72 Hours in the Queen City

It seems that I have a thing for visiting cities and making the most of them even if it’s less than 72 hours, and Charlotte was no different.

I love North Carolina, but this was my first time in the Queen City. I was finally visiting and reuniting with my best friend Stephanie who moved there last year.

Here’s how it went down:

I arrived Friday night, planned to go to a food truck festival with live music, but it was chilly (AKA, about 50ish degrees) so we opted for drinks at Fahrenheit with spectacular city rooftop views and followed those with a mouthwatering-ly fresh dinner at Sea Level instead.

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Delish!

Surrounded by bright city lights, we left the restaurant and walked around town. I was in awe of the skyscrapers. We were in the midst of the most beautiful hotels, museums, theaters, and modern banks. (After all, it is the second largest banking center in the U.S..) Although I didn’t have time to check these out, Charlotte is also home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the Mint Museum, among others.

Saturday morning, Steph and I set out to hike Crowders Mountain, a state park in Gaston County (roughly 30-40 minutes outside the city).  The two peaks, Crowders Mountain and The Pinnacle, offered a bit of a challenging hike, but we were rewarded with this view upon reaching the top.

Hawks soared peacefully through the sky, the sunshine warmed our already flushed faces, and the gentle breeze cooled the sweat on our skin. We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day. Capturing it was impossible, so we put our phones away and focused on appreciating life in that moment.

Later that evening, we headed to the Spectrum Center for a Hornets game! Although I’ll always be a Knicks fan, I was pumped for my first Hornets game and to check out the Spectrum Center. We got a Cam Newton bobble-head the moment we walked through the door. The Hornets were playing the Washington Wizards and although it was an edge-of-your-seat game, the Hornets took home the win that night with a final score of 98-93!

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Girls Night Out!

The next morning, we walked around the gorgeous neighborhood of Cotswold. One of the things I instantly liked about Charlotte was that the city was spread out among all these smaller neighborhoods, and each neighborhood had its own unique charm. We then headed to brunch at ToastCafe. I can’t remember loving brunch any more than I did in that moment, sipping hot coffee in that wooden booth. I opted for the Raspberry Walnut flapjacks, and knew I made the right decision as soon as I sank my teeth into the warm dish. An interesting concept about the cafe is that “every server is your server,” so we didn’t see the same waiter/waitress twice! Everyone took care of us.

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The one instance where I regret not photographing my food.

All too soon, it was time for me to return to Pittsburgh. Although we crossed off some items on Steph’s restaurant bucket list and climbed a mountain, I realized in those short three days that Charlotte really has so much to offer (no matter who you are or what you’re into) and I didn’t even begin to scratch the surface! That just means another trip is in order…

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(Looking at you, Steph!)

Have you been to Charlotte? What was your favorite place? I’d love to hear!

Until next time,

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Belgium Under Bright Lights

Remember when I quit my job and bought a ticket to Spain in 2013? Where’d we leave off on that story of European adventures? Ah, yes. Ibiza & Paris.

It’s been three years since I existed in these photographs. Three years since I traveled to Belgium by myself. Three years since I met some of the closest people to my heart.

One thing I love about solo travel is that not only does it allow for self-exploration, but it also is how I’ve met the most incredible individuals. People always think that traveling alone has to be so lonely. And yes, sometimes, it can be. But it’s all in how you look at it. When you travel with a group of friends, you tend to stick with that group of friends. You talk among yourselves, go everywhere together, etc. However, when you are alone, it’s easier to be approached and more likely that you’ll approach others. Of course, this depends on whether or not you can put your fears (or pride) aside.

I can promise you right now that what stuck with me from this particular part of the trip is not the Renaissance architecture , the taste of chocolate, or the country itself, but the wonderful friends I made while exploring its cities.

Read my journal entries for yourself.

BELGIUM (BRUSSELS)

Tuesday September 10, 2013-  Here I am, about to board my flight to Brussels. I wish I would’ve booked this trip better. I still have to figure out what I will do when I get there, and pick which part of the country I am going to explore. I’m overwhelmed but so excited.

Okay, so I loved flying on Brussels airlines. They served a small roll with cheese and sauce, and orange juice, and a small chocolate. Loved it! Basically I just love food. Brussels airport was confusing. Ugh it was rough, but then even though my taxi ride was 60 euro, it was worth it because I had the sweetest old man as my driver and he showed me a lot of the sights of the city as we drove past. I checked into my hostel, a bunk bed in a private part of housing up the street that is just for females. My roommate hadn’t arrived yet. I charged my iPad a bit, researched some tours, and finally decided on Ghent and Bruges trip …took off on foot toward the city and of course it poured down rain. The map of Brussels I’d been given was awesome, really helpful. I went to see the Use It center and saw a girl with bright red hair and an infectious smile. It was there I made a friend- Radka.

She’s from Prague. We traveled in the heart of the city together and talked nonstop, she’s just lovely and so much better with direction than I am.

We set our sights on waffles- I mean, you can’t be in Belgium and NOT get them! Mine was tomato and ham and then with Belgian chocolate for dessert. (Yep- definitely got two. Told ya, I LOVE to eat.)

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We saw Manneken Pis ( a famous 1618  bronze statue of a little boy pissing into a fountain) which is pretty small in person. We took several funny pictures, walked on and stood in awe at the Grand Place (Grote Markt) and Royal Palace (official palace of the King and Queen). Stopped at Cafe Bizon, which reminded me of a small Irish pub, and I got Gueze Boon and Kriek Boon (hint of cherry flavor) and the easiest sour one to start with, Radka informed me.

It was so good to finally have some girl talk. We talked about relationships and travel, life and love, things we wanted to do in the future. And we laughed and laughed. It was hard not to be happy around her!

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I thought I was funny.

I was very tired at this point from a long day with little sleep. We decided to call it a night, and got cat called in Chinatown on the way back to our hostel. We laughed it off, but I think secretly pat ourselves on the back. We felt so alive and beautiful.

It was hard to say goodbye. Radka and I made possible plans for me to travel to Prague soon. I don’t know if it will work out, but I sincerely hope it does. She has been a blessing to have.

BELGIUM (BRUGES)

Wednesday September 11, 2013- I woke up early for my trip to Bruges. I  hurried to get ready, and grabbed a piece of bread with jam and called a cab to meet at a hotel for the departing spot. I was so late.  Luckily the receptionist called for me and I’m now on the bus, so stressful. Made a mental note to not let that happen again.

So I just met two people on the bus that became very dear to my heart very fast…Kathy and John from California. I can’t remember what got us talking, but once we did, we didn’t stop! They are incredibly kind people and I’m feeling very lucky that I chose this tour, so that our paths could cross. We started off in Ghent, which was a small and cute town.  We explored St. Bavo’s Cathedral when we got off the bus and then roamed as we pleased. It was pouring out and cold, so I tried to find some warmer clothes but they didn’t have too much, and it was more than I wanted to pay. [I started this trip off in June and in Spain, so I packed almost all summer clothes, with only a couple pairs of leggings and long sleeve shirts. At this point in my trip, I’m trying to be very careful about money, because I don’t know how things will work out or how long I’ll stay overseas.]

We also saw the Castle of the Counts of Flanders/Gravensteen Castle and drove through the countryside.

Upon arriving in Bruges, Kathy, John, and I walked the cobbled streets around one of the most romantic cities I’ve ever stepped foot in. We saw Minnewater (Lake of Love) and paused for some photographs. From there, we explored City Hall, the Market Square, and even more incredible sights.

We stopped to have lunch at a really nice restaurant…which normally I wouldn’t have done and stuck to my bread and Nutella sandwiches or got a cheap sandwich from a street vendor, but I technically did have the money and I really wanted to eat with them. We had cheese croquettes, beef stew in a beer sauce, and then chocolate mousse for dessert. It was the most I’ve treated myself on this trip. John got mussels and let me try some when he found out I’d never had them before. We had delicious white wine and shared fries.

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They reminded me so much of my parents back in the States who I missed so much, and I nearly broke down and cried when they insisted on paying for the bill…It was such an unexpected and kind gesture. They didn’t know how much it helped. They told me all about their children and how they met. Her daughter was getting married in two weeks so she bought a lace handkerchief for her and some chocolates…They took an interest in my life, asking about my travels and experiences, applauded the journey I was on. We devoured orange chocolate sticks and stopped for a beer since the weather was quite awful and we chose not to go on the boat in Bruges. The natural conversation and company more than made up for it! I’ve never felt so connected so instantly. Age didn’t make a difference, we felt like longtime friends. Kathy and I exchanged e-mail addresses and promised to stay in touch. I miss them and the comfort of their presence already.

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Gloomy day, but still beautiful!

Thursday September 12- I showered this morning, packed up, checked out of the hostel and printed my boarding passes, then scarfed down breakfast. Headed out to find the Nord station and to the vintage shops, hoping to find some warmer clothes. One had everything for four euros and if I didn’t have to carry my luggage on my back and was the old me, I would have bought so many clothes. It’s funny how you realize you don’t need all these excess material things. The other was small but had a jackpot- an outdoor raincoat. The lady said she’d take it for 14 euros but I only had twelve on me and she gave it to me. I FINALLY HAVE A JACKET. This time, I did cry. I had something to wear in this rain and colder temperatures, but the kindness of strangers, and the friends that I have made here, have been the sunshine that’s been missing the past couple days. Somehow, I know I’ll be seeing them again soon.  I grabbed my luggage, feeling completely rejuvenated, and walked to the Nord train station, ready for whatever was next.

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Peru to Bolivia: Part II of II

The second half of my journey to South America. Follow me as I climb Machu Picchu and cross the border to Bolivia!

 

Where I left off: Leaving Ollantaytambo and taking PeruRail to Aguas Calientes.
In case you missed it, read the first half of this journey  here.

 

DAY 6. Tuesday, July 19– After 5 hours of sleep, I woke up to my alarm at 3:30 a.m., checked out of the hostel, grabbing a quick breakfast of bread, jam, and juice and hit the road. Literally. I was half asleep, just following the mass crowds until I realized I’m an idiot and they’re on the road to Machu Picchu to climb it and I am taking the bus.
For a second, I debated whether I should just continue on (since I’d already walked for almost a good 10 minutes) and hike up to the entrance instead, but I had already purchased my bus tickets, and I was unsure of how I’d feel hiking so much (especially ever since I got my pacemaker) so I decided to save my energy and legs for the top.
Therefore, by the time I turned back around, I didn’t get in line for the buses until 4:45 am. At this point, there was already a massive line, of course. Finally, around 6 a.m., we reached the entrance to Machu Picchu.
I took the advice of some friends I had made and went to the left upon entering the site. I wanted to get to Sun Gate and reach the top of the mountain first, then make my way down.  It was tough, as the temperature was slowly climbing. Most all parts didn’t have railing of any sort. The drop off was steep, and it was stones the whole way. Some slabs were made into steps. I reached the top of Machu Picchu and saw the sun start to come over the mountain.
Being able to witness it spread over the ruins like butter on toast was so neat. Got some great pictures and followed a tour for a bit, which was great since we switched on and off taking photos for each other. I went from the top, to Sun Gate, to more of the ruins- Inca bridge, Temple of the Sun, Temple of Condor, Main Square, etc. Although there was plenty to see, I still finished by 9:30 a.m. I had a granola bar, crackers, and some water and rested, soaking up the sun. I couldn’t believe I was here. These 700+ terraces, these mountain views, this peaceful and sacred feeling…
I decided in the end to walk down. I had the time to kill and was interested in seeing the hiking trail. Plus it was much easier going down than it would be coming up. My knees did hurt though because the gaps between the steps were uneven and quite large. It’s a lot of walking. It took me maybe 45 min. Was a nice walk for a change instead of taking the bus, even though I already paid for it. I felt, in some way, this was being respectful of the people. Ideally, I’d have loved to come in on the Inca trail, but seeing as I had only 9 days total in the country, that wasn’t an option as it takes at least four days.
Once I reached the bottom, I decided to walk further through Aguas Calientes. It’s certainly a small tourist town, but I hadn’t seen much of it at all, so decided to walk to the hot springs and into the main plaza. Stopped at one of the restaurants on the same street as my hostel, and had papa rellena. It’s pictured below- basically a baked potato dough with meat and vegetables and the like inside, then deep fried, served with salsa criolla. I splurged and got chocolate cake for dessert. I mean, after all that hiking, you need to treat yourself.
Warning: Walking down the street, you’ll get so many servers that will try to attract you and lure you into going to their restaurant. It’s just how it is, which is fine, but a word of advice- negotiate before taking a seat. Make sure you tell the server, you do not agree to pay the local service tax. This “consumo” tax can appear on your bill (especially in restaurants near/close to Machu Picchu) and it really does not exist. It’s charged to foreigners. Therefore, communicate with the server beforehand that you do not agree to pay the extra tax, which can be 20%!
After my meal, I returned to the hostel, grabbed my pack, charged my phone, and relaxed until my train came. Think I need to take an allergy pill because my nose is runny and I’ve been sneezing. My knees/legs were also shaking earlier from the hike.  On the train, I was seated next to a kind hearted man who lived in Spain. (Hi, Maciek!)  We both enjoyed an Inca Kola- a soda pop that tastes and smells like bubblegum and is bright yellow in color. Throughout the ride back to Cusco, we spoke in depth about our countries, writing, languages and love, traveling, things we knew of the world. It ended up coming up in conversation that I was a bit nervous to arrive in Cusco, since our train was arriving to Poroy Station at almost 9 p.m., when it would be dark, and I’d have to take a taxi to the center of the city. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous to take one again, after what happened to me before. I ended up confessing this to Maciek, who was traveling with a group, and he said he’d try to see if I could come on the bus with them.
It worked out! To this day, I am so grateful for his kindness. The drive in the bus was long, through hills, and it was so cold and dark out. I couldn’t imagine going alone…or walking! I seriously could’ve cried I was so thankful. I can’t imagine the alternative. They didn’t even make me pay. Once in the center of town, I walked a short distance to my hostel from their hotel. It was past Plaza de Armas, which was incredible lit up! And I finally saw a better part of Cusco. The walk was all uphill on narrow cobblestone streets. There were stores everywhere! And lots of people still out and about. Once inside the hostel, I fell fast asleep with my jacket and boots on, I was that cold and exhausted.
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Notice anything in this picture? Up on the hill? Remember it- we’ll get to that.

DAY 7. Wednesday, July 20-  That sleep was much needed. I didn’t get out of bed until 8 a.m., had lemon sugar crepe for breakfast, and planned my day. The hostel I stayed at was also a creperia, lucky me 🙂

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One of the three showers had hot water, and I took full advantage. Then I cleaned up, repacked again, braided my hair, and headed out. I walked to Saksaywaman, the ruin above Cusco. It was huge and spread out.

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He’s bigger than she is!

 

Ended up walking down to take a picture with some alpacas and met a guy, Alejandro, from Houston.

We ended up walking to see Cristo Blanco together. (Remember the white spot on the hill in that last picture? That was this statue!) From there, we headed back into town to the Plaza de Armas and the San Pedro market. We also had lunch together- sampling one of Peru’s most famous dishes. Yep, you guessed it- guinea pig! Cuy, as it is called, is served in the most unappetizing way (see below). However, Alejandro ordered only half, and it came out looking like harmless chicken wings. I was glad I tried it, but can probably say that I won’t be rushing back to eat it again anytime soon.  But I tried chicha morada, a drink made from purple corn, and I liked it a lot!

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Alejandro bought chocolates for his family and I got coca candy to help with the altitude. Although I had yet to get sick , the next stop on my trip was to Lake Titicaca, which was at a higher elevation than Cusco. Alejandro and I said our goodbyes and I returned to the hostel to wait for my taxi, which would take me to Peru Hop, so I could begin my journey from Cusco to Copacabana, Bolivia!

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The mural on this wall is an illustration of the city’s history. So amazing!

DAY 8. Thursday, July 21– I safely got on the bus after 10 p.m. and settled into sleep. We would be arriving in Puno at 5 a.m. I met two girls from the States but they’re staying in Puno for a night, where I’m continuing on to Copacabana.  When we got here, we had breakfast at this small place-scrambled eggs, some bread and jam and juice.
Then we went to the boat to do the tour of the floating islands. The sunrise was incredible. We took the boat out, it was SO cold. Stopped at one of the islands, there’s 90 of them and over 2,000 inhabitants. It was weird walking on the reeds, kind of spongy. We saw the inside of a house, which contained only one bed and had enough room for just six of us to pile into. The woman explained that’s where her husband, baby, and her sleep. I couldn’t imagine- it was so tiny! They cook on a concrete slab (otherwise, the island would catch fire). The islands are anchored down. When we first arrived, they demonstrated how the islands were made. Pretty incredible, and I’m still not sure I completely understand. We took a ride in a gondola across the lake for five soles. It was freezing. Very neat to see though.  We are now back on the bus, waiting to leave to cross the border from Peru to Bolivia.
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Walking to the boat.

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A model of the island and everything on it.

6pm update- sitting in a restaurant waiting for food for the first time today since breakfast at 5 am. I had a package of crackers, but that’s it! Finally crossed the border, the guides helped me because I was the only American and the process is much more complicated.

 

If you’re an American citizen, you DO need a visa to get into the country. Also, the cost is $160, since that is what it would cost for a Bolivian to get into America, it’s reciprocated.
Obviously it would have been ideal to get a visa beforehand, but as I booked this trip a week before I left, there was no way I could have sent in my passport and had it back in time. So, I got it at the border.

 

Here’s what was required:
-$160 cash (no ink marks or tears on the bills)
-a valid passport
-two copies of your passport
-signed application form
-hotel reservation
-bank account statement
-full color photo
-itinerary while in Bolivia
-proof of exit out of country (airfare receipt, train ticket, etc.)

 

I had done a lot of research on this, as they’re very strict, and made multiple copies of each item. I had also got my yellow fever vaccine, although it is no longer a requirement, but recommended.
The guide on the bus basically checked all my documents twice and then took me to the front of the long line of people waiting. He said, “This is your window. Sit and wait to be called.”  All in all, it was painless. I was worried about the dollar bills… I rarely carry cash on me, so I didn’t take the $160 out until right when I left Cusco, but almost every single bill had an ink mark on it! Luckily, it turned out okay and the bills were accepted. Then we got back on the bus, it was so hot. Pulled up to Copacabana and I swear I’m the only one that’s staying here, everyone else is moving on to La Paz.  I also asked the guide where Hostel Sonia was and he said it was a 10 min walk uphill. So I got off the bus and started hiking up the hill. I couldn’t find it to save my life and kept backtracking. Even after asking people. I finally took the road behind the church and found it. The sun was scorching, and my back ached from the weight of my pack. I was also starving, but didn’t have time to eat anything because I needed to be at the white anchor meeting point to leave for Isla del Sol at 2:15 pm. Got my room, put my bag down and basically ran back out.  Got on the boat, sat up top and talked to some others. It was freezing. In my haste, plus being hot and sweaty and late, I didn’t bring a jacket. Isla del Sol was pretty. We hiked up past the temple and then to the top, then down the side through the town. Seeing the snow-capped Andes in the distance was unbelievable. After returning to Copacabana, I inhaled a pizza in a nearby restaurant. I came back to the hostel and facetimed with JJ, buried under all the blankets I had.

 

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Made it to Bolivia!

DAY 9. Friday, July 22– Can’t believe it’s Friday! I woke up at 7ish but didn’t have breakfast until about 8:45. I  am back in my room, showering, and repacking my bag. I have started to form a blister on my right foot, the third toe in. It hurts so bad. Today, I plan on just walking around and exploring until I catch my bus at 5 pm. I left the hostel and walked around the church square a bit, then down the road to the sparking blue water, cutting across and walking all along the beach.
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Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana.

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The colorful streets of Copacabana.

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Coca candy is surprisingly good, and also a lifesaver.

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Island of the Sun, Island of the Moon.

There were tents, trampolines, kids playing games and learning to ride bikes, and of course, several dogs. I sat next to a tree and had some coca candy. The candy is really good! I want to take some back to the States but I also don’t want to get arrested or fined or detained at the border. I’m trying to make it back to the States without any issue. Soooo, yeah. After my walk along the gorgeous lake, I stopped at a restaurant to refuel. I got the lunch menu- quinoa soup, they also served bread with a spicy salsa. I ordered a pineapple juice drink. Then the main course was chicken, with rice and some type of carrot and potato casserole. It was all delicious! Dessert was sliced bananas in a cup with chocolate syrup over it. I charged my phone and took off my socks and boots, it felt SO good to get out of them. I could feel my skin getting hot in the bright sun.
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Some much needed R&R.

After, I went to the hostel and grabbed my backpack, then hopped back on the bus. Left Bolivia, then had to cross back into Peru. No issues with either borders.
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Back in Peru!

We stop in Puno for dinner, then get in to Cusco at 6 AM. I can’t believe that I’ll leave for the States in just two days. It’s unreal to me that I’ve been here. That I AM here. I still don’t think it has sunk in yet.

 

DAY 10. Saturday, July 23– Last night was rough. We went to a pizza place for dinner (put in our orders on the bus) and she read mine wrong so ordered me carbonara pasta instead. I ate it because it would take too much time to remake, plus I’m not a picky eater at all and didn’t mind. But for some reason, it didn’t make me feel good. Then,  I wanted to sleep but couldn’t get comfortable, even though this bus was even bigger and had foot rests. Then someone threw up on the back of the bus and we had to stop. It was awful. Got in around 5:30 AM, I was the last to be dropped off in the taxi, and we hit road blocks (police by the plaza and a car down the other way) so I didn’t get in until after 6:30. And they don’t have a room ready for me, so I’m currently sitting out in the main lobby where it’s 33 degrees. Yes, you read that right.  My feet hurt from my boots.
 I finally went to the reception area again around 9:15 am and was told that the room now wouldn’t be available until 11 am. So I put my backpack in storage, and headed up to the ruins again to see if I could find the other two I missed. I did find them….after what seemed like forever! The first one, Qenqo (or Q’inqu) is believed to be where sacrifices and mummification took place. On the other side of the ruin, at the exit, I asked the girl and she said it’s possible to walk to the next. So I headed up, even though another had instructed me to take the bus. But why pay when I can walk, right? Boy was I in for a surprise. The girl had told me it was easy, possible, and about 10 minutes. I don’t know how long it took me, but it was not ten minutes.  All uphill, around curves and bends. It was rough, and I kept thinking that I was getting closer only to look at Google maps and realize how long I still had. I saw a sign that said it was 5 more kilometers. 3 miles more! After already hiking for almost an hour. I had already come that far…I might as well continue. Besides, what else did I have to do today? So I finally made it to the next ruins- Puca Pucara and Tambomachay.  After exploring, I took the city bus down and got off by where Qenqo was and walked back to the hostel from there. I checked in, plugged in my phone, kicked off my boots and drifted in and out of sleep. Anyway, I decided around 2 pm (after an hour here) to head back out. I went to the Peru Hop office and thanked them. The guide from yesterday, Alex, was there, and they gave me a free shirt and we chatted for a while. And then I separated from them and went to the market, got a juice drink (it definitely is worth the hype- so much better in the market than anywhere else!) Then I stumbled upon a restaurant called Norton’s Pub where you could sit outside in the sun and look over the plaza. I made friends from Argentina and they were talking to me for a while about Cusco and travel and etc and I helped them out with what I could. Then, I gave in to the tourist trap of taking a picture with a Quechua woman and baby lamb. Checked in for my flights, and getting as much sleep as I can before my long day of travel tomorrow!
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Cool spot in Qenqo.

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Finally made it to Puca Pucara!

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The one time in my life I felt tall. And how cute are these little guys! 

DAY 11. Sunday, July 24– Another thing about Cusco- they love their fireworks! Managed to get decent sleep, got up this morning, had breakfast, and finalized packing. Starting to not feel good so had some coca tea and coca candy. After a quick taxi ride to the extremely small airport, and an easy flight from Cusco to Lima, I got my pack when I landed about 2:30 pm and went to find the Spirit counter, apparently it doesn’t open until 8 pm. My flight is at 10 pm. And the wonderful thing *sarcasm* about the Lima airport is that it only offers free wifi for ten minutes. Needless to say, I couldn’t be without it for my 8 hour wait.
I was sitting here and a Peruvian woman came over asking for help. At first I thought she was asking for money or something. It turns out it was her English homework and she was trying to translate.  So I agreed and helped her. She was very sweet, had an 11 year old that loved English and was learning, she was a teacher and needed to improve her English to help her students. At the end, she asked how much she owed me. I assured her it was nothing. We talked more of Peru, the English language, and life. She gave me her email and contact info, and a kiss on the cheek and a hug. She was so nice and so sweet! Basically told me if I came back to Peru, to look her up and she’d help me. It really just goes to show how amazing the world can be when you put your phone down and make a real connection.
Got through security, inhaled Chinese food, and charged my phone. Can’t believe I’m headed home.
And 12 hours later, look who I see waiting for me at the airport!

 

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Reunited with my wonderful parents!

It’s surreal to me that this adventure is over, and even more so that it even happened in the first place! I’m grateful for the friends and memories I made along the way, the opportunity to see seven cities and two countries, and for a safe return home. I hope you enjoyed following along with me!
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25 Things I Wish I Knew Before 25

  1. You will actually miss nap time when you’re older. Milk it.
  2. Your mother will become your best friend. Treat time with her like the treasure it is.
  3. Quit wishing for happiness, create it.
  4. Every second you spend wondering what someone else is thinking is a second lost.
  5. Next time your mom cooks dinner, let her show you how.
  6.  Just stop trying to sneak out- you get caught every time.
  7. The more you chase boys, the more they elude you.
  8. It will take a LOT of failed attempts before you find your way, don’t worry.
  9. Sometimes your accomplishments will not make other people happy.
  10. Crush those goals, anyway!
  11. Remember when your brother bit his nails? Don’t try it. You won’t be able to stop.
  12. Never, ever stop writing.
  13. Not everyone is meant to stay in your life. Learn to let them go.
  14. Hot Pockets are not dinner. Neither are Reese’s Cups. (See #5.)
  15. Start and keep a journal. Take pictures. Your memory is terrible.
  16. Drinking isn’t always fun.
  17. Those things you hate: taxes, bills, insurance? They’re frustrating, but important.
  18. Learn to love yourself before you give so much love away to the wrong people.
  19. Someone is always prettier/smarter/luckier. Stop comparing, you still have things they don’t.
  20. Friendships ending can hurt worse than breakups. Despite everything, you’re worthy of the best love.
  21. Take that damn trip!
  22.  Stop spending so much money on stupid shit. Seriously.
  23. Start running. It will teach you more mentally & physically than you could ever know.
  24. You are never too young or too old to change your life. Do what your heart wants.
  25. You’re going to be just fine. Laugh it off or learn from it- it’s all going to be okay.

 

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Making the Connection

This past week, I have thought a lot about connections. How they’re made and strengthened, or broken in an instant, or missed by a moment…

How strange is it that girls I thought would someday be standing beside me on my wedding day haven’t spoken to me in years?

They had been there through moments nobody else had- my first real break up, holding my hair back after too much vodka, picking up the phone when everything was falling apart. They knew me like no one else had. I get that they’re called memories for a reason, but how one could just forget these huge moments and years of knowing and move on, the Earth still spinning and them not shaken, stunned me.

Perhaps it was entirely my fault. Did I not call enough? Put myself first instead of them? Have some quirky habits that they got sick of? Or did I just try too desperately to tape back  together a friendship that was beyond the point of repair? It was ridiculous how I pounded these thoughts into my skull looking for answers. This was a friend, not a boyfriend. I thought they were supposed to be there forever. I know there is a reason and season to everything. Maybe ours just was over. We were meant to be inseparable in those crucial years, to learn and be there for one another, but beyond that, grow apart into our own separate selves. Our friendships weren’t serving us anymore.

But in some cases, their presence on social media still haunted me. Part of me wonders why I haven’t severed the remaining ties between us. The block/delete button is right there, but so hard to push. What am I holding on to? Or am I worried that will send the wrong message? Better yet, why do I still care, if they don’t?

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I heard somewhere that your high school friends often disappear, because people grow up and change and go away to college, and the bonds that cannot withhold the distance will soon break. Plus, your college friends become more like your family due to the capacity in which you are living near/with them 24/7, and you begin the foreign adventure into adult life together. I thought I believed that until I lived through it.

Three nights ago, I had dinner with a friend I’d maybe spoken to a handful of times during my time as an undergraduate student. He has never seen me projectile vomit at a fraternity house, nor did he ever know what was going through my mind when I broke up with my first boyfriend. In fact, he probably knows very little about my family or my favorite color. But he knows exactly how it felt when I stepped foot off the plane in Barcelona, and how my heart continues to ache for the places I haven’t even been to yet. And he was the first to guide me and help me with traveling, and despite our many differences, is always someone I can rely on when it comes to my journey.

Similarly, two coworkers who have husbands and pets (of which I have neither) and who I met during my 9-5 have become two women that I admire most. I cherish our friendship and the roads that brought us together, though I never expected them to lead us here. We are now training for a full marathon together. Lord knows anyone who sees you sweat is seeing a side of you that others will never understand!

With other friends, it has been more like a cha-cha. We live far away, (Washington, Utah, South Carolina, New York, etc.) yet EVERY single time I meet up with them, I find the conversation barreling past 90 mph and picking up right where we left off. They don’t hear much about my day to day life or even what’s really been going on in my life via frequent messages, but I have full faith that they would be there to see me through it.

I have made so many acquaintances in my small corner of the world, and it has helped me to connect (and in some cases, reconnect) with amazing people. And sometimes, it is shocking who has proved to be there for me.

But that’s how it goes. Several people I thought I would never lose touch with, I have. And those who I was not close with, I now spend time with and talk to regularly. Life keeps you constantly on your toes like that.

Quite similar is the evening I shared with four incredible individuals (The Night Five Strangers Fell In Love). We did not have the same native language, nor did we spend more than only 24 hours together, but they have set my soul on fire in a way no one else has, especially in that short of time.

And what about all the connections that we miss? Before my boyfriend and I started dating, we had several run-ins at college. We had an insane amount of mutual friends. I had been in the building where he lived. It is quite possible that we were in the same room at the same party on more than one occasion, yet maybe we just were not ready for one another. We needed that time to become who we are, and to be ready for one another. Fast forward four years after graduation, and it is still mind boggling to think, “What if?”

One of the main reasons I have such a strong passion for travel is because of the connections I am able to make while doing so. And no, I don’t mean just with other people, although that’s evident. I have felt the presence of God standing on the top of Schilthorn more than I ever have in a church pew. I have felt more loved when I was completely alone on top of the castle of Sant Joan than surrounded by friends and family. I have befriended a couple who was nearly 3-4 times my age and never missed a beat feeling right at home. I found out who I was when I navigated city maps and got lost on street corners, when I was angry or sad or hurt, lonely or confused. I found myself by leaving what I thought I knew behind. There is such a deep connection made through more than the sights. More often than not, travel discovery becomes self discovery.

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I’ve got this notion that airports are just so freaking romantic. There are hellos and goodbyes in every terminal, and it’s that moment where a loved one steps off a plane, or gives one final goodbye wave before boarding, that I have both felt and witnessed such true and pure emotion. There is nothing like it. I could people watch for hours if security would let me. Everyone is just trying to get somewhere, you know? We all have our stories, our connections, our ties to something and someone. Who knows where they intersect? And though many of these people are rushing, there’s fleeting glimpses between strangers, always flirting with the idea of the unknown, or a smile, like maybe they knew you in another life.

I’m not sure what solidifies these connections, but in 2016 I aim to make many more…and who knows? Maybe I’ll meet you somewhere along the way.

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Speechless in Sevilla

August 2013

I traveled to Sevilla only as a stopping point between my travels from Barcelona to Morocco. I was there less than 48 hours. But in the end, this city ended up capturing me entirely with its charm, breathtaking gardens, vast art and architecture, and surprisingly wonderful people.

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Plaza de España, Torre del Oro, Palace of San Telmo

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Teatro Lope de Vega, Plaze de España, streets in Sevilla

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Metropol Parasol (Las Setas), Plaza de España

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                        Sevilla Inn Backpacker’s (my hostel), outside La Giralda

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 More Plaza de España, La Giralda, Door of Pardon and Patio de los Naranjos,
Plaza de Triunfo, Se Renovo

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Rio Guadalquivir 

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Snapshots of Sevilla, Spain.

One of the most breathtaking places I have ever seen, and where I met the most beautiful people. Fitting that it was on my mother’s birthday- God must have known I needed family when He made my path cross with these four. I can only chalk it up to fate.

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The Night Five Strangers Fell in Love

Picture this- It’s nearly midnight in Sevilla, Spain. I’m just getting to my hostel when I hear a Jack Johnson song being played in the distance. As exhausted from my travels and at the end of my rope as I am (getting lost, train delays, aching feet, empty stomach, etc.) the melody pulls at my heartstrings. Even though I am tired, I don’t want to wonder “What if?” Something tells me I need to find where it’s coming from…so, somewhat reluctantly, I follow the sound to discover Jukebox Munich (pictured below).

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And damn it, they’re good, and funny, and play songs I still love. I’m hooked. I drop my heavy backpack, tell my sleepy conscience to hush, and decide to stay a while. While sitting there on the curb listening to them, I meet Andrea, from Italy. He had a camera and an infectious smile:

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We make small talk until it dives deeper into the darker parts of ourselves, and we tune out the music. After playing hours on end, the band calls it a night. Just as I’m thinking this is where my late night ends, someone makes a suggestion. And just like that, with a crowd of about fifteen, we all decide to get beer and hang out before going our separate ways home. However, it’s too early in the morning, and everything is still closed. We walk to the other side of the river, where a place was closing, but one of the locals convinced the owner to sell us beer for a euro. He poured them out quickly- red solo cups halfway filled- as if he was going to get caught.

So we go and sit next to the river, our half beers in hand, and next thing I know, we were talking about what our dreams were and who our siblings were dating, how we felt about having kids and marriage, language barriers and what we studied in school, all while the band carried on in the background.  Andrea seemed taken aback when I asked him what his dream was.  Moments later he finally brought it back up and said, “I want to do something with politics. I see so much about how old European tradition is fading away, and how the States and Italy and others have these problems, and I want to help fix that. Although I know that’s impossible.” It was such an unexpected answer and I could tell he didn’t share it with a lot of people. He asked me about mine. Why I was traveling. How I’m very different than what he expected from an American, though he knows we’re not all the same.

When the band finally had enough, and the crowd disappeared,  Andrea, three Spanish girls (Júlia, Melanie and Martina) and I stayed behind, still mid-conversation. I discovered the girls were from Costa Brava as well, not far from Blanes! Júlia studied in Rome so she could speak some Italian with Andrea, and and Martina had previously lived in Canada, and all three of them could speak English with me. We ended up sitting on a street corner while they rolled cigarettes and spoke about everything from this side of the sun. I completely bared my soul to them about the fear of losing my parents, about being terrified that I would not find whatever it was I came to Europe to discover, how I felt conflicted with my “almost” relationship, fights with my brother, my thoughts on gun control and gay marriage, etc. You name it, we covered it.

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             Martina                                                       Melanie and I

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           Júlia                                                        Andrea

It made me sad, even ashamed, to hear the stereotypes of Americans- just always thinking their way is right and that they are superior to other countries. I know this is a common stereotype, but I don’t want to be seen this way. While I love my country, I don’t think we are the best. I can’t disagree, however, that America has become wrapped up in fast food and television and so consumed by their own stress. The European lifestyle is about savoring– lunch and the company you are with is ENJOYED, not rushed. I wish we were that way. So many  Americans want to go to Europe, but it is not necessarily the case with all Europeans. I find this interesting.

Martina was tall, with so much spunk in her personality that although it would be easy for people to perhaps not appreciate it or like it, it made me fall in love with her. She had no boundaries on her feelings, no apologies about her thoughts, or words. Her outstretched hands brushed yours when she laughed. I felt instantly comfortable around her, around all of them, actually. She just didn’t give a shit about being anything but herself and it caught me off guard how much I admire that in a person. I wished I could be so secure in my own skin, so unapologetically myself. She was so strong because maybe before she had been forced to be. Melanie was beautiful, with dark hair and light eyes, and quiet, not as fluent in English. She agreed to many things we were saying, and I could tell her spirit was young but on fire. The streetlights shone across Júlia’s tan skin and reflected off her nose ring. She had the warmest brown eyes. She could say anything, and you’d trust her. She confided to us about how her parents separated and she didn’t become close with them until after that. She said she realized as we are getting older that they are not the vision of what we thought they were, they make mistakes and have hard times and need us, too.  We can’t force them to feel something or understand and change. But that when they finally realize it, we will be there with open arms.

Andrea told me he lives more than an hour away from his parents and at 25, this is his first time really traveling alone. He said he initially was nervous but felt he needed to do it. And how without that freedom, we never would have met each other. I realized he was right- if we were with our families or friends, we probably would never have thought to approach or speak to one another. He argued how we should really pursue writing or singing or painting, or whatever the hell it is that we want. Martina said it best- maybe it’s not even fear of failure that we are so scared of…it’s what happens once we actually GET what we want or have been searching for- will we take it? And then what? That is the big question, because we are always looking for and wanting something better.

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We talked about how it shouldn’t be so hard to love one another. I really just wanted to break down…I was falling in love with these strangers, these new friends, and we were feeling something so much bigger than ourselves, talking about the world and although we knew and had only seen so little, we realized so much. Some people, they said to me, would never do what you did, they’re too scared, and you’ve already made the most courageous step you could. I don’t think they could ever understand how much I needed to hear that.

We laughed, too- talking about the “cobra” move in a club when a guy approaches you and you duck away. I learned so many tongue twisters in Catalan and words for things that I didn’t know had their own definition (all of which I have now forgotten). Also, that all Catalans talk about is shit. “My face is shit.” “My life is shit.” I was dying of laughter.

Finally, Andrea looked at his watch and realized it was 7:30 a.m. He suggested breakfast. So we walked around to find a restaurant but none were really open at 7:30 am, and if they were, they didn’t look that appealing. Finally, we stopped at the square, where we joked Andrea was Lord of the Flies since they all kept landing on him. We saw an older man painting the most beautiful picture of the cathedral. Took snapshots of us laughing and looking dead in zoning out from zero sleep. We finally stopped to eat, getting pan con tomate and jamón, and café con leche. Everything was so good and perfect and cheap and we just laughed because Júlia said it was her favorite birthday she’s ever had and that she didn’t even feel tired even though she had been up for almost a full day, and everything was fate that brought us together. And that since I had to leave at 2 p.m., why not spend every second together and make the most of the last time we have together?

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So I checked out of my hostel early and they bought me a Red Bull and we headed toward Júlia’s car, which was near the corner of O’Neill’s restaurant that we had been sitting at and talking all night. She went to park it somewhere else because they were giving out tickets, but we ended up listening to “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke (which was so cool that, despite being from three different countries, we all knew) and driving the completely wrong direction to just make a circle and park the car again in the same spot, finally giving in to just paying the meter. It made me laugh because that’s precisely how I drive.

I convinced them to go to Plaza de España and I loved their reactions to its unspeakable beauty, because it was exactly how I felt when I saw it for the first time. We took pictures and sweated under the sun together, then got granizado to quench our thirst, and cool our throats. So refreshing and good! Headed back to the square by the cathedral and sat in the shade next to the building where a man played the guitar (probably annoyed by our incessant talking), and the horse drawn carriages were pulling in. They kept telling me I’d have to write the story of our night but I can’t think of one word to say about it. Even if I could think of a million, it wouldn’t do it justice.

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I swear to you, we just couldn’t stop talking. Our conversation continued into handsome Spanish dads and why they don’t like bullfighting, and how Júlia’s mother makes her gazpacho for when she is hungover and gets home early in the morning and sleeps all day, how European lifestyle is just better and I just need to move here. Our feet were caked with dirt, Júlia’s nice once white shorts stained from sitting on city curbs and street corners and dirty pub chairs. Martina’s thick dark eyebrows danced when she talked, a wide mouth grin and deep voice, that went high when she sang or got excited, always joking. Melanie’s bright blue eyes reflecting with the sun, her dark curly hair bouncing as she laughed and shook her head at Martina. I cherished them…Júlia’s warm embrace and Andrea’s smile that lit up like a sunrise and their nose rings that I thought about getting sophomore year of college and the fact that they rolled their own cigarettes and could speak three languages and still be so incredibly beautiful after all the traveling and nights without sleep. I was soaking in every moment. I learned if you close your eyes and have a spoon in your hand, the moment the spoon drops you’re having the best moment of sleep. What about the best day of your life? I wanted to say.

And I started to cry right then and there, because I had never felt happier, or experienced a connection like this before, but also because I knew this was probably the last time I would ever see them again.

Perhaps we were only meant to have that one night, Júlia said.

Maybe she was right. Maybe it was so perfect, it could only last a day. But it was enough- in just those hours, they changed my life and healed my soul.

So this is for you, my dearest friends. Until we see each other again.

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All my love,

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