Category Archives: “Backpacking Solo”: My Published Diary Through Europe

One week after my college graduation, I set forth on a trip that would change my view of myself in the world. It started with a sister vacation in Spain, after which I continued on to 8 other countries backpacking solo. It was a time filled with days waking up not knowing where I was going to lie my head at night… and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

EuroTrip2010: The Ups and Downs, Ins and Outs of Going Solo

The Ups and Downs, Ins and Outs of Going Solo

From 19 August 2010

Who knows when I’ll see my older sister next.  So, when she and her boyfriend said they would be in Germany for two weeks, overlapping with the end of my European expedition, we made plans to reunite in Cologne, most known for its giant cathedral housing the bones of the Three Kings. 

Bonn, Germany is the birthplace of famed pianist and composer Beethoven. Other than that, Bonn isn’t known for much; it’s just a quaint, quiet town offering a taste of German culture.

There are some other things it should be known for, like the Michael Jackson memorial/shrine hidden under a bridge on a wall with candles, photos, flowers, teddy bears and eloquent love poems for the deceased singer.  The same bridge that stretches at least one hundred meters across the Rhine River has a walkway for lovers.  Couples write their names on a padlock, lock it on the fence and throw the key into the river.  I’d be curious to know the success rate of the lovers’ promise on the couples bridge.

The cathedral shown in the background is a location included in many religious pilgrimages. Spanning the Rhine River, the walkway of this nearby bridge is covered with padlocks, symbolic of thousands of lovers’ promises.

I met two of Ashley’s German friends, and one of them showed us around Bonn, a quaint city that used to be Germany’s capital.  The composer Beethoven was born in Bonn.  One day, Miguel and I got separated from Ashley and her friend, and (due to difficulties of which I will not go into detail that might have something to do with Miguel not correctly dialing the cell phone numbers into the payphone) it took half a day to reconnect with them.  For an hour, Miguel and I stayed in the same place we saw the two last: in the plaza in front of Cologne’s landmark cathedral.  We sat down in the middle of passersby and played poker with every item in my purse.

This shrine to Michael Jackson appeared out of nowhere. Located under the Cologne bridge, MJ worshipers paid tribute to the late singer in their own special way.

I must admit, the sister reunion wasn’t full of as many rainbows and butterflies as I hoped.  However, my sisters are my best friends.  We work through our disagreements.  My last night in Germany went out with a bang.  The five of us ate crepes the size of dinner plates, and then had a dessert crepe to satisfy our already-full stomachs.

My last week was spent in Madrid celebrating the feast days of various saints.  Food stands, concerts, dancing and parades–you name it, the fiestas had it.  In Spain, it seems like there’s a holiday every day.  I swear it’s the abundance of fiestas that keep the Spaniards healthy well into old age.

 

A local Spaniard sells keys on the streets of Madrid during El Rastro, the city’s weekly flea market.  Every Sunday, locals line every nook for a mile long selling anything they can.

Ending in Madrid, I let myself wind down a bit, preparing for the transition back to this place called America.  I soaked up every minute of solo time left.  This all led to me philosophizing and doing more thinking than my brain can handle.  I thought about the best and worst parts of my trip and pulled those together to come up with what I learned.  Here it is:

Like silence, solitude can be unbearable.  Like silence, solitude also can be sacred.  It’s something wonderful when you find solitude to be the latter.  I find it strange how sometimes, you can be in a crowded room and feel all alone.  Other times you can be alone but have all the company in the world.

 

This celebration of a saint’s feast day took place on the street behind my sister’s apartment.  As you can see, the decorations are not modest.

Reflecting on my summer abroad, I keep replaying the moment when I really set the solo trip in motion.  Ashley and Miguel dropped me off at the train station in San Sebastian, Spain.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to hold back the few tears trying to push their way through, tears caused by anxiety, fear, a worry of the possibility of feeling alone.  I turned to my sister and said, “Why did I do this?  It would have been so much easier to stay in Ohio.”  I was right; it would have been easier.

During feast days of saints, banners and flowers decorate the street after which the honored saint was named. Wearing the typical dress for these occasions, the neighborhood parades down nearby streets, singing and hoisting a heavy statue of the saint.

It’s funny now, looking back on what I was scared of most.  Friends, family and strangers worried I might get mugged or kidnapped.  They didn’t worry about me feeling lonely traveling by myself.  But groups of backpackers, the only encounters I had at the first hostel I stayed at, they knew.  I remember trying to overcome that fear of loneliness in Porto, Portugal, when my bunkmate, one of four German girls traveling together, said to me, “You’re going alone?  Don’t you get lonely?”  Having spent the previous three days attempting to convince myself backpacking solo wasn’t that bad, it was exceptionally hard to smile and say, “You learn to love it.”  And learn to love it I did.  I made my own plans and met many more people than I would traveling with someone else.  I went off the backpacker trail, further making myself vulnerable to capital L Loneliness.  Through all of it, I uncovered a patience with myself I had not known before.

In writing this reflection, I want people to know that I wasn’t fearless.  In the months and weeks leading up to the trip, I couldn’t wait to get started, but when the day finally came, I wanted to pack up and haul out.  It took a good week for me to get hooked.  I admit to you that I was scared because I don’t want anyone to read this and pull the “Ohhh, I could never do that” card.  One of the mottos I live by is, “If you want something to happen, you make it happen.”  I wanted a challenge, so I pushed myself to continue and to embrace the sacred nature of solitude.

Perhaps you read these trip updates because you want to be entertained.  And while I do my best to entertain, there’s a dual purpose to my writing. I also write to inspire.  I think these articles are much less inspiring if 1) I don’t tell the whole truth and 2) I make it seem easy.

Knowledge does not come from accomplishing easy tasks.  (Hopefully I’m not recycling a Confucius quote there.)  The first step toward wisdom is knowing one’s self (Confucius?), and as I’ve hopefully relayed to you, that’s not a smooth road.  Solo time is difficult, but it’s good.  In my opinion, it’s necessary.

I’ve finished this journey taking with me an appreciation of others, a stronger patience with people and myself, and a reconfirmation of my belief that, first and foremost, we must be citizens of the world.  There’s so much out there of which I’ve only had a glimpse, but I hope my glimpse was enough to encourage you to go outside of your comfort zone.

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EuroTrip2010: Don’t Forget the Little Countries

Don’t Forget the Little Countries

From  10 August 2010

The train enters Luxembourg City on this stone brick overpass. The capital is so small, everything is within walking distance making any automobiles other than city buses largely unnecessary.

After Berlin, I reunited with Jacky (the only skilled manual driver from my rent-a-car travels in Portugal).  When Jacky and I found out we were in the same country, we worked out a short travel together.  The location?  Luxembourg.  I know what you’re thinking.  Luxem-huh?  Is that some sort of disease?  In fact, it is a teeny French-speaking country bordering Germany, Belgium and France.  I emailed Jacky saying, “Hey, wanna go to Luxembourg, because nobody goes there?” and she responded with an emphatic “yes.”  We met up at a hostel in Cologne for the night, playing cards with a German gal. (Along with water and nail clippers, I always carry a deck of cards.)

I reunited with Jacky, a fellow solo traveler, in Luxembourg. The capital city is built into a mountainside with the fortress at the highest elevation.

Then, we took a train along the Rhine River to Luxembourg.  We stayed at one of four hostels in the country and the only one in the capital, Luxembourg City.  Looking out the window as we crossed the border, I was already ecstatic that we decided to go here.  Before we were even off the train, I’d picked out sights to see.  At the bus stop, we chatted with a British couple who we ended up joining for lunch.  I realize now that we never even introduced ourselves; it just didn’t seem important.

Upon checking into the hostel, one of the first things I did was look for a book exchange.  Most hostels have them.  In fact, all but two hostels that I’ve been to didn’t.  Of course, those happened to be the most recent hostels I’d stayed at when my need for a book was almost as urgent as my need to interact with an animal.  Filling the length of the wall in the common room were shelves of books.  Eager to pick one, I ran over to skim the titles.  That one’s in French.  That one, too.  French… French.  Are you serious?  Are these all in French?  No, there were about three German books in there.  Just when I was about to throw in the towel, two of the last five books in the final shelf jumped out at me.  I had one of those movie moments where the sky opens up and a bright light shines down, illuminating the object of your desire, in this case, two English books.  Finally!

One of many signs sharing my family’s nickname of “Wenzel.” We never did find out where the arrows led.

The view from the fortress included a river, lots and lots of hills and greenery, and old buildings comfortably situated side-by-side.  I discovered a sign that said “Wenzel,” which just-so-happens to be a shared nickname of the Venzel sisters.  So began the Wenzel photo shoot.  The sign had an arrow, so we expected it would take us somewhere.  After a good fifteen poses with different Wenzel signs, I gave Jacky a rest from the role of photographer.  We never did find out to what “Wenzel” the signs were referring.

It quickly became apparent that the only life in Luxembourg is in the small city center, covering only about 4 blocks.  Over dinner, Jacky shared a lot about her family, focusing on the Egyptian customs.  Both of her parents emigrated to Australia from Egypt.  I was also surprised to see the Serbian folks I met in Berlin walk by while we were dining.  Small country, small world.  After dinner, I needed to fill a week-long void of ice cream and Jacky needed coffee.  We walked with the cold and hot goods to a ledge overlooking the city, waiting for the sun to set.  We told stories about our love life, because that’s what girls do.  Jacky told me about a Swiss boy she met in Germany.  I told her about the guy I met in Scotland.  And… you’re either bored or awwing, so I’ll move on.

The moon that night was a magnificent orange, and I mean orange when I say orange.  Not a burnt sienna or golden yellow.  Take an orange fruit and toss it in the sky tonight.  There’s the moon we were looking at.  I always enjoy seeing a city during the night and day.  Watching the transformation take place can be quite rewarding.  I equate it to watching the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly.  You’re waiting, you’re waiting…still waiting and then BAM!  Something completely different.

It rained hard the next day.  That didn’t keep us from walking around town, but it did end with us drenched.  I traded in my three Euro bright yellow “hi, I’m a tourist” poncho for a too-short-in-the-arms-supposedly-waterproof jacket at a Berlin hostel clothing exchange.  Note the supposed water resistancy.  We stumbled, literally, upon a documentary in a room that likely used to be a guard tower.  Due to its hidden location, the documentary probably only gets a viewing once every month.  Though we learned nothing, it was a strange discovery.  As soon as we pressed the play button, the lights dimmed, automatic shades rolled down and aisle lights came on.

It turned out Jacky and I both had the same destination in mind after Luxembourg–Bruges, Belgium.  I stayed at a hostel while Jacky stayed with her cousin who she’d never met.  We did our own thing until my last day in Bruges when we met up once more.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Bruges’s main plaza has a circular stone walkway around a statue, lined by expensive local restaurants. Horse-drawn carriage rides are a popular tourist attraction, loading and unloading customers here.

First things first, I had language barrier overload going from German to French to Dutch in a span of three days.  The waiter at a cafe on the main plaza in Bruges gave me a lesson on please and thank you in Dutch.  “Please” was too much to handle, so I gave up trying to store that one in long term memory.  (French is spoken in the south of Belgium, Dutch in the north–in Flemish dialect which basically consists of eliminating every other letter of a word until you end up with incoherent verbal diarrhea.)  I learned that the waiter’s dog and identical twin are extras in the first thirty minutes of the movie In Bruges.  I of course was more interested in his handicapped dog than the twin.

I learned why Bruges is called “Little Venice.”  The name primarily stems from the canals gondola-esque tourist boat rides throughout the town.  Additionally, Michelangelo’s Madonna with Child is located here, one of few of his works outside of Italy.  I’d say Bruges has a taste of Rome, too, as I went to the veneration of the Holy Blood while I was there, which some believe is the preserved blood of Christ.

Belgium is famous for many food items: fries (originated here), chocolate (they say it’s better than Swiss), waffles (go big or go home), and beer (indulge with caution).  I passed on the fry museum, so I am unable to impress you with potato facts.  I passed on the chocolate museum, although it would have been neat to see the life-sized chocolate Obama.  When my friends from university drank Belgian beer, it only led to the expulsion of a suffocating aroma, unbearable for both parties.  I opted for the waffle.  I held out until my last day in Belgium so that Jacky and I could partake in the Belgian Waffle Experience together.  An experience indeed.  At first I just ordered mine with powdered sugar.  Then I found out I could get strawberries.  A minute later, I added vanilla ice cream.  Maybe it really was just a regular waffle, one that happened to have the perfect crispness, the perfect toppings (I usually eat my waffles with syrup and peanut butter; ridiculous, I know).  Perhaps I subconsciously overlysatisfied my sweet tooth by reminding myself I was in Belgium, eating the infamous Belgian waffle.  Either way, I don’t care.  Never in my life have I made such inappropriate noises with every bite.  I’ll go back to Belgium just for the waffles.

“Little Venice” is an accurate nickname for the city of Bruges, Belgium. Canals wind throughout the city, and boat rides are a common attraction for tourists.

Jacky convinced me to go on a boat ride through the canals.  You’re not going to be surprised when I tell you what made the too short, overly priced boat ride worthwhile.  It was that doggy in the window, the most photographed dog in Bruges, according to the boat driver.  He’s there every day, head resting on a pillow sticking just outside an open bay window that hangs over the canal.

I said goodbye to Jacky that evening, with plans to head back to Cologne, Germany to meet up with my sister.  I’ve got so many friends in Australia now, I think I’m going to have to pay the country a visit.

Buena Vista Social Club performed a free concert in one of the plazas in Bruges. A former band member, pictured in the middle, came on-stage for one of the songs; he still had moves at 83!

To top off my trip to Bruges, I went to an outdoor concert with my bunkmate, Elise from Canada.  Buena Vista Social Club performed!  They must have made their way from Hamburg to Bruges.  You’ve probably heard a song or two of theirs before, “Candela” being a popular one for movie soundtracks.  The group not only plays great music, but they’re entertaining to watch because the singers dance and really involve the audience.  I caught the gray-haired, dreadlocked group leader’s eye while I was salsa dancing with a huge smile on my face, and he winked at me.  I took some videos of the percussionists for my daddy.  He’ll be elated, watching how fast the drummers’ hands move on the bongos and congas.  In the middle of the concert, an 83-year-old man was called on-stage.  He used to be a member of the group back in the day.  The crowd cheered for the five minutes that he was up there singing off-key and dancing as much as his joints allowed.  It was one of the highlights of my time in Bruges.

My trip was coming to an end soon, but I wanted to make the most of it.  It was back to Germany for a few days to practice, um, butcher, my German.

EuroTrip2010: Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Not Even a Little Bit.

Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Not Even a Little Bit.

From 6 August 2010

Before heading to Germany, I contacted all my friends (mostly from AmaZOOnico) who live in the country.  Hamburg was my next stop–yes, hamburgers really did originate here–and, as it turns out, Konny lives there.  She offered me a bed and I gladly accepted.  However, finding her at the train station was a bit of a pickle.  First, I got off at the wrong station. I realized it just as the doors started to close, so I shoved my body in between and asked a lady on the train if this was Hamburg Hbf.  Nope.  Next stop.  Phew.  Close call.

Holocaust memorial statues are scattered throughout Germany, especially in the country’s capital of Berlin. This controversial statue, Neue Wache, depicts a mother cradling her dead Nazi soldier son.

When I made it to the correct station, I realized that the SIM card on my phone had run out of credit so I could not tell Konny where to meet me.  No phone card shops were nearby, so I tried a payphone.

Pictured here is Hamburg’s city hall. The ornately decorated building is open to the public during set times of the day.

I only had Danish kronnes, no euros, and I couldn’t figure out how to pay by credit card.  This is when a mild panic began to set in.  Luckily, Konny called me–I could still receive calls with the mobile, just couldn’t send any.  With an overjoyed hug after a year apart, I went to her apartment, along with her boyfriend Lars.  They gave me tips on what to see in Germany, and we took a walk with ice cream after dinner.

While Konny was at work the next day, I walked 7.0 km around the man-made lake, Außenalster.  I ventured off the path every now and then to investigate buildings, etc. that caught my attention, snapping a photo of Wentzelstraße (Wentzel Street) for my sisters.  (We all share the nickname Wenzel.)  Sitting as close to the edge of the lake as possible, I ate a schmorgasbord of fruit while a family of coots inched ever closer.

Konny suggested I check out the River Elbe the next day.  I made my way to the city center parallel to the harbor.  The area is dominated by church steeples, World War II storehouses and an impressive town hall.  At St. Petri-Kirche, I climbed (breathing heavily, sweating even more) the tower for a bird’s eye view of Hamburg.  Germany was experiencing a heat wave; I think the whole world is in the middle of a heat wave.  As any normal person knows, the best way to beat the heat is with ice cream.  Europe has delicious ice cream bars called Magnum.  I eat them when necessary.  That day, Magnum was necessary.

The Rhine River flows along the eastern side of Germany. A ride on the Inter-Rail in Germany will most likely take you along part of the Rhine.

Being the exceptional hostess that she is, Konny took me out to dinner that night.  It was our last opportunity to catch up as I had a bus to Berlin the next day.  Conversation of course centered on the jungle days but was not limited to the topic.  We shared holiday traditions with each other, noting differences in celebrations of New Year’s and Christmas.  There’s no sparkly new year ball that falls at midnight for the Germans.  On Christmas, Santa takes a break touring the world and lets the Christkind (Christ Child) deliver gifts under the tree in Germany.  After dinner, we stood outside the gate of the park’s outdoor concert arena and listened to Buena Vista Social Club, an Afro-Cuban group with an interesting history (Wikipedia it) and outstanding music.  Before bed, I said goodbye to Konny, planning on putting the key in her mailbox in the morning before I caught the bus.

No sign explains or declares this Holocaust memorial, so tourists often mistake the smaller cement blocks for benches. The artist intended for people to question the meaning of the architecture and make their own interpretation.

Transportation in Germany does not cater to foreigners.  I finally made it to the eco-friendly hostel in the woods of Berlin after some minor setbacks with bus confusion.  Wait.  Back up a second.  Woods?  Berlin has a forest?  Indeed it does, and a rather expansive one at that.  The forested region surrounds Grunewaldsee, a lake that happens to be the spot to take your dog(s)(s)(s)(s)(s)(s).

On my walk through the winding, criss-crossing paths, I encountered three people and twenty-three dogs.  My first thought was, Ohmigod this is Heaven.  My second thought was, Hmm, must be doggy day care.  Shortly thereafter, I realized I’d made a mistake.  Used to the average American dog owner having only one or two dogs, I couldn’t believe the number of dogs per household these Berliners had.  Seven for that lady.  Two minutes later, another woman, this time with eight.  Most of the dogs were off-leash heading toward the lake for fetch and a swim.  I knew that was where I wanted to be tomorrow.  I booked this hostel because I needed a break from the city life.  That’s why I spent the next day reading, swimming and people/dog-watching on the sand.  And on my way back to the hostel, I only got lost for a half hour!

In Berlin, I met four other solo backpackers with whom I spent a couple days touring the city. Countries represented, from left to right, are Australia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mexico, Bosnia again, and of course, the USA.

Back at the hostel that evening, I shared my traveling stories with Andy #1.  I also met a fellow zoologist!  Before checking out the following morning, I talked with some guys in my mixed dorm room, Andy #2 and Mario.  We all were planning on going on the free walking tour, so we decided to go together.  Andy (from Australia–geesh, these Aussies!) showed me photos and videos from Running with the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain.  Only danger-seeking-high-thrill-riding-psychos run with the bulls, and Andy was one of them.  I’m glad he survived.  Mario had just finished an ultimate frisbee tournament in Prague.  He plays for the Mexican national team.  Now, he wanted to travel for a bit before returning to Mexico City.

Berlin’s East Side Gallery was one of my favorite sites during my entire trip. This particular mural parallels Picasso’s “La Guernica,” both depicting civil unrest.

The tour gave me an appreciation of Berlin, which surprised me, because 1) It’s a city and as you well know by now, I’m no city girl, and 2) It is full of history and politics, things that hold little interest for me and of which I am highly uninformed (just ask any of the members of my college improv comedy troupe).  But because of reason #2, Berlin turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip.  Now that I’m up-to-speed with history and politics, I only need to get up-to-date with pop culture.  (I did see the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his infant child over the balcony.  How about a point for pop culture?)

One of the features on the tour that stands out most is the Holocaust memorial next to the Brandenburg Gate which used to be an entrance gate into Berlin.  An American Jewish architect designed the memorial which is composed of 2,711 cement blocks of varying heights, arranged in a grid pattern.  The artist chose not to have any sign or explanation for the memorial, so tourists don’t usually know the structure’s purpose.  Because of this tourists sit and stand on the stones, kids run through the maze, and people pose pretty as if this is the perfect spot for a senior picture.  There are supposed to be guards watching the area to make sure people do not stand on the stones, but they are limited in number.

One of more than 100 murals painted on a preserved section of the Berlin Wall, this design covered the longest stretch of the more than mile long East Side Gallery.

I went back to the memorial the following day to reflect on its impact, then went to a Holocaust museum nearby.  I found a spurt of anger rising in me at the disrespect invading what should have been a sacred atmosphere.  I had to remind myself they didn’t know better, and the artist intended this.  But was he getting his point across?  Many people do stop and think, wondering what exactly the blocks are, which is what was intended.  Some people find that the stones resemble barracks, others see lines of Nazi soliders, or lines of prisoners.  I felt like I was in a tomb.  And while many do pause to question, and perhaps reflect, there are still many who do not.  So my question still stands: In accordance with the architect’s intentions and the victims it honors, does the memorial achieve its goal?

The Reichstag building is a government landmark that prides itself on its transparency, literally and figuratively. A glass dome allows for viewing of the parliament plenary sessions.

Andy, Mario and I met two girls from Bosnia on our tour, and after Mario and I threw around the frisbee, the five of us waited in line to enter the Reichstag, a government building with a glass dome through which people can view the Parliament plenary sessions.  The wait was long but it was in good company.  Sanja and Sabina’s friends from Serbia joined us as well.  That night on the bus, the boys and I had a long political/historical discussion, one in which my mind was amazingly present the whole time.  I have such a hard time understanding how one man was so persuasive and powerful in such a horrifying way, igniting the Holocaust atrocities.  Our political chat went from dictators to terrorism to 9/11, ending with the question of what determines which country is the world leader, its economic or military strength, if you had to choose one?  I’ve never been so invested in such topics.

Under construction, this small section of the East Side Gallery was painted over in white. Passersby, including myself, took to writing their own inspirational words on the wall.

I will end this trip to Germany with Berlin’s East Side Gallery, coordinated and protected graffiti art on a remaining part of the Berlin Wall.  The gallery stretches 1.3 km with art by over 100 artists representing 118 different countries.  The work,painted from 1989-1990, is supposed to represent the emotions during those years, the fall of the Wall.  And, while there were signs every meter noting additional graffiti to be an illegal act prosecutable by law, there happened to be a section painted over in white, now covered with pen and permanent marker.  I waited a moment to see if I would stand out writing on the wall, but another man took out a marker and began to write something.  As long as he didn’t try to make a joke on the wall, I supported him.  That’s why I wrote something myself.  “…That freedom never dies. …Remember your dignity.”  If you go to the East Side Gallery, I’ll tell you where you can find my illegal words of inspiration.  And if you see any German policemen, please don’t tell on me.  Because anytime a German yells, especially someone of authority, it’s always ten times scarier.

I returned to Germany later, but first I had plans to reunite with Jacky, the stick-driver rental car friend I met in Portugal.  We met in Cologne, Germany and left the next day for Luxembourg.  Why there?  Because even moreso than Wales, no one goes to Luxembourg.

EuroTrip2010: Off the Backpacker Trail

Off the Backpacker Trail

From  29 July 2010

Swansea, Wales sits along the country’s southwest coast, just over an hour from the capital. The city’s castle lies in ruins in front of a tall contemporary building, the stark contrast showing the modern day’s domination over medieval times.

Nobody goes to Wales, but the country deserves attention.  Bilingual, with every sign in Welsh and English, I never once heard the native language spoken.  Word on the street is that Welsh is only really spoken in the far north these days, and either way, it is a dying language.  The country is quiet–even the city capital of Cardiff is relatively low-key.  Ane and I stayed at hostels near the city center.  We took a bus to Cardiff Bay one day, eating lunch at a local cafe on a boat.  By chance, we came across a free viewing of a videotaped theatre performance.  I enjoyed the simplicity of the script, but it was too slow-moving for Ane who fell asleep, in front of the theatre company director.  Back-to-Back Theatre chooses innovative stage settings, always public places such as a train station where this particular one took place.  Audience members sit in bleachers with headphones to hear the actors, but sometimes never see them among the hustling and bustling oblivoius crowd until the final bow.  The themes of the theatre works focus on the political and social issues surrounding persons with disabilities.

Ane and I desperately needed a night of karaoke and were lucky enough to find a bar hosting a competition.  We didn’t find out it was a competition until after our smash hit performances, so we just took the microphones and did a song and shimmy to the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week” and the movie Grease’s “You’re the One that I Want.”  Perhaps the karaoke judge slash lady running the show didn’t much enjoy our duets because we were the only participants denied requests.  Needless to say we did not qualify for the final round, but I think the locals took a liking to the two foreign girls on stage.  We received some whistling amidst the applause.  (At least I think it was whistling of praise, but it could have been relief that our song ended).
If you learn anything about me from reading these articles, learn this: I love doing literal interpretation dances to songs.  So when someone took to the stage singing Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer,” I took to the dance floor with my literal interpretation.  Sometimes, I forget I’m in a public place and people are watching me.
In addition to Cardiff’s castle and park with Wales’ wannabe Stonehenge, we found another castle in Swansea.  Ane and I wanted to go to the coast because we heard it is beautiful, especially the further south and west you go.  We didn’t really go west and we only went an hour south, but it was refreshing to be on a beach again.  The weather was chilly so we walked barefoot and picked up seashells.  Ane collected enough to house the entire hermit crab and clam cast of The Little Mermaid.
In our search for the castle at Swansea, we stood in the plaza checking the map and saying, “Well, it is supposed to be right there.”  It took a few blinking moments to realize it wasn’t a whole castle but rather part of a castle.  Swansea made little effort to preserve the ruins seeing as soda cans and bottles littered the lawn.

Cardiff is quiet for a city capital, especially for one along the sea.

However, the location of the (part of a) castle was nonetheless striking against the city landscape.  Tall, glass window office buildings (as close as Europe gets to skyscrapers) dominated the view above, the modern looming over the ancient.  I couldn’t help but think of what a strong statement this made about the society’s often disregard of civilization for the past, too focused on a more advanced future.

Before I forget to mention it, bask in the thought of me getting pooped on by a bird in the city center.  A nearly empty plaza, plenty of open area to aim for and my arm is the chosen target.
While the Ghana vs. Uruguay game was on in the hostel’s common room, Ane and I played Monopoly and Clue (called Cluedo in the UK).  Because the Monopoly pieces were the traditional thimble and dog, it wasn’t until about three times around the board that I noticed the property names were different–street names in London.  King’s Cross Station?  Hey, I’ve been there!  Hasbro went religious for the UK version of Clue, blessing Mr. Green with the title of Reverend.  The knife is called a dagger and the wrench, a spanner.  Minor details but I felt like I learned something.  (Yeah, board games can be culturally enlightening.)

Enjoying our reunion after meeting the summer before in Ecuador, my Danish friends and I had a picnic outside Bakken amusement park. Bakken is the first and oldest amusement park in the world.
After five nights in Wales, Ane and I took a bus to London, slept in the airport, and caught (er, nearly missed) a flight to Copenhagen.  Another friend from AmaZOOnico, Sophia, lives there.  Ane and I spent two nights with Sophia and her Ecuadorian/Quechua fiance Juan.  We had a picnic before heading inside Bakken, the world’s oldest amusement park.  Far from Cedar Point–the thrill level was just above that of a jungle gym–the company was great.   An added bonus, there is no entrance fee.  Just a pay-as-you-go fare per ride.  We actually ran into a past AmaZOOnico volunteer who left the rescue center the day after I arrived.  He now works at the amusement park.  Pardon me if this sounds pompous or rude, but Ane, Sophia and I agreed that Sebastian now has a crummy job in comparison to the jungle days.  At least he is getting paid this summer.
The goodbye to Sophia ended with talk of a hopefully soon reunion in Ecuador.  We all want to go back, so it will happen some day.  It is just a matter of when.
Ane and I went to her hometown in the north, Aalborg, where I spent a week practicing Danish phrases.  I told many a stranger, “I love you.”  While I think Ane would admit there is not much sight-seeing to be had in Aalborg, we rode to the harbor often.  Aalborg is a city that caters to cyclists with a bike lane on every main road.  Instead of car parks, there are bike parks at apartment buildings.  Very few people even have a driver’s license beacuse cycling is the major mode of transportation.  Of course, that means you’re bound to get caught in a rainstorm from time to time.  It only happened once while I was there.
Alison, the woman whose apartment we stayed at in London, was visiting Ane’s mom in Aalborg.  We had a scrumptious dinner, with edible flowers in the salad, the night before Alison’s flight back to England.  The next day, Ane and I played in the sprinkler with her nephews, eight-year-old Adam and six-year-old Beatom.  Beatom was quiet and smiley, but Adam was very talkative despite being deaf.  Even though I don’t speak Danish let alone Danish sign language (did you know sign language is not universal?), Adam didn’t let that stop him from communicating with me.  It reminded me of the Hello Kitty girl in Porto, Portugal.

Ane and her nephew, Beatom, roast breadtwists over a fire. We dipped the Danish treats in ketchup to give them a sweet taste. (Ketchup is sweeter in Europe.)
Adam spent the night at his grandma’s in a tent with Ane and I.  Before bed, the four of us baked bread twists over a fire.  I tried mine with ketchup as is traditional, and it was pretty tasty!
When I first met Ane’s group of friends, it was the night of the World Cup final.  I warned Ane that I wouldn’t be social, and she was already prepared.  I told her there was only one thing I had to do while in Denmark, and that was watch the final match.  I about ripped my hair out any time Spain just missed a shot or Holland almost scored on a breakaway.  I might have been the only one in the student center bar actually rooting for a specific team, but people joined in my ecstasy when Spain scored.  I haven’t stopped scolding my sister Ashley for leaving Madrid that weekend for a small vacation in San Sebastian up north, where she describes the vibe as much lower.  Even though she is not a soccer fan (she recently reminded me that she has at least touched a soccer ball–volleyball is her sport), I still would have traded places with her to be in Madrid.  I think that would have been a once in a lifetime experience.  Ah, well, what’s done is done.

I went to Farup Sommerland amusement and water park with Ane, her boyfriend Andreas and his sister Ida.  Ane and I rode the kiddie Tower of Terror and I screamed like a banshee, louder than any of the five-year-olds on board.

While setting up for a gathering put on by Ane’s boyfriend’s sister, I wandered along the fjord where I discovered an abandoned building. Every single window was broken, making for captivating photography.
The four of us spent many afternoons at Platform 4, an empty warehouse now used for concerts, office space and a bar.  Ida works at the bar and Ane and I helped her and her co-workers decorate the place like a park.  At the end of the week, we brought some friends and joined in the opening, eating ice cream and playing cards amidst DJ music.
The night before I left Aalborg, Ane’s best friend, Bibi, turned twenty-one.  I went to her birthday party where everyone included me in conversations, explaining card games in English.  Bibi’s friends bought her a guitar, so there was a lot of acoustic music that night.  A guy from Finland played some Finnish folk songs.  A Danish guy showed me some magic tricks.  It was a very fun atmosphere.
My visit to Aalborg, Denmark allowed me some quality time with my Danish friend Ane, whom I met the previous summer in Ecuador. The stay here was low-key; I was able to fully immerse myself in the daily culture.

Andreas videotaped the goodbye at the train stations when Ane and I sang one of our many theme songs.  There were a lot of “I’m gonna miss you” and “see you soon” exchanges.  How soon soon is, neither of us knows.  Maybe next summer if there is an Ecuador reunion, or if Ane visits the states.  Maybe years from now.  But we have a special friendship and we’ll make sure there are many more reunions.  Ane’s mom and Alison are great examples for us of long distance friends keeping in touch, making sure to have reunions.

When I changed trains headed to Hamburg, Germany, I watched the goodbye video.  It put such a smile on my face that I watched it again.  I think this Europe trip has been the perfect reminder of that Girl Scout song that says, “Make new friends, but keep the old.”  Sounds cheesy when I sing it at twenty-two years old, but it holds a lot of truth.  “One is silver and the other’s gold.  A circle’s round.  It has no end.  That’s how long I want to be your friend.”  I know you’re crying now.
Germany came next.  I speak zero German.  Bring it on.

EuroTrip2010: Just a Fool in London

Just a Fool in London
From  22 July 2010
How exciting it is to meet someone from a different country in another country and meet up with them a year later in yet another country.  Last summer with the animals in Ecuador, I worked with Ane from Denmark.  We had a high-pitched-squealing, bear-hug-

I saw all of the big tourist attractions in London, such as the tall clock tower called “Big Ben.” But the best part of my time in the UK was all of the crazy things I did, including doing the Single Ladies dance on the Tube (London’s subway system).

squeezing, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening reunion in… London.  I told Ane way back in December about my decision to travel Europe.  She wanted a little vacation, too, so we somehow settled on London as a meeting point.

But first things first.  Late in the night, Ane arrived at the hostel before I did.  Once I made it to Camden Town, the section of London where the hostel was located, I stood outside the underground attempting to decode my hand-drawn map.  Feeling futility pulling in the reins, I resigned to hail my first ever personal taxi.  I have been in a taxi exactly six times before.  I remember where and when for each time, but I never had to call for one myself.  I couldn’t whistle if my life depended on it, so I stepped to the curb, raised my gangly arm and waved my dainty fingers.  Evidently too daintily.  I watched three empty taxis pass me by.  How was I ever going to stop a cab without having to jump in front of one?
That’s when Roy appeared at my side.  I’d been avoiding whatever paper slips he was soliciting.  But he had the pleasure of watching my feeble taxi cab solicitation, so I took the paper he held out to me hoping that would make him leave me be.
“You need a taxi,” he said, more of a declaration than a question.
“Well, yes, but–“
He walked away from me mid-sentence, following the sidewalk.
“Where are you going?” he said.  “I’ll take you there.”
“No, that’s alright.”
“It’s okay,” he assured me.  “I’m a taxi driver.”  Roy pulled out a set of keys from his pocket and headed to a nearby parked car.  “Where to?” he said again as I stood non-committally on the sidewalk.
“Camden Town Inn,” I muttered.  “Bay Street.”
“Oh, that’s just right down the road.  I’ll take you there.”  He opened the driver door.
I hesitantly walked up to the passenger door, then paused.  “No, that’s okay,” I said when I couldn’t find a sign saying “taxi.”
“There’s no meter,” I pointed out.
“Look, my name’s Roy.  I’m certified.  I work right over there.  You can ask them.”  He gestured to a building behind me.
I smiled awkwardly.  “Okay, well, thank you, but it’s alright.”
By now he was sitting in the driver’s seat.  He pushed open the passenger door, starting to get frustrated.  “You can drive with the door open.  I’m not a kidnapper.”
I eyed his gold velvet sweatsuit with a matching cap.  Not dressed for crime, but I wanted to trust my gut.  He got out of the car.
“Where you going?  Bay Street?  It’s just down there.  Five minutes walk. You come back tomorrow and you ask them about Roy.  See that I’m a taxi driver.”
I thanked him for the directions (which proved correct–no more than five minute on foot).  “I’m new at this,” I said.  “I’m sorry.  But thank you very much.”
I left Roy standing there next to his car looking like an angel in all that gold.  I walked fast to the hostel.
Is there something about me that attracts creepy (albeit seemingly nice) men?  I’m just not used to males being so… forward.  That’s what made me uncomfortable on a bus ride in Ecuador.  But I’d rather trust my gut never knowing than go against my instincts and be in a real pickle.
That was how my first two hours in London began.  But from there on out, it was gleeful.  And the next day, I trusted my gut which told me that the locksmith guy offering to walk to the hostel to break my stuck lock–“to save me the trip”–was a nice guy.  Plus, I had Ane with me.  He said no customers would be in the store for awhile anyway “on account of the football game.”  He was indeed a jolly fellow.  We talked about his growing up in India and what brought him to London.  And then I was on a high for the rest of the day because I just love (non-creepy) nice people.

The Greenwich Festival held endless free community events such as this outdoor theatre performance called “The Garden.”
During my time in London, I saw the big attractions.  A giant clock.  A giant ferris wheel moving at the pace of an ant.  Woohoo.  The Prime Meridian on the Greenwich Line.  Red phone booths. But these things are not what made my time in London memorable.  In fact, I was disappointed sometimes.  Why is there a children’s song about the London Bridge when it’s so normal I didn’t even know I was standing on it?
Ane and I stayed at Alison’s apartment the rest of our time in London.  Alison and Ane’s mom met thirty years ago and have seen each other four times since then.  But when they get together, it’s like no time has passed.  Ane and I were lucky enough to have  a kitchen for cooking quality dishes and free beds.
The Greenwich International Festival kicked off during the week we were in London.  One of the events took place in a small dark box with room enough for only fourteen people.  We participated in an interactive global warming crisis simulation, the audience acting as London’s response team.  Our simulation was compared to others that took place throughout the week.  In addition to this attraction, we watched an outdoor acrobatic/theatrical/musical show in a small park.  I was impressed with the troupe’s inclusion of persons with disabilities, both actors and the audience.  The entire cast knew sign language!
My favorite parts of Ane’s and my London experience were our self-routed treasure hunts for art–graffiti and pianos.  Banksy, the graffiti artist with a name but no face, hails from Bristol.  Much of his artwork is in London, though he has painted all over the place, from Palestine to Copenhagen to California and New York.  The stencil graffiti always makes a political statement, and, even in crowded, public, heavily-screened places (by London’s CCTV surveillance system), Banksy hasn’t been caught.  Some of his graffiti only lasts hours.  The police or other artists can be quick to make it disappear.  But buildings with his art often increase in value to the point that building owners create protective boxes around the art before power-washing or more graffiti can get to it.  Ane and I found maps noting places where Banksy had graffitied, but we could never be sure we would find the treasure at the end of the trail.  Graffiti comes and goes all the time.  There’s even a rival group called “Team Robbo” who has attempted to deface Banksy’s art.  Team Robbo is ill-favored among Banksy enthusiasts, i.e. the general London public.

For the newly created London art project called “Play Me, I’m Yours,” twenty-one pianos were placed in parks throughout the city.  It seems this little girl discovered the same one Ane and I did.
Along with the search for graffiti, Ane and I included the musical realm in our treasure hunt.  We read about an art project involving pianos, in its second year in London and this year also going on in Manhattan.  Twenty-one pianos were placed around London, decorated and labeled with the words, “Play Me, I’m Yours.”  The art project calls upon the community for participation.  A map showed their locations and we sought out three of them.  At one location, I played a modified version of the Titanic theme song on speed.  While I was playing at our final piano stop, a little girl sauntered over to me.  I asked her if she wanted to play.  She nodded, so I scooted over and patted the open spot.  As soon as I lifted her onto the bench, she began her improvised melody, first slamming her hands onto the keys and then alternating an unsteady rhythm between two keys.  I died inside on account of the cuteness level.
With the British being avid soccer fans, we didn’t have to be in front of a TV to know how the matches were coming along.  Walking by pubs, there were only two types of shouts: positive (hoorahs!) or negative ([insert swear word here]).  After one of the matches, Ane and I met up with Fergus, a Londoner we worked with at AmaZOOnico as well.  We tried not to rub in England’s 4-1 loss to Germany too much, but it was difficult.
In addition to seeing Fergus, Ane contacted two England friends she met on her post-AmaZOOnico travels in South America. I could have been the odd one out while Gemma, Dan and Ane recounted the glory days, but I wasn’t.  We all shared stories.  By the end of the day, I felt like I gained two new friends in four hours.
Stenciled graffiti art by the famous man without a face, Banksy, can be found throughout London, like this one under a bridge in Camden Town. A rivaling group, Team Robbo, defiles Banksy’s artwork, but this has not deterred Banksy from continuing to spray pain images in big cities around the globe.

I lied before.  I have another favorite part of my trip to London: willingly (and ever so ungracefully) making a fool of myself in public. It all started at the London-Hong Kong Regatta when Ane “offered” to pay one pound for me to get my face painted like a butterfly.  Of course I accepted.  On the tube–the London term for “subway”– Ane and I were headed who-cares-where post-Regatta when Ane suggested I perform Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” dance,  Prior to, I mentioned proudly to Ane that I know the moves.  Only semi-reluctantly, I danced the Single Ladies dance on the London tube, singing part of the time.  I had everyone staring at me before I started because I stood clutching a pole trying to work up the nerve to do it.  My face was still painted with the butterfly mask.

Somehow, that little routine turned out to be a mere warm-up.  The tube car wasn’t crowded enough, so I danced again later in the day in a crowded car.  This time, though, Ane and I acted like we didn’t know each other.  I stood up, put on my poker face and started dancing in the middle, planning on continuing the dance until our stop when we would exit through different doors.  That was one loooooooong transit.  I ended up improvising.  And… my face was still painted like a butterfly.  Ane couldn’t see the people in the car behind her standing up to check out the action in our car, which served as encouragement for me to continue posing as the psychotic loner with an internal I-pod.  Upon minding the gap as I exited the car, I continued dancing until the platform cleared.  Then, I ran to Ane and said we should get the heck out of there.

The Thames River on London’s South Bank flows throughout the city. Numerous street performers set up camp along the river and spend an entire day posing as live statues, dancing or making music.

I put myself to the test once again, this time posing as a street performer in South Bank, London along the Thames River.  I sang a horribly wonderful operatic falsetto “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”  I even put coins on top of my purse near my feet to encourage people to pay as much as they thought my beautiful rendition deserved.  I received nothing.  Ane even took away my coins mid-song.

Luckily, all the escapades were captured on video (click the links above), and for once I will praise technology.  If I can make a fool of myself in London, why not let the world view it on You Tube?  Oh joy!

Needless to say I left my mark in London.  Let’s see, in Ecuador, I got my ears pierced in the market (of a third world country?–bad idea).  In London, I danced on the tube.  And then I did a literal interpretation dance in a bar on karaoke night in Wales… Oh, but that
comes later.

Whatever will she do next?  Even I can’t answer that.  Spontaneity is the name of the game.

EuroTrip2010: Scottish Gems

Scottish Gems 
From 19 July 2010
Once outside the airport in Scotland, my first impression was, Man, the Scottish are nice.  Throughout my week-long stay in the country, this thought proved true again and again.  A bus driver even took the time to direct me to the hostel without me having to ask.  And oh what a hostel it was.  Situated just below Edinburgh Castle, Castle Rock Hostel is off the Royal Mile and Garden Market, excellent places for sightseeing.  (The market square, now full of restaurants and pubs, used to be the gallows for hanging people. Yeek.)

Partial ruins of a chapel on the way to Arthur’s Seat at the top of Edinburgh’s hills.

The hostel had an eclectic aura with each room–including the sixteen-person room I stayed in–having its own name, ranging from “Underwear” to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”  To make finding your bed easier, and perhaps more fun, even the individual beds had names.  Pleased with my hostel choice, I set out to explore the Royal Mile.

I met Heath outside a cathedral.  Turns out we both had the same thought in mind, a little sightseeing while in search of a place to eat.  Initially, I was a bit disappointed when his accent turned out to be native to Tennessee.  With a name like Heath, I was hoping for something a little more exotic.  Come on, I thought.  Where are the foreigners?  But I thought it would be nice to have some company, so we decided to look for food together.  I was tricked by the presence of the sun in the sky, thinking it was onlly 6 PM.  Lies.  It was 10 PM.  Most of the restaurants were no longer serving food, but eventually we found a place.

A view of the Edinburgh hillside that overlooks the North Sea.
I am glad I didn’t let Heath’s American citizenship deter me from forming a new friendship.  He is a really admirable, down-to-earth guy.  Our dinner conversation got serious real quick talking about matters of ethics blahblahblah.  But how often do you meet a complete stranger, decide to have dinner together, and within an hour hit the topics of religion, poverty, life ambitions and self-discovery?  Very rarely.
That got me thinking.  We’re so used to picking and choosing our group of friends.  And there’s logic to that–some people click, some people are so annoying they should be avoided.  But when you are out of your comfort zone traveling a foreign land alone, the drawing bowl isn’t big.  You give everyone a chance.  It might test your patience, but that has proven to be extremely rewarding for me thus far.  By the end of my first night in Scotland, I already had plans to hike with Heath the following day.
The hostel advertised a free walking tour of Edinburgh.  I said, “Free?”  They said, “Yes.”  I said, “Where do I meet the tour guide?”  Overly dramatic, enthusiastic Mark led the tour, but his antics made the historical facts more memorable.  I walked away from the tour feeling well-informed.  My favorite story was (of course) about a loyal dog from the late 1800s.  When Greyfriar Bobby the dog‘s owner died, the dog stayed on the grave for more than ten years.  People started bringing him food because he was not leaving the grave to search for any.  After a few years, a law passed calling for the euthanization of all stray dogs.  The people were in an uproar when they discovered this included Bobby.  However, there was one way to avoid Bobby being put to sleep.  The law wouldn’t apply to a stray dog if the dog was a citizen of the town.  So, Bobby the dog was given the keys to the city and saved from an untimely death.  He died on his master’s grave.  However, because he wasn’t Catholic, he could not be buried in the church graveyard next to his owner.  His grave is just outside the cemetery gates.

Much of this capital city is dominated by medieval stone or brick buildings instead of the modern day skyscrapers of most capital cities.
On our way to Arthur’s Seat, Heath and I stopped at the National Museum of Scotland to find Dolly the cloned sheep.  The taxidermied ewe was inside a glass case, her hooves nailed to a wooden plank with pieces of hay and fake poo glued to it.  Thank you for the realism, Scottish history museum.
The view from Arthur’s Seat was magnificent.  Scottish landscape is unbelievably beautiful.  The hill looked out over the old and new parts of Edinburgh as well as the North Sea.  I would have liked to be up there at night, but I would fear the rocky hillside descent.
A ghost tour was offered that night, and Heath and I joined it along with another girl from our hostel I met earlier in the day.  Faithful Mark turned out to be the tour guide, and he did not let us down with the energy level, making the ghost stories a bit more appealing.  The tour ended at a pub where Heath and I exchanged backpacking stories with Ali (originally from Iran, now working in North Carolina).  All three of us agreed: traveling is addicting.

Edinburgh Castle is only one of many famous attractions in Edinburgh, Scotland.
I left the following morning for Aberdeen on the northeast coast.  My friend, Kim, from Ohio Wesleyan has a homebase there.  (She is kind of a nomad, but that is where her parents live now.)  It was nice to have a temporary homebase of my own, too.  I spent five nights with Kim, her parents and her younger sister.

The pink castle of every little girl’s dreams.

We went to a castle almost every day.  All but one had been lived in until some point in the 1900s, so the rooms were furnished.  One of the castles gave me the image of every little girl’s dream castle, for its exterior was pink.  However, my favorite castle did not have antique tapestries hanging from the walls or expensive dinnerware set on a table for a party of ten that would never come.  Instead, Dunnottar Castle lay in ruins on a cliff overlooking the North Sea.

The North Sea is home to seals and Puffin birds.

Peering out over the shoreline, I spotted two black circles in the water.  I don’t know if I legitimately thought they were seals or just wanted them to be, but I jumped up excitedly shouting, “Seals!  Seals!  Seeeaaaaalllllllllsssssss!”  Kim’s sister pointed out that we could climb down the slope under the cliff for a closer look.  I ran down, slipping and sliding when the going got rough until I stood one hundred meters from four seals, 150 meters from two others.  I wanted to swim with them, to touch them, to look one in the eye, but I settled for sitting motionless on the rocks exposed by low tide.  This was their home.  Who was I to invade it?  There’s something magical about seeing zoo animals in the wild.  I sat there for thirty minutes feeling the magic.  Then, I pulled myself away so that Kim and I could view the castle ruins.

Dunnottar Castle was by far my favorite, lying in isolated ruins on a cliff overlooking the North Sea.
Highland cows are easily recognized by the long hair on their head that gives them bangs.

I was lucky enough to have Kim’s mom transporting us around.  I really really really wanted to see a Highland cow, teenage moo-moos as Kim’s family calls them.  The beginning of the actual Highlands was at least an hour drive, so it wasn’t likely I would see any around Aberdeen.  But, Kim’s mom remembered seeing some in the direction of the airport, so we drove up to the farmlands to test our luck.  And luck was on our side that day–a whole field of Highland cows!  Even two calves!

Before leaving Scotland, I got a full-out Scotland experience at the Highland Games, similar in some ways to our county fair but with sporting events going on.  Scottish “track and field” uniforms for men are kilts.  (It is true; kilts are worn underwear-free.)  The shot put equivalent (but actually quite far from the equivalent) is a log (more like a tree trunk) throw.  The Scottish officially made tug-of-war a sport.  A dance competition went on as well.  While we watched the Irish and Scottish dancing, a loud-speaker announcement called for “overseas visitors to participate in the one hundred meter run.”  I was wearing jeans and had a bum foot (a self-inflicted wound from lack of self-control, ahem).  Nevertheless, I looked at Kim.
“Should I do it?”
“You should do it.”
“I really want to do it.  I think I’m going to do it.”
Annually, the Scottish Highlands host a track and field event called The Highland Games. Of course, the sports are quite different from those at a high school track and field meet.

After a minute more of contemplation, I unbuttoned my jacket and ran to the starting line.  Soon, seven males and four females were lined up for the race.  What fun spirit!  We smiled and laughed as we ran.  When I finished, strangers congratulated me with, “Good job, Ohio!  Way to go, USA!”  I received a goodie bag prize complete with an inscribed first place trophy and a Scottish flag.

Shortly thereafter, I said goodbye to Kim’s family.  Kim is off to grad school in Australia.  Who knows?  Maybe my next contintental excursion takes me there.

All of the castles have carefully manicured gardens. This one reminded me of the scene in Alice in Wonderland where Alice golfs with the Queen of Hearts.
From Aberdeen, I caught a budget airline flight to London.  (All hail ye, EasyJet.)  It was time for an AmaZOOnico reunion!  I figured if I was going to be in Europe, why not meet up with some of the people who made my experience in Ecuador so memorable?  Bummer the monkeys couldn’t come, too.  Remember Ane from Denmark?  We met in London and recounted the jungle days while creating an entirely new set of memories.  I willingly made a fool of myself in London… multiple times.  For entertainment’s sake, I’m game.  Episodes of hearty laughter make life worth living.  So I continued to embarass myself with public performances in Wales and Denmark.  But the escapades of London, Wales and Denmark await my penmanship.  I hope you eagerly await them as well.
Cheers,
Stacey

EuroTrip2010: Portugal Offers Some Surprises

Portugal Offers Some Surprises

From 13 June 2009

The shoreline in Lagos, Portugal is characterized by rocky cliffs towering over crystalline water. In June, the water was frigid, but that didn’t keep people from swimming!

After Porto’s ivy and river view, Portugal continued to woo me with its landscape.  I caught a 5:45 AM train to Lagos, a relatively touristic city on Portugal’s southern coast.  About five hours later, I found myself sitting on the pier watching a pair of male fiddler crabs engage in a duel.  The brawl reminded me of the crayfish competitions observed in my Animal Behavior class at university, proof that bigger isn’t always better… but usually.

That evening, I felt close to home when the Mama Mia soundtrack played through the stereo while I ate dinner at a restaurant.  I can’t tell you how many times my roommate and I held spontaneous song and dance parties to this music, whether in our house, in the car, or on the lawn.

The hike to this grotto in Lagos offered a gorgeous view of the surrounding cliffs and Atlantic Ocean. Donny and I trekked to precarious locales as often as we could–danger led us to great beauty!

Looking forward to getting a good night’s sleep after the early morning start, I soon realized sleep would not come easily that night.  In the bed next to me on the top bunk, a noise–sounding like a car engine turning over while a lawnmower simultaneously revved up–escaped from the nasal cavity of a woman.  This snore, ladies and gentlemen, was louder and more powerful than the synchronized snores of my mother and dog.  Needless to say it made for a good conversation starter with bunkmate, Jacky, the following morning.

Jacky from Australia was also traveling Europe solo for three months.  Both thinking of staying two more nights, we quickly became friends.  Neither of us had concrete plans of where to go or what to do, so we hit the street and decided to follow the coast.  A couple miles into our walk, after passing savanna-like terrain on a straight road, we ran into a dead end.  Instead of turning around, we ventured toward the edge of the cliff only to discover a (brutal) stairway (down) to Heaven.  At the bottom of the steps lay a boat-filled cove surrounded by tall rock islands.  These were the boat trips to the grotto Jacky and I heard talk about!  We hopped on a boat for a tour of the caves and cliffs.  Our driver didn’t speak English, but he smiled a toothless smile every time he could name a rock formation,

Caves over the ocean, called grottos, are a big tourist attraction in Lagos. Native residents take tourists on a boat ride through the grottos for a small fee.

such as the two called “Elephant” because they resembled the animal.  Thirty minutes later, our mouths dry from hanging open in gracious awe, we slowly ascended the stairway.

On the afternoon of the second day, Jacky and I met another solo Australian traveler on the beach.  Donny was in search of a sightseeing opportunity, so Jacky and I walked him back to the grottos.  They were worth a second look, but this time we stayed on top of the cliffs and looked out over the sea.  Headed back into town, we detoured to follow some signs for the beaches of which there seemed to be a few.  We approached a narrow, steep, broken plank stairway, far from welcoming as the descent to the grottos had been.  The splintered wooden steps surrounded by rocky crevices suggested a rolled ankle if one put a foot in the wrong place.  This, of course, only fed us more adventure.  It doesn’t always take a rainbow to find that pot of gold.

About twenty steps from the bottom, a white-haired man poked his head out from behind a boulder.  Our view of the beach was obscured by massive rocks on either side.  The rocks also safeguarded our Puritan eyes from the white-haired man’s fellow nudists.  When Old Man Rivers moved into full view, he was not clothed.  His skin was baked to an unnatural reddish-purplish-brownish hue.  While the three of us were quick to avert our eyes, we noticed the man waving us forward, an invitation to join him.  We looked at each other.  Should we do it?  The question could be read on all of our faces.  And surprisingly, we all decided we didn’t walk down the stairs of death for nothing.  There was a beach, dangnabbit, and we wanted to see it.

We kept our clothes on and made sure our focus lay on the caves and waves away from shore.  Donny and I went for a bathing-suit clad swim in the frigid water.  Yes, frigid.  I exaggerate naught.  So cold that it felt like an icicle hit the exact center of my skull and sent a chill down the full length of my spine.  Did I mention it was worth it?  The nudists by far had the nicest beach.

Alcacer do Sal was our rental car overnight spot. The city seemed like a ghost town as we walked down the dimly lit streets at dusk before spending an uncomfortable but ever memorable night in the crowded car.

Back at the hostel, relaxing (or rather, recovering) from the day’s affairs, Jacky and I met Leanne from New York, also a solo traveler.  The four of us tabled the idea of a road trip.  That story continues soon.

Donny, Jacky and I went to a tavern to watch the England vs. USA World Cup match.  I cheered when USA scored the cheap goal.  I was the only one cheering.  At that moment, it became apparent that this tavern was filled ninety percent with British tourists, evidenced by an accented atmosphere of curse words, and ten percent filled with fellow European Union folk.  Whoops.  Fearing someone might soon drown me under the tap, the three of us picked up Leanne and Babsi from Finland.  Babsi was also staying in the room with Jacky and I.

Jacky, LeAnn, Donny and I enjoyed our home-cooked meal at the hostel where we met in Lagos, Portugal. The plans for our rental car trip were only just beginning…

We enjoyed yet another free attraction, an art exhibit.  Then, we made our way to the town center where a street performer was putting on a comedic circus show.  We caught the end of his first performance, making conversation with him when he finished.  On our way past the center twenty minutes later, the show was going on again.  The Portuguese entertainer noted our presence and gave us a shout out, hailing us then and thereafter with, “Australia!  America!”  He completed his sequined Speedo bathing suit ensemble with white socks and black loafers.  It was the Speedo that tipped off Jacky and I that we’d seen this man before.  The day prior, he cooled down after some juggling on the beach with a self-programmed yoga routine.  When Jacky and I left him on the beach, his face was beet-red after a cumulative seven minute head stand.

The next day, Leanne, Donny and I joined a kayaking tour through the grottos.

Another way to experience the grottos of Lagos is to kayak through them. Exhausting as it may be, the kayaking trip is well worth the physical exertion!

At one point, we entered a cave with a small amount of light penetrating down to the ocean bottom from a hole in the cave roof.  The water was well over our heads, but the ocean floor was still clearly visible.  By the end of my time in Lagos, I rode a boat, swam and kayaked through the caves, and each mode of transportation led to new observations.  I have found that it is well worth admiring things in detail more than once from different perspectives every time.

To refuel ourselves after three hours of ocean kayaking, the four musketeers made an absolutely scrumdiddlyumptious meal.  We felt like royalty.  Food always tastes better after a hard day’s work, and when the wind picked up on the ocean, kayaking back turned into quite the aerobic workout.

After dinner, we made our rent-a-car plans searching Europcar’s website for the cheapest car.  We made sure that the cheapest was also an automatic as Jacky was the only one who could drive manual, and she didn’t have her actual driver’s license with her, only a copy.  Leanne would be our registered driver because she was the oldest thereby saving us from incurring the added young driver fee.

Jacky stayed at the hostel the following morning while Leanne, Donny and I walked fifteen minutes to Europcar.  Registered and paid, Leanne climbed behind the wheel as Donny shouted from the backseat, “Wait!  This is a manual!”  The attendant inside did nothing to help us.

“You wanted a small car,” he said.
A joint reply: “No, we booked the cheapest small car that was automatic.  And we made sure it was automatic.”
“No.  I’m sorry, but no.”

Moorish influence is visible in much of Portugal and Spanish architecture. On the way to the Lisbon airport, my new backpacker friends and I drove our rental car through the city of Sintra and up a mountainside to this ancient palace.

He left us standing there unsure of how three non-stick drivers would get this car back to the hostel where the unregistered Jacky could take the wheel.  Leanne and I opted for Donny to drive as he seemed the most confident.  We knew we were in trouble when we couldn’t figure out how to put the car into reverse.

Three day car rental: €159.  Rental insurance: €15.  Driving out of the rent-a-car shop with an unregistered, unaccomplished stick driver behind the wheel of a manual: Priceless.

Thankfully, this beautiful view is federally protected with a wildlife preserve in the surrounding area. At the southernmost tip of Portugal, Sagres does not see many visitors nor host many inhabitants. Perhaps that is what makes the landscape so empowering.

And that’s when I learned to drive stick–in Portugal.  All I can say is thank goodness they drive on the same side of the road as the states.  But my first roundabout was a bit scary. I drove for about three hours, stalling at every stoplight.  We made a U-turn forty minutes into the trip backtracking to the southernmost tip of Portugal to the remote town of Sagres.  I hereby petition this place for one of the 2010 Seven Wonders of the World.

We spent the night in the car in a parking lot of a small town called Alcacer do Sal.  On our way to Lisbon airport for my flight to Scotland, we drove partway up a mountain to Sintra where we checked out a Moorish palace.  Before I knew it, it was goodbye Portugal, rental car and new friends, hello Scotland!