Tag Archives: hiking

Humans + Minds + Mother Nature

mountain hike

My friend Sarah snapped this candid shot last weekend on my birthday hike as four of us caught the last magic of winter before it fades softly into summer. When she got my attention, she asked me what I was thinking about.

For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t really thinking about anything. I was just listening, to the chirping birds and the rushing waterfalls. I was just existing, a mote of bones and flesh in a breathing cosmic arena.

So much has happened in 29 years. So much has happened since I moved to Seattle. I have met incredible, diverse, and creative friends. I starred in my first film. I wrote a frigging book. I pulled 80-hour weeks. I went to Ikea and Costco for the first time (!). I learned how to wear a sari. And I’ve done it all while being shaken by a past that I knew and a past that my mind had blocked out.

The mind is a powerful tool, a wonderful and equally fascinating and disturbing gift. The human mind is unique.
We will never be as big and vast in our existence as Mother Nature. But we can lead meaningful, significant lives. We can use the power of our minds to create, to engage, to learn, to protect, and to really, truly live.

Sometimes I turn to the beauty of this planet when I am feeling broken. And sometimes I turn to it for no reason at all other than to stop and smell the flowers. But I always appreciate this planet, this life, and my role in it.

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Green with Nature: Celebrating St. Patty’s Day in the Emerald City

If you can’t be in Ireland, what better way to be green for St. Patrick’s Day than celebrate in Seattle, the “go green” Emerald City of the U.S.?

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Since I won’t be dousing my sanity with pints of Guinness today, and admittedly–abashedly–forgot to wear a green shirt today, I celebrated this holiday whose-existence-no-one-really-understands in my own way–a forest hike!

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Seattle’s temperate climate and misty rain keep the city colors popping with vibrant wildflowers, moss and Evergreens; hence its nickname as the Emerald City. My hike through Carkeek Park took me along gravel and unmaintained trails under the forest canopy, following salmon-spawning streams, over a railroad track and spit me out on Puget Sound. With clear skies, I had a coveted view of the Olympic mountain range poking up along the horizon. I also had some coveted solo time for appreciation of the world around me, taking in the lush scenery with babbling brooks and chirping birds. And a crow who stole my raisin.

In the end, even without a green shirt, my St. Patty’s Day was filled with green!

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First Impressions of Alaska

View of Turnagain Arm from Bird Ridge.  Note the mix of firs and spruces that give the Alaska air its delicious scent.
View of Turnagain Arm tributary from Bird Ridge. Note the mix of firs and spruces that give the Alaska air its delicious scent.

After 28 hours of a winding web of air travel from Peru to Alaska, I finally arrived in a land whose air I can’t stop sniffing. That’s right, I’m the girl locals see riding down the coastal bike trail with a smile on my face and my nose toward the sky. The air here smells, tastes, feels, sounds and looks fresh. Yes, you read correctly. I’m talking about air so crisp and clean you can see it. If you’ve never been to Alaska, you think I’m crazy. If you’ve visited this magical pocket of glaciers and evergreens far, far away, then you know what I mean when I say all five of your senses are on overdrive. And it’s absolutely magnificent.

My trip has yet to take off beyond the quaint margins of Anchorage, and still I’m already impressed. A friend I’ve known since gradeschool in Ohio happens to reside here and she has graciously offered me a place to stay, her bike, and numerous travel tips to begin my adventure. And soon, I’ll be setting off on an RV/camping road trip with my sister and her boyfriend’s family. But the past few days, I’ve enjoyed pedaling solo around Anchorage, sometimes directionally but more often aimlessly.

Landscape along the Tony Knowles coastal bike trail.  Cottonwood is out for revenge at this time of year!
Landscape along the Tony Knowles coastal bike trail. Cottonwood is out for revenge at this time of year!

In a grid marked by numbered avenues and lettered streets, downtown Anchorage is by all intents and purposes, cute. Grizzly bear statues and local restaurants touting all things winter-related in their titles line the tiny streets. This is a city that feels like a town. Despite Juneau being the capital, Anchorage boasts Alaska’s largest population. Nearly half of the state’s inhabitants reside here, but with Alaska’s tally barely pushing 735,000, that’s not saying much. Thus, it comes as no surprise that rush hour and crowds are seemingly non-existent here. Anchorage is a place with the perks of city life without all the chaos. And a gorgeous landscape to boot.

My first day riding around, I stopped at a sandwich shop for lunch. (I must say, after 6 weeks in South America, the plethora of vegan options made me squeal inwardly with delight.) While chomping on a portabella mushroom concoction at Brown Bag Sandwich Co., I felt my chair wobbling. I looked up and the lights were shaking; even the street signs outside were moving.

“Looks like we’re having a tremor,” said a 30-year-old guy next to me.

“What? They have those here?” I said.

“Quite frequently,” he stated.

After experiencing the occasional tremor back in Lima, Peru, I was expecting to leave the “earthquake experience” behind. But a 5.8 on the Richter scale hit Anchorage, Alaska, launching me into discussion about all things Alaskan with a local guy at the local sandwich shop. Like many natives and transplants, he works for the oil company. He also loves to travel, so we swapped travel stories like travelers are prone to do, and I gleaned some advice for venturing out into the Alaskan wilderness. It was quickly becoming apparent how genuinely nice and dreamily happy people in Alaska are. I guess it’s not hard to do in the summer time when you have 20 hours of Vitamin D to keep you perky.

That evening, my Ohio friend and I enjoyed a steep but short hike to Bird Ridge overlooking a tributary called Turnagain Arm. I had my eyes peeled for beluga whales that pass through the waters. Though I didn’t see any, the view was expansive and so nature-filled I wanted to paint it right then and there. (If only I had good painting skills.)

The following day was spent on a 20-mile bike ride following the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. It was there that I saw my first ever wild moose. I kid you not when I confess that I jumped off the bike upon my first encounter out of sheer excitement. I still had my wits about me, so worry not, but I took in the chomping calf and its brother with a mixture of awe and elation. For natives, seeing moose in Alaska is comparable to viewing deer in Ohio. They are plentiful and therefore locals have affected a nonchalant attitude toward their presence. But whatever, I still get excited when I see deer in the backyard. So naturally, I nearly wet my pants when I saw my first moose.

Moose calf, aka my new best friend.
Moose calf, aka my new best friend.

In addition to the company of large mammals on my bike ride, I also met an old man who was visiting his son. A St. Louis denizen but born into Red Sox country, he was enjoying his last day in Anchorage before heading to Juneau. We stopped to watch a pheasant together. (I’m a sucker for wildlife, in case you’re slow to notice.) I passed him again on my return route and rode slowly next to him while we discussed books, hopes, dreams and hiking. While I still have to keep my common sense in check while traveling solo, I’ve learned that most people in this world mean you no harm. We only see the bad stuff reported on the news; this world really is a beautiful place. But I digress…

To wrap up my week, I met up with a friend I crossed paths with back in the Florida Keys a couple years back. She is traveling with her mom and sisters through Alaska and Canada. She had since moved to Maryland, while I’m still the girl with no address. And we reunited near tundra and polar bears—proof that it’s a small world after all.

How-to Guide to Machu Picchu

A lot of people have been contacting me for information about my recent trek to Machu Picchu. These ancient ruins are on many bucket lists, and after my hike, I can see why! For anyone looking to visit this picturesque region, I’ve written a “how-to” guide below. Leave a comment with any further questions and I’ll try my best to respond… if I’m traveling in an area with reliable Internet!

The ancient Inca ruins of Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu mountain in the background.
The ancient Inca ruins of Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu mountain in the background.

FLIGHT

First, arrange a flight from Lima to Cusco. Cusco is the mountain town from which all hikes and trains to Machu Picchu embark. Peruvian, LAN, Avianca and Star airlines are currently options for the short hour-and-a-half flight. LAN has the most flights per day and so tends to be more expensive. Flights start at 5 AM and leave almost hourly through the evening, depending on the airline. Note that some airlines have a special price just for residents of Peru, so be aware that the cheapest might not be an option for you. Use Google search & Google translator for any clarification. Tripadvisor.com also has some helpful tips for understanding the different prices. As a general rule of thumb, airlines will offer a BASE, BASE PLUS, FLEXIBLE and FULL FLEXIBLE ticket. Foreigners want to get the BASE PLUS ticket. BASE is for Peruvians only and FLEXIBLE and FLEXIBLE PLUS are only necessary if you think there’s a chance you may be canceling or changing your flight. (If you book the super cheap BASE flight, you will be charged an extra $178.50 at the airport for booking a ticket you aren’t eligible for!)

You will have to take a taxi from the airport to your accommodation in Cusco. See if your hotel/hostel can arrange for a pick-up for you. They will be sure to book you with a safe driver and can suggest how much you will have to pay (usually around S./ 20). You would give the hotel your flight schedule and a driver will be waiting for you at the airport holding a sign with your name on it. Wait a few minutes if they aren’t there right away; sometimes traffic is heavy. Plus, you’re in Latin America where everyone is late.

ALTITUDE ACCLIMATION

Expect to spend 2 nights in Cusco prior to the start of your travels to Machu Picchu, whether you will be going via trek or train. Don’t think you’re superhuman and can beat the mountain! Altitude sickness can be very serious and affects even the healthiest and strongest of individuals. It is best prevented by staying and resting at a high altitude prior to exerting excessive physical activity at such elevations. You can also try chewing coca leaves during your climb.  Coca tea is an option but it’s more of a touristy thing than a preventative.  Ask a local for advice on how to chew the leaves–it’s quite an art.  Headaches, shortness of breath and dizziness are all symptoms of altitude sickness. But you’ll be fine; just take it easy!

The city of Cusco lit up at night.  Tour agencies line the streets jutting from the main plaza, called the Plaza de Armas.
The city of Cusco lights up at night. Tour agencies line the streets jutting from the main plaza, called the Plaza de Armas.

CUSCO ACCOMODATION

For your nights in Cusco—usually 2 nights before the trip to Machu Picchu and one night after—there are numerous reliable sites online for booking. Try oyster.com or airbnb.com if you’re not into the hostel life. Oyster has great hotel reviews; Airbnb offers great ways to experience a quiet homestay with a local perspective! If you’re up for meeting lots of new people, try hostelworld.com or hostelbookers.com. Not all hostels are party hostels, and many places have all-female and private dorms available for all sorts of travelers! Hotels are also an option but I like to keep it cheap, sociable and local.  Be sure to read reviews!

TREK

It is only necessary to book a trek online if you are planning on hiking the traditional Inca Trail, which needs to be booked 6 months in advance due to limited space and popularity. The Peruvian government recently reduced the number of people allowed to enter the trail each day to 500 persons, and the trail can ONLY be accessed under the supervision of a licensed travel agency. Some agencies don’t offer the Inca Trail hike because they don’t have the permit. The Inca Trail is more expensive than the alternative Salkantay and Lares treks as you need to pay for your own permit and, aforementioned, it is a more coveted hike than the others. However, the Salkantay is ranked by National Geographic as one of the top 25 hikes in the world. I hiked it and loved it! All of the hikes are challenging, but it makes your time at Machu Picchu incredibly rewarding. You worked for this; you deserve it! That kind of thing. The Inca Trail follows a path past numerous ruins leading up to the ultimate mega-ruin, Machu Picchu. The Salkantay and Lares take you through more landscapes and climate changes. The Salkantay covers more distance but does not reach as high of an elevation as the Lares (4680m vs 4900m).

We did it!  At the highest altitude of the Salkantay trek, 4680 meters.
We did it! At the highest altitude of the Salkantay trek, 4680 meters.

Prices vary greatly. Online prices for an agency will be double what you can haggle if you stop by the agency yourself once in Cusco. The Salkantay and Lares always have space available, though it is more competitive during busy season (our summer, their winter—June-August). The alternative treks run anywhere from $250-$450/person off the street (double online!), with the Inca Trail being closer to $600+. If you are booking in person like I did, BARGAIN BARGAIN BARGAIN. You will learn that everyone in your hiking group paid a different price, so don’t be the one who got ripped off! Also, be sure to research the tour agencies you stop at before booking anything. Does the tour include EVERYTHING or are there some things missing? Does the agency have a website? What kind of reviews does it have on Tripadvisor?

Treks range from 3-5 nights. The last night is spent in a hostel (typically pre-arranged by your tour agency) while the other nights are spent in tents. You can bring your own tent but most agencies provide them for you. Sleeping bags and walking sticks are available for rent from most agencies, too.

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To begin your trip to Machu Picchu, you will fly from Lima, Peru’s coastal capital city, to the inland mountain city of Cusco. Machu Picchu and the town of Aguas Calientes are slightly north/northwest of Cusco and accessible by train.

Most agencies also provide all of your meals except breakfast on the first day and lunch and dinner on the last day; the meals will be included in your booking price. Ask about vegetarian and vegan options which are also available! If you book with a reliable group, they will also offer you snacks and hot tea throughout the trek. Water is best when boiled or bottled, though sterilization tablets can be purchased ahead of time. However, there are a lot of trace minerals that remain in the water once purified with these tablets, and the water might still upset your stomach. Again, reliable agencies will give you boiled water to pour into your bottle for the hike. You will pass through many small villages that also offer hikers bottled water and snacks, so bring extra soles (the Peruvian currency) for this.

It is important to clarify if you have to carry your large backpack or camping equipment most of the trip, or if mules (or sometimes porters) will carry it for you. Some people like the challenge of carrying 7+ kilos a minimum of 15 km/day up and down rocky, steep terrain. I, however, was content to have just my daypack strapped to my back!

Tour groups usually meet the evening prior to departure for a briefing. You should get picked up the morning of at your hostel or hotel accommodation. Expect to have early mornings—hiking begins between 4-6 AM each day! Transportation back to Cusco is usually included as well. The agency books your train from Aguas Calientes (the town you will spend the last night in at the base of Machu Picchu) to Ollantaytambo, and from there you will get on a “bus” (usually a white van referred to as a “colectivo”). Drivers are at the train station with signs that have your name on them. You just join up with them and hop on in!

Also remember you’ll have to tip the porters/horsemen, cook and guide when they leave you. How much is up to you, but most of the workers from the village rely solely on tips. Guides are usually on salary but worthy of a tip.

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Peruvian currency is called the nuevo sol, or soles, and abbreviated S./ or PEN. US dollars are accepted and can be withdrawn from an ATM to limit conversion fees charged by your bank. National money exchangers wearing vests with badges are on the streets outside of banks; they can swap your USD for PEN or vice versa. Make sure you research the day’s exchange rate online if using both currencies.

CURRENCY

USD ($) are accepted by most tourist companies and restaurants throughout Peru.  In fact, prices are often only listed in US dollars! However, have handy plenty of PEN (also abbreviated S./ and referred to as the Peruvian Nuevo sol, or plural soles). Smaller, local shops will not have a lot of change available either, so be sure to have a lot of 1, 2 and 5 PEN coins with you. You can break big bills at the grocery store or restaurants. In fact, always try to pay with bigger bills at these places as you will otherwise find yourself hard-pressed to obtain smaller currency! And remember, you’ll want to have Peruvian money with you along the way during your hike (breakfast on day 1, meals on the last day, tips for the tour staff, souvenirs, snacks, bottled water).

WHAT TO BRING

Regardless of the weather forecast, it is important to be prepared for rain, cold and heat. Peru is near the equator, too, so the UV is strong even on cloudy days! Remember, tour groups provide different things, so don’t rely solely on this list!

  • Hiking shoes
  • Warm weather clothing
  • Cold weather clothing (hat & mittens recommended!)
  • Rain jacket
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray
  • Toilet paper
  • Water bottle
  • Sleeping bag (?)
  • Extra money
  • Head lamp or flashlight + extra batteries
  • Snacks

OTHER THINGS TO KNOW

Every experience is different—weather, crowds, tour agency, agility. But here are some additional options to improve your once-in-a-lifetime Machu Picchu experience—so you can feel really good about checking it off your bucket list!

  • Trek prices include the entrance ticket to the Machu Picchu ruins only. Currently, 2500 people are allowed to enter the ruins each day. Ask your agency to add on Machu Picchu Mountain ($5) for the typical yet beautiful panoramic view looking down on the ruins. Huayna Picchu Mountain tickets are also available but limited in number (200 people between 7-11 AM, 200 people after 11 AM). This hike is very steep! Experienced climbers only!
  • The Salkantay and Lares can be hiked without a tour group if you fancy.
  • If you have time, stay a night in the village of Ollantaytambo on your way back from Machu Picchu. Tour agencies can accommodate you if you want your travel plans to veer slightly from their agenda. It is a quaint, quieter village in comparison to the touristy Aguas Calientes and Cusco.

    View from Machu Picchu Mountain overlooking the ruins and Huayna Picchu Mountain.  Another difficult hike, but short and well worth the view!  Tickets to both mountains can be purchased in addition to the ruins.
    View from Machu Picchu Mountain overlooking the ruins and Huayna Picchu Mountain. Another difficult hike, but short and well worth the view! Tickets to both mountains can be purchased in addition to the ruins.
  • Get a massage in Cusco after your hike! You will be annoyed at first by all the ladies on the street asking you if you want a massage, but when you finish your hike, you’ll understand why they’re hounding you! These ladies are typically reliable, but you can check with your hostel/hotel for a recommendation if you’re concerned. The massages are cheap and goooooooood!
  • Most tour groups take the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, which is included in the tour price, but the group disbands after your tour in the ruins. Hence, a return bus is not included but can be purchased at the park entrance for about S./40 one-way. Buses are always available and leave when filled with passengers. There is no time schedule. Buses start heading to the ruins from the bus station at 5:30 AM. If you’re not with a group, be sure to wake up early to beat the crowd and catch the sunrise!
  • It is possible to hike from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, but the hike is largely on the road and you won’t be missing out on much if you choose to take the bus.
  • Some tours include a train ride at the end of the camping leg of the trip from Hydro Electric Station to Aguas Calientes. If you choose to walk, it takes about 2 hours and is worthwhile. But your legs might feel like jelly from walking downhill all day, and the train ride offers nice views as well. This part of the hike largely follows along the train tracks.
    • If you don’t want to do a hike, it is still recommended to acclimate as there is a fair amount of climbing at the ruins themselves. You would have to book a train from Cusco to Urubamba Valley/Aguas Calientes and book the train back to Cusco. It is possible to do Machu Picchu all in one day but I recommend staying overnight either in Aguas Calientes or Ollantaytambo. (If you stay in Ollantaytambo, you will need to book a separate train back to Cusco or catch a much cheaper “colectivo” bus back.) There are 3 train options available. The Expedition is the cheapest, most common and quite comfortable. The Vistadome is a step up from the Expedition, and the Hiram Bingham luxury train is outta this world fancy (and expensive).

A Taste of Skunk

Even though his back legs are paralyzed, Rocky the sheep still manages to move around the pasture.

I took the internship for a number of reasons, perhaps first and foremost because I believed it to be ideal for my career aspirations.  I like doing the dirty work.  It’s unnerving to have so many fragile lives in my hands and unsettling to be surrounded by so much death.  The sad truth is that many of the animals we received did not survive.  This is not a job for those seeking instant gratification.
However, in my first two weeks, I witnessed the rewards of the work rehabbers do: releasing a sharp-shinned hawk and watching him fly away into the treetops; opening the cage door for a road runner as he took tentative steps back into the wilderness after weeks of force feeding; admiring the determination of Rocky the sheep, a permanent resident, who managed to walk though he could not use his two back legs.  Inspiration from livestock–who would have known?

I thought I’d pass out the first time I had to give an animal a shot, especially when the amount of fluid being injected was enough to fill a child’s Sippy cup.  I’ve always been queasy around needles and the “B” word–blood.  But I managed to remain standing on both feet after tucking the first fifteen injections under my belt.  I did get a little nauseous when I had to empty the body freezer, a frosty storage of deceased patients.  It was part of the job, but that didn’t mean I had to like it.

Remembering how far I was from the hustle and bustle of city life, I often stared up at the starlit sky, no light pollution blotting out the dark and fiery expanse overhead.  One night, a group of us interns climbed onto the roof of one of the trailers and watched the sun set between the rolling landscapes.  We were joined by an ornery vulture that made a game out of pecking at our feet.  The black vulture was nicknamed “Mort” by many interns.  He imprinted on humans and, consequently, thought we were his flock.  His days were spent skipping behind the feet of workers as flight was, sadly, more of a second nature to him.

A group of co-workers standing at the top of Enchanted Rock in Fredericksburg, Texas.

The hill country offers fantastic opportunities for outdoor excursions, and I’m glad so many interns took advantage of them.  A group of us spent a day hiking at Enchanted Rock, climbing up the steep face of a mammoth rock, a terrain change from the plains after flat, flat plains to which Ohio made me accustomed.  Near the end of the hike, we ventured into a cave and came out nearly unscathed.  I knew Enchanted Rock would be a place to take the parents if Mom and Dad visited.

All WRR interns, of which there can be up to twenty-one, live on property in one of three trailers.  The trailers are clustered together on 187 acres of Texas hill country.  My first week at WRR, my trailer started to reek of skunk, faintly at first and then becoming so nauseating I had to sleep in another trailer the following night.  (They welcomed me with open arms but did not fail to mention that I carried with me a most unappealing odor.)

Once, when I had two days off in a row, I spent one of the days with other interns going back and forth between boonie-ville and civilization.  We went to church, ran the typical grown-up errands and saw a movie in the evening.  On the way to the movie, I handed out some yogurt-covered raisins I had stored in a sealed plastic bag inside the cupboard.  Chewing on them, we noted a unique taste.  It didn’t become entirely dissatisfying until someone pinned down the source of the flavor–the skunk smell.  Needless to say it took a while before me and my belongings were one hundred percent aired out of polecat.

A baby skunk with the black and white color sequence reversed. This little guy was orphaned with his brothers and sisters when Mama skunk became road kill.

One night, the skunk sprayed continuously.  Even interns who had become desensitized to the odor could not stand it.  Based on the smell–it had a hint of onion to it–and the frequency of his sprays, we theorized that he was likely seizing from distemper.  On day three of continuous spraying, an intern from another trailer sported a head lamp and crawled into the bowels of our abode, belly crawling across the dirt.  He resurfaced empty-handed, leaving me a bit skeptical (“Are you sure you covered every inch in there?”) and all of us worried that we’d die of intoxicating asphyxiation at some point in the night.  But just after sunset, the same intern spotted the culprit’s nose sticking out of one of the two holes under the trailer.  He and two other workers were quick to react, and after crawling back into the dark foreboding depths–an act soon to be dubbed the second leap for mankind–the skunk was removed.  We guessed correctly that the skunk had distemper, a disease with symptoms similar to and often confused with rabies.

Skunks are a rabies vector species, a category that also includes foxes, bats, dogs, cats, coyotes and raccoons. Distemper can be contracted by any of these vectors, but unlike rabies, it cannot be transmitted to humans.  Unfortunately, the period between acquisition, symptoms and death is rapid, days at the least and weeks at the most.  It’s a nasty disease marked by lethargy, loss of appetite, seizing and discharge from the eyes.  In only a short span of time, the bodies of afflicted animals become a mess of lost hope.  At least wildlife caretakers can give the animal a comfortable, more dignified end.  At the very least, that is what we wish for them.

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.