Archive for the ‘2018’ Category

3 Days In Iceland

Posted: December 8, 2018 in 2018, Adventures, Iceland, Travel

“It is also easy to hitchhike…I think it will be easy for you.”

This is what my couchsurfing host Marcin messaged me in response to my inquiry about how to get from the Keflavik airport in Iceland to his house just outside Reykjavik. My choices: An expensive shuttle, a local bus that was only running once every hour, or hitchhiking. It was the end of November, I’d just landed in a small snowstorm, and my local connection was suggesting hitchhiking. Well…it wouldn’t be my first time so…okay!

I walked out into the snowy Iceland evening (with warmer weather than New York, according to the pilot of my flight), through the parking lot, and towards the airport exit, figuring that would be the best spot to flag a car. I stuck out my thumb, watched a few cars go by, and then…

”Are you trying to hitchhike to Reykjavik?”

Wow! I’d been waiting maybe five minutes, and already a ride! “Yes I am!” I replied, and hopped into the back of the car, driven by a very sweet Icelandic couple just returning from a trip to NYC and Paris, where I’d just come from and where I was going. How cool!

As we drove, the couple (I don’t remember the pronunciation of their names so I will call them A and T) told me about Icelandic culture and their thoughts on New York and Paris. They couldn’t get over how many cars honk in both Paris and NYC; as A explained, in NYC the honking seemed like a way to greet fellow drivers and/or just a necessary part of commuting, while in Paris people seemed to honk for no reason. A thought it seemed rude in Paris, and just part of life in NYC. She also told me that in Iceland, honking is extremely rare; if someone honks, everyone stops and immediately thinks “Did I do something wrong?”

As we drove, A and T told me more about Icelandic culture. I learned that in Iceland, the Christmas season begins on December 11th, when the first of thirteen Santas (Yule Lads) visits each Icelandic house. Each of the thirteen has a specific quirk or interest (one is tall and lanky and cannot bend, another loves to eat Skyr – an Icelandic yogurt -, another loves candles, etc.). Each night, a Yule Lad leaves a small gift in each child’s shoe on the windowsill; if children are good they get little gifts, but if they are bad they get…a potato. A and T said the kids always seem to accept the potato as well-deserved if they’ve misbehaved, and many children decide to cook the potato so they don’t waste it. Each Santa also plays tricks; for instance, in A and T’s house the Santa who enjoys Skyr often smears Skyr on the window before leaving.

In addition to the thirteen Santas, Icelandic children learn about the parents of the Santas, mean trolls who enjoy eating children (their mother is an ogress named Grýla), and their cat, simply called the Christmas Cat. Children know that if they misbehave, they might meet the Christmas Cat and the troll parents, so they aim to behave. According to A and T, it really works!

Another Icelandic tradition is Sunlight Pancakes, which happen every year around January 21st, when the sun comes back after the darkest days of the year. On this day, families gather together to cook pancakes and celebrate the return of the sun. My host Marcin (who is Polish, not Icelandic) said that his job gives everyone a half day for Sunlight Pancakes, but another Icelandic local I met, Sveinn, said he had never heard of this tradition. Perhaps it only caught on in certain part of Iceland. 

To my surprise and gratitude, A and T generously decided to drive me all the way to Marcin’s house rather than drop me at a bus stop. I left their car with lots of advice on what to do in Reykjavik and an incredibly kind welcome to the “Land of Fire and Ice.” Icelandic people are so nice!


When I arrived at Marcin’s house, I rang the doorbell and was surprised when a Russian woman answered the door.

“Uhhh…hello. I’m couchsurfing here?”

The woman let me inside and told me no one was home, so I should make myself at home. She showed me what she said was probably going to be my room and then promptly went into her room and closed the door without a word.

For a few minutes I stood in the hallway, confused as to what to do. Was I in the right place? I’d just been in contact with Marcin from the airport…maybe I somehow got the wrong house? After standing dumbly in the hall for a few minutes, I put down my bags, then knocked on the woman’s door again to confirm tat I was in the right place.

“Yes,” she replied. “Marcin, he tell me nothing.”

Alright, well, at least I’d established that this was the right house. I asked her if she had the internet code but I don’t think she understood my question, then apologized and closed her door again. Then I remembered that I’d written down the password Marcin had given me, so I logged on and discovered that I had a message from him: He thought I would have been dropped off in downtown Reykjavik and had gone there to meet me.

Not long after, Marcin arrived and offered a cup of tea and snacks (this would continue to be a trend; Marcin is an extremely generous host when it comes to food and drink). Two other girls staying there that night – couchsurfers from Singapore – soon arrived as well, and we all got to know each other over tea and hummus. The girls had been there a few nights and were departing in the morning.

Marcin is from Poland and rents out rooms on his level of the house (in Iceland, sometimes people can have just a single floor of a multi-story house), plus one room for couchsurfers. Marcin also rents out a vacation home 30 minutes outside of Reykjavik, which I drove with him to visit on a mini tour later that evening, since he had to go clean it. Of course there wasn’t much to see in the dark, but he pointed out where I would be able to see the mountains, the ocean, etc. in the daylight. We stopped on the way to see one of the many thermal pools in Iceland, steaming with hot water and the smell of sulfur, and for a quick tour of downtown Reykjavik (including a quick stop at the Sun Voyager, pictured below). I also met his other roommates: Jacob (pronounced Ya-Kob) another Pole, and Anastasios, from Greece. As I learned from Jacob, after native-born Icelandic people, Poles are the largest ethnic group in Iceland (and this is common worldwide? Jacob said there are more Poles living abroad than in their mother country, with the largest population in Chicago).

That night I didn’t stay up too late; I had arranged to join a carpool with some Canadians the next day and was going to have to wake up at 5 AM to join them (eek!).

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Day 2: Downtown Reykjavik, Thermal Swimming Pool

5 AM arrived far too quickly and I begrudgingly woke up to check my messages on couchsurfing…nothing. The Canadians were supposed to land at 4 AM, so maybe they didn’t have service yet? Over the next 45 minutes I continued to check my messages, until finally I got word that they landed late because of a flight delay and were heading to get the rental car. Then they would pick me up around 7:30 AM to head out. When 7:30 arrived I headed downstairs to wait for the pickup, only to receive a message after 40 minutes that they had too much jetlag and were heading to their hotel to sleep. Ummm…darnit? I’d turned down a couple other rideshare options for exploring the area and now it was too late to join another, so I went back to sleep very disappointed with this turn of events.

A couple hours later I woke up and had late breakfast with Marcin, deciding what to do with my day. Marcin suggested renting a car on my own, but gas is extremely expensive in Iceland and this didn’t seem like a sensible option without other travelers. I searched on couchsurfing again, looking for travelers who might want to carpool, and, by chance came across a very enticing event post: A local Icelandic photographer was taking his Jeep off-roading on Saturday to take some photos and he was offering rides to anyone who wanted to come in exchange for gas money. I sent a message, learned that he had one spot left, and suddenly felt much better about being able to explore.

That afternoon I made the most of the half day I had left by going to downtown Reykjjavik to visit the Perlan, a museum A and T had recommended. The museum is about the history of Iceland’s natural wonders (glaciers, volcanoes, ice caves) as well as the animals who inhabit the place and the people who settled there. I really enjoyed this museum (though not as much as Te Papa…that place was awesome). One highlight of the museum is a man-made ice cave replicating the largest ice cave in Iceland. You can only visit ice caves in Iceland with a guide, so this was a nice alternative on my short, budget-friendly trip. My favorite part of the museum however, was the section on climate change and how it affects glaciers. Here are some facts I learned during my visit:

  • Because of the volcanoes beneath, Icelandic glaciers are warm-based, around ten degrees Celsius.
  • Icelandic glaciers have black lines in them, which come from volcano ash. Just like you can use the rings on a tree to figure out its age, you can use the lines inside a glacier ice cave to trace eruptions.
  • The oldest eruption traced is estimated to be 1100 years old.
  • It is estimated that in 150-200 years, glaciers will be completely gone from Iceland because they are now melting faster than they grow.
  • Have you ever wondered why some ice is whiter than others? It’s because of UV radiation. More sun = more UV rays = more white.
  • Glacier lagoons (also very common in Iceland) form from glacier ice that melts and “calves,” breaking off into the water.
  • The temperature of the planet remained consistent for 100s of years until the Industrial Revolution in the 1850s, at which time the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere increased dramatically.
  • It is estimated that puffins will disappear from the south coast of Iceland to migrate to colder climates by 2020 (however, later when I told this to Sveinn, he said that he has heard differently and doesn’t think this will be the case quite so soon).
  • Shrinking glaciers exert less pressure on the earth’s crust, which will result in more volcanic activity by 2080.
  • There are over 400 glaciers in Iceland, covering about 10% of the country.
  • There are five types of glaciers found in Iceland, such as the cirque glaciers, formed in a bowl-shaped depression on high mountain slopes.
  • Many are located in eastern Iceland.
  • There are many living creatures on glaciers, such as:
    • Water bears: One of the most resilient animals on Earth, which feed on organic debris algae, plant cells, bacteria, and invertebrates.
    • Snow algae: Produce energy that supplies life to other forms such as water bears and glacial fleas. Snow algae grow in the water film of snow grains and their red pigment produces “blood snow.”
    • Glacier mice: Small stones completely covered with moss, typically up to 10 cm in diameter, found on the “snout” of some glaciers.
    • Glacial fleas: Often appear in large groups of dark hopping bodies during the glacial melting season.
    • Viruses: Active viruses can be preserved in ice for hundreds of thousands of years. When the glaciers melt, what will happen to the viruses that might be dormant inside the ice?
  • Glaciers exist in polar regions and in the highest mountains of every continent except Australia.

At the museum I also learned more about the various Christmas creatures A and T had told me about. For instance, the Christmas Cat, whose name is Jolakotturinn, is of Norwegian origin. Here are some photos from the museum: 

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After the Perlan I took the free shuttle to the Harpa, Reykjavik’s concert hall. The building is quite impressive, with five floors for concerts, comedy shows, and other events. I picked up my ticktets for Saturday evening’s concert, a celebration of 100 years of Icelandic independence, and learned that although the concert was free with reservation, no more tickets were available (I reserved mine weeks ago). I also learned that while there was no dress code, I should dress a bit nice because kings and queens would be present! (I didn’t ask from where but I’m assuming Denmark, which used to reign over Iceland).

Next, I walked from the Harpa along the waterfront to Hlemmur Matholl, a food hall I’d read about on another travel blog. I had the impression that you could get free samples of various Icelandic foods before deciding what to buy, but when I arrived I discovered this was not the case. I ordered a nice but pricey vegetable soup with bread and fresh basil and spent a happy evening enjoying my soup and listening to everyone speaking Icelandic around me.

After eating, I walked another 20 minutes to Laugardalslaug, Iceland’s largest thermal swimming pool. Swimming pools are extremely common in Iceland; even in the middle of winter the pools are crowded with people enjoying the steamy water under the open sky. Laugardalslaug is actually made up of multiple swimming pools; I visited the Olympic-sized outdoor swimming pool for laps, a large “hot pot” (like a hot tub but larger), another hot pot designed for people to lay down in, and an ice bath to finish my experience. There were four other hot pots I didn’t visit, plus a large area for water volleyball, another with a giant slide, and a huge indoor pool. Amazing!

Here are some facts I learned about Icelandic swimming pools:

  • There are 170 swimming pools in Iceland, the majority of which are heating with geothermal water
  • The oldest pool is Snorralaug in Reykjavik
  • The first hot pot opened in 1962 in Vesturbaejarlaug.
  • Icelandic children begin to learn to swim at age 6.
  • In 2000, each Reykjavik resident went swimming an average of 15 times.
  • A medium pool uses as much hot water annually as 80-100 single family houses.

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After the pool I walked back to Marcin’s, and along the way it occurred to me that no one locks up their bikes in Iceland. Without fail, every bike I saw was just lying innocently on the front lawn, or against the fence, or propped up against its owner’s house. If only I could do that in NY!

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Day 3: Off-Road Couchsurfing!

The next morning I ate a quick breakfast before Sveinn arrived for our off-road adventure. I met the three other couchsurfers joining: Theresa from Austria, Maruša from Slovenia (working as an au pair in Iceland), and Sridhar from India/US. As we drove we got to know one another and shared information from our cultures. Did you know that in Slovenia there are three Santas? The first is Miklavz (St. Nicholas), who arrives December 5th (the eve of St. Nicholas’ feast day in Catholicism) and brings gifts (he is the only one of the three to bring gifts). Next is Father Christmas on Dec. 24th, followed by Dedek Mraz (Grandfather Frost) to wrap up the year. I also learned about Bolludagur, a day when Icelandic people eat a special cream-filled bun; if you manage to spank your parents in the morning, they have to buy you a bun!

Amidst the conversation, Sveinn expertly maneuvered the very off-road territory. As we learned, Sveinn is not only extremely knowledgeable about his country and its nature, but also loves to share it with couchsurfers. Almost every weekend since 2014, he has gone out on photography expeditions, taking couchsurfers along to experience the Icelandic countryside. As we forged rivers and drove over rocky terrain I never once questioned my choice to join on this adventure; Sveinn puts safety first and made sure to explain to us every choice he made as we drove, even when he had to get out and check the depth of a river before we crossed it!

Throughout the journey we visited:

  • An unmarked road that had some awesome views
  • Hvitserkur (“White Long Shirt”): A waterfall which shares its name with the nearby “Elephant Rock,” also known as “The Troll of Northwest Iceland.” While I didn’t get to see this petrified troll, the waterfall, which is sometimes mistakenly called Eiriksfoss, was beautiful, with ice cascading down with the water. Sveinn mentioned that not many people visit this waterfall and that there isn’t much information online about it; based on my Google searching for this blog, I see that he’s right!
  • Krauma: The newest manmade hot spring, just one year old.
  • Hraunfossar (“Lava Falls”) and Barnafoss (“Children’s Watefall”): Hraunfossar consists of various creeks and cascades streaming out of petrified lava while nearby at Barnafoss, according to legend, an Icelandic widow lost her two children when they fell off a stone archway and drowned on Christmas Day. According to the story, she destroyed the arch so others would not suffer the same fate.
  • Lambarfoss: Another waterfall, next to the Lamba river. We visited this one as the sun was setting.

I’ll post my photos below, but for some professional photos of each area (and many other parts of Iceland), I recommend following Sveinn on Facebook or Instagram: https://www.facebook.com/sveinn71 (shared with his permission).

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As the sun set, we decided to take our chances with the somewhat-favorable Northern Lights forecast in the hopes of spotting the dancing green glow. I had to miss the concert in order to chase the lights, but if I went it would have meant causing the whole group to miss the chance to see the lights if we drove back to Reykjavik and, well, I wanted to see the lights too!

We found a spot to wait in Sveinn’s Jeep and jammed out to some music (we discovered that many of us in the car are fans of metal bands like Nightwish and punk rock bands like Rise Against – awesome!). Then..the lights! At first there wasn’t much to see, just some slightly green-tinted cloudlike objects amidst the actual clouds. However, after we drove a bit to try to get a better view, the green became more apparent (as did the wind…holy moly…). At their brightest the Lights weren’t incredibly bright, but we could see them dance, which was pretty cool. Sveinn also set up a long exposure on his camera and then we could really see them…amazing to think that something so green on camera was only dully there with the naked eye. Both Sveinn and Maruša confirmed that sometimes you can see the Lights as vividly as they look on camera with your own eye, but with some cloud cover that night we had to settle for a duller image. Still cool to see! That night I also saw some wild Icelandic horses and discovered that what we call “Cooler Ranch” Doritos in the US are “Cool American” in Iceland. 

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After the lights, we all returned to our respective resting places and I told Marcin and his roommates about my adventures while we all shared some wine, a nice end to my Iceland adventure.

Day 4: Departure

The following morning I slept in, knowing I wasn’t going to have time to do much of anything other than go for a quick jog and pack up. I couldn’t hitchhike to the airport so I opted for the public bus (significantly cheaper than the airport shuttle bus). It was a longer ride than the shuttle, but the views along the way were great! I arrived at the airport, went through security, and flew home. Since I was gaining a day as I flew, I flew from darkness into a sunrise, as you can see in these photos: 

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This little trip to Iceland felt like a bit of a tease; I saw a tiny bit of the country, but there is certainly more to see. I would like to return in warmer weather, bring more of my own food (food in Iceland is very expensive), and meet up with Sveinn for another adventure. Þakka þér fyrir Sveinn, Marcin, and everyone else I met on this trip – you made my short Icelandic adventure a good one, and I hope I can return to see more of this beautiful country.

Stay tuned for another, less personal entry on general tips for traveling in Iceland on a budget. As always, thanks for reading!

 

“It’s because you are not a tourist, you are a traveler.”

These are the words my friend Charles said to me, quite matter-of-fact, when I was describing the things I want to do/am doing in Paris, and the things that bother me about fellow visitors I meet, cameras in hand, who stop at each renowned Parisian landmark for five minutes, take their photos, and move on, another check mark added to their touring list. Ugh.

Day 1: Arrival

I am happy to report that my time in Paris has been quite different than the usual foreigner experience, or at least I’d like to think so. Upon arrival at the airport, I found myself a little confused as to where to find the correct bus, so I stopped to ask directions, pulling out my rusty French vocabulary and realizing I’d forgotten quite a bit. To my surprise I was even mixing French with Dutch, a language I’ve been casually studying over the past few months (yes, it’s because of all the Flemish I experienced in NZ, for those who followed by travels there) but which I am by no means close to even beginner-level in, and, even more surprising, mixing French with American Sign Language. Quel dommage!

After locating the correct area, I bought a ticket and eventually boarded a bus traveling toward Bastille, at the heart of Paris, where my friend Solène works. I was arriving midday, so she had kindly suggested I drop my bags with her and explore a bit before she ended work. Solène is one of the couchsurfers I met on the Big Island of Hawaii; for those who followed that adventure, she is the one I met with our other couchsurfing friend Trevor to backpack into Waimanu Valley, then we three proceeded to spend most our time on Big Island traveling together.

I was thrilled to see Solène again, this time in her own city. We said hello and she took my bags to her office while I went off to explore the surrounding area. First, I walked along Roulee Verte Rene-Dumont, an above-ground park quite like the Highline in NYC. I strolled along for quite awhile, stopping to admire the views or catch a wisp of French conversation on the cloudy, brisk November afternoon. Here are some photos from the walk:

Next, I reversed direction and followed Solène’s advice to head to Bastille and the city center. I could have explored, but instead I wanted to soak up more conversation and get some work done (I am once again teaching online while traveling), so I sought out a French cafe. To my disappointment, aside from one expensive cafe, the only one I found was…Starbucks. It seemed so wrong to make my first stop in Paris this American chain, but time was a-wasting, so I ordered a tea (in French, bien sur) and settled in for some grading and eavesdropping.

After some time, I headed back out to meet Solène as she finished work. We stopped to buy a baguette, then rode the Metro to her apartment on the southeast side of Paris. It’s amazing how similar the Paris metro is to that of NY; I found the system to be a slightly smaller, slightly less rushed version of NYC, with tiny differences. For instance, there are folding seats near the doorways so that rush hour patrons can choose to sit or stand depending how much space is needed.

At Solène’s apartment we caught up while preparing a delicious dinner – a hearty vegetable stew baked with cheese on top – and an accompanying apple cake for dessert. I met Solene’s roommate Amèlie and we all enjoyed a nice dinner rich with broken conversation in two languages. Amazing!

Day 2: Jetlag, Catacombs, Circus

The following morning, Solène woke early to go to work and I slept in. The plan was to spend a few hours working online in the morning and then meet my friend Marie-Nöelle for lunch but alas, jetlag had other plans. Imagine my great surprise when I woke to see the hour of 12:10 PM on the clock! Zut!

Having missed my chance for lunch with M-N, I spent the early afternoon working. That night Solène and I planned to attend a class at her circus school, so I knew that by the time I left her apartment I would only have time for one activity before heading to meet her. I chose the Catacombs of Paris, checked the route, and left the apartment.

Or…did I? To add to my series of unfortunate events, I discovered that I did not actually know how to exit Solène’s building. Why wouldn’t the front door open?? Eventually I figured out that there was a button I needed to press, which was hiding in plain sight a couple feet from the door. These buttons would prove to be my enemy over the next couple of days; it took me quite awhile to remember to look for one before attempting to exit any door!

Having finally found my way out the door, I confidently walked to what I thought was the exit but…why won’t this gate open?!?! Once again I found myself baffled; I walked all around the complex attempting to find the exit, wondering what to do if I was indeed stuck (this didn’t worry me too much though; I can always benefit from extra time to work online). To my great relief a woman was exiting Solène’s building just as I was attempting to figure out how to get back inside, so I haltingly asked her how to exit the complex. “Ah, suivez-moi!” She instructed as she walked toward the same gate I had tried. And…she pushed another silver button. Darn these buttons!! “Uhh…et maintenant je cherche le metro,” I said as we exited the complex. The woman kindly showed me the giant M not too far in front of us, and I thanked her profusely before setting off for the train.

Once inside the station, everything was much easier. I am continuously grateful to have so much experience with the NYC subway system; it makes every other system seem like cake. I rode the train confidently to the Catacombs, successfully asked for directions in French at my transfer, exited, and walked in the direction of the sign for the building. I marveled at a long line I saw nearby, wondering what all those people were waiting for, and walked all around the area before realizing that in fact, that line was for the Catacombs! I walked back up and asked the two guys at the back of the line if it was indeed the correct line, and they responded that it was.

Over the next 60 minutes I got to know these two guys, Joakim and Kristian, as well as their friend Sarah, who arrived to meet them just a couple minutes after me. We discovered that we are all couchsurfers; Kristian and Joakim are from Norway, and Sarah was a young French woman who had just moved to Paris this past summer. Joakim, “the snail guy,” as he called himself, was in Paris to sell Norwegian snails and sea urchins. As I learned, the market for snails and sea urchins is suffering right now, and he had to expand his business circle to include not only Normandie, where he normally goes, but also Paris. Joakim explained that the French have been reselling Norwegian snails as “French,” which is hurting the Norwegian market and the pride of Norwegian fishermen. Joakim thinks it’s very important to know the origin of the snails, so he is not happy about what is happening within the business right now.

The hour-long wait flew by as I chatted with my new couchsurfing acquaintances. I learned that Sarah, like myself, had been considering volunteering at La Ferme du Bonheur, where I was headed the following Sunday. Joakim also invited us all to a party he was having at his apartment the following evening. Cool!

Eventually, we entered the catacombs and were able to explore. I had no idea what to expect and at first, just saw hallway after hallway like this:

Cool, but what were we heading to? Finally, we entered an area with a sign that read “L’Empire de la Mort” which translates literally as “The Empire of the Dead.” We all gasped as we entered, coming across walls and walls and walls like this:

As we learned from the signs, and with Sarah’s help translating some of the words, the catacombs consist of thousands of bones from the bodies of French inhabitants who were once buried in one or another cemetery, then dug up and systematically stacked to create the walls of bone that fill the catacombs. I had no idea!

The catacombs are HUGE – after hall after hall after hall of bones, learning bits of history along the way, we ascended back to ground level and left the building, feeling a bit disoriented as we discovered that we were multiple blocks away from where we began. Sadly, it was at this time that I bid adieu to my catacomb buddies. They were off to grab some dinner, while I was off to the circus!

A short train ride later, I arrived at Cirque Electrique, where Solène takes her aerial lessons. We happened to arrive at the same time so she led the way inside, I filled out a form, and we prepared for the lesson. This is a true circus school – the aerial students learn not only how to do tricks on ribbons and hoops, but also real trapezes – while the acrobat students practice handstands, cartwheels, and flips on the mats, all under a giant circus tent. I opted for the acrobatics class, so after extensive group warm-ups together we parted ways and joined with our respective instructors. I was the only English-speaker in the group, but as I discovered, you can absolutely take an acrobatics class without speaking the same language – ça marche!

I loved this experience – I have never been able to do a handstand, yet alone a cartwheel, and through this class I actually improved quite a bit! There were two other beginners that night, so we worked on the basics while the other students flipped all over the place. Meanwhile, just a couple feet to our side the aerial students climbed ropes, ribbons, and displayed daring acts on the trapeze. Trop cool!

Solène and I left the circus very content; it was a great experience and I hope I can learn more when I return to NY. I work at a circus camp for kids in the summer as the music teacher; it will be cool to be able to maybe show off some acrobatics skills when I return to circus camp next year! 🙂

Day 3: Lots of Walking

The following day, I woke earlier (take that, jetlag!) and was able to work a bit in the morning before departing for adventures. First stop: Lunch with Marie-Nöelle!

Unlike everyone else I was to reunite with in Paris this week, Marie-Nöelle is not someone I know from couchsurfing. Instead, she is a fellow vibraphone enthusiast! We met virtually on the incredible vibraphone forum, http://www.vibesworkshop.com, and became friendly, since we are two of the few women on the site. Until this moment we had never met in person, but as soon as I arrived at her job I felt as if I was meeting an old friend. Marie-Nöelle works at an institution for the blind and I found her behind the counter selling products. Interestingly, what I thought would be a normal Friday in Paris was anything but; Black Friday is popular in Paris and Marie-Nöelle was extremely busy! She did have time for lunch, so we enjoyed a nice meal at a nearby restaurant (my first meal out in Paris) and I tried a French specialty, chestnut cake.

After lunch, I parted ways with Marie-Nöelle and proceed to walk all around Paris, first visiting Les Invalides, then walking along the Seine River to the Eiffel Tower. I did NOT want to be a tourist when visiting this gorgeous architectural structure, so I found a place to sit and gaze at the structure for the next 45 minutes, soaking in the tiny details, the names of the architects carved into the building, the rust, the angles, etc. I was continuously baffled by the tourists who kept appearing, staying for a couple minutes to snap selfies, barely looking at the building itself, and then moving on. I just don’t understand this…how can you say you’ve really seen a thing if you snap a photo and leave?! I did take some photos as well, but I like to think that because I stayed to observe, my experience was genuine.

When the November chill became too much to handle, I left my perch near the tower and walked along the Seine, planning to walk all the way to Notre Dame. However, the cold got the better of me and I sought the metro. Zut! I took the short trip to Notre Dame and walked around the area, taking in the beautiful, old architectural masterpieces standing guard over the people passing by. Under the glow of the evening streetlights I strolled all around, taking my time to observe each ancient structure. Eventually I made my way to Notre Dame and was immediately disgusted by the huge number of tourists taking a single selfie (or ten) before moving on. Really…how can you appreciate a place in this way?!

Ignoring the sea of selfie enthusiasts I found another perch from which I could sit and stare at the grandeur of this building, thinking about what it might have been like to live during the time it was built; surely I would not have been allowed to enter. In this century however, I could indeed enter, and so I did. Once again I was disgusted by the number of people whose primary goal was to take a photo and leave, hardly even bothering to look around as they made a quick tour of the cathedral, putting hats back on their heads as soon as they passed the security guard who asked them to remove them. I have to say, all of this, combined with the fact that inside Notre Dame there are brightly-lit coin machines for souvenirs as well as a gift shop, was extremely off-putting to me.

I left Notre Dame very disappointed and proceeded to walk through the Latin quarter hoping to find something to lift my spirits. As I walked, I noticed a beautiful church with an open door, so I followed the sounds of an organ and entered into a much less touristy, equally ancient structure. I wandered around a bit and then sat down, choosing to spend half an hour observing the architecture, listening to the organ, and reflecting on my trip and life. Merçi Saint Severin for the beautiful retreat.

I left Saint-Severin feeling much better and continued my stroll, which would eventually lead to a little restaurant where I was meeting Solene and our couchsurfing friend Theresa for dinner and music. As I strolled, a shop caught my eye, and I entered to find walls and walls of board games all in French. Heaven! I spent a happy twenty minutes picking up game after game and reading the instructions in French, tempted to buy everything but knowing I would not. What a fun place to find!

Next, I strolled over to the Pantheon to observe more grand architecture, then continued my journey to meet Solène, Theresa, and her bf. Theresa is a German girl whom Solène and I (and Trevor) traveled with on the Big Island of Hawaii. Theresa arrived the day I was leaving, so ironically we were now getting to spend more time on this night in Paris than we had in Hawaii! She was in town to visit her boyfriend (who she also met in Hawaii, but who lives in Paris), and that night we listened to flamenco music over drinks, then stopped at a tiny quiche shop for dinner. J’adore le quiche!

Day 4: Cité de la Musique

Saturday, my initial plan was to wake up early and catch a train to Normandie to visit two of my couchsurfing friends, Fanny and Nicolas. However, Fanny’s daughter was sick and I didn’t want to cause her any extra stress, so I opted to remain in Paris. I spent the first half of the day working online (I am constantly behind when working online!), then had a lovely homemade lunch that Solène prepared. It was a special au gratin dish that her region is known for, with toasted baguette with goat cheese and honey.

Afterward I said “à plus tard” to Solène for a few days and headed out to visit my friend Charles for the weekend.

I have hosted dozens of couchsurfers over the years, but Charles remains one of my favorites. A jazz accordionist, Charles first came to NYC three years ago when we agreed that he could crash at my place only if we played a house concert together. We met three hours before the concert, jammed on some tunes, and then performed for my friends. A great success! Charles returned again a year and a half ago (with another house concert), and now I was getting to visit him on his home turf. So cool!

Charles lives very close to the Cité de la Musique, so before going to Charles’ apartment I decided to spend the afternoon at the music museum (which is free for music students – hooray!). My goodness…that museum might be my favorite place in Paris. Everywhere I turned, I found myself gasping in amazement at the instruments on display: Stradivarius violins from the 1600s, timpani from various ages that clearly showed the progression of percussive innovations (tuning pegs, the pedal, the transition from animal hide to synthetic drum heads etc.), the very first Moog synthesizer, a ton of instruments invented by Adolphe Sax, a glass harmonica (I’ve never seen one!), a siren from Varese’s personal collection, and even the octobasse, the largest upright bass in the world. Plus, there was a clarinetist performing on the 18th century floor, and I happened to stop by just when he was giving a performance/presentation to a school group. Yay!

Solène once told me that to her, Paris is much different than NYC because of all the centuries of history so present. I understood her point, but I didn’t fully feel it until I was at this museum, seeing instruments from so long ago. I stayed in this museum for three hours, only leaving because the place was closing. What a cool experience – if you are into music history you must visit La Musée de la Musique!

Here are some facts I learned at the museum, followed by photos:

  • The mandolin is traditionall the “favorite” instrument for serenades
  • Adolphe Sax (inventor of not only the saxophone but also many other interesting instruments) was born in Belgium and moved to Paris in 1839 to participate in a competition for the renewal of military music
  • The octobasse, the largest upright bass, is from Quebec (or…there is one in Quebec? I didn’t quite understand everything the security guard told me). You use a footstool to play it.
  • The marimba only became a chromatic instrument at the end of the 19th century.

After the museum I made my way through the rest of “La Villette” to Charles’ apartment, following the series of photos he’d sent to help me find my way through the maze necessary to find his door. It was a joyous greeting when he opened the door, and I think we talked nonstop for the next few hours, cooking/eating dinner and catching up on life.

That evening Charles suggested we go to a nearby jazz club to catch whatever band was playing that night. What a cool place – the club is built in an old railway station, and all the concerts there are free. We entered the building and were immediately inside what clearly had once been a station lobby, now packed with people with beers rather than suitcases in hand, waiting for music rather than trains. The place was extremely crowded and I could hardly see, so Charles suggested we move to the side so I could stand on the window ledge. Bon idée!

From there, as the musicians began to play, I was surprised to see a very familiar instrument on the stage – a vibraphone! Incroyable!!! The band that evening was called Velvet Jungle, and they were amazing! Along with Jim Hart on vibes, there was Daniel Erdmann, who Charles said is one of the drummers in France who has studied African rhythms most extensively (he was playing drums and looping everything – super cool!), Theo Ceccacldi, a violinist who also had a synthesizer so that his violin could produce other sounds (Charles knows him personally and said he has a ton of cool projects), and sax player Cyril Atef. The group’s style can probably be described as fusion jazz, and they certainly rocked that house! After the second set I went up to talk to Jim Hart and we proceeded to have a super geeky vibraphone conversation, talking technicalities, comparing who we knew (the vibes world is small, and sure enough we have mutual connections), etc. He gave me one of his CDs for free and now we are FB friends – next time he is playing in NY I will definitely go to his concert!

Day 5: La Ferme du Bonheur

The next day I visited the special exhibition at Cité de la Musique, all about musical films. This wa odd to attend; when I walked in the first thing I saw was a room dedicated to Singin’ In The Rain, complete with some information on the musical and, oddly, a photo of RadioCity. The rest of the exhibition was similar, with a little information about various American musicals and lots of photos from NYC. I didn’t really enjoy the exhibit, except for a small area where I took a virtual tap dane lesson with Fabien Ruiz, a French tap dancer. I think I was just relieved to find something in French rather than English!

After the exhibit I stopped to watch a short performance about Japanese tea, then caught the metro and made my way toward Nanterre, just outside Paris, where I was volunteering for the afternoon at a place called La Ferme du Bonheur (the Happiness Farm). This farm is really cool – it doubles as an urban farm and an arts venue, featuring music, poetry, and dance performances regularly. I knew I was getting close to the farm when I saw a man herding a bunch of goats on the outskirts of the University of Nanterre campus. What an odd sight!

When I arrived at the farm, I joined a group of people drinking mint tea and listening to a very stereotypical French man speak. To paint the photo, he was tall and lanky, wearing a red turtleneck sweater, a large black beret, and casuallly smoking a cigarette as he spoke. I learmed that he was Roger des Prés, the ower of the farm. I am sad to say I didn’t understand too much of what he said, but I listened with the rest of the group and then followed them all back across part of the university campus to get to the farm fields (for more info on the farm and Roger, click here). We were quite a sight: Around 15 people pushing wheelbarrows, walking alongside the goat herd and one pig named Sylvie. C’était tellement drole. 🙂

When we approached the farm, Roger spoke to us some more about the farm and we saw the various “buildings;” an old green bus that had been converted into a toolshed, a large tent where we could put our bags, a yurt, where WWOOFers and other volunteers slept, and a wooden structure with a firepit inside. Again I didn’t understand everything, but I did understand that we were going to break up into two groups: Team Plant and Team Pig. Team Plant would be planting (naturallly), and Team Pig would be creating a trench and filling it with rocks, to create a sort of pen near where Sylvie eats her food. I joined Team Pig and followed the group to the area, again only half understanding what to do but following the example of those around me.

My time at the farm was great. It felt like Alma, Quebec, where I once participated in a French immmersion program in which no one spoke English. Here, I encountered the same situation; if I didn’t understand something, my work partners described it with other words in French rather than switching to English. This was really great for helping to improve my vocabulary and understanding of the French language. Plus, les caillou (the rocks) at the farm were really interesting, and one of the volunteers even found a fossil!

After we finished working, we all gathered near the fire to share baguette with homemade jam, farm-grown oranges, roasted chestnuts, and of course the delicious mint tea the farm seems to love. At this time I got to know Ilaria, an Italian woman living in Paris who is originally from just outside of Venice. Her parents were visiting for the weekend and they were alll volunteering at the farm that day, meaning that I was not the only non-native francophone in the group. I’m glad I got to meet them and the other people I worked with that day; a great group all around.

When I returned chez Charles that evening we were both tired and decided to forego the jam session we’d planned to go to. Instead, we spent the evening wathing Kirikou, a popular French children’s program (mention this name to any twenty-something adult in France and, as I discovered time and again, they will automatically begin singing the theme song “Kirikou n’est pas grand…”). Kirikou is a really interesting show; it is the story of a tiny but very wise little baby in an African village who is always solving the probems of the villagers and saving them from the evil sorceress who lives nearby. All the voice actors in the show are French Africans and it seems to be an effective portrayal of francophone Africa. I don’t think this show would have been allowed to air in the US, because none of the women in the village wear shirts, but this was totally acceptable for French children’s television. We are a bit behind, perhaps?

It was great to watch this show completely in French, with Charles pausing it to translate things for me along the way. He also insisted we had to sing the theme song every time it came up so I could practice more French. Merçi Charles! 🙂

Day 5: Biking Montmartre

On Monday, Charles and I embarked on a bicycle adventure!!! Charles has a spare bike that had been abandoned near his building, so we got to ride all along the riverside together and up to Montmartre. Along the way we stopped to see a cool barge and the only working drawbridge left in France, then eventually carried our bikes up a million stairs to get to Montmartre. There, we stared at the building for a long time and then went inside, choosing the less-touristy route and taking a long time to walk through the grand church. If you go inside, I think it is most interesting to look up at the ceiling and see the dome, and to imagine how incredible it is that this building form came from someone (or, multiple someones)’s imagination. What is the equivalent of this kind of genuis today? Back then, so much effort and innovation came out of religous movements, but what is the equivalent innovation today? Perhaps technology, and/or science?

After spending a good hour at Montmartre, Charles and I walked down the cobblestone streets past the touristy section to a completlely empty street to reach a small and seemingly rarely-visted museum. La musée de Montmartre is very interesting, and I recommend that anyone interested in escaping tourism and experiencing some of the history and charm of Montmartre stop there. We learned about Le Lapin Agile, the area’s oldest cabaret (and amazngly still open today), where creative types such as Picasso, Modigliano, Jacob, and Carco hung out. Across from the cabaret is the area’s oldest vineyard, opened in 1932. We also learned about the “tragic trio” of artists who lived in the house we were visiting (which is now part of the museum) and of various other artists who called Montmartre home. All in all, the tiny museum was charming and well worth the visit.

After the museum, we biked back to Charles’ place for a late lunch, and then sadly we said goodbye; Charles had a bunch of music-related commitments and I had an invitation from Marie-Nöelle to visit her house in the suburbs of Paris, so our time had sadly come to an end. I’m so happy I got to see Charles, and I look forward to reuniting again when he will be touring with a band in the US in late 2019/early 2020. We seem to have created a tradition of meeting every year and a half, and I hope we keep it up!

Day 5.5 + 6: Suburbs of Paris

Genevieve du Bois, which means Genevieve of the Woods, is an area outside of Paris that was once a great forest (hence the name). Marie-Nöelle picked me up from the train station there and we drove to her little house, situated in a very charming area. Upon opening the front door the first thing I saw in front of me was M-N’s vibraphone, just waiting to be played. That evening I met Florien, M-N’s son and a musician himself, and Bruno, her husband. Together we made and ate pizza and apple tart and had a very interesting conversation, with Florien practicing his English, me answering by practicing my French, and Marie-Nöelle interjecting when the words didn’t quite translate from me to Florien, and translating for Bruno, who only speaks French. Trop cool exchange of language.

After dinner Florien got out his guitar and a keyboard for M-N and we had a little jam session. Ahhhh, how happy I was to get to play a vibraphone in France!

The following morning, Florien “was sick” and stayed home from school so we could continue language and music exchange. That afternoon I was lucky to experience my first (and only) sunny day in France; every other day had been overcast, foggy, or rainy. We took advantage of the weather by having a “faire du tour” of the neighborhood. Marie-Noelle is a history buff and was able to point out a great number of interesting things about each area, but my favorite part was hiking through the woods.

Afterward, we returned chez M-N for lunch, and Florien proudly showed off the motorbike he has been building with his dad in the shed. M-N also shared her rich and well-researched family history with me, which was quite interesting and impressive. Soon after, my short visit in the French suburbs came to a close and I returned to Paris. Merçi Marie-Nöelle and family for welcoming me so generously; I hope we can meet again!

Back in Paris, I met another couchsurfing friend, Nolwenn, for dinner and my first French crêpe. Nolwenn is from Brest, the region in Brittany known for inventing the crêpe, and she is very proud of this fact. When she stayed with me in NY she insisted that we should make crêpes together, and now here in Paris she made sure that my first Parisian crêpe experience was a good one. Sadly our time together was short; I had not known she had moved to Paris when I was planning my trip and our schedules didn’t completely match, but I’m glad we at least got to meet for dinner before I returned chez Solène.

Day 7: Klimt, Architecture, Opera

Wednesday was my final ful day in Paris and, happily, one that Solène had off from work! We got to spend the whole day together, which was so nice. Solène bought some special French treats for breakfast: Pain du raisin and tarte du pomme, plus the usual baguette with butter, jam, and honey. Not much fruit and veggies in the typical French meal!

After breakfast, our adventures began. First stop: Atelier des Lumieres for an interactive exhibit on the work of Gustav Klimt. Remember when I wrote about attending the Leonard Cohen exhibit in Montreal? This was similar, except more focused on art than music. Upon entering, we found ourselves in a huge room full of people, with the art of Klimt (and some others) portrayed on the walls and floor. The exhibit consisted of a 25-minute show which took two years to create, complete with music composed to accompany the virtual, immersive display of art. It’s hard to explain what this looked liked in person, but the images on the floor and walls kept changing. Here are some photos to demonstrate:

Solène and I decided to sit through the whole show twice,once from the floor and once from the balcony, then stayed a little longer to learn more about Klimt and the other artists whose work was included in the exhibition. There was no actual artwork in the building at that time, but nonetheless through the experience I was able to get a sense of what Klimt is known for.

One funny thing: The clock struck noon while we were at the exhibit, and the room almost instantly seemed to empty out. As Solène explained, French people are very serious about taking a pause for lunch, and the lunch hour had arrived!

In a bout of non-Frenchness, Solène and I stayed a little past the lunch rush at the exhibit and sought out an afternoon meal closer to 13:00. When I told Solène that I’d had my first crêpe sucrée, she insisted that I had to have the other kind, crêpe salée (aka gallette) for lunch. As she explained, it is traditional to have la gallette with cider, of which there are two kinds: doux and brut. The only way I can describe this difference is that cidre doux is more like what we traditionally think of as an alcoholic cider in the US, and cidre brut is more like a beer-cider combo. They were both nice, and the gallette was amazing! I don’t have a big sweet tooth, so I tend to prefer the savory things like this over sweet ones, but nonetheless we decided to split a crepe sucre for dessert as a special treat.

Next, we continued our walk to visit all the stops I had not yet seen in Paris. Solène loves architecture, so she made sure we stopped at each beautiful building (some of which are famous, some of which are not) along the way. Here are some photos of the places we stopped:

We also made a special stop at Pierre Herme, which is supposed to have the best and also the most expensive macarons in France. I bought only two to sample: Ispahan, which had a nice combination of rose, lychee, and raspberry, and Caviar Petrosssian, which was supposed to taste like – you guessed it – caviar. I shared the two with Solene and we agreed that both were pretty good (though I continue to not have much of a sweet tooth, so I probably wouldn’t go there again…they were kind of expensive).

We also walked through the LGBTQ area of Paris, which displays its pride a bit differently than NYC. Rather than rainbow flags as the primary display choice, I saw things like this:

Our final stop of the day before heading to Le Theatre à Champs d’Elysees (for an opera Solene’s cousin was dancing in) was a mall near the National Opera of Paris. Solene and I both dislike malls, but this one was unique for having what she said was the best free view of Paris. I think she was correct – from the mall’s roof I could see the Eiffel Tower, the Opera house, Montmartre, and quite a few other landmarks. Definitely worth checking out.

After the mall, Solène and I walked another half hour to get to Champs d’Elysees, passing L’Arc de Triomphe, Le Grand Palais, Le Petit Palais, and other landmarks on the way (passing from the rooster to the donkey 😉 ). This was going to be my first time attending an opera, and I was happy that I could watch the musicians from my seat. The opera was La Traviata and the orchestra conductor was the kind I like to follow best. It was also interesting to see that all the instruments used in the ensemble were old; medieval flutes, horns with extra piping, etc. Most interesting of all however (for me at least) was the timpanist, who must have had at least 12 pairs of mallets he used during the performance, plus many, many, many tuning changes. He was busy all night, and I watched him most of the time. Yes, of course I watched the opera as well, but for me the musicians were the most interesting.

Alas, after the opera Solène, her roommate Amèlie, and I returned to their apartment and wrapped up the day. Solène left for work early in the morning and I packed up and left for my flight, my time in Paris coming to an end. I liked this city, but I found it to be very similar to NYC, and I wasn’t exactly “wowed” by any one thing (with the exception of the music museum). This trip for me was more about soaking up the language and culture and visiting my friends, which I am happy that I got to do. La Ferme du Bonheur and La Musée de Musique were definitely my favorite places, with the Catacombs of Paris and the jazz club I visited with Charles coming in a close second. I chose not to visit the very large museums on this trip because it was such a short stay (and everything is pricey) but I don’t have any regrets; they will be there if I want to see them in the future.

One last story: At the airport I watched a man explode when security wanted to remove the many tins of fois gras he had in his carry-on. Lesson: Avoid fois gras always. 😉

And so, now I’m in Iceland, feeling weird speaking English again. I will write another quick post later with some general tips about being frugal and making the most of your time in Paris, but for now, c’est le fin. Au revoir, et merçi tous mes amies pour les bon expèriences. 🙂

Iceland Arrival

Posted: November 21, 2018 in 2018, Adventures, Iceland, Travel

The Iceland airport is eerily quiet. There are people here waiting for flights, but nonetheless it is practically silent. Footsteps echo loudly in barren corridors, lounges sit empty of passengers, enormous white bathroom stalls block out sound and engulf you in their own cavernous world when you shut the door. It’s eerie, and somehow feels…Icelandic?Not that I can say with any real conviction, since I’m still en-route to my first destination, Paris, France.

The flight from New York to Reykjavik was incredible. Just four hours long, I dozed for most of it and then became mesmerized by the sight of what I eventually realized must be the Northern Lights dancing through the dark skies. It was impossible to capture the scene effectively on my phone camera, so I wil describe it:

Imagine that you are flying through the sky in the dark of night. You look out the window and see below you what look like giant chunks of ice floating in an endless sea. These are the clouds. Above this glacial layer of sky, you see a span of darkness and an arc of wispy light, not quite cloudlike, expanding across the scene like a ghostly rainbow. Directly above this milky, pale green-tinted form, pure black sky and a smattering of stars, including one particularly bright star that you keep in your sights for the next hour.

As you stare out the window, the arc of light begins to change before your eyes, performing a wispy dance as shifts its shape. Once a ghostly rainbow, it morphs into blocks of light, then pufffs up and out to surround the bright star you’ve had your eye on. The ice-like clouds below also shift, spreading out as if drifting further out to sea, then all joining close together as if approaching land. You turn your eye from the white clouds, to the wispy lights, to the dark, star-studded expanse above; three distinct layers of wonder. As you watch, an orange-red light flashes across the darkness – a shooting star. You gasp in wonder and glance around to see if anyone else is sharing this experience. Eyes glued to screens, they are missing the true show.

As your plane approaches land, it cuts through the layer of clouds, revealing another layer of darkness and sudden bright lights below: Reykjavik. The shine of a lighthouse’s yellow-white beacon of light rotates round and round, guiding visitors to safety. Welcome to Iceland.

So…this seems like a cool place, to say the least. According to the pilot, the current temperature here is 40 degrees F – warmer than NY! Right now I’m only here waiting for my connection to Paris, but I certainly look forward to returning to explore this wonderous place next week.

Adventure awaits…

If you can handle the changing weather and perhaps a bout of Seasonal Affective Disorder (oof, it hits me hard), New York is a wonderful state to be in during autumn. Central New York is probably the best place to be (biased, since I went to college there), but Long Island and NYC also have their fair share of fall foliage and festivities.

Autumn in my neighborhood

Today’s local adventure post will highlight some of the amazing carvings I saw on display at this year’s RISE of the Jack O’Lanterns.  Now in its seventh year, The RISE features over 5,000 hand-carved pumpkins each night – plus a few hundred artificial ones in addition to the 5,000 real ones – displayed along the paths at Old Westbury Gardens on Long Island. Each Monday morning, the jack o’lanterns are removed and another 5,000 take their place on Thursday, for a total of in 20,000 pumpkins carved for The RISE in one month. Other notable facts:

  • This year there were five dozen 100+ pound jack o’lanterns, each of which took anywhere up to 20 hours to carve.
  • There were many multi-pumpkin structures, including a life-size firetruck and a 40-foot long dragon.
  • Supposedly, The RISE is the only event in the country to display 5,000 fresh-carved jack o’lanterns each weekend.
  • Most of the pumpkins weigh around 20 pounds, for a total of 400,000 pounds (200 tons) of pumpkins over the month.
  • It takes around 50-100 people, each working two days/week, to carve, set up, and remove the pumpkins.

This year, I was grateful to attend The RISE with what started as three and became a family clan – seven of us in total! We had some trouble keeping track of each other as we walked on the dark, crowded paths that chilly evening, but it was definitely worth it to do something so unique and fun with my relatives. Highly recommend!

If you are interested in attending The Rise, please kindly use my referral link: http://theRise.org/referral?rID=CJBKZNVCFL

And now, a slideshow!

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Traveling Light

Posted: June 20, 2018 in 2018, Adventures

Hello radical readers!

Although my big Semester of Adventures has ended (I returned to Brooklyn last week), I’m continuing this blog for a couple reasons:

  1. Even in “regular life,” I go on cool adventures
  2. Some of you live far from me, so this is a way to keep in touch
  3. I like writing this blog!

I’m aiming for 2 posts per month,  more or less depending if I have awesome things to write and time to write them. Today’s topic is one many people have asked me about: How to travel light. Here is how I did it on this big trip:

Bags

I recommend traveling with a sturdy bag no more than 45 liters (mine is 40 liters). If you travel with something larger you’ll be tempted to fill it, but really, you don’t need that much stuff! I have the Osprey Farpoint 40 L backpack and I love it – it seems to fit on all planes as a carry-on (I’ve had no issues bringing it on board) and you can fold up a flap to conceal the backpack straps, which makes it more like a duffel bag. It has a front-loading rather than top-loading zipper, so it unzips more like a suitcase than a backpack.

In addition, I traveled with a smaller Jansport backpack (the typical one seemingly everyone has owned for school). I packed clothes and accessories in the Osprey and used the Jansport for anything I’d need to take out for the X-Ray machines at airport security, plus anything I wanted quick access to (snacks, a jacket, headphones, etc).

Packing Cubes

I believe packing cubes are one of the most important items you can own for travel, or even for general storage of clothes in your home. Packing cubes are rectangular bags that help compress your clothes into a small space. It’s incredible how much you can fit in a packing cube – they have really changed the way I travel. I brought one medium and three small cubes on this trip, but I also use larger ones at home for clothes. You can get packing cubes on Amazon. At this point I’ve tried two companies: Bagail and eBags. Both work well enough but eBags are definitely superior in terms of durability, and I recommend getting a variety pack because each size is useful.

Other Useful Items

In addition to packing cubes, I brought some items on this trip that turned out to be MVPs. These included, in relative order of importance:

  • Sleeping bag liner: This little sheet is amazing. It’s essentially a very thin, light sleeping bag and folds up to fit into a bag the size of your fist. Great for use on summer camping trips or just as a sheet when you need one. Mine is from a company called the Friendly Swede.
  • Travel towel: Travel towels are quick-drying, made from  thinner material than regular towels, and take up way less space. They’re not as luxurious as regular towels, but having one is definitely worth it. Mine is from a company called Memory Soft.
  • Adapter: I found a great little adapter on Amazon for around $10. There are many mysterious-sounding companies selling the same block-like adapter, but I took a chance and it paid off. The adapter comes in black or white and has two USB ports and a plug on it, as well as the ability to adapt to five different kinds of international outlets.
  • Ear plugs: I carry a cheap spongy pair with me in case I’m sleeping somewhere noisy.
  • Headlamp: If you’re camping at all, bring one. Another great item for camping is the Luci light, an inflatable, waterproof, solar powered lantern.
  • SteriPen: Definitely bring one if you need to purify water!
  • Lock: If you stay  in a hostel, bring a little lock for one of the lockers in the room.
  • “Waist Stash:” Basically a thin fanny pack. My cousin bought me one as a joke, but it turned out to be extremely useful. I kept my passport, driver’s license, visa, credit card, boarding pass, some cash, notes with important info., and a pen in my waist stash and it made life much easier for finding items at airports. Much thinner than a fanny pack, I could tuck it under my shirt to stay stylish ;-D
  • Travel pillow: I’ve never had  a travel pillow because they take up so much space. However, I bought a cheap inflatable travel pillow from a company called MLVOC and it turned out to be a worthy investment. It came with ear plugs, an eye mask, and a bag to keep everything in. Very useful, and comfortable enough.
  • Shoes: If you’re traveling with more than one pair of shoes, that second pair is great as an additional packing cube – stick small items like socks and undies in your shoes to save packing space.
  • Shampoo Bar: Instead of carrying a plastic bottle, consider a shampoo bar to save space and reduce your carbon footprint. I learned about this item at the end of my trip, but I’ll be using one from now on!

 

 

 

 

 

 

So…that’s the story. Other than that, my bag consisted of a laptop (for teaching online and blogging), iPad (for books), cell phone, chargers, flip flops, sneakers, hiking boots, clothes, water bottle, toiletries, a tote bag for groceries, a drawstring bag, and whatever items I picked up on the way (not many). I never worried about situations where I might need to carry my bags for awhile, because while somewhat heavy, I could still manage. Hooray for light travel!

2018 Adventure Summary

Posted: June 7, 2018 in 2018, Adventures, Musings

Hello readers! Whether you’ve read one post or many, thank you for your interest in my 2018 journey. This post serves as a summary of the adventures I’ve embarked on this year, especially for those of you who haven’t been reading but would like to know a bit about my trip. So…here’s a short(ish) summary of my 2018 experience.

Why Did I Do This?

Many reasons:

  1. I am enrolled in a graduate program with an “en-route” Master’s on way to a PhD. It’s been a frustrating ride and I’m still not sure whether this doctorate is right for me. I finished the requirements for the Master’s portion and, after four years in this program, felt like I needed a break. Hence, a leave of absence!
  2. I host couchsurfers in my apartment and love their stories. They are an inspiration, and I’ve been wanting to go on a big adventure for quite some time.
  3. Traveling is a way to expand perspective and reflect. While away, what do I miss about “normal” life? What makes me the happiest on this trip? I was hoping for (and have found) some answers to those questions through this experience.
  4. Why not?!

So, here is a wee (as they say in NZ) summary of my five months of travel, with a couple photos for each place:

  • January:
    • Florida: After subletting my apartment,  I flew to FL to visit my parents, finish my schoolwork, and prepare for teaching online while traveling. I also visited the western “Nature Coast” of Florida for the first time to catch up with some family, see manatees, and kayak. Awesome!19575218_10157116909735299_2834212453498620899_o
    • New York: A quick trip back for the CUNY Games Conference, one of the best conferences I’ve ever been to, which I also helped to organize! 🙂
    • Canada: Next, flew to Toronto to see my friends Amanda, Marlyse, and Eva, plus a weekend trip to Montreal with Marlyse. How I love hearing that Quebecois French.27629240_10104275693862510_8117121442088582198_o
  • February:
    • Canada cont.: Stayed up there through early February, hanging out, working out bugs in my online course, and enjoying time with mes amies.
    • Utah: Next stop, a week in southern Utah with my friends Val and Tracie. I loved hiking through Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks – incredible places, even in the winter. I definitely want to go back there. 
    • Colorado: Two relaxing weeks in Breckenridge with my aunt, uncle, and cousin. I used this time to get my online course working, went snowshoeing with my cousin, did an escape room, and my uncle gave me a ski lesson! 🙂20180222_151617400936593.jpg
  • March:
    • Kansas City: I went here to present at a conference, but it was also a great opportunity to talk to academics in various fields regarding my hesitations about my PhD. Their insights and suggestions were helpful, and I continued to process these throughout my journey. I also met Amber, Jav, Teo, and Mari, a wonderful family and some of my favorite couchsurfing hosts!20180301_220021-1636330712.jpg
    • Vietnam: Met up with Marlyse and her fiancee for a couple days in Dalat, then explored Ho Chi Minh City,  the surrounding area, and the Mekong Delta on my own for the rest of the week. In Saigon I met Quynh, one of my all-time favorite couchsurfing hosts, and began to realize how lucky I was to be able to travel and teach at the same time; in Vietnam the US dollar is so powerful that I could have lived there for months with just the one course I was teaching. I also met some ex-pat teachers and saw how easy it can be to embrace the unknown and accept outside-the-box work opportunities, as they had. And, for the first time in a long time, I experienced what it’s like to be the linguistic minority, relying on the kindness of others to navigate unfamiliar territory and words. 
    • Australia: I flew into Melbourne, then up to Newcastle to reunite with my friend Mike for a few days. We explored the sunny beachside city of Newcastle, went sandboarding, and I was able to get another perspective on the PhD journey (Mike is a post-doc). I also reunited with my friend Aruna in Melbourne. This was a quick trip, just to see my friends en-route to the destination I had my eyes set on.20180317_1557352064470779.jpg
  • Mid-March-Early May: New Zealand
    • How do I sum this up? New Zealand is one of my favorite places on the planet and I had the privilege of spending seven weeks there on this trip. I spent most of my time on the South Island, with a full month in the Otago region and the majority of that time on possibly the most peaceful and fulfilling place I’ve ever stayed, Quarantine Island (a former quarantine station). There I volunteered on a number of conservation-based projects, met wonderful community members, began to learn Flemish, and became a sort of au pair for the incredible kids living on the island, who are some of my favorite people from this entire trip. During my NZ trip I also biked, hiked, kayaked, and camped my way across the West Coast and explored many other towns and cities on the South Island.
    • What did I learn from New Zealand? Mostly things I already knew, but which I felt like I needed to confirm:
      • I am so happy when I am outside, and even happier if I can give back through volunteerism.
      • I will always make music a part of my life, but even without practicing six hours a day and performing regularly, simply making music casually – especially for kids – still makes me happy.
      • Teaching is my passion. Period.
      • I love working with kids.
      • I also enjoy teaching college students online.
      • It’s much more fulfilling to “slow travel,” staying somewhere awhile and getting to know the community, than it is to “fast travel” and spend just a day or two in one place.
      • I met so many people on this trip who left their “traditional” professional paths to pursue more outside-the-box lifestyles/jobs and are much happier. Embracing the unknown is okay.
      • I met one guy who has been traveling and volunteering for two and a half years, another who has been volunteering in exchange for accommodation for three, and many others with similar stories. Suddenly three weeks volunteering for accommodation in the same place doesn’t seem so long…
      • So many other lessons, but I’ll end there.
  • May: Hawaii
    • I spent one week on Oahu/Honolulu and one on the Big Island. I didn’t love Oahu (although I caught up with my old music teacher and partner!), but Big Island was one of the best parts of my entire trip. I met incredible people through couchsurfing, hitchhiked, camped, surfed, snorkeled, and hardly spent a dime. The Waimanu Valley hike is now one of my all-time favorite hiking experiences.
  • June:
    • Florida: I returned to my parents’ place for a week and a half to grade end-of-semester student work and readjust to life in the US.
    • Long Island: Two weeks here to visit friends and family.
    • Brooklyn: Sublease ends, “regular life” returns.

On this trip I traveled with two backpacks and flew carry-on only on most airlines (the secret is packing cubes; they are amazing). Not counting flights and my splurge week with Flying Kiwi, I spent an average of $8/day and was grateful for the kindness and hospitality of everyone I met, many of whom I hope to keep in touch with, and found the clarity of mind I needed to evaluate my position as I return to academia this fall. I’ve lost the worry and panic I was feeling over whether to complete my program, and that stress has been replaced with the comforting feeling that no matter what I decide, there are plenty of cool opportunities out there for me to pursue. This trip was worthwhile on so many levels, and I would repeat it again in a heartbeat. Huge thanks to all the people who were a part of this adventure; I am grateful for each of you. 20180515_124216931416055.jpg

Airports, Doha City Tour

Posted: June 5, 2018 in 2018, Adventures

Here I am, back on Long Island. I’m here for two weeks to see friends and family and have a bit of a “music retreat,” then when the sublease ends on my apartment I’ll be back in Brooklyn. “Regular life” (is there really such a thing?) is just around the corner.

There are a couple things I want to write about before wrapping up my trip completely, and one of them is airports and what they offer (particularly the free city tour I took in Qatar). It’s incredible how different airports can be and what they can offer. Advice: If you are flying internationally with a layover, I recommend choosing a flight with a long layover (at least six hours) in a place that offers airport-city tours. What’s an airport-city tour, you ask? Let me tell you!

Qatar/Doha – Hamad International Airport

When researching flights from Kansas City, USA to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam I saw that I had some options as to which city en route I could stop in for my layover. A little googling revealed that the most impressive of my choices was the Doha International Airport in Qatar, which offered a free swimming pool, gym, unlimited free WiFi and fancy areas to sit and use the web, and additional services for a fee such as renting a bed to take a nap in, getting a massage, etc. The Blond Abroad has a good post about a layover in Doha (although surprisingly she doesn’t mention Discover Qatar City Tours), and she’s got a cool pic of the fancy pool. 

The most intriguing detail I found about this airport was the opportunity to take a “free” three-hour tour of the city. The reviews looked good online, so I booked a flight with an eight hour layover in Qatar, figuring that would give me enough time to take a tour and explore some of the other amenities at this enormous, luxurious airport.

Upon arriving in Doha I went to the information desk to inquire about city tours. I was directed to another desk where tour agents took my passport information and I paid $10 for a temporary tour visa to get into the city. In most airports that offer city tours, you need to show that you have at least six hours during your layover and get to the registration desk at least an hour before the tour to ensure that you get a spot (as I discovered in Qatar, these city tours are popular and fill up fast). If you have bags, you can just bring them with you and store them beneath the bus while you’re touring.

I had an hour and a half after registering to explore, so I walked around to see what other crazy things I could find at this airport. Highlights included an impressive children’s play area, a bunch of public lounges with comfy chairs, an immense charging station, and a giant food court. I never found the swimming pool; the airport is so big that I didn’t feel like I had enough time to wander around to find it before having to be back for my tour, so after exploring a bit I spent some time grading student work (a theme throughout my trip).

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Inside the airport

At the allotted hour I returned to the desk and, along with around 30 other people, was given a temporary visa to present to immigration. Then we met our tour guide and were guided onto a large coach bus, which, as the guide explained, would take us to four stops in Qatar. Along the way our guide would tell us more about Qatar and the places we were visiting.

Upon entering the bus, I discovered that everyone on the tour receives a bottle of water. The temperature in Qatar on that February day was 22 degrees Celcius (around 72 F), but in the summer it gets as hot as 44-50 C (113-122 F). This is a big concern for the upcoming World Cup in Qatar this summer; how will the soccer players handle that heat? Our guide pointed out some aspects of the city that were designed specifically for the World Cup, including a giant mascot. The city also has manmade hills; Qatar is fairly flat, so hills have been built in to give it some depth.

As we drove, the first thing I noticed was the brightly colored streetlights along the highway. As our guide explained, these “light pillars” are solar-powered and the Qatari national anthem is written on each one in Arabic. They’re a bit lavish, but at least they’re solar-powered!

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My not-so-great photo of the solar-powered light pillars

We visited four locations on our tour. The first was the waterfront walkway near the Museum of Islamic Art, which offered a beautiful view of the city skyline, which is more colorful than most skylines due to the many colorfully-lit buildings in Doha. At this stop I met a local Qatari who was interested in this large group of foreigners. Why were we here? He asked. When I explained, he recommended coming back to visit Qatar for more than just a few hours. Who knows, perhaps I will sometime. However, Qatar is the richest country in the world and likes to flaunt it (at least that’s what I’ve gathered from my first impression), so it’s not super appealing as a place to return.

 

The next two stops were both short; we stayed for around ten minutes at each location to quickly walk around and take photos. The Katara Cultural Village had a mosque and a beautiful call to prayer tower (and some manmade hills), and the Pearl Qatar, a manmade island, featured an extremely upscale shopping center and waterfront walkway. I was struck by how fancy the boats in the harbor were, and by the uniformity of the buildings along the water.

 

As we drove our guide shared more information about the city: There is a separate airport for the royal family, and there are photos of the emir’s face on many buildings in the city to show support. Here is a post about Ahmed bin Majed Almaaheed, the artist who created this popular image. She also offered quite a few touristy “facts,” pointing out the luxurious hotels we should visit, the spa center we might want to see, etc. I have to say, all the little plugs about how Qatar is a great place to visit were a bit off-putting, but who’s to complain for a cheap tour!

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The emir’s face on the “Tornado Building”

Our last stop on the tour was the most interesting. The Souq Waqif, or “standing market,” is open both day and night, so since this was an evening tour we still got to stop and enjoy it for half an hour. Unfortunately I had no cash on me and couldn’t get any from an ATM, so rather than enjoy any Qatari treats (which look amazing) I spent the half hour just wandering through the market, window shopping and people-watching. Even late at night the market was busy and bustling, and even the little carnival area attached to it was alive with the laughter of children playing. Very cool place.

 

After returning to the airport I went back through security, bought cauliflower soup for dinner, proceeded to spill the whole bowl on my backpack, cleaned my backpack, and got some soup again. By the time I’d recovered from the soup ordeal I had just enough time to brush my teeth, find my gate, and prepare for my flight to Vietnam. Not a bad experience in Doha.

Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon

The next airport I visited was quite a shock after the lavish and orderly nature of Qatar. Ho Chi Minh City’s airport is a little crazy to maneuver through, as you’re competing with a HUGE amount of people all streaming around you, then you walk out into an outdoor area with even more people waiting to greet their friends and family, and hardly anything is in English (not a bad thing, just a culture shock). On my initial arrival I got lost trying to make my way from the international terminal to the domestic departure area, and it was difficult to ask for directions since the security guards I found didn’t speak much English. I visited this airport three times (arriving, returning from Da Lat, and then departing for Australia) and I will say, it was way less overwhelming by the third time. Just be prepared for a shock on that initial arrival!

Here are some other, less memorable airports I visited:

  • Melbourne, Australia: A typical international airport. Unlimited wifi, good places to hang around and wait for flights, etc.
  • Newcastle, Australia: This airport is super tiny!
  • Auckland: Auckland is currently working on a 30-year vision to become the “airport of the future,” so right now this means half the place is closed. If you plan to grab a meal and work online for a couple hours as I had, don’t. There are only two little places to grab food and you have a 45-minute wifi cap, so you won’t be overly productive. Hopefully the airport of the future is worth it!
  • Oahu/Honolulu: I found this airport to be similar to Ho Chi Minh’s, and once again I managed to get turned around on my initial arrival as I attempted to find a place to wait for Dr. Eppink. Tons of people!
  • Kona: This airport is totally outdoors, extremely tiny, and practically inaccessible by public transit. It’s a charming airport, but make sure you have a ride to get out.

Singapore

From Vietnam to Australia I had a layover in Singapore, and that airport is impressive. In many ways it’s like Doha, offering a trillion things to do and see. Highlights include a movie theater, a gaming room, a “food village,” and a sunflower garden. Definitely didn’t mind my long layover here. They do also offer a free city tour, but unfortunately none were running while I was in the airport. Next time!

 

 

So…that’s all I wanted to say about airports. Do some research before you fly – the airport really can determine how enjoyable your layover will be!