Beautiful Bali

Where to even begin with Bali.

My travel list is about a mile long, but I can’t say Indonesia had ever crossed my mind. It seemed impossibly, unreachably exotic; just the thought of Bali evoked a playground for the rich and famous a half a world away. Too far, too expensive, too removed from my own life to ever become a part of it. And yet.

The majority of the travel I’ve done in my life has been of my own volition; study abroad and spring breaks and summer camps I applied to without my parents’ knowledge. But my mid-twenties has made solo travel less of a pipe dream and more of a necessity, as shifting relationships and work schedules and – most insurmountably – money means that travel partners have become scarce. As independent as I’ve always been, I’ll admit that the idea of traveling solo paralyzed me with fear for months. Could I manage as a woman in a foreign country alone, unfamiliar with the language and local customs? Would I be safe? Would I enjoy myself? As time ticked by and I felt myself growing increasingly frustrated by a lack of opportunities to travel with others, I realized it was high time to create my own, and finally settled on what promised to be a perfect compromise for my travel needs: a group tour.

I’d toyed with the idea of a group tour in the past, thanks to an acquaintance who’d visited China and Peru and other far-flung places through one of the many companies that offers guided treks with set itineraries on virtually every continent. It took some convincing: would I feel confined by set schedules, overwhelmed by sharing so much time and space with people I didn’t know? Would it be worth the money? And, on a more personal level, would I be judged or pitied for choosing to travel without friends or a significant other? I researched endlessly, consulted with friends and family, budgeted and saved, and eventually realized there was only one way to know for sure whether group travel was right for me: to go do it.

With a swath of companies, destinations and itineraries to choose from, the world was my oyster – albeit a slightly overwhelming one. I could throw a dart at a map and go anywhere. I knew I wanted to visit Asia, specifically Southeast Asia, and after the past year of my life, I was in a particularly Eat, Pray, Love state of mind, yearning for some soul-searching and detox from my daily grind. With its white sand beaches, serene rice terraces, yoga retreats and strong sense of spirituality, Bali certainly fit the bill.

Though I’d initially planned on traveling with a group my own age, I ultimately chose G Adventure’s Classic Bali tour, an all-ages option, as it most aligned with my budget and the itinerary I wanted. And so it was decided: eight days in Bali, with an extra day tacked on to the end so I could spend my 25th birthday on the island. With my flights booked, vacation days approved, carry-on suitcase stuffed to the brim with sundresses and mosquito repellant and a first aid kit that initially concerned my mother but eventually served its purpose (more on that later,) there was nothing left to do but wait for the summer to tick by. Because in September, on the other side of a 15-hour flight to Hong Kong – the longest I’ve ever endured – and another 5 hours to Denpasar, the adventure of a lifetime was waiting for me.


My first stop in Bali was the coastal city of Sanur. Having spent the past 24 hours in transit, and by now a whopping 15 hours ahead of Los Angeles, I was feeling surprisingly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when I arrived at our hotel. I was the last of the group to join, and was greeted enthusiastically and instructed to quickly drop my luggage before being herded into the back of a seatbelt-less van heading into town for dinner.

In many ways, my initial observations of Bali were not so different from many other countries I’ve visited; driving can be quite treacherous. Tap water is not to be drunk. Beer is cheap, anyway. We were told by our guide that women are expected to dress conservatively, but the heat deemed this impractical, and as Bali is one of the few islands in Indonesia that is not predominantly Muslim, shorts and tank tops and the like are not culturally frowned upon (aside from at holy sites such as temples, where sarongs are required.)

Bali is home to plenty of expats, and most locals speak English, so it can easily be navigated without a guide – but it was immediately clear that having one would be invaluable. Our guide, Hans, was a local, a G Adventures veteran, and one of the kindest, most genuine people I have ever met. In addition to Hans, we were provided with a driver for the entirety of the trip, and bright and early the next morning, we were whisked off by bus to our first stop: the lush Jatiluwih rice terraces.68EA5217-FC35-471D-85E3-0C05DD0A8340

We visited on one of the only days during our trip that the weather was less than ideal – September and October mark the beginning of the rainy season in Indonesia – but it suited the location perfectly. The rice terraces, which are a UNESCO World Heritage site, are breathtaking; vivid green against a backdrop of misty, indigo mountains. Our guide explained to us the process of growing and harvesting the rice, and also pointed out other crops, including corn and jackfruit trees. I knew Bali was famed for its coffee and rice terraces, but I was blown away by just how robust the island’s agriculture is. During my trip, we encountered locally-grown eggplants, chilis, bananas, cocoa beans, and even vineyards for wine. We lunched at a restaurant overlooking the terraces, and I was introduced to my first of many Indonesian buffets, which typically consist of rice, fried noodles, tofu, tempeh, chicken, and vegetables. Much to my relief, as a vegetarian I had no problem staying incredibly well-fed – and caffeinated – during my time in Bali.

From the rice terraces, we traveled to the Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, a lakefront temple that’s easily the most famous in Bali (it’s even depicted on the 50,000 rupiah bill.) The complex houses Hindu and Buddhist temples, and is also neighbored by a mosque. We were fortunate enough to visit just prior to the Islamic New Year, and so were able to witness religious ceremonies underway.

The temples, and landscape, are stunning, but bear in mind that this site is something like a holy Disneyland, with overflow parking, an admission (and even toilet) fee, and throngs of tourists absolutely everywhere you look. While some of my fellow travelers were disappointed with the crowds, I don’t think a trip to Bali would have been complete without paying a visit to Pura Ulun Danu Bratan – just don’t except much in the way of peace and serenity.


From Lake Batan, we traveled north to what was ultimately the selling point for the tour itinerary I chose: Mount Batur. Hiking an active volcano at sunrise was an experience I knew I wanted to have in Bali, and in talking to a friend who had visited the island, it was the one thing he regretted not having done. Even the drive up to the mountain, which took about two hours from our last stop via a road so windy I became impossibly carsick, underscored just how invaluable having a local guide and driver in Bali ended up being to the experience. Had I been traveling solo, or even with a group of friends, getting to Mount Batur, and then actually up the mountain, would have easily seemed daunting. Even with a mountain guide – which is absolutely imperative – the trek was challenging, overwhelming and unlike anything I’d ever done before, in the best way possible.

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We arrived at our lakefront hotel as the sun was setting, allowing just enough time for showers, dinner, and attempting to turn in for the night before a 2 a.m. wake up call. After a few short hours of rest, shivering and sleep-deprived, we piled into vans that drove us through the pitch blackness to a “basecamp” for a breakfast of banana pancakes (more like a crepe, and very popular in Bali) and coffee under the stars. From there, we made another short drive to our actual basecamp, where we were introduced to our guides and offered walking sticks, flashlights, and – mercifully – warm jackets to be rented for a small fee.

Finally, there was nothing left to do but hike – for about two hours, through thick woods, in complete darkness. It was all very Blair Witch Project, but thankfully not particularly strenuous, though the trails were at times made perilous by loose rocks and crumbling dirt. Fortunately, we were accompanied by a few stellar guides, who make the trek up and down the mountain every single day. One in particular, Ratna, was close to my age and befriended me quickly. She became my biggest motivator to get up the mountain and checked on me throughout the hike, and when I told her I was visiting Bali for my birthday, even presented me with a bright purple flower plucked from the trail.

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After about an hour and a half of darkness, the sun finally began rising a blood red, silhouetting a mist-ringed Mount Agung in front of us. As we ascended, the sky shifted from black to crimson to orange and then pastel pinks and purples all bleeding into each other. Night gave way to day, and soon we could see not only the lake, but the ocean on the other side of it, emphasizing the feeling that we had somehow reached the very edge of the world. It was frigid at the top, and windy, too, the coldest cold I’d felt in quite a long time. But somehow, after a dark night of wandering through wilderness that felt untouched by civilization, at the mountain’s top there were dozens of people chattering excitedly, and huts emitting smoke, where our guides used steam from the volcano to hard boil eggs and make us piping hot cups of coffee to warm our frozen hands.

Watching the sun rise, sipping black Balinese coffee, surrounded by new friends who were just as in awe of the natural beauty this world has to offer, I was immeasurably grateful to be there, in that moment. To have a body healthy enough to carry me up that mountain, and a mind healthy enough to have made my way to Bali, to this beautiful, warm, intoxicating island, half a world away from the life I knew.

Though I returned to the hotel exhausted, but exhilarated, the hike confirmed the fact that I vastly prefer an active style of travel. While I’d enjoyed the days before Mount Batur, I was definitely growing a bit bored with eating, lounging, and being bused around, and was craving something to get my blood pumping. I’m certainly not a lay-on-the-beach-all-day kind of vacationer, and in fact, I find myself waking much earlier while traveling than I do in my everyday life, determined to make the very most of every minute I’m spending somewhere new.

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Sleep deprived, covered head to toe and dust, and aching all over from the hike, our next stop in Ubud was perfectly timed. Known as the arts and culture hub of Bali, Ubud is the closest you’ll get to a bustling city on the island, home to high-end shopping, luxe spas, ritzy restaurants and posh art galleries. We stayed in a gorgeous resort right in the heart of Ubud, just down the street from the famed Monkey Forest. It was a welcome breather after days of a set itinerary and shifting locations every night; here we had two days of relatively free time to lounge by the pools, take advantage of much-needed $8 massages, shop for souvenirs, and explore the city.

Initially, I relished the thought of some free time to myself, but soon found that I chose to spend it with others in the group anyway, going out to dinner, taking in a traditional Balinese dance, and even rafting along the Hindu carving-lined Ayung River. As an animal lover, I was particularly excited for the Monkey Forest, a sanctuary where the Balinese long-tailed monkeys roam freely; swinging from trees, snacking on mangos, and picking fights with one another – and with tourists. While adorable, the monkeys are also whip-smart and mischievous, and though visitors are instructed not to bring in any food or drinks, we still witnessed multiple people having plastic water bottles and other items snatched right from their hands.

Even outside the walls of the sanctuary, near our hotel pool or along the shop-lined streets of Monkey Forest Road, these cheeky little primates were seemingly always waiting in the wings, poised to steal scraps of food or some loosely-guarded object. I even awoke in the middle of the night to a spat between several of them outside our hotel room. Despite their cute faces and small stature, the monkeys can scratch or bite if provoked – and you should never look them in the eyes or bare your teeth – so you shouldn’t make contact with them unless it’s okay-ed by a sanctuary employee (as was the case in my photo below!)

When visiting Ubud, be sure to leave ample time for shopping, whether at the the high-end boutiques or the bustling open-air marketplace, where you can find stall after stall of locally-made jewelry, incense, wood carvings, purses and other trinkets to take home. Ubud also boasts some pretty diverse dining options, eclectic bars, and sleek coffee shops that made me feel as though I’d never left LA.

Speaking of coffee, you may have heard of one of Indonesia’s most headline-grabbing exports; Luwak coffee, colloquially known as cat poo coffee. To be clear, there’s no cat poo in the coffee itself. Rather, the berries are eaten by the civet cat, then digested and, well, pooed out, at which point the berries are cleaned and the coffee beans harvested and roasted. And voila – cat poo coffee! It’s something of a delicacy, and in other parts of the world can be quite expensive. Locally, it’s expensive by Bali standards; about $5 per cup, and around $15 for a package to take home. Our guide took us to a coffee plantation specializing in Luwak coffee, where we were able to see how the beans were roasted, try a flight of their various coffee and teas, and, of course, sample the famed cat-poo coffee. It’s traditionally served “Bali style,” that is, pitch black – exactly how I like my hot coffee.

Said to be the best coffee in Bali, the Luwak beans produce a very rich and very bitter taste, and while it’s a damn good cup of coffee, I have to admit that it’s nothing life-changing. It is, ultimately, a bit of a gimmick (albeit a fascinating one,) but to that end, be sure that any Luwak coffee you drink or coffee plantation you visit is an ethical one. When the Luwak coffee first gained international attention, many producers kept the civet cats in cages, where they were treated inhumanely, so do your research and pay a visit to a plantation (as we did) where the civet cats are cared for and able to roam freely.


Our final stop on the tour was the sleepy beach town of Candidasa. At first glance, it’s not exactly a destination, and in fact seemed to have been chosen as our end point solely because it is normally also the starting point of the Lombok week of the tour (which was canceled due to the recent devastating earthquake there.) There’s just one main road lined with souvenir shops, spas, and restaurants, and while Candidasa still hums with traffic and tourism, in many ways the east side of Bali felt … wilder. The sunlight seemed to sizzle on my skin, glistening in the humid air. Clusters of mysterious bites formed on my arms, and my legs were scratched bloody and raw from coral after a snorkeling expedition. The local alcohol – arak – can kill you if made incorrectly. We took our lives in our hands darting across traffic, and traveling by car felt just as treacherous. The sunsets burned, burned, burned; purple and indigo and streaks of orange and red painting the sky for as far as the eye could see.

On our last night as a group, we practically took over the dive bar across the road, downing mojitos spiked with arak and an endless supply of Bintang beer as our guide plied us with savory, vegetable-filled martabak, a fried bread treat that’s common street food in Indonesia and is sublime paired with sweet-and-hot chili sauce.

As the night wound down, we found ourselves spilling outside the bar, chatting beneath a crescent moon about what had brought us here, half a world away from the mundanity of our everyday lives, most of us having traveled alone, to share with strangers in a life-affirming experience that would never be done justice by photos and words for the people back home.

The moon was a sickle that night, and Mars burned orange in the endless black sky, studded like a string of diamonds with Venus and Jupiter, too. It was impossible to forget in that moment that I was on the underside of the world as I’d always known it, looking up at a different sky, a different hemisphere. I was not running from my problems, but I was not taking them with me, either. I was simple existing here; breathing, tasting, talking, learning, living.

As we headed back to the hotel for one last moonlit dip in the pool, nursing our beers and trading stories about our travels, about scuba diving in the Maldives and river rafting in Costa Rica and how to survive a long layover in the Singapore airport, I found myself startled by the thought that I would likely never see these people again. Already melancholy over an experience that hadn’t yet ended – always the double-edged sword of being elsewhere, like trying to capture lightning in a bottle.

On my last full day in Bali, the rest of the group departed early for sailing and scuba diving and further treks around Southeast Asia, save for a girl from England who was my age and also traveling alone. Free to choose our own activity, we decided to take advantage of the hotel’s offer to hire us a driver who would take us around the island for the day. We were able to visit Tenganan, one of the oldest traditional Balinese villages, where people still live and produce handmade goods, including the beautiful ikat weaving. From there, we paid a visit to Pura Lempuyang, or the “Gates of Heaven,” a highly Instagram-able temple at the top of a hill. The photo was breathtaking, but be prepared for a scene that is less than serene; after paying for a shuttle, a mandatory sarong, and admission, you have to hike up even further and wait in line in order to take a photo in front of the Gates of Heaven. Our wait ended up clocking in at about an hour, on a very humid day, but it was quite honestly the first line I’d encountered during my entire trip in Bali, and as with many tourists traps, a bit of patience is the price you pay for a once-in-a-lifetime photo.

After the wait, my travel companion and I decided we’d had our fill of waiting in lines and battling crowds and decided to make a break for the white sand shores of the Virgin Beach. While it’s not how I’d choose to spend an entire vacation, an afternoon of lounging at a cabana, sipping a beer, and staring out at the turquoise Bali sea was the perfect way to end my whirlwind adventure.


More than its white sand beaches and ornate temples, the Balinese people are the island’s main draw. I have never felt so at home so quickly anywhere. I have never experienced the kind of warmth and generosity from total strangers that I did in Bali. I have never laughed so hard.

Ultimately, I loved traveling with people of all ages, from all countries and walks of life. There was always someone interesting to talk to, eat with, or buddy up with for an activity, and by the end of the tour we felt a lot like a family. I never felt as though I was alone in a foreign country, because I wasn’t. While I had planned to escape for my 25th birthday, fully embracing the notion that it would be solo, I found myself surrounded by new friends and overwhelming warmth from people I didn’t even know at every turn. All around me were signs that I belonged, and reminders that I mattered.

There was a moment during my trip, walking along one of those beaches in Bali alone, that I felt freer than I have ever felt in my life. The stresses of my daily life, worries about money, fruitless concerns about the opinions of others, they melted away like sand being pulled out with the tide. Suddenly it dawned on me that everything I had viewed as an obstacle to getting here didn’t matter at all. That I was finally free to choose my own adventure.

 

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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The Long Goodbye to London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eastern Excursion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Me Back to Barcelona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All photos taken and edited with Samsung Galaxy S5.

A First Look at London

I suppose three weeks is a reasonable enough amount of time for a person to settle into a new city and organize one’s thoughts enough to sit down and write about it. Except, it somehow feels as though I’ve been here in London for something like two months now, so this all seems to be far more after-the-fact than it actually is.

Touching down in Heathrow already feels like a lifetime ago, and I suppose between slogging through jet lag and being forced to become acclimated to a new country and university at break-neck speed, it only makes sense that my sense of time would be a bit jumbled. Aside from the slightest bit of jet lag, I have to pride myself on basically hitting the ground running here in the UK, and though I keep hearing that homesickness and culture shock will catch up with me eventually, I remain skeptical. Having previously lived overseas, and having lived out of state for college the past two and a half years, I wasn’t expecting too many curve balls in moving too London, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised that the transition has gone even smoother than expected.

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Sure, looking the opposite direction when crossing the street, and having to convert pounds to dollars in my head without audibly gasping at the pitiful conversion rate and sky-high price of everything in London may take some getting used to, but for a city I’d never previously visited, London sure feels a lot like an old friend. For a capitol city, a metropolitan hub, a home to millions of people who are (seemingly only) thin, fashionable and successful, London has a comfort, an easiness to it, making me feel simultaneously like I’m on a glamorous vacation and visiting home for a holiday.

It’s hard to generalize a city of 8 million people and counting, but I can count on one hand the number of rude people I’ve met or unpleasant experiences I’ve had since I arrived. Everyone here has an air of good humor and easy-going sensibility, and aside from testing locals’ patience by taking a bit too long to fumble through coins in sizes and shapes that confound my brain, most people have been more than willing and helpful to play along with the dumb American.

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It’s crazy to realize how quickly I’ve felt myself pass through the tourist phase to something else entirely. I suppose studying abroad is inherently sort of a limbo between tourist and transplant, not quite a local but eager to shed the stigma of being a visitor. I’ve asked and been asked for directions, seen the touristy sights and ventured off the beaten path.

London isn’t exactly what I expected it to be, but in the best way possible. It’s astoundingly historic and mind-blowingly modern, with centuries-old churches dwarfed by spiraling glass sky-scrapers and iconic red telephone boxes outfitted with WiFi. It’s impressively clean (for a city with hardly any garbage cans and no recycling bins,) surprisingly non-rainy, and serviced by one heck of a public transportation system that I can already see giving me withdrawals when I return to the states. I haven’t missed the freedom of having a car at all, and in fact the thought of driving here both terrifies and confuses me, as the roads seem to be constantly clogged with cars and yet parking lots and garages are as rare as Pret-a-Mangers are common.

It’s a hip city, but not in an intimidating way, and its population leans younger, but not in an obnoxious way, either. I’ve been able to get my fill of hipster coffee shops (though usually without iced coffees, an American establishment that hasn’t quite caught on here yet,) low-key pubs, independent book stores and cheap clubs that pander to tourists while still being fun, though I’m still looking forward to exploring more of London’s music, theater and art scene in general.

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These past few months, whenever I told people back home that I was leaving for London, I usually drew questions as to why I didn’t seem more excited. In part, I’m a worrier, and I told myself I’d be excited when I got here. And I am, but I suppose it all still somehow feels a bit unreal, like it hasn’t quite sunk in that I get to call this city my home for a while, that I’ll be spending the next 6 months of my life in Europe, that so many things I’d hoped and planned for these past few years have actually come to fruition.

Just the other night, after seeing a theater show in London’s West End, walking home over the Waterloo Bridge, crossing the Thames River illuminated by a full moon with St. Paul’s Cathedral to my left, Big Ben and the London Eye to my right, I couldn’t decide if this all made things more real, or more surreal. Part of me still feels a bit like one of these mornings I’m going to wake up from this dream, but as long as I keep dreaming on London time, I think everything will turn out just fine.

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All photos taken and edited with Samsung Galaxy S5. For more of my travel photos, check out my Flickr.

A Love Letter to Los Angeles

So listen, I realize it’s pretty readily apparent that I’m fairly enamored of Los Angeles, but my beloved city and I will be entering into a long-distance relationship fairly soon, so hear me out. (I also wanted one last LA post to show a little love for some of my recent photos from around East Los Angeles.)

See, I suppose it’s telling, the way a place affects you even when you’re away. How you don’t just miss it, but you feel like you’re missing something when you’re not there. Missing out, missing a part of yourself, even. I’ve only ever felt that way about one place, Los Angeles, like a little bit of me has always been here, and always will be, no matter how far I go. My first flight was to Los Angeles, and I swear I’ll remember that summer more fondly, more vividly than most other things in my life. Swimming in the hotel pool at night, watching lightning tear across the sky, staring up at the towering palms in wonder and feeling so small and yet so incredibly alive and ready for the world. I recall leaving and feeling, even then, that I would be back, someday, somehow.

A winter sunset in East LA

As a teen, I found myself drawn to music, books, photos, films in and around and about Los Angeles. It was a siren song, this promised land. This place of endless summer and golden sunsets, of air that never turned cold and skies that never went gray, of creativity and possibility coursing up and down the coast. A world awash in gemstone hues and that certain slant of the sun that made me ache for so much more. I hated living in the rain, hated my small town life, the mundanity, the repetition, the sameness. I was an angsty, emotional teen, never without my earbuds and forever lost in my own mind, a walking cliche. And the Los Angeles they told me of, it was all cliches, too; everyone’s crazy, flaky, shallow, the city is seedy, it’ll steal your soul and eat you alive. But I didn’t listen, I couldn’t listen, I didn’t have the option of remaining where I was. Anywhere was better than here, and if I could make it there…

I’ve lived here for two and a half years, and the only cliches I see are the ones that have drawn people here for decades. A palm tree always in sight, rarely a chill in the air, never a dull moment. Freeways always coursing, city lights sparkling, low slung hills burning purple like the dying embers of a bonfire along the warm sands kissing the Pacific. It’s kinetic, it’s magical, it’s always in motion. There’s something in the air, in the water, in the slant of the sun and feeling that absolutely anything could happen. And yet, contrary to popular belief, Los Angeles has its quieter moments, too. In golden Sunday afternoons, in picnics in the park, in twilight drives to clear your head.

Like any city, like any place that has ever existed, it has its flaws, its wounds and scars. But I truly believe that the people who call this place home are some of the hardest-working, most good-hearted that I have ever met, anywhere, and have a love for this city of which I could only scratch the surface, people who would, and are, giving everything they have to help this place reach its full potential. Because Los Angeles is a place that always been home to people who love deeply, hope wildly, believe fiercely, it is a city fraught with emotion, soaked with naivety, forlorn with things not seen to fruition, yet built upon countless dreams come true.

After a little December rain

And around every corner I look, in every moment I live here, in every breath I take, I catch glimpses of what feels like the life I was always meant to have. I am completely and wholly at peace here, like for once in my life I’m not looking for a way to leave. There is a whole world that I’m meant to see, but I don’t drift here. My soul does not feel restless, my mind does not feel aimless. I feel this city in my blood and my bones, breathe it in my lungs, smell it in my hair. I am grounded here, in the dust and the desert, in the curvature of the horizon around the ocean, in the palm trees dotting the skyline and the sliver of a crescent moon hanging above the city.

This week, I drove north on the 101 and watched the mountains rise up and the skyscrapers disappear as I left Los Angeles, and I won’t be back for at least six months, although it will likely be longer. Though I am thrilled beyond words to leave the continent for a while to begin a new chapter in my life, to find another part of myself somewhere else, I can already feel a hole that looks a little like Los Angeles opening up in my heart. This feels like the place I’m meant to be, so truly and so deeply, if only for now, but now is enough.

For as much of my life as I can remember, I’ve had instances of deja vu, and it’s only intensified as I’ve gotten older; the feeling that I’ve been somewhere, seen something, experienced all of this before. And in no place I’ve ever visited or lived have I encountered this more than in Los Angeles. In the places I go, the people I meet, the decisions I make, there are little shifts in my soul that feel like things falling into place. There are these almost daily confirmations that I am on the right path, that I have done this all before in the best way possible, and that, finally, I am right where I’m supposed to be. Even though I’ll be stepping away from this city for a bit, I know that I’ll be able to return in a new year, and for perhaps the first time in my life, return to a place with open arms, with more hopes than reservations, and know that it is home.

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Looking toward Downtown from Boyle Heights, East LA

If you’re interested, please check out my Flickr for more of recent snapshots of life in the City of Angels. Also stay tuned for at least a couple more California posts before my blog becomes a little more Anglo!