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!

EuroTrip2010: Food for Thought in Portugal

Food for Thought in Portugal

From  10 June 2010

Saturday night on the dance floor in Salamanca, Spain came and went, and I managed to make it until 4:30 a.m. running on pure adrenaline.  I’ve been visiting my friend, Marcos, a friend I met at Ohio Wesleyan who lives here.  There’s a big festival going on, and Marcos insisted I stay awake until seven a.m. on Saturday.  Sorry my friend, I couldn’t make it any later.

Salamanca’s fiesta included an acrobatic display in the main square.

Perhaps the lack of sleep was catching up to us the following evening.  While cooking dinner, Marcos and I examined–for lack of a better word–the English and Spanish languages, enjoying each other’s non-native accents.  I received a lesson on when to roll my R‘s, but sometimes, I still manage to let my tongue get a little carried away, as does any normal person upon the discovery of something new.  (I couldn’t roll my R‘s until halfway through last summer in Ecuador.  One day, it just clicked!)

Having met Spaniard Marcos eight months prior on his visit to the U.S., we reunited in his hometown. Here we are in the main plaza of Salamanca, Spain.

The next day, I said my goodbyes to Marcos and his mom, and I headed by bus from Spain to Portugal.  Traveling in Europe is often like going from one state to the next in the U.S., and public transportation is big in Europe.  Consequently, hopping from one country to another is quite affordable for a recent college graduate like me.  My destination was Porto, the second largest city in Portugal, with a population of over 200,000.  I later learned that one of Portugal’s most famous exports, Port wine, is produced and shipped from here, making its namesake the city of Porto.

Stepping off the bus, I found my way to Oporto Poet’s Hostel by putting my rusty, novice Portuguese language skills to the test.  Pronunciation aside, it was a success, and I booked  three nights in the modern-mixed-with-retro hostel.

Still accustomed to the Spanish meal schedule, I relaxed with a light late dinner on the Douro River.  The following morning, I quickly realized I was ill prepared for rain.  When I could no longer bare the cool weather and drizzle, I put down three Euros for a bright yellow poncho.  That certainly didn’t make me stand out as a tourist!  I spent the rest of the day navigating the alleyways of Portugal’s second largest city without a map.  At times, I had no destination in mind.  Instead, I let curiosity lead me up and down homey and abandoned side streets.

When I want to get to know a place, I spend a day walking around more-or-less aimlessly finding my own sights worth seeing.  In Porto, I found the facade of every door was worth paying attention to.  Call me crazy, but now and then I began imagining what lie behind each door.  Behind the hunter green, brass handle door with an array of potted plants out front was, in my mind, a comfortable home for a young, single, working woman.

A view of the red-roofed houses and buildings along the Douro River in Porto, Portugal.

Adjacent to that home, my brain conjured the image of an elderly couple that cared only about what was on the inside; hence the chipping brown paint on the old (and probably creaky) wooden door.  Just when my mind jumped to the conclusion that the unpainted, dried out, cracked door with a broken knob was nothing more than a forsaken hardware store, the door slowly opened and out came a father with a toddler in tow.

How quick we are to make assumptions.  I don’t think there are any limits to the imagination, but perhaps breaking free from the chains that bind us to our presumptive instincts is more difficult than we expect, especially because imagination seems to be linked so strongly yet subconsciously to our past experiences.

One afternoon, I crossed the bridge over the Douro River in search of a quaint local cafe.  Voila, I came across a number of options. Settling on a sandwich joint run by a young Portuguese couple, I took a seat at a table with a decent view of the river.  A little girl who I guessed was the daughter of the couple that ran the restaurant brought me a placemat and silverware.

Obrigada,” I thanked her.  She scurried off to engage in a game of tag with an elderly man–Grandpa, perhaps.  Soon after, she carried out my food, chatting away in Portuguese to me, to herself, to whomever.  When I finished, she came over to take my plate, again talking away.  Unable to understand her, I smiled and thanked her.  A minute later, she was back, and this time I was sure she was attempting conversation.  I still don’t know if she recognized that I was a non-Portuguese-speaking foreigner.  It didn’t matter.  She told me to wait a moment and ran to the back of the cafe.  When she returned, she dumped the contents of a plastic grocery bag onto the table.  Out poured enough Hello Kitty merchandise to make an entire class of kindergarten girls merrier than Christmas morning or trick-or-treat–bracelets, key chains, mini purses, figurines, necklaces.

Me dê sua mão,” she demanded, and I held out my palm.  She wrapped her hand around my index finger, pulling it toward the now categorized nation of Hello Kitties.  “Um.”  She scanned my face for some sign, but what I didn’t know.  “Dois,” she continued.

Um, dois,” I repeated the counting.  She nodded. “Três,” I said, pointing to the third bracelet in line.

Muito bom,” she praised me.

We spent the next half hour rearranging the Hello Kitty display, at one point engaging in a race to see who could count the kittens fastest.  Though I never learned the girl’s name, she unknowingly gave me food for thought.  To her, there was no language barrier.  She
talked whether or not I acknowledged that I understood.  For her, communication had no boundaries.  I realized then that communication doesn’t always require understanding.  What it requires most is a commitment between two people to simply try and understand one another through means sometimes other than language.

After lunch, I crossed over the upper part of the two-level bridge. Approaching the end, my eyes were drawn to a landscape of green, ivy that seemed to roll in pleasant, dominating waves over the buildings below. Here was a silent competition of man versus nature. And nature surely was winning.

At the end of one of the bridges in Porto, I came across a green sea of overgrown ivy, igniting a visible contrast between the natural and man-made landscapes.

After exploring the Crystal Palace Park where I had a run-in with peacocks galore, I ate a home cooked pre-paid meal at the hostel, one of the many perks of this place.  The past few days, I’d been feeling a bit lonely.  Talking to myself offered minimal, short-lived entertainment.  (Surprising, I know.)  The alone time was good and necessary, especially as I sought this Euro trip for self-reflection. However, I wanted this trip to result in new friendships as well.  I made a resolution to myself that I would indeed meet new people. Without forgetting to make time for myself, I dug inside of me for the outgoing girl who talks to strangers (in addition to herself).  On my last night in Porto, I started to make friends, moving past the small talk of backpackers coming and going.

Lagos, Portugal was next.  But that story comes with one heck of an ending, so I’ll save it for another day.

Until the next time I have access to a computer with cheap Internet and time to sit down and share my journey with you…

EuroTrip2010: To Begin, Some Sisterly Bonding in Spain

To Begin, Some Sisterly Bonding in Spain

From  3 June 2010

Another summer abroad, but this time I’m not digging through monkey poo, nor do I have to avoid tarantulas like the plague.  I decided on a European excursion, a post-graduation gift from me to me, some time for self-discovery and cultural exploration.  My trip begins and ends in Madrid, Spain, and everything in between is up in the air.

I started out with some sisterly bonding.  Ashley, my older sister, lives in Madrid.  Way back during the ’09-’10 Ohio blizzards–followed by the sixty degree weather–the three Venzel girls decided it was time for a sister vacation.  Having put this idea on the table, it blossomed into my plans for backpacking through Western Europe.  And so it happened that for the past two weeks, Ashley, Bridgette (my younger sister) and myself, along with Ashley’s boyfriend Miguel (not a sister, but still a part of the family) enjoyed
the life of the Spaniards.

My sisters and I in front of a stone stairway over the sea in San Juan de Gastalugatxxe. At the top of the hill lies a small church.

Bridgette and I took a solo trip to Toledo, Spain (Toledo, Ohio’s sister city) where we found the Calle de Toledo de Ohio(Street of Toledo, Ohio).  Though the street was only about five paces in length, Bridgette and I were nonetheless enthusiastic, taking turns spelling out O-H-I-O under the street sign (sorry, Michigan fans).

This ancient Roman aqueduct in Segovia, Spain used to be the town’s only water source.

In Segovia, Spain, the four of us marveled at an ancient Roman aqueduct, an open-topped stone pipeline that used to provide water to the pueblo.  I have more-or-less become successful at navigating a city both on foot and on the Metro, but we’ll see if my knowledge of city layouts extends beyond Madrid.  This capital city had cathedrals galore and a beautiful palace.  I enjoyed the rose garden, a serene setting with a stone walkway home to more than fifty species of roses from around the world.  Bridgette and I declared it the perfect place for a marriage proposal. (Men, take note.)

The nightlife in Madrid is hip-hop-‘n-happenin’.  Stop at a bar for drinks and tapas/pintxos (little plates of appetizers) and then on to another.  After receiving disgruntled looks from bartenders when I asked for un vaso de agua (I’m not an abolitionist, but I do choose not to drink alcohol), I’ve discovered the universal virgin drink –and likely the only one in Spanish bars–mosto!  It’s a watered down white grape juice.  And it’s not free, unlike the glasses of water, so I make the bartenders happy by ordering mosto and enjoy more of the Spanish culture.  Sometimes, the mosto comes with an olive.  I don’t eat the olive.  I can’t bring myself to savor the flavor of those weird-looking grapes.

With the overcast skies, green hills and stone path, this off-the-map spot in San Juan de Gastalugatxxe looks like a blending of Irish countryside and the Great Wall of China.

All of us spent a few days on the northern coast of Spain in San Sebastian.  This city is part of the Basque country where the first language is actually Basque, not Spanish.  While riding my bike along the coast, a television reporter caught me for an interview.  I timidly (what? me? timid?) praised the beautiful coastline of San Sebastian.  Luckily, we didn’t have a television to watch the news, so I was saved from a spree of jokes.

Combing through the tidal pools in San Sebastian, I was ecstatic to come across a live sea star (starfish).

The marine biologist in me couldn’t contain herself, so I spent some time perusing the tidal pools on a rock pier at low tide.

I was ecstatic to find a starfish as well as colonies of sea urchins.  And yes, I did jump with excitement at the numerous types of algae, especially at the sight of  Ulva, or sea lettuce, my personal favorite.

Also in San Sebastian we three girls watched Miguel and a few locals take off into the air and paraglide.  Paragliding is the sport where you run off a cliff while attached to a parachute, and then soar through the air.  Low and behold, I was offered the opportunity to paraglide in a tandem with Miguel’s friend Iosu.  I accepted, I paraglided and I loved it.  Granted the only air circulation was a lazy breeze, I was still able to glide over the tops of the trees, paralleling the dynamic line below where sea meets land.  Iosu pointed
out a falcon to me, and we followed behind it, with it, for a number of meters, ourselves just another bird in the sky.

By some heavenly miracle, I’ve been able to stay up until two or three a.m. even on the weekdays, breaking my weekend routine of eleven p.m. (11:30 is pushing it).  I’m in Salamanca, Spain now visiting Marcos, a friend I met at Ohio Wesleyan who lives here.  There’s a festival going on, and we watched an acrobatic show in the Plaza Mayor.  Marcos says I have to stay awake until seven a.m. on Saturday (or really Sunday), as that’s the dia de fiesta here.  He says I have to rest lots before.  I said, okay, but I’ll still fall asleep on the dance floor.

Iosu prepares me to go tandem paragliding over Bilbao in the Basque country.

My nerves are easing some at the future prospect of traveling alone for an extended period of time.  I’ve done it successfully before, but it’s still not a comfortable thought.  I have to remember to still be my crazy self.  The locals and fellow backpackers can love me or hate me.  At the very least, I’ll entertain myself, right?  My next stop is Portugal, and by all accounts it is a beautiful country.  I will let you know soon enough!

Flying over the land and sea, paragliding is a peaceful sport that takes extreme courage, skill and patience.

My Life in the Amazon: The Last of Ecuador

The Last of Ecuador

From 24 August 2009

Carolina (Ecuador) and Ane and Sophia (Denmark) became my close friends during and after our jungle days. Who knows when we’ll all be together next?

Perhaps the best way to describe my feelings upon returning home would be as such: It was good for awhile.  I wasn’t expecting to welcome the civilian modernized lifestyle with open arms for I hadn’t yearned for it while in the jungle.  I was so preoccupied about catching my connecting flight from Houston to Detroit that I neglected the fact that I was walking on U.S. ground.  I ordered a sandwich in Spanish at some Barry Bagel equivalent in the Houston airport, then quickly repeated myself in English.  It dawned on me that the airport chatter was in a language I hadn’t heard spoken natively in quite some time.  I was home!  I couldn’t wait to see my family, but I didn’t have to take even a breath to realize the cultural shock I was about to experience.

Carolina, the Ecuadorian girl I traveled with for the past two weeks, leads an upper class lifestyle so I was actually backstepping a bit into the middle class sector of my hometown.  However, there were still many things to which I had yet to re-accustom.  At the forefront of my mind was the calming feeling of being able to walk alone on the street, the freedom to strike up a conversation with a stranger without the fear of being robbed or hit on.  Soon enough, that welcomed comfort wore off as well and I began to miss the adventurous lifestyle I had been leading.  Of course, I do not wish to be ambushed by a thief in Perrysburg nor get whistled at by a car of high school boys at a stop light.  I do, however, miss Ecuador.

The highlights of my last week of traveling include my solo trip to the coast and climbing the dormant volcano Cotopaxi (at a pace slower than a tortoise).  After some miscommunication that took place outside an airline ticket station, I boarded a flight from Quito to Manta alone.  I was scared.  I was worried.  I felt vulnerable.  The coast is supposedly characterized by more robberies.  I hadn’t had exceptionally comforting experience travelling alone up to that point and I didn’t exactly have concrete plans as to where I was going or what I was doing.  Despite my anxious thoughts, I managed to calm myself enough to enjoy a relaxing time on the beach.  I met a group of three men in their forties and fifties vacationing with a seven-year-old son.  They took quite a liking to chatting with the American girl who was sitting on the sand breathing in the smell of the sea.  They paid a small token to a traveling duo of guitarrists to serenade three songs for me.  Fernando, the man who initiated the serenade, told me to remember the people of Cuenca, their native city, as “nice people who just want to be your friend.”  Finally, I thought, a group of men who just wanted to laugh and joke and get to know this foreigner, to be nothing more than friends.  From a reader’s viewpoint, the serenade might not sound like a gesture of friendship but I can assure you it was.  And I was finally feeling comfortable being alone.

After a few days in Manta, I took a bus ride past a number of ghost towns to Puerto Lopez.  Words falter in describing the sheer magnificence and natural beauty of a pod of whales in the ocean.  I went whale watching on a boat with a group of about twenty tourists.  The first Humpback we saw had just its fluke sticking up out of the water, seemingly frozen in place, in time sufficient enough for the onlookers to catch more than a glance.  Not long enough, of course, for the old school, slow-working camera Carolina lent me. But long enough to have imprinted an image in my head.  I came to Puerto Lopez to see whales because it was prime whale season when the families swim through these bays once a year.  Having witnessed firsthand the enormous tail of a Humpback whale glistening with water droplets despite the overcast skies, I would have been content with just that image.  But luckily, we continued our voyage at sea.

We encountered a family of three Humpbacks swimming along, pectoral fins skimming the surface every now and then.  Underwater, their bodies looked like the blue of a robin’s egg illuminated against the stark contrast of the midnight blue sea.  The whale watching, however, didn’t stop there.  We saw another family of Humpbacks, three adults and two babies.  At this point in my writing, I do not know whether I should pour out my heart to you or hold back, but I’m taking a leap of faith and going for the foremost.  About halfway through the trip, I abandoned the camera.  It had worked whatever magic I thought it capable of and I decided I would rather take in these sights with my own eyes than through a camera lens.  Hence, I kept my eyes peeled wide open on the water’s surface, searching for water spouting up or whirling about, any sign of marine life.

And it happened.  Four times.  Something you see on a calendar page but rarely witness in real life.  The water parted as the nose of a Humpback whale emerged, on four different occasions, followed by the gigantic white belly with the pectoral fins splayed out, all accompanied by a spray of oceanwater.  Each time these creatures hit the water with a crackling belly smack that would leave any human’s stomach permanently red, I felt my own waterworks churning.  The sight of these animals and the sound of their bodies hitting the water, assurance that the experience was not just a dream, brought actual tears to my eyes.  Maybe you think it’s crazy, crying because of something you see in nature.  But just like people shed tears of happiness, I was shedding tears of pure elation.

To top it off, on our way back, we rounded a cliff and saw those birds with the blue feet, Blue-footed Boobies, native to Ecuador.  We had passed by here on our way out to sea but I only noticed the white-colored rocks and thought, Hmm, must be some very white sand.  No, no.  It was bird poop. T hese cliffs were filled with so many Blue-footed Boobies that the rocks looked snow-covered from their excrement.

When I returned to Quito, Carolina and I took a trip with three friends to Cotopaxi.  Three of the five of us (myself included) finished the climb to the refuge center.  Two hours after we began our ascent, we marveled at the expanse of mountains and greenlands visible from this vantage point.  Additionally, we congratulated ourselves on what had seemed an unnatural accomplishment.  The winds and cold we battled coupled with the steep incline and sandy terrain that didn’t offer strong footholds translated to numerous power breaks for the climbers.  Some of the gusts of wind were so powerful that they forced us backward, sometimes knocked us over so that we rolled a few feet downhill.  Losing that much ground, just a few feet, sounded like an added death trek at the time.  That small yellow building, our destination, stared us down from above. I’m pretty sure it was laughing at us.  Our descent took only 30 minutes.  When we were driving away from the mountain, we stopped to read the welcome sign.  Instantly our pride level plummeted.  We had only climbed three hundred meters… in two hours.  We were hoping for at least a mile.  Needless to say it was quite a tiring trek.

So now I sit here typing away at a computer that I can have at my fingertips whenever I want.  I sit in a room dimly lit by the natural light seeping through the blinds though the darkness is calling for the yellow shine of the lightbulb which I am holding out on.  I sleep in a bed with a metal frame instead of bamboo slats and a mattress that doesn’t feel like the entire Detroit Tigers team batted it in for twenty-four hours straight.  I walk down the sidewalk alone and in barefeet confident that I won’t be ambushed or step on broken glass. I enjoy air conditioning in this intense heat and humidity.  I could go for a run with my iPod if I wanted to but, though I thrive on music, I sometimes find the music of the busy and natural world more inspirational than any break-up-and-get-over-it love song.  I eat healthy, planned dinners instead of as-quick-and-easy-as-possible dinners thrown together by volunteers after a long, hard day of work.  I don’t have to fall asleep to the fear that tarantulas will crawl across my hair or face when I sleep.  I can play with my dog and guinea pig whenever I want.  I can drive my car and listen to English songs on the radio while singing loudly with my sister.  I am not restrained in the jungle on Sundays and thus can finally go to church in the mornings like I longed to do.  I can read a book on a couch (instead of a sand fly infested, stained hammock) while listening to the sound of Dad drumming away in the basement.  And I myself can rock out on the drums or play the piano when I feel the yearning.  I can use my cell phone.  I drink treated tap water instead of questionably filtered water from a stream in the Amazon.  And I think my intestines are back on track after two months of confusion with my rainforest diet.   Still, despite all the pleasures, the comfort, the material and non-material joys of my USA lifestyle, I can’t erase one thought from my mind: When’s my next trip back to the jungle?

It’s been a long, memorable experience that will undoubtedly live within me for the rest of my life.  I have grown immensely as a person, in my values and life choices, having finally experienced what I have long thought to be the key to happiness: simplicity.  While you may or may not agree with me, I am so very glad I could at least share my monkey stories and tarantula freak-outs with you all, whether family, friend, or stranger.  Thank you for taking time out of our busy go-go-go lives (believe me, I’m a go-go-goer) to read these lengthy paragraphs of text.  I’m not sure I would have had the patience as a reader to read every line every week, so I am thankful for any little bit that you read.  Hopefully, you enjoyed sharing this experience with me as much as I did with you.

Until my next adventure,

Stacey

never stop dreaming. never stop doing.