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Jerusalem, Part 1: A Holy City

John 12:23-25: “Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

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After our morning at Masada, we loaded up our bus and hit the road towards Jerusalem, one of the most anticipated stops of our trip. The city holds holy sites for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and contains literal layers of history dating back millennia. King David designated Jerusalem as the capital city of the ancient state of Israel 1000 years before the birth of Christ.

My new Israeli friend described what Jerusalem meant to him this way–“I am not even a religious person, but everytime I visit Jerusalem, I feel the holiness.”

As we drove through an underground tunnel, I saw the famous skyline with the old city walls and Dome of the Rock appear as we exited the other side. I immediately understood my friend’s feelings–the holiness and oldness of the city will move you.

We entered the Old City walls (which aren’t that “old” considering they were built about 500 years ago by the Ottoman empire) through the Jaffa Gate. During our time in the Old City, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa and the stations of the Cross, and the Wailing Wall. Unfortunately, our time in Old Jerusalem was cut short due to the faulty cable car at Masada and a packed schedule, but I am still absorbing all we took in during our time there.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church is built upon the place traditionally regarded as Calvary/Golgatha (the hill where Jesus was crucified) and the nearby location of his tomb.

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Three of my trip friends and I came directly here as our first stop during our 2 hours of free time before the group tour. Even though we would be visiting it later with the larger group, we wanted to ensure we had time to wait in line to be able to step inside the empty tomb.

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The tomb is located within a smaller chapel within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

After waiting about an hour and 15 minutes, we were able to enter the empty tomb of Jesus. We first stood in a small foyer (maybe only 5×5 feet) where we were able to gather around a piece of the stone that was rolled away from Jesus’ tomb. Then, we stooped to enter into a small cave which was the actual tomb, and were able to kneel before a small alter located where his body had laid. The tomb was much smaller than I had always imagined.

As we knelt together, it was difficult to form any thoughts, as I was completely overwhelmed by the moment. I did not take any pictures.

Luke 24:1-8: “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” Then they remembered his words.”

Later in the afternoon, we were able to visit the Church again with our larger group and climb the short but steep stairs to the top of Calvary/Golgatha. Here, an alter rests atop the actual stones of Calvary, which are visible in glass below. Many people shuffled on their knees to the alter to kiss where the cross is believed to have stood. I was overwhelmed with awe, and words can’t really describe what it was like to be here.

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The bottom floor of the Church has many cutaway glass areas where you can view the rocks of Calvary

Before leaving the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the last time, I was able to touch the stone upon which Jesus’s body had laid inside the tomb. The stone is anointed with oil, and visitors are invited to rub cloth or another relic upon the stone. As I said a prayer, I touched the small stone from my time in the Judean desert the night before to this stone. Again, I felt like I didn’t deserve to be here. In this moment I felt grateful for how the story of Christ’s teachings and sacrifice transcends geography, time, and seasons of doubt, and can be both universal and personal in every sense.

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Via Dolorosa and the Stations of the Cross. The Via Dolorosa is the street along which tradition holds Jesus carried his cross to Calvary. In that time, the Via Dolorosa and Church of the Holy Sepulchre would have been outside the main city center of Jerusalem, even though they are now within the “Old” City walls. We were a bit rushed as we moved along the road from station to station, given our time and schedule constraints. This was the only moment on the entire trip I wished I had traveled here alone–so I could take in the gravity of this place without feeling like I was running down the street. Nevertheless, it was a meaningful experience, and Doron did a great job explaining each of the “stations”–places along the street where various things happened as Jesus carried the cross (for example, the three times Jesus fell with the cross are represented by three different stations).

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The Church of the Flagellation, where Jesus was beaten
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The station marking where Veronica wiped Jesus’ brow–an act of kindness

Wailing Wall. Our last stop in the Old City was the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall. This is a holy site in the Jewish faith, as it is the only remaining part of the temple built by King David and King Solomon. The wall represents the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray, with the holiest place of the faith (the Temple Mount) located just beyond (where the current Dome of the Rock – the mosque marking the place where it is believed the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven in the Muslim faith – stands).

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Men must enter and remain on the left side of the wall, while women must enter and remain on the right side. The left side is about twice as long as the right, so the side I visited was relatively crowded. Before entering, we each washed our hands 3 times at the basin just outside the gate while Hannah recited the traditional Jewish blessing for us.

Upon entering, I was immediately humbled by the devotion and reverence I felt around me of those women praying and reciting the Torah. Some were moved to tears. I found a small piece of paper in my bag and wrote my prayer to God, then worked my way slowly through the crowd so I could touch the wall and leave my paper with the thousands of others.

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To leave the wall, you must walk backwards without turning your back to the wall out of respect and reverence. As I walked backwards, I saw a young man who looked like a lost tourist enter on the women’s side and take a seat at one of the many lawn chairs scattered across the way. It took him about 30 seconds to realize his mistake, at which point he jumped up and left with a bewildered look on his face. I couldn’t help but laugh a bit.

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After an extremely long and fulfilling day, we enjoyed an amazing dinner at Chakra and a night out before gearing up for our second day in Jerusalem (next blog…Yad Vashem and the Israeli Supreme Court). I regretted we did not visit any of the Muslim sites and that I didn’t have a chance to visit the Garden of Gethsemane at the Mount of Olives, but hopefully I will be able to travel here again someday!

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My sweet Israeli friend Mor, a fellow law student who traveled with us for the week
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IDF keeping everyone safe in Jerusalem
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I found an unexpected piece of home in the Old City!

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A Meeting in the Desert

“I cared for you in the wilderness, In the land of drought.” Hosea 13:5

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Dirty and relaxed from the Dead Sea, NYU Law iTrek spent Sunday night getting even dirtier at a Bedouin campsite in the Judean desert. Deserts are mystical places, and I had been looking forward to this part of the trip in particular.

Area where they found the Dead Sea scrolls!

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We arrived after a bumpy ride from the Dead Sea and settled into our tent (all ~45 us slept under the same “roof”!) before enjoying a delicious traditional Bedouin meal. Following the meal, we gathered around a fire in the hospitality tent and enjoyed Arabic coffee while learning more about Bedouin culture.


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Then, a group of us left the campsite and set off into the emptiness under the full moon for a period of meditation. After gathering in a circle, each of us set off to our own spot in the desert. I found a nice flat rock to use as a pillow and leaned back to gaze at the stars, allowing my mind to completely open up. I picked up a small stone to hold in my hand as I reached out to God and connected with my surroundings. As I laid in the very desert where Jesus was tempted for 40 days and nights, and where Moses and his people wandered for 40 years, I couldn’t help but feel small, undeserving, and immensely grateful for the opportunities and lessons of the past year. I thought about my own wandering and temptation. I found myself thinking and praying, until I heard Doron call us back together into a larger circle.

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The rest of the night back at camp involved wine, a bonfire, s’mores, spontaneous singing around the campfire, and deep conversations. No wifi, just each other. I ended up finally going to bed around 4am.

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We all woke up a few hours later for an early morning camel ride through the desert–tracing back over the spot where I had meditated the night before. I had accidentally ridden a camel the day before at the Dead Sea (I was just supposed to be taking a picture, but the camel started standing up all of the sudden)! My second camel ride ever went a bit more smoothly. Mahmoud, my camel, was a joy to start the day with!

Me with Mahmoud ❤️



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After our camel ride, we left for Masada, where we spent the morning hiking and learning about its history from Doron. Masada is a fortress that overlooks the Dead Sea, and Herod built a few palaces for himself atop the fortification. The Romans sieged Masada in 73 AD. Faced with violent defeat, 960 Jewish men, women, and children committed mass suicide within the walls of Masada to avoid a cruel future at the hands of the invaders.




Masada has become a symbol of unity for the Zionist movement and the nation of Israel in the last few centuries, and was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2001. “Masada shall not fall again” has become a mantra used by the Israeli army. Besides viewing the ruins and learning the history, we were able to soak in stunning views of the Dead Sea and the hills of Jordan in the horizon. A rabbi also works diligently and continually to transcribe the Torah at the site.

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Masada is extremely steep, and we planned to take the cable car back down after climbing up the Roman ramp. However, the cable car was broken! We set off down the snake path under a scorching sun, finally reaching the bus after the equivalent of 52 flights of stairs. My legs are still sore!

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The mystery of the Judean desert provided more than I could have thought to ask for. As one friend shared after our meditation, our existence is highly improbable (from a scientific perspective) and highly miraculous (from a spiritual perspective). You are the only you that will ever exist, and I am the only me that will ever exist. The rich emptiness and expanse of the desert provided the perfect backdrop to allow these realizations to reverberate and settle.

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One unexpected blessing of this trip has been getting to know fellow NYU and Israeli law students. At school back in New York, it’s often difficult to get to know others on a deeper level. But that has been a constant theme of this trip, and I feel it was also one of many of the desert’s surprises.

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Up next… Jerusalem.


A Land of War and Miracles

Knowing the next day would take us along the Sea of Galilee, down the Jordan, and to the Dead Sea, I spent Saturday night in the kibbutz brushing up on some New Testament geography and catching up on much needed sleep.

The next morning, we loaded up our bus at 645am and set off to Merom Golan. Here, we met up with Miri Eisen, a retired colonel in the Israeli army and security expert. We loaded up a fleet of ATVs and set off toward the Syrian border.


Our ride took us even closer to the Syrian border, and at one point we were within “field goal distance” (American football term… about 30 yards) of the fence separating Israel and Syria. At this point, we had reached the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries. We parked our ATVs at a bombed abandoned hospital and climbed to the roof, where we looked out across Syria and listened to Miri’s talk on Israeli border security and the current Syrian civil war.




Syria and Israel have been in a state of war since Israel’s independence in 1948. In 1967, Israel claimed the Golan Heights and established the current DMZ where we now stood, just yards away from Syria. The UN has a monitoring station located right at the border on the Israeli side, and its mandate is renewed by both Israel and Syria every 6 months at the UN.


Although Syria is still represented by the Assad regime at the UN, the land within our eyesight is now controlled by Syrian Al-Qaeda, just one of the many factions fighting for control in the Syrian civil war. Miri said sometimes the fighting is audible from the point where we stood on the abandoned Israeli hospital. While Israel accepts no refugees, they give free medical care (no questions asked) to anyone presenting themselves at the border. Miri says Israel has provided about 3,000 Syrian soldiers with medical care in the last decade– the vast majority being young men between the ages of 18 and 25.

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After this sobering visit, we loaded our bus and continued on to the ancient city of Capernaum.


Doron (our amazing guide) told us this city, located on the Sea of Galilee, is known as Jesus’ headquarters, and is the location for many of the Bible’s best known miracles– walking on water, healing, multiplying the fish and loaves, and calming the storm. The ruins of a synagogue from the 5th century are located at the spot where the synagogue stood in Jesus’ time, and you can see some of the very stones where Jesus most likely walked when he visited this synagogue and performed the healing of the crippled man.

These stones are believed to be the remains of the synagogue Jesus frequented in Capernaum.

Capernaum also houses the traditional location of Peter’s house, which has had two churches constructed around it in the ensuing centuries. You can still see the ruins of his alleged house (below).



As I placed my feet in the very waters of the sea where Jesus performed several of his miracles, I felt a deep sense of wonder, peace, and gratitude.


We also enjoyed skipping stones on the sea (which is really the size of a lake!) as well as taking in the undisturbed, undeveloped views surrounding us.



After having lunch nearby (the food here is amazing… hummus at every meal!), we continued on through Tiberius and south along the Jordan to the Dead Sea.

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The Dead Sea was hazy, salty, and wonderful. Everything I had ever heard about it was true… you really do float without even trying! I think the unexpected surprise was the full body mud treatment we all got for free. My skin felt so soft afterward, and I wish I could bottle up some of the mud and take it with me! I guess if I want a similar experience back in NYC, I can go to a spa and spend $100+…haha.


Today has been full of amazement after walking the very same streets and shores that Jesus walked, but also full of heartbreak and sadness after seeing the devastation of perpetual war and death along the Syrian border.

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Israel is a land of a special kind of complexity, and always has been–and that’s an understatement. There are and will continue to be more questions than answers.

Sea of Galilee

John 21:1-9: “Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee.It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Early in the morning,  Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.
He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.”

Divine Intervention

Last week, I received the sad news from home that my Grandma Dot had passed away. Even though she had been in poor health for some time, it is never easy to hear news like this. It’s impossible to ever be fully prepared to learn of and internalize the news of the loss of a grandparent. I feel very blessed to have known 3 out of 4 of my grandparents for my first 27 years of life, as I realize so many aren’t able to get to know their grandparents as long as I have. I didn’t have the chance to get to know Grandma Dot as well as my Smith grandparents, but I am very happy for the times we had together here on earth. I was able to visit her in the hospital while I was home for the holidays last month, and I’m so glad we had this time together.

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Dot was born and raised in Tippah County, Mississippi, but also lived in California and Texas at different points in her life. She was a nurse during her professional life, spending her time caring for other people. I will always remember her as kind-hearted, good-humored, and thoughtful. She was the biggest Ole Miss fan I ever knew and will probably ever meet. In fact, one of the last gifts she ever received was a personalized autographed football from Coach Hugh Freeze. She was very proud of it. Grandma Dot was a special lady.

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After I heard the news, I found myself numb from shock, but also kicking into gear to organize my travel back to Mississippi for the services, and to read ahead and tie up loose ends at school before heading out of town. On Friday morning, I left my apartment at sunrise heading to Newark airport. My flight would leave at 10am to Atlanta, and then I would connect to Memphis after a 45 minute layover.

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About 10 minutes before we were set to board, the dreaded announcement came over the intercom—“Delta flight 2343 to Atlanta has been delayed indefinitely due to mechanical problems. We don’t have an estimated new departure time, but when we do, we will let you know.” As we all let out a collective groan, the gate attendant added (for good measure), “It’s not looking good, folks. Sorry. We will try to rebook everyone as soon as possible.”

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The flight to Atlanta was packed full, and 50 or so people immediately swarmed up to the gate counter to get a place in line for rebooking. As my layover was so short, I already knew that I, too, would need to rebook. However, I just didn’t have the emotional energy to push my way through this frenzied crowd, so I sat back in my seat and decided to watch, at least for a minute. Through the hullabaloo, I heard (or imagined I heard) an announcement—“Elizabeth Smith, please report to Gate 44.”

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I didn’t think anything of this. First of all, I have never, ever been paged in an airport, and I fly pretty frequently. And there was no reason I would be being paged right now. Secondly, I feel like Elizabeth Smith is a pretty common name. (Some people are shocked to find out my name is actually Elizabeth Grace, and I just go by Gracie as a type of formalized nickname, I guess. It gets confusing!) Newark is a big airport—I was sure there was another Elizabeth Smith about to miss her flight.

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The shouting, shuffling, and complaining continued at the Atlanta-bound gate, and I stayed seated, watching it all unfold. I was about to call Delta’s customer service line to try to rebook to arrive at a decent hour, when I heard it again. “Elizabeth Smith, please report to Gate 44.”

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Why not? I thought.

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I walked over. “Hi, I am Elizabeth Smith, but probably not who you’re looking for?” I started.

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Without missing a beat, the gate attendant looked directly at me and said, “You’re flying to Memphis, right?”

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“Yeah, I am!” I said, surprised. I looked over my shoulder at the 50 other people still waiting to rebook at the Atlanta gate just a few feet away. I was fortunate to be singled out in the best way possible.

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“Great,” she said. “I’ve already rebooked you on this flight through Cincinnati that will still get you to Memphis this afternoon. We’re about to board now.”

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As someone who has been stranded overnight and/or had to cancel weekend trips due to airline failures on multiple occasions, I was truly surprised and deeply grateful. “Wow, that’s amazing! Thank you so much!”

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She smiled as she printed my new boarding passes.

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Then, half-jokingly, I said, “You’re like my guardian angel!”

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As soon as the words left my mouth, goosebumps covered my arm and my hairs stood on end. I thought of my Grandma Dot. Tears came to my eyes.

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Maybe she wasn’t always physically or logistically able to take care of me here on earth as much as she may have wanted to, but this was Grandma Dot’s way of looking out for me now. I had arrived at the point of emotional exhaustion—the point where you need a grandmother’s hug, and maybe some fresh-baked cookies. And, in a different way, that’s exactly what I got there in the Delta terminal. I felt taken care of and looked after in that moment, and I felt my grandmother’s love. I laughed as I pictured her pulling some strings for me up at the pearly gates, intent on making sure I could arrive and reconnect with our family with the least amount of frustration and exhaustion possible.

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Grandma Dot, thank you. I love you. I hope you are at peace and enjoying good health, and are reunited with many loved ones in a place of joy and happiness. Hotty Toddy.

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Kutna Hora and a Train Ride with Franz Kafka

 

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Czernin Palace gardens

My last few days in Prague have been full of ups and downs. After switching to my new (and much better!) hostel near Prague Castle, I spent a good bit of time wandering and exploring. I came across the beautiful Czernin Palace gardens, and then decided to make the trek up Petrin Hill to its lookout tower (which looks exactly like a miniature Eiffel Tower). As I trekked up the hill, I kept thinking of one of the eeriest scenes from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which takes place on this hill (I don’t want to give any more away in case you want to read this book, which I recommend!) Surely enough, the rain started coming down. However, the view from the top of the lookout tower over Prague below was well worth it.

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And then one high point became another low point. On my way out of the tower, I decided to stop by the ATM to take out 1000 CZK (about 50 USD). The machine  accepted my card and then put the cash out…except nothing came out. The transaction posted in my bank account anyway. I’ve never heard of this happening to anyone, and it’s the last thing I’d ever expect to happen! The manager of the tower claimed to not be able to assist, as another company manages the machine. So I set out back down Petrin Hill in the rain, 50 bucks poorer with nothing to show for it. The thought of calling my bank from Europe (Bank of America has no online chat service…ugh!) exhausted me, especially after several days of trying to sort my lost luggage with Germanwings (it’s still lost as of day 9) and several emails and a (costly) phone call with NYU Law that day to sort a registration issue.

I am absolutely aware that these are “first world problems” and I am extremely privileged to even be able to travel and have these issues in the first place. However, I still felt distraught. Sometimes solo traveling can be the best thing to gain perspective, get your thoughts in order, and know yourself more. And sometimes solo traveling isn’t as fun–especially when you just want someone with you to make you laugh and take your mind away from the string of unfortunate events. Two days later, my $50 and my luggage are both still lost. But, I have my health and the rest of my travels, so many friends and family
I love (even if they aren’t with me physically right now!), and my first semester of law school starting soon. So, in my opinion, life is good and I have a lot to be grateful for as I continue on the big adventure!

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A lot to love…like this gorgeous sunset from Charles Bridge!

Things really came back into perspective for me the next day when I took a day trip to the Czech village of Kutna Hora. About 70 km from Prague, Kutna Hora was a major silver mining city during the medieval ages and competed with Prague for prominence as Bohemia’s most important city. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Also, my tour guide happened to be the husband of my fantastic guide from the walking tour 2 days earlier. They are officially my favorite Czech couple!

The first stop in Kutna Hora was at the famous Bone Chapel, filled with the bones of over 40,000 people who died from the bubonic plague and the Hussite Wars during the 15th century. Essentially, the city was running out of burial places for the plague victims, so their bones were used in the chapel to portray a message of “momento mori,” or remember the death, which highlights man’s mortality and equality before the judgement of God.

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The chapel was redesigned in the 18th century and the bones were arranged in a baroque decorative style. There are 4 large pyramids of bones in the chapel, as well as a Schwarzenberg family shield made from bones. I found this chapel to be extremely eerie, and it definitely made all of the recent misfortunes of my travels seem small.

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Kutna Hora is also the home of beautiful St. Barbara’s Chapel (it’s really more like a cathedral), a Jesuit monastery, and an Italian-style court where the King of Bohemia lived for a time. After visiting all of these places, we had a delicious lunch at a Czech restaurant before heading back to Prague.

 

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St. Barbara’s Chapel

As I prepared to leave Prague by train to Budapest the next morning, I stopped by to see the astronomical clock in the Old Town Square one last time. The astronomical clock was built in 1410 and is the oldest such clock in the world still in operation. Every hour, the skeleton (representing death) and other figures representing sins and vices chime and perform as the 12 disciples parade by a window that opens, followed by a crow and wing-flap from the golden rooster atop the clock. (It sounds ridiculous, but you just have to see it to believe it!) The clock shows the position of the sun and moon as they relate to the Earth, as it was constructed in a time when people still thought Earth was the center of the universe. It also shows the 12 signs of the zodiac. Even though the “performance” of the figurines isn’t much to watch, I found it charming and unique to watch both times I stopped by (especially considering its age and how advanced it was for its time…it was like the iPhone of 1410!)

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Once I boarded the train for Budapest, I settled in with a collection of Prague native Franz Kafka’s short stories, including Metamorphosis. I found myself laughing out loud as I read Metamorphosis on the train, in which a traveling salesman wakes up one morning as a giant bug and then must figure out how to handle his employer and family. An appreciation for Kafka, who was originally from Prague, is a fun takeaway for me from this part of the trip, as I wasn’t deeply familiar with his writing before visiting. However, while in Prague I learned a good bit about this early 20th century writer and what makes something “Kafkaesque.” Miriam-Webster dictionary describes “Kafkaesque” as “having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality” and as “often applied to bizarre and impersonal administrative situations where the individual feels powerless to understand or control what is happening.” I have decided there is no more appropriate word to describe my debacle with my still lost luggage and the ATM than “Kafkaesque.” And how fitting that it happened in Prague, Kafka’s hometown.

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I feel like Kafka would understand my pain!

 

While I appreciate Prague and Kafka’s work, I am hoping the luck of the Irish will return to me in the last 2 weeks of my travel.IMG_2773[1]

Questions in Paris

I have grappled with a big question my last couple of days in Paris- do I stop writing my blog a month shy of the end of my trip, or do I continue writing? This question was thrown on me when my Chromebook charger died unexpectedly about a week ago (yes, it’s only a few months old…so frustrating!). I searched in Dublin before I left, and high and low in Paris the last couple of days, but apparently they do not even sell that model in Europe. Normally I would just order a new one from Amazon, but traveling around for the next few weeks makes coordinating the shipping nearly impossible. So, without a charger, my dead Chromebook is rendered useless. What to do?

This situation made me start thinking of bigger questions.Something about the streets of Paris has opened something inside of me. What am I looking to find over these few months traveling the world? Do I even need to really find anything?

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As Monet’s study of the Rouen Cathedral demonstrates, what is the same often changes under a different light.
Yesterday, I posted a picture on Instagram saying I was excited to start law school at NYU (which is true…I worked hard for that!) The truth is, though, I feel uncertain. As a disclaimer, I always feel some degree of uncertainty about every big decision I make in life…it’s just part of my nature! Choosing a path means turning away from so many other paths. Those other paths may not necessarily be better, but I am curious all the same. I thought that seeing as much of the world as possible this summer would lead me to a sense of peace and groundedness, but I have only found more questions.

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In my travels, I’ve wavered between being completely surrounded (and sometimes smothered) by people and being completely alone. Today I was completely alone with my own thoughts. As I laid in the grass of the Luxembourg Gardens, it struck me that maybe I am not ever supposed to find “anything” in particular, in this trip or in my life, but that it’s about asking more questions along the way. Questions that keep changing as I change, and leading me not to answers but to even more questions.

I am in love with Paris, because in a way, it reminds me of life. I’ve spent many parts of the days wandering the streets, having a general sense of direction yet not ever knowing where I was specifically at any given moment. However, each turn in the street led to another lively cafe, a museum, a beautiful storefront, or just a picturesque scene of Parisian architecture. I don’t have to know exactly where I am going, but I trust wherever the turns take me, it will be lovely and exciting, just like Paris.image

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A few months ago, my dad wrote his weekly column about my so-called “quarter-life crisis.” I really liked the article and its amusing tone, but I would now dare to reclassify “this” (whatever all these gear shifts and changes are in my life) as a quarter-life “enlightenment”- staying true to the history and spirit of Paris.

So, I went ahead and bought a tablet at the end of the day, and I decided to save the blog from early retirement. I appreciate all the feedback and responses I’ve gotten from readers, but I realized today the blog is really a way for me to spell out the questions I am finding, even if not directly. So, I will continue this exercise as I travel on to Amsterdam in the morning!

Also, I promise I did more than wander around and go to computer stores in Paris, so I will detail this in my next post.:-)

Thanks for going along with me on the journey.image

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

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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