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Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Cuba, Havana Club, Pinar del Rio, Travel, Viñales

Horsing Around in Viñales

While Barbara is preparing our breakfast, I step out onto the balcony of Casa Izzy. Heavy clouds hang above the mountains in the distance threatening rain, and a chill is in the air. I head back inside to grab a cup of coffee and a spread of fresh fruit, toast, eggs and juice is laid out on a small table in the living room.

As we’re finishing breakfast, Michael, our guide for the day, comes to collect us at the casa and walks with us down a small dirt road to a muddy farm area where a few other travelers are waiting. He begins assigning us to our horses. Mine is named Carmelo, and looks a little worse for wear! As I plant my left foot in the stirrup and swing my right leg over the horse, I say a little prayer that I’ll get off the horse in the same condition I’m getting on it. We set out for our morning tour of Viñales.

Our first stop is Torres Family Farm, where we’re greeted by Alex, who begins our tour by offering us a fresh, organic mojito. Alex takes us into a barn area, that sits surrounded by fields of tobacco. Inside, the leaves are hanging to dry. Alex explains that the fields are planted in December and within two months, they have one meter tall plants. These plants are then hand collected by the ten people who work on the farm. (No machines are used at all.) The leaves then go into a dry house where they hang for two months. And then, the fields are replanted. The tobacco season last six months, and the rest of the year, the land is used to grow corn, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables.

Alex takes us to a small table next to the dry house where he begins to demonstrate how a cigar is rolled. He explains that the tobacco they grow is similar to what you would find in a Montecristo no. 4, full of honey and vanilla flavors. He tells us this is what Che smoked. 

We find out that 90% of their leaves are sold to the government and 10% are for saved for the workers and community. We meet Raul, a farm employee, who is taking a morning smoke break.

I realize that people here smoke a lot, and I wonder if people ever share a cigar, like people sometimes do a cigarette. I ask the question and Alex shoots me a sideways look and says, “You have boyfriend? You share your boyfriend with other girls?” Question answered…

Alex gifts us each a cigar and we bid farewell, heading off to our second stop, which is a small rum plantation about 20 minutes away. To call this a plantation is a bit of a stretch. It’s more a collection of picnic tables covered by a thatch roof. Old plump men wearing sombreros and playing banjos visit the tables pouring generous samples of rum and taking orders for mojitos and piña coladas.

We learn that what we’re drinking isn’t exactly a rum or a whiskey for that matter. It’s a spirit endemic to the Pinar del Rio region, called Guayabita del Pinar. It’s called Guayabita for the little guava fruit that sits in the bottom of each bottle. We each feel the need to take one of these home, so we purchase a bottle each, shove them in our backpacks and hope they survive the afternoon on horseback.

We travel further into Viñales, following Alex on a narrow path that hugs tobacco farms, crosses creeks and occasionally takes us to a collection of casas that you can scarcely call a village.

The sun is blazing as we begin to cross Viñales Valley, an open field which ultimately leads us to Indian Cave. We tie the horses to a tree and head into explore these caverns that were only rediscovered in 1920.

From here, we trot back to town, arriving by mid-afternoon. We freshen up at the casa and head out to sort transport from Viñales to Varadero for the following day. It’s been a short stay in Viñales, but one I’m glad we didn’t miss. It has been our first taste of the authentic Cuba I felt I was missing in Old Havana.

We head to a little bar after dinner and sample some Havana Club aged rums, toasting to another good couple of days…any excuse really. This is Cuba after all!

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Casa Izzy, Cuba, Travel, Viñales

Adios Vedado, Hola Viñales

We have loosely organized transport to Viñales through Carlos, the owner of the Airbnb we will stay at when we return to Havana. I say loosely because we’ve had trouble confirming the transfer and our day of travel is coinciding with a national parade to honor the late Fidel Castro. Apparently, the city will come to a standstill later today.

At around 9am, we head down to the corner outside our apartment in Vedado and wait. We have no idea who we are waiting for and when they may show up…but about 15 minutes later, a guy driving a neon orange sports car careens around the corner of 12th, waving at us. There is no mistaking this is our guy. He pulls over in a nearby driveway, gets out and introduces himself as Louis, as he throws our backpacks into the small trunk.

As we get into the car and reverse out the driveway, Louis begins to renegotiate the cost of the drive that we tried to confirm with Carlos yesterday. “It’s a holiday…It’s very far…” Louis explains. We reconfirm the price and I wonder if travel will be like this throughout the trip. As we reach the city outskirts, I decide I’m not going to worry about this.

Literally less than 10 minutes into the drive, I feel like I’m witnessing the authentic Cuba I had so hoped to see. It’s here and it’s everywhere once you get out the confines of the city. Undeveloped land surrounds us on both sides of the autopista, which is potted with deep potholes Louis aggressively tries to avoid.

We pass classic cars, people on horseback, horse & buggies, work trucks transporting large groups of people, tour buses and bicyclists. Louis chastises everyone who drives faster than him and then puts his foot down so hard the speedometer needle is hovering around 120 km/hr. I try to get comfortable in the back, but we’re either dodging tour buses or ingesting fumes from the classic cars in front of us.

Two hours later, we exit the highway and begin a long journey along an even shittier road to Viñales. Colorful houses line the roads, and laundry hangs in almost every front yard. A few propaganda signs sit at intersections and roundabouts – those paying tribute to Fidel or mocking the US government.

We begin climbing a winding road surrounded on either side by dense forest. On the descent, Louis tells us we’ll be arriving soon.

As we make our way up the main street which seems to mark the entry and exit to the city, I know I will like Viñales. It’s night and day from the bustling crowds of Havana.

Louis winds his window down and stops a few people in the street to ask for directions. We’ve been told by our contact on Airbnb that many people in Cuba don’t know “dresses” and will invite you to stay in their casa, so she has sent us directions to go past the church and turn left after the clinico. We manage to find the correct street and a lady standing on a pink balcony on the second floor of a small apartment complex sees us and comes down to retrieve us.

We are staying in a small room at Casa Izzy, which sits off to the side of a small living room and kitchenette. Just outside the door is an identical space to ours where Barbara, the manager, and her family live. Barbara gives us a tour of the casa and shows us our room, which is bright and white, has two full beds and an en suite bathroom. She shows us where breakfast will be served and gives us a book full of activities we can partake in while here. We sign up for a 15 CUC horeback riding tour for the following day and head out to explore Viñales.

We walk down the main street, Calle Salvador Cisneros, past the church which seems to be where everyone congregates and head down a dirt road that eventually leads to farmland and horse pastures. We wander for a little bit, soaking in the peacefulness of this place before looping back to town.

We head to La Colonial for a couple of cold beers and then explore the local market, which is full of trinkets – shell jewelry, Che Guevara souvenirs, matchbox classic cars and kids toys made from coconut shells. We venture down a side street and stop to watch a group of men who are playing a game of dominoes in the last slivers of daylight.

We find a Mediterranean restaurant where a line is beginning to form, take this as a good sign, and join the line. Cuban food is good, but one meal without rice and meat will be welcomed. We order risotto and cannelloni  and split a bottle of passable wine.

After dinner, the sleepiness of Viñales is getting its hold on us. After our crazy Havana nights, we welcome a chill evening. We head back to Casa Izzy, confirm our morning pick up for horseback riding and before Christy has even finished brushing her teeth, I am well away.


Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Cuba, Havana, Travel, Travel Wishlist

Feliz año nuevo desde Havana

We venture out the next morning and explore some of Vedado. Wayne has told us we must eat at Starbien, so we walk over to make a reservation, only to find out they’re closed until January 3rd.  Still, we get to see some side streets of the neighborhood we’re staying in, and then we jump in a cab and head back to explore more of Old Havana. 

We grab a coffee at Cafe Wanda before heading down Obispo. We duck into old bookshops, markets, giftshops and the occasional bar. Around 12:30, we stop at Lluvia d’Oro and watch as the old bartenders whip up mojitos.

We order a round of Bucaneros before heading on to Plaza Vieja, where we sit and watch the world go by. Tourists cross the square, local kids play a game of soccer and a stage is being set up for New Years celebrations.

We walk south down a side street to the waterfront and see cruise ships docked in the harbor. Then we loop back to the Malecon with El Morro on our right. At El Cabana, the live music lures us in, so we stop for a mojito and a snack. When the band goes on break, we head up towards Parque Central and watch as a black 50’s Chevy delivers whole cooked pigs to private homes. They’re even wearing little sombreros. I have a feeling I know what we will be eating New Year’s Day!


We head back to Vedado and get ready to go out for the evening. It’s New Year’s Eve, and we have no plans but aren’t concerned about having any trouble finding fun. We head back to Old Havana and decide to try El Floridita again. We weasel our way up to the bar and order daiquiris and see a statue of Hemingway in the corner, bellied up to the bar. We watch as tourists make their way to the corner for a photo opp.

From here, we head back to El Escabeche to see our friends from the previous night. David spots us and says he’ll take us to a private paladar for some food, but they are full, so we grab the last table at the restaurant connected to El Escabeche and sample the best roast chicken, rice and beans I’ve ever had. Midnight strikes as we’re finishing up our meal, and we all get up to head into the bar through a little door in the corner of the room. The kitchen staff files out of the kitchen and a short, plump Cuban woman grabs me and kisses me on the cheek, wishing me a Happy New Year.

We stay and drink and dance and watch from the door of bar as people run up and down the streets dodging the buckets of water that people are throwing from the balconies above. Later that night, we make our own escape and manage to make it to a cab without getting doused.


New Year’s Day is a slower start. We take a long walk along the Malecon to the Hotel Nacional, where we stop in to look around and have a cold beer in the courtyard. We then head back to Vedado for a late lunch at La Catedral, which is seething with locals…always a good sign in my book. 

We indulge in ropa vieja and a bottle of red wine. The meal is worth the wait and we top it off with cortados for afternoon stamina. We spend the late afternoon strolling the back streets of Vedado, which leads us to the waterfront where a small group of people fish as the sun sets.

We loop back to our apartment on 23rd & 12th, and I could easily call it a night, but it’s our last night with Sarah, so we hail a taxi back to Old Havana to a little street we walked by yesterday. It’s lined with a number of restaurants whose tables spill over onto a narrow cobblestone street. Here we find Cafe de los Artistas.

We settle into bar seats and make friends with Allain, the mixologist, who is creating cocktails that are so pretty I feel bad drinking them. Lestian, the manager, finds us a table outside and helps us order some tapas. He comes back and gifts us Romeo y Julieta cigarillos for us as a consolation for having to wait so long for a table.

After dinner, when the staff has wrapped up work for the evening, they sit and join us for a nightcap. We toast a Havana Club aged rum and light up our little cigars… to our last night as the three amigas!


Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Cuba, Culture Shock, Havana, Travel

Welcome to Cuba…

I’m going to be honest…I don’t know what to expect from Cuba… Sure, I’m familiar with the stereotypical things – vintage cars, cheap rum, good cigars, and I’ve heard arriving will be like stepping back in time. But, as usual, I am willfully unprepared and have done little planning other than to sort a few night’s accommodation along the way.

On December 3oth, a good friend drops me off at Mangonia Station near West Palm Beach to take the TriRail to Ft. Lauderdale International Airport. After a one-hour train ride and a shuttle bus to Terminal 1, I head to the Southwest desk to check in for my flight. I’m told to head downstairs to a separate check-in area where an employee, who’s appropriately sporting a fedora, tells me to head to the visa desk, get my visa, then come back and get in line to check in. After waiting in many lines and talking to many people, I have the appropriate visa for Cuba and am checked in.

The gates are crammed full of people traveling home from their Christmas holidays and off on their New Years jaunts, and I make my way to B-7 for boarding. I snag an exit seat next to an American guy, Wayne, who sort of resembles Robert De Niro. He’s traveling home to Havana, where his Cuban wife is waiting for him. He looks at me and asks if this is my first visit to Cuba, and at my response, proceeds to spend the entire duration of the one-hour flight making suggestions of where to eat, what to see, what to eat, where to drink, and where to dance. He makes notes on the print out of other recommendations someone had kindly emailed to me and jots down his address and his cell phone number.

Upon landing, I quickly fill out the numerous arrival forms handed to me at the beginning of the flight, grab my bag and walk with Wayne to the arrival hall. He suggests I change a small amount of currency at the airport, but not all of it. I can get a better rate in the city, he says.

Arrival is seamless, despite hearing horror stories of hour long waits to clear security and customs (they x-ray EVERYTHING coming in), and Wayne and I say goodbye. My friend Christy’s flight has just arrived, so I scoop her up and we head off to find our other friend Sarah, who is waiting in the arrivals area outside.

Outside and to the left is a concession stand that sells cold beer, rum, cigarettes and a few snacks. The area is seething with people, but we grab a hightop table we can stand around, order  a cold Bavaria beer each and watch as people drive their vintage cars around the arrival loop road, looking for the people they’re picking up.

The air is humid and smells of car fumes, but there’s a lightness to it. No one is in a hurry. We are already experiencing Cuban time.

We wait for Arianna, who meets us to assist with our airport transfer and help get us settled in at the Airbnb we have booked. I guess all she had to do was look for the three white girls at the airport, so her job wasn’t too difficult. After our hellos, we finish our beers, grab our bags and squeeze into a kelly green 1950s Chevrolet and make our way to Vedado.

We drop our bags at our Airbnb on 23rd & 12th and attempt to change money. After learning that most banks would be closed until after New Years, I audibly thank Wayne for suggesting we change a little bit of money at the airport, and we jump into a taxi with Arianna still in tow and head to Old Havana.

We pass the iconic Hotel Nacional and make a right to drive along the Malecon. By this point in time, it’s nearing end of day, and as we drive, we watch the waves splash up and over the Malecon, splashing the road, the cars and the occasional passerby.

We drive up Parque Central and jump out near Hotel Ingelterra. I can tell we’ve entered the touristic area of Havana but can’t help but be awed by the beauty of the architecture. Once ornate buildings have lost the struggle with the test of time, but they manage to hold on to a sliver of their former glory. It is easy to envision just how jaw-droppingly beautiful Havana was in its heyday.

We stop in to Parque Central Hotel, where every tourist seems to be sitting in the lobby and attempting to access WIFI. Here we’re able to change a bit more cash before heading to the eastern part of Old Havana for drinks and a snack.

We find El Chacon and order a round of mojitos, followed by the national beer, Cristal. Arianna is still with us and we get the chance to learn a little bit more about what her life is like. Besides helping out with her cousin’s Airbnb and working as a makeshift tour guide, she also works as an architect/interior designer and as a teacher. Arianna tells us it’s not uncommon for Cubans to have up to two or three side gigs in addition to their main job. We learn she makes the least amount of money from her full time job teaching, bringing in about $20 a month. She makes better money with her design gig, but the most income is derived from her tourism gig.

As we sit in El Chacon, in what feels like the equivalent of a hip European cafe in a touristy part of town, I hope that I will be able to discover the authentic Cuban experience while I’m here. I’m glad Arianna is still with us and that we have the chance to talk openly and candidly with her. She tells us that she (like many other Cubans) has never left the country and despite being (so say) allowed to, it’s almost impossible for Cubans to get the necessary visas.

From El Chacon, we walk over to Obispo, which is filled with even more tourists, but we find a dive bar on the corner called El Escabeche. The place is dimly lit, and a band is set up in the corner belting out Cuban classics. We order a round of mojitos and meet the crew working there. Carlo, is the manager and Armando and Diego are tending bar with Charlie, who claims to make the best mojito. He even won an award in Chicago.

Carlo calls over a young guy, David, from the other corner, and makes him salsa with me. I think to myself that I’m doing good at following the instructions my good friend Christel gave me before I departed for this trip: 1. drink rum, 2. smoke cigars, and 3. dance. We spend a good part of the night in this little hole in the wall spot.

From here, we make our way up the road to El Floridita – a bar made famous by Hemingway. It’s packed to the brim, so we decide to save it for another day and make our way back to the taxi stand near Hotel Ingleterra, stopping to take a peak at the lobby of the Gran Teatro before hailing a cab.

We head back to Vedado and venture to Cinecita, which is directly next door to our apartment. It’s officially sleepy, but we’re just looking for a nightcap, and a table of Cuban men wave us over and insist we sit down. They offer us a taste of everything they have, and we end up ordering plates of cerdo, mashed yucca and ensalada… quite the midnight snack. We wash it all down with a Cristal, bid goodnight to our new Cuban friends and call it a night.


Backpacking, Bucket List, Chile, Patagonia, South America, The W Trek, Torres del Paine, Travel

Patagonia – How This Journey Came To Be

The desire to see this part of the world started long ago, just before my nomadic life began in 2009, but I guess you could say that despite it taking me eight years to finally make it here, Patagonia was the impetus for me setting off on my travels.

Back in my Sunnyside, Queens apartment in December of 2008, I was celebrating finishing my master’s degree and looking to plan a little get away between Christmas and New Year. Patagonia was where I wanted to go. Something about the raw beauty at the opposite end of the world intrigued me. Just the pictures alone made me want to jump on a plane.

After checking with my other broke friends in NYC and looking at the points in my Delta frequent flyer account, we quickly decided Rio was more feasible and affordable, so Patagonia took a back seat and there it sat for the next eight years.

Over these years, my travels would take me to Southeast Asia, Australia, India, Eastern Europe, Central America, Canada and even North Africa. The large continent of South America was somewhere I knew I wanted to go, but somewhere I wanted to go with the right amount of time and the right budget.

Over the years, the intrigue and desire to see Patagonia would grow… almost to the point where the thought of this trip took on a larger than life persona. I treasured the place before I visited and it became a dream trip… one I became hesitant to take, simply for the fact that I wouldn’t have it to look forward to anymore. I told everyone for years that Patagonia was the number one place on my bucket list, yet I was in no hurry to get here.

However, in January, I found myself with 4 ½ months before I had to return to work, some extra cash stashed away from my seasonal work, and the desire for a longer adventure… the time was right for South America, and the main reason for the trip was to finally visit Patagonia.


Albania, Bosnia, Bucket List, Burma, Camino de Santiago, Croatia, Czech Republic, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Myanmar, Norway, Slovenia, Spain

The Travel Year in Review

me flies when you’re having fun, and the past five months have felt like five weeks. But what another incredible journey it has been, filled with some of the most profound travel moments yet.

Somehow, I feel like I was sitting at the table writing my 2013 bucket list yesterday, and here I am wrapping up the ‘Year in Review’ post. Don’t worry, this will be quickly followed by the 2014 “Travel bucket list.” But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, and I do want to highlight what was an epic summer of European travel, followed by a very long walk through Spain and a visit back to Southeast Asia- a region I fell in love with four years ago.

To quickly review, my 2013 bucket list was ambitious. Many countries are being carried over to next years’ list, but I can cross Norway and Burma off. And, well, wouldn’t you know that many new countries have presented themselves. Next years list might be even longer than the last.

Holmenkollbakken Ski Jump
Viegeland’s Park

This years’ travels began in Norway, and it is a country that did not disappoint. It was an epic place to start, and logistically a smart place to begin. Norway is not for the frugal backpacker. A beer will set you back $15, a guesthouse $30 or above and sightseeing doesn’t run cheap either. The infamous Norway in a Nutshell tour costs around $200 USD. Ouch!! I was very fortunate to be introduced to new friends in Oslo, who put me up for a couple of nights. Oslo is packed full of things to see and do – The Munch Museum, Vigeland’s Sculpture Park, the new Opera House, the Viking Museum, Botanical Gardens, and the famous Holmenkollbakken ski jump, which overlooks the sprawling city below.

En route to Bergen

I traveled West on the ‘Norway in a Nutshell’ tour, taking two trains, one boat, and a bus and finally ending up in Bergen 12 hours later… after passing glaciers, fjords, waterfalls, remote villages, and stave churches. In Bergen, I savored salmon and whale at the famous outdoor fish market, and had my first sample of smoked reindeer. It was a culinary highlight.

A bird’s-eye-view of Alesund

From Bergen, I flew to Alesund and reconnected with a travel buddy from Honduras, who put me up and gave me a tour of the middle part of the country. Alesund is an interesting city in the fact that it burned down entirely in 1904, and was rebuilt in Art Nouveau architecture. Pair this with the surrounding Atlantic Ocean and a number of barrier islands, and you have a picture-perfect setting.

Preikstolen, or ‘Pulpit’s Rock’

Unfortunately, the weather had gone from bad to worse and continued to deteriorate throughout my time in Alesund, but the sun broke through for my late afternoon visit to Geiranger Fjord. And days later, after flying south to Stavanger, I managed half a day of sunshine for the hike up Preikstolen (aka, ‘Pulpit’s Rock).

I decided mid-way through my ten days in Norway that I would return one day with a camper van and an unlimited number of days with which to explore this picturesque place.

Prague’s colorful buildings and terracotta rooftops

How could I be sad to leave Norway, when I was headed to meet my best friend in the Czech Republic for ten more days of galavanting? I had visited Prague while studying abroad in Paris during college, but I had no idea what the rest of the Czech Republic had in store for me. What an incredibly amazing place?! Prague is rife with tourists, and you can sort of tell that the locals are over it. In fact, I was kind of over it too after a few days. Just too many people with their cameras, and not enough of the real, local culture to immerse yourself in anymore. But head outside of Prague city limits and it’s like traveling back in time to a place where the rich Czech culture still exists.

Cesky Krumlov

We hired a car and drove over 1500 kilometers in six days, heading northeast to Karlovy Vary, and continuing on in a counterclockwise direction. Karlovy Vary is one of the most picturesque villages I have ever seen, and it’s known for it’s natural mineral water springs, covered and protected by ancient colonnades.

Cesky Kromlov is also very picturesque and a UNESCO site, which in turn, brings many of
Prague’s tourists south. It was beautiful to see, but the true treats were discovered driving through the surrounding villages, getting lost (even if unintended), and exploring castle ruins dating back to the 11th Century. From Cesky, we headed to Mikulov, my personal favorite stop on the journey.

Velhartice Castle
Tapas, the Czech way

Mikulov is about 20 minutes from the Austrian border, and it is officially sleepy. Still, you can find plenty to fill three days with here, and if you really like wine, consider at least one more day for tasting. This is an undiscovered gem, which probably won’t stay this way. We toured the Jewish Cemetery, hiked up to a hilltop church at sunrise, toured Mikulov castle, and ate and drank our way from one end of the street to the other. We savored homemade dishes of roast lamb, spinach and potatoes, topped off with the family’s home vinted Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, all served with heart, warmth and pride.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

Mikulov was a great jumping off point for a day trip to Vienna, a city I had never made it to on past European trips. Yes, we downloaded Mozart for the drive, which took us from country lanes surrounded by vast sunflower fields, to city highways. In Vienna, we toured St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Hapsburg Palace, The Summer Palace, and the Opera House. There are no performances in July and August, so opera will have to wait…til next time.

We returned to Prague at the end of our trip, dropped off our very dirty white Skoda, and headed to Prague’s JW Marriott in the Old Town for two nights of luxury. We befriended a young Czech girl in the lounge, who took such good care of us, and told us what to see and do and where to go to get off the beaten path. Highlights at the back end of the Prague trip included, Ivan Lendl’s Mucha art collection, touring Prague Castle, sampling beers brewed by monks, and did I mention the Marriott – that was pretty nice too 😉

*side note- If you love to bike and/or are looking for a biking holiday, consider the Czech Republic for beautiful scenery and challenging daily rides.

The river Danube, separating Buda and Pest

From Prague, I booked a bus ticket to Budapest, another European city I had been wanting to check out for quite some time now. I arrived at the end of a day where temperatures had reached 40+ celsius (over 105 degrees Farenheit.) After checking in to the guesthouse, I went out in search of a cold beer, and ended up in a local joint, where the bar maid wore a wet towel around her neck, which she jokingly called her AC. I sat next to a train driver and we conversed in broken English about life in Budapest.

Budapest’s Green Bridge

The following day dawned clear, cool and windy, and I set out on a free walking tour of the city, enabling me to get the lay of the land and learn a little bit more about this city and it’s history. I find that I enjoy getting out of cities more these days, but as far as cities go, Budapest has got it going on. And it really feels like many people haven’t figured this out yet. Shhhh! That’s what’s so nice about it.

Szechenyi Baths

After a couple days of soaking in the sights and playing the tourist card, a great group of people from Bubble Hostel hit the town hard, exploring the ruin pub scene. Nightlife is unpretentious and fun, and the only event on the agenda the following day is soaking in the public baths at Szechenyi. I make it there just before sunset, plop myself in a heated pool and start to come back to life. Then I visit the sauna, where I follow the lead of a few, plump Hungarian men, who sit in the sauna, and then dip into the plunge pool that is a chilly 15 degrees (celcius). They get a laugh out of watching me psyche myself up to submerse myself fully underwater.

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Budapest is followed by a short trip to Northern Croatia. I arrive in Zagreb with big plans to really see this country.  These plans are foiled when I realize it’s August and the rest of Europe also wants to see Croatia. It is peak travel season and prices are uncomfortably high for my modest backpacker’s budget. I head to Pula (Northeastern Croatia) and meet Julie, who invites me to hop a ride to Munich with her. After little debate, I find myself on a crazy 36-hour road trip from Croatia to Germany, with Julie and her Slovenian friend’s brother, Duscan, at the wheel. Stops include wine sampling and swims at sunset in Northern Croatia, the incredible vineyards of Slovenia, espresso in Italy, back through Slovenia for seafood, lunch in Austria and finally our arrival in Garmisch, Germany. It was the most memorable road trip ever.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s Summer Festival

Julie’s friend Laura, is living and working in Garmisch at Eidelweiss, a resort for active and retired US military. After getting evicted for not legally being checked in for our stay, we are welcomed back the following day to stay for as long as we want. Laura is an awesome hostess who welcomes us to her college style dorm accommodation. Julie and Laura are in bunk beds and I’m on the sofa.

Garmisch is stunningly beautiful, and the cooler temperatures are such a welcomed change after the heat of southern Europe. We have arrived at the right time because it is Festival, which is Garmisch-Partenkirchen’s equivalent of October-Fest. And it can’t get any more authentic than this. For one week, the entire town dons their dirndll and lederhosen and celebrates with liter beers, sausages, music and dance. I feel like this puts OctoberFest to shame.

Paragliders over Zugspitze

The little town of Garmisch is surrounded by some of Germany’s highest peaks, so hiking is on the agenda almost everyday. The physical activity is welcomed, and I manage to climb three mountains surrounding Garmisch, each giving a different perspective on the little town below. But the best perspective came a few days later. After hiking one morning and seeing the sky above filled with paragliders, Julie and I inquired about going up ourselves, and Laura was able to book us in through Eidelwiess. What an incredible experience! Seeing the world from that far above and gliding through the silence left me speechless and wanting to do this again and again.

Wolfgang at Greisbrau in Murnau

The trip to Garmisch is topped off with a tour of the local brewery, Griesbrau, where Wolfgang teaches us the inner workings of the brewery. With the tour comes generous samples and a test/certificate of completion at the end of the evening. Wolfgang takes this very seriously.

It has been great to chill out in Garmisch, recharge the batteries a bit and figure out what is next. Now I’m ready to hit the road again, and while I may have skipped Croatia for the moment, I’m not okay with bypassing the Balkans. I have around three weeks before I need to be in Spain for the Camino, so I book a one-way ticket to Skopje, Macedonia, via Lubljiana, and begin the Balkan tour.

Let me just say that Slovenia might be the prettiest country on the planet. Between my road trip extravaganza and a 24-hour layover here on the way to Macedonia, I saw about three-quarters of the country (it’s small). If you like Northern Italy, then you will LOVE Slovenia, and to be honest, I don’t think this is a place on many peoples’ travel radars yet. Ljubliana is a sleepy little capital city, with cobblestone streets and an impressive cafe culture, Northeastern Slovenia is producing wines that will rival those of Italy and France, the seaside looks like the movie set for “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” castles and ruins top every hill in sight, and the people are just lovely!

Jeruzalem, Slovenia. Wine Country

On my second stop through, I reconnect with Duscan, my roadtrip buddy, and we spend most of our time in the northeastern part of the country, hopping from vineyard to vineyard. We also reconnect with friends of his, who run a family vineyard. I thought they just bottled wines for themselves to enjoy, but it turns out they actually run a successful business from their basement cellar. Bostjian gave me the full tour of the cellar and took me through the wine making process from start to finish. Samples were plentiful and I left with an invitation to return for harvest season…and a slight hangover!

Skopje’s statues, Macedonia

Arriving in Skopje, Macedonia with quite the heavy head, I was picked up at the airport by the hostel owner’s father, who, upon arriving at the hostel immediately gifted me homemade wine and rakia to enjoy during my stay. Skopje is an interesting city to say the least. The pride of the people is evident in new developments and the statue obsession sweeping the city, even if it is a little bizarre. The capital is clean and tidy and home to a number of interesting sights, including a museum honoring Mother Teresa and her birthplace, an old fortress, a number of ornate, old churches and mosques, an old bazaar, and did I mention the statues. If you want to escape the city, about 30 minutes by bus is Lake Matka, where you can walk trails, kayak and see even more old churches and monasteries.

St. Clement, Lake Ohrid, Macedonia

After a couple of days in Skopje, I traveled to Lake Ohrid, my favorite spot in Macedonia. I stay in a hostel within the walls of the old city and tour the ruins of an old coliseum, then climb the steps to Tsar Samuel’s fortress, follow a trail to Plaoshnik – a beuatiful Byzantine basilica, hike down to the lakeside church, St. Jovan Kaneo, and walk back to the center of town via a lakeside walking trail. I enjoy late lunches of freshly baked bread and Greek salads, served with delicious local wine. In the evenings, I watch the sun set over the lake in the tranquil gardens of St. Jovan Kaneo. Despite being peak tourist season, Lake Ohrid is a peaceful stop on my tour of the Balkan countries.

Albanian BBQ

I take a minibus from Ohrid to the outskirts of town where I am able to get a bus to Tirana. Now, my experiences in Albania were not seen through the backpacker’s lens. I have reconnected with an old high school friend, who is working in Tirane. She has offered to put me up for a couple of days, so after the five hour bus ride, I make my way to the Sheraton. I show up in the lobby, hot, sweaty and definitely receiving some stares. I’ve been on the road for about seven weeks, so three nights at the Sheraton is a welcomed treat!

After a hot shower, I put on the cleanest clothes I can dig out of my backpack and head to dinner with Rebecca and some of her colleagues. It is Friday night and seems as if the entire city is out for an evening stroll. Sidewalk cafes and restaurants are full to the brim, so we join the crowds and sample Albanian cuisine…plates of meat, all kinds of meat – pork, beef, chicken, lamb, sausages, kebabs, served with grilled vegetables and locally brewed beers.

Kruja, Albania

The following day, we make our way to Kruja to tour ancient monasteries and castles dating back to Skanderberg’s time. This is followed by a trip to A Mrizi i Zanava, a ‘slow food’ restaurant, where we enjoy an al fresco feast. The meal begins with a pomegranite juice aperitif, quickly followed up with carafes of Albanian red wine. Appetizers including bread, olives and peppers are brought out, followed with a massive cheese plate. Next come the meat dishes – plates of lamb shanks, beef sticks, and pork kebabs. By the end of the meal, no one can manage desert. We head back to Tirana for an afternoon poolside at the Sheraton.

I’m conscious of time, as I need to be in Spain at the end of the month for the start of the Camino, so I sadly bypass the southern beaches of Albania, head north for a night in Shkodra, and then make my way to Montenegro.

An old monastery in the hills of Kotor
Kotor, Montenegro

I’ve met two people at the hostel who are hitching to the border of Montenegro, so I join them for the morning adventure. Poor planning! Moments into our walk, the rain begins. Cars, trucks and SUVs pass by, but no one stops to pick us up… and then, the guy driving the smallest car, the one who has barely any extra room, stops to pick us up. The three of us squeeze in with the three of them and make our way to the border. I think if the driver had his passport with him, he would have driven us to our final destination, but we thank him profusely and bid farewell. We walk across the border into Montenegro and get stuck in a torrential rain storm. Finally, after a taxi, bus, and minivan along the coast, we arrive in Kotor, a beautiful medieval city built in a protected bay. I spend the afternoon beachside and watch as cruise boats come and go. Behind me is St. Ivan’s fort, but I save the steps for the following morning, which dawns cool and misty, but by the time I reach the top, the mist has lifted and the views into the bay and the walled city below are breathtaking.

Mostar, Bosnia

I take an afternoon bus from Kotor to Mostar, arriving about five hours later. I walk the streets trying to find my guesthouse and eventually ask a man standing outside a grocery store where I need to go. It turns out his brother owns the hostel, so he walks me there, and I thank the travel gods for these types of coincidences.

I only have a couple of days in Bosnia, but I had my heart set on seeing Mostar, a city which was completely destroyed during the Bosnian War in 1993. The bridge, pictured to the left, was considered the pride of this country, mentioned in national anthems, and recognized as a national landmark to people world-wide. It was originally constructed in the 16th century, but unfortunately, it was also leveled during the war after being shelled by the Croats. The bridge was rebuilt in 2001 to the exact same specifications it was first built to, and is now home to the famous Mostar Diving Club. Yes, a few skilled divers (and during my time there, a few crazy Aussies) jump off this bridge, plummeting into the cold river below. While the bridge has been rebuilt, much of the city still shows its war scars, but despite there being a long way for the city to come, the people are moving on and welcome tourists with open arms, eager to share their not so distant stories of darker, war-torn days.

The walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia

From Mostar, I head back to Croatia, and while I didn’t get to see nearly as much of this country as I had originally hoped to, I did manage a jam packed afternoon in Dubrovnik before leaving the Balkans for Barcelona. I leave Mostar by bus early in the morning, and I’m in Dubrovnik by 1:00. I check the airport shuttle times and work out that I have about four hours to tour the city. I change 20 Euros, check my backpack in luggage storage, and hop a local bus to the walled city.

The outskirts of the city are seething with tourists, but fortunately, cruise ships are on their way out of the harbor, and when I climb up the stairs to begin my tour of the top of the walls, I discover that most of the people have stayed down below. This may be in an effort to escape the heat…it is a scorcher and looking down I see kayakers, sunbathers and boaters enjoying the Croatian coast. I spend about an hour walking the walls and photographing the terracotta-tiled roofs of Dubrovnik.

A view to the new city from the old, Dubrovnik

At the end of the walk, I climb up to the watchtower for a panoramic view of the city… it’s magical – blue skies, even bluer water, burnt-orange rooftops and the towering hill behind. I could spend some time here, but I know this will be a separate trip in the (near) future. I head back down to level ground and decide to walk the cobblestone streets inside the walled city before walking back to the bus station. I arrive back in just enough time and with just enough money to pay for my luggage locker and a shuttle bus to the airport to catch my evening flight to Barcelona.

Like Paris and London, Barcelona is a city that draws me back again and again. This is a place I could really spend some time exploring, and eating my way through. Unfortunately, I only have a day before I head northwest to the start of the Camino, but I manage a nice walk to the Picasso museum where I spend the afternoon learning about the life and works of this passionate artist. A trip to Barcelona wouldn’t be complete without the tapas experience, and boy has this city capitalized on peoples’ love of tapas. What used to be a freebie offered with wine has now turned into a gourmet dining experience, and one that will easily set you back 20 to 30 Euros. I head to Tapa Tapa and savor olives, pimentos, four cheese risotto and an assortment of cured meats, all polished off with a glass of the house white wine. I soak in the sidewalk cafe culture and enjoy a bit of first-class people watching before heading back to the hostel to pack up for my travels to St. Jean Pied-de-Port.

Road markers in St.Jean Pied-de-Port

September and the early part of October are spent walking 800 kilometers through northern Spain on the historic Camino Frances pilgrimage. A curiosity began growing in me after watching the movie, The Way, and when I realized I would be in Europe for the Summer, I planned the trip with the intention of being in Spain by September, one of the so-say best months to walk the Camino.

People walk the Camino for many different reasons – some for religious or spiritual reasons, others for health reasons, some because they enjoy nature or just enjoy walking. Many people embark on this historical pilgrimage looking for answers to questions, or hoping to figure things out… some are mourning the loss of a loved one, some are looking for forgiveness, the list goes on and on. But everyone is united in the daily event of walking, and everyone for the most part is quite open to sharing his or her story. People seem to be operating on a different level of consciousness, and throughout my time on the Camino, great things unfolded due to open minds and spirits.

A message for pilgrims along ‘The Way’

Over the past four years of traveling, I have enjoyed my journey that much more because of the people I have met. Travelers seem to share the same thirst for adventure and the same open-mindedness. I was hopeful that I would find many like-minded people on the Camino, and I was fortunate to do just this, but any expectations I had of this long walk were far surpassed. People told me it would be ‘incredible,’ ‘the best thing I’ve ever done,’ and all I can say in hindsight is: it was profound.

There’s a slowing down that occurs that doesn’t even happen during normal travel for me. It’s easy to keep a fast pace when traveling… moving through places, seeing the sights, and moving on, but on the Camino, you’re literally slowed down to a walking pace, and when that happens, what you observe and experience changes.

A couple of things happen in phases. After an epic first day crossing the Pyrenees, I began to experience very bad foot pain. I thought I would be covering 20-25 kilometers a day, but for three days in a row, I was slowed down to a snail’s pace, covering maybe 15 kilometers in six hours if I was lucky. I was frustrated… I was so ready to go, but physically couldn’t. Most people were experiencing some element of physical pain. I saw blisters that made my heart sink, blisters that should have prevented some people from walking, but they doctored themselves and carried on day in, day out. The physical pain was bonding at the beginning, and smiles were shared in the albergues (guesthouses) every night as we all hobbled around. We doctored our pain and spirits with generous amounts of vino tinto and, very quickly, friendships began to evolve. Soon, without even trying, my Camino Family had formed.

Sunrise at Cruz de Ferro

Once the physical pain let up, we were left with six to eight hours of walking a day, and during that time, insightful and interesting conversations evolved- ones that enable you to learn so much about another person and their life, that in turn enable you to learn so much about yourself. So while the first phase is physical, the second phase turns into a true journey of the spirit. By the time we had cleared the meseta, the flat and notoriously monotonous stage of the Camino, we had solved the problems of the world, knew each other in an in-depth way you only know a best friend, and I was wondering what would come next in the third and final stage.

Santiago Cathedral

We enter into Galicia, a damp and cool region of Spain whose landscape reminds me of Scotland or Ireland. Our Camino Family is solid by now, but a few drop off here and there and rejoin one day later or so. When we are all together, we share rooms, beds, meals, wine, band aids, stories and obviously, walks. The Camino is doing what I had
heard it would- providing us all with exactly what we need.

Our group has become sort of exclusive. We love each others company, but we’re excited to welcome new pilgrims that we walk with each day. And finally, we arrive, 33 days after starting, in Santiago. It is a reunion of sorts, which is the only satisfying thing about finishing the walk. Standing in the square in front of the cathedral and seeing faces I hadn’t seen since the second week of the Camino is uplifting, especially at a time when I’m preparing for so many farewells. A group of about twelve of us head out for a final dinner of tapas and sangria, and as quickly as it all began, it is over… well, the walking is, but the lessons of the Camino will stay with me for a long time. My heart is heavy and full, all at the same time.

I could easily end my travels for 2013 with the Camino, but I have one more place I need to see, and that is Burma. Despite having traveled most of Southeast Asia three years ago, Burma was not open to tourists then, and it is now. I want to see Burma before tourism, commercialism and western influence have taken their hold. I sort tickets from Spain back to London, and book a decently-priced one-way ticket to Bangkok, via Mumbai. (It’s only a 23-hour layover!)

Schwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

I arrive in Bangkok with no other plans than to sort my Burma visa. This takes a matter of days, and I enjoy Bangkok’s craziness, plethora of temples, and best-in-the-world street food. Less than a week later, I am boarding my Air Asia flight from Bangkok to Yangon.

I expect a slightly dated version of Bangkok to be awaiting me at the other end, but I end up in a city more reminiscent of what you find in India. After a Summer in Europe, I am certainly experiencing a level of culture shock, but it is softened by the kindness of the Burmese people.

Children playing In Bagan’s temple courtyards
Sunset over Bagan

My good friend, Christel, is working on her Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution and has an internship with ‘On the Move,’ a human rights organization based in Yangon. She is working with kids who have been displaced due to child trafficking. It is inspiring to see the work she is doing and to meet the people she is helping and working with. It is also a harsh wake-up call to the issues this country is facing. It is easy for people to travel here– to a country that has just opened up to tourism– see the temples of Bagan, the boats and fisherman at Inle Lake, and turn a blind eye to the heart-wrenching history this country has recently written. I am thankful to see both sides of the story.

Sunset at U Bein Bridge

We have the opportunity to travel together a bit, and connections are easy and smooth, which is surprising in a country just starting to cater to the tourist. We are fortunate to see a few good sunsets in Bagan, and we temple hop in Mandalay and watch the sunset over Ubein Bridge, while conversing with a monk who served eight years in prison after the Saffron Revolution.

Again, I have been made aware, through my travels, how fortunate I am for the life I was born into. I feel humbled, and hopeful that I might be able to make a difference through all I’ve seen, learned and experienced over the past four years. I leave Burma feeling the same way I did when I finished the Camino: with a full and heavy heart-full, from all of the adventures, but heavy, for the experiences that have opened my eyes to the life the less fortunate lead.

I make my way back to Atlanta on a long journey via Bangkok and Seoul. I arrive in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family. It seems most appropriate to be at home during the time we ‘give thanks’ and I’m thankful, more than ever, to be with them. As the Grateful Dead would say, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” That pretty well sums up the past five months… Stay tuned for what 2014 holds.

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, long term travel

The Bucket List – International Travel

People always ask me how I pick the countries I end up visiting. I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer. Inspiration comes from many places, seeing a picture, hearing about another persons adventures, reading other travelers’ blogs, or just being curious about a place because so much IS unknown.

I do have lists though. They are everywhere… in notebooks, on my phone in the “note” section, in old journals… I love finding the old lists, so I can see which countries have drawn me in enough to actually plan the trip and visit. And then I create a new list, carrying over the places I haven’t made it to yet and adding new ones. Obviously, this list is always growing, despite how much I travel and how many countries I cross off.

I don’t know if I’ll make it to every country in the world in this lifetime, but I’m close to making it to all seven continents, and I have 39 countries crossed off the list so far. My goal this year is to travel to another five.

When planning a trip, I like to map out a logical route, so it makes economical sense and so I don’t waste time back-tracking. Unfortunately, the countries on my list right now are random, so it may just be that some are carried over to next year.

Here are the countries I am itching to get to…

Burma– I actually have a current visa in my passport for Burma, but unfortunately, I won’t be using it before February. So Burma stays on the list at number 1. Many think I’m out of my mind for wanting to travel to this “unsafe,” “poor,” “politically corrupt” country, but I’m anxious to get there sooner rather than later. A country which is now truly opening up to the idea of tourism is bound to change by leaps and bounds, and fast…just look at neighboring Thailand. Burma is the country of The Golden Rock, the temples of Bagan and Inle Lake. It’s a country of political unrest and a home to people fighting for democracy, people full of hope for a brighter and better future. Burma is on the brink of change, and while I hope for positive social change for them, I want to get there before there’s too much commercial change. I better hurry.

Norway– What sold me on Norway a couple of years ago were pictures. Just google Norway and browse the images that come up- bright green fjords plunging into deep blue rivers, colorful fishing towns, the aurora borealis. Norway is visually stunning and as a photographer, I can’t wait to get there. I have also met quite a few Norwegians on my travels, and they have added to my fascination with this Scandinavian country. I have had the opportunity to travel to other countries in this region, and I’m a big fan of the cleanliness and order that comes with being in Scandinavia. People are down to earth and systems just seem to work. Let’s face it though, Norway is expensive. This would be a great country to consider some couchsurfing in… A sofa or spare bed to sleep on will help you save some spending money and it always enables you the chance to get a deeper insight into life in a foreign land. (

Jordan- I traveled to Israel in November 2011, and I am still kicking myself for not making it to Jordan. But I think Jordan deserves its own trip, and not just a side trip from Israel (or so I’ll keep saying, so I don’t feel too bad). First things first – Petra. I’ve seen the pictures, but I can’t imagine standing in front of, and looking up at this architectural marvel. I love being transported back in time by places, and I imagine this is what would happen here. Pair this with the fact that the Arabic people are some of the most hospitable in the world, and the cuisine is pretty damn good too, and you have the makings of an unbelievable journey. (Jordan remains open for travel, despite the political turmoil of neighboring countries.)

Patagonia– Ok, I realize this is a region comprised of both Argentina and Chile, so consider this a super-sized order. Patagonia’s been on my list since I started traveling hard core about four years ago. I am completely amazed by a place I have yet to visit. It’s all about nature here. I’ll leave electronic devices behind, put a backpack on my back and some hiking boots on my feet, and just go!  But I will make sure to have a camera in my hand. I’m looking forward to the evening when I watch the sun set over Torres del Paine and wake up the following morning to head to Perito Moreno for some glacier trekking. I’ve been dreaming of this for a long time! They say traveling to Patagonia is like traveling to the end of the Earth. In fact, Ushuaia (a jumping off point for exploring Patagonia) is considered the southernmost city in the world, but hold for the next one on the list…

Antarctica– If you find yourself in Ushuaia with some extra time on your hands, rumor has it you can score a week-long Antarctic cruise for around $1000 (USD). Alright, that’s still a good chunk of change, but considering these will set you back around $4000 (USD) normally, you’re saving considerably on this trip of a lifetime. Think about a crisp blue sky and massive white icebergs that are home to polar bears, seals, penguins, whales and albatross, and no one else around you for miles, literally. And if you’re like me, your life goal is to step foot on all seven continents!

Madagascar- Growing up my brother and I had plastic dinner placemats which were maps of the world. After dinner, my dad would always quiz us on the location of places, and I thought Madagascar sounded like the coolest place in the world.  I must admit my ignorance here, and tell you I don’t know much about Madagascar. I know it’s a place considered by travelers to be “the best kept secret.” It’s becoming a more talked about place on travel forums and over late night beers at the hostel. But what is the draw? Well, I think that’s where the intrigue lies here. It still feels like a place to be discovered. Better get there soon before it’s no longer a secret.  (And check out the baobab trees, a definite highlight for photographers!)

New Zealand-Spend the day trekking through terrain and scenery made famous by The Lord of the Rings, and end the day with a meal of New Zealand lamb paired with a local pinot noir or sauvignon blanc. Then head north to a 90-mile stretch of surfbreak. Visit Christchurch or Queenstown for a city fix, or learn about the ancient Maori traditions… I’m sold. New Zealand has so much to offer. The only thing that makes traveling here a challenge is it’s not in my frequent flyer network and the cost of living is high. I hope to make it here sooner rather than later though! (If you’re under the age of 30, you can easily get a working holiday visa- which can help with that whole “money” thing).

So that wraps it up. These are the places calling my name, topping the list. There are other places lingering in the wings – Portugal, Croatia, Hungary, Peru, Japan… but the countries listed above have my attention, and I need to get to see them soon. And now, I wonder, where will 2013 take me?? Which new stamps will my passport hold this time next year, and which places will still be left on the list? What new countries will I discover and add to the list? The adventure, like always, is yet to unfold. And that, my fellow travelers, is the best part.

Stay tuned…Next time I will share some personal advice and useful resources to help you plan your own Around-The-World journey.

Africa, Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, long term travel, Marrakech, Morocco, Travel

My First Footsteps in Africa

The “Hand of Fatima” believed to bring good luck

I’m not going to lie, Morocco has me quite apprehensive. My latest travels have been to what I consider easy places. I classify those as first world, English speaking, relatively clean countries that have running water, and don’t worry you with stomach bugs and other life threatening ailments. Spending the Spring in Hawaii, and most recently, traveling through Iceland, England and France – it’s all been a cake-walk. Now, I need to get into a different mindset for Morocco.

I try not to carry stereotypes with me when I travel to a new place, but as a solo-female traveler, I do tend to keep my guard up in a place until I can get my bearings as well as a feel for a place and its people.

I had originally hoped to travel by train from Paris to southern Spain and then take the boat from Algeciras to Tangiers, but it was over double the cost of a plane ticket, so I booked a one-way ticket from Paris to Marrakech, and 4 hours later, I find myself in the craziness of this busy city. My first two reliefs when I arrive in a somewhat chaotic place- one- my bag thankfully arrives and two- I find transport at a decent price to a decent place to stay. The rest will fall into place. With my bag in tow, i hit up the ATM for some Dirham and make my way to the taxi line to haggle the price of a taxi to town. I know from research it should cost between 70-100 dihram for the journey. The first guy quotes me 13 Euro, double what it should be. Then it’s 250 dirham- price just went up. I tell him no, and that I want to pay what everyone else pays, so he tells me to wait, while he telephones another taxi. I wait, the taxi arrives, we agree on 80 dirham. I now understand what Morocco will be like.

I am dropped outside Djemaa el-Fna, the main square, and to say it is a maze is an understatement. The cars can go no further, so the taxi driver drops me and tells me to walk straight and then right and I will find my hotel. The streets are swarmed with vendors, diners, people out for an evening stroll, tourists and hagglers. I dodge the hagglers and walk straight, trying not to make eye contact with anyone who wants to sell me a hotel room, a henna tattoo or anything else he has up his sleeve. I do however need directions, cause I have no idea where the hell i am, so I pop into a pharmacy and using the French I so thankfully remember, I get somewhat clear directions to where I’m going. I only have to stop another three times to clarify. After multiple turns down hidden lanes and alleyways, I see Hotel Essouira on a signpost ahead. I feel a sense of relief, but when I arrive, there are no rooms, sorry, try next door.

Hotel Medina’s courtyard

I get a little room in Hotel Medina next door for $10 a night. I drop my bags and venture out for dinner. I haven’t eaten since breakfast so I head to Snack Toubkal, a makeshift cafe created out of plastic garden furniture. I have to wait for a seat, so I’m assured it’s a decent place to eat. I order my first authentic vegetable couscous. I get halfway through the dish, and I can eat no more- it didn’t look like a lot of food, but it sure is filling. I head back to Hotel Medina for a good night’s sleep, and wonder what Marrakech has in store for me.

A typical storefront near Djemaa el-Fnaa


The following morning, I head to Bahia Palace to start my tour of Marrakech. I study the map closely and confirm directions with the guy at the hotel. He says, “it’s easy, takes 10 minutes.” I walk away from Djemaa el-Fna, passing stall after stall of shoes, lanterns, leather bags, spices, plates, ornaments, postcards and pashminas. I reach a main road and bear left dodging cars, mopeds, motorcycles and horse-drawn carriages. I do a little victory dance when I reach Bahia Palace.


Bahia means beautiful, and it’s appropriately named. Even just stepping onto the grounds of the palace, I feel like I’m taken away from the craziness of Marrakech. Traffic and congestion and the throngs of people are outside the walls of this palace, and I feel like I’ve found some respite. I spend about an hour here, taking my time to study the beautiful architecture, colors, marble and wood carvings that adorn every inch of the palace. I find a spot to sit in the sun in the outdoor courtyard and soak in the silence. This is what I pictured Morocco to be like…this is the old Morocco.





I resist leaving because I know I have to re-enter mayhem. I consult the handy guidebook and make a plan. I will head to Badia Palace nearby next. I stroll through a courtyard and make my way to Badia. A few men on mopeds tell me I’m heading in the wrong direction. They are quite used to the number of tourists who inundate this city on a daily basis. One kind man stops, gets off his moped and walks with me, telling me the palace is closed until the afternoon, but he will show me a shortcut. “A shortcut to where?,” I think. I almost feel like I am given no choice but to follow. He says, “no money, just help you.” He leads me through the entrance of a hammam and on the other side, is the Mellah, the Jewish area of the old city.

He leaves me in the good hands of his friend, a spice seller, and before I know it, everything from saffron to sandalwood is being thrown under my nose. He then hands me a box with a pile of white crystals in it and I take a whif… the menthol smell brings me back to reality. “Mint,” he says, “the cocaine of Morocco.” I stroll on down the alleyway, trying my best to ignore the calls of other vendors, and the handfuls of tea being forced into my hands.

Just a handful of the many spices you will find in Marrakech

Although, I’ve enjoyed the olfactory journey through Marrakech’s collection of spices, I decide to head to the northeast side of the old city and visit Maison de la Photographie. I have heard good things about the collection of work here, and being a photography lover, I’m looking forward to seeing Marrakech’s history through pictures. The museum occupies a 3-floor riad and houses a collection of photographs from all over Morocco, dating back to as early as 1870. These include original photographs of the Berber people, the Jewish settlers, the African, as well as the local Arabic people.

On the top floor of the museum is a cafe as well as panoramic views of the old city. I savor the view, and the silence, before rejoining the masses below. I’m hungry and it’s getting quite late in the day, so I decide to head back to where I’m staying for a tagine and some tea. This means walking back through the winding alleyways to Djemaa el-Fnaa, passing all the shopkeepers and snakecharmers, tour guides and spice sellers. I’ve covered some distance today, and I feel tired, But I know it’s not just from the walking and the traveling but from the energy I’ve exerted just being here. Marrakech is revealing itself to be a place of craziness with pockets of hidden beauty. My outlook going forward is to savor that beauty as and when I find it.


Djemaa el-Fna
Around the world travel, Bourbon Trail, Bucket List, Kentucky, Maker's Mark, Travel

Maker’s Mark

Anyone who knows me well knows I love my wine, but if I had to name my liquor of choice, it’s bourbon, and to be more specific, it’s Maker’s Mark. I’m not sure how or when this love developed, but if memory serves me correctly, I think I was was introduced to Maker’s on my brother’s 21st birthday, and while we’ve had a few breakups over the years, I have never cheated on it.

I credit the love of the brand to my brother’s best friend, Beau. Beau was born in Winchester, Kentucky and grew up down the road from us just outside of Atlanta. Beau introduced us to all things Kentucky over the years- Ale 8, Beer Cheese, the Hot Brown, and Kentucky Basketball. He also introduced me to Maker’s Mark. In fact, I vividly remember the look on my father’s face when Beau bet me I wouldn’t take a swig straight from the bottle of Maker’s. I took that bottle out of Beau’s hands and turned it upwards. To my father’s surprise, I felt fine the next day. I can’t say the same for my brother.

Over the years, Maker’s has always been present at our weekends together. We picked up a bottle to have during my brother’s wedding weekend, the drink of choice this past New Year’s Eve was Maker’s, and whenever we are all catching up about life, wherever we are… it’s usually with a Maker’s in hand. It’s become a tradition to pick up a bottle when we are all together. And while I don’t imbibe as much these days, I drink a Maker’s and Ginger as much to keep a tradition alive as I do for simply enjoying the taste. There are so many good memories associated with it, ok- and maybe a hangover or two, but for storytelling purposes, we’ll leave those details out.

Recently, Beau and I started to discuss a visit to the Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. Beau was pushing for this, but I didn’t really need that much convincing. A roadtrip with friends to the Maker’s distillery… I was onboard from the day he first mentioned it. But Beau’s passion and desire to see the birthplace of this sweet bourbon was much stronger than mine, and it came down to family and a special interaction he had shared with the Maker’s Mark family the year before, one that we would learn went a lot further back than we initially thought.

Winchester, Kentucky isn’t a big city at all. The population today is 18,000. In fact, you can cross town in the matter of moments and if you blink, you’ll miss it. It’s still the type of place where everybody knows everybody else, where you go to dinner and if you’re Beau’s grandmother, Shirley, you look around when you walk in the restaurant to see who you know there. There’s a sense of community and a southern hospitality that’s sweeter than that of most other southern cities.

Beau’s family has lived in Winchester for generations, so they know a few people. Beau’s late grandfather, Cap Langley, was a man about town, and a few people know of him. After his service in World War II, he returned to Winchester, Kentucky and led a group of men in the construction of US Route 60 which runs from Winchester to Louisville. During this time, he met and employed Bill Samuels, Sr, who later went on to create the brand Maker’s Mark in 1954.

The whole family knew of the connection between Cap and Bill, but family lore had it that Cap had been very influential in one of Maker’s Mark’s famous ad campaigns. The story goes that while at a dinner party one night, Bill Samuels was telling a small group of people about the potential new tagline, “It tastes expensive,” and Cap turned around and said, “Because it is!”  Apparently, the family believed that this was turned into the tagline, “It tastes expensive and is,” which Maker’s Mark ran for many years following that night.

Beau, being the curious guy he is, decided to get to the bottom of this legend, and back in January 2011, he put pen to paper and drafted a letter to Maker’s Mark. Not knowing who to address it to, he sent it to the PR department, with hopes that it would fall into the right person’s hands. Well, wouldn’t you know that less than two weeks later, Beau had a letter back from Bill Samuels, Jr.confirming the story was indeed true. Bill Samuels, Jr. spoke very highly of Cap and was well aware of his father’s relationship with the Langley family.

I’ll never forget being on the receiving end of Beau’s phonecall and listening as he read the handwritten card he had just received from the bourbon maker himself.  If Beau could love the Maker’s Mark brand anymore than he already did, it just happened. And the need for a visit to the distillery became even more necessary.

We made that trip this past weekend. Beau flew into Lexington Friday afternoon, and I drove up from Atlanta picking him up when I arrived in town. We went straight to Grandma Shirley’s house for a visit, and she was eager to hear about our plans for the weekend. We had a lot we wanted to see and do, but the main event was the visit to Maker’s Mark the following morning.

Without missing a beat, Shirley began to recollect her early memories of Maker’s and the Samuel’s family. She spoke of transporting bottles of Maker’s down to Florida for the Samuel’s family back in the day because what they were selling down there were actual Maker’s bottles filled with Jaeger. Beau and I exchanged glances that conveyed the “can you believe what you’re hearing?” look. She and Bill Samuels were on a first name basis.

The following morning, we were up around 6:30 and in the car driving towards Louisville by 8:30a.m. The distillery opened at 10:30 and we wanted to get on one of the first tours before it got too busy. We drove down numerous winding country roads that led us to the little town of Loretto, Kentucky, home of the Maker’s Mark distillery. We felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, but it was beautiful, and we felt pretty lucky when we came across this sign.

We signed up for the $7 tour, which took us around the Maker’s Mark grounds and to the distillery where we learned about the special sour mash mix and the 3-day fermentation process. We walked through the barrel house to the on-site bottling factory where bottles are filled and then dipped in Maker’s Mark’s signature red wax. We were then taken to a tasting room, where we both sampled the original Maker’s Mark and Maker’s 46 for the first time. This was polished off with a bourbon chocolate.  We were then let loose in the gift shop.

One can’t make a visit to Maker’s and not dip a bottle! So we purchased our bottles and got in line to dip. Decked out in goggles, gloves, protective sleeves and an apron, I felt quite professional as I “slam dunked” my bottle in the liquid red wax.

As it sat to cool, a lady working at the dipping station made sure the wax hadn’t entirely covered the tab to open the bottle. She then said, “They all say they’re not gonna open it, but I bet you do.” If and when I do, it will be a damn special occasion, that’s for sure!

We left Maker’s and toured a few of the surrounding historical sites, including Abe Lincoln’s birthplace and childhood home, and we drove home on the back country roads via the Paris turnpike. We headed back to Shirley’s for dinner. As we walked in the door, the first thing she asked us was, “Did you see Bill there?” We hadn’t seen Bill, but what we did see was a legacy created by him that still lives on in Loretto, Kentucky and around the world for that matter.

We showed Shirley the bottles we had dipped and asked her which one she liked better. Her response, “Well it’s 6 of one and half a dozen of the other.” I thought that was kind of ironic.

For more information on the Maker’s Mark brand and the distillery’s hours of operation, visit


Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Hawaii, long term travel, Travel

The North Shore Peep Show

From Honolulu, I arranged transport to the North shore, which is synonymous with surfing. I had decided to see more of Oahu than the frequently visited Waikiki and Honolulu and found home at Backpacker’s Hostel. It was only an hour’s drive from downtown Waikiki, but 30 minutes into the drive, and I was already feeling like I was on another island. Undeveloped land; lush, green, dense fields and forest; and rolling hills surrounded me. Ok, now I understand why people get the hell out of Waikiki.

I got checked in to my very sparse, but cheap, digs… a wooden cabin, with 3 rooms- 2 bunks each and a communal kitchen and bathroom. No one was around… they were all out surfing. Craig, who works at the hostel took me for a quick bike tour and showed me where the local grocery store was and then we went to check out the surf. I guess as a surfer, this is what you do. We stopped at about 5 beaches just to look at the waves. I watched in awe as surfers made it look so easy, and Craig got antsy to get in. When we went back to the hostel, he asked if I wanted to venture out for a session… Did I want to surf? Yes, I want to surf! But I’ve tried before, and it’s not easy, and I’m in Hawaii, next to the beach where the pipeline competition is surfed, and so on and so forth. But, I am in Hawaii…so, I grab a wetsuit and a board and despite impending rain, we climb in the van and head to Chun’s, which he promises has baby waves.
Well, I’ve come to a conclusion about surfing… it’s not so much the height of the wave as it is sometimes the width of a wave. A wave can sometimes not look that high, but when you are in it and on it, the thing can feel like a monster and take ages to either pass by you, or for you to ride it in. Craig was a good teacher, and never has someone told me to actually not try to stand up on a wave. So I spent the first few waves just riding them in on my belly, getting a feeling for the force, speed and momentum of the water. It was fun, a lot more fun than trying to stand up and getting tossed around in white water and undertow. But the conditions weren’t great, rain was on its way, and it was getting dark, so we headed in.
When I arrived back at Backpacker’s, everyone was home from their evening surf sessions, so it was meet and greet time. Dinner’s were being cooked, beers were being opened, and Cabin 2 seemed to be the place to be. So we all gathered around the table, listening to music, discussing Hawaii travel plans and talking surfing.
Before I knew it, I was getting a lesson on the mentality of surfing… it went a bit like this:
“Never think you are bigger than the ocean.”
“You have to be one with the wave.”
“Don’t think about it too much.”
After a couple glasses of wine, I was determined that I would get up the following morning and catch a good wave. Craig and I headed out early, but it was choppy, and after having to rescue a few stragglers who got caught in a strong current, we decided to head back in. I lounged on the beach for the afternoon and soaked in the North Shore… there’s not a whole lot going on here, besides surfing and smoking.
That evening, I set out for a run on the nicely shaded footpath. I passed the occasional runner and biker, but at each public lot, I passed the semi-nude surfer. It’s almost like these guys have no shame, and they will just drop their drawers anywhere. I guess no one ever taught them how to do a proper deck change. Maybe they are in too much of a hurry to get in to the water, but you would think they would give thought to the direction they are facing, and maybe face away from the road?? But no! So, if you are looking for free entertainment on the North Shore, just hit up the public footpath. You’re guaranteed to see at least a handful of semi-nude, shameless surfer boys!