Pura Vida en Costa Rica

While stuck toiling away in a sunless office and daydreaming of traveling—somewhere, anywhere, really—the idea of just throwing a dart at a map and hopping on a plane with little more than a passport and a healthy dose of adventure sounds like little more than a daydream, but that’s more or less what I had the chance to do this past spring.

Through a little happenstance and a lot of generosity, I’d come into possession of a pair of airline vouchers, and after a year of working full time—and having been bound to only domestic flights for even longer—my boyfriend and I decided to go big or go home and choose the furthest place our roundtrip tickets would take us. As we were flying JetBlue, that narrowed our search to the Caribbean and Central America—still a vast enough region that I hardly knew where to begin. After a lot of research and a good deal of hemming and hawing about which of the seemingly endless Caribbean islands were a fit for us, we finally decided on a place that seemed to boast the best of both worlds—offering a tropical climate and beautiful beaches, but enough adventure to keep us busy—and settled on Costa Rica. I’ll admit that the swoon-worthy (and unbelievably affordable) Airbnbs Costa Rica offers were one of the initial factors in its favor, but after extensive research, it seemed to be a country about which few people had anything bad to say—and I now wholeheartedly count myself among them.

Inevitably, my restless feet had me pushing for a vacation sooner rather than later, and somehow, the universe worked in our favor and the stars aligned enough for us to scrape our trip together on just three weeks notice. After weeks of research, we took a leap of faith and booked our flights and rental car, nailed down an itinerary, and secured stays at two Airbnbs and a hot spring resort within the same night. Due to blackout dates associated with our vouchers, we ended up allotting just six full days in Costa Rica, which was certainly on the shorter side of the timeline other travelers had suggested online. Initially, I was a little nervous about the swiftness of both our planning and our actual vacation, but in the end, things could not have worked out more perfectly.

It was a Friday night in late April (the beginning of the country’s rainy season, initially another cause for concern,) when we hopped a plane from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and then jetted two hours down to San Jose. Costa Rica’s bustling, smog-layered capital is likely what you’d envision of a Central American metropolis, but beyond its traffic and oppressive heat (and waiting an hour in line to clear customs) is a land of absolute paradise. We rented a four wheel drive SUV for the entirety of our stay (an absolute necessity for getting around the country if not traveling with a tour group,) and were soon on our way. A word of warning: driving in Costa Rica requires nerves of steel at times—narrow lanes, hairpin turns, few sidewalks, and windy rural roads with no street lights, stray animals and motorcycles zipping by, just to name a few obstacles—but our experience was nothing like the horror stories we’d read about online, in which tourists recounted being run off the road or having their tires slashed in order for thieves to rob and extort them. Costa Rica offers many of the rental car companies with which you’re probably already familiar (we used Enterprise, which was completely painless,) and I while I would absolutely recommend purchasing the highest level of insurance offered, unless your regular car insurance already covers international rentals, our experience was overwhelmingly positive. That said, some of the windy, guard rail-less mountain roads, narrow bridges, and inclement weather make the experience of driving in Costa Rica not one for the faint of heart.

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From San Jose, we spent out first night driving about three hours (through near-torrential rain) to one of Costa Rica’s most stunning and most visited areas: Lake Arenal, which lies at the foot of a dormant volcano and is surrounded by natural hot springs. There were few Airbnbs available in the relatively remote area, and so we opted for a two-night stay at the Tabacon Thermal Hot Springs Resort, which was an absolute dream come true. Since April is the beginning of the rainy/off-season in Costa Rica, we were able to find a reasonable rate for a room at the five-star resort, and spent two days soaking up the lush natural hot springs, which boast health-boosting properties and temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit, complete with views of the volcano, a swim-up pool bar, a guests-only garden with cabanas, and other perks. While many resorts in the area boast their own private hot springs access, some, including the Tabacon, offer day passes for non-guests to enjoy the springs, and there are even points of access to the hot springs that are completely free.

On our way to the Tabacon, after hours spent driving through pitch-black rain, we stumbled across a warm, well-lit roadside restaurant that offered us our first taste of Costa Rican hospitality—and its amazing food. One of the things I noticed right away about Costa Rica is that there are few chains of any kind, but especially few food chains. Fast food franchises are almost non-existent (yep, even McDonalds,) but who needs them when mom-and-pop bars and restaurants line almost every roadside? Though we were nervous about having to use our Spanish skills at first, we quickly found that most people in Costa Rica also speak English, and are more than gracious should you attempt to dust off your high school Spanish to order ceviche. Many restaurants are family owned, and we were immediately greeted with a warm welcome from the owner (and his wife and son,) and offered a round of the country’s national beer, Imperial, which we sipped blissfully while listening to the ribbit of frogs and chirping of bugs in the humid, inky Costa Rican night.

The next morning, our first full day in Costa Rica kicked off bright and early (being so close to the equator, the sun rises around 6 a.m. and sets around 6 p.m. year round) with a hike at the Arenal National Park, where you’re offered one of two routes up to a scenic viewpoint of the volcano. There wasn’t much in the way of large wildlife to see here, but you are surrounded at all times by some pretty incredible flora and fauna—birds, frogs, insects, and the general sounds of the rain forest. After a night of rain, we ended up lucking out with the weather; it was a warm, sunny day, and the volcano’s peak was completely visible, an apparently rather rare sighting due to the usually misty rainforest climate. Park entry is $10 per person, and the admission for most national parks, tours and attractions we visited ranged from about $10 to $50. Costa Rica is generally not an expensive country, and it’s very doable without the assistance of a group if you’re feeling adventurous, so the admission prices were, in my opinion, quite reasonable (many places even offer student discounts, so be sure to bring a student ID if you’ve got one.)

Just a few kilometers down the road from the park was a butterfly conservatory where, immediately upon entering, we were fortunate enough to be ushered over to see a group of howler monkeys perched in the trees outside. From there, we paid $15 for a self-guided tour of the sanctuary, which is helping to reestablish the rainforest and its precious native species. The first greenhouse we entered was home to the national butterfly of Costa Rica, the beautiful Blue Morpho, which has gorgeous iridescent blue wings on top, and a spotted brown pattern underneath. The Blue Morpho is a creature in constant motion, and there were dozens fluttering all around us as soon as we entered. The following greenhouses were home to other species of butterfly, moths, and a whole atrium for amphibians, where we saw turtles and several of Costa Rica’s most poisonous frog species. The final leg of the tour offers a shorter or longer walk along the river, where sloths, howler monkeys, and other creatures—as well as the volcano—can often be viewed.

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Later that afternoon, we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant (and, as I said, they’re all local in Costa Rica) for a delicious burrito, quesadilla, and “natural drink,” which is fresh-squeezed fruit juice—pineapple, strawberry and guava were the most common—and is absolutely delicious and highly refreshing on a humid day. As someone whose diet is at times restricted by the fact that I don’t eat meat and can be a bit of an obsessive germaphobe, the availability of food I could eat in Costa Rica was initially a concern, but was quickly abated. It’s hard to drive more than a few hundred meters through the country without coming across a family-owned restaurant, coffee shop, or fruit stand, most often boasting about vegetarian or vegan options, fresh seafood, local fruit and vegetables, natural drinks, and menus that truly align with Costa Rica’s famed “pure vida” (pure life) way of living. I’m a pescatarian, and had no trouble finding meatless burritos, tacos, rice and beans, ceviche, and other options everywhere we went. Because most establishments are family-owned, there’s a lot of pride taken in the art of hospitality and in the quality of the food served, and we felt profusely welcomed and well-fed everywhere we ate. Food safety was never an issue in our experience, but the quality of tap water can at times be a real concern in Costa Rica (the reason a Hepatitis A vaccine is recommended, though not required, for travelers,) so we stuck to drinking bottled water and beer just to be safe.

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After two days of enjoying the Arenal region’s hot springs, waterfalls (the La Fortuna waterfall, pictured above, is 400 steps each way and absolutely worth every one,) butterfly sanctuaries and stunning volcano views, we drove from there to the mountainous region of Atenas, stopping first at the Mistico Hanging Bridges.

I’ve certainly never been a fan of heights, and so the idea of walking across eight entire bridges suspended high above the Costa Rican rainforest (which, by the way, have grated bottoms you can see through and swing as you walk upon them) was not exactly a thrilling idea. But hanging bridges are an absolute must-do when visiting the country, and trust me, after the first bridge, the experience only gets easier from there. The park offers gorgeous views, as well as another waterfall, and some really beautiful wildlife (though still no sighting of the elusive sloths I’d been dying to see!) From there, the drive to Atenas took us through about three hours of winding mountainous roads, and we arrived at our next Airbnb, an actual tree house, after nightfall. The house was totally open air and incredibly rustic, complete with a stone shower, wooden tub, and bug net for the bed—a good thing since we encountered all sorts of beetles, mosquitoes, frogs and even a bat in our bedroom. As much as I wanted to be one with nature, the sounds of the cicadas and the rainforest were so deafening I could barely sleep, and I awoke with a startle each time a bug or bat smacked against the flaps covering the windows or the bug net draping the bed, but it was an unforgettable experience, to say the least.

The following day, we drove about two hours to the luscious, emerald green Monteverde region for a tour of the National Cloud Forest Reserve, which was only $10 with a student discount, and offered a stunning two hour hike through the rainforest. After this came one of our most-anticipated activities, and one of the highlights of a trip that already boasted so many: zip lining. If you’re planning to visit Costa Rica (and I hope I’ve convinced you to do so!) you’ll come to find that popular activities like zip lining and hanging bridge tours are offered in a lot of places across the country, but trust me when I say there’s a reason why Monteverde is famous for it. If I thought the hanging bridges were scary, I had to completely abandon all fears in order to go through with zip lining; even the cable car that took us up to the first platform made me break into a nervous sweat and had me desperately wishing to be back on solid ground. Alas, as I ascended the metal steps leading up to that first zip lining platform, there was no turning back; the only way down was by zip line, and so I let myself be hooked in, leaned back, placed my knees up against my chest—and away I went. Though we were all made to do a practice zip line at first, I still had no idea quite what to expect from the first real run, suspended hundreds of meters above the dense green rainforest—and the actual experience was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done.

Zip lining is truly an adrenaline rush, and after that first real line I was absolutely hooked, and from then on was frequently the first one to step up at each following platform. There were eight lines in total, the longest of which was a half mile (!) long, and our pace was ultimately a quick one thanks to an impending storm that sent rain droplets smacking into our faces as we whizzed across the zip lines. The entire experience was absolutely incredible; surreal, invigorating, yet utterly calming, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to survey so much natural beauty from such a unique vantage point, to feel the wind whipping your face as you sail through the sky, to feel so truly in control of your own body and so powerful and strong that you can practically fly.

I couldn’t stop smiling. Or at least, I couldn’t until we finished the last zip line, descended steps to the last platform, and realized with a sinking horror that we’d have to rappel—or jump—in order to get safely back to solid ground. I was already incredibly proud of myself for accomplishing zip lining, but let me tell you, after being made to jump backward off a platform some fifty feet high and free falling for several seconds as my screams caught in my throat before the bungee cord did, I truly felt like I could do anything. It was absolutely terrifying—I truly felt my heart jump up into my throat—but it was incredible. I felt like Wonder Woman at the end. It was such a rush, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

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From there, we spent one more night in our Airbnb treehouse before heading out bright and early for a three hour drive to Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, stopping along the way in the quaint, colorful surf town of Jaco, which offered cute souvenir shops, a surprisingly hipster cafe very reminiscent of California, and the absolute freshest smoothies we’d ever had. From there, we made a necessary stop at the Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary just south of the Dominical, which is a nonprofit animal rescue perched high atop the Pacific Ocean. It’s home to all kinds of beautiful wild animals that require rehabilitation and other special care, including toucans, vivid scarlet macaws, howler monkeys, and, of course, two-toed and three-toed sloths. Sloths are a sort of unofficial mascot for Costa Rica and easily the country’s most famous and most adorable residents. They’re also masters of disguise, however, hiding high up in the rainforest canopy with fur that’s designed to mimic the look of moss, which makes them difficult to spot outside of a sanctuary or without the help of a trained guide. We learned this the hard way after several hikes through national forests without any sloth sightings, a truly disappointing endeavor, so I’d highly recommend taking at least one guided wildlife tour in order to get a glimpse at all of the incredible creatures Costa Rica has to offer. Fortunately for us, Manuel Antonio National Park is the country’s most famous, and was just about 45 minutes from our Airbnb in Dominical. Guided tours run about $50, but they’re worth every penny as your guide points out not only the adorable sloths sleeping high up in the trees, but the smallest lizards, tree frogs, and even butterflies and other insects so fleeting and small that their beauty would never be visible otherwise. You can even view (and photograph) the wildlife through telescopic lenses, and while you’re not supposed to feed the animals, you might just get lucky by having a member of your tour group accidentally smuggle in a banana that sends the capuchin monkeys scurrying right up to you.

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Our whirlwind of a trip through Costa Rica concluded with afternoons on secluded beaches and humid evenings high up in the misty rainforest, dodging the rain and side-stepping neon-bright poison frogs, and then in the mornings watching the golden sun rise over the crescent-shaped coastline and bright blue Pacific. It’s almost futile to attempt to capture a place as rich and warm as Costa Rica in writing; it’s a cliche to say it must be experienced, but it’s true. The only way to know pura vida is to live it, and should you ever find yourself presented with the opportunity to escape to this beautiful land of rainforests and friendly people and creatures beyond your wildest imagination, trust me when I say you must go as far as your feet and your money will take you, and strongly consider never coming back.

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A few travel tips for Costa Rica: Brushing up on high school Spanish is absolutely useful and travel is a great opportunity to practice, but most people in Costa Rica speak both Spanish and English, and most signage is written in both languages. There’s no need to exchange currency before traveling, either: dollars are accepted everywhere, and you’ll get change in the national currency, colones. The exchange rate is posted everywhere, and most places will also do the conversion right in front of you so you know you’re getting a fair return. Bug spray and sunscreen are absolute musts. In the off-season, beginning in April, the country is much, much less crowded and less expensive. Most parks and tours will allow you to either drop by or make reservations just a day or so in advance, so there’s not a whole lot of planning required. Don’t try to do too much: the country is manageable by car if you budget your time wisely, but know your limits. Also know that Costa Rica is a very early country: people are out and about at 5 a.m., as its proximity to the equator means the sun rises around 5:30 a.m., and sets around 5:30 p.m., so don’t plan to be hiking, zip lining or doing anything active after dark (unless you’re signing up for a night tour somewhere to spot wildlife.) There also isn’t much that we experienced in the way of night life, but places do stay open fairly late, though know that Monday is essentially the country’s unofficial “off day,” and many parks and attractions are closed that day. Know which experiences are worth paying a premium for and which are not: read TripAdvisor (there’s no Yelp in Costa Rica.) I would absolutely recommend a guided tour of at least one national park, specifically Manuel Antonio. You may think your binoculars and guidebooks will make you a wildlife-spotting expert, but our guide could spot a sloth’s tuft of fur high up in a mossy tree, or the smallest of spiders crawling around a leaf. Paying for a tour from someone who lives and breathes Costa Rica’s nature and wildlife is absolute must—trust me, you won’t quite experience the country the same way on your own.

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The View From the Southwest

As an introverted, daydream-y type, it isn’t hard to understand why the desert has always struck me as a daydream-y place, an oasis for those who love nothing more than to be at rest from the world and alone with their thoughts. It was one of the many things that lured me to California, this dust-kissed serenity, golden-tinged solitude, these timeless, nameless places with no beginning or end. The desert landscape offers a barren kind of a beauty. Though perhaps barren isn’t quite the right word, because it never felt lacking—at least not of anything I needed. It amazes me how a place most often devoid of people and cars, free of honking horns and flashing lights, can be more of a sensory overload than the most bustling city in the world. The silence, the solitude, the settling of dust, the heat waves hovering above the earth, the rustling of the wind through the brush and the palms—it brings a sort of peace, a state of rest, a feeling of contentedness, that is all too fleetingly found anywhere else. Processed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 preset

In many ways, the desert made perfect sense as my post-graduation landing place, this alien place of birth and death and regrowth, of everything and nothing stretching just beyond the horizon. Without a job yet in hand, I packed my car with everything I owned and drove the six scorching hours from Los Angeles to Phoenix, a place I’d never been, where I knew no one other than the cousin whose place I’d be crashing at for a while. It’s a funny little paradox of a place, Phoenix—gleaming corporate sky scrapers jutting up against a reviving arts district, toned and tanned college kids stretching their paychecks rubbing elbows with the snowbirds and Scottsdale upper crust. And of course, the city is a paradox itself, a place that probably shouldn’t exist, a thriving metropolis shoehorned into an unforgiving desert landscape that’s remained the same for millennia. It’s a place I knew only briefly, and one I’d like to return to someday. That said, Phoenix is no fun in June, when daily temperatures hover around 180 degrees, and so my boyfriend and I decided to make the most of our temporary unemployment by plotting a characteristically spontaneous road trip.

The first stop would be about two hours north, in the new age oasis of Sedona. I literally grew up hearing stories of Sedona’s “energy” and “vibes” and other-worldly beauty from family members who had lived and visited there. As such, I was prepared to be blown away—but Sedona is truly quite unreal. Miles of towering red rocks usher you into Sedona proper, and the famed Bell Rock lies just to the south, offering hikes up to truly stunning vistas that will quickly make you a believer in Sedona’s beauty. 

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The town itself is something out of a Disney theme park, and as you stare down a Main Street lined with Old West-style saloons and crystal shops, wooden carvings of horses and Native Americans and slightly-creepy antique cowboy animatronics, all canopied by the bluest sky and whitest clouds and reddest rocks you’ve ever seen, it certainly has an unreal quality, this natural beauty so perfect it almost feels artificial.

We stayed just the one night in Sedona, in a rustic, incredibly tranquil one-room Airbnb outfitted with pine and Navajo tapestries and the most stunning view of the red rocks right out our window. Our 24-hour itinerary included a hike up to Bell Rock, and another up Cathedral Rock at sunset. I’ll admit, even in cooler temperatures, our second trek was certainly the more intense of the two, and deceptively treacherous. It starts out fairly mild, even for novice hikers like myself, but becomes significantly tougher around the halfway point, when the only path up becomes a flat, narrow, and very steep rock face you have no choice but to scrabble up—unless you turn around. This was (much to my surprise) my boyfriend’s preferred scenario, but I (also to my surprise) insisted we keep going. Although I don’t have a whole lot of hiking or climbing experience, and am fairly uncomfortable with heights, the breathtaking views were incentive enough to push through—and boy was the effort ever worth it:

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Once the most harrowing part of the hike was over, the landing just above it offered expansive views that swept across the brick red rocks, by then turning blue and purple with the sunset, and Sedona’s famed Chapel of the Holy Cross into the side of the mountain across the canyon carpeted with bright green pines. Yet another level up, on the opposite side of Cathedral Rock, the sunset shifted from fiery pinks and reds to an ethereal gold and blue, the evening sun flooding through the clouds and illuminating the lush, forested valley below. Even my newfound confidence around heights couldn’t convince me to follow the lead of a few other hikers who had scooted along rock ledges jutting out over the valley, but from my place safely nestled between some sturdy boulders, beneath the arches of Sedona, I truly felt on top of the world.

We made a stop at the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a Sedona icon built into the side of a mountain, before leaving the next day. With a gorgeous chapel and fun gift shop, it also offers predictably stunning views and a price you can’t beat (as in free!) and is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

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Located just west of Flagstaff and south of the Grand Canyon in Williams, Bearizona was a last-minute stop that turned out to be an absolute highlight of our trip. I had heard of the park before I even got to Arizona, but only because of an adorable PR move Bearizona had orchestrated a few months earlier in which bear cubs were brought to the Cubs spring baseball training camp in Arizona. It’s a bit out of the way of anything, and was really only tangentially on our route, but it’s easily a destination in its own right. Your $20 admission gains you entrance into a wildlife park with a petting zoo, bird of prey shows, and enclosures of black bears, bobcats and other animals, but the main attraction is of course the drive-through portion of the park. This is several miles of “wilderness” through which you drive alongside black bear, bison, goats and even wolves, all roaming or sleeping or grazing just feet from your car—and sometimes even closer.

Often in my experience, these kinds of experiences are oversold and under-deliver, but at Bearizona you really do get right up close with the wildlife. There are no fences between you and most of the animals, no tour guides swatting you along through the park or rangers keeping you from getting too close; you’re only instructed—wisely—to keep your windows up and doors closed. We had been warned some of the teenage bears were especially curious, but were skeptical that any of them would actually get too close—and this was definitely not the case. At one point, we were no more than five feet from several black bears, and, in another part of the park, adorably came under attack by a herd of inquisitive mountain goats who even attempted to head-butt and climb onto the car. Bearizona was a really fun and certainly unique way to spend a couple of hours, and would be a great activity for families with kids, or just kids at heart.

Williams, where Bearizona is located, is known as the gateway to the Grand Canyon, and just an hour north is where you’ll find the national park in all of its glory. And it truly is glorious:

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Despite growing up in the west, I’d never been to the Grand Canyon, this classic, wholesome, all-American road trip mecca, and something about my visit there made me feel a lot like being a little kid again. Despite the crowds and the bustling visitor centers, and the fact that we visited the South Rim, the most popular area of the park, in the height of summer, the Grand Canyon still offered a connection with nature that I’d never quite felt before. It’s a wholly captivating, breathtaking place of escapism and mysticism where you can lose yourself amongst endless rolling blue skies, the winding Colorado river, and every painted crack and crevice of the vast, ancient canyon. I was particularly taken with the idea that, miles and miles away across this canyon, near Utah to the North and Las Vegas to the west, there were people perched atop ledges and rocks, posing for photos and creating them mentally, utterly transfixed by the very same thing as me. I’ll keep this brief, as I certainly have nothing to say about the Grand Canyon that hasn’t been said before, but it’s nothing short of an understatement to conclude that it’s truly a captivating place, and one which everyone should visit in their lifetime if given the chance.

Driving north into the indigo blue desert evening, our next stop was Antelope Valley and Lake Powell, which straddles the Arizona-Utah border. It’s home to the iconic Horseshoe Bend, a whole lot of houseboats, and stunning cotton candy sunsets, and that warm desert night seemed as good a time as any to pitch a tent along the lake and try our hand at camping. For a mere $20, and equipped with camping gear borrowed from friends, we were able to sleep that night beneath the bright Arizona stars, just feet from the sandy shores of Lake Powell. Our excursion was initially prompted by the lack of hotels and Airbnbs in the area (save for a few truly off-the-grid Navajo huts and tents that would definitely be worth a visit another time,) but camping ended up being both cost-effective and one of the most memorable experiences of the trip.

Early the next morning, we set out for the place that had brought us to Lake Powell to begin with: Antelope Canyon. If you’re interested in travel photography or social media accounts, you’ve likely seen images of the canyon around. The curvature of its interior and the way the light floods through its crevices creates an almost rainbow effect inside the camera that can be vividly captured on camera. The only way to access the canyon, which is on protected Navajo land, is through private tour companies, which are run by members of the Navajo tribe and receive visitors at a base camp a couple miles from the canyon. The tour is certainly not the most accessible experience: it runs about $40 per person, requires driving for several bumpy, dusty miles in rickety dune buggies out through the desert, and in the height of summer is swelteringly, blisteringly hot. The canyon is not accessible without a Navajo tour guide due to dangerous flash flooding during the winter, and the fact that unsupervised visitors have been known to vandalize or otherwise destroy the natural beauty of the canyon. I completely understand the necessity for this, and would still highly recommend that anyone who wants to see Antelope Canyon or find themselves in the area visit it for themselves, but my two cents would be that the cost and hassle of getting there, as well as the size of the crowds and fact that the tours can take upward of two hours, are certainly factors to keep in mind if you’re visiting anticipating a peaceful jaunt into the desert.

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Pushing still further north from Antelope Valley, we crossed the border into Utah, where we made a stop at Zion National Park. The park is vast, and gorgeous, all canyons and winding roads, bridges and creeks and tunnels carved into rock. It’s also known for its hikes, but we had just a couple of hours to see Zion, and so for visitors on a schedule or those who are less athletic, I’d driving to the visitor center and using the park’s tram, which winds up and up through the park to various landings and lodges.

As our road trip was planned so last minute, it just so happened that each of our accommodations was incredibly, wonderfully unique, and our lodging that night was no exception. We had booked our Airbnb in St. George, Utah with the expectation of a quaint cabin, close to a lake, in a ranch-like resort development that included about ten cabins in total. What we found when we arrived via a winding, dusty, eerily quiet and empty country road that night was our two-story cabin, cozy and gleamingly modern and stocked with toiletries and snacks, with a quaint porch decked out in rocking chairs and facing a serene manmade lake surrounded by the other cabins. This would have been luxurious enough, but we quickly, disbelievingly, came to the realization that we were somehow the only guests at the ranch that night, and had the entire place to ourselves. This meant the lake and pedal boats, the fire pit, the golf carts, and the entire starry Utah sky and blue mountains and miles of open fields were all ours, our very own private resort, a dreamy Western escape, for some $150 a night. We didn’t encounter a single other person during our stay, and while roasting marshmallows over the fire pit my boyfriend managed to get hit in the head with a bat (the flying kind) and to this day our night in St. George feels a little like a crazy dream. Further adding to the surrealism of the experience, we later deduced through a guestbook in the cabin that this strange ranch was owned by none other than the wealthy parents of a former star of The Bachelor. It was a wild experience in every sense of the word, and yet another stay that reaffirmed why I am such an evangelist for Airbnb, which almost always guarantees a venture off the beaten path, making memories and trying things you’d absolutely never get from a hotel.

The final leg of our trip was a place I’d visited many times before: Las Vegas. It’s obviously a destination most people are familiar with, if not from personal experience than from pop culture, and having gone to school in Southern California and had my first exposure to Las Vegas not be for the purposes of clubbing, I’ve found I have a different relationship to the city than most. In fact, I’ve found myself defending it to many who are eager to write it off as fake, generic, sleazy—too hot, too loud, too bright. But my Vegas is different. I’ve talked before about my experience at the Life is Beautiful music festival, which was founded in 2013 in order to revive Vegas’ historic downtown, and which I attended three years in a row. Certainly, there’s something about the Vegas strip at night, and I’ve enjoyed dancing in its nightclubs and swimming at day clubs as much as any other twenty-something, the Vegas that’s always spoken to me is the one of decades past, and the one that’s been reawakening in recent years. I’m enamored with old downtown Vegas, with the murals and the neons, the quaint casinos that are dwarfed by the corporate behemoths on the strip. I love the parked built of old shipping containers, the pop-up art exhibits, the thrift shops overflowing with old neon and slot machines, the ferris wheels twirling against the pale desert sky. Las Vegas has always been an anomaly of a city, and it still has a long way to go toward figuring out how to serve the people who actually call it home, rather than just those who pour in for a day or two, but I have confidence that it won’t be long until the city find its footing, because its heart and soul is already readily apparent and beats loudly for anyone who stands still long enough to hear it.

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There’s nothing quite like knowing your feet are firmly planted on the ground, the clear blue sky is endless above your head, the brick red mesas along the horizon sturdy and true. In the desert, the only temporality is night and day. There is no rush, no deadlines, no itineraries, no lines or opening times or passes for the popular attractions. In the desert, you are where you are, not where you’re going, or where you were. There is no before, no next, there is just this very moment. Breathing the desert in, exhaling the weight of the world out. Feasting upon the vistas as if your eyes have been starved of beauty. Feeling the sun and the wind on your skin like you’ve felt nothing else before. It’s all surreal, and hyper real, this alien landscape that somehow still exists in a world seemingly designed and developed down to the atom. When the frenzy becomes a bit too much, there is something so life-affirming, so grounding, in realizing life is not always measured by momentum. Sometimes living is standing still, climbing, breathing, seeing, feeling, simply existing—and there’s nowhere I’d rather do that than the desert.

An Honorary Local’s Guide to Oahu

It’s been nearly a year since the last spring break of my college career (and ever, probably) has come and gone, and as I firmly settle into a full-time employment adulthood, I feel my feet growing restless again and my mind wandering to far-off places. One of those not-so-distant lands, conjuring up the taste of guava and shaved ice and the smell of hibiscus, is Oahu, the Hawaiian island I found myself lured to rather spontaneously by affordable airfare and the tempting offer of a place to crash with a good friend’s aunt.

I’ll admit—I’d grown up inundated with stories of everyone and their grandmother’s trips to Hawaii, and as with other fabled places like Paris, I was somehow under the impression, given its overexposure, that I could forgo ever actually visiting for myself. The typical tourist’s experience of Hawaii—generic, corporate, sterile—held little appeal to me, but I was fortunate enough to be treated instead to an insiders’ guide to the island—which made for a week that was both entertaining and relaxing, a visit that was quintessentially Hawaiian but drenched in the authenticity I’d been searching for.

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After touching down over the aquamarine waters and towering white resort strand of Honolulu on a Friday, we were thankfully able to hit the ground running with our sightseeing, relying on the kindness and (and cars) of our hosts to get around through the weekend. We stayed in a residential part of Oahu, just north of Honolulu and not too far from Pearl Harbor, where the ocean was visible from our cul-de-sac and the city lights sparkled in the distance at night. Among our first excursions was an afternoon in Kailua, about a half hour outside of Honolulu and home to a windward coastline of turquoise waves and lush green mountains. The beaches in Oahu are stunning just about everywhere on the island, but Kailua beach was among the most tropical in feel, creating an almost South Pacific-vibe with its white sand, towering palms, neon blue water and islands dotting the horizon. A few hours of sunbathing and swimming were followed with a couple miles’ hike up to the Lanikai pillboxes, two abandoned military bunkers tagged in rainbow-bright graffiti that offer a panoramic view of Lanikai Beach and truly stunning Instagram opportunities (though the steep, often narrow trail and cliffs-edge bunkers are perhaps not for the faint of heart.)

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Next up, downtown Honolulu and Waikiki are not to be missed, even for those (like myself) with a natural inclination toward avoiding crowds, resorts and chain restaurants when on vacation. Waikiki, lined with gleaming designer boutiques, tropical outdoor malls, exclusive resorts and towering high-rises, is a colorful metropolis bustling with energy. From street vendors to tour groups to pool floatie-clad children darting in every direction, it’s a flurry of activity and noise sure to be a sensory overload for those seeking any kind of tranquility or isolation, but it’s certainly worth a visit, and we lucked out on the day we chose. Hawaii’s weather in the spring can be hit-or-miss with rolling storms,  but the day we visited Waikiki was one of the warmest of the trip, and in turn the water there was the most pleasant I experienced anywhere on the island. It just so happened that the city was also hosting the annual Honolulu Festival, held each year in March, and cultural parade that day, and the celebration was truly something to see.

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One of the favorite parts of my trip, and favorite places on all of Oahu, was the North Shore. It is, as the name suggests, the northernmost end of the island, and was the main reason we chose to rent a car for the weekdays during our visit. It’s about an hour’s drive from Oahu—one way in, and one way out on a two-lane highway, so prepare for the possibility of traffic slowing down your journey, but it was worth every minute it took us to get there. Though still very much tourist-oriented, North Shore is by far less populated than Waikiki, and offers quaint storefronts, food trucks offering fare fresh from the ocean, and rockier, windier beaches perfect for sunset-watching and spotting turtles and other wildlife.

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The North Shore is also home to Matsumoto Shave Ice, which my friend, who grew up visiting Hawaii, swears is the best on the island, and while I didn’t sample enough during my time there to know for sure, it’s hard to complain about snacking on fruit, rainbow-bright shave ice doused in creamy condensed milk under swaying palms, just feet from the bright blue Pacific ocean.

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Speaking of eats, in addition to the fresh seafood and bakeries dotting the North Shore, the highway in and out of it is also paved with plenty of spots of interest for foodies. The most famous of those is the Dole Plantation, where visitors can grab a tart, creamy Dole Whip fresh from the source and wander in and out of the pineapple plants and more pineapple-themed merchandise than you ever thought possible. Also worth checking out is the Green World Coffee Farm, where caffeine-lovers like myself can sample different blends, learn just how coffee beans are grown, roasted and ground, and browse other local wares, as well. Another tip for the foodies and those searching for unique souvenirs is the twice-weekly Aloha Stadium Swap Meet, where vendors peddle local-made dried fruit, nuts and snacks, coffee, jewelry, leis and literal miles of other offerings.

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It would be very easy to pass a week on Oahu snacking on shaved ice, poke, and fresh mango while lounging on snow-white sands, transfixed by the sparkling turquoise waves, but the island’s historical offerings are well-worth checking out for those looking to learn a bit more about the history of Oahu. The most obvious attraction is, of course, Pearl Harbor, just west of Honolulu. Tours are free (yep, you read that right!) and you can book admission tickets online up to two months in advance, so be sure not to fall for those pricey tours, unless they’re actually offering something you can’t get through the National Park’s tour. The only downside is if you, like us, don’t reserve tickets in advance, prepare to wake up REALLY early to fight the crowds, as admission is first come, first served without an online reservation. The Pearl Harbor Historic Sites open at 7 AM, but we arrived by 6, and the line was already snaking through the parking lot.

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But a little lost sleep is a small price to pay to see the USS Arizona, which you visit by boat after a short video about the history of Pearl Harbor. The memorial is beautiful, especially on a sunny day when the light streams through it, and as you stand above the sunken battleship and even oil slicks that remain on the water’s surface 75 years after the attack, the magnitude of the tragedy truly comes to life in a way that must be experienced to be understood.

For lovers of history, art and culture, downtown Honolulu’s Chinatown is an authentic stop for dim sum and your best bet for fresh leis, the Hawai’i State Art Museum is a colorful introduction to local artists, and the ‘Iolani Palace offers both guided and self-guided tours through the ornately furnished mansion, once the residence of Queen Liliʻuokalani and other Hawaiian royalty.

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While Oahu is the most visited Hawaiian island, in addition to famed points of interest such as Pearl Harbor and Waikiki, it also offers enough tranquil beaches, lush hikes, and quaint villages to keep it from feeling crowded. It can be easy to fall into the thinking that there’s only one way to experience a Hawaiian island, or everything about it must have already been seen and done, but my visit to Oahu proved to me that the state is what you make of it, and there are in fact enough experiences to keep you coming back over and over again.

Up and Down Italy

It’s only been almost a year(!) since I visited Italy, so I figured now was as good a time as any to finally finish my travelogue and share a few of my favorite photos from the last stop of my whirlwind European study abroad tour.

If you don’t know much about Italy (other than its cuisine, of course,) you probably at least know that it’s shaped liked a boot; a long, narrow country whose northern and southern regions are virtually polar opposites in numerous ways, and so it only seemed right that our 10 day Italian tour-de-force take us from top to bottom.

Time and money constraints (this was the last trip of my five-month study abroad experience, after all,) made going off the beaten path to places like Lake Como and Cinque Terre out of the question, as highly-recommended as these places were, and so it was decided between my two travel companions and I that we would stick to the major cities.

After much deliberation and careful planning, we finally had our route mapped out; flying into Venice, and then traveling by train down to Florence, onto Rome, and finally ending our trip in Naples and Capri, alotting about two days for each stop. I had heard rave reviews of northern Italy from friends who had been, but knew I couldn’t leave Europe without seeing Rome for myself, and the sun and sandy shores of southern Italy were certainly inviting after many rainy months in London.

And so, with 10 days of clothes and toiletries crammed into our over-stuffed carry-ons, we boarded an early morning flight for Venice, leaving London just as the sun was rising, and arriving in Italy with the whole day ahead of us. Venice Treviso, like many European airports, is seemingly postage stamp-sized, but this at least made our arrival into Italy relatively quick and painless. Within minutes of deplaning, we had gotten our passports stamped and purchased bus tickets to take us into Venice proper (the city is, after all, essentially an island with a narrow land bridge.)

While we had envisioned leaving rainy London for the sun-soaked terra cotta of Italy, our time in Venice was quite the opposite. It was raining the day we arrived, though not quite a London drizzle, but more of a humid, misty rain, and I was surprised by just how swampy and lush-green the land surrounding Venice seemed to be. As we passed peeling gray stucco estates with wrought iron gates and ivy crawling up the walls, I got the sense that maybe this would finally be a city that looked exactly the way I had envisioned. And ultimately, Venice was everything I expected it to be and more.

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DSC_5160In many ways, Venice doesn’t quite feel like a real city. It’s all narrow, winding alleyways, ornate gondolas and turquoise blue canals, rainbow colored stucco and eye-popping, mouth-watering gelato around every street corner. It feels a bit like being in a theme park, or wandering through a movie set, its essence is so charming and foreign and quaint. After some difficulty navigating through alleyways that all look the same and often lead to dead ends, opening onto the canals or brick walls, we finally found our hostel, on the third floor of an unassuming building demarcated by only the smallest of signs. Though we had booked a six person room for frugality’s sake, we were shown to one set up for three people, essentially our own private suite. We each had our own wardrobe and single bed (no hostel bunks!), were able to simply latch our bedroom door instead of using lockers, and best of all, had a window with rustic old shutters that we could lean out of and take in a view of the rainy alleyway and canal below (I’ll admit to feeling a bit like Juliet as I did so.)

Before arriving in Italy, I’d heard all about the supposed rudeness of Italians, and was prepared for anything in Venice. Looking back on it now, though, not only do I not recall any negative experiences, I hardly remember interacting with people at all. Venice felt the most dream-like of any Italian city I visited; it was rainy and muggy and mysterious, romantic and historic, electric and exciting but also incredibly calming, as though there were a hush over the city, a perpetual siesta. We dined on coffee and croissants at open-air cafes, ate entire pizzas ourselves, indulged in gelato every day (sometimes more than once a day, actually.) We wandered through a bookshop brimming with vintage, tattered novels, alcoves opening onto canals and an emerald-eyed resident cat. We walked from one end of the city to the other, beginning at the bus stop and tourist center and ending in what I can only describe as the “suburbs” of Venice; a quieter, greener part of the city where we ate paninis among locals at a tiny cafe where hardly anyone spoke English, and felt a little like we’d stumbled upon someplace secret in a city that already felt like a magical world all its own.

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Due to train schedules, Florence ended up being the shortest of our four stops, but it was memorable nonetheless. It’s a richly historic city nestled in the iconic mountainous region of Tuscany, a picturesque postcard of everything quintessentially Italian. The streets are cobblestoned, the skyline is dotted with topiaries and cathedrals, the wine is free-flowing and the sunsets spectacular. Our first stop in the city, a biker bar down the street from our hostel, was deciding un-Italian, but with cheap food and beer, friendly locals, and even a dog or two, it made for the perfect dinner stop for hungry, weary travelers, and we were quickly welcomed with open arms by raucous locals watching the night’s soccer match on the edge of their seats.

Requisite stops included the Il Duomo di Firenze, which affords breathtaking, 360-degree panoramas of the entire city and surrounding region — once you’ve braved the 400-plus steps to the top. Despite being relatively uncrowded the day we visited, we ultimately waited more than an hour to get inside because, as we later discovered, a woman had twisted her ankle on the climb up and required paramedics to be brought back down. At more than 600 years old, the Il Duomo understandably has no elevators, and its narrow staircase is both the only way up and down, slowing the journey considerably and causing a number of headaches when several young children decided to abandon the climb and throw fits right on the staircase until their parents begrudgingly agreed to fight against the oncoming foot traffic and turn back.

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Other memorable stops included the Boboli Gardens, which are about as Tuscan as anyone could ask for, offering even more incredible views of Florence and surrounding vineyards, ancient sculptures and artwork, and even a wine and coffee bar in the outdoor lounge at the top. We also toured the iconic — and incredibly crowded — Ponte Vecchio Bridge, ate gelato at sunset along the Arno River, and feasted on what was easily the best pizza I’ve ever eaten in my life at Gusta Pizza, where the lines are long (but completely worthwhile) and the pies are heart-shaped.

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Next up was Rome, a city I’d never felt a strong pull to visit (and yes, I’ve seen The Lizzie McGuire Movie,) and actually being there didn’t endear it to me any more. After arriving into the capital on a late-night train from Florence, we navigated the cobblestone streets to our hostel, which had been ill-advisedly booked because it was the cheapest place we’d found online. Our hostel was an…experience, to say the least, one which I have neither the time nor the energy to recount here, but suffice it to say that being taken to another building in the middle of the night, placed in a bedroom without lockers or a door that locked, and receiving at least one remark from the male hostel owners about our being “too pretty to pay” raised more than a few red flags and was cause enough for us to high-tail it out of there, even with nowhere else to stay.

Going door-to-door in an attempt to find a hotel room in the middle of the night in Rome, travel-weary and saddled with all of our valuables, is one study abroad memory I won’t soon forget. Eventually, after many rejections, we were able to secure a single hotel room, which contained one bed the three of us slept across sideways and a shower in which I could barely turn around. While returning to our hostel to retrieve our things, we happened to run into a concierge who had apologetically told us his hotel was full, but who remembered us and whose inquiry about whether we had found somewhere else to stay helped restored my faith in people that night. The next morning, we were well-rested enough to return to the hostel and demand to be reimbursed for the subsequent nights we had booked. I was painfully aware of embodying the ugly American tourist stereotype throughout the rather heated interaction, but having been ignored, lied to about our accommodations, and literally laughed at as the hostel owners contradicted their own stated policies, I certainly wasn’t about to let us be taken advantage of.

Eventually, I deployed just enough stubbornness and steely-eyed resolve to get us all our money back, but I was still rattled by the experience, and though we were able to find a safer hostel for the remainder of our stay, Rome never really redeemed itself for me. It’s a beautiful city, obviously steeped in history, and the Coliseum and the Vatican are certainly once-in-a-lifetime experiences (ones we waited about 2 hours and 4 hours for, respectively.) The food was also incredible, though no more so than anywhere else in Italy. My sense of the city was ultimately overshadowed by the fact that everywhere we went, we were accosted with offers of selfie sticks and trinkets and tour-group scams, with catcalls and leering glances and men literally taking our pictures and laughing in our faces when we tried to protest. I couldn’t shake the sense that we were constantly about to be taken advantage of, even in spite of our vigilance, and as such could never quite let our guard down. Even as tourists, as Americans, as three young girls traveling alone, we’d never had an experience anywhere else in Europe like the one we had in Rome, and I can’t say it’s a place I’m eager to revisit anytime soon.

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When our time in Rome was up, it was all we could do to keep ourselves from walking rather than running onto the train, giddy with excitement over the turquoise waters and sandy shores of our next stops — Naples and Capri. Surely, we told ourselves, anything had to be an improvement over Rome. This, we soon found, wasn’t entirely true. From the moment we stepped of the train in Naples at sundown, I could tell that our presumptions about this coastal city had been fairly far off base. Naples is not a resort town, by any means, but rather a working-class, rather rough-around-the-edges seaport. The streets are dirty and lined with graffiti, the traffic was the worst I’d seen anywhere in Europe, and docked cruise ships puffed clouds of black smoke into the air. It was crowded and humid and remarkably unglamorous. That said, the pizza, gelato and coffee were easily the best we’d had anywhere in Italy, and the cheapest, too, and people were more amiable than in Rome.

Naple’s best selling points, however, are its day-trip options: the ruins of Pompeii and the island of Capri. As we’d already visited National Archaeological Museum, where many artifacts from Pompeii are on display, we opted for a visit to the rainbow-hued island of Capri. Though the ferry schedule was a bit difficult to decipher, and the actual journey wasn’t inexpensive, the visit was completely worthwhile and the perfect end to our visit in Naples and Italy trip as a whole.

Unlike Naples, Capri truly is a resort town — tourism is its industry, from boat tours to souvenir shops brimming with every incarnation of Limoncello liqueur (of which I am not overly fond) imaginable, from candies to candles. There are two sides to the hilly island — Capri, where tourists disembark from the ferry, and where the shops, restaurants and pebbly shores keep most visitors entertained — and Anacapri, which can be accessed by an especially precarious shuttle, into which tourists are packed like sardines, many standing, as the bus makes its way up steep, narrow and white-knuckle windy streets (one passenger advised we all kiss the ground upon arriving at our destination.) In Anacapri, we ate lunch and browsed a few more shops, but the real excitement came when our return shuttle, already paid for, failed to arrive on time, and we risked missing our returning ferry (also already paid for.) Fortunately, an American couple was understanding of our desperate plea to split a cab back to the other side of the island, and we breathed a sigh of relief as we hopped onto our ferry without a minute to spare.

We experienced a similar sort of stressful excitement en-route from Naple’s airport back to London (a story for another time,) though a fitting experience given, as I was reminded without fail during each and every day of our trip, there’s no such thing as a dull moment in Italy.

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Ultimately, my ten days in Italy were a tour-de-force of travel like I’d never experienced. I’d never traveled much with my family, I wasn’t used to spending extended lengths of time away from home, and I am, understandably, partial to creature comforts; hot showers, my own bed, familiar food, etc. Of course, Italy is still relatively familiar and comfortable as far as foreign countries go, but there were certainly moments that were less so — moments that in retrospect I’m grateful for having strengthened by resourcefulness, and what I hope was grace under pressure.

There’s little I can say about Italy that hasn’t been said countless times before. The food is to-die-for (Italy has officially ruined all other pizza for me,) the architecture and art is stunning, the natural beauty breathtaking, and ultimately the country is what you make of it. Personally, I found myself to be much more partial to the northern end of Italy than its wilder southern tip, but I’m grateful to both regions of Italy for having added to an arsenal of study abroad stories that I’m already anticipating will last me a lifetime.

The Long Goodbye to London

With my feet firmly planted back on American soil for what feels like a truly staggering six months now, these little reminders of a life I led in London can be more than a little jarring. Polaroids tucked in mirror frames, receipts crumpled at the bottoms of bags, social media posts that only seem to reel backward into time and space as the days and weeks since I left London fly by with little distinction. They’re precious, if melancholy, confirmations that my adventures weren’t all a dream, and life was different once, if only for a fleeting, flickering moment in time.

This long goodbye is long overdue, months in the making and far later than I had anticipated, but I find that often I need to step back from things to see them more clearly, to leave the forest entirely in order to see the trees. Life abroad was all-consuming, in a way that was frequently, sometimes frustratingly, exhausting. It was a constant dance between grasping so hopelessly at what I had hoped my experience abroad would be, and realizing that my reality was a thousand times more precious than anything I’d ever dreamed, if only because I’d never let myself believe that those dreams would actually come true.

For nearly six months this spring, I managed to traverse eleven countries across Europe, sleeping in hostels and borrowed beds and Airbnbs, boarding and deplaning at least a couple dozen flights and expending countless hours of my life waiting in lines—an hour at immigration, another two in the pouring rain above the Catacombs, an interminable four hours melting in the sweltering heat outside the Vatican. As the clock ran down on my time abroad, I felt the walls closing in around my wanderlust, and so I was hell-bent on catapulting myself across the continent. I was greedy for more stamps in my passport, I was desperate to prove something, driving myself crazy by regretting things that hadn’t even had the chance to happen.

In my fervor and my furor, I was giddy and I was anxious, I was a perpetual sugar-high and its inevitable low. I managed to book myself three separate seats on the same flight to Stockholm, I was conned out of money at a market in Budapest, I left a beloved (faux) leather jacket at the airport in Naples, I found myself near-tears as I was brusquely interrogated by an immigration officer on a London-bound train from Paris. Of course, my challenges were nothing compared to those of people for whom travel is not a luxury, but a necessity. And my status as an American, as a university student, as a young white woman, granted me relatively free access to a continent and places and experiences that certainly not everyone would have the same opportunity to see. This said, travel can fill the soul, but it can deplete it too, especially if embarked upon for the wrong reasons. I found that, the more I lived my experience for other people, posing for Instagram likes, posturing to ensure that my study abroad experience appeared as life-altering as everyone else’s, that I was doing this whole thing exactly as I was “supposed” to, the less bearable and the more soul-crushing the 2 a.m. wake-up calls and questionable hostels and financial strain I’d placed upon myself all became.

I don’t mean to be melodramatic; even with the hiccups, I wouldn’t trade my experience abroad for anything, and I was inexplicably grateful and constantly, keenly aware that even my worst day in Europe outpaced my best days back home by miles. But I found that the most beautiful, most memorable, most soul-settling and truly breathtaking moments were the ones that were the least carefully crafted; they were the experiences that just were. Those moments of being that feel as natural as breathing, and as surreal as dreaming, that you find yourself helpless to do anything other than simply exist in them.

I watched the sun set over the Cliffs of Moher and Dublin drunk on St. Patrick’s Day, experienced one magical English snowfall in Cambridge and another as night fell across the Scottish Highlands. I fell asleep beneath the sun while picnicking among tulips and windmills in Holland, ate macaroons and sipped champagne in Hyde Park, drank sangria and feasted on paella in Barcelona. I biked Amsterdam’s canals and walked the Berlin Wall and watched the sun come up over the Mediterranean. I saw the locks of love above the Seine, cruised along the Thames, sailed out into the Swedish archipelago and watched Scandinavia go by. I drank absinthe in the shadows of Hemingway’s old hideaway in Prague, explored the ruins bars in Budapest, and danced the night away in a German club that didn’t open until 2 a.m. I saw the British Crown Jewels sparkle and the Eiffel Tower glitter at night. I craned my neck to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, said hello to the bones down in the Catacombs, tried to catch a glimpse of the mythical monster at Loch Ness. I saw Churchill’s War Rooms, Marie Antoinette’s Versaille home, the Beatle’s Abbey Road and Mona Lisa’s smile. I ate gelato on the Bridge of Sighs, climbed 400 steps up Florence’s Il Duomo, stood in the shadow of the Roman Coliseum, saw Venice from a gondola and twilight fall across the Italian countryside from the window of a passing train.

And then there were the people, and the friendships made, and the moments so strange and memorable I couldn’t have ever dreamed them up. There were late, drunken nights and impossibly early mornings. There were missed flights, mix-ups, mishaps. There was getting lost on the Tube and making friends in our hostels, there was pining for WiFi and refusing selfie sticks a thousand times over. There was arguing with budget airlines to accept our overstuffed bags and too many toiletries, there were sleepless nights spent dozing in and out of consciousness on cramped buses and too-small hotel rooms. There was getting sweated out of our apartment because the radiator broke, and taking ice-cold showers because that somehow broke, too. There were Italian glass friendship bracelets and talks of matching souvenir tattoos. There weren’t nearly enough afternoon teas, and a few more cream teas, and then mostly beans on toast when our money ran out. There was a champagne toast at the Shard as we watched the skyline turn gold and felt a certain surrealness, weightlessness, this-isn’t-really-happening-ness, as summer creeped in and we said goodbye to this city, this second home so far away from home.

DSC_5402In so many ways, returning to the states feels like waking from a dream. Not because every moment spent in London was magical, or because my experience was a particularly jarring culture shock, either. But there was a sort of freedom there, an internalized challenge to see how far I could push myself from my comfort zone, whether I would clip all the loose threads and finally shake everything that had been weighing me down for so long. This isn’t to say anything against the existence I’ve cultivated on the West Coast, with friends and family I adore, at a school I owe everything to and a career I wouldn’t have any other way. But at the risk of sounding cliche, I have always been a wanderer, a dreamer, with jittery feet and a restless soul. I have always had a tumultuous relationship with reality; it is simultaneously tenuous and all too real. I have always been grounded, and driven, and yet so too have I always suspected that I might just run from it all if ever given the chance.

And this year, that chance came. Five months of freedom, on a new continent, with new people, far from the same old problems and structures with which I’ve grown familiar, of which I’ve grown so tired. A chance to live my life on a different stage, to be someone else, or at least a better version of myself, a place with few deadlines, loose timelines, with scarce expectations and a whole world unfolding before me.

I didn’t make a gaggle of new international friends-for-life, I didn’t fall in love with an English royal, I didn’t leave all of my problems behind in the States or find the meaning of life somewhere on the British Isles. I still find myself a little lost, a little uncertain of my footing, of who I am and where I’m headed. But when I close my eyes now I see flashes of places I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams, and now my actual dreams are filled with this reality, and I carry with me in my waking moments too these memories precious enough that I will never have to wonder whether it was all worth it.

Eastern Excursion

I remember someone once telling me to save traveling Europe for when I’m old, to utilize my youthful energy in places a little wilder, a little realer, a little more worthy of open-minds and wide-eyed readiness for the world. And after five months of calling it home, I can understand why.

When traveling Europe, it’s easy to become entranced by the beauty of romance languages and Mediterranean beaches, to experience an entire continent solely through its fashion and cuisine and postcard-perfect scenery, a perpetual tourist eager to see everything and leave with nothing but souvenirs.

But Europe, and travel as a whole, is what you make of it. It can be idealistic and comfortable and surface-level, but it can also be moving, thought-provoking, and even a little uncomfortable at times, and knowing what I know now, I’m glad I had the chance to see it while I was young.

While my peers mostly favored Western Europe, with occasional excursions to Turkey or Morocco in true tests of their parents’ trust, I felt a pull toward Eastern Europe that I couldn’t quite explain, but knew I had to explore. Something about these countries seemed so foreign and yet so familiar, mythical and yet utterly real, rich and romantic and just a little bit sad.

19913483011_8da1fd85f0_kI suppose this is partly to do with the fact that I’ve always been fascinated by history. I spent most of my childhood reading memoirs and fictionalizations of Anne Frank and Anne Boleyn, finding myself more of a kindred spirit with the girls and women in these pages than with the people I encountered in my actual life.

Berlin had always been a place at the back of my mind, in my proverbial back pocket, somewhere both painfully real and mercifully mythical. I’d get there someday, and someday I did, on a 6:30 a.m. (though $30) flight out of rainy London, to the green and gold melancholy of Germany.

19913478091_fa0175dd16_k19720406570_87de24b54f_k 19720363730_740b089607_kWe found ourselves on the outskirts of the city, waiting on a platform with Cold War-era signage for the only train of the hour to take us into the city, past crumbling cottages and more graffiti than I’d seen anywhere in my life, scrawled across brick walls and abandoned train cars and tattered billboards. Berlin is not objectively beautiful, but I suppose its appeal is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve always had a soft spot for urban decay, likely a contributing factor in my abnormally high tolerance for Los Angeles, and I think this is why I was always so certain I’d feel at peace in Eastern Europe. And even before we stepped off the train in Berlin, I knew I hadn’t been wrong about this assessment.

Standing where East and West Germany were once divided, following the Berlin Wall for miles, getting lost within a maze of monuments honoring the victims of the Holocaust, it all took my breath away. I won’t lie, Berlin was taxing; physically, mentally, emotionally. Our two-and-a-half hour walking tour of the city turned into an epic five hour excursion through countless neighborhoods and landmarks and I was ready to lay down and wave a white flag of defeat by the end of it. And by the fourth or fifth Holocaust memorial, my blood was boiling and my heart was heavy, and I couldn’t reconcile how so much hatred could still be alive and well in this world after we claimed to learn from these atrocities.

Mostly I felt immeasurably grateful at being able to see such powerful things in person, and reminded of just how much I can sometimes take for granted. When I thought of how I had learned all of this history in a classroom in a high school in a claustrophobic small town I sometimes thought I’d never have the chance to leave, touching the Berlin Wall took my breath away, and there was suddenly this cognitive dissonance; I am so far from where I started, literally and figuratively. I am both immeasurably privileged and inexplicably grateful.

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We took a train from Berlin, through the stunning small towns and green fields of southern Germany, to the second stop of our tour, Prague. It’s a stunning, fairy tale town, home to a glittering river and gilded bridges and an actual castle rising high above the cherry blossom city down below. There were horse-drawn carriages and sugary local delicacies and our hostel was housed in a 17th-century building located at the top of a windy cobblestone street.

Prague was home to some fascinating, and sobering, history, particularly in the Jewish Quarter, but it was personally the city to which I felt the least connected. It was gorgeous and quaint, but after little more than a day I was ready to move along. I’d heard incredible things about the city, and perhaps I was there for too short a time to have given it a fair assessment, but I didn’t feel quite myself there, and that’s just fine, sometimes.

19687828733_b6c50e5696_k20308838585_d3aa76fc14_k20314800531_f5c1abe24c_kFinally, we boarded an overnight bus to Budapest, a place of which for which I had precious few expectations, just openness, only a willingness to learn and experience and be. I remember first hearing of Budapest, this far-off, perhaps not-quite-real place years ago, and despite having not even the slightest inkling of where in the world it existed, I thought it sounded like the most exotic place I could have ever imagined.

For whatever reason, this seemed to be the year of Budapest. I never in a million years would have imagined it would be a place I’d reach during my semester abroad, but it was a surprisingly popular destination among my peers, due at least in some part I’m sure to the natural thermal baths I’d heard likened to giant, rowdy pool parties. The fact that I hadn’t the faintest idea what to expect of Budapest made the prospect of visiting even more thrilling, despite the fact that we had to endure a less-than-glamorous (though dirt cheap) seven hour bus ride to do so, arriving with a pink sky as a new day dawned.

Budapest is sparkling clean, almost a little too clean for my taste, and surprisingly new, at least in terms of architecture, thanks to a rather powerful flooding of the Danube in the 20th century. The first city I thought to liken it to was, oddly enough, Washington, D.C., though perhaps not so strange as I am quite fond of the Capitol. But Budapest is home to many museums, monuments, grassy areas, decent public transportation, plentiful street food, and an oddly muggy, stormy mix of spring weather that reminded me of summers in the south.

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Having suffered tremendous losses and setbacks during World War II, the Holocaust, Communism, the Cold War, and more, Budapest is a city heavy with history. There are monuments and museums around every corner, and I would highly recommend taking advantage of free walking tours in order to get acclimated to the city. Our homey hostel was also a tremendous resource, with friendly staff who thoroughly annotated our maps and gave us local insight into the best restaurants, bars and attractions.

In terms of historical must-sees, I never could have anticipated that a favorite stop of mine in any city would be a place called the House of Terror, but Eastern Europe is not for the faint of heart, and this museum is not to be missed by anyone with an interest in history or, frankly, the human race. I can think of few experiences that affected me as deeply as this one, tracing the footsteps of Nazi leaders and Soviet dictators, I found myself amazed at how the 20th century had absolutely devastated Budapest, from World War II to Communism, and yet it has flourished in the decades since. It was truly an immersive experience, the closest I’ve ever seen a museum get to a theme park exhibit, and yet it treated its subjects with utter respect and seriousness, and despite the special effects and ominous music, the crowded, darkened elevator that deposits visitors down in a dungeon where unthinkable things occurred, the constant reminder that all of this really and truly happened, that human beings committed these acts, that all of these people once lived and breathed the same as me, made this more chilling than any house of horrors I’d ever visited.

Frequent stops for rose-shaped gelato and Hungarian trinkets were necessary to counteract the heaviness of the city’s history, but so is the case with many places. I’d highly, highly recommend Budapest’s outdoor markets over the indoor ones (havens for scammers and pick-pocketers, speaking from my own personal experience and those of others.) Not to mention that, on a beautiful day, the outdoor markets are absolutely blissful, emanating pure Old World-Europe, with vendors selling hand made soaps, traditional marionettes, local paprika, and other Hungarian wares. The food is much cleaner, fresher and tastier at these markets, too. Other absolute must-visits are St. Stephen’s Cathedral (the 400-step trek to the top is definitely worth the city view,) the Fisherman’s Bastion, the Citadel, and the Budapest’s many ruins pubs, which are fairly self-explanatory and yet really must be seen to be believed. Trust me, they’re a truly Hungarian experience.

After seven days of soaking up history like sponges, of scrounging for vegetarian food, of exploring three richly fabled cities on foot until we could barely walk anymore, it was time to head back to our little makeshift home in the UK. We bought our tickets and boarded a public bus out of Budapest, with a blood orange sunset following us west, past the Danube and the dilapidated city outskirts that seemed to sigh, streaking through the dusty windows and seeping into my soul just a little.

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We were one of the handful of flights out of Budapest that night, we practically had the airport to ourselves. I sampled a local favorite cuisine, Burger King, for dinner, and we queued up out on the tarmac to wait for our plane in the dark, arriving back in London to April rain and an immigration line that made us miss our train. We arrived home in the early hours of the morning, exhausted, feet aching, wanting to crawl into bed and keep the world at bay for a few days. But every line, every penny spent, every minute spent waiting, every mishap and headache and disagreement, it was all worth it, I knew that much within an instant of being back.

20282186736_dcaec78540_zI didn’t feel quite myself anywhere in Eastern Europe, but I did feel at peace. And I felt in many ways as though I was more than myself. This was not my culture, this was not my history, not my burden to bear or my stories to tell. And so I was there to listen, to be an open book and a blank slate, ready to become a student of events I didn’t witness, of a world I never thought I’d get to see.

I’ve always been comfortable with sadness, perhaps a bit too much so, and in turn, people who are uncomfortable with it make me just a little uncomfortable. It’s important to learn about history so as not to repeat it, and to be reminded of what we have so as not to take it for granted. I could have gorged on history my entire time in Eastern Europe, but I don’t think my psyche could have withstood it. I’d recommend this trip in a heartbeat, and yet I don’t think I could bring myself to do it again. I could write about my experiences in this strange, utterly unforgettable region forever, and yet I think I’ll end things here, with an encouragement to go to Eastern Europe but also somewhere, anywhere, that scares you a little, makes you uncomfortable a little, that makes you feel so much smaller than history and so much more than yourself.

A British Beach Day

Never mind the fact that I’ve unfortunately had to bid a goodbye to dear Britain (more on that later,) alas, the travel posts will keep coming! As I toil away at work in the good old US of A in the blistering heat of summer, a part of my soul is already itching to be roaming around Europe again, and as Los Angeles chokes and coughs with drought and wildfires, I’m yearning particularly for a crisp Atlantic Ocean breeze and proper British beach day, torrential downpours and all.

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Even with its technicolor pier, Brighton Beach is no Santa Monica. And despite what some of its fun-loving inhabitants might have you believe, its isn’t England’s answer to the Jersey Shore, either. At least, not on the day I visited, when sideways rain and hurricane-like gusts of wind and easily the best scones I ate in all of my time in the UK made Brighton a distinctly British experience.

As an Oregonian, I consider myself to be pretty tolerant of wind and rain, but I knew from the moment I stepped off the train on England’s South Coast that the weather would likely try to put a damper on my beach day. Still, having grown up with a Pacific shoreline that was more “coast” than “beach,” I thought I knew what I was in for, and thankfully, despite being a beach city, Brighton is still fairly well-equipped for rainy days, and frequent stops for tea and warmth made the biting sea breezes more bearable.

The day was mildly warm, even sunny, right up until when we made our way to the shore and out onto Brighton’s famous pier, at which point the winds picked up and even walking became a struggle. I managed to get in just a few snaps of the beautiful arcade signs and carousel that make Brighton beach so iconic before the weather drove us further inland.
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Umbrellas were no match for the gusts of wind, so the best option was to run from place to place, seeking shelter from the rain. Also distinctive are the city’s labyrinth of winding, narrow, cobble-stoned streets, slick with rain, glittering with antique jewelry, and sweet with the smell of ice cream, fudge and saltwater taffy.

A few favorite stops along Brighton’s streets included a tasty Thai lunch at the Giggling Squid, an hour or two spent at the the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery (the Brighton wartime and fashion exhibits are especially worth checking out,) and an afternoon tea at Mock Turtle Tea Shop that was memorable for good company and the freshest, fluffiest scones I had in all of my time in England.

Brighton is certainly a far cry from the beaches I’ve come to know living in Southern California, but its charm, even in the most charmless of weather, speaks to the enduring magic and mysticism of long-fabled afternoons spent by the English sea.

European Whirlwind

With the travel period of my study abroad semester in full swing, this past month has been a whirlwind of airports and landmarks and exploring iconic, awe-inspiring places I thought I’d only ever dream of seeing. And with summer fast approaching, and travel and exams leaving me little time to write and sort through (far too many) photos, I thought I’d take write-up a quick recap of some of my recent travels to four European cities, and offer up my thoughts on what I loved, what I didn’t, and what I’d do differently if I were to ever revisit or recommend these cities to anyone else.

Amsterdam

I think the general theme of my travels around Europe thus far has been me being a bit let down by places I expected to love, and absolutely enamored with places I didn’t expect anything from at all. Amsterdam is an example of the latter, and though prior to visiting I’d essentially only heard the tales of Amsterdam that everyone hears of Amsterdam before they visit, I can confirm that this city is so much more than its world-famous vices.

First of all, yes: weed is legal. Prostitution, too. But outside of the Red Light District, by the light of day, you’d might never even know Amsterdam has this slightly seedy underbelly. In fact, it’s a city with almost no crime, and with plenty of parks and playgrounds and green spaces, its general atmosphere is surprisingly family-friendly.

I felt even more connected with nature in Amsterdam than I did in Stockholm, and the maze of canals that wind through the city truly are breathtaking. No matter how many times I’d walk or bike over a bridge, no matter how similar the view was to the last photo I’d taken, I couldn’t help but stopping to take a picture. The architecture is absolutely stunning, too, with the city known for colorful row homes lining the canals, as well as gorgeous old churches with steeples spiraling skyward, and an open-air cafe or bar just around every corner.

My travel companions and I were especially lucky with to catch such incredible early-April weather, in the high 60s and sunny throughout our trip, and seeing the city by bike was absolute bliss on a breezy spring day. With such narrow, maze-like streets, it isn’t a wonder that most people in Amsterdam get around by bike, and it’s a cheap and fun way to see the city, although I will say that the Dutch take their biking very seriously, and if your reflexes aren’t quite fast enough you will hear about it.

Amsterdam is definitely more of an activity-based city than some of the other places I visited; we saw the Anne Frank House, the Tulip Museum, the Cheese Museum (unlimited samples of the absolute tastiest, and freshest, cheese you will ever taste, need I say more?) the “I am Amsterdam” sign, plus the city offers countless canal tours and plenty more museums. Given that it’s spring, we also took a day trip to Keukenhof, Holland, where there are more tulips in more colors than I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s absolutely gorgeous, although for the steep admission price I would liked to have seen a few more actual tulip fields, but the ticket did include round trip transportation from the city, and really, how can you pass on seeing spring in Holland if given the chance?

Even with a million amazing things to do in Amsterdam, some of my favorite moments there involved doing nothing at all; just sipping a Heineken along the canals, snacking on piping hot French fries (trust me, Dutch fries are a must) and wandering around the city, or sampling Dutch cheese and wine falling asleep in the sunshine at Keukenhof.

My takeaway: Amsterdam manages to be sensory overload by night, and yet an incredibly relaxing place (not just because of its tourist industries) by day, and the city can offer a number of different atmospheres and itineraries depending on the traveler and the budget; whether you’re a college student crashing in hostels, a couple looking for a romantic getaway, or even on a Dutch family holiday, there’s plenty to see and do for people from all walks of life. I would go back to Amsterdam in a heartbeat; for the food, the people, the scenery, and the overall relaxed vibe, and it’s honestly somewhere I think everyone should try to see at least once in their life.

Dublin
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The simplest way I can sum up my expectations for visiting Dublin is to say that I’m Irish, and I’ve heard about Ireland my whole life. My hopes, and those of my family, for visiting my ancestral homeland were based less in reality and more in folklore and shamrock-and-leprechaun-filled travel shows. All my lofty hopes for Ireland were essentially asking to be dashed, and though I ultimately enjoyed my time there and have every intention of returning to the country to explore more someday, I can safely say that St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin was not quite the vision of Ireland I had always had in my head.

Though this will come as no surprise to most, Dublin is not a land of shamrocks and rolling emerald hills; it’s a working class city, rather rough around the edges, and not really a place I would choose to revisit for more than a few days a time. The Guinness Storehouse tour, while, well, touristy, turned out to be quite a memorable experience and actually a bit of a bargain (on the day we went, we were offered two free tastings with a light snack and a free pint of Guinness up in the Gravity Bar at the end of the tour.) St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Stephen’s Square and Trinity College were all beautiful must-sees well worth a walk through, but I have to say my favorite parts of Ireland were well beyond the reaches of Dublin.
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Given the length of my stay in Ireland, and the size of the country, it only made sense to make a day trip tour to the Cliffs of Moher, a truly breathtaking natural wonder that wound us through Galway and the emerald, sheep-dotted hills of Western Ireland. We stopped for a hearty lunch at a roadside Irish pub and then it was off to spend a couple of hours climbing around the cliffs and marveling at the sparkling turquoise sea. In an age of Instagram and the internet in general, it can feel impossible to be truly awed or surprised by anything these days, but the cliffs certainly did the trick. I could have easily stayed there for hours more, perched thousands of feet above the ocean, the sea breeze in my hair, the Atlantic stretching on for miles and miles in one direction, and the Irish countryside rolling forever toward the horizon in the other.

A third and final outing took us to the seaside village of Howth, which is sleepy and quaint and a foodie paradise only about 45 minutes outside of Dublin by train. We stumbled upon a charming cafe just outside the train station and stopped for tea and scones, then wandered around the seaside and the pier to take in a view of the “Eye of Ireland” isle before treating ourselves to a fresh-off-the-line lunch of authentic fish and chips.

My takeaway: St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin was a bucket list item for sure, in more ways than one; it’s certainly a story I’ll always have to tell, but it’s also something I know I’ll only need to do once. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and really the entire day (or week, really) of festivities were quite possibly the least Irish thing I’ve ever experienced, but my five days in Ireland were a memorable experience nonetheless. I wouldn’t rush to recommend St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin to anyone over the age of 30, or anyone who doesn’t enjoy (or can’t at least tolerate) large crowds, drinking and general debauchery.

All in all, I didn’t particularly feel a personal connection to Dublin, especially given that all the St. Patrick’s Day festivities were less Irish than anything I’d encountered even in the United States. Speaking completely subjectively, Dublin isn’t a particularly scenic or exciting city, but I loved the other parts of Ireland I was able to see, and I have every intention of returning to my ancestral homeland someday, hopefully this time with my family in tow.

Paris

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I wasn’t ever the little girl who had a room adorned with the Eiffel Tower prints and t-shirts scrawled with French phrases. I never considered myself to have any particular affinity for Paris; it always seemed to be a bit stuffy and pretentious for my taste, not to mention the fact that I’m not a huge fan of French food, and above all, I had heard one horror story after another about the supposed rudeness of Parisians.

But between living in London for six months, and having a close friend studying in Paris, I knew I couldn’t leave Europe without paying a visit to the City of Lights, and I truly couldn’t be happier that I did. I was fortunate enough to spend four whirlwind, rain-soaked days in Paris, and each one was memorable. Though I was able to cover a lot of ground in that time, I feel as though I still could have stayed longer, and I never thought I’d leave wanting to come back, but Paris certainly has a pull.

There are things that everyone must do when visiting Paris, and for good reason. Sample street crepes, pay a visit to the Louvre, get up close and personal with Picassos and Van Goghs at Musee D’Orsay, feel the love at Pont de l’Archeveche (the bridge of locks,) stroll up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe and make a trek to the Eiffel Tour after dark, where twinkling lights make the landmark sparkle every night, on the hour.
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Paris is a city with a reputation that any place would find hard to live up to, but it’s a place that doesn’t disappoint. There’s a little something for everyone; the romantic, the history buff, the foodie, the fashion-lover. Despite three straight days of rain, despite waiting two hours in said rain to see the famed Parisian Catacombs (an incredibly and surprisingly un-touristy experience) and another two hours to see the Palace of Versailles on Easter Sunday, despite overcrowded Metros that stop running at midnight, Paris endeared itself to me in a way I never expected.

My takeaway: Paris is a must for a reason. If you’re into high fashion and high-brow art, there’s plenty of it there. But the City of Lights has a lot more to offer, from the Catacombs to the Jewish Quarter and lush green parks, from board game bars to killer crepes and the most efficient Metro system I’ve encountered in Europe thus far (at least before midnight.)

I also couldn’t have been happier to find that, despite my elementary knowledge of French, Parisians were overwhelmingly friendly and helpful, or at the very least, effortlessly cool and easy-going. It’s a world-class city, a place oozing with history and plenty of mystery, and one of the absolute last places I ever expected to leave a little piece of my heart behind. But I guess that’s all the more reason to plan a return trip sometime soon.

Stockholm

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Thanks to a number of travel mishaps, the most stressful, high-adrenaline parts of my Stockholm trip occurred just in trying to get to Sweden, but once there, things slowed down considerably. Stockholm is not a cosmopolitan or high-energy city, and it’s hard to believe it’s home to more than 1 million people, as it often felt like my traveling companion and I were the only people wandering about the city streets. Sweden is a place known for a slower, stop-and-smell-the-roses pace of life, and though I know that Stockholm won’t be every traveler’s cup of tea, it was certainly a welcome change of scenery from the hustle and bustle of London.

April is essentially the start of Stockholm’s renowned summer tourism season, and as such it was a bit of a mixed bag in terms of things to do. The Swedish capital is known for its long (almost endless) summer days, and its archipelago, a collection of thousands of islands that stretch all the way east to Finland. Unfortunatelym during our visit, ferries to Vaxholm, the so-called capital of the archipelago, ran only once a day, and in the early morning, so we were left with the option of a two-and-a-half hour archipelago cruise that didn’t actually let us disembark anywhere, but was beautiful nonetheless. It was quite pricey though, as are most things in Stockholm, and as such may not be an option for the budget-conscious traveler.
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Due to heavy taxes, which provide the quality of life for which the Swedes are known, the cost of living in Stockholm is quite high. Our hostel wasn’t exactly a bargain, and we didn’t eat a single meal for less than $20, even when we bought the food to go. On the other hand, I can say that we didn’t have a single sub-par meal, the city wasn’t overrun with tourists, even on the weekend, and the weather was absolutely beautiful. Furthermore, English is as commonly spoken as Swedish, and the locals are incredibly friendly (and especially considerate of pedestrians.)

Stockholm is a charming mix of old and new, known for its colorful, cobblestoned Old Town and rustic boats docked in the archipelago, as well as its edgy street fashion and modern shopping malls and hotels. There aren’t necessarily tourist attractions in Stockholm, per se, but rather little vignettes around the city that are well-worth seeing; Old Town (Gamla Stan,) the shores of the archipelago, and shopping areas like Sodermalm. There are some palaces and monuments, but they didn’t seem to be much of a draw once we were actually there. And if you want to traverse a more cliched route of Stockholm, the ABBA Museum and ice bars await.

My takeaway: Sweden is a land known for its distinctly Scandinavian winters and summers, so it makes sense that during the in-between seasons there is a bit of a lull. Stockholm is beautiful, friendly, clean and generally very easy-going, and while I wouldn’t say that it’s a must-see destination unless you’re interested in experiencing a snowy Swedish winter or endlessly sunny Scandinavian summer, if you’ve got the time, money, and yearning for a few days of fresh air and sunshine, you really can’t go wrong with Stockholm.

Overall, each of the four cities I paid a visit to in April had a distinctive vibe, each with its own story to tell, and each left a different mark upon me. Inevitably, I found myself loving cities I didn’t anticipate loving, and not quite gelling with some of the cities I had been most looking forward to visiting. And this is the double-edged sword of traveling, as I’ve come to realize. With each new place, you risk losing everything you once believe to be true about it. And yet, with every destination, you also stand to gain another city, another culture, another people, and another place in this world to which you just might completely connect and wholly belong.

All photos taken and edited with Samsung Galaxy S5. 

Take Me Back to Barcelona

Aside from having a little, nearly long-forgotten bit of Spanish blood way back in my family genealogy, I’ve never felt much of a personal connection with or inclination to visit Spain. Not that I didn’t have a vague notion that it was stunningly beautiful and perpetually sunny and home to that one verb tense I learned in my high school Spanish class but never really had a reason to use, but, to tell the truth, I didn’t have particularly strong feelings about it either way.

That was, until studying abroad meant that a flight to Spain was shorter, and cheaper, than a one-way flight between Portland and Los Angeles. Then, well, Spain moved to the top of my travel list, and after a quick Google image search edged out technicolor Barcelona over a rather drab-looking Madrid, and reminded me of just how much I’ve missed sunshine, there was no question that a mid-winter Spanish holiday needed to happen.

Making our way to Gatwick through a drizzly London evening, I couldn’t imagine anything better than a weekend of sun and surf, and in about the time it took me to settle into my window seat and get a few songs into my travel playlist, we were already touching down among the sand dunes of Barcelona International and, after a quick taxi ride, at our beachside Airbnb. The flagging Spanish economy combined with the falling Euro meant that spending the weekend in a private apartment a block from the beach made more financial sense than a hostel, and aside from what I understand to be a nation-wide lack of central heating in homes, our humble abode was perfect for our needs. And it proved to be the perfect home base for me to fall in love with Barcelona in no time at all.

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Maybe I’m just a little homesick for my adopted home city, but Barcelona reminded me frequently, and distinctly, of a sort of rustic Los Angeles; the mountains, the beach, the breezy palms and open-air cafes bypassed by bikers and joggers. And yet, it is distinctly un-LA in its lack of smog and loud tourists, bumper-to-bumper traffic and frequent crime. Even late at night, the streets were peaceful and safe and neighborhood parks teemed with children, and all the pick-pocketers I had been warned about were nowhere to be seen (though perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Barcelona is so walkable we never had to use public transportation.) Whether we were buying fresh baguettes from the bakery around the corner or mingling with locals at hole-in-the-wall bars, Barcelona felt instantly comfortable and familiar. It is a place that in many ways seems to be a crossroads between the Mediterranean and the Middle East, with a bit of a Southern California sensibility, a place where English is spoken just as frequently as Spanish and Catalan, and where Arabic and Indian cultures mingle, too.

Despite having an initial, though very minimal, worry that we might run out of activities to fill our three days and four nights in Spain, actually being in Barcelona quickly dissolved this fear, and in fact each time we thought we had nailed down our must-sees, more cathedrals and parks and museums appeared as if out of thin air. Between the Gothic Quarter, La Sagrada Familia, Boqueria Market, Park Guell and so many more incredible sites, Barcelona is ripe with history and culture. Most attractions, like the famously rainbow-bright Park Guell, were fairly affordable, and those with admission costs on the steeper side, like La Sagrada Familia and the National Museum of Catalan Art, were just as impressive from outside. Other free and inexpensive experiences not to be missed are a coastline tram ride up to Montjuic Castle and the old Olympic stadium, sunset on Barceloneta Beach, biking along Port Vell, and taking in an awe-inspiring panorama of the city from Placa Espanya.

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Processed with VSCOcamProcessed with VSCOcamWith beautiful weather every day, Barcelona was an absolute breeze to get around whether on foot or by bike. Barcelona is an incredibly bike-friendly city, the rental are cheap and plentiful, and it’s a fast and fun way to cover a lot of ground. And once you’ve burned off all those calories and worked up and appetite, there are dozen delicious restaurants, bakeries, gelaterias and more mouthwatering eateries waiting on every block. Spain, and Barcelona in particular, is known for its seafood paella, and it certainly lived up to the hype. Also worth writing home about were fresh made tapas like spinach empanadas and crispy tequenos, basically cheese sticks with a sweet chili sauce, as well as creamy gelato and indulgent, but necessary, churros con chocolate. Barcelona didn’t slack on the beverages, either; between fruity sangria, fresh squeezed orange juice, Spanish beer chilled to perfection and to-die-for pina coladas, we were certainly well-hydrated for all of our adventures.

Throughout our three days of meals and excursions, I had an overwhelming sense of calm; having left my laptop at home, and frequently without WiFi and completely off the cellular grid, disconnecting had never felt so good. Sure, there were still the obligatory Instagram posts and status updates, I couldn’t resist in a place so beautiful, but (at the risk of sounding like a tourism advertisement) I truly felt the deadlines and commitments and general stress of city life melt away as we strolled along the beach, wound our way through the labyrinth of narrow streets, found ourselves serenaded by street musicians and squealing over Barcelona’s many resident dogs.

I think the best word I can use to describe Barcelona is captivating. It’s absolutely charming, transfixing, all-encompassing, it has a warmth that washes over you, a magnetism that pulls you in and doesn’t let go. The people are friendly, the food is filling, the sea breeze feels like it’s clearing your lungs, while the sun turns everything it touches into the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. The whole city feels like a little piece of paradise, a hidden oasis, like it’s keeping secrets and concealing mysteries from the outside world, and the visitors who pass through are lucky enough to be in on it, just for a moment. The weekend after we visited, Barcelona paid host to a study abroad music festival, and I can only thank my lucky stars for missing it and the hordes of rowdy tourists that came with it, because the city felt like the realest place I’d been in a while, like everything was unequivocally true, and yet a sort of waking dream, the escapism I needed, a safe resting place for my body and mind and a chance to chance to catch my breath for a little while.

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I’ve always found one of my greatest difficulties is to be fully present in any given moment and contented with where I am. No looking ahead, no mulling over things said and done, just breathing and being and experiencing something to the fullest. Fortunately, in Barcelona, this was as effortless as it’s ever been. I suppose the thought that there are already places I’ll never visit again, that I risk losing something irreplaceable in stepping outside of a moment for even a second too long, may sound melodramatic to some, but in truth I think it’s always somewhere at the back of my mind. I’m not sure when, if ever, I’ll return to Spain again, as much as Barcelona captured my heart, though I’ve already found myself plotting my way back. Europe is thousands of miles away from my permanent life, from the people and things I’ve committed myself to, and so here I find that I can be who I want to be, even if just for a weekend. Here, I have an obligation to live fully and deeply and experience to the fullest what might never come again.

It isn’t all that often that I miss a place while I’m still there, that I replay in my mind memories that are still being made, that I allow myself to be cognizant enough to realize when something perfect is unfolding, and that I should take it as it comes. I know without a doubt that my time in Barcelona is an experience that I will remember dearly and distinctly above many others, not only from my time abroad, but from many of the things that I’ve been able to experience in my life thus far. It was a much-needed reassurance that, somewhere within an effortless mix of natural beauty and delicious food and wonderful people and a weekend without worry, there are layers of myself that haven’t been eroded by worry and doubt, haven’t been armored by self-consciousness and fear. That there remains a part of myself that can attempt a nearly forgotten foreign language without hesitation, that can pose for pictures and smile without reservations, that can laugh and let things roll of my shoulders because it’s all going to happen anyway, and everything is going to be okay.

All photos taken and edited with Samsung Galaxy S5.

How to See (Most of) Scotland in a Weekend

Given that it’s well under a fifth of the size of both the physical landmass and population of California, it isn’t difficult to see why Scotland is a perfect weekend excursion for those living in and traveling from England. It doesn’t even require a passport to travel through our fair neighbor to the North, and despite my initial skepticism, it really is possible to see (most of) Scotland in just a three day weekend.

As budget-conscious students, the overnight bus from London to Edinburgh was our best bet for transportation, and though my almost complete inability to sleep much on buses and planes made the experience less-than-restful, it was at the very least convenient to leave London on a Thursday night and arrive in Edinburgh the next morning, ready to hit the ground running.

After a pit stop at our Airbnb rental on the outskirts of Edinburgh, we bused back into the city center, situated around Edinburgh Castle, Princes Street Gardens, and Princes Street, which is lined with shops and restaurants. Also popular, and easily my favorite area for exploring, is the Royal Mile, which leads straight to the castle and is a windy, cobble-stoned street lined with pubs, cafes and gift shops.

Edinburgh is certainly a compact city, and it’s definitely doable to hit all of the main sights and attractions within a day. Though its admission proved too pricey for our budget, Edinburgh Castle is an impressive fortress, and it’s hill top lookout offered stunning panoramic views of the city. The National Museum of Scotland was a free and fun alternative to the castle, offering up everything from a cast of Mary Queen of Scot’s tomb and a real-life guillotine to dinosaur skeletons and clothing, art and jewelry from around the world.

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Just across the street from the museum is Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, which I recognized as a popular stop on many of Edinburgh’s ghost tours. It’s said that the churchyard’s alleged poltergeist, the “Mackenzie Poltergeist,” is the most well-documented instance of paranormal phenomena in the world, and is known for biting, scratching, and even causing visitors to black out in the churchyard. We decided this experience sounded a bit too extreme for our liking, but Greyfriar’s Kirkyard still makes for an interesting daytime visit. It’s the resting place of many notable Edinburgh residents, and with burials dating back to the 16th century, it’s certainly worth a visit to marvel at mausoleums and headstones that are hundreds of years old. And situated in a quiet valley between Edinburgh Castle and the towering St. Mary’s Cathedral, it definitely has an eerie sort of beauty.

Also worth a look is Victoria Street, a winding incline of colorful (literally and figuratively) shops and restaurants. Here, we stopped for lunch at Howies, and I sampled the traditional Scottish soup called Cullen Skink, which is basically clam chowder with smoked haddock (delicious!) Other Edinburgh eats and drinks of note included coffee and scones at Love Crumbs, cocktails at the Whiski Room, and hearty pub food at the Royal Mile Tavern, where we dined with dozens of jovial locals as Scotland took on Wales during the 6 Nations Championship game being played in Edinburgh. Wales was ultimately victorious, but it was a real treat seeing the city streets come alive with revelers and people of all ages decked out in fan gear, and even in the face of defeat everyone still seemed to be having a good time.

We had heard that Edinburgh was somewhat known for its nightlife, but, and perhaps this is a matter of being spoiled by London’s offerings, we were a bit underwhelmed. I would recommend researching some pubs and whiskey rooms for the best taste of Edinburgh after dark, but if you do decide to check out the nightclub scene, at the very least you won’t be out too much money for the experience as covers and drinks tended to be relatively inexpensive.

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DSC_4204_retouchedThe second day of our three-day weekend (Valentine’s Day, in fact!) was reserved for a much-anticipated coach tour to Loch Ness and the Highlands. This is a popular tour route for visitors to Scotland, and though it’s offered in some variation or another by most coach operators, we decided that the Timberbush Loch Ness, Glencoe and the Highlands tour was the best fit for what we wanted to see. It’s certainly an ambitious undertaking; we arrived at our pickup location at 7:30 am and returned to Edinburgh at just after 8 pm, but it’s definitely the most economic and efficient to see the most of Scotland in a short time. Our tour guide, Dave, was informative while still being entertaining, offering us tidbits of information and staggering our stops in such a way that the tour didn’t feel nearly as long as it was.

We wound up the west coast first, stopping for photos in Kilmahog and Glencoe, where the dormant volcanoes covered in patchy snow and deep blue lochs and rivers were simply breathtaking. Other highlights included Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain, Sterling Castle, and a necessary pit stop to feed (or attempt to, anyway) some adorably shaggy Highland Cattle. After a lunch break at Fort Smith, we reached our destination; Loch Ness. I have to admit, despite the hordes of visitors pouring from the coaches, the “Official Loch Ness Gift Shop,” and even the silly looking dinosaur-green Nessie statue, it wasn’t quite as touristy or commercialized as I was expecting. Loch Ness is also far larger than I had anticipated, stretching 24 miles from end to end, and it’s easy to see how this vast body of water could have spurred so many mysterious sightings and tales for so long.

The optional 1-hour Loch Ness boat tour wasn’t included in the price of the bus tour, but it was well worth the extra expense, as it provided an up-close look at the ruins of Urquhart castle, and standing on the bow of the ship as we cruised between mountains and rolling green pastures, with rays of sun shining down through the clouds, the water rippling and sparkling as it caught the late afternoon light, I felt so at peace, so captivated by the beauty that I didn’t even mind the late-winter cold.

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After two hours at Loch Ness, we passed through Inverness, the capital of the Highlands, and began our journey south again. We made it about halfway home before it began to get dark, as unfortunately tends to happen quite early in winter, especially so far North, but falling asleep to light fading over the snow-covered Scottish Highlands was truly an experience to remember. Though I certainly could have spent longer in the Highlands, and if I were ever to return to Scotland, would head straight up north again, a day tour was definitely the best way the most of Scotland in the shortest amount of time. A third and final day in Scotland, so as to see even more of the country, could easily be spent taking a short bus or train ride from Edinburgh to Glasgow, about an hour each way, to see the country’s largest city and more modern counterpart to the capitol.

We opted for a slower-paced Sunday and exploring a few more sights in the city that we hadn’t yet seen, including Calton Hill, which offers some of the most scenic views of Edinburgh and is home to numerous monuments including Governors House, the Nelson Monument and the National Monument. Facing Princes Street, Calton Hill provides a panorama of the city, from towering cathedral spires dotting the skyline, to the majestic, jutting  Arthur’s Seat, to the beautiful Palace of Hollyrood House. And in the opposite direction, a swath of houses and churches tumble into the bright blue of the North Sea, glistening in the golden afternoon sun.

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Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetProcessed with VSCOcam with f2 preset Having clocked 24-plus hours on a bus over the course of a three day weekend to and from Scotland, I can say with confidence that I was able to cover a fair amount of the country, and though, if I were to return, I would be more eager to further explore the Highlands and more rugged regions up North, I would wholeheartedly recommend the trio of Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Highlands if you ever find yourself with a weekend to spend in beautiful Scotland.