2. Involve others in your safety…. let others [even if its just the hotel staff] know your plans.
  3. Stay aware….
  4. Stay sober…. being fucked-up greatly diminishes your situational awareness
  5. Know basic self-defense…. even if you never plan to use it
  6. Carry travel insurance… stuff can be replaced; you can’t
  7. Pay for your safety [even if that means a paying more for a cab or hotel versus the metro, u-bahn, subway…].

alexanderplatz christmas market
Enjoying local beverages should be fun; getting drunk while doing so should be verboten!

Which brings me to my final point– Anything can happen anywhere.

  • I have never been robbed while traveling. But I have had my wallet stolen and my car broken into in my driveway while I was  at home [upstairs] minding my own business.
  • On the other hand, I left my backpack in a taxi en route to the Cancun airport in 2002 and not only did someone return it to the airport lost & found, but everything was intact, including cash [$MEX and $USD] and credit cards.
  • I’ve never been physically hurt while traveling… I can’t say the same for life at home.
  • Other than a few cat-calls while in Mexico and Italy, I’ve never been sexually harassed while traveling.  Not so for life in the good ‘ole U S of A.

Above all, whenever you are out and about – at home or abroad – be aware of your surroundings and trust your instincts.  If something feels wrong, it probably is.

Beware of  bears

Conversations from a bar

Every empty bottle is filled with stories

–a conversation that occurred in Medellin bar in August, 2010.

A Bar is a unique place

Colombia is a beautiful country.  The Andes Mountains, the Amazon jungle, the Cocora valley are all amazing. In addition to the natural beauty, Colombia has beautiful people.  Some of them are naturally beautiful and some of them–well, they have a little help.  The plastic surgeons in Colombia do a fantastic job. Medellin is my third stop in Colombia.  It is kind of like Goldilocks and the 3 bears.  The weather in Bogota was too cold.  The weather in Leticia was too hot, but the weather in Medellin is just right. The days are warm and the nights are cool. It feels like fall. [or spring]

A funny thing happened at a bar last night.  I went out with some English/Australian guys that were staying in the same hostels (We had actually met on the cable car that goes to the top of the city.) So at some point during the evening after an indeterminate number of drinks, in an unidentified bar, a conversation much like the following took place:

Guy 1:  “Are those real?”  (referring to boobs, but not mine of course)
Me:  “Nope.  No way”.
Guy 2:  “Yeah.  I reckon.  You can tell the difference.”
Guy 1: “Aha ha.  I agree.  Definite difference in shape.”
Me: “Yeah.  But there’s no way that they could be real.
Guy 2: Compare hers (Colombian chic) to hers (mine).  Definite extra perkiness. No offense” (referring to Colombian chic)
Guy 1: “I’m still not convinced.  They’re too good to be real.”
Me: “Why don’t you just ask her?”
Guy 1: “Huh?”
Guy 2: “What?”
Me: “Just ask her”
Guy 1: “That would be funny.”
Me:  “Yeah.  Go on.  Or I will.”
Guy 2: “I don’t know.  That’s pretty random.  Imagine if someone came up to you and…”
Me: “C’mon’.  It’s the only way to settle it.  Fuck it.  I’ll do it…”

So somewhere, in the night, after an indeterminate number of drinks plus a few more, in the same unidentified bar, another conversation, much like the following, took place:

Guy 1: “What the fuck did you touch them for?”
Me: “She said I could.”
Guy 1: “And so you just grabbed them?”
Me: “Yep.”
Guy 2: “And?”
Me: “Real.”
Guy 1: “Definitely?  Did she say so?”
Me: “Yep.”
Guy 2: “What did she say exactly?”
Me:  “They’re real.  Good hmm?
Guy 2: “In English?”
Me: “In English.”
Guy 2: “Fuck off”

Me :  You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever touched a pair of boobs other than my own…

busty plastic girls
These are definitely fake

Conversations similar to the above are, probably, not uncommon in Medellin.  It is, apparently, the plastic surgery capital of the world in a country that is probably the most plastic surgerized in the world.  Or at least close to.  Such a place has a significant reputation to live up to.  However, Medellin does it with aplomb, cosmetic surgical intervention striking you anywhere you turn.  Seriously, fake boobs are everywhere. They are more normal than natural boobs.  If you don’t have them, you’re the odd one out.  Old woman have them.  Girls far younger than the legal drinking age have them.  Yes, I even saw a cat that had them (this may or may not be true).  I read somewhere, but I now don’t recall where, that the prevalence of silicon in Medellin is largely due to Medellin’s former status as the center of the world cocaine trade.  Don’t ask me why that means fake boobs all over the place – I guess drug lords liked them big.  In any event, the reality remains, and it is one scary, bouncy and far too perky reality.

packin fellas
The same can be said for the fellas

The theory attributing Medellin’s curvaciousness to the drug lords is a popular one.  However, my own personal theory is that the female of residents of Medellin are paying homage to the great Colombian artist, Fernando Botero.

Medellin born and Medellin raised, Botero’s sculptures dominate the public artistic landscape of central Medellin, his ludicrously proportioned, voluptuous and humorous bronze figures in the Plaza Botero in particular a highlight.  If you are not familiar with Botero’s work, I can probably sum it up for you in a single word – fat.  Not ‘ph’ fat.  Just plain old ‘fat’.  Like everything being seen through one of those crazy mirrors that makes everything look fat. Not ‘ph’ fat.  Just plain old lazy bastard fat.  Having viewed a reasonably large collection of his work in Bogota, it’s clear to me that his work is at its most impressive in sculpture – the central focus of his work, the roundedness aka ‘fat’, most effective and striking when experienced in three dimensions.  Fat.  Not ‘ph’ fat.  Just good old ‘if it sits on you it’s going to hurt’ fat.

Huffing and Puffing in Potosi

I am not a tea drinker, but I also don’t like taking medications. However, altitude sickness is no joke. And Diamox was not working. So, I bowed to pressure and tried the local cure for altitude sickness… coca leaves.  At first, the idea of buying coca leaves seems almost rebellious.  After all, coca leaves are the beginning product cocaine.  Drinking coca leaf tea was a novelty for me. It  has a bitter taste; it’s primarily coca leaves and hot water. But being in the world’s highest city requires some concessions, and for me, that concession was ingesting coca leaf–in my case, by chewing the leaves.

Coca leaves became an integral part of my day; I chewed the leaves multiple times a day, and each time, I got a little mental boost–a bit of alertness to soothe the metal sluggishness that goes along with altitude sickness.  In some way, I became addicted to the sticky green masticated leaves–it was the only thing that soothed my altitude sickness and made my stay in Potosi enjoyable.

coca leaf
Sticky, green, masticated, coca leaves… my only salvation from the crushing pressure of altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness aside, spending two week in Potosi, was a great decision. A better decision, perhaps, would have been to come to Potosi from La Paz instead of the realitively flat Cochebamba.

At 13,500 ft above sea level, Potosi will literally take your breath away, but it’s colonial charms will figuratively leave you breathless.

Potosi Bolivia 2

Potosi is a UNESCO protected city and walking around the flat parts of the city, it’s easy to marvel over the beauty of the buildings or wonder what the area must have been like when the Spanish discovered the silver in the Cerro Rico mountain that looms over the city. However, when walking uphill around the city, which is at least half the time, my will to explore was seriously in question. But my desire to explore won out, and while walking down the well-maintained colonial streeets it’s easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of the 16th and 17th century when Potosi was one of the world’s richest and had a population larger than Madrid.

cerro rico

On the darker side of things, it’s also easy to imagine the amount of work that mining the silver for which this town gained famed, and how that work would have been done. When the Spanish discovered the Cerro Rico in 1544 it was the richest source of silver in the known world. Potosi and Spain grew rich from the proceeds, but this wealth came at an tremendous cost in human and animal lives and pain and suffering. The Spanish brought an estimated 30,000 Africian slaves, enslaved indigenous locals, used untold numbers of horse and llama to get the goods to the Atlantic coast to ship to Spain. Historians claim that the system of slavery that Spain’s Viceroy Toledo created resulted in a massive depopulation of the Andean highlands. The mortality rates in the mines were amazingly high, and over the next three hundred years, the Spanish authorities, in collusion with the mine owners and the Catholic Church, pressed millions of indigenous Andean peoples into slavery to work in the mines.
It’s estimated that the barbaric conditions in the mines caused the deaths of between eight and ten million indigenous and African slaves.

money machine potosi boliva

So important was the Cerro Rico, and so entwined was the Catholic Church with the mines, that all the churches in Potosi point not to the east, but to the mountain, and some of the religious art is shaped to represent the pyramid shape of the mountain. If you want to see some Bolivian silver, there’s plenty on display in Potosi’s churches, but you could equally go to any of the major cathedrals in Spain to uncover where all that silver went.

san teresa convent

The Spanish brought the Catholic Church’s Inquisition to the Spanish colonies, something dramatically depicted in the painting below. As per usual, it was often women on the receiving end of ingenious methods of torture…

san teresa convent

Falling in love again

Charleston is the first city that stole my heart.  I was 9, on a South Carolina history field trip, and riding the boat to Fort Sumter.  I knew at that moment that I would do everything in my power to have that feeling again…wind in my hair, salty air on my lips…freedom….Nevermind I was with 50 or so other 3rd graders, in my mind, I was on my own.

Approaching Fort Sumter

Charleston was also the city I escaped to when I ran away from home at 15. For three glorious days in June, I was a beach bum in Isle of Palms. I read books and swam in the ocean and my hotel’s pool. Then I decided to return home before my absence was noticed. Once again, Charleston represented freedom.

2016 Isle of Palms

Charleston was also the first place I had my heart broken. No, not by some boy, [although that did come later], but by a school. I had an athletic/academic scholarship to College of Charleston to play volleyball, but when I got hurt playing softball my senior year of high school, they took it back. I still wonder what my life would be like if I had gone to CofC instead of Erskine. There’s a good chance that ever single aspect of my life would be different than it is now.

college of charleston
The oh-so-beautiful College of Charleston campus. It was founded in 1770, before the USA was even a country.

Charleston is also the one place I return to at least yearly, if not more often. Whenever my energy level is flailing, I return to Charleston, or at least to the beaches nearby. Sun and salt water heal me faster than nearly anything else on the planet.

So it was with some trepidation that I returned to the scene of the crime, so to speak. Quite some time ago, I was here for my friend’s wedding with my then boyfriend as my date. Of course the wedding was the main focus, but we had hoped to carve out some alone time, too. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, due to how to say it—I fucked everything up due to excessive alcohol consumption. [Note: 2016 version of Michelle does not consume alcohol for several reasons, but a big one is to avoid future situations like this one.] The relationship sputtered on for a bit, but ultimately ended. And I’ve always felt bad about that. So Charleston became the place where I fucked up the best relationship I’ve ever been in, and despite my love for the city, it’s always hurt to return to Charleston, but I do, because really, how can you not love a city that looks like this?

Charleston walkabout 2016 queen st
Houses that look like this

Charleston walkabout 2016
Buildings like this

Arthur_Ravenel_Bridge
Bridge architecture like this

UNITARIAN CHURCH YARD, CHARLESTON, SC
Cemeteries like these

another-broken-egg-cafe
food like this

battery-park-cannon-sunrise5
History such as this

capers island sc
and beaches like this

However, life is funny and fickle and as fate would have it, we both had reasons to be in the city at the same time years after that fateful weekend. And we both knew ahead of time the other would be there too.

Running into each other Friday night on King Street was magical. One hug melted away years of what-ifs? Dinner of hamburgers and fries tasted like the most wonderful food on the planet. We made plans for Saturday to do some of the things we were unable to do together all those years ago… like wander around an aircraft carrier…

Flight deck on USS Yorktown
Flight deck on USS Yorktown

get up close and personal with airplanes

P1010031

and tour a decommissioned submarine, because you know, us history nerds  in the world have to stick together.

Life inside a submarine
Life inside a submarine

We also took a walk on the beach hand in hand, watched the sunrise over the Atlantic, and wrote our initials in the sand. Sure it was cold. After all, it IS January, but 40 degrees at sunrise in January is just about perfect.

2016 folly-beach-sc

And just like that, the weekend was over. We went our separate ways. Who knows what the future holds? Certainly not me, but at least I can say that I fell in love with Charleston again. The most negative memory of the city in my memory-bank has been removed and replaced by the most perfect weekend in recent memory.

Places are like that for me. Linked forever with memories of people and events and food, not just the scenery. Charleston and I have a rich, complicated history and while things are good now, like the most complex relationship with people, I expect it to be ever-changing, ebbing and flowing between love, languish, serenity, and hate.

Charleston walkabout 2016 ghost sign
Relationships are like ghost signs; evidence of their past are etched all over a city.

Enjoy this post? Look for other posts with the #weekendwanderlust tag.
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A letter to myself

Dear self,

Here are your tasks for 2016… It may seem like a lot right now, but you have an entire year + an extra day, so no whining*

  • You have a new job this year… so don’t suck at it… Also, do not kill anyone. [I kept the new job for a grand total of 6 months.  The environment was highly toxic, and for my own sanity, I left.   And I didn’t kill anyone… I call that a win]
  • Keep your shit together… organize your mail, email, and any other important communication and keep it that way for more than 3 nanoseconds.  Along those lines, keep your space organized. [Organization has been my nemesis since birth, but I try.  I call this one a draw]
  • Spend time with people who love you and believe in you.  [There have been more days than I care to count where the only words uttered from my mouth were LUCY! or CHRISTOPHER! I say this was a miserable failure. Going to school and working full-time in the evening make socializing harder than it needs to be]
  • Acknowledge that some things are out of your control and above your pay grade.
  • Stop saying sorry when that’s not what you mean. (Acceptable times to apologize include: when you break something that’s not yours, when you hurt someone’s feelings accidentally, when you step on someone’s toe, etc.).  Stop apologizing for every.little.thing that goes on in life.  Not everything is your fault.
  • Take responsibility for your self… (Examples including finding a dentist, dealing with the DMV, investing in your future, ect).
  • When needed, remind yourself that you have a right to take up space whether that is on a trail or in a hospital room surrounded by physicians.  Do not be intimidated by others.
  • Be nice to yourself.
  • Don’t completely succumb to adulthood, but still try to pay bills on time. [Yay, another win.  I dance with patients in their rooms, play with therapy dogs, and generally try to have fun while working. Health is a serious business, but I don’t always have to be serious]
  • Re-define impossible.
  • Do that yoga push-up chataranga thing that currently makes you feel like you’re going to collapse and smash your nose on the ground.
  • Remember that you always, always, always have a choice. We choose our emotions.  Sure, there are situations which will frustrate you.  There will be times when you are disappointed, but being disappointed is a choice. Being frustrated is a choice. Smiling and laughing it off is a choice… On that note, choose smiling.
  • Try to see failure as a painful, but necessary part of success — not a mandate on your character. Try.
  • Keep getting stronger.
  • Embrace partial success. Embrace progress, even the very small, barely noticeable, infinitesimal progress.

Celebrate life.

Lots of love

me, december 30, 2015

PS:  read & re-read this letter as many times as necessary throughout the year.  If needed, print off this letter , carry it around with you, and read this letter any time you need encouragement.

Surgery, history, and chemistry, oh my!

I LOVE all things related to medicine–especially the history of medicine and the science that goes along with it so given that I was ecstatic to visit 6! nerdy, science-y, medical-y museum in a span of two weeks. Not a super well known fact, but IRL I am a registered nurse and before that I worked as a registered respiratory therapist. There isn’t a single area in a hospital that I haven’t spent time in as a professional…Emergency rooms, YEP. Operating Rooms, YEP. Morgue during autopsy, YEP. Pharmacy Prep areas, YEP. Delivery Rooms, YEP. Intensive Care Units, YEP, and regular ole patients’ room. I’ve worked in them all at some point or another. SO, it should come as no surprise to anyone, that I LOVE all things related to medicine. Enter the Operating Museum and Herb Garret, Science Museum, Hospital Museum, Pathology Museum, and Florence Nightingale Museum. All located in London and all open to visitors. [However, they are not all free].  The Semmelweis Museum in Budapest makes up the sixth museum in this sext-fecta of historical medical museums.

First up…The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret aka one of the coolest and best museums in LONDON.

operating museum 10

In the shadow of the Shard, near all the cool and modern construction that is going on near London Bridge, lies The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett.  It is a spectacular little museum filled with tons of historic and interesting items related to medicine, pharmacy, and surgery; it is also one of those museums that you don’t necessarily hear a lot about and even if you do, you are still not really sure where it is.  It’s hidden away in the roof space of what was once St. Thomas’ church. It was closed last time I was in London, so I made sure that I’d be able to go in this time. Missing the old Operating Theatre twice probably would have killed me. Thankfully, we won’t have to find out.

The Old Operating Theatre is a bit hard to find.  I found it as I find most things, by wandering, but that’s not the recommended way of getting there. It’s a bit off the beaten tourist path in London [still Zone 1, still in the city].  If you can find the fabulous Borough Market, which is celebrating 1000! [let that sink in a moment] years in Southwark, then you can find the old operating theatre. I whole-heartedly recommend visiting the market for food and drink and then some more food…[perhaps after the museum if you tend to be a bit squeamish] Anyway…you wander down St Thomas Street and as you do so, you are greeted by this ever-so-slightly alarming skull. And this is one of the many reasons I love London. It’s not often that a skull greets the visitor at a proper museum. operating museum 1

What’s far MORE alarming, at least to me and my propensity to trip and fall on staircases and hurt myself, is the never-ending spiral of stairs [32 tiny, narrow stairs, in case you were counting] that lead up into the old operating theatre. It DOES take some effort, but it IS worth it.

operating museum 8

First is the herb garret. The heady scent from the big bowls of medicinal herbs and spices will smack you violently in the face the second you go inside, so be prepared for that. Once inside there are numerous displays of herbs, spices, medicinal plants, distillations, tinctures and powders, all with thoughtful hand-written explanations and thoughtful captions such as this description for Motherwort, taken from Maud Grieve’s A Modern Herbal (1931): “Especially valuable in female weakness and disorders…allaying nervous irritability and inducing quiet and passivity of the whole nervous system. Good against hysterical complaints.”  [because you know those damn Victorians were obsessed with curing ‘female weakness and hysterical complaints’]

operating museum 5

There isn’t a square inch of free surface space in the place – it’s an apothecary of chaos. The ambiance created by the smell is absolutely fantastic – there’s a sense of life and of discovery, purely down to the mixing aromas of all the ingredients in the room. It is visually stunning, and somewhat overwhelming, but it *feels* real. I can almost imagine I’m in the old-school apothecary where they just grab a little of this and a bit of that, call it a prescription and send you on your way. And whether or not they’re sure of which herb goes where, who knows? But you get a real sense for the magic and the experimental spirit that lead us to modern pharmacy we have today.

herb manual

 

Potion making at old operating museum

Once you’ve had your fill of the apothecary [or if the smell starts to get to you], head on to the back to the Operating Theatre. This is the earliest surviving example of an operating room in Europe, [circa 1850 or therabouts] ,and it’s pretty impressive. This one was a teaching theatre, and you really feel that priority was given to the spectators in this environment.

operating museum 2

At times, I tend to have an over-active imagination, and it is easy to picture the gruesome scene– well-attired medics sawing through flesh, blood squirting everywhere, scholars craning their necks for a closer look, and for those without strong stomachs– swooning, or making a mad dash for the nearest bed pan; and let’s not forget the blood-curdling screams of the patients…imagine this…a patient is lying on the operating table…wide awake and staring wide-eyed right back at the surgeon. Anesthetics hadn’t been discovered yet and patients were given the option of whisky, opium, or being knocked out by being hit on the head with a mallet.

Surgical technique was still a bit of a idiomatic expression; surgeons relied on swift amputation techniques, the faster you could remove a limb the better a surgeon you were. Most patients died of infection rather than the actual blood loss or surgery and the old frock coats worn by surgeons during operations were, according to a contemporary, ‘stiff and stinking with pus and blood.’

hospital museum 6

Patients often had injuries which prevented them from taking the spiral staircase up to the theater, and were therefore transported into the theater via a pulley system and an opening in the wall behind the current chalkboard. The ground would also be covered in straw to help prevent blood from dripping onto patrons of the church below the theater. [because that would be rude…taking communion to received the body and blood of Christ only to receive the ACTUAL blood of John Smith or some other mere mortal]

Museum visitors are also provided with a first-hand account for good measure:

The first two rows… were occupied by the other dressers, and behind a second partition stood the pupils, packed like herrings in a barrel, but not so quiet…The confusion and crushing was indeed at all times very great, especially when any operation of importance was to be performed, and I have often known even the floor so crowded that the surgeon could not operate until it had been partially cleared. There was also a continual calling out of “Heads, Heads” to those about the table whose heads interfered with the sightseers.

Having observed [and had!] surgery up close and personal as well as from a gallery [in the 21st century], I much prefer the 21st century way of doing things.

Exit the theatre and one can examine the instruments of torture: tools for trepanning; row after row of blades, designed for every imaginable variety of amputation; and even a physician’s stick, used for walking, but also held across the patients mouth as a restraint during surgery – as evidenced by the surviving teeth marks. This was by far my favorite part of the museum.

hospital museum 5

Elsewhere, there are areas dedicated to the use of animals in medicine (leeches or maggots anyone?), bizarre Victorian contraptions for the hard of hearing, and a number of human organs pickled in formaldehyde, including a pair of lungs blackened by the London smog.

operating museum 11

The most important disccovery of the 20th century

Apologies…more science

feel free to skip if science bores you, but I think it’s fascinating…

What do you thing the most important discovery of the 20th century was?  Flight?  definitely an important one, especially for us travellers. Einstein’s theory of relativity?   Sure, it’s important, but how often does the average person use it.  I’m going with the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928.  Yes, I’m a science nerd [I have a degree in microbiology] but the discovery of penicillin is arguably one of the most important discoveries if you think of its effects on the health of everyone.   So number three in my medical museum adventures in the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum opened in 1993  Its centerpiece is a reconstruction of the laboratory as it was in 1928 in the actual room in which Fleming had made his discovery.  How cool is that?

Since photography isn’t allowed in the museum, let’s take this opportunity to learn a little bit more about our hero.

Fleming was born in a farming community in rural Ayrshire [Scotland] and had a very basic education – but he developed his powers of observation during the early years. Bored with being a shipping clerk in London he applied to be a surgeon but was turned down. [We can all be grateful for that ironic twist of fate.  He’d be the one spreading the germs instead of killing them.]

However, following receiving a small inheritance, he re-applied and became a medical student at St Mary’s excelling at all his exams. After graduation he joined the department of Bacteriology, headed up by Almroth Wright. He was one of those caricature flamboyant physicians who believed passionately in research, especially into typhoid, but not in keeping statistics [much like myself…I love experimenting, but keeping records, not so much]. His work was in immunization and this is the department that Fleming joined–working on lysosomes, one of our natural defenses against—wait for it— BACTERIA.

Everyone loves the story of how Fleming came to make his first major discovery regarding lysosymes. He had a cold and a drop of snot fell out of his nose on to a culture plate of bacteria which began to dissolve. Who would have ever thought snot would be the answer.

From there you probably know the  rest …  In the summer of 1928, Fleming left the lab for vacations but left some petri dishes containing the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus [a naturally occurring skin bacteria] on his laboratory bench. He was done with them, but for whatever reason didn’t clean up his work space before he left. On his return to work on 3 September 1928, he took one last look at them before asking his laboratory technician to sterilize them.

In a today’s lab, petri dishes are plastic, used only once and then destroyed. In 1928, they were made of glass and reused after being soaked in a shallow bath of disinfectant followed by a quick wipe. Let’s just say if lab hygiene in 1928 was similar to today’s standards penicillin may not have been discovered…. Anyway….. Something peculiar caught his eye and he said, “Hmm, that’s funny”, he said. The petri dish had been contaminated by a mold which had inhibited the growth of the bacteria.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Fleming went on to publish his findings – that the mold penicillin seemed to kill Bacteria – in 1929 and he continued to practice at St Mary’s. The problem then became how to manufacture ‘enough’ mold to be able to use it to combat sepsis, which was of the main killer of the times.

Ten or so years later the work continued at Oxford where two researchers, Howard Florey (from New Zealand) and Ernst Chain (from Germany), worked on the manufacture of penicillin. The start of world war II added impetus (and money) to the research project with the thinking being that wounded service personnel could be saved and turned round to fight again – by D-Day there was enough penicillin for every combatant.

Public recognition came in the shape  of a Nobel prize for all three men. [yay!]

Hanging out in Bogotá

Ok, I’ll admit it: I was not enthusiastic when my flight to Maricaibo was canceled and Bogotá became my first stop in South America. I  planned to skipped the Colombian capital altogether and I was not at all excited to visit Bogotá.  In hindsight, Bogotá most definitely was a better ( and probably safer) introduction to South America than Maricaibo.

La Candelaria, Bogota

My original plans were to skip Bogotá because I had read so many horror stories of muggings and I hadn’t found any articles in which people were raving about the city. It seemed like most people were rushing through Bogotá, hitting up the most important museums, using it as a transit stop and moving on quickly to the next place, whatever that place may be.

Part of the reason for choosing South America was that, in theory, I speak Spanish fluently, or at least I did 10 years ago. I’m feeling a little isolated since I am trying to not speak English unless it is absolutely necessary, but today that changed. Not that I magically became fluent overnight, but it is coming back to me, especially if the person with whom I am speaking speaks slowly (for Spanish).

For example, today I took the Transmileno to the other side of Bogotá for no reason than to see another part of the city.

transmilenio bogota

On the return trip, I had conversation with an elderly gentleman who sat next to me. It was nothing serious, weather, I’m new in town, ect, but it was a chance to practice Spanish with someone who didn’t speak crazy fast. I’m feeling a little more confident. After successfully ordering lunch [3 courses $5500 ~3.25], I stopped in the frutería. I only wanted to get a few snacks for the road, but I was talked into a fruit salad. Nothing like I’ve ever had. It included mango, papaya, pear, banana, and a couple other fruits I have never seen before. Before leaving, I ask the fruit man Que es esto? esto y esto, and very patiently he shows me all the fruits in the store, both in the natural state and the cut up state. So while my fruit salad was only slightly less than lunch, the education about fruit was worth the $2.75 price tag.

fruit salad bogota

Bogotá is a city of more than 8 million people, and I am not a big-city person, but as if often the case, big cities are full of fascinating history and people.  I arrived at El Dorado airport at 2a, a full one day + 18 hours after my intended arrival time.  I just wanted to get into a bed as quickly as possible.  So I took a taxi, which I hate, to my hostel in Candelaria, where I promptly crashed for a few hours.

The next morning, I started to explore the city, and I noticed two things right away: the altitude [O.M.G breathing is so hard] and the thick layer of gray clouds that hover over the city on most days. The altitude – Bogotá sits at 8,675 feet caused me to huff and puff my way up and down Candelaria’s steep streets like a chain-smoking asthmatic; I never got used to it during my two weeks in the city. Bogotá is not exactly warm;  I can see why it’s off the radar with most travelers – especially when you were coming from sea level, tropical temperatures and perfect weather.

I joined a few of the free walking tours during  my stay; they are excellent for getting bearings straight in a new city, finding out a few more details about the city, places to hit up, and adressing safety concerns.  They are also good for traveling by yourself but having saftey in numbers.

candelaria

Bogotá blew my mind as an interesting destination and I was always a little bit happy when I had to return to the city for various reasons. Stay tuned for more posts about Bogotá, and how it beyond exceeded my expectations and really got me excited for traveling again.

Swimming with fairies and the beauty of Skye

When I was a little kid, I used to love to play make believe, and play in the creek behind my house. I’m sure that I wasn’t the only kid in the world who liked to play make-believe or play in creeks, but being as how I was an only child who lived out in the country far away from other kids, playing make-believe was a great source of entertainment for me. I loved to pretend that I was either invisible sea monster or a witch or better yet, an invisible sea monster-witch. Skye would have been a great place to grow up.

Can you imagine all the fun someone with an active imagination could have here?

Just imagine being an invisible fairy with eternal life and the power to enthrall people.. it’d make sense to live here, bewitching visitors to take off all their clothes [because now I’m a bawdy wench]. The spell of the Fairy Pools is that they look as if they must be warm…

I mean with that kind of vivid blue water it must be like the Caribbean Sea, but having come straight down from the Black Cuillins, they are anything but warm. The saying goes: temperatures in Scotland are either cold, bastard cold, or damn freezing cold. And checking in at a balmy 43F, I say these swimming holes are bastard cold.

Skye, Scotland
Skye, Scotland

Perhaps it is the fairy mischief that makes me want to jump into this amzing clear blue water. Water that is face-smackingly, lung-contractingly cold…wet-suit be damned… I jump in…ohmygod thisissofuckingcold…I clamber back out to catch my breath. Fairy magic…I haul my carcass out of the swimming hole, warm up, and dive in again and again. This is river swimming at its most magical.

The Isle of Skye is the largest of the Hebridean islands. It is easy to navigate, easily reached from the mainlaind village of Kyleakin, and has a huge variety of landscapes packed into a relatively small space. Scottish Gaelic is the predominate language of this part of the country , and in this area of around 10,000 people spread out over the islands, is raw wilderness.  Each sight is slightly more awe inspiring than the previous.

Just let the beauty of it all soak in for a minute, will ya?

Leaving Skye, I passed probably the most famous castle in Scotland. In my less than humble opinion, Eilean Donan Castle is the most beautiful castle in Scotland.  It’s even movie famous. Chances are you recognize it from a film or two.  Eilean Donan starred in Highlander, served as Sean Connery’s home in Entrapment, and was the Scottish Headquarters of MI6 in The World Is Not Enough. Anything related to the world’s most famous spy has my stamp of approval.

Off to see the wizard…

What I am about to say might be considered blasphemy to some… I didn’t travel the yellow brick road to see the land of Oz and meet the Wizard until very recently… as in I read the books Wicked and Son of a Witch before I ever knew of Dorothy and crew.

the way to oz

I KNOW… what can I say?  I missed out on a lot as a child by not having a TV or living in a town without a movie theatre.

IMG_20151106_222536

So not being a huge fan and being an infant when it closed, I hope I can be forgiven for never having heard of Autumn at OZ. In its heyday the Land of Oz could attract 20,000 visitors a day, but now the neglected Yellow Brick Road is missing some bricks, the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle is empty and the Emerald City has all but disappeared.

yellow brick road


Truthfully, it’s a little bit creepy.

Local actors dress up as characters from the book/movie. Kids [and some very strange adults] dress up in costumes. Parents take pictures of kids with Dorothy and crew as if they were Santa Claus.

cast of oz

What it is:   From 1970-1980, there was a Wizard of Oz theme park not too far from where I live now. It’s located in Beech Mountain, NC and is open to the public for one weekend only… usually the first weekend in October,although that varies as they are having a few more events for the general public. [This year is was open on Oct 3 & 4].  I say open to the public because it’s current owner is Emerald Mountain Properties and they rent out the cabins, property, ect to people who want to have private parties at the land of OZ.

If you want to go: Ticket usually go on sale in the beginning of August, and sell out quickly. This year they sold out in just TWO short Weeks. I’m not saying go or not go, but if you do, be aware that this isn’t a theme park by 2015 standards, or even 1975 standard; it’s a quirky, weird little park best suited to real, devoted Wizard of Oz fans.