Sunday, February 23, 2014

Carcass City and the Elephant Graveyard.

We had heard of a town just south of Lima called Paracas. Apparently, there was a beach there and it was meant to be a great stop along the coast. Hmm..a lesson in travel..all recommendations are subjectiveJ Our view of Paracas differed slightly from some of our travel mates, in that we found it to be a bit on the dingy, dirty, dusty and less than appealing side of the tracks. Sooo, we kicked our resourcefulness into high gear and booked accommodations at the hostel for 11 US dollars/night and opted to spend our days relaxing in the poolside cabanas of the 5 star resort that we discovered a five minute walk down the road. Perfect. We might have only blended in as actual guests for about 5 hours (walk like you know what you are doing and where you are going, always) before we were found out and were asked to relocate. But, we had no complaints as our relocation spot was the massive and extravagant resort lobby, complete with a beachfront view lined with tikki torches (the pretty bit of the beach), comfy overstuffed furniture to kick our feet up on, and a cozy rock fireplace. Yeah, that’ll do. Edinho, if you are reading this..thanks for the constant supply of maize, nuts and drink refills. You rock.

We did get adventurous one day and found ourselves out on a bike ride through the desert sand dunes of the nearby national reserve. You would think we had learned our lesson from heeding the advice of others regarding the attractions of this region. Sadly, we had not. “When you get to this part of map, go here instead..ride by the beachside, much more pretty and will save time.” These were the words of our bike rental lady. And they could have easily been the last words we ever heard from the outside world. Ah, maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but maybe it’s not. The first few hours of this adventure were actually alright as we pumped our pedals up and down the hills of the dunes, admiring the endless sea of sand surrounding us at every angle. It was as if time stood still as we rode through the middle of the earth’s hour glass. Another moment of feeling so small in this great big world of ours. Then the sun began to pound a little more violently on our gringa backs. And then..then came the infamous beach front bike ride.

I’m pretty certain we rode our bikes straight into the elephant graveyard of Peru. Simba, you got nothing on us buddy. As riding was no longer an option, due to the impossibly difficult and uneven mounds of sand, we dismounted and began the push onward by foot. A surprisingly treacherous feat. A few feet into our trek we were instantly overwhelmed with an unfortunate and terrible stench. I kept on moving forward with the thought of “who knew beaches could rot?” perplexing my mind. Another few feet and then..ope, there it was. Part of the reason behind the stench. I looked up just as Laura let out a little scream and I found her with her foot hovering mid-step, dramatically poised a few inches away from the carcass of a dead sea lion. At least that what my mind interpreted this bloated half of a creature lying before us to be. We squeamishly scooted around this poor fella and kept walking only to discover that the path in front of us was completely riddled with even more evidence of death. What the heck is in this water?? We spent the next 20 minutes carefully tip toeing around to avoid stepping on even more sea lion remains, countless fish skeletons, remnants of birds, and wait a that a human femur?? Wouldn’t have surprised me anyways. We finally made it to the other side and celebrated our survival with a priceless rendition of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”. As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…

It only took another 10 minutes of riding in the blazing sun for us to realize that we could no longer handle this dust bowl which had filled our shoes with bone fragments and feathers and had successfully exfoliated our skin with all the finest dust particles the desert had to offer. We turned those rusty bikes around and quickly headed back for civilization. Well, maybe not quickly. We slowly trudged back toward town, while guzzling Powerades and munching on Oreos (the health nuts that we are). Fortunately, we must have looked pretty pitiful, because a truck filled with several hospitable Peruvian scientists approached us about 15 minutes into our journey and offered us a ride. What would have been a 2 hour miserable return trip via bicycle turned into a pleasant and relaxing 20 minute car ride. Nervous break downs and worsened sunburns successfully avoided. I have never met a group of scientists I have loved more.  Adios carcass city.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Limp Fish and the Language of Kindness

One of the most beautiful and yet as equally challenging aspects of travel to me is the communication piece. I am constantly amazed by my ever-expanding talents with charades and my ability, and often inability, to read facial expressions. I do wonder about their opinions of this goofy white girl rapidly flapping her arms and tossing out random gang symbol-esque hand can you not understand I am asking for directions to the nearest coffee shop?? We did learn from a few Peace Corp buddies we met along the way, that the preferred signal to hail a taxi in some locations is not with an out-turned hand, but with an outstretched floppy, flexed wrist (affectionately called the limp fish). Apparently, this is the less suggestive approach and veers away from any semblance of the "come hither" signal. Not sure if this is true, but I do know we have thus far escaped without any long lines of eager men behind us as we have traipsed across the country side. And let's take a minute to pay acknowledgement to the moment I found myself typing the sentence "Do we take off all our clothes?" into my translation app..haha, no worries, it was for our multiple one hour $9 massages we have discovered in Cuzco. Just keepin our Mamas' hearts at rest is all:) Yep, with the help of our handy Jibbigo app, we are making do with the basic commentary and I'm learning to keep my hands at my side, rolls those r's with minimal spitting and enunciate a little more each day.

 The underlying beauty manifests in those moments when all translation is completely lost across cultures and languages and yet the universal language of love and kindness prevails and a connection is made. Early on in our trip I found myself walking alongside a woman named Gladys, from the small village of Huaraz, Peru who spoke absolutely no English. We were nearing the end of our day trek to see the glacier and the backdrop of our conversation was a panoramic view of the Andes mountains. In 20 minutes I learned about several key pieces of her life story and shared a bit of mine with her, with both of us laughing at each other's attempts to decipher through our broken snippets of language. At the end of the trail, we hugged and exchanged a kiss on the cheek and I was immediately overwhelmed with the power of the human heart and an openness to connect with the world surrounding it. Just after this, I hopped aboard the bus to find Laura with her head in her lap still reeling from the effects of altitude sickness and several very concerned on-looking Peruvians. Our bus travel mates also spoke only Spanish but through eye contact, a few gestures and several smiles they each offered up their own personal remedies for the sickness they knew was present and we were gifted with some crackers, hard lemon candy, and a bottle of rubbing alcohol to soothe her symptoms as we began our trip home. There were some beautiful hearts on board that bus that day. After our trek to Machu Picchu (more on that later) we found ourselves grabbing a late night ride in a van packed with around 20 people to take us from the village of Olanta back to Cuzco. Laura bopped along in the very back of the van and I rode shotgun, both of us comfortably smooshed between locals from surrounding towns with babies and luggage in tow. Only a few of them spoke the tiniest bit of English but within the first 20 minutes of the ride we had persuaded them to teach us Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Happy Birthday in Spanish, each of us shouting our newly acquired tunes at each other from our respective spots in the bouncing van.

 I think every traveler would agree that this lifestyle is one that constantly pushes you outside of your comfort zone and asks you to challenge yourself in multiple creative ways almost daily. But it is in these moments that I feel I am growing..and learning..and living. It is in these moments, the ones where I am literally at a loss for words, that I am forced to rely on my intuition and to place trust in myself and another human being to tend to my soul and my experience. Memories formed from kindness, these are the memories that last...a hug from Gladys, a selfless gift from a passenger on a bus, and a sing-along with smiling families as we travel across a foreign land. There are many languages in this vast world, but the one I choose to keep close to my heart, is love.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Spaghetti legs...

The city of Lima made for a good beginning spot to plan our route and chart our course for the next five weeks..oh wait, scratch that, maybe the next five days:) We spent a bit of time talking with the other travelers, creating and recreating our path with each conversation.."Oh, you said Bolivia is beautiful?"..and just like that Bolivia has found its way onto the calendar and has made the "things to tick off" list even better. Lima summed up: Brutal sun = ridiculous sunburn on day two for this gringa...oops. But before that, I had a really great chance to meet up with my beautiful cousin, Sandra Swan, who just happened to be here visiting her parents, who live about 5 minutes from my hostel. Such an awesome thing to be able to connect with family across the ocean in Peru, when I don't even get to see them often enough in the states..thank you for taking the time to share some of that beautiful Peruvian heart and spirit with us cousin:) Lastly, La and I are convinced that the most magical ice cream in all the world, exists in the form of an Oreo milkshake from a little spot called La Lucha. Yep, you heard's the gelato of South America..but, better! Pretty certain we could eat one these babies for desayuno, almuerza y cena every single day. And that's Lima.

Next up...a night bus 8 hours north to a town called Huaraz. After a bit of research, we established there are three bus companies to choose from..we picked the one with the best safety recommendations and the comfiest semi-cama (semi-reclined beds) and hopped aboard. We were dropped off among the dusty, sleepy village streets of Huaraz at 7:30 AM. Armed with our trusty offline Spanish translator app, our broken and comical Spanish attempts, and a few fabulous games of charades with the locals, we slowly navigated our way to a suitable hostel. A quick glance around the town revealed that Huaraz has just as many stray dogs as it does citizens of the human kind. Dogs on rooftops, dogs in alleyways, dogs in windowsills, dogs chasing cars and bikes...these dogs ruled the streets and apparently the night as well as we found out late that evening when we drifted to sleep to the sounds of a 101 Dalmatian-esque doggy serenade. Ah, such a peaceful lullaby.

We had not yet made reservations and were happy to find they had room to house us for a few days. We walked into the hostel that morning feeling quite ambitious and adventurous. We arrived at 7:45 and by 9:00 we had secured a bed, unloaded our things and freshened up, eaten breakfast and chatted with the owners, and booked a day trek to see a glacier. At 9:15 we literally flung ourselves aboard a moving bus en route to the glacier known as Pastoruri, with a Peruvian man waving wildly at us through the open door. Elevation of Artesia, NM: 3,380 ft. Elevation of Dallas, TX: 1,368 ft. Elevation of Pastoruri Glacier in Peru: 17,200 ft. Fun fact for those who are as geographically challenged as we are: apparently before embarking on a trek into lands of extremely high elevation, one is meant to spend at least a day allowing ones body to acclimate to the changes in geography...for some still unknown reason, these ones decided to simply ignore this sage little nugget of advice. Instead, we chose to trust in the words of our host, who when asked about the effects of altitude sickness, responded with "Ohhh, es all en su be fine!" Turns out he was wrong and the physiological truths of science were correct. Annnd...cue the most pathetic trek of La and Sta ever witnessed. After two hours of winding mountainous terrain we stepped off our bus to discover that our feet were suddenly not attached to our bodies anymore, but were instead replaced with massive blocks of lead dangling from a pair of spaghetti noodles that used to be our legs. And not only was it difficult to figure a way to move these lead blocks called feet, but it was suddenly beyond difficult to even see where to place them as our visual field was now filled with exciting little grey spots to chase after. Tack on the presence of an explosive headache, nausea, shortness of breath and difficulty concentrating and you have the textbook version of altitude sickness my friends. Yaaay!! And hang on, let's take a quick minute to talk about the little man who was trying to sell us a meager 3 wadded up squares of toilet paper for 1 sole as we are both stumbling toward the bathrooms, desperately trying to hold everything together. Yeah, by this point we are the true image of classy.

Prior to the trek, I had purchased a sack of coca leaves (a piece of advice I did choose to acknowledge). These guys are meant to minimize the effects of altitude sickness when you chew them. We nibbled a few and I tucked them safely into my jacket with big plans to return to them for a mid-trek snack. However, as we worked our way up the first 20 feet of the trail, the need for the leaves grew quickly and I reached for them, only to discover an empty space where they had once been. I left La sitting on a rock with her head strategically resting between her knees, gathered up my spaghetti legs and went in search of our beloved leaves. I attempted to carefully retrace our steps...left foot..right foot...left foot..cheering myself on and congratulating myself on each successful yard gained. But it grew increasingly difficult to concentrate and I was suddenly astonished at how tricky it was to determine the difference between what might be a pile of rocks or what could be our bag of leaves. I worked my way through a tiny, muddy and mucky trail with about 7 tents assembled on each side where some villagers were working on some construction projects and others were set up camp trying to sell their wares to the daily trekkers. I raised my eyes to see one of these villagers enjoying some tasty bits from a bag of coca leaves. I asked in my slurred, altitude sickness, gringa influenced Spanish if she had any more for sale. She quickly shook her head no and it was then that I realized those were my tasty bits of coca leaves she was enjoying! What?! She had found them and claimed them as her own. Grrrr!!! Ah well, I said, and I meandered slowly back to La and we resumed our pitiful pseudo-drunken hike. I'm not sure I have ever felt so disconnected from my body before, ever. My sickness gradually lessened, but poor La struggled quite a bit to shake the sickly haze. Ok ok, science..we get it. Lesson learned.

Altitude sickness aside, I spent the day in absolute awe of our magical surroundings. It was my first encounter with the majestic snow-capped mountains of the Andes and it was an experience I will never forget.

Next up...the "tengo tango" and the beautiful connections of the heart spoken with and without a common language.

Travel makes it impossible to avoid the ignition of something within the heart to see do be give more.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Ninja chop and run!!

We arrived in Lima after an international flight filled with movies, red wine and multiple realizations that, yep, we are definitely flying to Peru right now. We bounced out of the plane at 12:15 am and ventured out into the busiest welcome area I've ever seen. Everyone had a sign for everyone. (Hannah and Jenn, I searched everywhere for you guys, but alas only found hundreds of Peruvian faces staring back at me:) We found ours with "Laura Latimer" scrawled across it and began our trip. Several people and articles had warned us against the multiple scams and dangers that are possible in South America, with repeated specifics surrounding "Stay away from unmarked taxis!!" Oh ya know, people get taken to scary places and are given no choice but to surrender all possessions..or the fact that traveling girls, especially, can be robbed at any given moment. That kind of thing. (No worries, Mama y Bruce y Jennifer..we got this:) Laura had wisely arranged for our hostel to pick us up from the airport to avoid any unnecessary shenanigans that early on in the trip. But as we approached the car, the first thing we both realized was the absolute absence of any known markings, anywhere. Ah man. Even after we had the driver call ahead to the hostel on his phone (we have no cell service), we still spent most of the cab ride with pepper spray in hand (Thanks, Gabriel!), clutching our belongings and countless renditions of how we might have just fallen into the biggest mistake ever within the first 20 minutes of being in this new country. Hmm..Ok, time to harness our inner ninjas...La will shoot him directly in the eye with pepper spray with impeccable aim and I'll kick him swiftly in the shins and give him a shove and then we'll both turn and run as fast as we can with our toddler-sized backpacks in tow..hopefully in the same direction. It sounded like a solid plan in my head anyways. Fortunately, our paranoia was put to rest and we made it safely to our hostel with all possessions in tact and accounted for. Success.

Let me see your airplane face....

We all have one..the face that is especially reserved only for the eyes of our fellow travelers on board our shared jet plane. There is the over-eager, chatty, and energetic traveler with that plastered-on smile..the one who seems to have an almost strange amount of interest in your travel itinerary and the personal details of your life. Who's this guy working for anyways?? Social cues and boundaries are lost on this one as they don't quite understand the not so subtle hints of earphones and closed eyes. This is me time..this is you is my bubble..there is your bubble. Now, sit...and stay. Good boy. Boundaries people, boundaries. Now, there is one who is not quite as extreme who does understand there are times for talking and times for resting. I am happy to engage in conversations of life with this one and absolutely love hearing their stories..if they respect the bubble:) Then you've got the anxious face..these are the ones your heart just goes out to as they sit with their knees tucked tightly to their chests, headphones pressed against their ears, eyes pinched shut and a complete look of panic stretched across their face. These are the ones who grasp frantically for something or someone to ground them as the plane jolts through the turbulent air. This one? This one is my best mate and travel partner in crime and I will hold her hand through every bump and jolt in this life. Mine happens to be a super sexy pose which inevitably involves me sleeping with a tilted back head, a gaping mouth, and a protruding tongue. The best moments are when I snap myself awake because I've suddenly realized that, yep, I was indeed just actively chomping away on an imaginary piece of popcorn or sneaking a lick from a delicious invisible ice cream cone that only I can see within my dreams from behind my closed eyes. It's also fun times to realize that the reason my previously semi-comfortable coach seat has just now become synonymous with an ultra-comfy first class seat is because I have definitely dozed off and I am now snuggling right into the coziest and fluffiest portion of my neighbors shoulder, only inches away from just cuddling straight into the crook of their neck. Some may say inappropriate...I say making friends:) When I worked in California, I had a bit over an hour of a commute to/from work every day. My morning routine consisted of me spastically jumping out of bed with only 15 minutes to get ready, followed with a half-asleep sprint down the hill to the train (hoping I was fully dressed and had not forgotten any key wardrobe components), a quick nap while riding the train, and then an even faster sprint up the escalator to catch the transfer for my next train. I realized one day while running up the escalator that I was racing up a contraption that was already designed to make my daily trek a quick one..and here I was trying to make it even quicker. I abruptly stopped, mid-sprint, and decided to simply ride the escalator to the top. I realized, I will make it to the top regardless and I might as well enjoy the ride and view it had to offer to the best of my ability. My morning experience was transformed. This life is moving fast..the days will roll on, experiences will pass, memories will form and memories will fade. But I absolutely refuse to miss the pure beauty and significance of all these moments because I am too busy racing to the top. I am simply choosing to ride the escalator...straight into South America:)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Mommy, wow...I'm a big kid now!

When I started my journey, I wasn't sure when I would start traveling alone and for exactly how long I would be alone. I had Laura in Oz, my family for a bit in Italy and I knew I would meet up with Jodi at some point. But, I felt certain that when the time came I would be prepared to take the jump into the deep end, even without my little orange arm floaties. Thought it might be like a "Mommy Wow, I'm a big kid now!" kind of moment. Things worked out where I spent the first portion of my trip with Laura, my family and Jodi and I planned to set aside the end of my trip for myself. So, instead of getting pushed into the deep end like I thought I would be, I essentially waded into the pool, step by step, gradually getting used to the feel of the water and learning to swim. You would think, this is a good way to learn. And it was, to many extents. However, I'm realizing that the longer you wait to submerge yourself in the cold water, the more difficult it becomes and the quicker your breaths become. I mean, what if there are sharks, or something done there? Now, the time has come to dunk myself and my anxiety seems higher than it should be at this point. I'm in a much different place than I was even one month ago in all that I have learned from bouncing between countries. But there is still so so much to learn. There are still many mistakes and typical travel mishaps to encounter, but this time I will only have myself to comfort myself and make it comical in order to avoid frustrations and tears. That all being said, with this apprehension also comes an intense ping of excitement. I mean after all, it is a bit exhilarating to finally go completely underwater and emerge to a refreshed world, right? So, now I take a deep breath and wait for the wave.

I left Jodi in the Gallieni metro station in Paris as I boarded my bus to London. She planned to board a plane to Scotland later in the evening. it's just me. After nearly 3 months of travel, I am officially on my own in a foreign country. It's a strange feeling, as Jodi and I have literally been together every hour of the day for a month and a half. I feel a little bit like I've lost an appendage, especially when I turn to the right and ask, out of habit, for Jodi to hold something, only to find the unsavory French fella in the subway looking all too eager to hold my belongings. Or when I go to lay my head on the shoulder of my bus buddy and realize that nope, I do not in fact recognize that shoulder and certainly should not be snuggling with it. Hmm, yes, I must be more careful. If I thought I was tired of being on high alert when there was two of us, I'm more than a little concerned for how hyper-vigilant I will now have to be on my own. I've been practicing my ninja moves and I think if I just swing myself to the left and then to the right really quickly, my toddler-sized backpack will surely generate enough force to disarm any potential attackers. No worries, Mama, I got this covered.

The first song that came on my Ipad when I sat down in the bus was a song called London Skies..will you let me romanticize, the beauty in our London skies..The second song was Man in the Mirror..gonna make a change, for once in my life, gonna be real good, gonna make a difference, gonna make it right..if you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make the change...The third song was Ridin' Solo..I'm feelin like a star, you can't stop my shine, I'm riding cloud nine, my head's in the sky...If my life were a sound track I'd say I might buy that album. I feel good; I feel like I'm on the right path.

The day of separation (that's what I'm calling it now) was a tricky one. It began with our train from Bayeux to Caen being about 25 minutes late. Meaning we would have 5 minutes to print our bus tickets, check in and find our bus after we landed at the train station. Thankfully, our bus was late but those thanks were quickly retracted as we couldn't even board the bus because the bus station was closed with nowhere to print tickets. New plan. Bought new train tickets to Paris and boarded with 15 minutes to spare. Spent about 1 1/2 hours at the bus station in Paris trying to print my ticket to London. After a less than helpful information desk, an internet/printer kiosk with no ink, two hotels, an ATM and an internet cafe I had my tickets in hand and waved them proudly to anyone who passed by as we had once again triumphed against the tricky travel odds! I then spent about 7 hours on a bus to London. This included a ride in the Eurotunnel..which is something entirely confusing to me..the bus stood still inside this tube thing which rocked like a boat and had no windows and looked like a tunnel..for over an hour..I'm not typically a claustrophobic person, but that definitely did the trick. Sometimes, I just want to get in my Honda Civic and drive down a familiar, open country road:)

So, now I am in London, back among those who sprecken the English. Hooray for English speaking people!! I felt like a 1st grader who had just discovered the skill of reading as we drove into London - I was eating up all those English words on the billboards and shop windows, amazed at myself for having the ability to string together letters and symbols to make real words!! Oddly enough however, I am finding it an interesting process, this re-acclimating to an English culture thing. I laughed at myself at the underground when I literally had to shake my head and crane my ear closer to the guy at the snack bar because the English language sounded so foreign to me. Sounds stupid I know, but it's true - I wasn't expecting English in return so it took me a moment to decipher the accent and realize, yep, thats english. In my defense, some of the English people here do have pretty strong accents that take some getting used to. As I walked down the streets today, I felt myself being somewhat hesitant to ask for directions because I am so used to employing large hand gestures and animated facial expressions in order to get a semi-understandable response. It can be a bit exhausting. But, now I must sit on my hands and tone down the animation because I'm guessing the charade game might come across as a little over-zealous. The currency jumble is another fun game I'm accustomed to playing - this is when I dump all the contents of my wallet into my palm and offer it up to the waitress, as usually have no clue what any of the coins mean on my first day in a country. Pence? Pound? Peso? I don't know!!! I'm super excited to see ice cubes back in the glass and had a lovely glass of FREE water with my lunch today. I sipped it slowly and tried to make it last forever. I found myself a little annoyed at the good service the waitress provided - she tried to take my order twice before I was ready and asked me at least three times if I was doing dare her be so on top of things!! I was afraid I would miss the slow pace of European dining, and it didn't take long:)

I still have so much to write about all my experiences and all I have seen. I'm several countries behind and plan to do a country recap soon. Until then, cheers!:)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wide load coming through!

Traveling is quite different from any other thing I've experienced in my life. It challenges me daily, excites my heart, and provides me with an almost constant new perspective. My view of the world, both figuratively and literally is changed with a quick train ride. I am reminded of how wonderful home is and feel overwhelmingly blessed by all I have at home in opportunity, family and friends. I am reminded of the beauty of this life and allow the hours to slow down so that I don't miss a thing. I am learning to enjoy the minute I am in without craning my neck to see what's coming in the next one. Once you realize that the worst stories often make the best stories and that every single thing happens for a better reason than you originally had planned anyways...all is well with the world.

As I recline in the bus from the Netherlands to Belgium, I look out my window and see several sheep on the hills to my left and to my right. They make me smile because simply the fact that they are Dutch sheep already makes them far cuter than any American sheep I've ever seen. So, I've decided that from now on, when I can't sleep I will be counting Dutch sheep in order to bring sweet dreams.

Every morning I remind myself to take a deep breath and take in every moment and detail of what is surrounding me. I realize I get the distinct pleasure to wake up today, with nothing written on the agenda except the doodled words "enjoy life" with an exclamation mark and a smiley face. Soon, I will have to return to reality. The working world will be knocking at my door again and I will be forced to welcome it in and offer it a beverage. But until then, I will savor these experiences with every morsel of my being.

That previous sentence makes me hungry, which makes me think of all the outstanding ethnic food I've been enjoying on this trip. Here, I will take a minute to divulge a quick bulleted sample of my favorite foods thus far.

Panna cotta gelato- goes without saying that this is my favorite Italian dessert
Langoush - a Hungarian flat-bread pizza
Mulled wine - a Hungarian hot wine with spices and fruit
Kurtoskalacs - another Hungarian street treat that is a spiraly batch of deliciousness
Viennese hot dog - who would have thought my favorite, cheese-filled hot dog would be discovered in Austria?
Frites with mayonnaise - these Dutch fries will have me forever questioning my previous loyalties to ketchup and ranch as my favored dips
Doner kabab - a wonderfully concocted selection of chicken(?), grilled veggies and a toasted tortilla in Amsterdam
Goat cheese salad - best salad of my life in Brussels, the goat cheese was in a very lightly breaded pastry and immediately became the cheese who stole my heart
Belgian chocolate - Neuhaus they aren't lying when they say they know how to make chocolate there. Heaven in chocolate.

Cumulatively, these will be the culprits responsible for my family's inability to recognize me when I step off the plane in December. Also, we have officially diagnosed ourselves with Pastry ADD. Oh, wow look at that beautiful, ancient cathed...mmm! Pastry!!!

Getting on and off the metro tests my ninja like abilities, as I am forced to maneuver my body into some very strange positions in order to avoid knocking the granny next to me out cold with my backpack and tied on tennis shoes. I'm thinking of installing a beeper into the pack to signal to everyone near me, that yes, I am indeed backing this thing up into a crowded train carriage right now. Or maybe I'll just wrap myself in some yellow and black tape to signify "wide load" coming through - I mean, someone should warn these poor people. It's bad enough that I already have somewhat poor body awareness, but strap a giant pack who's size compares to a small toddler, accompanied by his overweight friend..and lookout people, we've got problems. No worries about getting pick-pocketed from behind - I have strategically placed all my dirty laundry in the front zipper pouch, so if anyone decides to get handsy, well then, they can just help themselves to my one and only pair of smelly socks and everything else that goes along with a backpackers recycled wardrobe. Thinking defensively, that's me. My favorite is when I see the eyebrows raise in a slightly judgmental manner while the couple next to me in the tram talks in hushed French whispers about how rude I am to consider taking public transit when I clearly should be standing on a highway somewhere with my thumb extended and my trusty dog by my side. I may not be able to speak French people, but I see your finger pointing my direction and I can only laugh at it.

In traveling with someone it is only natural that you both fall into certain roles, both of which are equally important and necessary. Jodi is the super observant one who keeps us from getting squashed by oncoming cable cars, finds the hidden street signs, spots the Wifi passwords, and discovers the exit we have been hunting for the past half hour. She is also the first to point out the backpacker who just pulled a half empty soda cup from the trash can and proceeded to slurp away. Dude, if you can afford a train ticket, you can afford a soda for one euro. I am the keeper of the map and have been dubbed the Columbus of the trip, doing my best to navigate these strange foreign waters to get us safely to our hostels and attractions. Although with Austrian street names such as Stephenplatz and Swedenplatz, you can imagine there have been a few moments of confusion.

You can trust that when it is time to get up for a day of lazy strolls and sight seeing, I will be up, ready and waiting on Jodi to crawl out of the covers. BUT, without fail, when it is a day that time management truly matters, like when there are scheduled trains and buses to catch, you can absolutely bet that Jodi will be dressed and ready while beating me over the head with a packed backpack to get my snoozing butt out of the bed. But we are both in training to adopt both roles for when we separate. My observation skills are constantly challenged like when we quickly scale the escalators in the metro in search for our bus platform with only five minutes left until departure. My systems are bombarded as we have to make quick choices and answer questions that will alter our travel plans for the day if the wrong decision is hastily made - which way is that train going? does it stop there? Is that our connection? where is the exit? what did that announcement say? did that say platz, plein, or stkfljnakbng?? Do you swipe this thing somewhere or just throw it at the train??

Apparently the area of Belgium we stayed in was not as frequently visited by tourists and the menus were therefore in all French with no English subtitles (like several countries have offered before). Every meal was like a game of Russian roulette..close your eyes, point and hope that what you get in return does not have eyeballs, does not fight back and is something you recognize. That being said, French cuisine is probably my favorite thus far. It was so good I didn't even want to drink my water between bites because I would lose some of the flavor. I did discover that I like Kriek, a Belgian beer that tastes like a refreshing shirley temple, but better. Just don't ask me what I ate, because you know I can't tell you.

The myriad of languages and culture continues to be one of the most mesmerizing aspects of this trip for me. There is at least a 10 second delay in our responses to most people as we sort through the few key foreign phrases we know to determine which language to spit back out. I am the classy one who settles on a hearty, "Yeah that was soo good" with a thick Texan accent when asked by the French waiter if I enjoyed le cordon bleu. I have to bat away the instinctive belly rub and back of the hand face wipe that insists on following that statement.

I do believe that French is one of the more beautiful languages of the world. It is properly placed in the romance language category. German on the other language should hurt your throat that much. I love that when learning to speak Italian I am suddenly amazed at how fluent I am in Spanish. I also love the customary greetings that include kisses on the cheeks. They all seem so genuinely happy to see each other, every single time. Who would turn down all that free lovin every day? You people back home might want to watch your cheeks when I get back, I'm just saying.

I do sometimes miss home and the simplicities of my life without a giant blue backpack garnishing my back. It will be nice to hop in the car and be at my destination in five minutes tops, all without having to pull out three maps, a translation book and the Lonely Planet. However, I will say we have done amazingly well at getting off of our train/bus and strategically working our way to our hostels with minimal time spent being lost, and with absolutely no taxis! Well, there was the exception of the few hours spent wandering around the red light district in Amsterdam at 4 am..let's just say there are some interesting window displays around there that include things that I will NEVER be window shopping for..we jumped into a cab, followed by a bike taxi pretty quickly. Yikes.

Yes, I will definitely miss the feeling of success that comes with finally finding my destination - there is a great sense of joy and personal accomplishment that comes over me and I immediately feel like I deserve a great big pat on the back, a trophy or certificate of some kind and a round of applause. None of these things have been given to me, but I will continue to take my bows when I can.