A Florida Girl’s Guide to Surviving Alaska

 

Once upon a time, a girl from Orlando, Florida embarked upon a journey to Hawaii with her best friend. The two girls were both flight attendants, which made traveling fairly easy as they were both flying stand-by. The plan was one night couch surfing in Vegas, a week and a half or so in hostels or couch surfing 3 islands in Hawaii and then straight over to New Zealand for a few weeks. Well, that plan was doomed from the start with the entrance of a new friend. At our first hostel on the island of Kauai, we met Tom from Fairbanks, Alaska.

Chilling on the Big Island

Neither of us had ever met anyone from Alaska, so we were intrigued by the tales of a land that sounded so foreign with such extreme temperatures. After a few nights of games and family dinners in the hostel we’d developed some great friendships. It was mid-January, the perfect time of year to enjoy the tropics of Hawaii, whereas Alaska was enjoying some negative temperatures. We soon overstayed in Hawaii to the point that it would no longer make sense to fly halfway around the world for a brief stay in New Zealand. Tom was far gone, back to the wilds of Alaska at this point, but still near the front of our thoughts. Whilst lying in our hammocks in the Maui hostel one late morning, bikinis on for the day, painting our nails a mermaid-gold, we devised a new plan. We would reroute a few days up to snowy Vancouver and then take up Tom’s standing invitation to visit Alaska if he had the time and availability. Within 10 minutes of texting back and forth with Tom, the plans were finalized.

Alaska Bound

Being a native Floridian, I was completely unprepared for any type of winter weather, let alone an Alaskan winter. Unlike my fellow people however, I enjoy cold weather and cozy winter clothes. That being said, I don’t happen to really own anything outside of light sweaters and jackets made more for style than for actual warmth. Since we had planned to go to New Zealand where it was their summer, I didn’t have anything warm packed. I stepped off the plane in Vancouver’s winter wonderland in a tank top, light sweater, some hippy pants and open sandals. I ignored the side glances of other passengers as I slipped around the icy tarmac in my sandals with my backpack on, excited by the snow, a rare sight for me. We went straight from the airport to the mall for a little shopping, where my two friends Jamie and Gordon, who are both veterans in winter weather, coached me on the essentials for surviving the cold. I learned the art of under armour, the importance of jeans, not jeggings, without holes in them and the necessity of a down coat. This was the just the beginning. . .

Grouse Mt

Fast forward a few days later to our arrival in Fairbanks, Alaska. Tom had warned us that the weather may be a bit extreme to us, but nothing could prepare me for this. Hawaiian temperatures had been in the mid to high 70s, absolutely perfect for hiking volcanoes and snorkeling in the reefs. When we stepped off the plane in Fairbanks to -45F/-42C weather, it was something I had never in my life experienced. Tom was as excited to see us as we were to be in Alaska. We could not have found a more gracious host in Tom and his family, who also had us over for an amazing home-cooked meal. I quickly fell in love with the mysticism of Alaska. His little cabin in the middle of the woods shrouded in snow with some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen casting purple and orange reflections on the sheets of white is an image I cannot forget.

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The next few days to follow were a whirlwind of very Alaskan outings. One day we went to Chena Hot Springs. Along the way we counted various moose along the mostly empty road. It was my first experience seeing the massive animal in person and Tom kindly stopped along the side of the road a few times for our viewing pleasure as we oohed and ahhed at the animals lazily lumbering through the woods. The visible heat of the springs drifting up into the freezing air, surrounded by snow on every side and beautiful mountains as a backdrop enchanted me. I couldn’t get enough of the blue green pool’s warmth sharply contrasting with the nipping outdoor air on my nose and ears.

Chena hot springs

On another occasion we went to the North Pole! Don’t be fooled, this is the real deal! We went to Santa’s House, where children mail their letters to Santa each Christmas and get letters back in return. The house is marked by a candy cane pole and a massive Santa figurine out front. Just off the side of the house (and gift shop) is the barn, where the reindeer are kept. I couldn’t help but feel giddy at the sight of Santa’s reindeer. I will never forget the moment a little girl was jumping up and down in excitement and one of the reindeer, whom we quickly knew must be Prancer, began jumping up and down with her and running back and forth. Clearly, with personality and responsiveness to humans like that, these really were Santa’s reindeer. Winter naivety tip: do not attempt to run in negative temperatures. You will cough and your nose will burn. It’s simply too cold! However, if you ever make it to North Pole, Alaska, be sure to thaw out with some Chinese food at Pagoda. They have one of the best authentic places around!

We also happened to be in town to witness the end of the Yukon dog sled race. I had never realized all of the details that go into training for this kind of thing. The extreme weather conditions in addition to the challenge of the Alaskan terrain gave me a new respect for what these teams go through. Dog sledding as a sport never really crossed my mind until I saw it in person. If you ever have the opportunity to witness the start or end of a race, I highly recommend it. Dogs and people are simply one. You can see the love and compassion that these men and women have for their dogs. At the finish of the race each dog gets its own raw steak as a reward. Don’t forget your coat! We waited out the cold before the first team of dogs arrived in a cozy little café across the street. The clouds cleared and the sun came out just in time to enjoy the victorious and tired teams of dogs arriving after days of running.

Yukon Dog Sled Race

The Alaskan way of life continues to impress me with the addition of every detail I learn. Their everyday life is completely normal to them, but extremely foreign to what I now see as a privileged lifestyle in Florida. To start, many people live in dry cabins, meaning they have limited or no running water. Outhouses, which I’ve only seen used in old shows like Little House on the Prairie, actually still exist! Driving trucks and large vehicles seems to be a pretty common choice for some of the more rustic terrain, as well as to be used to haul water to their cabins. What I was most impressed with in the Alaskan people I’ve encountered is how self-sufficient they are. Living in a place where you’re often driving on isolated roads, hiking into seemingly untouched terrain or in quickly changing flying conditions where just about anything can happen, has educated people to learn to fend for themselves in the worst of times. Many of them carry survival kits in their vehicles and airplanes. It is common for some to carry a satellite device when hiking, such as a Delorme inReach, that can send messages and GPS coordinates for help in an emergency when out of cell service range.

Speaking of flying, Alaska happens to have the greatest number of pilots per capita in the entire U.S. So of course, Tom happens to be a pilot outside of working a day job in a hatchery. It doesn’t get much more Alaskan than that! The day he took Jamie and I out to see his Cessna 150 was an exciting moment for two flight attendants. The small planes were all covered in snow, but we were able to drive out on the tarmac for a meet and greet with one of the cutest planes I’ve ever encountered. He opened up the doors and allowed us in the cockpit, explaining some of the functions of certain buttons and levers. We were two kids in a candy shop asking lots of questions, which he patiently answered. The weather conditions were too dangerous to fly that day, but we were promised a flight and mini lesson if we returned in the warmer months.

Cessna 150

Of course, our experience would not have been complete without a perfect viewing of the northern lights on our final night in Alaska. The shifting and swirling green lines in the sky seemed to be painted by pixies. We stood on the side of a mountain in the dark with music playing from Tom’s truck as we watched the show, soaking in the special moment. (Photo credit to Jamie for this amazing capture of the lights)

Aurora
Aurora Borealis

Fast forward again to the last few days of August. Florida was really starting to get on my nerves with the heat and humidity that completely drain you with any small amount of time spent outside. I needed to get away immediately. I had some time off work so I weighed my options between a trip to Montreal, Colombia, London or a return to Alaska. In the end, I decided it was time to make that return trip to Fairbanks to visit my good friend Tom. Tom and his family welcomed me with open arms, something that I can never thank them enough for. I immediately felt like a member of the family, getting to know his cousin in town from the Philippines and his sweet sister Nikki.

As promised, I finally got my flying lesson. Tom took me out in his plane to the practice field where he explained some of the basics and taught me what to look for when making turns and changing elevation. Sitting with the controls had a nice feeling to it, and one that I hope to permanently pursue one day. Back on the ground, I was introduced to an older experienced pilot called Stoots, known for his wonderful story telling ability and humorous nature. Within an hour we had plans to venture out into the wilderness in Stoots’ plane the following day.

Learning to fly

In typical Alaskan fashion, Stoots owns a cabin that he built in the middle of the woods, about a 45 minute flight away. The only way to really reach it is via a plane that lands on the lake bordering the cabin. What an adventure that became. We swooped and banked and took the scenic view, close to the ground. Stoots had plenty of stories to supplement the time we flew and I couldn’t stop laughing, all while taking in the scenery. I spent an afternoon drinking hot chocolate with whiskey by the wood stove, listening to his tales. The silence of isolation felt cozy and welcoming. I listened in fascination as he described the process of building his cabin and bear-proofing it. I was eventually taken outside to learn the basics of shooting, an important lesson for living in Alaska. There’s simply so much to be learned! Ultimately the most exciting part of the day came from taking off and landing on water; more new experiences to add to the list. I fell a little deeper in love with flying that day.

After a day of flying, we were ready for a beer. Alaska has some great breweries. My favorite one in Fairbanks is called Hoodoo, which offers the vibes of a cozy house party on top of having some fantastic beers. I highly recommend the stouts. Everyone is friendly and welcoming once you get to talking and drinking. I met some lovely people there on one of the family beer outings. One of the first questions I encountered was if I planned on going on the group hiking/camping trip. At this point I had briefly heard about the trip, but didn’t think I’d be in town. That evening I dropped a few flights that I was supposed to work when I got home and committed to spending a few more days in Alaska.

Hoodoo Brewery

I believe my exact wording on the matter was, “Well I came for the Alaskan experience and I want the full experience! I like a good challenge.” Things to keep in mind if you come from a flat, warm place in the suburbs, such as I do: elevation is a whole new challenge; Alaska autumn can actually mean winter; you really need to have hiking boots; bears are a real concern; layers, layers, layers; stick with the locals; be prepared for anything and keep a positive mindset!

It sunk in pretty quickly that I had absolutely no idea what I was in for, nor did I have any of the proper gear with me. Luckily I keep myself pretty active and exercise frequently either in a gym or hiking in other states or countries when I can. I hadn’t planned to do any serious hiking, so I only had my basic Nike Air running shoes with me. Thinking I was catching the end of “summer”, I didn’t even have a proper jacket with me. This all hit Tom a little harder than it hit me, as he knows how serious Alaska weather can be, and he proceeded to get a bit stressed out in the preparation process whereas I couldn’t contain my excitement for the new adventure. We went to the nearest sports store, where I invested in a pair of hiking pants and we stocked up on dried food and supplies. Tom’s sister, Nikki, became my real knight in shining armor by bringing me armfuls of winter clothes and a hat to borrow. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know that I would’ve survived the experience.

Early the next morning, backpacks packed full of camping supplies and food, we went to meet the group. Adam, John and Ariel were immediately warm and welcoming despite the fact that I was clearly out of my element, having no idea what to expect. Adam let me borrow one of his ice axes and Ariel let me borrow some gloves and bear spray, patiently explaining how to use bear spray while the men all strapped on their guns. After a bit of discussion over what everyone brought and what we could leave behind, we piled 5 humans and 3 large dogs into Adam’s vehicle. I couldn’t contain my excitement over every minor detail. We stopped for coffee and breakfast at a cozy drive through stop along the way. The motherly figure taking orders offered dog treats to the delight of the dogs and we continued on our way. The further we drove, the more beautiful the scenery became. Alaskan views are by far some of the most breathtaking I’ve ever experienced.

After a few hours of driving, we finally arrived at the head of the trail. There was some last minute packing and pulling out of supplies as we passed around a growler full of Hoodoo beer to start our journey. In good spirits with beautiful cool weather we hiked out to where we planned to camp, dogs trotting alongside us. The scenes along the way felt straight from a fairytale. From mountains and waterfalls to rivers and crystal lakes, my spirit soared at the beauty. We eventually came to a clearing amongst the mountains, just above one of the majestic clear blue lakes to set up camp. The temperature dropped quickly as we set up our tents and sleeping bags and I couldn’t stop shivering from my cold sweat. A light rain broke out as we scrambled to cover things, but then the most magical thing happened. The rain drops turned to light snow! This was a minor inconvenience to them, but a summer miracle to this Florida girl! As freezing as I was, I couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear. I was as happy as the dogs.

I watched everyone cook over their mini fires, fascinated with my first experience eating the dried food that came to life with the simple addition of boiled water. I never did quite get warm, even in my sleeping bag. I tried every angle, but couldn’t quite stop from shivering. It was a fitful night, but I couldn’t be happier being out in the middle of such a gorgeous location.

The next morning we decided it was time to hike up to the glacier. This is where those hiking boots would’ve really come in handy. My running shoes couldn’t quite grip into the precarious rocks and there were a few occasions where I really thought I wouldn’t be able to make it in those shoes. Using the ice ax for stability at times, I pushed myself to new extremes, sometimes having to crawl along the rocks on all fours, testing my footing in the small loose rocks as I went. I brought up the tail of the group for the majority of the hike, but everyone cheered me on and kept me feeling encouraged and energized. Reaching the peak of the mountain that truly looked impossible to climb from the ground made the entire journey and exhaustion worth it. From the peak we could see a beautiful view of the mountains and lakes that we had come from in one direction, and a mesmerizing view of the glacier, as well as a plane crash site from years ago in the other direction.

View from the topGlacier

We lowered ourselves over the cliff onto the glacier side with a rope, landing on some remaining rocks before the ice. Ariel let me borrow her pair of yaktrax to hook onto my shoes for a better grip into the ice as we explored the glacier. They warned me to be wary of the crevasses below, something I’d never seen before. We soon decided it would be too dangerous to explore further and turned back. It felt like an entirely other world from the one just on the other side of the mountain. Hiking back out posed a new challenge as I quickly released the entire soles of my shoes had become threadbare. I spent most of the way down letting myself slide on the loose rocks and catching corners with my hands to slow myself down when I started going too fast. I’ve learned my lesson: always be prepared when traveling to Alaska. You just never know when you’ll end up hiking to a glacier at the end of summer. I returned to civilization a bit rough around the edges, but victorious at the accomplishment.

All in all, I could not be more thankful for my Alaskan experiences. Tom and Nikki and their family and friends made me feel like I could truly stay forever. Alaskan hospitality is one of a kind. If you go into Alaska with an open spirit to learn and appreciate the place and people and respect nature as much as the locals do, then everyone quickly becomes family. I already know that I need to return to experience another season with these amazing people. My next mission is to learn ultimate self-sufficiency in the outdoors, the Alaskan way. Thank you, Alaska, for introducing me to a unique way of life. The journey so far has been incredible.

Goodbye for now

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Simply Serendipity

I boarded a direct flight to Portland, Oregon. I didn’t know where I was going to stay, what I was going to do, or how long I would be in town, but I felt extremely positive vibes pulsating within me. My fate was left to the mercy of the universe.

Portland, Oregon

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A soft breeze rustled the leaves of the thick archaic trees as old as time itself. A gentle lulling rhythm with the occasional addition of a squirrel disrupting the pattern whilst leaping amongst the branches. My long curly hair swayed to this music, with the occasional strand entangling itself in my purple lip gloss. A smile playing on my lips, I listened. Nature approved of our presence. She graced us with warm rays of sunshine peeking through lazy scattered clouds. Athena, a majestic English terrier much too large to properly represent her breed, nuzzled the sheer floor length skirt of my fairy costume as it too danced with the wind.

My attention returned. The bride and her husband-to-be clasped each other’s hands in a patch of sun-kissed grass with a semi rusted tractor as a backdrop. The ongoing construction of their tiny house sat atop the nearby hill amongst the mountains, a member of the joyous audience eager to share in the couple’s ceremony, promising to bless them bounteously in all of their days to come. The groom’s son served as an officiate as joyous tears filled the eyes of the glowing bride. Each member of the cozy wedding party experienced the tangible energy of the couple as they sealed their vows with their wedding kiss. We erupted into cheers and applause, toasting our drinks to the new mister and missus. A perfect moment within a string of serendipitous events.

My mind wandered again as I took in the scene before me. I’ve been many places. I’ve met a variety of people. However, Portland, Oregon is home to some of the most unique souls I’ve experienced so far in all of my travels. It may be the mindset of “Keep Portland Weird” that draws me in, it may be the level of acceptance that people practice towards others, or it may be the way Portlanders take the time to observe the energies and vibes of people and experiences surrounding them. The combination of all those things immediately resonated with me.

One week ago I concluded I wanted to make a return trip up to Fairbanks, Alaska. My last experience in Alaska was a mystical winter wonderland back in February and I decided I wanted to have the summer experience before the season changed. With this decision came the question of where I wanted to stop on my way. Flying from Orlando, FL I knew I had to stop somewhere and I knew I wanted to make that place count. I had no idea how much this trip would affect me.

The very next day I boarded a direct flight to Portland, Oregon. I didn’t know where I was going to stay, what I was going to do, or how long I would be in town, but I felt extremely positive vibes pulsating within me. My fate was left to the mercy of the universe.

With the help of Alaskan Air’s wifi on my 6 hour flight, I scanned the couch surfing app on my phone for hosts in Portland. I sent out a few messages to surfers in the area, but most were already booked, out of town, or busy. I continued to drink my red wine and watch my inflight movie options without concern, trusting that I would soon be provided for. About halfway through the flight, an angel entered the scene. A friend from college who I’d mostly lost touch with about 5 years ago had seen my Facebook post broadcasting my next adventure. Within minutes we were chatting through messenger, and the arrangements were made. I was to stay with Briana and her longtime boyfriend Zak for a day or two.

I landed in Portland as the late afternoon sun cast a serene glow over the mountains. The scene was picturesquely set. Using google maps I navigated my way through downtown Portland on the Max, the main overground transit system. About 30 minutes into my journey I stepped off to change lines. Hesitantly standing at the new stop, I consulted my maps. As I was doing this a man about 30 feet away began speaking to me and walking in my direction as if we were old friends. Something about the delays was said and then, “So you like to do yoga?” in reference to the yoga mat hanging from my shoulder. It was soon apparent that I was from out of town as I struggled to understand what he was saying about the transit lines and he asked where I was from.

This strange character, I soon learned, is known as Peter Pan. A native to Portland, he carried on the conversation, seemingly unaware of my surprised and slightly guarded stance. Growing up in Orlando, I was taught not to talk to strangers, especially in the city. Portland is seemingly backwards in that belief. The friendliness of the locals is wonderfully refreshing.

As Peter and I boarded the Max together I found myself drawn to his genuine openness and easy going nature. Jumping around in topics he gave me tips for the city, engaged the 18 year old boy next to us in conversation and managed to offer to show me around all in a span of 25 minutes. My head was spinning by the time I reached Briana. Our reunion instantly brought back the friendship we had once shared as if no time had lapsed.

My original plan was to spend 2 days in Portland and then head to Alaska. Well, 2 days quickly turned into 6 thanks to the fascinating people of Portland. Briana, Zak and Tigger, the cat that presides over the duo, are family to me now. Their apartment has the rich feeling of another era, adorned with intricate and creatively placed antique pieces. Large canvases of enchanting trees, a tapestry of an exotic tiger and vintage photographs line their walls, illuminated by mood evoking lamps and an assortment of artistically placed candles.

Zak could be found lounging on the couch in his work clothes in the evening, pants held up by suspenders, dark rimmed glasses slightly lowered, an overall intensity of wisdom beyond his youth, the epitome of a man from another time. Briana is the perfect complement to his personality. Kind, beautiful sweet, receptive to the energies of those around her and overwhelmingly gracious. Their combined intellect and intrigue of the world made for thought provoking conversation. These two instantly made me feel at home.

The living room served as a stage for many philosophical discussions amongst us over the past few days. I was challenged to see the world in a new perspective thanks to their open mindset. Music, art, energies, the law of attraction, the state of the world, entrepreneurial ideas, conspiracy theories. . . We debated it all. I grew fascinated with the differences I noticed from east coast to west coast idealogies in America.

Each day bred a new adventure. As Briana and I did some exploring and shopping, I realized just how friendly so many people are. When they ask how you’re doing, it’s not just a rhetorical question but an actual inquiry. Everyone we spoke to along our path seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say. Portland is a city by population but a small town at heart.

The natural beauty of Oregon is breathtaking to say the least. I had the pleasure of doing some hiking with Briana and we couldn’t stop singing throughout the hike from the sheer pleasure of the beauty of the earth and the amazing weather. Blue skies followed us everywhere we went despite Portland’s reputation as a rainy place.

My time was perfectly split between the suburbs and the city. I owe my city experiences entirely to that Peter Pan creature aforementioned. He is the perfect boyish gentleman and I truly feel he is the real life Peter Pan. His 6 foot, 6 inch height completely dwarfs my petite 5’3″ frame and he walks, sometimes skips, with a bounce in his step. With an overactive imagination, a charismatic personality quick to befriend a stranger, easy smile and generous spirit, he led me through his home of Portland Never Never Land.

I didn’t need to make plans with Peter Pan as my guide. I saw a little bit of every side of the eclectic city. We walked along the waterfront, waded in the city waterfall at Keller Fountain Park, explored the Saturday market, ate the famous Voodoo doughnuts, tried weird flavors and shared ice cream at Salt and Straw, and played life size chess and connect four in Director Park. We even did a bit of adventuring through the night life, enjoyed diner food at Roxy, and watched some old movies at an old fashioned theater known as the Laurelhurst. But of all of the things we did, one of my favorite experiences has to be playing air hockey and arcade games in the Avalon Theatre & Wunderland the first evening out.

As my trip continued to extend day by day with more to see and do, the Faerieworlds 2017 festival was suddenly upon me and I found myself booking a last minute ticket to attend with Briana and Zak. I figured I’d come to experience Portland with whatever experiences were presented to me and I couldn’t pass this up. What an enchanting experience it turned out to be! It began with a wedding and melded into a fantasyland of faeries, mermaids, trolls and all sorts of magical creatures.

As Briana and I strolled through the woods we came across an albino peacock preening in a tree. Mystified at the beauty of such a creature I marveled at the perfection of such perfect snowy feathers. Just as I was telling her about the positive omen of finding a single white feather the peacock suddenly looked directly at us. In that moment I felt as if the peacock acknowledged us, as if to say “I see you. You’re doing good things and I give you my blessing to continue.” As we stared back a single white feather drifted to the ground. I happily collected it, settling it into a place in my hair.

An ethereal orange sunset dripped through the enchanted forest, setting the tone for the evening with a sprinkling of faerie lights in the trees. Their was an alluring hum of middle eastern instruments supplemented with belly dancing and hypnotic singing throughout the booths and tents selling potions, crystals, faerie eggs and magical trinkets. By the time the folk band Omnia took the main stage I was completely entranced in this otherworldliness. We danced to the primal drumbeats and lost ourselves in the mystical strumming of the harp. As the band preached the fight for protecting nature in some of their songs such as Earth Warrior I felt myself becoming one with the earth and the collective energy of the spirits dancing around me. It was an evening to remember.

My serendipitous experiences this week have grounded me in the truth and reality of the person I hadn’t fully realized I’ve become. Talking to the people in Portland, I’ve learned to see things more organically. Modern western civilization as a whole has a tendency to focus on material things that are often destructive to ourselves and our world. Immersing myself in a like-minded culture has given me a newfound peace and resolve to focus on living within earth’s blessings as part of a regenerative process rather than abusing and destroying the natural resources we’ve been provided. Thank you Portland for revealing to me a new appreciation for the purity of raw life. The friendships I’ve made in this chapter of my journey are priceless.

*Many of these photos are largely credited to the beautiful Briana

 

Homage to Bastille Day

In memory of those who have been affected by a string of terrorist attacks involving lorries to kill, starting with Bastille Day, July 14, 2016.

 

July 14, 2016 – Bastille Day

Nice, France

 

The parade clogs the pedestrian lined streets

Children hoisted onto shoulders seek the best seat

Traditionally clad soldiers atop horses flanked by armed men

Patriotic music doesn’t faze their stoic expression

Flags can be spotted throughout the crowd

Proud citizens wave and cheer rather loud

The celebration launched into a firework display

Explosions turned to screams with people running away

A menacing white lorry mowed through the town

A sick game of bowling knocked 434 people down

Shots were fired to the horror of all

Helpless bystanders could do little but watch victims fall

 

December 19, 2016 – Christmas Market

Berlin, Germany

 

A gentle glow illuminates the square adorned in Christmas lights

Festive tents side by side, full of trinkets and delights

Families stroll beneath the crescent moon

Children express excitement at the impending arrival of Kris Kringle, soon

Merchants advertise booths of treats for sale

The romantic holiday spirit is straight from a fairytale

As the clock struck eight, the enchantment turned stale

A truck lumbering towards the market turned everyone pale

In a blink of an eye the stalls took the blow

The driver sped on as the list of injured continued to grow

Down the street he barreled until the lorry took a lurch

Until finally he crashed in front of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

 

March 22, 2017 – Westminster

London, England

 

The Houses of Parliament gleam in the afternoon sun

Tourists pose for photos, having their fun

Men and women in suits scurry from place to place

Pubs filled with afternoon drinkers quickly lose space

The River Thames sparkles with the reflection of the sun

Couples take their selfies on the bridge to the count of three-two-one

Just another normal afternoon it would seem

A man of ill intentions set the stage for his scheme

Unsuspecting people strolled around Big Ben

As this terrorist drove a stolen lorry into people on the bridge again and again

His main target was Parliament, while the prime minister was within

The lorry crashed near Benny and the man tried to break in

Brave police took him down, but not before losing one of their own

Scrambling onlookers took cover behind buildings of stone

As hours passed, the injured count grew to fifty

Six confirmed dead, a dark day for London city

Londoners, however, refused to let terrorism beat them down

They banded together to help the injured, remaining proud

 

Author’s Notes:

I have had the privelege to travel to many wonderful countries and have fallen in love with a nomadic lifetyle that allows me to get a taste of the culture in each place. Unfortunately, some of my favorite cities have been horribly targeted for terrorism with the use of lorries

in the past year, some more than once. I began writing out my homage to Bastille Day a few months ago in an effort to pay a tribute to the families that were affected with the arrival of the one year anniversary of the attack. At first I began with just the poem about France, but then upon researching greater details realized I had to include two other countries that were similiarly affected, those being Germany and England. Over time, these events become statistics to sit in our history books and briefly discuss when the anniversary comes around. I purposefully wrote in the present tense in an effort to remember that the people and families affected by these events are still feeling these emotions as if they happened today. Nothing can bring back their peace of mind and their loved ones. I am thankful every day for the life and experiences I’ve been given and it’s a great reminder to be thankful for the moments I have left. Never take life for granted. It can all change in one instance.

Tales of a Friendly Irish Stranger

Take the time to get to know someone. You never know how it might affect your life.

 

8 months ago I wandered into a quaint hostel in Dublin, Paddy’s Palace (a hostel I highly recommend if you happen to travel there), with my friend Andrea. We were nearing the end of our backpacking trip together, well in to country number 5 on the journey. We had just come from the island of Corsica so we were relaxed, happy and tan, but also lazily tired. It was midnight by the time we checked in to our hostel in Dublin.

Just as we were approaching the dark building, wondering if it was too late to check in, the door flew open and an extremely cheerful young man with a ready smile almost smacked us with the door, apologized and greeted us. In a Dublin accent so thick I could barely understand him, he happily ushered us in, promising to be back as soon as he unlocked a door for someone.

Long story short, after checking in we talked until well after the sun rose and I ended up sharing one of the most memorable 6 hour conversations to date with this amusing gentleman that I came to know as my friend Patrick, better known as Paddy. Speaking to each other about all of our similar interests and the experiences that have shaped us into who we are, we quickly found that we were mirror images of each other, just one American and one Irish. Little did I know that this chance meeting foreshadowed a grand adventure to come later.

Fast forward 8 months later to the present. Paddy and I had lost touch for a while, but thanks to Facebook, randomly reconnected 2 months before my planned return trip to Ireland with my sister. With no set plans I returned to Paddy’s Palace where Patrick happened to be helping a customer outside as we walked up. Expecting us, but still, surprised to see us he happened to drop the door on the customer, quickly apologizing as we giggled from the sidelines. Any chance of awkwardness from not seeing each other in so long evaporated in that moment. Once free he reemerged with a smile and a hug and we were welcomed back to Ireland. He handed me the key to the hostel that he’d arranged for us for 4 nights, an early birthday present to me.

Ireland immediately felt like home. The Irish believe in an assortment of wonderful fairytales and legends and I could feel the magic upon stepping outside the airport. Everyone my sister Stephanie and I came into contact with had a welcoming smile and greeting, inquiring as to where we were from and how long we would be around. This usually led right into suggestions on what to see and places to go. We soon realized not to be in a hurry to go anywhere, to factor in impromptu story telling time. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a population in which the majority of people are as friendly as those in the Republic of Ireland .

Thanks to Paddy’s recommendation, Steph and I had the opportunity to be a part of two days of bus tours through Paddywagon: One to see the Cliffs of Moher, northwest of Dublin, and another to Blarney Castle on the southern coast. If you ever get the chance to go to Ireland, these are must sees. If you don’t want to spend too much time planning, I highly recommend the Paddywagon Bus Tours that offer a glimpse into many different sides of Ireland, from the Republic to the North with hilarious and knowledgeable locals as guides. Be prepared for the possibility of some impromptu singing led by your guide along the way.

My guide to the Cliffs of Moher loved to sing traditional Irish songs over the PA as we drove, our group bursting into applause with the finality of each song. To reach the cliffs, you have the opportunity to drive through the scenic, windy mountain roads in a picturesque part of the country which I’m sure has been a backdrop of many rom-coms. If you’re as lucky as we were, on a clear beautiful day you will receive breathtaking views as you stroll from one peak to another. Make sure to stop by the remnants of an old tower that sits atop one of the peaks. The cliffs aren’t the only scenery however. Turn around from your vantage point and you’ll get a gorgeous view of the countryside, sprinkled with cows and livestock. It’s truly mesmerizing.

Blarney Castle is an entirely different but equally interesting experience. The old castle grounds offer a plethora of activity. Of course, the biggest attraction is to kiss the Blarney Stone. Legend has it, that if you lie on your back, tilt your head back and kiss the stone, you’ll be given the gift of the gab. For those women who need a little encouragement, they also say if you kiss the stone twice you’ll become pregnant. Doesn’t hurt to try! The grounds of the castle offer colorful gardens, archaic architecture, caves to wander through, places to eat and so much more. I myself need to return to truly see it all.

My previous trip to Ireland I took a tour also through Paddywagon through northern Ireland to Giant’s Causeway. I had never seen anything like the pentagon shaped rocks that make up this area. The legend behind the formations of the rocks can get anyone in the story telling spirit. If you’re a Game of Thrones fanatic, this tour may interest you for a stop at the Dark Hedges, where some of the filming was done. Don’t just take my word for it though, go experience it.

This time around I had the privilege of having my own personal tour guide. There’s nothing like wandering the streets with someone born and raised in Dublin. Paddy made sure Steph and I got a little taste of everything. We walked through the city, learning the history behind the harp bridge, the theater (where The Beach Boys just happened to be performing), Trinity College, the Guinness Storehouse, Temple Bar, the parks, and local hangouts. There is much to see and experience in the heart of Dublin.

I came to frequent a wonderful pub around the corner from the hostel called The Celt. The Celt offers live music from traditional Celtic to more modern covers of popular songs every night. On top of that, the traditional home cooked food is some of the best that I’ve ever experienced in my life. There was not one evening that I had a bad experience there. The bar tenders and staff are charming and cheerful, always encouraging another round of Guinness. Paddy and I enjoyed a number of pints over good conversation, breaking out into song when the occasion required it. All we had to do was nod to the bar tender and the next round was brought over. It was over Guinness that I began to probe him on the history of his people.

The Republic of Ireland has a unique and rich history. It amazed me to learn what the country has been through and has given me a newfound respect for the way the people look out for their brothers and sisters. The general population has an air of optimism and acceptance of all kinds that is hard to find. There is a sense of community that the rest of the world should model themselves after.

Walking through the streets you will see many homeless people, but turn a corner and there’s equally as many or more people raising money to help them, holding signs, ringing bells, bringing around meals. It was moving to see such empathy from people in comparison to the jaded version of humanity I’ve come to know. It’s not unusual to see people stop to ask someone lying in a sleeping bag if they need anything or to offer them food and money. Sometimes people will simply just sit down next to them and ask them to tell their story. Even more fascinating to me is that the government has a system in which they provide housing and a small wage to people who are in need, giving them a basis to help themselves out of poverty. While this can only make a dent in the number that need it, and it has its faults, it’s still a step forward. It’s refreshing to see a culture that cares to make a difference.

I am extremely grateful for my time in Dublin and the regions I’ve had the privilege of traveling to. I’ve learned so much from the culture, the people and experiences I have had. Never did I expect that randomly connecting with an Irish stranger would have this sort of impact in enhancing my travel experience and gaining a truly genuine friend for life. It’s amazing how one chance meeting can turn into something so much more. Being open to learning and getting to know people can be the biggest catalyst for growth. If I’ve learned one thing from all my travels, it’s that the people you meet along the way can make your experience significantly more memorable as well as exciting. I will be back to Ireland and I’m excited to see what will happen next.

 

Falling into Frankfurt

The city has so much more to offer than just an airport

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I had the pleasure of crossing paths with Gordon in January through a mutual friend while backpacking in Hawaii. The three of us became quite the team, conquering some treacherous hikes and drives on the islands of Kauai and Maui and continuing the adventures in snowy Vancouver shortly after. Gordon even came for a brief visit to Florida before continuing on home to Germany. Months later, our friendship has lasted and I found myself connecting through his home of Frankfurt enroute to Thailand.

Here I was, spontaneously dropping in with no expectations, but that European hospitality that always seems to catch me off guard met me upon arrival. No questions asked, Gordon met me at the airport and assumed the role of tour guide. Frankfurt, having one of the largest airports in the world, is one of those places that all travelers seem to connect through to various cities, but never stop to explore. What I expected to be no more than a brief 3 day stay turned into 6 days of fun.

The city itself is a mixture of both old and modern architecture. Standing on one of the various bridges suspended over the Main river you can enjoy views of many beautiful old churches mixed in to interestingly shaped modern skyscrapers. My favorite bridge, the love lock bridge Eiserner Steg, provides the perfect view of both sides of the city skyline. There is an unexpected amount of history and culture to Frankfurt that I had never realized existed. A variety of museums can be found along the Mein, as well as in the city center. There is a bit of something for everyone. If architecture is your thing, you can simply walk through the town center displaying quaint buildings in the traditional Fachwerk style.

As always, my favorite part of travel is getting to be a part of local living. I definitely enjoyed that side of my trip. Gordon grew up in the small town just bordering Frankfurt and I had the pleasure of seeing his small town, as well as the city. Whether it was enjoying currywurst at Best Worscht in Town, chatting over coffee with his friends, hanging out at the nearby uni, beer by the river to the sounds of musicians, nights out in the Alt-Sachsenhausen region drinking Äppler or simply strolling through the Shirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt modern art museum, there was no lack of activity.

Being totally immersed in the German culture was intense, having very little experience with the language. I was thankful to have someone who could communicate fluently in both languages to show me around. I made a game of trying to read all of the German street signs and shop fronts. Gordon patiently corrected my pronunciation and translated for me upon request. It intrigued me on how my perspective of Germans changed from my short visit.

Hearing spoken German has always sounded rough on my ears. I believe I unconsciously paralleled the culture to be a bit gruff based on the way the language sounded to my ears. I now see it as just the opposite. The language really has a musicality to it. Even the guttural more percussive sounds are actually nice when in context with some of the more fluid words. I found the people to be surprisingly welcoming to me as well. I’m sure it helped to be traveling with a local, however everyone was over-accommodating to the fact that I knew no German. I was continuously surprised with the many apologies I received from the locals of their rarely choppy sentences in English with which I had no problem understanding. When they couldn’t think of the English equivalent, they’d ask Gordon to translate, a favor I never expected.

In one case we ended up in a bar lock-in with a group of Gordon’s friends on the uni campus. They were listening to music and having a rap-off, an interesting experience for me to hear in German. One individual who I’d been speaking to throughout the night and found quite amusing had a particularly musical sounding string of rhyme. I turned to applaud him, saying I had no idea what he had said but that it sounded very nice to listen to. Immediately afterward the guy next to him who’d heard my comment and had only spoken German up to this point began rapping in English to make me feel included. It’s those little things that made me really appreciate the people. They have an unspoken sensitivity to those around them.

I feel that I’ve only brushed the surface of Germany. There is so much to learn about each state. While the country is notoriously known for beer, meat and Oktoberfest, I have discovered a hidden charm. There’s a kindness behind the clipped and oftentimes dry humor. While they do enjoy their beer and football, I found a unique reaction to their history in regards to accepting other cultures to be prevalent among the young people that I met. Frankfurt has taught me some unexpected lessons that I look forward to furthering my knowledge of in the future.

London’s Enchantment

London is more than high fashion and history. The culture and people have permanently settled in my heart.

What is it about London that has me coming back for more?

It doesn’t matter the season or how many times I’ve been. London keeps calling me. Falling in love in the city is easy to do. The historic buildings draped in seasonal decorations, the fast paced lifestyle, bold fashion choices that leave you staring and swinging jazz music seeping from night clubs onto crowded streets. It’s overwhelming in the greatest way. People of varying ages and diverse backgrounds in every state of attire can be found strutting through the streets in their tailored coats and stylish shoes. It may be gray and rainy for half, or even two-thirds of the year, but there is a mood even in that. There is a simple beauty that comes from sipping tea in a cozy café while watching the rain fall.

I fell in love with London almost 2 years ago and have continued to fall harder each of the 8 times I’ve returned since. It was love at first sight. Everything about it appealed to me. Maybe I saw it with rose-colored glasses at first, but over these past two years our relationship has only matured and heightened in intensity.

Of course, as most American females will tell you, the English accent definitely was an appeal. Every girl loves a good accent, especially one that has been romanticized in our movies and media for years. However, I’m picky in the romance department and it takes more than a well-dressed population armed with alluring accents to steal my heart. No, there was much, much more.

The people themselves have a look that I often times only find in larger cities. Men smartly dressed in suits and blazers hastily check their watches as they move towards the tube, grabbing a newspaper from the stack besides the staircase as they descend into the underground. Women in all states of attire from tailored skirts with functional heels to high waist jeans and stylishly cut tops and color coordinated jumpers (sweaters), casually accessorize their outfits to reflect London’s latest fashion. Tall, beautiful people can be seen all throughout the city, lining up at Costa for a cup of tea or coffee to go, or crammed into the many pubs on every street corner. Everyone, whether dressed to the nines or purposefully outfitted to embody a “casual” look, is doing their best to make a visual statement.

Visiting as an adult, the realization that everyone walks or bikes everywhere in London fascinated me. Growing up in the Orlando suburbs, walking was never encouraged, as things were too spread out, with no quick public transportation system. The walking culture of London creates a whole different feeling of community. People are forced to interact while passing each other, even if they’re not consciously thinking about it.

There is even a section in the newspaper called the Rush Hour Crush in which travelers on public transportation can text in personalized comments, appreciation for a good deed, compliments and even requests for dates to people commuting alongside them to be posted in the paper. And yes . . . people actually still read newspapers. In fact, it’s pretty impossible not to spot newspapers littering the floors and benches of the underground each day. Being an outsider to my own generation, in which I prefer an old-fashioned book to a tablet or nook, I find something as simple as reading a newspaper, quaint. With that being said, the simple things may charm me, but I am even more excited by the activities of London.

Coming from a music performance background myself, some of the biggest attractions for me are the bounteous forms of musical entertainment. The London jazz scene drew me in from day one with one of my first experiences being the discovery of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. It was London that threw me into venues in which my now favorite style of music, gypsy jazz, was being performed. I also quickly learned what swing dancing is all about. Whether you’re looking for jazz, musical theater, classical, pop, rock, etc. it can all be found in all types of venues in London.

The West End is constantly advertising premier viewings of the newest and oldest running musicals, whereas halls in the Southbank Centre host various concerts from the London Philharmonic Orchestra all the way to alternative forms of new music performed by small bands or even poetry readings. Just a hop over the bridge from Westminster and Big Ben and a brief walk away, the Centre hosts more than just music. An entire art community with frequent markets of freshly cooked foods, used books for sale, buskers, active artists displaying their works and just about every activity you can imagine can be found here.

There is always something to participate in. Between the music, arts, nightlife, parks, or history of London, the options are limitless and constantly changing. While it may seem like the fast paced lifestyle never gives locals time to unwind, it’s easy to find many of them enjoying a pint at the local pub closest to their work place at the end of each day. Laughter can be heard coming from the open doors late into the evening. My favorite pubs are the more private ones, tucked off of side streets and easy to pass if you’re not searching for them. There’s nothing better than sitting in a corner with a pint of beer and my notebook, surrounded by soft jazz music and a sprinkle of conversation beneath dimmed lighting from ornate brass light fixtures. I won’t tell you where to go. You must simply discover these gems on your own.

This may all sound dreamy, but I don’t deny the darker sides of the city. As I stated in the beginning, our relationship has only matured over time. I’ve seen the dirty, crime infested sides of the city. I’ve observed the alcoholism and smoking culture that affects a large amount of the population, despite the health risks. I’ve experienced the pretentiousness that comes from people making more money than they know what to do with. I’ve struggled with rerouting myself when the tube workers have gone on strike due to low wages and read the papers as angry citizens who lost their jobs protested they were unable to make it to work on time from unscheduled delays, a byproduct of the strikes. I’ve seen news articles headlining the tragic death of another person accidentally pushed off the tube platform onto the electrically charged tracks in rush hour, or another biker run over by a red bus that didn’t see them in time. I’ve followed the coverage of Brexit and witnessed first-hand the divide among families voting on opposite sides. I’ve spoken to fearful immigrants from throughout Europe in the form of musicians and artists, uncertain of what their fate held the day Brexit was voted in. No city is perfect, just as no relationship is perfect.

Even after seeing this other side, I’m still in love. The darker sides of London create a depth for which art and music can persist to thrive with continued inspiration. Without darkness you have no contrasting brightness or the corresponding appreciations of joy. Humanity needs a balance of each in order to evolve and learn from emotions and experiences. This is what pushes us to grow in our personal development. I have learned invaluable lessons from my observations in London.

I see a city built on the foundation of acceptance; people from all over the world work alongside each other in a harmonious balance. I see a city where music and the arts are appreciated for what they represent, not just for the ways in which they may benefit your health. I see a city where respect is expected, not a privilege to receive. I see a city where healthcare is accessible to everyone, even if it may not be perfect. I see a community driven to expanding their minds and bettering their society at any cost. I see a city in which young adults know and care about what is going on in their world.

Despite a city with history dating back hundreds of years, I feel there is an overall youthful, forward-thinking energy when I walk through London. As I return to London in three weeks for the 10th time, I aspire to learn more from this city that constantly lives in my heart. I may have traveled abroad to many places, but this is still the one that fits me best. The enchantment, the pulsing vitality, calls to me, beckoning to me to return as quickly and as often as possible.

Traveling Cheap: How to travel on a budget without budgeting

Traveling smart allows the adventure to last longer.

I travel often. I will be 24 years old next month and I’ve been to many states and countries with diverse cultures and climates. I hardly go a month without taking one week to one month off. That being said, this is not the norm for most Americans in my age bracket. Young adults in general are ambitiously working to climb the ladder of success in whatever job they may occupy. That’s not to say that they aren’t interested in travel and adventure. This absolutely isn’t true; they just don’t believe traveling often is affordable. Many of us are taught at a young age that you have to dedicate a certain amount of time working in order to reward yourself with a vacation. We’re told that traveling is entirely too expensive to just go off gallivanting at any given moment. I am living proof that traveling cheap and spontaneously at any age is absolutely possible with the right mindset.

Money views 

To start, you have to prioritize your ideas of what money is to you. My view of money is that of a tool; something that is a means to trade for an experience. I work in order to make enough to live and travel off of. I don’t bother with long term saving at this point in my life. We don’t know how much time we have on this earth, so I live each day, each trip, and each impulse to its fullest. Now, I’m not saying I don’t have a few practical moments here and there. I work very hard when I’m home and I occasionally have to forego the impulse to hop on a flight out of the country. Every day that I get up to go to work for another long double I remind myself of my next big trip to quell my urge to run away. That inspires me to keep moving, pushing myself to pick up as many shifts as possible. Living this way requires a large amount of flexibility, a strong work ethic and a lot of energy. There is hardly any down time and I prefer it that way. However if you plan to adopt this lifestyle, consider yourself warned, life happens to pass by rather quickly when you don’t stop moving.

If, so far, this mindset sounds like something you already have, or one that you’re open to, please read on. If not, I urge you to go straight to google and research all-inclusive resorts in major travel destinations of your choice, as these will probably be your best financially affordable vacation packages that require the least amount of creativity.

Transportation

A common misconception is the idea that it has to be ridiculously expensive to travel. This is absolutely untrue. The revised statement  is that it’s ridiculously expensive to travel anywhere if you’re in a hurry to get there and if you don’t consider alternative third-party websites and modes of transportation that may take a bit longer for you to get from point A to point B. I have quite a few tips for you to consider on this subject.

Let’s start with flying. Flights can be extremely expensive if you don’t book them many months in advance. It can also be overwhelming to try to decide what airline to fly. The key is to shop around and lower your standards on what kind of novelties you need when flying. My favorite site to start with when looking at purchasing flights is skyscanner.com. Depending on how you set your preferences, this site will generate a list of all the prices, routes, connections and airlines that can take you to your destination. I set my preferences to price points, so that I will be shown the cheapest routes at the top of the list. While this is my first choice, there are other similar generators to this that you can also try out, including kayak, CheapOAir and Cheap Flights. Once you’ve started here, make sure you do your research. Sometimes carriers offer the same routes for a discounted special, depending on the time of year. Always make sure to visit the actual website of the airline that you’ve found through the discounted site to ensure that it really is a good deal. Sometimes you can find promo codes for that airline through any search engine that will bring the original price to something lower than that of a third-party site.

In addition, don’t be afraid of taking flights that may have multiple connections to arrive at your destination and most importantly don’t be a snob about what airline you fly. Discounted carriers may not always have the greatest reviews, but that’s often due to the lack of cosmetic novelties, such as the inclusion of meals, TV screens that display recently released movies and fancy lighting. Just because an airline offers cheap prices doesn’t automatically mean it’s unsafe. Every airline is required to meet a set of standards by the FAA and they periodically undergo inspection to ensure these standards are continuously met. Your ticket price on these airlines are lower because they lack the novelties of the more expensive airlines. Try to remember that this is just a means of transportation, not the important part of the trip. You can always pack your own meals and watch movies on your own electronic device. If it’s a long flight, you will probably be sleeping most of the time, not admiring the mood lighting of the cabin anyway. Save that extra hundred bucks for something more exciting.

There are many alternative options to flying. Buses, trains, ferries and an abundance of travel apps are at your fingertips. Don’t be afraid to mix and match and try them all! The adventure can be in the journey. I once spent over 24 hours traveling from Salzburg, Austria to the island of Corsica, France via two buses, a cab, a ferry, a train and a car for under 50 euros, approximately $55 with a 2 hour nap on the floor of the train station and a brief swim at a beach in Nice, France. I have no regrets. Buses are one of the cheapest options, but definitely the slowest. If you’re not in a rush, they can be wonderfully relaxing and scenic. Put on some music and gaze out the window for a while. Trains are often a significantly faster option, but the prices can be more than you’re willing to spend, depending on how far you’re going and how late you end up booking your ticket. I’ve found that it’s sometimes worth it to fly on a low-cost carrier than to take a train. Once again, always check all of your options before booking anything. Ferries are a great alternative to flying when traveling to islands. Since you can’t usually use normal ground transportation to cross waterways, airlines are prone to higher prices. Taking the ferry can be a much more affordable option that doubles as a relaxing mini cruise experience.

There are also some great travel apps that we have at our fingertips today. You don’t even have to be tech-savy to use them. There are the popular ones for short distances, such as uber and lyft, but there’s another one that has come to my attention in the last few months. The app is called BlaBlaCar. On the American front, it’s almost completely unheard of. It’s a long distance carpooling service, similar to something like uber. You download the app, put in some basic information and then you’re set. You can put in your place of origin and destination and a list of people driving to and from those destinations will pop up. There are reviews for the drivers’ reliability, the number of seats they have left in their vehicle and a flat rate of how much you will be charged. I’ve used this app successfully twice in Europe with no problems. It was extremely easy to use and cheaper than all other transportation options to get to where I was headed. I met some interesting individuals and had a couple of great conversations.

Accommodation

            One of the greatest expenses to traveling can be where you stay. Western society has ingrained in us that vacation equates to luxury. Most people who book a vacation are in the mindset that they’re treating themselves, immediately researching nice, “affordable” resorts in ideal locations. I absolutely do not recommend this. If I’m traveling to a new destination I don’t plan to spend much time sleeping. In fact I spend as little time as possible inside my home base, basically using it as storage for my backpack. A great way to reduce the costs of accommodation is to travel overnight. I’ve quickly learned how to sleep on any form of transportation for any amount of time. Power naps are my best friend. Right there you can cut out one night of having to pay to sleep somewhere.

My next suggestion is booking a hostel. Many hostels advertise a bed, often in a dorm setting with community bathrooms for an average $15-25 a night. They usually have something you can lock your valuables in, and its easy to just shove your backpack under your bed. If dorm living isn’t for you, most places offer private rooms as well for a slightly higher price. In all of my experiences, I’ve met excellent people and made some quality friendships. As long as you can handle a more primitive style of living, this is a great way to make friends from around the globe.

Back to the wonderful advances of technology, there are two main apps that I’ve used while traveling. The first is pretty popular, known as AirBnb. Through this app you can search pretty much any destination in the world for a couch, a bedroom or an entire house to rent per night. After checking the reviews of the host you can send them a simple message to see if they’re accepting guests. You make your payment entirely through the app and they will either meet you with the key or have some sort of arrangement such as a lockbox. Depending on the location, this option may be more expensive than alternative options, but in my experience it’s usually cheaper than a hotel and I’ve often been able to book extremely last minute with no problems.

My newly discovered favorite app is known as CouchSurfing. This way of travel is absolutely free. If you’re a little more adventurous than this is the app for you. How it works is similar to AirBnb. Users download the app and can put in their destination and message hosts to see if they have a couch, floor or even a yard (for those traveling with tents) open for whatever dates they’re planning to travel. The difference is that there is no charge associated with a place to stay. This can sound pretty questionable and daunting if you’re paranoid when it comes to safety. My belief is that humanity is inherently good and the positive energy you put out will be returned to you. However be smart and read your reviews! You can immediately tell what kind of person your host is by checking the numerous reviews. The great thing about this app is that it is considered more of a cultural exchange. Users create a profile that includes pictures, places they’ve been, languages they speak, hobbies, interests and things they can share and teach as well as things they’d like to learn. I’ve had 4 experiences using this app and each time I’ve absolutely loved the people I’ve stayed with and kept in touch with. It will open your world if you go into it with a flexible mind.

My final suggestion is the obvious one that many people don’t take advantage of. When I travel I meet people from around the world. Whether it’s one fantastic 8 hour conversation or a week of interspersed contact via pubs, clubs, coffee shops or concerts, I keep in touch with the people who have expanded my mind and those that I find interesting. It may just be a Facebook message every few months to catch up on life or a

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Skype session every few days. Either way, I preach the values I was taught growing up in a half Puerto Rican household, “Mi casa es su Casa” (my house is your house). I always have a couch open for the friends I’ve met along the way and they likewise do the same for me. This is my absolute favorite way to travel. Staying with locals has plenteous advantages and I get to see their city or town in a truly authentic light. Don’t be afraid to contact people. You may think you’re burdening them, but I’ve often been told that seeing their home with fresh eyes has given them a new appreciation for what they have. Be flexible to their schedule, gracious of their hospitality and bring gifts. You may have things from your home that are a luxury in their state or country.

These tips and suggestions are simply skimming the surface of the possibilities of cheap travel. What works for me may not work for you and vice versa. It takes a large amount of research and creativity as well as some weighing of the pros and cons of each option. Sometimes circumstances in life require an escape. My escape is to run away for a while to places that remind me how beautiful life is; to give me a new appreciation of humanity. Each time I return, my head is full of new lessons and inspiration. I’m sharing these tips for travel because I know many people who feel stuck and don’t feel they have the funds to do the things they long to do. Money can trap you if you let it, but once you experience how far you can stretch it if you’re smart with your spending, you will be free of it’s grip. The knowledge and lifestyle that come with this type of travel will have you questioning the purpose of every physical possession you have. Embrace it. Allow yourself to change with the transformation of your mind.

The Conundrum of Happiness

Freedom comes with the realization that your reality is your own doing.

What makes you happy? I work hard to ask myself this question every day. Sometimes I ask myself multiple times a day. It doesn’t always have to be the same answer. In fact, in my case, it’s constantly evolving and changing altogether.

The thing that shocks me is that somewhere along the way in this jaded world we live in, happiness became second in importance to things like stability, the acquiring of certain possessions and making money. Western civilization has become greedy, yet even knowing this to be true, it doesn’t change the focus for many people.

My definition of what makes me truly happy has been changing over the years. Change isn’t a negative thing, but rather a sign that I’m listening to myself as I grow into a person shaped by places I’ve been and experiences I’ve had. Sometimes happiness came in the form of a person, other times a genre of music and other times still, a place. However, even with all of the transformations, I can’t say I’ve ever put much focus in material things. I have my parents to thank for grounding me with this wisdom and freedom from a young age. Things were simply things; replaceable, nothing more, nothing less.

So what is my secret to happiness? I’m known for being a pretty optimistic and upbeat person and I get asked this question more often than I care to admit. Sometimes it saddens me that the answer isn’t as clear to everyone else as it is to me. Now of course, everyone must seek out their own version of happiness. There is no cookie cutter answer here, but I will share with you what I’ve learned and what brings me the most joy.

This will sound extremely cliché, but the blanket answer is that I listen to what my soul craves. The more specific answer is TRAVEL. In fact, it’s incredibly hard for me to sit still. Back when I first discovered how amazing it was to go abroad, I was enjoying the world and everything it had to offer so much that I knew I had to shape my life around it. The day after I graduated college, May 2015, I boarded a Virgin Atlantic flight to London Heathrow with my University’s Chamber Orchestra. My closest friends all happened to be in the orchestra as well, so we expected to have a few amazing adventures, but I had no idea how much these experiences would affect me. After three weeks traveling through England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland my fate had gripped me. I’d met some fascinating individuals along the way and I returned with a new excitement of the world.

6 months later I was a flight attendant. Now a year and a half into the job, I’m hardly in one place for long. I love the people I work with and I now have the flexibility of flight benefits to go anywhere I want on a whim. Often times I feel like I’m starring in my own fairytale. People tell me I’m lucky, living a charmed life, but it has nothing to do with luck. I knew that I needed to keep traveling in order to answer the calling of my deepest desires. I simply persevered until I found a solution.

I truly believe traveling is the most important gift you can give yourself. I don’t just mean taking a road trip up the coast of whatever country you happen to reside in. I mean losing yourself in another country, another continent, another language and culture entirely different from your own. It is not until you see how others live that you can step back and evaluate your own way of life. After a trip in which you’re exposed to another way of living you may sit back and think “oh, maybe having the latest Michael Kors bag isn’t as important as I thought it was.”

I know you’re thinking that I can hardly speak in such a generalized way, seeing how I’m a flight attendant with a far from normal life, but let me explain. My airline doesn’t do layovers. I don’t have the novelty of stepping off a plane in Paris or Rome at the end of my work day like the larger airlines. I’m home pretty much every night after many 14-16 hour doubles, usually back to back. I work insane hours in order to take off as much time as possible. When I get to the end of an intense few weeks of work, I take a month off and leave the country. My point is that if travel is your passion, then no matter what industry you work in, there’s no excuse not to find a way to take at least one trip a year. If you want it badly enough you’ll make it happen.

Travel is my vice. I’m hungry to learn how other people live, I crave the foods that are grown without pesticides and I’m thirsty to figure out how to blend into each culture I find myself in the middle of. The people I’ve become friends with throughout the world have completely shaped my ideologies and philosophies on the way I try to live my life. Some of the most wonderfully open minded and thought provoking conversations I’ve had thus far have come from musicians at a gypsy jazz camp in Samoreau, France. Almost a year later, I still keep in touch with these people via social media and various forms of messenger. I’ve even visited a few of these people months later in their native countries.

Everywhere I go, I strive to open myself up to meeting new people, learning new things and trying different foods. Most importantly I hold on to the lessons I’ve learned from those I come into contact with, forming friendships across borders that have no boundaries. I remember to remind myself that I can’t expect to develop my mind without the provocation of alternative angles of insight.

This lifestyle makes me passionate about living. Every day that I wake up, I’m excited for the next adventure on the horizon. Life is never stale or redundant. Maybe I don’t make much money, but I make enough to support myself and the whimsical lifestyle I’ve fallen in love with.  In my eyes, I’m the richest woman in the world. My energy harbors a flame for exploration that is too strong to be extinguished.

Now I challenge you to ask yourself, what makes you happy? How often do you ask yourself this question? Most importantly, are you shaping your life in a way that places you on a path to enjoy life in this way as often as possible? If you struggle to answer these questions, it may be time to reevaluate. Sometimes the fear of letting go of the safe way of living inhibits you from diving into a new start and a new you. Encourage yourself to take the leap, jump off the bridge and swim upstream to the waterfall of your desires. It may be upstream at first, but the view from the top of the rocks may be the most beautiful one yet.