When I was 29, I Learned How to Cross the Street

I’d been in Asia for a little over two months when I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, still known as Saigon among the locals. I’d heard tales of Vietnam’s glory from other backpackers – incredible food, breathtaking landscapes, and some of the friendliest and smiliest locals you can find. At the unbeatable budget of less than $25 per day, Vietnam certainly seemed like a great place to be. I’ll admit that I was skeptical. Southeast Asia has been a backpacker favorite for decades – how much can one country really stand out so much among its regional neighbors?

I’d also heard rumors of how intimidating it can be to cross the street in Vietnam. Motorbikes rule this country (they even drive on the freakin’ sidewalk!!!), and watching them on the main roads was like watching class 5 rapids on a river. I’d even heard stories that you could pay locals to hold your hand and help you cross. Since there aren’t many street lights for pedestrian use, parting the sea of bikes seemed like an impossible task. Everyone insisted the trick was to just go for it, and the bikes would simply weave their way around you. Seriously, this was everyone’s solution, but I figured it couldn’t possibly be true. So I wasn’t thrilled to arrive in Saigon by myself without anyone by my side to learn the seemingly-insurmountable task of crossing the street. I’d learned how to do it once before (around the age of 5), yet somehow I felt more intimidated by this than I had about a lot of other things I’d done – like fly to Asia alone for 4 months. Travel is weird like that.

My first meal in Vietnam was breakfast the morning after I arrived – the most delicious noodle soup I’ve ever eaten. In fact, this exact bowl of noodly goodness was the reason I chose this particular hostel. Choosing one can be a tedious task as most of them offer a lot of the same things. But as I perused the options for my first impression of Vietnam, I found a review of Vitamin Smiles Hostel raving about the breakfast soup made by a sweet Vietnamese grandmother who spoke no English, and with whom you had to communicate by pointing to a sign indicating your two soup options – vegetarian or pork. Grandma Saigon did not disappoint. I sat and talked with a German guy of Vietnamese heritage who gave me a crash course in Vietnamese – hello, thank you, and how to count to 10 – and then I set out to discover a bit of the city, determined not to let a few two-wheeled machines get the best of me.

Not long after I started my mission to visit the Vietnam War Remnants Museum, I came straight back to my hostel. The rumors were true. I would need to cross 3 lanes of oncoming traffic, reach a median, and then cross 3 more lanes with bikes coming from the other direction. I took one look at that road and immediately turned around. New cities can be quite intimidating, and this particular one had been extra hyped up. So, as sometimes happens when you’re getting accustomed to a new place, I silently gave Saigon one point and completed my walk around the block back to my hostel. I mean, I’d already eaten the soup. That certainly counted as enough cultural experience for the day, right??

I was starting to wonder if I should just get on a bus to my next destination (the much smaller city of Da Lat, and in my opinion, the much more approachable way to re-learn the basics of how to be a pedestrian) when I experienced a bit of travel magic. In strolled Ben from Colorado who’d just spent months riding his own motorbike from north to south, and who offered to sell it to me since he was leaving that night for Taiwan. I rolled my eyes as I recounted the details of my morning, and he laughed in that “you’re clearly new here” way. He assured me it wasn’t so bad as long as you just go for it, and invited me to join him for his favorite vegetarian banh mi – Vietnam’s famous sandwich that costs about $0.45. His humor and expertise on local crosswalk culture was exactly what my weary soul needed.

The sandwich shop was only a few small side streets away from the hostel, but at least I was getting a little more practice out on the road. He told me tales of his ride through the country and shared his favorite spots that were absolute must-sees on my 3 week journey north. He also gave me a crash course on vegetarian eating in Vietnam. Before parting ways, he assured me that I would be totally fine crossing the street, and that all I had to do was find a mini break in the sea of bikes and start walking. He was convincing enough, and I left feeling ready to conquer my ridiculous fear. Our friendship only lasted for a meal, but it was one of the most reassuring meals in my entire Asian adventure.

There I was, back at the edge of the crosswalk as a million motorbikes whizzed past. I watched a few people make their way from the other side, and learned that everyone was in fact right. I just had to start walking and the bikes magically made their way around the humans. I stood there for what felt like an eternity, talking myself into the treacherous crossing, when two elderly women suddenly appeared by my side. They didn’t speak to me (they didn’t even look at me), but I knew this was my chance. They started walking and I fell right in step with them, their bodies shielding me from the oncoming traffic to my left. We were in the middle of the mayhem and we weren’t getting hit. It was amazing. It was almost beautiful. And then we came to the median and I was suddenly the first of 3 in line with the bikes coming from the other direction. I almost panicked, but they kept walking so I did too. We magically reached the place I’d so badly wanted to be – the other side of the street. I almost cheered and jumped for joy, but then I realized that the women had already continued on their way, never even batting an eyelash at the remarkable feat we’d just accomplished together. We’d crossed the street, that was all.

Moral of the story: when in doubt, find a little old lady. They have been perfecting the art of street-crossing for decades and they quickly make you feel like a pro even if there’s no way for you to communicate. They also make a mean soup.

Despite my rocky start, Vietnam stands out as one of the top 3 places I’ve ever been, mostly due to the outstanding beauty of the country and the awesome people I shared my time with there. Stay tuned for more stories from 3 of my most favorite weeks on the road.

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Last January I was sitting in a café in Raleigh, NC with my best friend Claire. For a few months prior we had been vaguely talking about backpacking together, but she had decided it was time for her to look for a more stable job that allowed her to live closer to her family. I knew this was a possibility, and as she finished the sentence that I knew was hard for her to tell me, a question popped into my head. It actually felt like this question landed on the table between us and slapped me in the face. It said: “So Kelly, are you going to go backpacking alone, or are you going to forget about the idea entirely?”

I asked the question out loud to Claire, and her response was exactly what I needed to hear. “You can absolutely do this!” And that was that. The decision was made. Claire had done some backpacking in South America after her study abroad semester in Cusco, Peru, so we pulled out Google Maps and she started rattling off a list of must-see places in Bolivia and Peru. She also knew a little about the gringo trail in other parts of the continent, and soon I had a rough itinerary of places to visit. I ordered Lonely Planet: South America on a Shoestring and began researching my first solo adventure. At the top of my list of priorities was how to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This was Claire’s biggest recommendation and it required some advance planning.

At the height of their history, the Inca Empire spread from Ecuador to Chile and east into Bolivia. Cusco, Peru was the center of their empire, and the Inca Trail was a 40,000 km network of highways to connect the various places to Machu Picchu, one of the most sacred of all the Inca sites. In an effort to preserve this Inca citadel, the government of Peru only allows 500 people per day to begin the 4 day, 26 mile (43 km) hike on the Inca trail which leads you along a mountainous path of Inca ruins and stunning nature. Hikers must be accompanied by a licensed guide employed by an authorized company for the duration of the trek. Permits must be purchased months in advance because of their limited quantity, and for this reason, many backpackers I met chose to hike other routes to Machu Picchu since planning is the last thing most backpackers are doing. (If you’re interested in how to hike to Machu Picchu for free, check out my friend Nick’s blog about the Salkantay Trek!)

Claire convinced me that the Inca Trail was the way to go and when I looked online, June 15 was the earliest date I could get a permit. I knew I would need to be back for my summer job the following week, so I bought the permit with Alpaca Expeditions before I purchased any flights. I remember receiving my confirmation email after paying a deposit and thinking, “okay, I guess this trip is really happening.”


Getting ready to begin at kilometer 82

The price tag for this trek is no joke: $650 is the average cost! You can find companies that offer the trek for less, but I had read that they cut costs by paying their guides and porters lower wages. I wanted to make sure that the company I chose had high standards for paying their staff, and Alpaca Expeditions also seemed to follow environmental and sustainability best practices. The cost includes food and water, transportation to and from the trek, camping gear, Machu Picchu entrance fees, and a full team of staff dedicated to your group. I felt good about my choice, and continued to feel good about it after asking my guides lots of questions about the circumstances under which they and our incredible team of chaskis* worked.

*Our guide Herlín taught us the Quechua word chaski which means messenger, and out of respect for the job they do, this is how we referred to the group of porters who traveled with us.

Hiking with a dedicated group of porters made this trek immensely easier, and to be honest I will probably never do a hike this way again. These men worked so hard for the sole purpose of my happiness over these 4 days, and the humanitarian in me couldn’t believe that I was participating in this type of industry. I am aware that for many people this is the only way they could have completed this hike, and I both respect and understand that. From a humanitarian perspective however, although the porters in my group seemed to be paid well and treated fairly by the company they work for, it is not an industry that I want to support again. I don’t want to disrespect anyone who disagrees with me, but I don’t feel I can write about my Inca Trail experience without being honest about my thoughts on this topic. For this reason, I have decided to elaborate in a separate blog post in an effort to not take away from the experience of the hike itself, and you can read more about it here.

The day finally came to start the trek and I was picked up from my hostel in Cusco at 4:30am by our chipper guides, Herlín and Manolo. We drove for about 5 hours and made a quick stop in Ollantaytambo to pick up our team of 16 chaskis before arriving at kilometer 82 where the hike begins. As soon as we arrived, the chaskis jumped off the bus and got right to work setting up an elaborate breakfast to prepare us for the day.


Our chaskis preparing their packs to hit the trail

Claire had described the experience as the physical feat of her life so I was nervous. I had read a lot about the difficulty of the trail because of the altitude and the steep inclines and descents. It turns out that having just finished the Ausangate Trek the week before was incredible training for this hike. The altitudes on the Inca Trail are lower than where I had been for 2 and 1/2 weeks, so I was definitely acclimatized. I wasn’t going to be carrying nearly as much weight in my backpack thanks to the chaskis. For the first time in my life, I was one of the more athletic people in the group. If you know me, this has never, ever been the case for me. Although I love hiking. exercising doesn’t bring me joy (especially cardio) and I’ve never been an athlete. During these 4 days, I was primarily at the front of our group instead of bringing up the rear like all of the other hikes I’ve done. I promise I am not trying to brag, but I was quite proud of my ability and felt stronger than ever.


This map shows the 26 mile hike to Machu Picchu

The first day starts out at 2,600 meters (8,500 feet) in the Inca jungle – on a sunny day (which we were so lucky to have the whole time) it is hot! As we hiked up, we could see the Urubamba river below surrounded by lush green mountains. As we got a little higher we could also see a glacier in the distance (I sure do love looking at glaciers!!). We passed Patallacta, an archaeological site believed to have been a common place to stop and rest for Inca travelers along the trail on their way to Machu Picchu. The hardest part of the day came after lunch with a steep incline before arriving at our campsite.



When we arrived at our campstie our chaskis were there working hard to set up and cook us an incredible meal. Seriously, the meals they prepared each day were impressive! I don’t think I could make this caliber of food in a full kitchen with all the amenities, never mind in the middle of nature with a camp stove lit up by a few headlamps. After dinner we gathered in a big circle with our guides and chaskis, and everyone introduced themselves and where they were from. Our guide translated to Spanish and to their native Quechua*, and I was so proud to be able to communicate my story in Spanish! The chaskis also told us what they were each specifically carrying in their bag. I was really happy that we had this time to learn a tiny bit about them and to make them feel like they were also a part of our group. After learning a little about the constellations thanks to some amazing stargazing, we were off to bed early to rest up for another long day of hiking.

*Although many Inca traditions were lost during the Spanish invasion, the Quechua language was kept alive and continues to be spoken in the Peruvian highlands. The Spanish were mainly interested in cities and places at lower altitudes. This was not so much the case for other indigenous populations in South America such as the Muiscas from Colombia.


My spacious home during the trek


Hard at work making a delicious dinner


These meals seriously impressed me!



Day 2 was by far the most challenging day of the trek because it involves hiking to two summits and then ascending them both. After an intense ~3 hour uphill climb, we reached Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,215 meters (13,829 feet), the highest point of the trek. The top is incredible, complete with more glacier views. You can also see the trail leading from the campsite where you start the day, and I felt a huge sense accomplishment seeing what I’d just done.


Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,215 meters (13,829 feet)


We all made it!

Hiking down the other side was much harder than hiking up in my opinion. It’s the first time that I’ve ever used hiking poles, and I was so thankful to Justin in my group who had rented them but didn’t want to use them. We basically spent the next hour and a half walking down steep stone steps. Justin let me hang onto the poles for the rest of the trek, and they made the downhill parts SO much more manageable.


What goes up must come down, as they say.


If you look closely you can see our chaskis making their way past these ruins

After lunch it was uphill again for another 2 hours where we saw some waterfalls and more breathtaking views. We passed two Inca sites this day, Runcu Raccay and Sayacmarca. Inca sites had various uses depending on their location. Some were temples used for religious ceremonies and celestial observations while others were centers of urban life and agriculture. Agricultural sites are located at different elevations based on the crops growing there, which included potatoes, coca leaves, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and corn.

I was beyond exhausted at the end of day 2, and it was a struggle to stay awake through dinner. When we woke up early the next morning, the spectacular 360 degree view which had been covered by clouds the night before was the first thing I noticed.


Our campsite on Day 2


Sure you can brush your teeth, but first we take a selfie.

We hit the trail again after breakfast for a much less strenuous and equally beautiful day. We had the Salkantay glacier in the distance and passed two more Inca sites: Phuyupatamarka and Wiñay Wayna. Both of these are only accessible via the Inca Trail, and they were two of my favorites. Since there weren’t many people around, it was easy to walk around and enjoy the structures without any crowds. We took some time at both sites to learn about some history from our guides (the details of which I really wish I wrote down or could have retained).


Salkantay Glacier


Herlín and Manolo making rope from straw


Well hello there!



Phuyupatamarka was my favorite of the ruins


Admiring what we’ve accomplished


If you don’t take a llama selfie, it didn’t happen!


Manolo speaks Llama.

After dinner on our last night, we gathered up as a group with the chaskis again to thank them for all the hard work they had done to make this trek possible for us. I was so happy to not need a translator for what I wanted to say, but even still it was difficult to find words to express the gratitude I felt for what these men had done for us. They even made us a cake on the last night – in the middle of nowhere in the woods! Using a campstove! It was truly incredible.


Our campsite on Day 3


View from my humble abode.


Seriously, they made us a cake in the woods!

Day 4 begins very early as groups rush to make it to the entrance of the last part of the trail. The gate doesn’t open until 5am but people start lining up to wait there at 3am. We were the second group in line. When they opened the gate, I walked right through and kept a steady pace until I arrived at the Sun Gate two hours later. I was among the first 10 or so people to arrive, and although I am not motivated by competition, I was happy that I arrived before 490 others obstructed the views. It made up for the hoards of people  I was about to bump into walking around Machu Picchu who had arrived from the train that morning. From the Sun Gate we looked down over Machu Picchu and watched the sun rise before the final descent into the ancient citadel.


Machu Picchu itself is amazing, but I have to say that after 4 days in the woods, being surrounded by chipper, freshly showered tourists is quite annoying. I was so thankful for all the time spent listening to the history with our guides in some of the more peaceful sites because it was hard to focus on our tour inside with thousands of people pushing through the narrow walkways. The most impressive part of this ancient city is that it was built completely by hand without the use of modern technology, high up in the mountains. I don’t know how people weren’t careening down the sides with the pure weight of the stones they were carrying. Also amazing is the fact that when they were taken as slaves by the Spanish Conquistadors, the Incas kept Machu Picchu (along with some other sites along the trail) a secret, and instead purposefully led them to other sites with less importance than Machu Picchu in an attempt to preserve it.

I dedicated this hike to my cousin, Alex David who passed away in Peru in 2010 while fulfilling his dreams of seeing this beautiful world we live in. He shared my deep love for travel, and I’m told he especially loved Machu Picchu after hiking the Inca Trail. I’m proud to be following in his footsteps and aspire to be a great adventurer like him!


I added the top rock to this cairn in honor of Alex.

I spent a lot of time hiking by myself during this trek because I was moving so much faster than my group. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to hike with them, or because I was trying to be as fast as I could, but it turned out that I was very prepared for the challenge and I was moving at a pace that felt good to me. I had a lot of time to reflect on my experiences of the past 3 months and try to make sense of how fast it flew by. In the end, it felt symbolic that I was often hiking on my own. I came to South America by myself to see if I could do it. I had a lot of doubts and I was really scared to be alone, but I’ve come a long way since the planning had begun in that little cafe in Raleigh.

My flight back to Boston was the following day. The Inca Trail was the first thing I planned and the last thing I did on my 3 month adventure. There was something strangely satisfying about ending my trip at the exact spot that made me make this trip happen in the first place. As I sat watching the sun rise over Machu Picchu, I was hit with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, both for completing this hike and for successfully living out of my backpack and moving around South America on my own. I listened to my favorite song, We Don’t Eat by James Vincent McMorrow, which I discovered on my Camino De Santiago, and took a moment of solitude to reflect on how far I’ve come. I couldn’t help but cry happy tears. I’m so proud of myself.


Among many other things, South America taught me how to fly!


The Muiscas of Monguí

Monguí is the smallest pueblo I visited in Colombia and it came on my radar as a recomendación from a French guy that my friend and I met in San Gil. Accommodations are relatively expensive there but he gave us the name of a guy we could stay with who rents out a room in his house for very cheap while his son is away in the military. It was essentially like staying in an AirBNB except that the host didn’t advertise anywhere online. This French guy (I apologize for my inability to remember names) also told us about Maruja, a woman who leads guided hikes through the Páramo around Monguí. That was about all the information we had about this place before arriving at 1am after a very long bus ride from San Gil. It’s also yet another reason why having no plan is the only way to travel like this. I learned more in Monguí about Colombia’s indigenous history than I had in any other place I visited, and I decided on going there about 24 hours before showing up. 

Maruja and Emigdio, our guides for the 8 hour hike, are brother and sister who dedicate their work to teaching people about the Muiscas, an indigenous civilization who lived in the Páramo in the Boyacá region of Colombia. After the Spanish invasion of Colombia in the 1500’s the Muiscas slowly started disappearing and are now completely gone, with no trace of their language and little knowledge about their customs and traditions. Maruja and Emigdio work to teach people about this culture in hopes of keeping the memory alive. 

The Páramo is an ecosystem around the equator with a specific vegetation and it’s unlike any kind of nature I’ve seen before. Colombia’s Páramo is 36,000 hectares. We started our hike at 2,900 meters (8,700 feet) above sea level and reached the highest point at 4,000 meters (12,000 feet). My lungs could seriously feel the altitude as we went up. We spent the day steadily inclining while learning lots about this beautiful environment and how the Muiscas lived. The main plant here is called frailejon amarillo. This fuzzy plant grows one centimeter per year, and most of the ones I saw were taller than me. I’m about 164 centimeters tall, meaning some of these plants were close to 200 years old! The punishment for killing a frailejon is 15 years in prison (and just as a reference point for how important this is, killing one person in Colombia is punishable by 4 years in prison!). These plants capture the moisture in the air and prevent the water from being evaporated back into the air. Seventy percent of the rivers in colombia come from the Páramo and 30% comes from jungles and glaciers. We were even able to drink a little of the water out of one of the plants using a small piece of straw that Maruja found. Like so many others, this ecosystem is in danger of becoming extinct because of global warming. Unfortunately some of this explanation got lost in translation while I was listening in Spanish and taking notes in English, but Maruja was extremely knowledgeable about the topic so I trust her expertise. 

The very knowledgable Maruja

Frailejones are also in danger because of farming on these lands. Cows are not native to Colombia, but they’ve been brought here for agricultural and economic purposes. We passed many frailejones that have either been trampled by cows or torn down by farmers because of their inconvenient location. Maruja was almost in tears when she saw these, and she does this tour everyday! Her passion for the Páramo was palpable. She is working hard to get UNESCO’s attention to protect the Páramo before it is lost forever. 

Maruja and Emigdio taking pictures and GPS location of this destroyed frailejon

Muisca culture was very linked to nature. Their Gods were Luna (Moon) and Sol (Sun). Every Muisca was equal, there were no hierarchies within their tribes. The matriarchy were the only people who had a bit of authority in the tribes in order to keep things organized. They generally lived to be between 100-108 years old because they lived very healthy lifestyles. They didn’t eat meat, they walked the mountains all the time, and most importantly they didn’t fight wars. 

Muiscas had a very sacred tradition for burying the dead. They were brought to the highest part of the Páramo (4,000 meters) and mummified and covered in gold dust before being buried in a hole that represented the womb. Death for them meant a trip back to the sun and to their mother’s womb. They were adorned with a lot of gold because they needed to go well presented on their trip to the sun in order to arrive and be received well. This went along with their belief that everything must go back to the Earth. It’s for this reason there aren’t any Muisca ruins, similar to what has been discovered from other indigenous cultures around the world. They only used natural materials in their buildings and it all got decomposed back into the Earth. 

Tombs where Muiscas were buried

Muiscas referred to Spanish invaders as their “little brothers.” Maruja painted the picture for us as to why. Imagine when you were young and doing something really cool and then suddenly your little sibling comes in and messes things up. That’s more or less what happened to the Muiscas. They were enslaved for no reason other than they were believed to be inferior, and if they didn’t speak Spanish they were killed. Exceptions were made for those who agreed to be baptized by the Catholic Church, and as time went on this baptism also came with a mandatory tax. Like many indigenous cultures, after years and years of death and destruction, the Muisca people along with their language and culture, disappeared. 

It’s challenging to articulate the sadness I felt when learning about the Muiscas. They seemed to live such peaceful, beautiful lives alongside nature – a true harmony. How is it possible that another culture can think themselves superior enough to barge in and destroy the other entirely? If we look at history, this has happened all over the world, and continues to happen today. Maybe not with such widespread killing but for sure there are still cultures that believe they are superior to others and they make life very difficult for those trying to live their lives through their own customs and traditions. It’s terribly sad to me that humans can’t seem to learn from their mistakes, and they continue paying the ultimate price. 

There are people who believe that while I’m traveling I am always on vacation. Of course there are days when I sit back and relax on the beach or visit some cool tourist attraction, but that is not my main goal in my travels. I travel to understand the world, to get to know cultures (current and extinct) and I try to learn something everywhere I go. I believe it makes me a more understanding, patient, and dynamic individual. Thank you to Maruja and Emigdio for contributing to my never ending education!

If you ever visit Monguí, be sure to contact Maruja at Turismongui-ocetour for an unforgettable experience (+57 313 479 8492).

Reflections on a Month in Colombia

It’s really hard to believe that I’ve been traveling for a month and that my time in Colombia has come to an end. I can feel myself standing in my parent’s kitchen the night before I left, semi-freaking out about what I was about to do. Now a month into my trip, it feels like no time at all has passed.

Maps.me is a very cool app with downloadable maps that work offline and you can leave pins in all the places you’ve been!


One of the most memorable things about my time here is the people. Colombians are some of the most open people I’ve ever met. They’re so excited to know where you’re from and share a part of their culture with you. If you walk into a store, the shopkeeper will happily chat for as long as you want and never once hassle you into buying things. Everyone is so helpful when you stop to ask for directions or recommendations. They only thing that never made sense to me is their sense of time. If you ask 5 people how long it will take to get from A to B, you will receive 5 very different answers. I was once told it would take four and a half hours to go to the same place that someone else told me would take 45 minutes. Among the chaos of traffic patterns and bus stations, every single Colombian is super tranquilo and never seems to be in a rush.


Learning about the cacao plant


Maruja teaching me about the Páramo ecosystem


Chatting with a local butcher in Villa de Leyva about the cow head in the case


Teaching this sweet girl how to braid her pony’s hair while enjoying some coffee in her mom’s café

I stayed at a place called Macondo Hostel in San Gil, and when it opened in 2006 it was the fifth registered hostel in Colombia. Now just 11 years later, hostels are around every corner in just about every place I visited. That’s some seriously fast paced growth. But despite the ease in finding mochilero-style accommodations, Colombia doesn’t really seem prepared for the amount of tourism it’s getting, especially when it comes to transportation. I mostly traveled by bus around Colombia, and even the long distance buses are more like vans that hold anywhere from 10-18 people. That doesn’t mean that’s how many people actually ride in them. I saw lots of kids sitting on the floor, people standing for long periods of time – all while driving rather quickly around windy bends and crossing the yellow line to pass cars, motorcycles, and massive trucks. These busquetas stop constantly to let people on and off regardless of how long distance the bus is supposed to be. There are no bus stops so people get on and off wherever they want. There doesn’t seem to be a system to distinguish between intracity and intercity buses, which is very frustrating when your 4 hour trip becomes a 6 hour extravaganza. On top of all this, outside of the main cities of Colombia, there aren’t really any major highways. All travel is done along windy mountain roads which further extends travel times. From what I’m told, bus travel throughout the rest of South America is very different, and even sometimes luxurious. I’m interested to see how it compares.

Colombia is a very Catholic country and evidence of this can be seen in the religious symbols on every bus I rode throughout the country. Here are some of the saints that kept me safe around every cuerva peligrosa I passed.

For the last four weeks I’ve been living on a schedule where I didn’t know what day it was and I mostly had no idea as to where I was headed next. In my nervous preparations before leaving the US, I booked a few hostels in advance in various places around Colombia based off some vague ideas of where I thought I would be and when. With the exception of where I stayed my first two nights, any hostel I booked in advance I ended up cancelling for somewhere else on a different day. I’ve learned that I am definitely a planner and that it’s so hard for me to let that go. On the road, it’s cool not to have a plan, and in fact when you have nothing planned, that’s when the best things happen. This was my experience with Minca, which is the highlight of my month in Colombia. It’s also the reason why I had so much extra time to go to Santander and Boyacá, two regions I’d barely heard anything about before coming here. When you let go of planning it allows you to truly live in the moment. You don’t have to worry about what’s coming next, so the only thing to focus on is the here and now. The reality is that you meet cool people and sometimes it works out that you all want to go to the same places around the same time. Other travelers are constantly sharing information about their favorite places and activities, which is how I ended up in Monguí. And occasionally having no plan backfires, and what you thought you could do today (take a bus to somewhere else for example) needs to wait until tomorrow for whatever scheduling reason. In these moments it would be so easy to get frustrated, throw in the towel, and book an all-inclusive resort package where you don’t need to make a single decision. Or you can shrug your shoulders and bask in the moment. This is life, in this moment now. Speaking for myself, I get so lost in thinking about the next thing that I can never fully appreciate what I’m experiencing. I’m very thankful to Colombia and to my friend Adrien whom I traveled with for 3 weeks, both of which taught me on a daily basis the importance of letting that go. This lifestyle is amazing, it’s freeing, and it’s definitely addicting.

Lessons Learned at a Colombian Bus Stop

Not everything about traveling is glamorous and fun. In fact a significant portion of the time is spent being somewhat confused by cultural things that are so normal to locals. There are moments when you just don’t understand what’s going on, no matter how well you speak the language. I don’t mean for these things to sound scary. I haven’t felt nervous or in danger at all in Colombia. I just mean to say that it’s an inevitable part of the experience in a foreign country. For example on the bus ride from Cartagena to Taganga, the driver stopped every hour or so for a police officer to come on the bus (really it was a small van for about 15 people) to peek around a bit from the doorway. It seems that’s their way of being vigilant of…what? I’m not really sure. They don’t ask for identification or really say anything at all. I hear my fellow traveler Ronald’s voice in my head – “This is Colombia.”
Then there are moments of complete shock where you see something you may have imagined possible before but pleasantly lived in denial of its existence in the world. Like today for instance when I met an 8 year old girl in the bathroom at a road side “bus stop.” Her job is to flush the toilets with buckets of water because there was no running water there, and to collect 500 pesos (about $0.17) from every person who stops in. Another girl, maybe 5 years old, passes her buckets full of water from outside every few minutes. Heartbreaking. I got back on the air conditioned bus feeling heavy and confused about how the world can be so cruel to someone so innocent while here I am lucky enough to be gallivanting around this country. 

I apologize to my readers who follow my blog to read about the exciting things I encounter in my travels, but I also believe it is important to acknowledge the realities of traveling in developing countries. I’ve seen some confusing things in my travels, especially in Morocco and Romania, and I’ve observed countless moments and scenes that look very different from my cushy suburban American home, but this girl on the side of the road somewhere near Barranquilla, Colombia has been the most shocking to date. I’m sure something, somewhere, someday will top this one. For now I wish there was something I could do to change her circumstances, like hand her way more than 500 pesos and tell her to run to the nearest school she can find. Since I can’t do that, I’ll silently wish her the best and take it as another gentle sign from the universe that I’m on a journey to make a difference in this world, whatever it may be. 

I’ll end with a quote from the introduction of the safety video on my Delta flight to Cartagena. “The ones who truly change the world are the ones who can’t wait to get out in it.” Despite the confusion and heart wrenching moments, I still feel that way. More and more every day. 

Buen Camino

Last Spring, my best friend Claire and I set out on a journey that we’d talked about for a long time – El Camino de Santiago. Sound familiar? You may have seen Martin Sheen take his own Camino in the movie The Way. El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) is an 800 km path that begins in St. Jean Pied de Port, France and ends in Finisterre, Spain. Traditionally a religious pilgrimage on foot, El Camino is a trail that stretches across the north of Spain through incredible landscapes and tiny pueblos (villages). Pilgrims can walk or bike their way to Santiago de Compostela, a city in Galicia, Spain where St. James’s remains are kept in the Cathedral. They carry a credencial, a special pilgrim’s passport that gets stamped at all the places along the way. This is used as proof of the pilgrimage upon arrival in Santiago de Compostela where the pilgrim is given their compostela, a document written in latin attesting that they made the journey by foot or bicycle. For many, Santiago is where the journey ends, but it is possible to continue on to Finisterre. This peninsula is the westernmost point of Spain and gets it name from the latin words finis terrae (the end of the world) because Romans believed it to be precisely that.

Claire and I knew we wanted to be pilgrims but only had enough time for a portion of the path so we decided to do 200 km in 10 days during spring break, 2016 and end in Santiago on Easter Sunday. What we didn’t know was how much more we would end up completing, and all the camino magic we would see along the way.

It’s safe to say we were the two most excited English teachers in Madrid as the school bell rang on the Thursday afternoon in March when we started our camino. We met at the train station carrying everything we’d need for the hike in our (matching) Osprey backpacks, including a bottle of wine for the 4 hour train ride to Ponferrada, Spain where we began.


I remember feeling just like my 9 year old self on Christmas Eve; it was hard to sleep that night. We awoke bright and early the next morning to get our first credencial stamp from Ponferrada and find our first yellow shell and arrow, the official trail markers for the pilgrimage. Pilgrims also wear shells tied to their backpacks to identify that they’re walking the camino. Immediately, the people we passed (locals and pilgrims alike) greeted us by saying “buen camino,” the greeting that every pilgrim recognizes. It translates to “have a good walk” and it was just as exciting hearing it the 100th time as it was that very first morning.

We had mapped out our days and determined more or less where we were going to stay each night. There are endless guidebooks that indicate the best places to stay along the way. We quickly realized, however, that if we followed the plan we had made, we were going to arrive to our destination by noon each day! This was a problem because the villages along the way are so tiny that there’s literally nothing to do. We were walking a lot faster than what was recommended, so at lunch on Day 1 we decided to change our whole plan. We wrote it on a napkin to make it official – we were walking to the end of the world!

The interesting thing about the camino is that the only activity you have planned each day is walking. You can walk as fast or as slow as you’d like and you always meet interesting people. The landscape changes dramatically along the path. We walked through farms of chickens and cows, fields of flowers, and vineyards of grapes – each beautiful in their own way.

Pilgrims stay in albergues along the way. These are hostals reserved only for people walking or biking across Spain. It’s really an incredible thing. People arrive exhausted, covered in blisters, limping, hungry, dirty, ready to relax – and of course drink Spanish wine. In my opinion the coolest aspect of it is having only a vague idea of where you’ll be staying that night, and when you get there, walking in and asking if there’s a bed for you. A bed in an albergue costs anywhere from €5-12 and some include a hot meal at night. They come in all shapes and sizes, and range from hotel-style rooms to 50 bunk beds per room. We even stayed in two monasteries during our trip (and unfortunately neither Claire nor I have one single picture of what some of these places looked like.) In the morning, just as the sun rises, a symphony of alarm clocks sings and everyone is up and out!

People walk the camino for a multitude of reasons. Traditionally people walked for religious purposes, but we met people walking because they love Spain, because they love nature, or because they wanted to exercise more. We met families walking together, strangers who had become great friends along the way, and lots of solo wanderers. There were lots of first-time pilgrims like ourselves, and lots of people walking their second, third…tenth camino. There are people who do it in stages and others who walk for about a month straight from start to finish. Sometimes you walk with people for days, and sometimes you go days without seeing them, but somehow the ones that stick out seem to somehow pop up when you least expect it.

This is the itinerary we ended up following (for a total of just under 300 km):

Ponferrada > Villafranca del Bierzo > O Cebreiro > Samos > Ferreiros > Palas de Rei > Arzúa > Santiago > Negreira > Olveiroa > Finisterre

Since we added on so much, this meant we stayed in places “off the beaten path,” meaning not the popular bigger cities that the guidebooks suggested. They were the tiniest of tiny places but it was in these places where we had the sweetest moments with our fellow pilgrims. My favorite place we stayed was Ferreiros, population 25 and 100 km outside of Santiago. Blink and you’ll miss it, literally. We stopped here almost by accident because I had gotten a blister a few hours before and that combined with what was rapidly becoming a camino-stopping knee injury meant I just could not walk anymore. So we ate dinner in the only place available to us, and spent the evening drinking wine with the sweetest Australian mother and son duo. We shared lots of camino stories, like how we all got bamboozled by “The Pancake Lady” – a woman not a day younger than 90 who ran out of her kitchen with a plate of hot pancakes and insisted we eat one. Then, mid-bite, she asked us for money (insert you’re choice of DOH! emoji here). Our night in Ferreiros was really hygge.

As we got closer to Santiago my knee made my walk more and more difficult. There was a point when I actually thought I was going to have to stop, just 20 km outside of Santiago, and the thought was devastating. But Claire kept me motivated, and just when I thought I couldn’t go any further, we met the Australians again and walked with them for a short while. Seeing them again after 3 days gave me the extra push of energy I needed, and somehow Claire and I finished the 40 km day at the Santiago Cathedral. We saw the Australians one last time while getting our compostelas and we made vague plans to celebrate with wine later that day, but unfortunately since none of us knew where we were staying, we never ended up seeing them again. I still think about them and wish I could have told them how much seeing their smiling faces helped me to make it that last stretch.


We took a rest day in Santiago and stayed in the Parador de Santiago – a special treat from Claire’s parents and one of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed. We found a sweet family from North Carolina that we had met a few days earlier, and we shared an evening of celebration with them in the hotel bar. I was hopeful that resting my knee would heal it enough for me to keep going to the end of the world, but unfortunately the rest only made the pain and stiffness worse. So the last 3 days of my camino were a combination of buses and taxis while Claire walked, and each evening we met up again. Watching her set off without me that first morning was heartbreaking, but the NC family invited me to lunch with them so I didn’t have to eat alone that day. Their kindness truly lifted my spirits and it’s something I will never forget!

Reunited after a long day of walking (see right) and sitting (see left).

On our last walking day, I was determined to get back on my feet so I took a bus half way to Finisterre, giving Claire plenty of a head start so we could meet somewhere along the way and finish our journey together. It had been a rough 3 days of feeling like the camino had defeated me, but I did find a strange sense of peace when I finally saw the ocean and had some time to reflect on what we had accomplished. In that moment I realized that it wasn’t about finishing the camino that made it special; it’s the walking in between that makes the journey worth all the soreness and endless kilometers.


As I watched the waves crash on this beautiful beach in Galicia, Spain, I listened to what had been our theme song throughout the whole trip, which says “if I were you I’d have a little trust.” (Pause your reading and listen to We Don’t Eat by James Vincent McMorrow.) These lyrics had guided us along the path each time we thought we were lost, and in this moment, I cried as I enjoyed the incredible scenery and the amazing feeling of relief and accomplishment for making it as far as I had, regardless of the means of arriving.

I was so thankful to walk the last 15 km into Finisterre with Claire, and that night we enjoyed the biggest seafood dinner I’ve ever seen. Here we are at km 0 with our napkin from day 1 and a very full credencial.

The next day we took a bus back to Santiago to attend the Pilgrim’s Mass at the cathedral before heading back to Madrid. We had already vowed to walk our second camino together, and in May we set out again to walk another 200 km from Pamplona to Burgos, this time with Jaime by our side. Our itinerary for this part was:

Pamplona > Lorca > Los Arcos (where we took a short bus ride to) Logroño > Azofra > Belorado > San Juan de Ortega > Burgos


There are so many things I learned along the way, and as I sit here writing this 7 months later, it’s still difficult to articulate all the things the camino taught me. What stands out most is the incredibly liberating sensation of only having a vague idea of where you’re going, and I think this really resonantes with how things are in my life at the moment. Since I left Spain in June I haven’t really had a what’s next plan. As a 28-year old American, that can be really scary because our society really values having a plan. At the end of the day though, do things ever turn out as planned? Many things in my life have taught me that the answer to that question is a definite no.

In total I’ve walked about 500 km of the entire Camino de Santiago and I definitely intend on finishing it someday. My time on the camino has such a special place in my heart. These days I am practically living out of my Fjallraven Kånken backpack, and I carry a yellow arrow pin on it that reminds me everyday to keep going, with or without a plan.


Medieval Family Fun

This past Sunday I experienced a new (to me) part of fall in New England – King Richard’s Faire. This renaissance faire lasts for 6 weeks every fall and it’s quite the event. My siblings had been before and raved about it, so this year I decided to join them for a day of family fun. I always thought of it as a bit tacky but I never expected it to be as awesome as it is.


We set out for a day of medieval adventures, dressed appropriately for the occasion. The entertainment alone was quite impressive. There was the “big cats” show full of exotic felines from around the world, aerial acrobatics, lots of musical acts, and even jousting matches! Entertainers and visitors alike were all dressed for the occasion and it became clear that this is a thing people take very seriously. I saw pirates, bards, royalty, and fairies; kilts, corsets, crowns, and capes; bow and arrows, swords, staffs, and daggers. Although it is traditionally a renaissance faire, the amalgamation of anachronistic individuals made me feel truly lifted out of the 21st century into a world of wonder!


We met the King and Queen!

By far the most impressive aspect of the faire was the artisans that come to sell their handmade goods. I was expecting lots of chatchsky souvenirs, similar to what you might buy on a trip to Disney World that then live on a shelf collecting dust forever. Boy was I wrong!  There were hand carved instruments like drums and flutes, high quality leather clothing, all sorts of ceramics and pottery, and lots of swords and jewelry. Not to mention the shops that had every piece of costume attire imaginable. There were experts on family history that could trace the origins of family names and then make you cool framed combinations of your family crests. There was even a glass blower doing demonstrations of how everything is made (make sure you wear the special glasses while you watch!). Of course, everything came with a steep price tag, but I did win a kilt koozie for my master archery skills (the kilt maker challenged me to a duel and I came out victorious).

A good time was had by all but the greatest part was getting to experience the day with my brother and sister who both love this kind of thing. It was nice to be included in this part of their lives, and it reminded me of the importance of trying new things, especially with the people you love.  I will definitely be attending the faire in the future!


Where is everyone?

About a month ago, Jaime and I visited Lithuania. Similar to how we chose our trip to Romania, Google Flights was showing really affordable flights to Vilnius and we had a long weekend. So we went. Our weekend was really relaxing and mostly uneventful, although I learned a lot about the former Soviet Union and the specific impact it had on Lithuania immediately following the country’s 3 year Nazi occupation during World War II. For some reason I’ve had a really hard time writing about this trip. I’ve tried a few times but what comes out doesn’t feel interesting enough to post. So instead of highlighting our weekend itinerary, I’ve decided to take a different approach to this post and just share my observations.

First a little (recent) history. The Holocaust was a very dark time for Lithuania as Nazis occupied the country from 1941-1944 and during this time nearly all (95%) of Lithuania’s Jewish population was massacred. Our AirBNB was located in the former ghetto which is still identifiable by arched entryways that used to have gates blocking entry from (or to, I suppose) the surrounding main roads. From what we saw, about half of the city looks like it has been in need of repair for a very long time, and some buildings look completely abandoned. So despite our cute, newly renovated studio, it’s hard not to imagine who used to live in that building and what kind of terrible life they faced outside of the walls of their home.

From 1945-1991, Lithuania became part of the Soviet Union, a group of countries under Russian communist rule. The KGB (Russian secret police) had an office in Vilnius which is now a museum in honor of the victims of the genocide. The basement of the museum is preserved to look exactly as it was during the era when it was used as a prison for people arrested by the KGB. The upper floors have lots of information in the form of timelines showing when and how things happened from 1941-1991. The museum is a very solemn and sad place, but it does a good job of portraying how prisoners lived. From what I understood, anyone could be arrested for anything that did not comply with Soviet laws. This included people who were suspected of not agreeing with the form of government, regardless of whether or not they broke any laws. I’m really glad we visited the museum, but my heart felt so heavy when we left. Later we spent the evening bar-hopping and trying the variety of delicious beer Lithuania has to offer. It was a bizarre mix of cultural activities.

After only a few hours of being in the country we noticed something strange that was consistent throughout our trip and can be seen in most of the pictures we took: there are no people around. Walking around at any time of day, you see almost nobody in the streets. Once you enter a restaurant or a bar there are some people around, but still a surprisingly small number. Vilnius in November is very cold and rainy and the sun sets at 4:30pm, so I guess that makes a recipe for quiet streets. It’s a really eery feeling being in a place with no one around, even more so in the daylight than at nighttime.

So where is everyone? My personal thought is that their long history of being under such strict government rule might have instilled a cultural understanding that it’s better to be inside rather than out in public. I can’t be certain whether or not that’s true but it seems to be a likely possibility. It’s also possible that since it’s cold and dreary at this time of year, people prefer not to be outside. But then I think about the winters I’ve lived in Boston, MA or Portland, ME. Lots of people are outside walking around despite the really unpleasant temperatures and mounds of snow everywhere. So is this a cultural norm or just a coincidence?

I would have loved to talk with some locals about this and get their take on the matter. Unfortunately the people we interacted with (although for the most part friendly) were not particularly chatty. I always love asking taxi drivers lots of questions but none of the drivers that we rode with in Vilnius spoke English. On the contrary, anyone I spoke to around my age spoke English incredibly well which tells me a lot about how the education system changed after 1991. But another strange thing I noticed is that I did not see one postcard the entire time we were there, and I only saw magnets in the airport. The lack of what I consider to be the two most commonly seen souvenirs tells me that Lithuania may not be ready for tourism – or they may just not want it at all.

At times I felt a slight tone of resentment in some of the interactions I had in bars or when asking for directions. This is where it becomes really hard for me to articulate my thoughts about our trip. I can’t say I blame them really. After such dark times, maybe they just want to be left alone. I felt completely safe there but I can’t say I felt welcomed with open arms. I don’t necessarily think these are reasons not to go to a place like Vilnius, but it certainly has reminded me how important it is to consider other perspectives when formulating opinions about certain situations.

What Surprised Me about Romania

This past weekend was a 5 day weekend in Spain so Claire, Jaime and I were looking to go somewhere really different. I’ve recently discovered Google Flights which shows you a map covered in airline prices. Basically it’s a way to find the cheapest places to fly for the dates you want to go. So we chose Romania. At the time I knew nothing about it except for some bad stereotypes. After a few quick Google searches, I learned it’s where you can find Transylvania and Dracula’s Castle. Add in some Christmas markets and relatively low prices for food and drinks, and we were instantly interested and simultaneously had no idea what to expect. What awaited us is difficult to explain in a thoughtful way. If I had to describe it in one sentence I would call it a country in a strong battle of old and new. This is my best attempt to articulate my wide range of observations and feelings about what we saw. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy my time there. I actually loved our trip and learned a lot. It was one of the most bizarre cultural experiences I’ve had thus far in my travels, and that is both really rewarding and challenging to describe.

Romania has only been a unified country since 1918 (previously Transylvania and other regions were not recognized as part of the country), and they seem very proud of it based on how many Romanian flags we saw. Before that, regions were split and borders were controversial for centuries. You may have heard of Vlad the Impaler, the vicious 15th century ruler after whom the tale of Dracula was written. Vlad impaled over 23,000 people during his 6 year rule. I won’t repeat the gruesome details here, but basically he found pleasure in killing his victims and sometimes drank their blood. Hence the vampire theme. According to some local guides we talked to however, vampires don’t exist in Romanian folklore. In fact the story was written by a man from England who had never even visited Transylvania. But the world loved his story and so people started searching for Dracula’s Transylvanian lair. They chose Bran Castle for its creepy hilltop location, and because it was the most in-tact 14th century castle they could find. And so began the tacky tourism in Transylvania. I’m glad to say that we saw so much more than just Dracula things, as fun as it was to eat dinner in his birthplace and drink vampire beer.brasov

So we rented a car and began our road trip through this beautiful region of Romania. Leaving the capital of Bucharest, we were pretty shocked when we had to quickly change lanes on the highway to accommodate the horse-drawn wagons carrying farmers and things like hay or wood. This was a really common occurrence throughout the weekend. About 30 minutes later we saw the largest nuclear power plant I’ve ever seen and not long after that, the highway changed to country roads spotted with roadside markets selling honey, fruit, plum moonshine, fur hats and much more. Immediately I was thinking how old and new were colliding.


We saw some really rural towns with the amazingly beautiful snow-covered Carpathian Mountains as their backdrop. Our first stop was Peleș Castle in Sinaia, a summer home built for King Carol in the early 1900s. Once parked at the bottom, it’s a 1km walk up a cobblestone road to the castle. Along the road we saw a group of men hard at work redoing the road. All the stones were lined along the sides and men were picking away with little axes, puzzle-piecing new ones together, and sweeping in dirt around the already placed stones. It looked like incredibly hard work and I am still wondering how often it needs to be done. They seemed confused to see English speakers and we were confused why their construction site wasn’t closed off to passers-by. Anyway, the castle is incredible. King Carol had his architects include Florentine, Turkish, Moorish, French, and Imperial styles, making it really unique. It was truly stunning.

From there we made our way to the quaint city of Brașov where we had our first traditional Romanian meal and even tried Palinca – plum brandy typically sipped before a meal. Wow was it strong! We learned lots of history on a tour of the city (shout out to Walkabout, free walking tours offered in many places throughout Europe!). We visited an Eastern Orthodox church and learned that a large majority of the country is Orthodox and most consider themselves practicing. The church was a bit of a sensory overload with its ornate but darkly lit interior, strong smells of incense, and melodic hymns sung by worshippers. In contrast, the outside was misleadingly plain and you’d never know they were so detailed if you didn’t go in.


Brașov also has something along the lines of the famous Hollywood sign; six huge white letters on a hill overlooking the city. As our tour guide said, these letters are tacky but much better than the trees planted many years ago spelling the name Stalin (the former temporary name of Brașov as a sign of solidarity to Russia during the years of Romania’s communist dictator). So you can be standing next to a building that appears to have needed repairs for the last 50 years and if you look up, you can see this huge Hollywood-esque reminder of where you are. Old vs. new.

Our next stop was Sighișoara, a super cute hilltop town and also a UNESCO World Heritage site. All the buildings along the cobblestone streets are very colorfully painted a mix of greens, blues, and pinks, and inside the old city walls you’d think you were on the set of a movie. To be honest there really wasn’t much going on there despite being Vlad’s birthplace (now a restaurant). On a Saturday night at 8pm we were 1 of 2 groups eating. After dinner we went to a moderately busy bar where we witnessed a visit from the anti-fraud police. I’m not sure how routine this is, but every establishment we visited had identical large signs saying it was the law to be given a receipt for your purchases. Although Romania has been part of the European Union since 2007, they still have their own currency. We gathered that in order to use the euro they probably have to present a lot of financial information, and after a little research later that night, we learned that Romania tops the EU rankings in anti-fraud investigations. It was a confusing scene in the bar with distracted staff, seemingly unimpressed officials, and lots of cash and receipts laid out on the bar. Needless to say we didn’t stick around for too long.


On our way to Sibiu on Sunday, we stopped in a few preserved Saxon villages. Unfortunately we couldn’t enter the fortified churches that are there because it was Sunday and they were closed. Instead we walked around these very small towns getting a lot of funny looks as to why we were there. These people seem to live on very little. We read that many homes in this area don’t have running water and we saw people using communal wells. We also had to share the roads with herds of cows and a lot of stray dogs. However we also saw a bunch of people using their smartphones and satellite dishes on some roofs. It was a confusing contrast that I’m still pretty baffled by.


Sibiu was quite similar to Brașov, a quaint city with a really impressive Christmas market. We enjoyed some mulled wine at the market (which they interestingly refer to by its German name, Glühwein). Our stay here was short and very cold! It was also hard to see because of some intense fog which apparently is really common there. We left early the next morning and drove through more of really rural Transylvania (at times on dirt roads through the woods…Google maps kept telling us it was the best route) on our way to one last fortress that Vlad had built to ward off his Ottoman enemies. This place was in the middle of nowhere and you have to climb 1,480 steps to get to the top. A few stray dogs were hanging around the parking area and one decided to join us for the trip. The guy at the top said they sometimes make the trek, but our new friend really seemed to be giving us a tour. She walked us through the whole fortress and would wait when we stopped to take pictures. I said thanks at the bottom with a few crackers and felt like we were special. As we got into our car however, she trotted over to the next group getting out of theirs. I suppose our private tour wasn’t so uncommon after all.fortress

So we made our way back to Bucharest and spent a night in the city. We ate a fantastic meal at the oldest beer hall in the city complete with live traditional music. I have to say I was really impressed with all the great food we ate.


The next morning we took another city tour where we learned a lot more about the country’s more recent history. The end of the 20th century was a very dark period for Romania. Lead by a communist dictator until 1989, this Eastern bloc country still seems to be struggling to modernize. I don’t know as much as I would like to about communism having now visited two countries formerly under this type of government (more on Lithuania later…it’s been a busy fall), but what I can gather is that life in these places was scary and people were not treated well. Particularly disturbing to me were the tactics at raising the population of Romania despite the poverty level at the time. Our guide explained that there was very little education about contraception leading to a lot of unwanted pregnancies for families that didn’t have the means to feed their children. Doctors were forbidden to intervene and those who did went to prison. So women often took matters into their own hands in very dangerous circumstances. The number of abandoned children during this time was very high and they were sent to institutions that provided shelter but very little more. Later when the dictator was killed on Christmas Day in 1989, the United Nations stepped in and many of these abandoned children were adopted and now live abroad.

After their dictator was found guilty of genocide against his own people, he was sentenced to death which was aired on live TV. Romania then held its first democratic election where the former right hand man to the dictator “won.” I put won in quotations because that’s exactly what our guide did. I’m not in a place to form opinions about the legal and political matters of the country, but from what we were told it didn’t sound fair. Anyway, there is a happy ending and what seems to be a new beginning for this country. Two years ago, Romanians elected their first independent president into office and things are looking up.


I am well aware that Romania is certainly not even close to the most culturally challenging place in the world. I know that the further my adventures take me, the more I will see and experience, and it’s not always exciting and awesome. But it’s experiences like this that keep my love for travel so strong. I travel to learn because I am curious about the world. It’s humbling to see things that you don’t understand, and empowering to be educated about other places so different from what you are accustomed to. I highly recommend checking out Romania the next time you find yourself in the neighborhood.

Will Run for Wine

Aranda town

Aranda de Duero

I have never been a big fan of exercising. There are a million reasons why, and always plenty of excuses or other things to do, but the bottom line is, I don’t like it. Specifically running. I have tried to like running various times, and a few of those times I’ve come close. But usually after a few weeks or so I get bored (or injured) and decide it’s not for me.

A year ago, my friend Claire found a blog from a fellow English teacher in Spain about the Maratón del Vino, a race in Ribera del Duero, one of Spain’s best wine regions. It sounded incredible: 10 kilometers (there was also a marathon and half marathon) of wine vineyards in a tiny Spanish town with the local people cheering you on. And the best part – she was gifted a bottle of wine for completing the race. Not winning, just completing. Claire and I love wine and began joking that we were going to do the race a year from that time. This joke was mentioned every few months, and then turned into a serious goal around April.

At this point, I think it’s important for you to know more about my history with running. Years ago I lived in Northampton, MA where every December there is a 5 kilometer Hot Chocolate Run to raise money for a wonderful cause. Northampton is a small place but the whole community comes out to support this event, despite the very chilly December weather. There is even a man who runs with a tuba every year and plays a few notes here and there. I’ve ran this race twice (both to support a good cause and for the mug of hot chocloate you receive at the end). I’ve ran one other 5k in my life on one of the most hot and humid New England summer days, and I only did it because some of my students at the time were quite encouraging and wanted me to run with them. It was a miserable 33 minutes.

And that’s all. Up until about a month ago, 5k was the most I had ever run in my life. So 10k was going to be a true challenge.

Claire and I came up with a training plan with the help of Jaime and another friend Nick who are both runners and also interested in free wine. The plan was 6 weeks of training to slowly build up to a point where we could “comfortably” run 10k. When I think of running, the word comfort is the last thing on my mind. But this was in the name of wine so I considered it worth it.


This moment brought to you by Snapchat

The long awaited weekend finally arrived and we were off to Aranda de Duero for the 3rd Annual Wine Marathon. We stayed in a very cute AirBNB in the middle of the town which made us feel at home. We were up super early on Saturday morning excited for the big race despite having tried a glass or two (or three) of the local wines the night before. The sun rises around 8:30am in Spain in the fall, so walking to the race, we actually got to see the sunrise. Just like any race, we had to arrive before a certain time to pick up our numbers. We thought we were running late, but luckily we’re in Spain, and time is more like a suggestion than a firm deadline. In fact, the person in charge of organizing everything showed up 15 minutes before the “closing time.” Upon receiving our numbers, t-shirts, fruit, local honey, water, and specialty bread from Aranda, we received our first bottle of wine. This was a huge surprise because we knew there would also be wine at the end. The day got a lot better.

Finally it was time to hit the starting line, but the race itself started 20 minutes late because the person responsible for leading the racers in a car in front was late to arrive. It was clear that everyone was there to have fun and not to take this race too seriously. We started in the center of town, and the local people that we saw buying their groceries or walking their dogs seemed confused by so much activity so early in the morning. Then we reached the wine vineyards. It was very quiet. No one was around and we even had to dodge a few cars on the dirt paths. The grapes had already been harvested for the season so the trees looked like they were settling in for a cold winter. We also saw a lot of sheep being herded by their shepherd and herding dogs. It was such a cool backdrop for a little morning exercise.

After a few selfies with those guys and  some more photo breaks with the scenerary, we were back to running and finished in one hour and 9 minutes. I was ecstatic to have accomplished such a challenge considering what I said above. (As we crossed the finish line, The Circle of Life from The Lion king just happened to be blasting from the speakers. It was the icing on the cake). And that’s when we received our second bottle of wine, this one personalized with our names on the label.

finish line

Finish line wine!!

We spent the rest of the weekend enjoying various bodegas around Aranda. We made a new friend waiting for the race to begin and she endied up staying an extra night and coming back to Madrid with us on Sunday. For lunch of Sunday we visited an Asador (typical restaurant of the region whose specialty is roasted lamb). It was the best way to end a fantastic weekend!

I try to make use each blog post I write as a reflection on the deeper meaning of the things I do. The moral of this one is quite clear to me. It is so important to have goals and to challenge yourself to do things you never thought possible. My friends and I have already talked about signing up for another race this fall, and I’m hoping that I have finally begun to enjoy running. Challenges are even more worth it when there is something sweet for you at the end. Cheers!