Jamaican Me Want to Go Again

My family and I went to Jamaica over Labor Day weekend for a short, tropical getaway. Though the country’s economy has been a struggle, and many visitors choose to stay at the all-inclusive resorts for the duration of their vacation, Jamaica is its own paradise away from those high-end hotels– complete with natural gems, lush rain forests & mountains, delicious cuisine, vibrant colors, and the ever-steady sounds of reggae music.

 

We stayed in Runaway Bay, just north of the birthplace of Bob Marley. Once we arrived Friday, we got settled into our stay with a relaxing trip to the beach. That evening, we tried ackee and saltfish and listened to locals play reggae music.

The next day, we set out for Ocho Rios and the Blue Hole (also known as Island Gully Falls, etc.) There are many around the island, as Jamaica is sprinkled with these natural pools of water. “Ochi” is a port town that has blossomed with tourists, due to the surrounding attractions. It was a long and winding road to the Blue Hole, but once we got there we instantly knew it was worth it. The water was the most beautiful crystal clear blue color! We jumped off cliffs, climbed into caves, and even did a rope swing into the pool!

 

On Sunday, we ventured out to Dunn’s River Falls. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was speechless when I looked up from the Caribbean sea to find this magnificent waterfall stretching up to the sky. We climbed the waterfall, something I have never done before, all the way up to the top! There were lagoons throughout the climb that we dropped into, natural rock water slides, and terraced rocks that provided steps. A group of us made a human chain holding hands, guiding each other through the swift, rushing water and over the slippery stones.

Monday was purely for relaxation, as we had a short time before our flight left. With cold drinks in hand, we reminisced about sunsets, jerk chicken, and the color of the water while listening to reggae beat in the background.

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It was amazing to share this experience with my parents, and to see the more adventurous side of them! Even though they are over 60, they hiked the falls and did the rope swing into the Blue Hole! How’s that for retirement?! We loved the Patois language, the mouthwatering food, and the spirited people of Jamaica. I have no doubt that we’ll be back! #yehman

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One Happy Island, One Happy Girl

Bon bini! I took a mini vacation over the fourth of July holiday, because why not? Destination: Aruba. Scroll on to see “one happy island” for yourself!

Day One- I arrived in Aruba in the late evening of June 30th, so I saved my explorations for the next morning. I woke early, grabbed breakfast, and walked along Palm Beach and Eagle Beach, breathing in the fresh air.

With a cool breeze, white sand, and blue waters, it was hard to believe I was in such a beautiful place!

Later that afternoon, I climbed Hooiberg Lookout for a view of the entire island:

(Definitely want to bring lots of water with you for this one! Speaking of which, Aruba has the cleanest/most pure drinking water.)

Since I was only staying on the island for a short period of time, I was determined to see and do as much as possible. After the hike and exploring downtown, however, I was beat! I headed back to my hotel to relax with my newly arrived book, and watched boats come in to shore.

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Boat coming in at sunset.

Day Two- To see most of the island as possible, I booked a jeep tour. This covered most of the eastern side of the island, from the northernmost point all the way to Baby Beach. We also explored:

  • Bushiribana Gold Mills Ruins
  • Ayo Rock Formation
  • Hidden caves
  • Arikok National Park

My all-time favorite spots were the natural bridges and pools that we stopped at.

Natural bridge, above, and natural pools, below.

More sights: Alto Vista Chapel, a donkey befriending us, and the California Lighthouse.

After a long day, I needed to refuel. I love being close to the ocean, so I chose to have a delicious seafood dinner on the pier.

Day Three- Beach day! Soaked up the sun, chased lizards (which are everywhere!), and drank fresh fruit smoothies. And no, I can’t take credit for that sand sculpture.

On my last night, I was dazzled yet again at sunset:

The island of Aruba is small, but I was only just beginning to uncover the heart of it. I talked to as many locals as I could, learning about the language (Papiamento, but most Arubans can speak four or five languages), their lifestyle, and how tourism makes up the majority of their economy. The country may be a popular destination for couples and families, but I still enjoyed myself and was grateful to be able to relax and take in the beautiful sights.

Even before I got on my flight home, I knew I wanted to come visit again.

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The only good thing about leaving is this incredible view!

Catch ya on the flip side,

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Less Than 72 Hours in Chicago

Bold architecture? Delectable food? Astonishing art? Chicago, one of the largest cities in the states, has it all.

I’ve been looking for a chance to explore this city, and when I saw flights* for less than $100 round-trip (on a holiday weekend!) I took it.

I left Thursday, September 1st and returned Sunday, September 4th. During my stay, my friends Shawna & Shelly were kind enough to let me stay at their apartment that they just recently moved into.

Here’s what I experienced in my short time there:

First experience on the ‘L’

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**The transit system- easy to use, only $20 for a 3-day pass (purchased from O’Hare station) and quite convenient.

A run on Lakefront trail

I convinced Shawna to squeeze in a 2.5 mile run early in the morning. Loved this view!

Wrigley Field

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While I didn’t catch a game here, I could feel the atmosphere from outside the stadium. Cubs fans and gear everywhere!

Views from the Skydeck (Willis Tower)

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The lines were absolutely terrible, but the view beneath my feet made it all worth the experience.

Chicago style hot dogs at Portillo’s

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We got the tip that this local chain was the place for Chicago style dogs, and not only that, but they had delicious chocolate cake- plus it was all very affordable and had a very retro vibe! 

A theft

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Obviously, this was an event we didn’t plan. Shortly after we left Portillo’s, Shawna received an e-mail about a fraudulent charge on her card. Somehow, someone had gotten her wallet. The next couple hours were spent cancelling her credit and debit cards and accounting for everything that would need replaced. It was stressful, but it could have been much worse. Besides, what’s the full city experience without a little chaos?

Riverwalk

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Did I mention I love these colors? I could take my lunch break along the river any day.

Deep dish pizza from Lou Malnati’s

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***Honestly think I am going to crave this delicious, heavenly pizza for the rest of my life. 

Revolution Brewing, Co. beer

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Another must after a long day of walking. Shawna had this in her fridge, and I was a big fan. Spiced with coriander & orange peel.

Navy Pier

For a holiday weekend + Lobster fest going on, this place = absolute madness. However, the crowds were no match for the views of this landmark. 

Jazz Festival

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I picked a great weekend to visit- the jazz festival was going on downtown and we caught a captivating performance in Millennium Park. 

Lincoln Park/Lincoln Park Zoo

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Lincoln Park Zoo is an incredible place to visit if you have kids, as it’s FREE! We walked through Lincoln Park to the beach. 

Lake Michigan

The contrast of the sand & water with the city skyscrapers in the background was incredible to me. And as you can see, I was really enjoying the weather!

Molly’s Cupcakes

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Because sometimes you have to treat yourself! This place was adorable, complete with swings for seats. May I present to you: The Ron Bennington, Blueberry Cheesecake, and Peach Cobbler cupcakes. 

Millennium Park

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Tons of sculptures, cool architecture, and mesmerizing art. This is where a lot of concerts & large events are held.

Cloud Gate (The Bean)

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Jumping for joy because I love this city!

Buckingham Fountain

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Caught this right as the sun was reflecting off the buildings. An incredible ending! This is one of the largest fountains in the world.

Knickerbocker Hotel

I tried really hard to convince the manager to give me the hook up, since the hotel and I share a last name, but he wasn’t having it. He did, however, show us the crystal ballroom where there was a wedding going on. Beautiful, historic hotel.

Stan’s Donuts

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Okay, people. I really loved this place. A wide variety of flavors, old fashioned charm, etc. The donuts were scrumptious, but don’t inhale them and chug your coffee like I did. Also, maybe avoid diabetes and get one donut like a normal person?

 

Some tips:

*Fly Frontier or Spirit–  If you are flying into Chicago, look for cheaper flights on these airlines. If you can do it, only bring a backpack. I flew Frontier and they charge for carry on and checked bags, but a backpack that fits certain restrictions is free. If you’re only there for a short time, it’s all you need!

**Get the Ventra 3-day pass at the O’Hare airport. I only paid $20, and was told that anywhere else, they charge you for the $5 card fee. This lets you take both the L and the buses an unlimited number of times in that 72 hour period.

***Don’t be afraid to talk to locals. I would have gotten so lost if I didn’t ask someone for help, and we would’ve missed out on a lot of great spots if we didn’t take our new friends up on their recommendations. (Obviously, use common sense and your gut instinct when it comes to your safety to avoid any dangerous situations.)

 

So there you have it. There is PLENTY more ground to cover whenever I visit again, but this little getaway was all kinds of perfect.

 

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Have you been to Chicago? What did you love/do/see/eat? Let’s hear all about it!

 

 

 

Living for the Weekend

You do it, I do it, we all do it.

Crossing off the days on our calendars at work, counting down the minutes left in our 9-5, living for the weekend. Ah, those blessed mornings where we don’t have to set an alarm or have anywhere to be for 8 hour time blocks. Or, sometimes, if you’re like me, you jam that open weekend full of every ounce of fun you can possibly fit.

This past weekend, JJ and I headed to Rehoboth Beach, DE.  We started a tradition of going camping every Memorial Day weekend, and this year, we took our trip to the beach.

We kicked the vacation off with spending a day at Cape Henlopen State Park. The sand was hot, and the water was freezing, but we jumped in anyway. We enjoyed lunch on the beach and then fell asleep on a blanket under the sun. It was amazing to just relax.

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Since the park was a former military base, we drove around and climbed to the top of an observation tower to take in the view. Later that day, after we cooled off in the pool back at the campground, we hit the boardwalk. Since no trip to the beach is complete without ice cream, we opted for Starkey’s. My indecisive self was lost when we looked at the menu-  100+ delicious flavors! How would I ever choose?!

A stroll down Penny Lane shops and a sweet treat from Starkey’s.

 

The next day, we got to Rehoboth Beach early and watched the fog roll out. After walking along the beach, we sipped some strawberry wine and got the biggest bucket of fries we could find- Thrasher’s original boardwalk fries, of course. I am still craving that salt & vinegar goodness.

Boardwalk fries & patriotic swimsuits for the win.

While we didn’t make it to Dogfish Head, we stopped by Rehoboth Ale House for a couple brews and listened to some live music before going to Zogg’s for dinner- a raw bar & grill with a million different kinds of rum. I was more than pleased with my Key West grouper taco & signature rum punch. After such a long day of eating, sunbathing, and wandering, we were more than ready to spend our last night taking it easy.

Dinner on the boardwalk and back to the campground to relax around the fire.

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Apple pie moonshine & s’mores!

 

Minus the traffic on the drive back home Monday, it was truly a wonderful vacation.

So, are you thinking you’re in dire need of a weekend escape? 

Here are some getaways that aren’t far from Pittsburgh, PA:

  1. Presque Isle State Park, Erie, PA
  2. Ohiopyle State Park, PA
  3. Deep Creek, MD
  4. Cedar Point, OH
  5. Put-in-Bay, OH
  6. Washington, D.C.
  7. Chautauqua, NY
  8. Cleveland, OH
  9. New River Gorge, WV
  10. Gettysburg, PA or Hershey, PA

 

Have more suggestions, or don’t see your favorite listed? Comment below! I’d love to hear more.

Also, I will be working flex time during the summer months (meaning I’ll work four 10 hour days, and get an extra day off) so I will be looking for easy, fun trips to take within a 3-4 day time frame! Anywhere from big cities to hiking trails to amusement parks to beaches, I’m open for it all.

Until next time, weekend warriors.

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That Time I Took My Mom on Vacation

My mom gave me life, so the least I can do is take her on an all-inclusive vacation, right?

I’d been pushing her to do a mother/daughter trip with me for quite some time, and finally, the opportunity presented itself at the beginning of this month. Last Thursday through Sunday (Mother’s Day), we headed to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic for the blue beach, to bask in the sun and bronze burn our booties.

 

Right away, it was an adventure. We were greeted at the airport and escorted to the shuttle that would take us to our resort, where we met a couple visiting Punta Cana for their third time. Turns out they knew my aunt and uncle. You may think, how does that even happen?! But growing up in a small town, and attending a small college, showed me years ago how strong connections can be and how fast they spread. I can’t say I was even fazed.

And then my mom (making conversation, of course) asked them the question: “Are the native people here really poor?” Embarrassed, I tried to shush her, but she went on, loudly. “They seem really poor.” All in earshot of our driver, who was clearly a native of the country. *face palm*

It was like that scene from Mean Girls.

 

 

A small part of me worried what I was getting into, but I just laughed. This was going to be a trip! We got dropped off at our hotel and were greeted with a flute of cold sparking juice and damp, cool washcloths to put on our necks to relieve us from the heat. My mom, as you can see, was in heaven. “I’m never leaving!” she exclaimed. Below, you can see the photos of our hotel and beach areas. (That flamingo was kind of a bitch.)

 

 

Although mom doesn’t drink, she was loving the non-alcoholic cocktails and smoothies. Every day, she’d say, Let’s get a drink. Oh gosh, I sound like such a lush! We spent the majority of our time relaxing at the beach laying out or under the shade of the bed, or hanging out in our VIP pool.

 

 

Steps to vacation: Eat, drink, relax, swim, sleep, repeat.

 

Then my childhood dream came true on Friday- I swam with a dolphin in the ocean. Absolutely everything I thought it’d be! They are such powerful, playful, and beautiful mammals.  Posters and knickknacks of them used to cover my bedroom from wall to wall growing up, and here I was, actually kissing them, swimming with them, having them jump over me. Surreal. Like a true mother, my mom’s enjoyment came out of just watching my excitement.

 

As amazing as the views were, the best part of the trip was the talks we’d have before bed. Mom told me some stories from her childhood, how her parents didn’t have money, and things she had done for fun. I told her my fears, my summer plans, vented about my “problems.” She listened intently, giving advice like only she can do. We talked about my future: traveling, kids (no), marriage. Her regrets, and aging.

We never think about our parents getting older until we notice small things- forgetting something we told them, not being able to walk as far, needing glasses to read, getting frustrated with trying to teach them technology, my mom reading lips because she was struggling to hear me, etc. I have this irrational fear that because my mom handles literally EVERYTHING for our family and constantly has a mind that never stops running, that she’ll develop Alzheimer’s, though I know that’s not how it works.

She mentioned, with tears in her eyes, that her mother would have never done something like this with her. She had died when I was six, and to be honest, I don’t remember much of her. It hit me then that my mother was also a daughter. Crazy as it sounds, I forget that beyond being a mother and a wife, she is a daughter.  She is a woman who does not need to be defined by her roles. A woman who probably, even at 61, still has those empty spaces in her heart from the ones she has lost. A woman who still has dreams and needs and sadness and really tough days where she doesn’t know what the hell to do. A woman who ignores those feelings because so many depend on her strength. That thought made me feel so guilty. I had been blind for so long. So insincere and thoughtless as a teenager, so selfish. So blissfully unaware of how lucky I am to have her.

People talk about how their mother is the glue that holds their family together…mine is the nails used to build us, the glue that keeps us, and the duct tape when all else fails. She has been my backbone in a lot of ways, and I can’t picture a world with her not in it. My parents have worked their entire lives to provide a better life for my brother and I, and even in their sixties, they are moving firewood, taking care of my grandparents, managing three properties, and still picking up the phone when I call. As they near retirement (jealous) my hope for them is that they are able to relax and enjoy themselves.

Now that we’re back in rainy PA, I’m reflecting on this trip and I know that was one of the reasons for going- for everything my mother has given me, it’s always been my dream to give back. Since I can’t buy her a house, or a brand new car, I figured my time and this experience would suffice. Another lifetime couldn’t be long enough to learn from and be loved by you.

I love you mom, hope you had a wonderful Mother’s Day. I’m always missing you.

 

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Leave nothing but footprints,

take nothing but pictures,

kill nothing but time.

Beaches, Bathroom Accidents, and Bread Making

JUNE 29, 2013

Today, I slept until about 9 a.m. Had bread with Nutella (my staple breakfast) and went to watch the kids take a youth yoga class at la platja. Hilarious to watch but then I realize, as I’m watching them bend and thinking about how exhausting it has been to chase after them these past couple days, how extremely out of shape I am. These children actually can do a hell of a lot even if they’re just mimicking butterflies and trees.

It took me a while to understand what “platja” meant. In Spanish, beach is “playa,” so obviously, though it seems subtle, there is quite a difference. Welcome to my confusing, sort of trilingual life.

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Sa Palomera, Blanes.

As Roser packs up the towels, beach toys, and bags, I take Adrià’s hand and lead him near where the beach meets the sidewalk to stand under the fountain and rinse the sand off his body. The kid has it in every crevice of him, I swear. All of a sudden, I hear another stream of water coming from somewhere. Confused, I look down, and to my horror, Adrià has pulled himself free from his swim trunks and is casually sending an arc of golden pee into the air and straight onto some poor middle-aged woman’s legs and feet. I don’t move, or speak. I just froze, and stared, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, my feet rooted to the spot, because my brain can’t register what to tell my body to do. What could I do?  I mean, how do you say, “Holy shit, I’m so sorry this child who is not mine is currently peeing on you” in Catalan?! So I just panicked, grabbed his hand, and ran away. Real smooth, Kara. I said a silent prayer thanking God that the lady didn’t follow us, or shout after me, and that Roser didn’t see the whole thing happen, and wished with every fiber of my being that I could disappear under a rock. I mean, he wasn’t my child…why did I feel so mortified and responsible? Because you couldn’t apologize to her, or even explain to make Adrià realize what he did was wrong. Because you don’t speak Catalan and can’t understand anything. Sigh. As we made our way back to the car, I made a mental note to apologize to my mother for all that I must have put her through. Whatever stuff moms are made of, I don’t have that in me. In summary, I am majorly failing at being an au pair already…

I also forgot the beaches are topless here. I see young girls with better boobs than me, and I can’t help but stare in jealousy- both from their tan, curved bodies and the fact that they are at the beach with their friends. I am an outsider, and though I have this wonderful family, they are not mine- so it’s lonely. I am a strange mix of being too old to be Jordi and Roser’s child, but too young to be Adrià and Mar’s mother. I almost feel like their older sister, but I am still isolated because I don’t understand the language or how to care for them. (Note: I’ve never had younger siblings or even cousins that I’ve been around and had to care for.)  Adrià holds my hand and gives me besos sometimes which honestly melts my heart. Being with them is an emotional roller coaster- good days and bad days. My mother once told me that kids will break your heart and then mend it over and over again. How right she was.

unnamed (8)  The kids and I spent a long time at the pool when we got back…they swam naked (why are children always naked?) and I tried to teach them the word “Jump!”  They love my camera and are fascinated with what my iPad can do. I know I will have to get some good photographs of the kids and I before I leave. They are starting to take up a huge place in my heart… We went to Sa Palomera, the huge rock at the beach down by the town (pictured above), and climbed to the top.

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I carried Adrià everywhere, which actually made me feel so good that he wanted me to pick him up and hold him. We saw the locks that countless couples put there to lock their love. I just kept thinking, ¿Dónde está mi amor? For dinner later that night, I was introduced to pan con tomate. It’s bread, but on the bread we take a tomato cut in half and rub it so that it moistens the bread, then pour olive oil and sprinkle salt over top. It was amazing. I don’t care about carbs, I will forever fill up on bread. I love it! After dinner, I taught the children “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” in English as we danced. Mar loves to dance as much as she loves to swim. It makes me so happy to see them learn… I hope it is working.

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Pan con tomate- A.K.A., the best thing you will ever taste.

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