Friday, August 23, 2013

Same, Same, But Different

Well readers, this is my final blog post. The reason I chose this title for this blog post is that vendors in Southeast Asia love to say this phrase. For example, if you were to ask "do you have those shoes in blue?" a normal reply would be "No red, but they are same, same!" So just like Asia to Europe, it's all full of the same, same amazing people!

After Vietnam, I returned to the Netherlands for about 2 weeks to close out my 8 months of crazy traveling. I said my final goodbyes to my favorite stores like Aldis and Albert Hijn, my favorite bars like Masy Mas and Odessa, and all of the canals. Aside from resting after 4 weeks in Asia and trying to take in the price shock from Vietnamese Dong back to Euros, I did manage to have a few adventures. I took a trip to Groningen way up in the north of the country (big university town) and took a bus and ferry to the island of Schiermonnikoog (still can't pronounce it). The island has no cars, a few buses (the transportation in the Netherlands never ceases to amaze me), and as usual loads of bikes (Thomas and I rented a bike for two). I also took another trip to see my friend Soleil in the very residential town of Purmerend (it's one big suburb of Amsterdam). From there Soleil and I biked through 3 very adorable towns like Edam and Vollendam (SO MUCH CHEESE). Additionally, I had to make one last trip to Amsterdam to soak in all the sights of one of my favorite cities. Even though my bike was stolen on my last day (that solved the problem of selling it!), it was a sad sad goodbye to all of my friends, all of the memories, and my home away from home. Then it was back to NJ for a week for some quality parental time and up to Worcester to get back to Clark.

I just want to thank everyone that took the time to read this, my parents who selflessly supported and helped me fund all of these adventures, Ashley Lynette for tackling Asia with me and proving its totally possible to spend 24/7 with someone and come out loving them even more, Thomas Westerhout for being my favorite Dutchie around, the couchsurfing hosts that generously took me in, fed me, and showed me their cities, and to all the friends old and new I made traveling the world. If you ever need a place to stay or travel advice, never hesitate to contact me-- I have A LOT of paying it forward to do.

Here's just a sample of all the wonderful people I met:

Monday, August 5, 2013

So By Communist State You Actually Mean Capitalist Dictatorship...?

It was a relatively smooth ride to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) from Phom Penh with a $5 bribe to get into a country a day earlier than our visas said. Once we arrived we hopped on the back of our first motorcycles to get to our couchsurfing host's apartment. Our drivers got a little lost, but Trang and her room mates were very excited to see us and made us an amazing home cooked dinner while we rested (we were constantly being asked if we were tired or needed to rest... they really thought we were quite helpless).

For breakfast the next morning we went out for pho (a noodle soup) and Vietnamese coffee. Then Trang and her friend took us by motorcycle to HCMC's Notre Dame, the post office (it is quite an attraction here), and the War Remnants Museum. The War Museum is probably one of the most unpleasant places for an American to go. The first floor was an exhibit of all the countries around the world protesting the US to pull out of Vietnam. Other parts were many painful photos of war, data on the destruction, pictures of the effects of Agent Orange, and quotes calling the war a genocide and parts of the Declaration of Independence. Outside the museum was a small section illustrating the prisons and types of torture captured Vietnamese received. Although the museum was clearly biased, it was difficult staying proud of my country with something like this in its past and the fact that we clearly haven't learned from it. After that sobering experience, our couchsurfing hosts took us to a vegetarian restaurant (it was very puzzling to them that we were vegetarians even though we weren't religious). Here we got the opportunity to hear about how these Vietnamese students did not particularly like their government. The country is far from the communist state they fought for, but more of a one party system where the voice of the people is not heard. They were hopeful that the youth of today will bring change though.

We went to a pagoda across the street where they left us since they really don't like the rain (or the sun for that matter. Women are obsessed with covering up there skin to not get a tan or freckles and using whitening products). Ashley and I walked to the Independence Palace which used to be South Vietnam's headquarters during the war and the residence of the president. We then strolled through the central market with more aggressive vendors before meeting our host's friend to go to another home cooked dinner.

The next day we took a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels where many Vietcong soldiers hid and fought from underground. While it was very interesting to see how they made their life underground, we also had to see all the terrifying traps they used on American soldiers. Afterwards we took a long bus up to Dalat. Although we were excited to be in beds again (our hosts in HCMC sleep on mats, I think they are made of steel), our hostel overbooked and made us move to a crumby room at 1 in the morning. Dalat, usually a vacation spot for Vietnamese, would have been much nicer if it hadn't rained the whole day. We walked around another market and went to the Crazy House which is part tourist attraction part hotel built in a style similar to Gaudi. Since we were short on time we hopped on another bus to Nha Trang.

Nha Trang is THE Russian vacation spot as well as a great place for beaches. All of the signs are in Russian and Vietnamese. There we took a snorkeling excursion and saw some incredible fish and coral. It wasn't as colorful as I hoped, but I'm blaming a combination of all the diesel in the water and global warming. Instead of showering we headed to Nha Trang's mud baths and mineral baths. We shared our mud bath with 3 Asian women who spoke no English but got a picture with us and thought it was hilarious how tall we were. From Nha Trang we took our first sleeper bus to Hoi An (11 hours away). Sleeper buses are unlike anything in the US. There are 3 rows of bunk beds with beds that don't quite recline all the way and were just long enough to fit me at 5'6, plus people sitting on the floor. What an experience! We made it to Hoi An in one piece except as we were checking into our Hotel/Villa we realized the hostel in Nha Trang never gave us our passports back. Since mail here isn't exactly reliable our passports had to be taken on the next sleeper bus to Hoi An. The wait was terrifying, but they arrived. RELIEF.

Hoi An used to be a big port town for Chinese and Japanese traders so we spent a lot of time wandering the old town which was preserved very beautifully and had a lot to offer for shopping. The next day we took advantage of Hoi An's beach. Ashley rode on the back of my bike while we enjoyed the water, drinks out of coconuts, and some of Hoi An's specialties like White Rose, fried wonton, and Cao Lao. After the beach we went back into town and got a cooking class (or really a demo since since our instructor was a little impatient). We finished our night with Dalat wine and watching ridiculous shows like The Voice in Vietnamese and Animal Planet's cat whisperer.

The next morning we opted for a 1 hour flight instead of a 20 hour bus ride to Hanoi. Hanoi was very hot and humid so we made our way to the air conditioned women's museum. Vietnam isn't particularly creative with their museums opting mostly for dry captions, pictures, and a few artifacts and displays. From the women's museum we walked to the prison museum also known as the Hanoi Hilton. Originally the prison was used by the French to jail Vietnamese revolutionaries which is the majority of the exhibits. The last 2 rooms displayed how the prison was used for American POWs which included John McCain's uniform and pictures of prisoners enjoying recreation time playing basketball and celebrating Christmas... this was also fairly biased. Finally we headed to the night market which full of a lot of junk, but we had an awesome hot pot dinner and hid out from the rain for a couple of hours.

The rain just didn't seem to stop after that. We were picked up in the AM by bus that took us to a boat where we would be spending the night in Halong Bay (a UNESCO World Heritage site). The bay was covered in hundreds of giant limestone rock formations and we stopped at one to explore its caves, another to go on a small trek, and finally a floating village to go kayaking. Back on the boat we had dinner (you know it was a tourist trip when the majority of the food was fried, they served french fries, and forks instead of chopsticks). Following dinner, our guide desperately tried to get us to do karaoke which is huge all over this part of Asia... it did not go so well.

In the morning we were taken to Cat Ba Island where we trekked to the top of the mountain in the rain for some cloudy but lovely views. We then had lunch before we were taken by another boat to our own private beach and bungalow for more swim time, dancing with crazy Brits, and dinner. Our last day was one long day of many boats and buses (one of them broke down temporarily) back to Hanoi. Once back our new American friend (one of the few we met) showed us a spectacular vegetarian restaurant. That evening we met up with Chi, an international student that goes to Clark from Hanoi! She showed us around her city, used her excellent bargaining skills, and treated us to ice cream. It was great to see her in her own element especially since I remember first taking her around Clark when I was her Peer Advisor.

On our last day, we found another vegetarian restaurant (it was called the Loving Hut which they also have in Worcester!) on our way to Ho Chi Minh's complex which included where he worked and lived. Unfortunately we missed out, on seeing Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body since its only open 3 hours a day (the Vietnamese really love their former Communist leader). Afterwards we got pretty lost, until we  finally found our way back and got super cheap manicure/pedicures (well they tried to overcharge us and we got cursed at in Vietnamese... eek.) For our last dinner together, we went to the Hanoi Social Club, a cafe/restaurant that were huge promoters of Vietnam Gay Pride which was very exciting. So we stayed awhile to enjoy cocktails and board games (they had a game called the game of charity with the object being to give away all of your money haha). Aside from reading about the exotic foods on the menu like pigeon, every animal part you can think of, cats, and dogs, we were content with our vegetarian selections.

On our last morning together, Ashley and I got our last amazing Vietnamese coffee (they're so strong and perfect with some condensed milk). I am so unbelievably grateful to have found a best friend that I can spend 4 weeks 24/7 with and come out of the experience closer than ever. Parting was definitely not as easy as I left for my flight to Kuala Lumpur.

It was about a 3 hour flight to Kuala Lumpur where I had a 6 hour layover. Just enough time to get a taste for the city. They have an express train that goes directly from the airport through a lot of plantations to the center of the city. I walked through Chinatown's night market (a lot of fake stuff and more of the same). The highlight of that was getting to finally try a Dr. Fish pedicure where lots of fish supposedly nibble off the dead skin on your feet and make them smoother. I don't know if it worked, but it felt so odd. Afterwards, I took the metro to see the Petronas Towers which are the tallest twin towers in the world and quite impressive. Finally I got some street food for dinner and prepared myself for a 13 hour flight back to Holland. Here I am for the next week, enjoying being back biking and finally enjoying some Dutch sun. It's hard to believe in 1 week my 8 month adventure abroad will be coming to a close...

For pictures of Cambodia and Vietnam go here!



Saturday, July 20, 2013

Cambodia Where Traffic Laws are Suggestions, Women Wear Pajamas All Day, and You Pay in US Dollars

The last place I left you was right before our trek into the Thai jungle. We were picked up from our hostel in a pickup truck with seats and a cover in the back and smuched in with 5 Dutch (I would seriously regret not learning Dutch the rest of the trip), 4 French, and 2 Germans. Our first stop was a market for supplies then a hill tribe for some home made pad thai before taking off in the rain to start hiking. Welcome to the rainy season! Our guide was incredibly knowledgable and collected mushrooms for dinner and taught us little tricks like making banana leaves into hats. After several hours of very soggy hiking (or slipping in my case), we arrived at our cabins amongst the hill tribe where we spent the night. The next day we hiked again in the rain, but passed by some lovely waterfalls (one which had a small python swimming around it while we were dipping our feet). Then spent our second night in one very large jungle hut where I got to show off a bit of Netherlands knowledge =). Aside from the rooster at 5am (there are chickens and stray dogs everywhere), under our cozy mosquito nets I slept fairly well. On the last day, we hiked a small bit then arrived at an elephant camp. While we were waiting there was a baby monkey on a leash that wanted to play with all of us and even though I'm not an animal lover, this monkey melted my heart. 3 of us hopped on the bare back of an elephant for an hour long ride. Elephants apparently eat for about 20 hours a day and sleep for 4! As soon as we finished we were carted off for a bamboo raft ride down the river which was quite nice until the rain came back and we headed back to Chiang Mai very dirty, wet, and VERY smelly.

The next day we took another pickup truck cab to a market to learn about basic Thai ingredients and then to an organic farm for our Thai cooking class. Following a small tour of the farm we got right to cooking! We made tom yam soup, yellow and green curry, tofu cashew stir fry, sweet and sour sauce, pad thai, pad see ew, spring rolls, and mango sticky rice. I have never been so full. Let me know when I can come cook for you! That evening we went to Chiang Mai's night market where I bought a new camera (my first one did not survive the first day of our very wet hike).

From Chiang Mai we flew a boutique airline (ha) to Bangkok, took a shuttle to a bus station, took a mini bus to the Thai border (almost got scammed into taking an expensive cab, but were saved by some Brits), walked across the border, shared a cab with a Thai backbackper, got passed to a tuk tuk driver, and FINALLY made it to our hostel in Siem Reap! We managed to run into the same Brits and joined them for dinner and drinks (Cambodia's main beers are Cambodia, Angkor, and Kingdom... not the most creative). After a hostel switch the next day we went to a silk farm and learned about the intricate process that is involved in transforming silkworm coccoons into fabric. Then we cam back for a foot and shoulder massage and a stroll through another market.

The next morning we woke up at 5am to catch the sun rise at Angkor Wat with our guide, Mr. Top Cho and our tuk tuk driver. They don't call Angkor Wat one of the 7 Wonders of the World for nothing. It was very impressive even in ruins. Our guide explained all of the history and the meaning behind all of the detailed carvings and pictures on the walls (it's a mix of Buddhist and Hindu since religion depended on whoever was ruling at the time). We explored the massive site for 10 hours, visiting only the main temples in the complex. My favorite was Ta Prohm where trees have grown on the walls giving the site an Indiana Jones feel and clear view of the power of nature. Exhausted we had our typical dinner of curry and noodles and enjoyed a swim in our hostel's pool.

Through with Siem Reap we took a very bumpy ride to Phnom Penh. We had a surprisingly delicious lunch (it's amazing how much better the food gets once you get away from the restaurants offering pizza and spaghetti) and went to a thrift store, Sakura. The store was a little disappointing, but the ride through the crazy streets of Phnom Penh by tuk tuk was awesome. We then walked to the city's main temple, Wat Prohm and had a Thai dinner (we missed Thai cuisine already) with some Australians from our hostel (Australians are everywhere here).

We joined up with a Swiss girl and a German guy (I have a soft spot for solo travellers now) and went to Phnom Penh's predominant site, the Killing Fields. An excellent audioguide accompanied with personal narratives took us through the area and past only a few of the many mass graves. In the middle of the area is a stupa memorial with 17 layers of skulls and bones excavated from the graves. It's hard to put into words my feelings there. This was only intensified by our next stop, the S-21 Prison Museum. This was once a school in Phnom Penh, but was converted into a prison where people were tried for false crimes and tortured before they were sent bound up at night to be brutally executed at the Killing Fields. It's hard to imagine that in such a short time since the Holocaust happened the world could stand idly by while another genocide occurred. Moreover, the Khmer Rouge continued to be backed by the US even after these atrocities and the trials are STILL going on today to convict the perpetrators.

Nonetheless, Cambodians are determined to move on. So our next step was to the Russian Market (there is nothing Russian about it though). While we were waiting for our tuk tuk, we had every other tuk tuk driver asking us if we needed one, old women begging, and a child sadly looking at us. The poverty here was very apparent. Especially since about 80% of their economy revolves around tourists and the rest around agriculture (particularly rice which is back breaking work). On a brighter note, we had an awesome dinner at a restuarant called Suki Soup that gives the table a little stove to make a soup in with whatever ingredients you choose. We were obviously quite clueless and had several people babysitting us and telling us what to eat when. It was DELICIOUS.

On our last day in Phnom Penh, we intended to sleep in but were woken up by hammers and drills next door (Cambodians are early risers). Exhausted from the heat we wandered around, stopped in a charity store and went for a very long lunch at Daughters of Cambodia that helps victims of sex trafficking through rehabilitation and job training. Then to the central market which was massive. Finally, we went to get massages from the blind, but mine was really a semi-blind massage since he could still pretty much see... Lastly, we went to a small movie theatre that was once a living room (run by a Dutch guy) and saw Terms of Endearment (Ashley and I bawled our eyes out). The theatre was lovely and a total expat haven.

Once again we were woken up super early by a political rally going on across the street from our hostel. A politician from the opposition party was exiled 11 years ago for pulling up a border marking with Vietnam and accusing the Vietnamese of slowly taking their territory. However, he was returning on this day since elections are coming soon (although the ruling party is probably going to win as they have done for quite some time thanks to a great deal of corruption). Before we could delve in more to the political excitement, we were on our bus to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam!!

More on Vietnam soon! In the mean time, enjoy more Thailand pictures and Cambodia pictures!



Friday, July 12, 2013

Oh My Buddha from Italy to Egypt to THAILAND!

It is no easy feat to find a computer or the time to spare when I'm traveling to keep you updated, so this will be a long post! The last time I wrote I was leaving Siena for Chiusi to meet up with an Italian girl I couchsurfed with in Cork, Ireland (it was lovely to see her, but 1-4pm in small Italian towns everything is closed!) Next up was Rome! My solo adventures finally came to an end when I met Thomas at the airport.

The next day we got right to the sites of Rome and took a tour of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Via Sacra, and all of the Roman ruins which were even more incredible than I pictured when I took Latin way back when. We then walked to the biggest  V ittorio Emmanuel monument (he unified Italy and is celebrated everywhere) then to a surprisingly beautiful church (by this point I was starting to think they all looked the same), the Pantheon (just as impressive as you would imagine), and Piazza Navona. In the evening, we met up with another Clarkie interning in Rome to wander the very hip Trastevere neighborhood before venturing into the old Jewish ghetto for a super delicious dinner (they even gave us a dairy and a meat menu), but we chose fried artichokes (their specialty).

After visiting Jewish Rome, we braved the long line and passed the modesty checkpoint to enter the Vatican and St. Peter's Church. The church's splendor and ornateness was quite a sight, but I could never imagine praying in such a place. We did climb to the top of the dome for some superb views of the city. Thomas and I wandered the city more and walked along the Tiber then headed to our B&B where I convinced Thomas to try a healthy dinner... only to ruin it with AMAZING gelato (mine was made from buffalo milk!!)

Although, we only got a taste of Rome, we stopped in Naples the next day. We were very lost searching for the oldest and possibly the inventor of pizza (the shop was established in 1870 and even Julia Roberts has been there). As we entered an American family told us someone had been shot up the street... so we ate our pizza quickly and made our way quickly out of Naples to Sorrento. Sorrento is a part of the Amalfi Coast and very close to Pompeii. In Pompeii, our terrific guide Silvio gave us all of the details. We also got some extra fun facts by following a group of Dutch students (Thomas translated for me :)). Pompeii was massive and VERY hot so we spent the afternoon on our balcony looking out at the mountains and eating baked gnocchi for dinner while watching a heated football/soccer match between Spain and Brazil.

Despite, being very touristy (especially with British), we loved the rocky beach in Sorrento and the English breakfast (I was so sick of espresso and croissants for breakfast by this point!). Unfortunately, we didn't have much time before it was time to go back to Rome. Since we were in a rush we stopped at McDonald's in Naples which was a cultural experience in itself (my salad came with olive oil, balsamic, and breadsticks). Plus, we met a cranky American couple who informed us that global warming was a hoax and that the US was turning into a socialist state... thank goodness, I live in my Northeast bubble! Anyways, back in Rome, we saw the Trevi fountain by night and spent the night with my Clarkie, Yelena.

In the morning, Thomas headed back to the Netherlands, and I fit in the Spanish Steps, Villa Medici, and  got one more pasta before I headed to ASIA!

My flight to Thailand was pretty pleasant although, it was quite an interesting experience stopping in Cairo (especially a midst the revolution going on). The Egyptian I sat next to on the plane made it sound like a little skirmish and just wanted to show me the pyramids from the plane (he couldn't see them by night though). I made it in one piece to Bangkok where I was reunited with my best friend Ashley over an exciting Thai dinner with some interesting dishes...

Despite the jetlag, we wasted no time and headed to Wat Pho (a major temple in Bangkok) first by train (which are air conditioned and definitely not made for tall people) then by water bus! Outside Wat Pho we tried Durian which tastes just as bad as it smells. Inside we saw tons of Buddhas including the gigantic recling Buddha. Also in Wat Pho is a massage school where we got our first full body Thai massage at the massage school there. After the temple we got haggled into taking a tuk tuk to the Golden Mount (touristy, but a good view of the city), the Standing Buddha, and were abandoned there since he took us to 2 stores where we refused to buy anything. By foot we walked to the massive and almost suffocating markets in Chinatown and Little India.

Already tired of Bangkok as most people told us, we took the train and a cab outside the city to Muang Boran. The site covers a few acres and contains replicas of all of Thailands major temples, buildings, and sights. We explored the area first by golf cart then by bike and were delighted by the tram loads of Thai children who were also learning about their country. Tired by the heat we took a nap by the pool before venturing out into Bangkok at night for some cheap shopping and a taste for their own red light district. Unfortunately it was a rough night, since adjusting to bottled water only was no easy task for me I was very dehydrated that night.

Once again we got out of Bangkok the next day to go to one of Thailand's many floating markets. We got a boat ride through the canal first with a motor boat then by paddle as vendors reached down from the sides or from other boats to sell us things. Since we didn't arrive at 6am when the boats are full of Thai people buying goods, we mostly got a lot of enjoyment watching all the tourists. Ashley and I did get to try some new strange fruits though. Next our tour bus stopped for some lunch then went to a tiger temple. The temple is run by volunteers and monks who care for the tigers and other animals (like deer, boars, and cows), but also entertain many tourists by letting them take photos with the tigers. We weren't sure if the tigers were sedated or sleepy since they sleep 15-18 hours a day. Regardless, it was AWESOME. Next, the bus took us to Kachanaburi to see the bridge over the River Kwai (built by prisoners during WWII).

Very excited to leave Bangkok, Ashley and I took a plane to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand the next morning. Our first day was very relaxed in the smaller and more manageable city. We also arrived just in time for the Sunday night market where we sampled many different foods for dinner and ended the day with a foot massage (everything is SO CHEAP here, it's easy to be luxurious). The next day we explored more temples around the city (already feeling Buddha overload) and had a fancy dinner for a whopping $10 (I'm in reverse sticker shock!)

The next day we left for a 3 day trek through the jungle!! However, I have to leave you here, but will fill you in soon with our jungle trek, elephant riding, and Thai cooking class. Tomorrow we depart on a LONG journey for Siem Reap in Cambodia. In the meantime, enjoy my photos:

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

It Took 7 Months Away, but I Finally Miss...

CLARK! And my Clarkies. It's been almost a month now that I have been traveling alone and while I really haven't been alone that much couchsurfing and meeting people at hostels and tourist spots, the idea of being in one place with my friends sounds quite appealing (although, I'm not ready to go home yet!). I have learned so much about myself, what I look for traveling (I would take an incredible view or a hike up a mountain any day over a museum), learning to be patient with non-English speakers (this will get even more challenging in Asia), and being truly open-minded to everyone I meet and casting judgments aside. Anyways, I left you in my last entry in Venice!

My first real day in Venice I took the bus in since I was staying in mainland Venice (Mestre) since it was MUCH cheaper. I was fortunate enough to be given a pass to ride the vaporetto or water buses all day too. As soon as I arrived I hopped on a boat to see Venice from the water. After quite some time wandering and getting lost which is very easy to do, I decided to take a boat to the island of Lido where there is a beach and the water is a little cleaner since it was SCORCHING hot. From Lido I returned and walked through the old Jewish Ghetto where Jewish merchants from around the world flourished and built their apartments up very high with synagogues on top. I even ran into the family that adopted me from the Cinque Terre there. After hours, of admiring the beautiful buildings, canals, and finding piazzas less packed with tourists, I returned exhausted to find I'd be sharing my room with 2 Dutch girls. The Dutch are everywhere and always so wonderful.

The next day, I woke up refreshed and headed back to Venice for the Rialto Mercato which happens every morning and is filled with tons of produce and all the Mediterranean seafood you can imagine. Then crossing the lovely Rialto bridge I went to San Marco Square which is massive and includes the Doge's Palace, the Duomo, the Campanile tower, many pigeons, and a view of the water of course. I took a lift up to the top of the Campanile for amazing views of Venice and its islands then went into the Doge's Palace where I met a couple of girls and walked around with them (the palace had fantastic artwork and the Bridge of Sighs where prisoners crossed from the courtroom over a canal to the prison cells), and finally the Basilica where I met a family from Worcester! After a little more time taking in Venice, I headed to Bologna. Overall Venice was not at all what I expected though. It was much larger, had many non-touristy areas, and simply unike anything I have ever seen before. So glad I could see it before it sinks! (Venetians need to take a few lessons from the Dutch on water management.)

Once in Bologna I met my couchsurfing host who gave me a tour of the city and went to dinner (Bologna is known for its particularly good food although my host told me most of it was meat). Although it was very challenging to communicate with my host, I loved Bologna! Two-thirds of the population are students (about 100,000 of them!) and the student atmosphere is very palpable with so much life and music all around even though it is exam time for most Italian students. Bologna is also known as the city of arches with most streets lined with them. It was a short trip, before heading to Florence, but I highly recommend it even though most guide books hardly mention the city.

In Florence, I climbed the hill to Piazza Michelangelo which has fantastic views of the city to go to my hostel/campsite next to the Piazza. I had a tent with a bed and light all to myself for three nights. I strolled through the city by night and crossed the beautiful and historic Ponte Vecchio (bridge) over the River Arno. The next day I went to the Uffizi Gallery and spent my time with 2 girls from Arizona appreciating the Medici's impressive art collection and statues (especially The Birth of Venice). Afterwards, I went to the San Lorenzo Market then took a train to a small Tuscan city, Certaldo. There, Fabrizio from couchsurfing picked me up and we drove through the Tuscan countryside to San Gigmiano another medeival Tuscan city where he gave me a private tour full of spectacular views within the ancient city walls. Plus, we stopped for award winning gelato. Then we headed back to his home city Certaldo to see its less touristy historic center on a hill. He was so knowledgable about the area and full of so many stories I couldn't believe I wasn't paying for it! That night back at the hostel I spent hours getting to know other travelers from Atlanta, Canada, and Scotland.

The next day, I had a slow start, but took a tour with my new Scottish friends, Emma and Jen to taste wine, olive oil, pecorino cheese, and balsamic vinegar (plus bread, but that was pretty crusty) in the Chianti area. We stopped at a castle, but skipped our last tasting which was outside during pouring rain (it was pretty impressive that I went 2 and half weeks in Italy without rain though). Once we were back in Florence we had an awful time trying to get back to our hostel since the piazza next to it was shooting off fireworks. Every time we tried a new path up, it felt with every police officer was being deliberately unhelpful. We finally made it though and enjoyed another delicious dinner.

This morning I caught a bus to Siena and was greeted by my Argentinian host, Santiago, and a Minnesotan also staying with him, Nicole. We walked around the city, stopped byt the Duomo which is incredibly stunning, got pizza, gelato, and my favorite espresso (marrochino which has chocolate and milk in it) at all the best places. While, I still have more of Siena to see tonight, I think it is definitely underrated. Florence may have all the big sights like palaces, gardens, and museums. But the city of Siena itself is more medeival and simply prettier. It used to be an equal rival of Florence as a major trading city, but 2/3 of the population was wiped out during the Plague and during that time it was invaded by Florence.

Tomorrow after hitting the market in Siena, I make my way to Rome to meet my boyfriend Thomas for one last week in Italy before Asia!! Ciao for now!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The #1 Downside of Traveling Alone is...

       ... a sunburned back! After so long in rainy Netherlands and mild Scotland I was not prepared for the heat of Italy. It is hot, humid, and very sunny. I can't put sunscreen on my own back and while plenty of friendly Italian men would be happy to do it, I have suffered instead. Anyways, last time I left you, I was making my way to Glasgow. After doing my last day of cleaning at the hostel, I got a ride to Fort William and "large" enough town to have a grocery store. When I wasn't sleeping on the bus, the scenery was incredible! Especially an area called Glen Coe with phenomenal mountains. That evening I arrived in Glasgow where I was staying with three students that go to the University of Glasgow. They made me a lovely dinner before heading out for a few drinks (according to them a few drinks is a novel concept, since the Scots LOVE their alcohol). But I finally got to ride in a Hackney cab!

The next day I explored the West End and unfortunately it was my first rainy day in Scotland. I walked through Kelvin Grove Park, stopped at several charity shops (they are ALL OVER), walked through the university campus, the botanical gardens, and the Kelvin Grove Museum which included a little bit of everything. That evening we attended a stand up comedy show and for only 2£ it wasn't too bad, although there was one or two comedians who I could not understand a word they said (the accent in Glasgow particularly was STRONG). The next day I saw some cathedrals, the People's Palace (a fantastic museum all about Glasgow), and through the city center. All in all, I would not exactly recommend Glasgow as a tourist attraction, being a working class city with few attractions. The people were quite friendly and according to my host, it's the only city where someone would stab you but, then hail a cab for you and point you in the direction of the hospital. Nevertheless, I made it in one piece to Milan quite late in the evening thanks to Ryanair.

My two Italian hosts were absolutely lovely and students at the university. On my first full day, I ventured on their subway to Sforza Castle and the gardens/huge park behind it. From there I took a pretty awful walking tour. The guide's English was not so good and he was very nervous. But it was free and we walked through the historic Brera neighborhood, the incredible Duomo (massive and intricate cathedral), the galleria, and finally to the church where The Last Supper is (I did not see the painting though since it is quite damaged and you have to book very far in advance). Afterwards, I met up with my hosts again for appertivo. Appertivo is like an all you can eat buffet, but for quite cheap, includes a drink, and the food is amazing. We then walked around the city by night which absolutely comes alive especially around the canals lined with bars, cafes, and desserts (we got a not so good cannoli according to my host). The very urban and fashion oriented Milan, was all right for a day, but I was ready for the next city-- Turino!

The train from Milan to Turino took me through a lot of industrial areas, but I was greeted at the train station by my next couchsurfing host. He is Colombian and doing an exchange at the polytechnical school in Turino studying environmental engineering. We had some great conversations about his interests in water management and how he wants to preserve all of Colombia's natural resources. After making lunch together I explored the city while he was in class (most Italian universities don't finish exams until July and most of their exams are completely oral!). I walked through the beautiful Roman neighborhood, the Palace Reale, the Egypt museum (it's the second largest collection after Cairo), the old Roman gate, and along the River Po. Afterwards, Jairo met me and we climbed Monte Capucini, walked to the church containing Jesus's shroud, and finally we met with his friends visiting from Columbia for another excellent appertivo. Turino was nice, but very doable in a day.

The next day I went to Genoa (where Christopher Columbus is supposedly from). Genoa is a port city with many markets and tiny streets to wander. I didn't spend much time here, although my foccacia pizza and gelato was spectacular. Early the next morning it was off to the Cinque Terre! These are 5 small coastal villages that you can either take the train between or hike short but incredible coastal paths. Today, the area is a national park and quite touristy, but for good reason. I stayed in a hostel in the middle village of Corniglia which is perched high up on a cliff. After exploring the village, I started my hike to Vernazza where I met a Texan couple who work in the oil industry (I had a great time quizzing them on all things green). I briefly wandered Vernazza before getting back on the trail to Monterosso. Both hikes took about an hour each, but I was rewarded with fresh squeexed lemonade on the trail before finishing in Monterosso which had a rocky beach to swim and suntan in. Back in Corniglia I was rewarded with pesto lasagna and obviously more gelato (the region is known for their lemons and pesto). The next day I moved to a new hostel in another village, Riomaggiore which is one big hill. Since the trails between Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Corniglia were closed I took the train to Manarola (definitely the prettiest of the villages). I tanned on some big flat rocks (and by tanned I mean burned). I was feeling quite ambitious though and climbed straight upwards from manarola to a VERY small village called Volastra. An old Italian couple was making fun of me for being so sweaty and red, but hand gestured that I should continue on to Corniglia since it was mostly flat and downwards (and terrifying since the path was on tiny ledges through hillside vineyards). Exhausted I made it back to Manarola where I had dinner with a family from Gardener, MA who I ran into earlier and adopted me for the night before catching the last train back to Riomaggiore (this was the first time I was very grateful that the trains never run on time). [I encourage you to google image it!!]

Once again, I got up early to catch the train from La Spezia, slightly below the Cinque Terre, back to Milan; however, the trains were very delayed and I missed my connection to Verona. Instead I met 2 Norwegian girls also going to Verona, but had rented a car and invited me along. They told me how beautiful their country was (especially Bergen, the 2nd biggest city), how unfriendly Norwegians are to foreigners, and how everything was SO cheap once they were out of Norway. Once in Verona, we parted ways and I met with my new host Max. Max is from a tiny town in West Texas, but was spending the year studying in Italy. By night I followed Rick Steves walking tour to see the lovely piazzas, the duomo, the Scaligero residences and castle (they are the equivalent of the Medicis in the Verona), and the Roman arena. Ending the evening with another American student studying at Montclair in NJ with some spritzes. I finished up Verona by stopping by the super touristy Juliet's balcony and touching her statue's breast for good luck in love and climbing the Pietra castle for some amazing views. Since the weather was even hotter today we spent the afternoon with some girls from Wales at a cafe. Verona, a city filled with flowery balconies was absolutely charming. But it was off to Venice on a train with no air conditioning, oy!

Since I arrived in Venice at night, I haven't really seen anything yet, but something to look forward to in my next entry! From Venice, I will be off to Bologna, Florence, and Siena. Until then, ciao!

--Unfortunately I haven't been able to upload pictures, so they will come... eventually.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Ridin OUT of Leiden

 ***I had trouble putting pictures in, so I encourage you to check out my Netherlands album here and my Scotland one here***

So I haven't been my best this past month at updating you, but let me play a little catch up now. Right after my last post, I jetted off to London which only takes about 10 minutes because of the time difference! My first 3 nights I stayed with 2 Irish girls who right away gave me crumpets and tea (with milk of course). The next day I took my favorite free walking tour and saw all the essentials including Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey (although I never went in), St. James Palace where Henry the VIII lived, and the QUEEN! She was traveling in her coach back to the palace after giving a speech. That night I saw an improv comedy show with another Clark student and was pleasantly surprised at how good it was for a free show. I'm not sure if it was their charming British accents or just British humor in general, but I loved it enough to see another show a few nights later. Since most attractions were quite expensive, well really most things in London, especially since the pound to dollar is not a pretty conversion, I went to a lot of museums which are all free. While I was there I managed to hit the National Gallery (not a huge fan), the National Portrait Gallery (absolutely amazing), the Natural History Museum (dinosaurs never get old), the Victoria and Albert Museum (probably my favorite), and the British Museum. I also hit plenty of markets like the Old Spitalfields Market with antiques and vintage items, the Borough Market which provided TONS of free samples, and the Camden Market which was MASSIVE and similar to Greenich Village in New York City. I also took a fantastic tour of London's alternative culture, graffiti and street art. We even saw one of the artists working on a wall. The street art in really incredible and so many world renowned artists come to the walls of the East End and off of Brick Lane. In addition, to seeing London from East to West, I took a day trip to Cambridge. In Cambridge, I met up with a friend from high school who goes to the university and was able to take me through all the college yards and gardens. Despite the rainy weather and the cough I developed only while I was in London, the city absolutely stole my heart. I loved how quick the Tube was, the double-decker buses, and just being in a city that once ran an empire--but now it's just full of lovable scamps =)

Nonetheless I had to get back to the Netherlands for my last few weeks. After a day or so back, my parents arrived for their week long visit. Unfortunately, they picked the coldest and rainiest week and had to push through to make sure they still saw all the quintessential Dutch spots. They loved how unbelievably friendly the Dutch were at giving directions or satisfying my mom's need to talk to everyone, although when it came to biking, she found the Dutch to be far too aggressive to stay on the road. Together we journeyed north to see Alkmaar's cheese market, do a walking tour through the very historic Hoorn, and eat dinner in Haarlem. We also took a trip to Amsterdam to see the Jewish Museum (highly recommend) and Portuguese Synagogue followed by a canal tour. I tried to get my parents to go to a coffee shop which my Dad was quite excited about, but my Mom complained about her asthma and vetoed it. Since, I mostly cook for myself, it was quite nice eating out in Leiden's restaurants. While, I was sad to see them go after a week, I was also sad to see my computer and all of my stuff go to since I am now travelling and living out of my backpack.

After my parents left I wasn't alone for long, my friend Josh came to visit next. I gave him the full Leiden tour and we journeyed to the Hague. In the Hague, we went to see the Queen's palace, Parliament, the Peace Palace, and Madurodam which is an open air museum of small scale Dutch cities and interactive videos (it was like I was studying for my Dutch Culture exam). We also took the tram to the beach outside the Hague called Schvenigen and had some delicious Indonesian food for dinner. The next day we did a walking tour of Delft, climbed the New Kirk for some incredible views, and did a tour of the factory where they make Delft Blue wares. All in all a really lovely visit and a chance to get in some more places I had yet to see.

On my final week in the Netherlands, there was still so much more for me to do. I had two exams which I did okay on...I also made it to the Rijksmuseum for a bit (the fire alarm went off and shortened our visit), but I was still able to see some Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and so many other incredible Dutch artists. I managed to stop at the Anne Frank House as well and was really touched by how well it was organized and being in the same tiny attic that Anne hid out in. I also took a trip to Leylstad to visit my friend Judith's home and family, a city that has only existed for the past 60 years since it used to be underwater until they built lots of dikes. The city also has a lovely reserve next to it with tons of birds, deer, wild horses, and a beautiful landscape. Since I started dating a Dutch guy, Thomas, I even went to see a play entirely in Dutch that he was in. It's sad that aside from the synopsis that I read beforehand, I was not able to understand a word. On my last day inthe Netherlands, I got my vaccinations for Asia, took my last exam, and went to a concert in Amsterdam with Thomas and his friends (again I have never felt so short).

Leaving was bittersweet, but I was so excited to go to Scotland! I spent my first 3 days in Edinburgh couchsurfing with 3 Lithuanian students. The city is a mix of new and old architecture and is dominated by the Edinburgh Castle looming over the city. While in Edinburgh, I took another excellent free walking tour and learned a ton about Scotland's complex history. I also climbed Calton Hill and Arthur's Seat which are mountains right in Edinburgh that provided for some spectacular views. I got my fill of Harry Potter facts too having passed by the restaurant that J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in and the cemetery that Rowling got inspiration for many names like Professor McGonagall and Tom Riddle (in London I stopped at Platform 9 3/4 and later in the Highlands I passed through Gilfinnan where Harry Potter's train went through in the movies). Edinburgh was the perfect mix of city, nature, and again terrific accents.

From Edinburgh I took a Megabus up to Inverness, one of the bigger cities in the north, but still very very small. After a stop there, I took a bus to the Invergarry Lodge where I have been spending my week. In exchange for doing the cleaning each morning, I have been able to stay at the hostel for free and explore the Highlands. On my first day I accidentally took a 6 hour hike around Loch Oich and interacted with far more people than sheep (the hills are covered in sheep, although I'm not sure if they are there to be sold, for wool, for haggis, or all of the above). Another day, I met a Dutch student hiking the Great Glen Way (from Fort William to Inverness) who was staying at my hostel. We continued on the next day together to explore Fort Augustus where I tried some fish and chips and to seek out the Loch Ness monster on Loch Ness ( I think Nessy is definitely in there!) My craziest day was when I decided to try out hitch hiking. I was trying to make my way to Fort William, but a Scottish musician picked me up and offered to take me to the coastal town of Malleig. From there I took a ferry to the Isle of Skye and was able to see the other smaller isles along the way. Once I arrived in Skye, I toured a small eco-campsite, saw some castle ruins, and walked along the coastline for quite some time before getting my next ride with an old man who facilitates marriages. I asked him how he could live out in the middle of nowhere and he told me that the last city he was in, Portree, with a population of 3,000 made him feel claustrophobic! The next ride was with a father and daughter. The daughter was only 16 and wrote and recorded her own CD (I suppose when she gets famous, I can remember the time I rode in her car). My last ride passed through some incredible scenery and another castle ruin from Kyle of Locash back to Invergarry. It was with a truck driver carrying a huge load of prawns and once I got used to the fishy smell we had a great time sharing travel stories. On my last day, I aimed to go to Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the United Kingdom, but misjudged just how far that was so instead I had a terrific hike along Loch Lochy (translating to Lake Lakey.. oy). As much as I have thoroughly enjoyed my very relaxing week in the middle of nowhere, I am ready to head down to Glasgow for 3 days!

From Glasgow I head to Italy for 3 weeks. If it wasn't for the allure of spaghetti and gelato over haggis and black pudding, leaving Scotland would be quite hard. Hopefully I'll be able to send another post out soon from there!