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a southern yankee abroad

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June 2016

Ireland, Part 2: Castles, Countryside, Craic, and Crying (because Irish history is so sad…)

After a weekend full of excitement and festivities, Michael and I slowed the pace down a bit on Monday. Fortunately for me, he and his boyfriend Joe both had the day off from work, so the 3 of us spent a leisurely day around Dublin. After I slept in (still catching up on rest!), we went to Malahide Castle for the afternoon.IMG_0593

Malahide Castle was built in the 12th century and was the family home of the Talbots. The family lived there for 800 years, with the exception of a small period of time after the Battle of the Boyne. The Battle of the Boyne was fought against British invaders led by Oliver Cromwell in 1690, with the British winning and ultimately ruling Ireland until the rebellion in 1916. Sadly, of the 15 Talbot men who had breakfast at Malahide the morning of the battle, only 1 returned to Malahide that evening. The family eventually moved back in and lived here until the 1970s, when they then donated it to the state and the state turned it into a museum.

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The Battle of the Boyne, by Jan Wyck

Michael, Joe, and I had a delicious lunch outdoors in the sunshine, and then walked through the gardens and greenhouses together. I also took an amazing nap in the lush green grass behind the castle! 13522851_10207854936063841_3171298636223746545_o

We then went on a guided tour of the house. My two favorite facts from the tour are the following:

1- This carving of the Virgin Mary mysteriously disappeared once the family left the house following the British invasion, yet reappeared once they took their rightful home back. Some say they simply removed it and took it with them so that Cromwell’s army would not destroy it, but others say it reappeared by magic!IMG_0598

 

2- This tiny door was used by Puck (yes, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream!), the family jester who would entertain parties in the dining hall. One legend says he died of a broken heart after an unrequited love interest in a Talbot lady, and another legend says he hung himself after the family lost the castle following the Battle of the Boyne as he hated the new British tenants so much.IMG_0610

 

After exploring Malahide, we drove down to the fishing village of Howth to pick up some freshly caught fish for dinner. We also grabbed some delicious coffee and desserts while here. It was such a cute part of Dublin and I think I’d want to live here if I ever moved here! IMG_0622On the way back in, we also stopped by Michael’s childhood home just outside of Dublin and the locally-owned grocery store where his brother works…it was so nice to meet more of his family!

The next day, I took a bus into the city center on my own, as Michael was flying to Madrid for work for the rest of the week. The city was not the same without him!! 😦 I am so grateful for his amazing generosity as a host (and for Joe’s hospitality as well…he made me dinner! 🙂 ) I spent the day reading a book (We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride) and exploring coffee shops and pubs, and went to bed very early.

The next morning, I embarked on a 3-day Shamrocker tour of the southern countryside of Ireland. The trip got off to an exciting start when our bus broke down!IMG_0668

After an hour, we were on our way again, and our first stop was in the town of Galway. It is Ireland’s third largest city with a population of 70,000! I enjoyed walking around and shopping, and I found a neat souvenir. My bracelets from Zimbabwe had finally broken a while back, so I replaced them with this one. IMG_0673This Celtic symbol is the Four Spirals, and it represents the “goddess” completing her path in life. The large spiral itself is the Goddess, and each of the smaller spirals are the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone (I’m guessing this means old age!). The center disc is a cauldron where “divine knowledge and inspiration” are brewed. Maybe it is a bit cheesy, but I love what this represents and I feel this trip this summer is very relevant to me completing my own spiral of life. 🙂

After Galway, we made our way to the beautiful Cliffs of Moher, stopping along the way a few times to soak in the breathtaking scenery. The Irish countryside is every bit as stunning as I imagined it would be and more.IMG_0705

IMG_0708IMG_0765IMG_0688IMG_0690Along the way, our tour guide told us more about the history and culture of Ireland, ranging from the light-hearted to tragic. The funniest thing he told us about were “fairy trees.” Often, there is a lone tree in the middle of a field of cattle or sheep. The local farmers are too superstitious to cut the trees down, as the fairies supposedly live in these lone trees and to cut them down is to bring bad luck on yourself! He gave us a few true examples of what happens when you mess with the fairies…I think it’s safe to be cautious! Screenshot 2016-06-30 at 12.52.40 PM.png

 

The saddest thing I learned about had to do with the random walls lining the fields as we drove past. These are known as “famine walls” and were constructed for no reason other than to give starving Irish people a way to “earn” their food during the Potato Famine of the 1840s. People often died while struggling to build these extraneous walls, and the taskmasters forced their kin to bury them in shallow graves as they continued working on these meaningless walls. Screenshot 2016-06-30 at 12.53.46 PM.png

Perhaps the most shocking thing I learned was that the Potato Famine did not occur because of a lack of food. Although the potatoes were blighted, crops such as oats that continued to grow successfully were exported to Britain while the Irish people starved (keep in mind this occurred while Ireland was still occupied by Britain). The population of Ireland dropped 25% during this time, with 1 million Irish people dying from starvation and millions more from trying to immigrate to America, Canada, or Australia (if you left Ireland for Australia at this time, you had a 50-50 shot of surviving the boat trip).
Despite the deep sadness of Irish history, I continue to be impressed by how happy and spirited the people and culture are. Once we arrived in Ennis for the evening after visiting the Cliffs of Moher, our group had dinner together and then visited a pub that had amazing live traditional music! Over half of the group are from South Africa, and I’ve enjoyed re-learning some of the Afrikaans I’ve forgotten since my visit there in December 🙂  I’m looking forward to a few more days traveling around this green and rainy country, and getting into more craic (Gaelic for “fun”) along the way!IMG_0767

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Ireland, Part 1: Brexit, Dublin Pride, and Irish Football

 

IMG_0520Even though I am across the Atlantic, I have felt perfectly at home in Baile Atha Cliath (“Dublin Town” in Gaelic). Perhaps it is due to coming away from a rough (but fun!) 3 weeks in South America, but I feel like I have had time to fully recover and enjoy myself here already. And I still have almost a week left here!

I arrived to the Dublin Airport from Madrid Thursday evening–cold, tired, and exhausted. Michael picked me up and immediately began nursing me back to health (he is such a great friend!) I took a long, warm shower (my first real one since Asia!), and Michael gave me an amazing lotion to help with my wind-chapped hands. I turned in to bed around 11pm, right as the sun was going down. In Ireland during the summer, the sun does not set until 11pm and it rises at 5am!

Brexit

The next morning, Michael woke me up with news of the Brexit. I had been watching the vote as I drifted to sleep, and at the time it appeared the UK would stay in the EU. Therefore, I was shocked at the news as I woke up. My initial reaction was fear of the implications for the US–if Britain could vote itself out of the EU at 51% largely due to opinions on immigration, does it mean it is possible for my country to elect Donald Trump along the same line of reasoning? Sadly, I now think the answer is yes. And this horrifies me.

Several conversations I had with Irish citizens throughout the weekend confirmed my fear–there is a strong global right-wing movement that is growing and eroding the foundation of rational, moderate political discourse. One Irish woman I met while shopping said, “Happy Brexit! Welcome to the beginning of the end!” Another man laughed and said it was entertaining to watch the “great empire” crumble on itself (I can understand where his bitter sense of humor comes from, given what I’ve learned (or been reminded) of Irish-British history in the last few days).

The Irish are mainly concerned how the Brexit will affect border controls with Northern Ireland. As it stands now, traveling to Northern Ireland is as simple as crossing the border from Alabama to Georgia. However, now that Ireland remains in the EU with its open borders, and Northern Ireland is part of the UK, the open border policy is likely to change over the next 2 years (for the worse, in the opinion of many Irish), unless some extra agreement is reached. Some Irish believe there could be positive economic development and investment repercussions for them, as Ireland is now the only English-speaking nation in the EU.

Still in shock from the Brexit news, Michael and I went for a traditional Irish breakfast and then for a morning of shopping. We then walked around Dublin for a bit, stopping for ice cream at Murphy’s and for a “pygtail” (cocktail) at Pygmalion. IMG_0248.JPG

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This is the alleyway where Handel first conducted The Messiah. They re-enact it every year here.

We also saw Joe Biden pass by in his motorcade! This was quite funny to me, as I also saw President Obama’s motorcade pass by in Saigon earlier in the summer. As one friend asked, am I following them or are they following me?!

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Uncle Joe passing by in Dublin! BFD!!

Dublin Pride

On Saturday, we woke up bright and early for the Rainbow Run 5K at Dun Laoghaire West Pier along Dublin Bay. The weather could not have been more perfect! I was quite nervous, as this was my first time to really run since the beginning of May and I had a sore knee from my spill in La Paz. However, the race was a lot of fun, and Michael and I both did well! We were also covered in all colors of the rainbow by the very end (which was simply flour with food coloring…haha).13521838_10209382759627559_6600704039503503585_n.jpg13511050_10209382756427479_3700391745242614586_n

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After we cleaned up from our run, we made our way to downtown Dublin to join in the annual Dublin Pride parade. Michael was kind enough to invite me to march with his hiking club–Out and About. This was my the first pride march I have ever participated in, and it was truly an honor to show solidarity with and support for my LGBT friends back in the US and across the world.13521967_10209383025874215_4982384121704861924_n.jpg 

The Pride parade started in 1969 in NYC as a public response to the Stonewall Inn riots, and has expanded to cities across the globe in the decades since. Last year, around the same time the US SCOTUS came out with the decision to legalize same-sex marriage across the country, Ireland became the first nation to legalize same-sex marriage through a constitutional amendment. Several major companies had floats in the parade, including Amazon, Google, LinkedIn, and Accenture. In fact, Accenture was handing out American flags for demonstrators to show support for the victims of the recent Orlando tragedy, and they gladly shared one with me. I was blown away by the amount of Dubliners who came out to show support for the LGBT community along the parade route. There was truly an atmosphere of love and acceptance in the city, and I felt it was one of the most beautiful events I have ever witnessed.IMG_0368

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13517688_10207840293097776_9046839315067913136_o.jpgAlthough the LGBT community has made strides toward equal rights across the world, there is still so much work to be done, especially in the US. In particular, there are 32 states that still do not have fully inclusive LGBT non-discrimination laws. Then, there are some states like Mississippi and North Carolina which have passed actively discriminatory laws toward the LGBT community. Yesterday, I was reminded that we all need to work together to ensure equal rights for all. LGBT issues are not just a “gay community” issue– they are human rights issues. As MLK once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Irish Football

After an amazing dinner at Brasserie 66, I turned in early, exhausted from the activities of the last few days and still recovering from South America! I woke up late on Sunday, put on my newly purchased Irish football pullover, and headed to the pub with Michael to cheer on “the boys in green” in their Euro Cup match against France.

I now truly understand European “football” (aka soccer for those who speak American!). To me, it is most comparable to college football in the US (or at least, the type I grew up around in the SEC!) Each country in Europe is like a state, and their football/soccer team is their source of pride. If Ireland is like Alabama, then the football team is the Crimson Tide. People post Irish flags outside their houses and cars, much like Alabama fans post pennants in the same way.

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The pub where we watched the game!

The atmosphere in the pub was electric. When Ireland scored their first goal and went up 1-0 on France, the floors shook from the noise and celebration! Unfortunately, Ireland went on to lose the match, but the fun (or “craic” as they call it in Gaelic) continued. This reminded me of Ole Miss football…win or lose, the party continues!

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By the end of the night, we had switched our loyalties to Belgium! hahaha

After another restful night, I am ready to explore Dublin a bit more today, and then the rest of the country later in the week. Ireland is just getting started!

 

From Bolivia to Ireland (via Madrid)

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My three weeks in South America have come to an end, and boy, am I really feeling it. This trip has taken more of a physical toll on me than any trip I’ve taken before in my life. As I left my hostel in downtown La Paz yesterday morning at 5am in the pitch black cold, my bones literally ached.

 

1- For one, the cold there was more extreme and penetrating than anything I imagined. My Uniqlo Ultra Light Down jacket miraculously did the trick (these jackets are literally magical and everyone should buy one!), but just barely. Except for a few warm days early on in Peru, I was bundled from head to toe at every point–and my toes were often sore from coldness on a daily basis!   

 

2- Secondly, Sarah, Rachele, and I exerted ourselves in ways we never have before, and proved to ourselves just how strong we are and can be. Whether it was trekking Rainbow Mountain in a record time at extreme altitudes, exploring Machu Picchu, sleeping on overnight buses, or spending three days in Uyuni without heat in below freezing temperatures, we did it all and had fun doing it.

 

3-Third, our sleep schedules on this trip have been unreal. Almost every day, we have woken up before the hour of 6am, with the earliest wake up call being 1:45am for Rainbow Mountain. This trip has not been about luxury and relaxation–it’s been about pushing ourselves to new personal limits.

 

4- Fourth, I fell down the staircase in our hostel in La Paz on our second night there. No, I had not had anything to drink! The staircase did not have a light and was pitch black, and I fell about 5 steps down hard on my right knee. Some of you may know I already have some issues with my knees when it comes to long distance running, so I am hoping it holds up for my 5k with Michael in Dublin this weekend! As for now, it is still very sore and adding to the overall feeling of being beatdown.

 

5- Fifth, my hands are severely wind-chapped from our time in the wild the last few days, to the point that they are bleeding (gross, I know…sorry!). I even wore gloves the whole time! One of the immigration officers even asked me if I was ok! Again…feeling beatdown.

 

I apologize if it sounds like I am “whinging” (another term I adopted from my favorite Brit, which means “to complain”!). However, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t content to see this portion of the trip come to an end. I am flat out exhausted and in need of recovery! Also, I am incredibly excited to see several friends in Europe across the next few weeks, all while enjoying the warmer weather! Peru and Bolivia definitely hold a special place in my heart, but it wasn’t hard to say goodbye in the same way it was hard for me to say goodbye (for now) to southeast Asia.

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We did what we had to do to stay strong along the way!

My cab driver dropped me off at the airport around 5:30am yesterday in La Paz. He originally said 70 bolivianos when I got in, and then changed his mind to 90 bolivianos at the end. As I was all by myself before dawn in the cab, who was I to argue?! So I paid the higher price, begrudgingly, while saying “no justo.” While I wrote earlier about being happy to bargain lightly and pay up on goods to support the local economy, I do not agree with this style of “negotiation,” which in my mind is clearly not fair negotiation but rather an indication of a driver taking advantage of certain situations.

 

After a brief delay, I was on the plane from La Paz to Santa Cruz, where I went through Bolivian immigration to board my flight to Madrid. This was an intense experience, to say the least. I spoke with no less than 4 people, had my bag emptied, searched and sniffed, and was body scanned before I was stamped out of the country. They are definitely cracking down hard on what leaves the country in Bolivia!

 

The 11 hour flight on Air Europa from Santa Cruz to Madrid had no TV (!), so I finished my current book (Blink by Malcolm Gladwell) and then tried unsuccessfully to get some sleep. We arrived in Madrid just before 5am Madrid time. I had an 8 hour layover in Madrid, and given my current physical condition, thought long and hard about just napping somewhere in the airport. However, I learned my lesson about jet lag the hard way, so I left the airport and explored the city center for a few hours before heading back for my connection to Dublin. The subway system was easy to navigate, and it made me homesick for NYC!

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The Madrid subway was clean, neat, and orderly…I still prefer the NYC subway though!! 🙂

The most exciting part of my day in Madrid was finding a post office to send some items home and lighten my pack a bit. I also ate plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and enjoyed indulging without fear of getting sick for the first time in 1.5 months. Madrid seems to be a relatively cheap European city, as I purchased a large bowl of strawberries, a large fresh salad, a coffee, and a bottle of water for all under 9 euros! 

 

Instead of just 4 nights as I originally planned, I will now be spending a week and a half in Ireland. Why? Two simple reasons: 1- I feel very drawn to Ireland for some subconscious reason, and 2- My good friend and native Irishman Michael is an excellent salesman of the country, and highly recommended a few tours for me to see the countryside after our weekend in Dublin! Michael and I became good friends when we were on the same tour in Africa last December, and I feel like we are kindred spirits when it comes to traveling. He has been generous enough to offer to host me in Dublin this weekend! I cut down my time in Paris by about a week so I could spend more time in Ireland, and I feel very excited about this decision.
Although I haven’t slept in over 24 hours, I am looking forward to exploring all that Ireland has to offer, and hopefully piecing myself back together from my time in South America along the way!

Girls Gone Wild: Three Days in the Bolivian Wilderness

IMG_0141.JPGThree simple words describe the last three days–cold, dirty, and fun. Sarah, Rachele, and I have been on a tour through southwest Bolivia, including the Salar de Uyuni and the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve. This is the first time on this trip where I have been completely disconnected from the outside world–I’ve had no cell service or internet access for the last three days! Most hostels, bars, and restaurants have wifi, no matter where you are in the world (yes, even in Zimbabwe back in December!). However, I’ve finally found a place in the world without wifi, and it’s Bolivia.   

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Being truly disconnected has been a wonderful experience. While I have missed being in touch with family and friends, I have appreciated how the lack of cell service and internet has forced me to focus solely on the people I am with and the places I am visiting. Ironically, the one connection to the outside world came on our first night, when Sarah caught a stray cell service signal and received a push notification on her phone from the WSJ notifying us that the Cleveland Cavaliers had won the NBA championship. This one tidbit of information has been our one connection to the rest of the world while traveling here!

 

Here’s a breakdown of our last three days in the wild.

 

Day 1: We woke up bright and early in La Paz to catch a 7am flight to Uyuni. After an hour in the air, we arrived and instantly realized how much colder Uyuni is than La Paz! After putting on an extra pair of pants and another top, we headed to our tour company’s office to check in and rent a sleeping bag. Here, we met the three other travelers we would be sharing our Land Cruiser with the next three days.They were all undergraduates at the University of Florida who had just finished a 6 week rotation working in medical clinics in Cusco as part of their pre-med studies. We also met our guide, Diego, who immediately gave the impression of being a very tough, but nice, and in-control type of guy. Diego also doesn’t speak English, so we were all able to practice our Spanish a good bit. Our entire group meshed really well, and we decided we were una familia de sal, or a salt family! At 10am, we were off. Our first stop was an abandoned train graveyard.IMG_9906.JPG

 

We then continued on to the salt flats! The salt flats are over 10,500 square kilometers of pure salt. The dryness of the ground forms a beautiful pattern in the salt. We spent the morning taking pictures and soaking it in.IMG_0162

IMG_016413497611_10207809691372752_2624019445916217152_o.jpgWe then traveled to Dakar, a small settlement on the flats, where we had lunch and visited the flags outpost.IMG_0004

 

From Dakar, we continued to drive across the flats, stopping occassionally to take pictures and take in the views. We stopped once at an island in the middle of the flats called Isla Incahuasi. Sarah and I walked two laps around the island to get a workout in!IMG_0163

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IMG_006213498026_10206748148531489_8882855185857648342_o.jpgBy the time the sun was setting, we were just leaving the salt flats. After about 2 hours, we reached our accomodation for the night–a “salt hotel!” The salt hotel was basically a structure constructed out of blocks of salt, with the bed frame and dining tables and chairs also made out of salt. The floors were simply covered in loose grains of salt, like sand. There was no heat, but it did have electricity and running water. As the temperature had dropped below freezing, we all bundled up then enjoyed our salt family dinner together, along with some wine we had picked up in a small store along the way. IMG_0166IMG_0065We all voted unanimously we’d rather be dirty than cold, so we skipped the showers and just enjoyed the unique environment! Also, the view of the stars and the nearly full moon from our outpost was brilliant.The last time I saw “estrellas” (stars) this bright was in Africa, and I felt very happy to be in the wild with them again!

 

Day 2:  We woke up at 7am (so late for us these days!), had a small breakfast, and left our salt hotel for a day of travel. Instead of salt, on our second day we drove through a tremendous amount of dust. It felt like we were in the movie Mad Max! Our first stop of the day was at the Volcano Tunupa, which is still active. IMG_0081We also stopped at several lagunas, where I was shocked to see a large number of flamingos. I always assumed flamingos lived only in tropical and warm environments, but here these were, wading through the icy water just hanging out!IMG_0091

 

IMG_0105After a stop for lunch, we decided to have a dance party at the Laguna Honor.

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As we traveled on throughout the afternoon, we stopped in the Atacama Desert and saw the Arbol de Piedra (or rock tree). We also saw the Laguna Colorada, which is known for its red color.

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Arbol de Piedra
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Laguna Colorada

We then continued on to our accomodation for the night, a small shack with no heat and no showers. It made our salt hotel seem luxurious. While it did have electricity, the light in our dorm-style room did not work, so I was excited to be able to use my headlamp for the first time on this trip (I knew it would be handy at some point)! We once again layered on the clothing, brought out the vino, and enjoyed hanging out with each other and the other groups that were also staying the night here.

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Our salt family!

We decided to go to bed not because we were tired, but just to get warm! As we drifted off to sleep in multiple layers of clothing, hats and gloves, in a sleeping bag, all under a huge pile of blankets, Sarah and I decided (for some reason, I wonder why?!) that we really missed the USA! So, we sang every song about the USA we could think of as we fell asleep…it was hilarious.

 

Day 3: We woke up at 4:45am to find it was 16 degrees Fahrenheit (-9 degrees Celsius). We had a small breakfast as we struggled to keep warm, and headed out shortly thereafter. Our first stop of the day was shortly after sunrise at some natural geysers. IMG_0152We then continued on to some natural hot springs and the Laguna Verde, near the Chilean border, before driving the 8 hours back to Uyuni, making some small stops all the way. We were all very exhausted from the cold and ready for a shower at this point!

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Laguna Verde wasn’t as “verde” as I expected, but it was still pretty. The white substance is borax, which is a naturally occuring substance used as a cleaning solution.

 

The last few days have not been easy or luxurious by any means, but it has been very rewarding to see so much natural and untouched beauty. Bolivia literally feels like another planet to me, as the landscapes have been bizarre and extreme and alien, yet beautiful all the same. I have really enjoyed taking time apart from the rest of the world to have the opportunity to appreciate what feels like a different one.
Next, we fly back to La Paz this evening and I catch an early morning flight out the next day to Dublin!

 

A Day at Lake Titicaca: Los Uros and Isla del Sol

After two full weeks of trekking, sightseeing, and taking in the Peruvian culture, the time came to say goodbye to Peru and move along to Bolivia. We had booked seats on Bolivia Hop, an overnight bus that crosses from Peru to Bolivia while making a few fun stops along the way. We showed up at the bus station in Cusco at 9pm, as directed, and the station was pitch black! Fortunately, our nice cab driver sat with us until the Bolivia Hop staff showed up. We then boarded the bus and settled in for a 7 hour overnight drive to Puno, a Peruvian town on the shore of Lake Titicaca.

 

At 5:30am, we got off at Puno and had a small breakfast before boarding a boat for a tour of the floating islands of Los Uros in the middle of Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America, and the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,500 feet. The altitude was evident, as it was freezing cold as we boated across! After about 30 minutes, we reached the village of floating islands–42 islands made by the Uros people from reed straw. The Uros people still maintain their unique Uru culture, but also speak Spanish and have some modern amenities (like motors for some reed boats).IMG_9831.JPG

The local ladies welcomed us warmly, and demonstrated how the floating lakes are built from living reeds, soil, straw, and rope, and are anchored in the lakes. These islands are maintained periodically throughout the year with fresh installments of reed overlays. It felt really strange to walk across the ground cushioned by reeds and to know I was floating! One local lady invited us into her hut, and explained how it was wired for electricity only 2 months earlier through the installation of solar panels. We even learned how to say hello in Uru–kamisaraki!IMG_9827

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The solar panels on the floating island of San Miguel are 2 months old. Before this, the village had no electricity.

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Every floating island has a lookout post.

After the visit, we headed back to Puno via boat and boarded the bus for another 2 hours, before crossing the border over foot into Bolivia. We then boarded a new Bolivia Hop bus, and 10 short minutes later we were in the scenic Bolivian lakeside village of Copacabana. After a quick lunch, we then boarded another boat, and rode for 1.5 hours across Lake Titicaca to Isla del Sol.

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The beautiful view from the Isla del Sol

Isla del Sol was absolutely beautiful, and I really wish I could have spent an extra night here! From the boat, we trekked about 40 minutes through the sun temple and small village on the island, soaking in the views all along the way. I stopped to do some shopping with a local vendor, buying 2 pairs of baby alpaca socks for just 60 bolivianos (less than 9 USD!). While I bargained with her a small amount, I paid her the amount she asked. The more I travel, the more I realize that tourism is the economic lifeblood for so many of these local places. I can do my part to support the local economy by paying up for some goods–even though I’m on a “student budget” now, I feel fortunate enough to be able to travel and afford these things, and it’s a privilege to be able to support the places I am visiting economically.

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There were lots of donkeys on the Isla del Sol! ❤

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IMG_9851After our short trek across Isla del Sol, we boarded our boat again to make the 1.5 hour journey back to Copacabana. We then boarded the bus, and drove the 4 hours to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. The ride was exciting for 2 mains reasons–1) At one point, we had to get off the bus and ride a small motorboat across a Lake Titicaca tributary, while our bus floated by on a ferry. We then reboarded on the other side. This experience was unique and fun, but made me appreciate bridges all the same. 2) We watched one of my favorite movies of all time on the bus ride–Interstellar!! Yes, I am not ashamed of my nerdiness.
Once we arrived in La Paz, we were dropped off at the wrong hostel, but quickly found our way to the correct one. After over 24 hours on a bus, I enjoyed a hot shower and warm bed and slept for about 10 hours. Today, I am still really tired, but hope to see a little of what La Paz has to offer before heading to the salt flats of Uyuni tomorrow!

An Overview of Peru’s Sacred Valley

 

I have spent the last few days in Peru’s Sacred Valley. While the highlights have certainly been Rainbow Mountain and Machu Picchu, my time here overall has held more subtle surprises. Since arriving in Cusco a few days ago, I’ve found my primary personal objective to be to chill–I have now been traveling for over a month, and I was in need of some downtime. I have welcomed opportunities to sit in a cafe, relax, blog (woo!), and use wifi to reconnect with family and friends at home. However, of course I have also found a few adventures! I’ve detailed my highlights below.

 

1- Free walking tour of Cusco. Upon arriving in Cusco, Sarah, Rachele, and I took advantage of a free walking tour that meets in Cusco’s Plaza De Armas a few times a day. Fortunately, our visit to Cusco corresponded with the city’s annual historic celebration, so we were able to view several unique festivities along the way. IMG_9262.JPGOur tour guide, Angel, was exceptional. He explained to us how Cusco was the center of the Incan world, and how the roads delineate the four regions of the Incan empire, stretching into modern Colombia, Chile, and Bolivia.

He also showed us how the city is shaped like a puma (who knew!) and demonstrated several Incan instruments for us and explained their historical significance. For example, the charango was developed as an alternative to the guitar, as the Spanish invaders did not permit the natives to play the guitar. Because of its small size, the natives could hide the charango under their ponchos to avoid persecution.Screenshot 2016-06-16 at 3.34.46 PM.png

The tour concluded with some beautiful views and free pisco sours. We were also excited to meet two fellow New Yorkers on the tour!

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A beautiful sunset over Cusco

 

2- A visit to Moras and Moray. On the way from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, we stopped by the ancient ruins at Moras and Moray. Archaeologists are still uncertain as to the purpose of these circles engraved into the earth, which made it even more exciting to me!IMG_9520

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3- Exploring Ollantaytambo and hiking to the “Inca Face.” Today, I stayed behind in Ollantaytambo a few extra hours to hike to Pinkuylluna, or the “Inca Face” ruins. The ruins are located on one of the mountains that surrounds the city. The hike up took about an hour, but I did get lost as the trail is worn and not clearly marked. I also stopped along the way to soak in some views and get some reading done! The views of Ollantaytambo from the top were beautiful.

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The Inca face is between the 2 ruins. I had a hard time spotting him, but I am sure he is there! 
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The view from the top! 
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Finding some chill time at the top! 

Tonight, I will head back to Cusco to meet back up with Sarah and Rachele, then we will board an overnight bus to Bolivia. I am slightly nervous, given every person I have met who has visited Bolivia has gotten food poisoning (including my very best friend, who was deathly ill here from some sketchy meat…this is why I’ve been vegetarian since I left the USA!) However, I am excited to see all of the natural beauty the country has to offer–if it’s anything like Peru, it will be amazing.

Happy Anniversary to Me: One Year of Being Single

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This is a big week for me! This week marks one full year that I have been single–the first full year I’ve been single in my adult life. Between the ages of 19 and 26, I never went more than 2-3 months without a boyfriend or being in some type of dating relationship with a guy. I wouldn’t call myself a serial dater, but I was somewhat of a relationship junkie. There is nothing wrong with being in love and building a relationship with a special person, but for me, I realized that special person needed to be myself for a while.

 

When my last relationship ended around this time last year, my natural instinct was to start dating again immediately. However, I began to realize that this single time was well overdue, and that part of me had been wanting it consistently for the past 7 years. As the months of singledom progressed, I began to realize that I could now make small and big decisions for myself and no one else: where to live, what to do with my free time, who to hang out with, how to spend my money, whether or not to change my career, whether or not to pursue a law degree, where to pursue that degree, where to travel, and how long to travel.

 

If I am a former relationship junkie, then this last year has been my detox. I feel happier, stronger, and more grounded than I’ve felt in a while. It’s like I finally have a clear head to accomplish goals I’ve always held in the distance. Below are a few decisions I’ve made and things I’ve done, unhindered by the ties of a relationship, in the last year:

 

1-Moved into my first “adult” studio apartment solo, bought furniture I liked, and decorated it how I wanted.

2-Started playing guitar again regularly.

3-Trained for and ran a full marathon while raising over $2,000 for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in the process, thanks to the generosity of my friends and family!

4-Traveled to Africa solo and camped in the wild.

5-Applied to law schools.

6-Finally learned how to ski – thanks Valerie! 🙂

7-Left my job in finance.

8-Celebrated my best friend’s marriage as her maid of honor.

9-Decided where to go to law school.

10-Planned a 3 month trip to 3 different continents, mostly solo.

11-Started a blog, something I never thought I would do.

12-Proceeded to sell and box up all aforementioned furniture and decorations and move out of dream apartment into storage unit.

13-Embarked on aforementioned trip solo, exploring Southeast Asia and now exploring Peru and Bolivia.

14-Relied more on my friends for support, encouragement, and laughter. In a lot of ways, having a boyfriend made me a lazy friend. I am sure not everyone in a relationship is guilty of this, but I think I certainly was. I now appreciate my (girl and guy) friends more than I ever have, and I feel like (hopefully) I’ve become a better friend now that I have had more energy to pour into my friendships.

15-Used dating as a learning process. Being single doesn’t mean I haven’t been dating. The process of dating in NYC can be exhausting, but it’s helped me realize even more what I absolutely do and do not want in a future partner. So I consider the process to be highly informative and (usually) fun.
While I’ve always been independent, this year has made me more confident in my ability to make my own choices about my path in life. Perhaps there will come a time when my goals will align well with someone else’s, and a relationship will be a natural, positive development and not require undue compromise on either part. While I love being single, I am sure I will welcome that time when it comes. For now, I want to enjoy these days of being accountable to and responsible for no one else but myself. And to enjoy these days of jamming out to Beyonce’s “All My Single Ladies”!

The Magic of Machu Picchu

Yesterday, I visited one of the New Seven Wonders of the World–Machu Picchu. Discovered as recently as 1911, Machu Picchu is an Incan city built six centuries ago. Before coming to Peru, this was the one site I had heard the most of, and I was almost desensitized by the amount of pictures and information I had seen about Machu Picchu on TV and social media. However, I realized upon my arrival that nothing could have properly prepared me for this visit, and no pictures or words can ever really do this place justice.IMG_9774.JPG 

When we were planning our trip, Sarah and I decided to do one day in Machu Picchu and forego the week-long trek along the Inca Trail that many visitors elect to do (I want to do this someday though!), so that we could have more time to visit Rainbow Mountain and Colca Canyon. At 5:30am, we woke up and walked down to the train station in Ollantaytambo to catch the Inca Rail for an hour and a half ride to Aguas Calientes.

 

Aguas Calientes is the last town before the Machu Picchu archaeological park, and it reminds me of a Peruvian version of Gatlinburg, Tennessee–very quaint, but touristy and overpriced! Once here, we purchased a bus ticket to Machu Picchu and hopped aboard the first available.

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Aguas Calientes…the last stop before the magic! I doubt the water is actually “caliente” (hot)…Peru has been freezing cold mostly! 

 

Once we were there, we immediately walked to the first viewing point!IMG_9571

 

We had booked our visit early enough to secure a ticket to hike two of the smaller mountains in the ancient city–Huaynapicchu and Waynapicchu. While 2,500 visitors are allowed each day at Machu Picchu, only 200 are allowed on these peaks each day! After soaking in that first initial view, we made our way to the gated entrance for these two mountains. I got separated from Sarah and Rachele, so I went ahead and started the treks on my own. I first scaled Huaynapicchu, the smaller mountain. It only took 20-30 minutes to climb, and the most exciting part was a small cliff where I had to pull myself up by rope! Once on top, the views of Waynapicchu and Machu Picchu were beautiful. I also made friends with a German, a Canadian, and an Italian at the top.

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Atop Huaynapicchu

 

I then made my way toward Waynapicchu, the big mountain. I was actually very surprised I was allowed to climb it, as it looked quite treacherous. Surely enough, I found the trail and began to follow it up, scaling some very steep and narrow steps along the way. It took about an hour to climb up, and I was so famished at the top (I had only had a small package of wafers for breakfast!) I instantly ate some Peanut M&M’s (my favorite!) and chugged some water before soaking in the view. I also climbed around on some rocks at the very top, and at one point I was literally holding on to a rock to keep from sliding down (not off the mountain, but just a few feet!) so that I could get a good picture angle for a sweet married couple I met. All the trekkers who made it really bonded at the top of Waynapicchu!IMG_9667

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IMG_9665IMG_9686After making my way back down (and almost dropping my iPhone off the side of the mountain…a very close call!), I met up with Sarah and Rachele for lunch. They wanted to leave early to head back to Aguas Calientes, but I chose to stay a bit longer at Machu Picchu. After re-entering the park, I soon found myself on the trail to Intipunku, or the Sun Gate. This was my favorite part of my time at Machu Picchu! This was the original gate into the sacred city from the outside world, and the trek up from the city was about an hour up. The views of the city below were absolutely amazing. I also met a nice Russian along the way who was about to quit the trek…but I convinced him to keep going!IMG_9730.JPG

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On my way down from Intipunku, I stopped by a grassy area where people were laying in the grass and chilling, and I decided to do the same. The view from here was also amazing. I found myself reflecting a lot on the last few months, the last few years, and what is ahead of me for the next few years. In my daily life, I often have a hard time slowing down to take time to pray and meditate, but I found myself doing such as I laid in the grass with the views of Huaynapicchu and Waynapicchu, the mountains I had scaled earlier in the day, before me.IMG_9772
Finally, it was time to leave. I caught the bus back to Aguas Calientes and met up with Sarah and Rachele. We then took the Inca Rail together back to Ollantaytambo. I was not feeling well at all, so I skipped dinner and went straight to bed. Even though I felt sick physically, I had such a full heart from the amazing visit earlier in the day. Strangely enough, I felt a real spiritual connection at Machu Picchu, and I can’t wait to visit again at some point in my lifetime (God willing!).

A Birthday Trek to Vinicunca Mountain

Yesterday was a high point of my trip in South America–not only because it was my birthday (27 years young!), but because we trekked up Vinicunca Mountain (otherwise known as Rainbow Mountain!). Rainbow Mountain is a recent discovery and opened in April 2015 to tourists who dared to make the trek. Starting at 14,000 feet, the trek takes you across 10 miles, ultimately ending at an elevation of approximately 17,000 atop vibrantly painted mountains rich in minerals and undisturbed by human touch.IMG_9405.JPG

 

Back in January, when Sarah and I started planning this trip, we discussed in detail what exactly to do on my birthday. Our first thought, naturally, was the majestic Machu Picchu, which is arguably Peru’s most famous attraction. However, the more we saw and read about the Rainbow Mountain, the more convinced we became that this was the ideal trek for June 13.

 

But was this the right plan? The more we talked to people along the way once we arrived in Peru, the more worried I became. One guy who had hiked it legitimately laughed when I told him we were hiking Rainbow Mountain on my birthday. The trail is known for being extremely tough given the altitude and steepness, and people sometimes fall ill along the way or have to get a horse to ride as they can no longer walk the trail. “I’m sure we will be fine!” I responded to his laughs. Still, my anxiety secretly grew! Were 3 city girls from NYC who relied on running, SoulCycle, and yoga for fitness ready for this trek!?

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Tres NYC chicas…ready for this trek!

 

Finally, the day arrived. Our alarms sounded at 1:45am, and our guide, Abel, picked us up at our hostel at 2:15am sharp. It was entertaining to watch people stumble back from the bars as our bus took us out of Cusco, knowing the arduous trek that was ahead of us in just a few hours. It took 3 hours to reach our “base camp” site, which was a hut with no electricity or running water with a herd of alpacas right beside. I tried to sleep on the ride, but it was too cold. Therefore, I had the pleasure of watching our bus make some extremely sharp turns along a narrow mountain pass. Once, the turn was so sharp our driver put it in reverse, and I honestly thought we were going to back off the cliff! I grabbed my friend Rachele’s hand and said a quick prayer…fortunately, we survived and continued on! We also got stuck on a bridge, but this was not life-threatening, so I wasn’t as worried.

 

At our base camp, we had breakfast of bread, fruit, and tea. Once the sun rose, we started on our trek, passing through a herd of alpaca and scaling our first steep hill. Our group consisted of Abel (our guide), Sarah, Rachele, and myself, as well as a really nice girl from Boston. Our Boston friend quickly realized on the first hill she needed a horse, so we trekked onward and let her and Abel catch up with us on the first mountain pass.

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The start of the trek…passing through a herd of alpacas!

 

Abel was an amazing guide! He looked out for us “chicas” and was dedicated to making sure we were the first group to reach Vinicunca that day, meaning we could enjoy the vista views undisturbed by other trekkers! With our Boston friend on the horse, we kept a steady pace, and reached the mountain over 2 hours ahead of schedule (which was ideal for our type-A group)!

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Sarah and I at the very top with Abel. He was the best guide, and anyone who wants to visit should special request him through FlashpackerConnect!

We also had another informal guide, a dog that we named Rainbow (she didn’t have a name already!). Rainbow lives at the base camp, and walked with us the entire way up the mountains! She also loved to play, although sometimes she was a little rough (I tried to discourage her by saying “no morder!” because…rabies. But she was so cute and sweet!) Rainbow was seriously one of the highlights of my day!

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Our second fearless guide…Rainbow!

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Rainbow on top of Vinicunca…all in a day’s work for her!! ❤

Once on top of the mountain, we took time to soak in the view.

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IMG_9406The altitude did not hit me until the trek downhill. We were well-stocked on natural supplements in the form of teas, pills, and candies to combat the altitude, but I think these items can only help so much. Somehow, the way down was much harder for me than the way up. Although I did encounter some shortness of breath on the trek up, I had a terrible headache and achy knees on the way down. Abel had some special liquid that he put on his hands for us to inhale that helped a bit. After what felt like forever, we were back at the base camp, where they prepared a huge lunch for us! Sadly, we were all feeling a little nauseated, so we didn’t eat a lot.

 

Then, Abel brought us all outside, where he brought out a special birthday cake our cook had made for me while we were trekking! It was a beautifully decorated chocolate, caramel, and peanut butter cake…3 of my favorite things! I was so impressed he made such a delicious and intricately decorated cake on such short notice in such a deserted area! I shared my cake with some of the local farmers who also help with the treks, and we had a wonderful birthday celebration! This was truly one of the most special birthdays of my life, and I am so grateful to Abel and the locals who live here for that! 🙂IMG_9425

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The creator of my beautiful cake!
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Sharing cake and having a very special birthday celebration with some of our local hosts!

Rainbow Mountain was tough, but rewarding. Although I was covered in dirt and exhausted by the end of our 9 hours, I felt cleansed and energized for what the future holds. I am so happy I was able to start my 27th year in such a special place with amazing people. Last year was one of the best years of my life, and I can’t wait to see what 27 holds. It is already off to an amazing start!

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