Browsing "Wanderlust"
Apr 4, 2016 - Wanderlust    No Comments

The story of Szimpla Kert

Budapest is an odd little city, and part of what makes it odd also makes it cool. Budapest is home to ruin bars, and a visit to the capital of Hungary isn’t complete without a drink (or two) at one of these bars which are unique to the city and unlike nearly anything else I’ve ever seen [and for the non-drinkers among us, most of these places have offerings such as  fresh lemonade,coffee, or devine hot chocolate].  I visited my first ruin bar during my first visit to the city in January 2013. Back then, I did Budapest’s version of a ‘pub tour’ and got to visit quite a few of these establishments. My favourite by far is Szimpla Kert, a garden/pub/cafe/souvenir shop/farmer’s market/local hangout/shisha bar.  Whatever you can think of, it’s happening here.

 Budapest Ruin Pubs

Known by locals as ‘romkocsma’ (ruin pub in Hungarian), these pubs have been a part of the drinking culture for over a dozen years. Every one is unique but, more often than not, a ruin pub in Budapest will have a rundown and slightly sketchy exterior that completely contradicts the vibrant colours and unique ambience you’ll find inside. Filled with second hand furniture and nearly anything funky picked off the curb, these formerly abandoned buildings are now pretty integral to Budapest. And it all seems to have started in the city’s 7th district.

The neighbourhood was largely damaged and neglected after World War II and it’s said that ruin pubs are what changed the district’s future for the better. Where many saw abandoned factories and deteriorating apartment complexes, the people behind Szimpla saw potential. Over the years, the transformation of these buildings (and now others across the city) led to an entirely new concept in Budapest that is pretty darn cool.


The Story of Szimpla Kert

Szimpla originally opened in 2002 as an indoor cafe in a location a few blocks away from its current location, but the ruin pub trend didn’t actually begin until 2004 when they relocated to their current address at 14 Kazinczy Street.  Before Szimpla moved in, the area was a relatively quiet spot in the VII District or Jewish Quarter, and the future ‘pub’ was a dilapidated building was a former stove factory. Through the magic of vision, it was transformed into one of the coolest, most eclectic bars I have ever seen.

It was first opened as Szimpla Kertmozi [kertmozi means garden cinema in Hungarian] and their large courtyard was the place to hangout and watch underground/indie films. While they’re still known to play the occasional outdoor movie, Szimpla Kert has come a long way in the last 13+ years.

Szimpla Kert

One of the criticisms of Szimpla Kert is that approximately 80% of the guests are non-Hungarian.  In fact, while the menu and signs were in Hungarian, the languages I heard most often were English [Australian version], German, and maybe Czech [I’m a little fuzzy on that one]. Nonetheless the place represents the rebirth of Budapest.  It represents entrepreneurship and making use of the architectural opportunities of the city – even if that means the city’s ruins. Szimpla Kert changed Budapest’s international image and unintentionally created the “ruin pub” genre, for which Budapest is now famous around the world.

It’s hard to put the atmosphere into words but I’ll try… Narrow hallways and spiral staircases take you through the indoor/outdoor are where you’ll encounter dozens of rooms varying in size and usually with their own theme. When it comes to the decor,  anything goes; don’t be surprised to see a bicycle hanging from the ceiling, a clawfoot tub being used as a loveseat, a robot dancing in a phone booth or a Trabant car smack in the middle of the garden. You’ll find graffiti, funky art and pretty much everything that doesn’t ‘belong’ in a pub. And yet, it all makes perfect sense. Everything fits. Even the row of seats taken straight out of a theatre. And the neon kangaroo that was probably once part of an amusement park.

Countless other ruin pubs have followed in the footsteps of Szimpla. So much so that there are now even specifically designed venues aiming to be romkocsma-esque. The idea of converting buildings that lay in ruin into lively venues seems so simple in its resourcefulness that the idea has taken off in other cities in Europe too.

The Sunday Farmer’s Market

I’m a sucker for a good market and the city of Budapest has many. But most are closed on Sunday and only one is inside a ruin pub. Each Sunday, from 9am till 2pm, Szimpla Kert transforms into a garden of charming farmers’ market stands. There are several local vendors selling everything from fresh bread to veggies, organic spreads and even truffles. There’s also a new all-you-can-eat brunch Sunday morning in their salon upstairs with local ingredients served buffet-style.

Szimpla farmers’ market breakfast meat spread

 

Szimpla for Coffee

They have great coffee. They have free wifi. Need I say more? Most wouldn’t think to take an afternoon coffee break at a ruin pub but I actually think Szimpla is a really great place to visit during the day. You get a chance to see how bizarre some of the decor is and you’ll be sure to discover a corner or an entire room you might have missed while visiting at night. You can even bring your pet in with you (except during the farmer’s market). Another reason Szimpla Kert is great for that coffee date is it’s nice and quiet. Because silence is something you can bet you won’t find here on a Friday night. Or any night actually…

I hope by now you’ve come to realize that Szimpla Kert is more than just a bar. It’s an iconic place in Budapest with an obvious presence in the community and you can be sure if I ever find myself in Budapest again, I’ll be looking forward to seeing what cool and amazing things they have added there.

Szimpla Kert is cash only and for more information, opening hours and all current events, you can visit their website.

Mar 20, 2016 - Wanderlust    No Comments

Hanging with manatees in Crystal River

In fourth grade, I discovered coelacanths.  At the time, coelacanths were thought to be extinct, and I became fascinated with extinct and endangered species… especially water animals.  I had just given up my astronaut dreams for marine biologist dreams–trading the wild blue yonder for the deep blue. Manatees were endangered; coelacanths were extinct [since my time in 4th grade, coelacanths have been rediscovered in the Indian Ocean].  I made it my 4th grade passion to learn everything possible about these two animals, and since this is about manatees, not coelacanths, here are my 4th grade reasons for falling in love with these critters.

  • Manatees are called ‘sea cows’, and they are just as cute as land cows
  • Manatees are herbivores and spend their waking hours eating
  • Manatees breath about once every 3 minutes… up to once every 5-6 minutes when they are sleeping [fascinating fact for someone who used to be all about how people breathe]
  •  Manatees can live in both fresh water and salt water, but can’t pressurize their ears so you’ll always see them on the surface or just below.
  • Manatees are related to elephants and still have little nails on their flippers
  • Manatees prefer to move at slow pace but can swim up to 25 miles per hour in short burst if they need to get away–quick!
  • Manatees can live to be 60 years old.
  • Manatees have no natural predators… meaning they are naturally curious and humans can be their worst enemy.
  • Manatees prefer their water to be >70 degrees, but can tolerate temperatures down to about 60.
  • Early explorers thought manatees were mermaids.

 

See. All perfectly good reasons to love these gentle giants.  But gentle giant babies.  I can’t even.  Like most babies and toddlers [or kittens, puppies or whatever] baby manatees are very curious.  I say baby, but it certainly isn’t like a kitten. This little guy make 300 pounds look awful adorable. The little guy would come right up to me and nibble at the wet suit.  It’s quite an odd feeling to have this 300 pound baby nibbling and mouthing at you like it’s going to eat you alive.  But these creatures are vegetarians so my meat carcass was totally safe.  The little guy either a) thought I was it’s mommy and could produce food or b) like the feel and textures of the wet suit material.  And just like a baby kitten, the little guy often like to nibble on my toes as well.  Here’s the thing about my feet:  they are so super sensitive and ticklish that the lightest touch makes me move them about.  Cats love to attack my toes in the middle of the night but given the choice, I’d take the 300 manatee-baby nibbling on my toes with it plant-eating gums than my little 6 pound house panther on nightly patrol for anything that moves.  I got lucky and spent nearly 20 minutes playing with the little guy.  And we [the baby and I] were away from the crowd so it was just the two of us.  Hanging out like old friends…

While manatees prefer a comfortable 72 degree water temperature, this water baby likes it about 10 degrees warmer and despite the 5mm neoprene suit on my body, after an hour or so, I was a frozen Popsicle.  So back on board it was for me.  And hot chocolate and dry clothes were waiting for me.  Once the wet suit was off, and I was back in normal clothes the 75 degree air temperature felt just fine.

Feb 16, 2016 - Life, Wanderlust    No Comments

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

Feb 14, 2016 - Wanderlust    No Comments

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 the 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 waide 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.  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 (compared to Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, but getting more popular everyday) 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 lonley?’ 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 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 tckets, souveniers, 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 –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.

Be aware of the bears

Jan 24, 2016 - Wanderlust    5 Comments

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…. Never mind 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… 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.

“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.

 

Jan 17, 2016 - Wanderlust    No Comments

Happy Birthday NPS and Fee-Free Days

https://www.flickr.com/photos/127203703@N03/16128310330/player/

Happy Birthday National Parks Service! One of the best things about America is its national park system.  There are currently 59 of them and cover some of the best landscapes in the world.  There is the glacial wilderness of Wrangell NP in Alaska and the coral reefs of Biscayne Bay NP in Florida.  We have America’s first sunrise at Acadia NP in Maine and quite possibly the last sunset at American Samoa NP. There are old growth flood plains in South Carolina at Congaree NP and incredible desert landscapes of the west at Grand Canyon NP in Arizona and Zion NP in Utah.  We have amazing highs at Denali NP in Alaska and incredible lows at Carlsbad Caverns NP in New Mexico.

The National Parks are home and habitat to more than 400 endangered or threatened plant and animal species.  Animals from grizzly bears to Dall sheep, timber wolves to peregrine falcons, Pacific Boas to gray whales all call the lands protected by the National Parks home.  The largest living things in the world are in National Parks: Sequoia trees and Alaskan brown bears (the world’s largest living carnivores.)  Whatever type of landscape fascinates you, you are sure to encounter it at one of the US National Parks.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/127203703@N03/16314818212/player/

Old growth flood plains at Congaree National Park in South Carolina

One of my random travel goals is to visit each of the US National Parks, and I’ve managed to visit roughly half of them.  The government wants us to visit the amazing wonderland that is our home and each year that have fee-free days for the parks that charge entrance fees [not all of them do].

Fee free days

For 2016,–which also happens to celebrate 100 years of the national parks system– the following days have been designated fee-free:

  • January 18–>Martin Luther King Day
  • April 16-24–>National Park Week
  • August 25-28–>National Park Birthday–let’s party
  • September 26–>National Public Lands Day
  • November 11–>Veterans Day

If the fee-free days aren’t enough to get you out there, check out these interesting facts about the US National Parks.

  • Yellowstone was the world’s first national park. It was created in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant. Its caretakers – the cavalry.  The most recent addition to the 59 national parks list is Pinnacles, California, which was added in 2013.
  •  Sometimes national parks and national monuments are confused. National parks are chosen for their natural beauty, unique geological features, and unusual ecosystems. National monuments are chosen for their historical or archaeological significance.
  • Only one state in the country is not lucky enough to currently have either a national park or national monument. It is actually the country’s first state, Delaware. Poor little Delaware.
  • Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska is the largest park in the country. At six times the size of Yellowstone, it is the meeting point of four major mountain ranges and includes nine of the 16 highest peaks in the U.S. The preserve contains three climate zones, which means that it has everything from giant glaciers to wetlands to one of the largest active volcanoes in North America
  • Everglades is the only true tropical forest in the northern hemisphere. Because of this it is home to plants and animals you can’t find anywhere else, including the Florida Panther and twenty species of orchids.
  • Russell Cave National Monument, Alabama, has an almost continuous record of human habitation going back to at least 7000 BC.

For statistics nerds, check out the numbers.

  • The National Park Service operates roughly 401 units which include 79 National Mon­u­ments, 78 His­tor­i­cal Sights, 59 National Parks, and 46 Historical Parks all contained within 84 mil­lion acres.
  • The parks host 280 million visitors a year. And whether they are exploring the highest point in North Amer­ica in Denali NP (Mount McKin­ley –20,320 feet), or the low­est point in the west­ern hemi­sphere at Death Val­ley NP; the National Parks are a host of extremes. From the deep­est lake at Crater Lake NP (1932 feet), or the tallest trees in the world at Red­wood NP (397 feet).

Get out there; enjoy what America has to offer. Fee free.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/127203703@N03/16130082157/in/photostream/player/

Nov 23, 2015 - Wanderlust    8 Comments

Getting away from it all

I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on Earth.                                                                                                      Steve McQueen

I have always been an independent sort.  As I kid, I often ‘ran away from home’.  I never went  very far –usually exploring the outer reaches of our 25 acres.  Many times, I had my school backpack and stuffed it with a sleeping bag, snacks and a book and had a good day.  Summers were great as I often set up a tent somewhere on the property and was ‘away’ for a few days at a time.   A couple of times, I  built a little raft a floated it on the creek pretending to be Tom Sawyer.  As a child, my fondest wish to be a boy scout. Our town didn’t have a girl scouts, but that didn’t stop me from checking out books in the library on ‘wilderness survival’.  I  taught myself cool things like how to build a fire, how to set up a tent, and how not to get attacked by bears.

Up until my mid 20’s I considered myself to be pretty outdoorsy, enjoying to spend as much time outside and under the sun as possible, hiking, biking, communicating with nature and all that crap. But somewhere along the line, things changed. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly when this happen, but I think it had something to do with getting my first big girl job. Working 6 days a week with minimal vacation time sucked the life out of my soul, and after about 2 years, I couldn’t do it anymore. It had been 2 years since I’d had a vacation so just after my two year work-anniversary, I took off to the North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

The Outer Banks is awesome. The northern half where Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is by far the more popular part of the Outer Banks. Ocracoke Lighthouse is gleaming white. It was built in 1823, the second oldest still in use in the nation. It’s not a tall as Hatteras or as famous but nevertheless it is an awesome site!

Ocracoke Island sits 23 miles off the North Carolina coast and a quarter mile south of Hatteras Island. It usually measures 17 miles long and a mile wide. The deserted, windblown beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore make up the northern 90 percent of the island, and a small village of hotels, restaurants, shops, homes makes up the southern 10 percent. It’s a great place to get away from it all.

Going to the Outer Banks helped me re-assess my priorities in life. Did I want a life of relative security and stability? Did I want a life where taking a vacation was more of a headache than a means of relaxation? Hell no. I didn’t want that when I started, and after two years I didn’t like where that life was leading. Subconsciously I guess I realized how unhappy I was with my life, and deep down I was yearning to get back to my childhood roots, and to the last time I was really happy with life. I needed to get dirty, sleep under the stars again, and paddle about around on a body of water on a regular basis.

And where did I have this profound, existential realization? In a tent, under the stars off the coast of North Carolina in an area where the one of the most infamous pirates in history roamed.

I sure know how to pick my moments.

There is something incredibly cliche, but true about laying out under the stars, way out in the middle of nowhere, hearing waves crash on the shore that triggers some scary deep thoughts, right? Right? Please say this is not just me.

Seeing the sun rise over the ocean…

watching dolphins play in the ocean…

observing patterns in the sand…

These were the kinds of moments I had been missing over the past few years. Taking a step back away from all the craziness, all the rush, all of the stress that is involved with chasing the “American Dream” and realizing that simple, peaceful quiet moments abroad are often the most meaningful and profound. I exited the rat race at that moment [even thought it still took a while to start chasing MY American Dream].


It’s been 8 years since I’ve had that revelation. In that time I’ve traveled to more than 40 countries. I’ve had short adventures and long ones. I’ve become a registered nurse. I’m on my way to becoming a nurse practitioner. As I paddled around and explored the barrier islands off South Carolina’s coast, I felt the stress of the last few weeks melt away. I was light years removed from the stress of the last few weeks. With each stroke of my kayak, I felt so far removed from the hustle and bustle of life, I could feel a smile creep on my face for the first time in a while.

This was my kind of travel.

And I need to do it way more often.

Nov 2, 2015 - Wanderlust    No Comments

Top 25 cities in the world

Conde Nast Traveler has once again posted their Top 25 cities in the world.  And while I haven’t visited them all, I do have a few in  the top 25 covered, and I am proud that a city from my state is rated as one of the top 25 city IN. THE. WORLD.

  • 25.  Barcelona, Spain. Haven’t been there, but want to go.
  • 24.  Venice, Italy.
  • 23.  Melbourne, Australia.  Want to go.  Had a pen pal from there as a teenager and currently work with a guy from there.
  • 22. Paris, France.  Went on a world-wind tour on New Year’s Eve/New Years Day.  I didn’t love Paris, but I’m willing to giver her another chance.
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  • 21.  Lebanon, Beirut.  Intrigues me, but I wouldn’t want to travel solo there.
  • 20.  Seville, Spain.  My favorite professor in college often told me Sevilla  was “la ciudad mas bonita en todo el mundo.”  It was her hometown, and I’ve heard several wonderful things about it.  I can’t wait to go to Spain.
  • 17.  Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA.  Seems like a cool town, but my southwest experiences are quite limited.
  • 17.  Sydney, Australia.  Want to go here to.  Australia is  SO. FAR. AWAY.
  • 17.  Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
  • 16.   Krakow, Poland.  I visited Krakow last January, and was it ever frigid.  But it is a cool city.
  • 15.  Prague, Czech Republic.  Same as above.  I went in January and snow covered Prague is magical.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/127203703@N03/17452928376/in/dateposted-public/player/

  • 14.  Kyoto, Japan.  Japan is so far off my radar. I know so little about it.
  • 13.  Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  I’d really like to spend more time here that just a minute.
  • 12.  Bruges, Belgium.  I made it to Brussels, but not to Bruges.  I’d like to fix that.
  • 11.  Cape Town, South Africa.  I would LOVE.LOVE.LOVE to go to South Africa.  vuvuzelas and all.
  • 10.  Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.  QC is amazing.
  • 9.  Seina, Italy.  I loved Seina.  I think I’d love if more during harvest season.
  • 8.  Rome, Italy.  One of my all time top 5 favorite cities…
  • 7.  Vienna, Austria.  An amazing city with an amazing history.
  • 5.  San Sebastian, Spain.  Once again, I cannot wait to go to Spain.
  • 5.  Charleston, South Carolina, USA.  A city in my home state.  I have been here so many times I sometimes forget how special it is because it’s so close.  It’s also the Friendliest City –3 years running.
  • 4.  Salzburg, Austria.  Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to Salzburg on my tour of central Europe. Maybe next time.
  • 3.  Budapest, Hungary.  Amazing.  Simply  amazing.

Budapest--started snowing while I was out exploring

  • 2.  Florence, Italy.  Such a cool city to experience Carnivale in.
  • 1.  San Miguel de Allende, Mexico…Little known fact.  I lived in Mexico for a year…not in San Miguel, but I did visit a few times.  It was awesome.
Nov 1, 2015 - Wanderlust    No Comments

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.

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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 standards; it’s a quirky, weird little park best suited to real, devoted Wizard of Oz fans.

Oct 26, 2015 - Wanderlust    No Comments

Adventures of DJ and M | Part 10 | Nurse’s Museum

So here’s the thing. DJ and I are both registered nurses. We met while working at the same hospital, her as a RN, me as a respiratory therapist. The timing of this trip was such that both of us should have graduated (me initial RN; her BSN). We almost screwed that up–me by breaking the bones and pushing back my externship for a block, and DJ is actually taking a chemistry class as we travel that will be her last class. So–as part of out London tour, we had to visit the Florence Nightingale Nurse’s Museum.  We went to the museum right before the Miss America pageant aired.  One of the contestants, as her talent, performed a soliloquy in her scrubs talking about her job.

She was mocked endlessly by talking heads for wearing her ‘doctor’s stethoscope’ and just talking.  As a person who has worked in healthcare better part of 10 years, I can definitively say that being a nurse [or respiratory therapist] takes talent.  It takes skill to take care of sick babies. It takes skill to insert an IV on someone who is dehydrated.  It takes talent to make someone comfortable when they are not in comfortable situations, and it takes talent to help someone die with dignity and grace.  While certainly an unconventional talent, being a nurse [or any health care provider really] is most definitely is a skill and a talent and not everyone can or will do it.

She did not win.

But from pageants to TV shows to corporate sponsors, nurses have been in the news in the last two weeks more than possibly at any other time in recent history.  And that’s good for nurses.  It’s good that the public at large are getting to see what nurses do.  I worked for ten years as a respiratory therapist before I became a nurse and people know even less about that profession than they do nursing.  Anyway… as luck would have it, I have been spared most of the nurse drama because I was in London, visiting the nurses’ museum… oh the irony.

How can I say this nicely?  The nurses’ museum wasn’t my favorite.  It is small.  It costs 7.50 [many of London’s museums much bigger, better, and are FREE], and doesn’t do the best job of depicting nursing.  It’s mostly historic, but unlike the Old Operating Theatre, it’s not full of many artifacts.  It consists mostly of photographs… displayed much like they would be if you were looking at microfiche [I am so old]. The Fleming Museum consisted of his laboratory; the Semmelweis museum (in Budapest) is located in his former family home. Those are all much better scientific/historic museums.

What I would have like to seen is a small section focused on Aunt Flo, a small section cataloging the history of nursing, a small section of historic nursing artifacts, and maybe an interactive ‘can you be this patient’s nurse’ set-up using a current model of a hospital room or  ICU room.  That would have made for a rocking nurses’ museum.

It did have the lamp, which is a pretty important part of the graduation ceremony [or so I’m told.  I skipped my graduation…remember broken arm, broken ankle?  yea, I didn’t get to graduate with my original class and was in the new class for only the internship part…which didn’t really foster warm, fuzzy feelings towards my new classmates… anyway…]

I wonder what the design thought was in using fake grass to adorn the walls, or if there even was one.

It does have toys.  And toys are a good thing.

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