Meet Me In New Orleans

It took me a solid ten years to make my way to New Orleans. Longer, really. It was a clock that began running up from the moment I chose Louisiana for an elementary school state research project. And so the city became this mythical place in my mind, all draped in Spanish moss and centuries of rich, often sad, sometimes lurid history. A place laid bare by disaster, but resilient to a fault.

Its embrace enveloped me in warmth from the minute I landed in Louisiana. I always forgot how comforting I found humidity until I inevitably returned to the South every few years. I had criss-crossed my way from North and South Carolina to Virginia and Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi for various reasons as a teenager and young adult. Family weddings, summer camps, a few weeks spent visiting a good friend made at said summer camp. New Orleans, though, was the first Southern city that felt like an intentional destination; my brother and his wife would be meeting me there, having driven down from Mississippi. But I had no obligations there, I knew no one there, I had no reason to be there other than the fact that it was a dream I’d had once and never shaken.

And New Orleans certainly felt like a dream, another world. From the minute I exited the airport, took an Uber along the interstate, saw the Superdome and the city skyline come into view, everything was awash in a sort of half-light haze I’ve come to associate with the South, an aura that always makes me feel both right at home, and like I’ve been transported into some other life entirely.

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Our Airbnb was located in the Treme district, bordering the French Quarter (our host explained that Airbnbs are not technically allowed in the French Quarter.) It was a historic and impossibly charming shotgun style house, a common architectural style in New Orleans, named for the fact that if a shotgun were fired from the front door of the home, it would sail right through to the back without hitting a wall. The house was sort of an elongated studio, with the bedroom in front (no living room,) then the kitchen, and a hallway leading to the bathroom, with that technically being the only room in the home. In the front of the house, a large veranda and steps led down to the tree-lined street, from which we could easily walk to Louis Armstrong Park and down Dumaine Street into the French Quarter.

The crown jewel of New Orleans, the French Quarter certainly lives up to its formidable reputation. It is so picturesque and charming it feels more like a theme park attraction than a real city, a living, breathing museum, with culture and history seeping from every brick and cobblestone. We made our first stop at the French Market on Decatur Street, in the heart of the French Quarter. Here, you can stock up on souvenirs, chow down on fried alligator and beat the heat with shaved ice. It’s crowded, colorful, quirky, and a complete sensory overload – the perfect introduction to New Orleans.

From here, stroll down to Jackson Square for an iconic New Orleans photo op in front of St. Louis Cathedral, with its triple spires reaching toward the heavens as horse-drawn carriages make their way past. The cathedral is open to the public for both mass and self-guided tours, and its breathtaking architecture and storied past (it’s the oldest cathedral in North America) make it well worth a visit, whether you’re religious or not.

Other daytime attractions include the New Orleans Musical Legends Park for live jazz and cold drinks, Secondline Arts and Antiques for vintage goods and unique, handmade artisan wares, the utterly adorable revolving Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone, and Bourbon and Magazine streets for shopping. Oh, and there’s never a wrong time for beignets at Cafe du Monde.

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Of course, when the sun goes down, New Orleans is something different entirely. You’ve seen the beads flung on Bourbon Street and the debauchery of Mardi Gras, but there’s so much more to the city than that. Stroll Bourbon Street after dark (with a daiquiri grenade or fishbowl of rum in hand) and you’ll see stilt walkers, jazz players, and if you’re lucky – as we were – maybe spot a second line wedding parade flooding the streets, a truly life-affirming experience that’ll instantly remind you New Orleans is like nowhere else on earth.

There’s really no wrong place to drink in New Orleans, but a few highlights include Broussard’s for drinks under twinkling patio lights, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar – which exists in a dimly-lit wood building dating to the 1700s and is rumored to be haunted – and Potions Lounge, a “vampire speakeasy” located above Fritzel’s European Jazz Club which specializes in absinthe cocktails and requires a password (which can be obtained by visiting the Boutique du Vampyre) to enter.

For historic New Orleans by night, pay a visit to the Voodoo Museum, take a tour of some local haunts, and drop in for an authentic live music performance at Preservation Hall, where renditions of local classics and a no-phones-allowed policy will transport you back to another time.

If the spooky and supernatural is your thing (and if you’re visiting New Orleans, it really should be,) there are a whole range of tours to choose from, whether your interest is vampires, voodoo, very old houses, or all of the above. We opted for a tour that took us through Saint Louis Cemetery No. 2, which is home to above-ground mausoleums, including one that legend has it is the final resting place of Voodoo priestess Madame Laveau (and future resting place of Nic Cage.)

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New Orleans is everything you’ve heard – and a whole lot of things you haven’t. It’s a drizzly, sticky, atmospheric, spooky jewel box of a city situated on the Mississippi where everything is both vibrant and ancient. It took me ten years to get there, but it was well worth the wait, and I’m counting down the days in my mind until I can go back again.

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A Weekend In Astoria

Like clockwork, when summer rolls around and Los Angeles becomes a sticky mess of tourists and smog, I start yearning for towering trees, sea breezes, and golden twilights that last all night. There’s nowhere quite like Oregon in the summer, when the days are warm and the sun stays high in the sky until 10 p.m. and the stars cut the black like broken glass; when wind rustles through wheat and evergreens and you realize with each inhale just how much more room you need to breathe.

Oregon is familiarity, but this summer I was determined to explore new experiences in my home state. I’d never been to Astoria, a tiny seaside town that straddles the Oregon-Washington border and is best known as the filming location for the ’80s cult-classic The Goonies. These days, it’s matured into an idyllic coastal oasis of cozy coffee shops, craft breweries, and cute shops offering surprisingly sophisticated wares. Thankfully, much of Astoria’s history and traditions have been dutifully preserved during its modern makeover.

For our stay, I knew the minute I saw it on Airbnb that the stained glass-adorned, hilltop Victorian mansion listed on the Astoria’s historic register had to be our home base, and it provided the perfect atmosphere for our time in this little crown jewel of a city. It was reminiscent of the Flavel House, an opulent, 11,000 square-foot mansion built in 1885 that sprawls an entire city block and featured indoor plumbing and hot water at the time of its construction by an Astoria millionaire.

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For an in-depth introduction to the story of Astoria, make your first stop the historic riverfront trolley that runs along the Columbia River. In the summer, you can take the refurbished trolley – originally built in 1913 – from one end of town to the other for just $1, with narration provided by the knowledgable trolley conductors.

Astoria is a foodie (and boozy) paradise. We were fortunate enough to arrive on a Sunday just in time for the weekly farmer’s market, which tumbles down 12th Street toward the riverfront from May to October, and hosts food vendors along with booths of jewelry, art, flowers and plants, and more.

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Options for locally-brewed beer abound: Buoy Beer is a bustling restaurant offering interesting brews, fresh seafood, and a stunning waterfront view. Fort George Brewery has a diverse beer list, rooftop seating, and salmon fish and chips to die for. And I particularly enjoyed an afternoon sipping sour beers at Reach Break, an airy, industrial-style brewery flanked by food trucks to pair with your beer flight.

You don’t have to look far in Astoria for charming cafes. Break up your shopping sprees on Main Street by popping into Astoria Coffee House & Bistro for an afternoon coffee and dessert, and start your morning with brunch and killer Stumptown coffee at the impossibly atmospheric Street Fourteen Cafe. Astoria Coffee Co. doubles as a Goonies gift shop, and Coffee Girl offers strong espresso with the coziest coastal backdrop imaginable. And if you’ve got a sweet tooth, be sure to check out Frite & Scoop for the perfect summer treat.

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For a change of scenery (and perhaps a bit of exercise to burn off all the food and drinks,) head across state lines to view Astoria from the Washington side of the Columbia, where historic churches, Fort Columbia State Park, and pebbly beaches offer a more rugged Northwestern experience.

You can also go a little higher for a different perspective on the area: $5 per car will gain you entrance to the Astoria Column, a dizzying, seemingly-endless spiral staircase that feels most like climbing a lighthouse, and offers a 360-degree view of Astoria and the Columbia completely worth the vertigo.

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In summary, Astoria is a drizzly, cozy, delicious, slightly mysterious coastal escape from reality abundant with history and strong coffee and fresh air – and I can’t wait to go back.

Desert Niland Dreams

I can’t say for sure what had drawn me to Salvation Mountain for as long as I’d lived in California. I’m not religious, but I’ve always had an affinity for the desert, offbeat attractions, and, admittedly, Instagrammable spots. The cherry on top of its appeal, of course, is that I share my last name with the town where Salvation Mountain sits – Niland, California. Despite its powerful lure, it took me five years, and a chance encounter with two travelers passing through Los Angeles by way of Canada and France, to finally visit the utterly surreal, technicolor desert wonderland that is Salvation Mountain.

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When you pass through Slab City, a post-war, unincorporated community that draws wintering snowbirds and those looking to escape society alike, one of its namesake concrete slab structures welcomes you to “The Last Free Place On Earth,” just past which lies Salvation Mountain. Built in the 1980s and ’90s by Leonard Knight, the rainbow-hued mountain lies to the west of Slab City and south of East Jesus in the vast Sonoran Desert. It’s a true feat of construction, slapped together with adobe, straw and vibrant paint over the course of several decades after its creator found a spiritual calling. Leonard’s first two efforts at evangelizing that “God is Love” – through a giant hot air balloon and a first, structurally unstable attempt at Salvation Mountain – were both unsuccessful. But his final vision ultimately became the mammoth that still towers like a technicolor oasis today, withstanding the blistering desert heat and outlasting even Leonard himself, who died in 2014.

These days, Salvation Mountain is a sprawling, living work of art truly unlike anywhere else on Earth. It is entirely donation based, run by a non-profit organization, live-in caretaker and cadre of volunteers who will bellow through airhorns from the base of the mountain at visitors who stray from the designated path, labeled “The Yellow Brick Road.” Still, decades after Leonard’s first rendering of Salvation Mountain, the paint remains as vibrant and the foundation as sturdy as ever, and despite the remoteness of its locations, draws a steady stream of visitors from around the world to the mountain, even with skin-blistering heat of the summer already in full swing.

Perched upon the mountain’s top, you can see for miles and miles across the desert, out to Slab City and the deep blue mountains and the horizon meeting the Salton Sea, so vast and shimmering in a barren land seemingly devoid of life that it could easily be mistaken for a glittering mirage. Surveying the seemingly endless, almost Martian landscape, blanketed in the stillness of the afternoon heat, I felt utterly calm. Time seemed to melt; my traveling companions and I might have lounged there a few minutes, or an hour. It was impossible to say. My time there was less a religious experience and more the kind of peace that pervades when you step away from a city awhile and its din and hum fades to a silence that settles into your soul. Lost in the desert, communing with nature, hundreds of miles from civilization and obligation. It might truly be the last free place on earth. And that’s some sort of salvation.

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When (or if) you decide to leave Salvation Mountain, the Salton Sea is not to be missed – and in fact, as the largest lake in California it would be impossible to do so. You may have heard tall tales about its smell or inhospitable ecosystem, but I assure you that the Salton Sea is more than compatible with life. It feels a bit like being on the moon; it’s an otherworldly sort of place, a shoreline rising like a mirage to meet the desert horizon, ringed by a white beach made of a million fish bones that crackle beneath your feet. Dusk feels like watching the sun evaporate on another planet, sinking behind purple lunar mountains over an accidental lake stretching as far as the eye can see. It is remote and eerie, magical and mythical. The sunset seems to take twice as long out there, and the climate takes on a comfortable humidity as the light lingers, the sky strobing from fire orange to petal pink and lavender. Wild brown hares with cotton tails dart through the brush as night falls, a sliver of moon and smattering of stars appear. The Salton Sea Recreation Area allows for picnicking, camping, or simply gaping in awe at its idiosyncratic beauty.

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The Salton Sea, as a concept, tends to dredge up the cynics. It is symbolic of the inherent desire – and failure – of mankind to insert himself where he does not belong. Imagine, making the journey to a caustic desert environment, vacationing along the shores of a  toxic body of water that nature never intended to exist. It is as incongruous with life as the smog and sprawl of Los Angeles, in an acute and opposite way. Decades after it was a resort town, the Salton Sea still calls to those looking to get lost, to slip between the cracks of reality for a while, not into the lap of luxury, but into an alternate existence of dilapidation and grit that reminds us that we are temporary, while these other things remain.

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Like the Salton Sea, nearby Bombay Beach is located below sea level – in fact, it’s the lowest-elevation community in the United States. Originally established as a resort town – which even boasted its own yacht club – it fell victim to the Salton Sea’s fickle rising waters, which have at points flooded the trailer community that has existed there since its heyday. There are just a couple hundred residents of Bombay Beach still, and it’s also home to a bar, some abandoned structures, and enough nuclear fallout-paraphernalia to make you just a little uneasy. It is post-apocalyptic to a tee, some sort of post-war alternate reality in which the war had gone the other way. It is eerie and impenetrable and inexplicably beautiful, its purpose and endurance and very existence make no sense and perfect sense all at once. Bombay Beach feels as though you’ve slipped through the wormhole somewhere in the timeline, where you are free to be either a stranger passing through with wonder or a local born and bred in this alien wasteland where the weight of your own reality has somehow ceased to matter.

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And if you still need more incentive to go get lost out in the desert for a day, the drive winds directly through Palm Springs, where you can stop for a refreshing cocktail and bite to eat. Most importantly, you’ll also pass right by the International Banana Museum, the world’s largest, and kitschiest, collection of all things banana that costs just $1 to enter and is the perfect accompaniment to the offbeat, nowhere-else-like-it spirit of the desert all around it.

Springing Into The South

Some time around March of this year, I grew exceedingly tired of Los Angeles’ grueling winter weather (only partly joking here) and decided I needed to usher in spring as soon as possible. Having spent months reading travel books and blogs daydreaming about which far-off country I might visit next, my mind drifted to the bubblegum-pink cherry blossoms that bloom each April in Japan, drawing tens of thousands of tourists from around the globe to take in their splendor. I immediately logged on to frantically search last-minute flights (the only way I know how to travel, really,) but, predictably, they were prohibitively expensive just a month or so before the predicted peak bloom. Still, my mind was made up; I was going to see cherry blossoms, and while Japan would have to wait until another year, I took it as a sign to finally return to one of my favorite cities: Washington, DC.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetThe first — and last — time I’d visited DC, I was a freshman in college (already five years ago now!) I had visited a friend I met at a summer camp in South Carolina years before, who was from Richmond, Virginia (more on that city later,) and it was this same friend that I visited again. When I’d toured the city before, it had been in the middle of a predictably hot, muggy DC summer. This time, the weather was bitingly cold, verging on potential snow on certain days, and surprisingly windy, offering a very different experience of the city. The frigid temperatures and threat of snow made me fear for the fate of the cherry blossoms (the main attraction, after all!) but I arrived to find that we were very much in luck: the city was positively blooming. From the Capitol steps to the National Mall to the Tidal Basin and virtually as far as the eye could see there were cherry blossom trees puffed up like cotton candy, petals littering the ground like confetti, illuminated pink and gold by the setting sun. It was every bit as beautiful as I imagined Japan’s blooms to be, and DC’s trees were, after all, a gift from the Mayor of Tokyo a century ago. How fitting!

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We visited about a week before the formal National Cherry Blossom Festival celebrations, but DC was still in full-on cherry blossom mode, from cherry blossoms on the Metro cards and t-shirts in gift shops to small cherry blossom stickers hidden on doors and lamp posts and various places throughout the city. We even happened to stumble upon a cherry blossom pop-up bar, which operates only while the trees are in bloom, and is actually adorned with cherry blossoms hanging from the ceiling, creating a completely magical secret garden atmosphere as you sip your Japanese (think matcha and gin) inspired cocktail beneath the warm glow of lanterns. While the temperatures were cold to frigid at virtually all times (I was bundled up in a long winter coat, scarf, beanie, etc.) visiting DC to see the cherry blossoms was an incredible experience, and somehow enamored me of the city even more than I had when I’d visited in the summer.

Though I’d already visited many of the monuments and museums most people flock to on visits to DC, there were a few things on my list still — namely, the Newseum. As a journalist, its appeal was initially more academic; I’ll take any opportunity I can to learn about the history of my career field. But the Newseum definitely offers an experience that can be enjoyed even by those who don’t consider themselves news junkies. The 9/11 exhibit, featuring a multi-story wall plastered with newspaper front pages from around the world the day after the attack, is harrowing, and the lower floor of the museum houses an actual portion of the Berlin Wall. As a true crime buff, I was particularly intrigued by the FBI exhibit, which featured the Unabomber’s cabin and other paraphernalia from other high-profile killings and terror attacks. Also not to be missed is the Pictures of the Year exhibit, featuring photos from 75 years of history, from WWII to Charlottesville and everything in between, an all-absorbing and a viscerally visual representation of history. Also worth a visit in the area is the US Botanic Garden, which offered a beautiful (and free!) respite from the cold and wind and felt like stepping into a lush tropical garden.

One of the reasons I’d initially fallen so hard for Washington, DC, in addition to the cleanliness, the parks and waterways, and the great food, was Georgetown. Not the university (though it’s also lovely,) but the neighborhood for which it’s named. Georgetown almost feels like a Disney-fied version of a college town: its main street is positively packed with every shop and restaurant you could ever possibly want — including numerous cupcake bakeries — and the neighborhoods are lined with rainbow-hued row homes and cobblestone streets. Its modern amenities (okay, namely designer stores) are drool-worthy, and its historic elements are delightfully charming (fancy a stroll across a wooden footbridge?) I was grateful to find that Georgetown was every bit as delightful as I remembered.

Untitled collage (2)Georgetown was our last stop in DC before making the two-hour drive south to Richmond, where the weather was thankfully much more pleasant. Like DC, I’d visited Richmond once, five years before, with my friend, and had fond memories of Virginia’s capitol. But I definitely underestimated just how much I’d enjoy the city upon my return. There are a lot of preconceived notions about the south, and many of them are based in facts, especially in Virginia, but Richmond is a far cry from what most people have in mind. I’d liken it more to cities like Portland or Austin: it’s decidedly young and aggressively hip, sprinkled with more vintage stores, tattoo shops, craft breweries and organic coffee roasters than one could possibly see in a single visit. There are also more traditional attractions like museums, a botanical garden, a zoo, and numerous historic markers designating outposts of the Revolutionary War and just about every other turning point in American history. One can’t-miss attraction for lovers of literature, horror or history (I happen to be all of the above) is the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. Though Poe did not live on the property where the museum is located, it is the oldest structure in the city, and Poe spent more of his life in Richmond than in any other city. The exhibits include letters to his lovers, first editions of his works, and speculation about his mysterious death, while the grounds are inhabited by two black cats and the gift shop is stocked with rather adorable plush Poes and other souvenirs.

Untitled collage (3)Richmond is very progressive, very diverse, and very cute. Carytown is its shopping and dining core: blocks upon blocks of gift shops, book stores, tattoo parlors, coffee shops, and restaurants boasting just about every type of cuisine imaginable. A few recommendations here include Chop Suey Books (home to the utterly adorable “blind date with a book” featured above,) and Mongrel, for any kind of souvenir or gift you could ever dream of. Food and drink was a huge component of my time in Richmond (as is the case with most of my travels,) so I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite recommendations: swing by Lamplighter Coffee Roasters for a strong latte to start your day, Mean Bird for a super satisfying vegetarian fried chicken sandwich, Proper Pie Co. for hearty sweet and savor pies, Sugar Shack for fluffy, fresh-baked donuts in eye-popping colors and mouth-watering flavors, Triple Crossing Beer for the Waxing Poetic Pink Guava sour beer (trust me on this one) and Charm School Social Club for unique ice cream flavors like Thai Iced Tea and lavender topped with a blow-torch roasted marshmallow.

Untitled collage (4)And one last tip for making the most of your Richmond visit: you can barely walk a block without spotting a gorgeous mural by a local artist, so you can be sure to find that perfect Instagram backdrop to commemorate your time in one of the most charming cities in the South.

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Nice to Meet You, New York

New York City, and pretty much the entire East Coast, is currently being besieged by a brutal winter storm dubbed a “bomb cyclone,” so I suppose there’s no better time than now to look back on (or look forward to, if you’d prefer,) warmer, happier times: my first-ever trip to NYC during a sublime spring week last May.

Whether I’d like New York — the Emerald City of digital media, a place I’d for years been told I’d inevitably have to try at some point in my life — always seemed like something of a crap shoot. On the one hand, I was enamored by the energy of cities; it’s the reason I’ve found Los Angeles such a hard habit to kick. On the other, even the thought of an East Coast winter sent a shiver down my spine, and the logistics of life in New York City – unreliable public transportation! A cutthroat competitive atmosphere! Housing so expensive and elusive I’d have to shell out a year’s worth of rent in Los Angeles just to find it! – always seemed daunting to me. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for New York City. But maybe no one really is, not until they’re actually there. 36423062253_bebb2abd7b_o

There’s something about the nature of this place that seems to hyper-charge your ability to adapt; kickstarts resourcefulness, sharpens survival skills. I was visiting for a week for work, but was mostly solo in my hours off the clock, outside of visits with a couple of close college friends. Almost instantly, from touching down at JFK and being mistaken for a local by my Uber driver to learning to navigate the Subway the next morning, a city that had always seemed so out-of-reach on paper, so foreign in photos and movies, a world belonging to everyone other than myself, became as familiar a place as I’d ever been. The streets became my own daily routes, the parks my hidden spots, cafes my usual haunts. I quickly came to understand that New York is as user-friendly as you make it to be, it is a city that beckons you to experience it, in its entirety.

There is so much of New York that reminds me of Europe, specifically London, a home I’d loved with all my heart. The streets, the parks, the markets, the sidewalk cafes. The hum of daily life. The unspoken assurance that we all, dearly beloved and strangers alike, are gathered here today for the express purpose of living. This is both the end and the beginning, the very center of the universe as we know it.

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Stumbling out from a sterile office into the late-spring twilight of a city I’d known for less than 24 hours, somehow it felt as if my feet knew just where to take me. I forewent the Subway for a brisk walk through the balmy evening, with no particular destination in mind. From Union Square, the city’s pulsing digital publishing heart, south toward Washington Square Park, where people were gathered in couplets and groups to revel in the good luck of such glorious weather.

A golden glow was burnishing the park, crowning rooftops and skylines and seeping through tree branches. So much life, and everyone around me a stranger. But something about it felt so familiar. The college students calling to one another as they trekked from classes at NYU, the couples locked in embraces on sunkissed benches drenched in warmth, the children tottering around as their parents followed. I had been them once, and I would be them again. New York City is hardly shy about its central thesis; that life is a full circle, that everything and everyone is connected somehow.

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While a powder-blue night fell around me, I pushed further south, past my hotel in TriBeCa, all the way down to One World Trade Center. I had seen its spire rising above the city skyline, beckoning me to see this piece of history for myself.

I have no doubt that its reverence is not lost during the daytime, but there was something about seeing the World Trade Center Site illuminated at night that quite literally took my breath away. I was seven years old when 9/11 happened; like many in my generation, it’s the first news event I have any memory of, towers falling on a TV screen, and it quite literally changed the world I grew up in.

What was once Ground Zero is now a sunken pool ringed with golden light, the depths of which seem endless, as if you are standing at the edge of a portal to the very center of the Earth, or perhaps to another world. Maybe Heaven, maybe an alternate version of this life where such tragedies never occur, but certainly an existence that is not this one, a place that is beyond the pain and suffering of here. And yet, for somewhere quite literally built upon sadness and grief, I was not overcome with a sense of despair, the likes of which I’d felt visiting Holocaust museums and war memorials in Europe. Rather, I was enveloped by a calm like I’d never felt, a sense of peace bathed in this blue and gold half-light that fell after the darkest day of so many peoples’ lives, at this shrine to those who were once a part of this resilient city, and would now live on in it forever more.

In a city seeped with such history, both celebratory and sad, one of the newer attractions New York has to offer is the High Line, less than a decade old and completed just a few years ago. It’s a sort of urban boardwalk flanked by greenery and stunning skyline views, and from here, one can see straight down avenues for miles in one direction, and the Statue of Liberty towering out in the harbor in another. Cotton candy sunsets are truly spectacular in New York, and I could hardly drag myself away from the twilight down to the Chelsea Market just below, though it’s really a can’t-miss. There are dozens of food vendors offering up just about every cuisine imaginable, as well as delectable desserts, beer and wine, and shops filled with trendy trinkets and souvenirs. It reminded me again of one of my favorite parts of London — the markets — and offers this communal space through which tourists and locals, friends and strangers alike can call this city their own.

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I found it rather remarkable how, within the span of a week, I’d gone from being ambivalent about New York City to falling head over heels in love, becoming hopelessly entangled in its glimmering, golden embrace. I had these wild thoughts of dropping everything on the West Coast and fulfilling my millennial destiny, doing the damn thing and trying my hand at New York. I saw the entire course of my life shifting, ran through scenarios of just how I might make it work. Was I prepared for a cross-country move, for East Coast winters, for starting all over, again? I fretted and frantically attempted to recharter the rest of my life in a hotel room, until over drinks with a friend, I received just the talking-down I needed to soothe my mind. “New York will always be here,” she assured me.

And now, I know when the time comes that I’ll be ready for it.

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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.

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.