Friday, October 28, 2011

Vino, cafe and gelato..these are a few of my favorite things:)

Sad to say we missed out on the Grotto Azzurre (Blue Grotto) in Capri due to the wind. I vote for not getting crashed and thrashed around in the mystical blue cave, although it would have been undoubtedly bellissimo. Accepted a ride with the man we thought was Constanza from our B&B, only to realize once already in the car that some Italians look alike and he was in fact, not Constanza. Gotta learn to look a little closer. He was nice and dropped us right at the door of our restaurant.

We left our B&B in Capri at 6:00 in the morning to begin our journey to the aeroporto to welcome my family to Italy. The nonno (grandfather) of the B&B drove us in a tiny 4WD which essentially came close to vertical as we bumped down the ultra steep hill to the piazza. There we boarded a bus to Marina Grande. Onto the ferry we went to Napoli. Into a taxi we climbed to the Napoli Centrale statzione. Hopped into carriage 10 of il treno and off we went to Roma. Quick switch over in Roma to the Leonadro Express treno and away we went to the aeroporto.

My honest, albeit slightly pathetic attempts at speaking Italian have proven to be quite comical thus far. But I do what I gotta do and I nod my head in a certain direction, and I make big hand gestures while concentrating on the correct syllabic emphasis only to yield a broken sentence with practically butchered pronunciation.

Italia is a strange place to wake up in...we got called beautiful (molto bella) and sexy (provocante), got my booty cupped due times by a cabbie who was helping me with my backpack in a very creative way, and got called a fascista Americana all before 9:00 am. Now, that's a morning.

Jodi and I got to the airport just as the plane bearing my family landed in Rome. We stood in the crowds at the arrival gates with signs in hand reading "Benvenuto Italia!" and their names along with a picture of a sunflower..just in case they did not recognize the stupida americanas jumping up and down. After a long game of where's waldo, we finally spotted them inching through the crowds wearing smiles mixed with a bit of jet lag and pure excitement and anticipation. A train ride later we checked our bags at the Rome train terminal and headed into Rome for the afternoon. We tossed a coin in the Fontana di Trevi with wishes to return to Italy some day and made our way to the ancient Pantheon. As we stopped for lunch so the girls could enjoy their first taste of true Italian food we were greeted with a super happy and partially drunk Aussie fella, who could not seem to get enough of our table. I will take a moment to boast he did say we were all cute but that I was "1% cuter than the others", thereby tagging me with my "1%" nickname for the remainder of the week. We each received our Aussie cheek kisses and bid him goodbye. Strangely enough, that wasn't my only proposal of the day as I landed 2 other marriage proposals from 2 different nationalities that afternoon. We blame the yellow dress. Who knew Europe could make you feel so pretty? (Even if they are just enticing you to eat at their restaurants:) Gelato break and then back to the train station where we sadly discovered Mama had fallen victim to the classic tourist gets pick-pocketed routine. They got her passport and over half her money that she had saved for her trip. I would kick them in the head if I knew who they were. With the police report filed, we boarded our train to Cortona. The train dropped us at Camucia station and we stood at this little deserted train station looking a bit pathetic and lost until the conductor pointed in the right direction and off we went. Mama attempted a heel click in celebration of landing in her dream village and we all held our breath in waiting for a safe landing:) The villa was situated just beyond the stone gates of Cortona, rested on the hill overlooking a beautiful Italian landscape and was perfect and pure Italian without having to try. Perfect time to cheers with limoncello made in Capri with a toast to a magical week under the Tuscan sun. "Tomorrrrooowww..I ride a vespa!! Uhhh...No!"

We began each morning with a croissant (cornetto) and a cappuccino, as it only seemed right. Jenn learned that a croissant can make you oh so happy. By the end of the week we had all learned a fair amount of Italian phrases to help us communicate effectively, however there were still occasions that called for a rousing game of charades. We all gave it our best shot! For instance for Jenn, "yummy" and a good rub on the tummy does not always translate. Hannah struggled to figure out how to say "No, the food was good, but I'm just full!". I started to attempt "toilet paper" via gestures but wisely decided against it and went with "toilette paper?". "Menu" and "check please" (il conto) are thankfully fairly universal gestures

Lessons learned: ristorantes typically close between 2:30-7:30 for their type of "siesta", so if you want food, you eat when the Italians eat! This means early for breakfast, early for lunch, gelato stop mid afternoon, and late dinner! Tackling the language barrier can be relatively easy in some cases, whereas in others like trying to tell a taxi where and when to pick you up and drop you off via telefono can prove more difficult. Mama's Rick Steves Italian Phrase Book and Dictionary was priceless as the week went on. "Prego" can mean "you're welcome", or "how can I help you" or "welcome to.." or if you are Hannah, you can just throw that word out to anyone, anytime, anywhere:) "Hannah did you just say prego?" "Yes. Yes, I did." Or if you are Jenn, it's "Ragu!" Public restrooms are not easy to come by and when you do find them you might need to have a euro handy and sometimes we were forced to make do with the homeless man's bathroom..

Much more to come on our week bouncing through Italy:)

Each day I am learning more and more about the true challenges of travel. Contrary to what most may think, a 4 month trek across the world is not only about a fun-filled, extended vacation. I've coined the term before, but I know no better way to describe my journey than with the words soul vacation. It confuses me how I can be traveling across some of the most beautiful, culture enriched lands and still be homesick and missing the comforts of America in the fall. The emotional highs and lows are extreme and never-ending as I continually learn exactly what I am capable of on my own, removed from those basic constants of home. Every day is a day misplaced from my element and yet I am discovering how to be more at home within myself so that my actual element is always within reach. There are days that I am left feeling completely overwhelmed and like I am in over my head...and then there are days that I believe I can conquer the world with only my love of life and my blue backpack. My observation and adaptation skills are being finely tuned as I make my way through each country, taking notes and absorbing the different cultures. I am taking this time to reflect on my past experiences and I realize now more than ever how each circumstance in my life has been the proverbial stepping stone to lead me to who and where I am today. Without my past joys, struggles and heartaches I would not know what I know today. Which, granted is not much, but it does give me an extra inch of hope for the future and comfort for anything I might face in the present..and with that, I gain a superb sense of peace and accomplishment.

My hope is to return to the states in December with a new sense of confidence. With a new attitude and shifted perspective toward life. I want to see my circumstances through eyes without foggy doubt but with a clarity that comes with acceptance of the idea that life is a series of events meant to teach and strengthen. I don't want to walk away from this journey unchanged but I also don't want to place too much pressure on the experience. I want the changes to come about naturally and unforced.

I've realized there are days I place too much pressure on the experience of the day, wanting to make sure it does not go to waste and that the next thing planned is something even greater. But I also have to step back and realize that part of the experience comes with the simple day to day things as well. The waking up in a foreign country and walking the streets of an unknown city, getting lost in it's twisted roads with no plan at all. It's surprising how difficult it is sometimes to let go and let the beauty of each day sustain you. I think as a traveler it is too easy sometimes to slip into the cliche mindset of "the grass is always greener" and to constantly search for the next best thing. I want to wake up each morning with an appreciation for that specific day and know that, yes, that is where I am meant to be and I will take in every second with a full heart.

Another struggle I am realizing is the dilemma of finding time to do everything I want to do. I know, to be gone for 4 months and to say I have that problem seems a little silly. But what I mean is, I want to take in all of life surrounding me and grown in countless ways. And sometimes that seems overwhelming and a bit daunting. I want to grow from my experiences and what I go out and see and do but I also want to take time to read and write and research and grow in knowledge in worldly and academic matters as well. I want so badly to be well rounded and intelligent with something to offer every person i encounter.

There are things I am learning to adapt to like not having laundry available as often as I would typically like, which means getting very creative with my already small choices in wardrobe. And it's funny the things that begin to excite you, like when the shower is exceptionally clean and accessible in comparison to the last place where the shower flooded the entry way of the hostel and there was a strange smell exuding from the common room that you would just rather not know about. It is always an adventure to figure out how to flush a toilet and the always present bidet never ceases to make me smile. We have found ourselves googling odd things such as "how to use a bidet", "how many feet are in a meter", and "how many American dollars are in a Hungarian forint (HUF)". I now know to not book for more than one night in a row if I haven't see the hostel, especially if they ask you to pay up front, to check out the ratings on more than one hostel booking website, and to plug in the address to google maps beforehand because a "stones throw away from the train station" might in fact mean a good 20 min walk on the opposite side of town, away from everything important and all other life forms.

The plan is to leave Italy tomorrow, on a 15 hour train ride to Budapest. My heart rate quickens when I think of entering a country as foreign as Hungary. My initial thought is to say, no way I am not going there it's too scary. And then I stop and think, but that's where the adventure is, within the unknown. How can I deny myself that opportunity? So, here's to stepping completely out of my comfortable box into a world of differences.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Buongiorno da Italia

I touched down in Rome with a nasty cold that latched on in Oz and had not since let up. Needless to say the changes in altitude, combined with the expected complications of jet lag left me feeling somewhat worthless. After an exciting game of cat and mouse in the stazione termini, Jodi and I finally found each other and ventured into the streets of Rome for my first real Italian cuisine. Sadly, I quickly realized because of my evil cold, I was unable to taste a single thing. Decided to save the first glass of vino for a night it would be worthwhile. The next day I was rendered useless by jet lag and the cold from hell and slept the entire day away only to wake for another meal I still could not taste. Time to kick this cold. Dove la farmacia? Off to find drugs we went. I then noted that I had seriously underestimated how difficult it might be to buy cold medicine in a farmacia with no Italian speaking skills to my name. So, I put on my sick face, grabbed my throat, made a pathetic coughing sound and set off to more than likely fully insult the intelligence of the perfectly capable pharmacist with a quick game of charades.

Feeling drugged up and refreshed, we opened our tourist map and began our tour of Rome. There are not really words to describe a day spent roaming the streets of a city thriving in modern times yet built upon ancient ruins. The history of this city seems to seep out of the buildings and the old fountains, almost like an aroma that floats through the air, wafting over the archaic bridges and is captured in the small family restaurants, and gelato stands. There was a surreal ambience that encapsulated me as I entered the Piazza Del Popolo and suddenly I was walking in a personified postcard. I became the extra in the scene, with the beauty of my backdrop far overshadowing any importance I felt I might have in this moment. A few minutes into our walk, I looked up to see St. Peter's Bascilica and the Vatican in the near distance, because..sure, why wouldn't it be. The day was planned with no plan. We wondered from Piazza del Popolo, by the Castel Sant' Angelo and across the Ponte Sant' Angelo, down the cobbled roads to Piazza Navona, stopped in at the Pantheon and continued to Campo Di Fiori. Method of nutrition and hydration?? Gelato, pasta, caffe and vino. Nothing better:)

As I sat in the Pantheon I couldn't help but feel a bit envious of those Catholics in the room who were literally feeling a magical, religious connection at that very moment. I closed my eyes and said a prayer, searching for that same mystic bond.

We were in need of a 2 day trip to pass the time until Sunday when it would be time to return to Rome and pick up my family...googled it up and decided that a train ride and a quick ferry ride to Capri island would do the trick. Forgot one small detail and didn't check the weather on Capri...buying a ferry ticket to an unfamiliar island using only English in an Italian speaking country proved even more ridiculously difficult with the rain pouring down on top of us. There comes a point when you just stop trying to not get wet and you accept your fate as a strong resemblance of a drown rat. We got to the island and discovered that our bed and breakfast was set near the top of the the highest peak on the island. A cab and a car ride later we climbed the steep steps to a true Italian bed and breakfast with our balcony overlooking all of Capri. Plans for the weekend: stroll the streets filled with genuine Italian shops where the Italian shoemaker is sitting in the window carefully crafting his shoes for sale and scarf-clad Italian women perch on stools in doorways sewing small dresses, eat gelato, read and watch the sun set over Ischia island, drink Limoncello, and eat more gelato.

It's time to learn me. It's time for me to step outside any metaphorical box I've ever placed myself in and break free of any boundaries which have ever held me back. I've said before we are powerful beings, capable of making or breaking another's spirit. If we are so powerful over another's outcome, then we are certainly more influential when it comes to our own lives. More times than not, I must be the catalyst of change in my own life. Take risks and have faith that whatever I do, things will work out. I cannot live life in fear. Fear of the unknown, or even fear of the known. I want to recognize my own strengths and weaknesses. I want to know what I have to offer people in my life and then do it with a full heart and passion like none other.

Tomorrow morning we will take a car, a bus and two train rides back to the airport in Rome where I will hold a sign with my mom and sisters names on them and will then proceed to jump up and down and create an American spectacle.

Blessed is this life. And I'm gonna celebrate being alive.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A soul vacation like no other...

I learned a few things when snorkeling the reef. Grab some snacks and snuggle up, cos it's story time.

The first is the Romeo and Juliet of the sea: There are certain fish called butterfly fish and when they choose a mate, they choose a mate for life. When one dies, the other abandons all other efforts to live and begins swimming in circles around the spot their mate was last seen alive. The living fish swims and swims, unyielding in it's search for it's lost love. It swims until it literally dies of fatigue and hunger, surrendering to death as the only answer to it's grand display of loyalty and love. Ah, the romance of the sea:)

I also learned of the untold story of finding nemo: The battle of the sexes. Here is how the story should've gone down according to marine biology: the female clown fish (Nemos mom, Coral) continually nags at the male clown fish (Nemos dad, Marlin). Her persistent nagging causes Marlin to release male hormones, thereby keeping his male status. Once Coral dies, Marlin will cease to produce the hormones and will no longer maintain his masculinity. He will become the female of the family and will choose Nemo for his new mate, beginning the nagging process with him to ensure he remains male. Gives it a bit of a different, albeit disturbing spin eh??:)

From Port Douglas we continued our drive north to Cape Tribulation. This drive was incredible with heaps of curvy roads all bordered with the vast blue-green ocean to the right and the dense multi-colored rainforest to the left. We learned quickly what a Cassowary bird is and based on the stories and the hundreds of warning signs decided that if we saw one of these birds that is the deadliest known bird for humans, growing up to 7-8 ft tall, that we would first, snap a picture for proof of existence while simultaneously praying that our existence would continue past the encounter. Sadly, we never got to see the little fella. Cape Trib experience in a tiny nutshell: dance party with two Americans and two Canadians (the hostel was a bit lacking in numbers of people), laying on the beach under the moon and the stars where the ocean meets the reef, and trekking through the rainforest with Matt the awesome German who was amazingly capable of keeping up with mine and Lauras random humor. We ate ice cream at Daintree Ice Cream Company which is basically located in paradise surrounded by the most beautiful and colorful scenery I've ever seen. The ice cream is made from the fruit trees grown right there on the property; we hadn't heard of more than half of those fruits. Delicious. Take away memory: Laura forging the path ahead of me and Matt on the Imogen Creek Trail. Laura turning with a pale face and mouth shaped into a large "O". Laura not saying a word as she sprinted with straight hands and high knees past me and Matt. Laura finally saying as she stood behind us that she saw a baby croc on the path. We later found out it was a ridiculously large and ugly lizard called a Goana, but that didn't matter. We'd had our croc sighting and the memory of Laura in a baby croc panic will make me laugh forever. "Baby croc. Baby croc. High knees High Knees!! Don't trip don't trip!!"

Down the road we went to the Whit Sunday Islands where we met up with Wayne (a friend of Laura's from Sydney) and his parents Glen and Margaret. They own a private sailboat and were gracious enough to let me and Laura stay with them for the night and the next day. We boarded the boat just before sunset with perfectly blue skies and an even more blue ocean reflection of that sky. We spent the evening sipping rum and coke (our introduction to Bundy Rum, the local Aussie rum brewed in Bundaberg) and talked with this amazing family until the stars were well set in the sky. I realized while talking with Wayne's parents just how educated and well rounded so many of the Aussies are. I tried my best to soak up as much information from them as I could. Biggest lesson of the night: learned to identify the Southern Cross in the sky, which the constellation on the Australian flag. They taught me how to find the Southern Celestial Pole using the cross, which is the southern hemispheres equivalent of the Northern Star. Now, I will always know which way is south and which is north, no matter what hemisphere I'm lost, if only I would know what to do with that information! This night happened to be 3 years to the day of my Daddy meeting up with the angels, and I could think of no better way to spend it then talking with him under the deep sky of the southern hemisphere with a nearly full moon and the boat gently rocking me to sleep. I like knowing he is up there and gets to be with me on all these adventures. I think he'd be happy for me. Went for a morning sail and Glen was brave enough to let me and Laura man the wheel of the boat for a while as we learned as many sailor terms as we could manage.

Airlie Beach was one night adventure all on its own. After napping in the grass near the beach, we got ready for the night. All I can say about this night is I was introduced to the world of Aussie footy boy culture. Wow. They are a hilarious and very different breed than our American boys. Lesson: there are very distinct sports to be distinguished between. Rugby is not the same as Footy (Australian League Football). What you play largely depends on geography, Queensland region vs. NSW region. Careful there, I'm sure I'm still not even right on the differences and they love their footy.

A bit down the coast is Fraser Island. This place needs its own blog entirely. It's The largest sand island in the world and home of the most natural breed of dingos, who freely roam all over the island. You must take a barge to get there. Only 4WD vehicles are permitted because the beach is literally the highway on the island. Me and Laura, the prepared planners that we are loaded the car up on the barge and set forth on our journey, with smiles on our faces and no idea what we were getting ourselves into. As we drove off the barge, we parked, pulled out the manual for our hired car, found 4WD in the index and began our lesson of the day. After bumping and bouncing the 15 kM to the beach we started picking up a few more lessons. Bar tender: "did you guys let your tires down?" Us: "Huh?" Bar tender (after he stops laughing): "Tires need to be let down to at least 16 psi. Have you gotten bogged yet?" Us: "Huh? What's bogged??" Bar tender (more laughing): "Obviously you have not gotten bogged yet." We learned what bogged meant the next day, three times over:) Camper friends: "You have a hired car on Fraser??" Us: "Yep. Why?" Camper friends: "Hired cars aren't allowed on Fraser!! Oh well, you at least have your drivers permit to drive on the island?" Us: blank stare. Camper friends (more laughter): "Oh man. Well you have your campers permit to camp here?" Us: "Campers permit?? We literally just got on the barge!" Response of the night: "Damn lucky tourists!" I'm sure all those who know me and Laura well are not at all surprised at this point:) Night number 1 we pulled into our campsite off the beach, behind the dunes and turned off the car. Problem: pitch black outside. Dingos. It's only 6:30 at night. Problem solved: stargazing through the windows, a few paper cups of wine and a muse over life. This place is beyond amazing. You literally drive on the beach, with the ocean about 5 feet from your car and water splashing in the window. No lanes on this highway, just signal to say which way your veering, and Speed limit gets up to about 80 km/h. Hiked up Indian head, a super high look out and spotted several sharks, sting rays and sea turtles swimming below. Saw whales playing in the distance. Swam in Lake McKenzie, an unreal crystal clear lake filled with only rainwater. Camped with a group of boys and their family who were amazing and took us in, offered us food, drinks and music. Met Bart Thrupp, an incredible artist on the radio in Oz and will for sure be big soon. Spent another night stargazing and wishing on shooting stars in one of the most beautiful starry skies I've ever seen. Flew kites on the beach with two really cute families we met at the creek. Near death experience: missing our turn inland to catch our barge, driving toward the southern tip of the island without realizing it, no other cars in sight, only 1\4 tank petrol in the car, unbelievably soft sand in which we almost bog about 5 times, sun going down, tide coming up, no signs to indicate where we are on the island. Thankfully, we finally spotted a group of cars at the far tip. We made it on the last barge of the day with only 5 minutes to spare (wrong barge, but we played the sad, lost girls card and they let us on no worries:) Otherwise the night would have included me, Laura and Migaloo either getting bogged and washed into the ocean overnight, or being stranded on the shore with no gas, no people and the dingos. Oy vey.

Favorite part of the Australian highway is the heaps of signs geared toward keeping you awake, like "Rest. Or RIP", "Are we there yet Mum?" or some fairly graphic pics of cars crashing into trees and Cassowarys. Stopped for some free coffee/tea and bikkys (a biscuit is a cookie is a bikky) at the Rest. Revive. Survive. stops run by volunteers. And yes Loz, we slept at the truckers spot and survived!;) Also spotted our first wild kangaroos on that highway. Felt relieved once we saw them and the passenger didn't have to be on "Roo-duty" anymore.

Learned how to surf in Noosa..well Laura learned to surf, I learned how to fall somewhat gracefully back first into the water without hurting myself. Hung out with some local Aussies that taught us all about koalas and their predicament, as well as other things.

Byron Bay was last stop. Little hippie town where you instantly feel a bit lazy and immediately want to curl up on a hammock and take a nice nap. Pretty beach, interesting and funky culture. Slept at the Art Factory hostel in what resembled a covered wagon from the Oregon trail. Ended the trip by waking up at 5 to drive up to the light house and watch the sunrise over the ocean.

The next two weeks were spent in Sydney, doing the touristy biz and meeting Las Aussie mates. No worries, I approve of all of them:) Did the Opera House, sketched the Opera House while sitting in the botanical gardens, ate Roo pizza, walked the harbor bridge, visited Newtown, hung out at Manly beach, went to a barbe and watched the AFL championship with some true footy fans\players, and toured the wine region at Hunter Valley.

The last month of my life feels unreal on countless levels. Truly a soul vacation. I am realizing each day that the saying "the more you learn, the less you know" is not so much an observation but an absolute truth. So now I am Saying goodbye to the world of footy and rugby with its Tim tams, ciders and wedges with sour cream and sweet chili sauce. I've grown accustomed to and will miss my daily encounters with phrases such as "ay, how you goin?", "fancy a drink?", "Aw, no worries, you'll be right" and "that's rubbish!"'s time to learn some Italian:)

As i sit on this plane to Beijing i realize I have so much to learn. I realize the large amount of respect for all those who speak a different language. I smile as the announcement on the speaker was just spoken in Chinese first, followed by English about 5 minutes later, and the girl next to me on the plane is reading a magazine written in pictures and symbols I cannot even fathom to understand. At the airport I patiently waited my in line for the restroom and when it was my turn I walked up to the stall, took a big step up into the stall, closed the door behind me and turned around only to find what looked like a toilet seat with no base, lodged into the ground and two little footprints on either side showing where to position your feet. I promptly did what Stacia does so well, panicked, opened the door and exited within about 3 seconds of walking into the stall. Wallked past the end of the line and out of the bathroom laughing at myself the whole time. Apparently, I'm not culturally savvy enough yet to know what to do with a squat toilet.

Next stop: Rome, Italy. Where I will greet the pasta, wine and gelato with open arms.