Take Me Back // JAPAN

I can’t remember what I dreamt last night, but I woke up with a single thought in my head: “I have to go back to Japan.”

Someday I will.  I miss it all the time.  The food, the people, the sights and sounds.  I miss everything.  I want to eat real ramen, shop for candy and trinkets at the Daiso, snack on onigiri, ride my bike along the Tama, run up and down Mt. Ome, see the coast, the mountains, the city, take in the colors of the local festivals, everything.

Japan was the place I first made a conscious decision to travel.  I spent my school breaks in places like Thailand and Indonesia, and at home I would hop on the train with no set destination in mind, stepping off into unknown territory.

I spent the summers running with the cross country team through paddy fields and along the Tama river, stopping once in a while to jump in the water and cool off or to get a drink from a vending machine (special note to runners:  Japan has vending machines and toilets EVERYWHERE.  If you have yen, you’ll never bonk hard.  And you’ll never have to explain why you left for a run with two socks and returned with one).  After 8-12 miles in the bright, sticky heat we’d make a stop at 7-11 to get cold drinks to enjoy in the shade, giddy and happy and tired.

I was lucky enough to have family just a two-hour train ride away.  My aunt and uncle took my all over the country, from the mountains of Nozawa for the annual fire festival to the foggy beaches of the Izu Peninsula to quirky tourist attractions like the Ramen Museum or a Roppongi club called Abbey Road where Beatles cover bands take the stage.  We slept on tatami mats and ate fish at nearly every meal and always said Oishikatta (“It was delicious”) afterwards, although after a while I yearned for something simple and American like a PB&J.

Unfortunately, I did not start documenting my travel moments through photography until after I had left Japan.  One more reason to go back!  Here are a few from my facebook archives:

Ramen and Milk Tea

Ramen and Milk Tea

Festival Lights

Festival Lights

Climbing Fuji-San on a Perfect Day

Climbing Fuji-San on a Perfect Day

In other news, I finished my final exams today.  Let the summer adventures begin!

Favorites // FLAGSTAFF, AZ

They say it’s a small world, but Earth is a pretty big place.  I am under no impression that I’ve truly seen the world.  I’ve seen 19 countries of 200+ in existence, and how much of these countries have I really been exposed to?  I haven’t even experienced all that my own home country has to offer.

While I have many places left to explore, I have a few favorites.  One of them is Flagstaff, Arizona.  I’ve written before that home is a difficult concept for me, but in my heart, Flagstaff feels like home.  My aunt and uncle have retired from their jobs as travelling educators and settled in the area.  But maybe “settled” is the wrong word.. They are still very much on the move, and I love joining them on their adventures.

One such adventure: the nearby Chocolate Falls, located in the Painted Desert on Navajo land.  We took a bumpy drive through the dirt and dust to hike and explore and climb on the rocks.

IMG_1305

IMG_1308
IMG_1303

IMG_1321

But there’s more to Arizona than desert.  Last summer we took a trip to Lockett Meadow for some (more) hiking and stargazing.

IMG_1355

IMG_1386

IMG_1396

 

It was a beautiful clear night and I saw my first shooting star!  Morning was just as pleasant.  I slept in the bed of the truck and woke with the morning light to a peaceful forest scene.  I warmed up with a cup of bitter black tea.

IMG_1414

IMG_1378

 

Flagstaff, I hope to see you again soon.

Lomography // CINQUE TERRE 2011

Cinque Terre is a cluster of five colorful coastal towns and one of my all-time favorite destinations in Europe.  In the summer, the air is hot and sticky and the water is cool and clear.  There are plenty of shops around to grab some delicious focaccia or a scoop of gelato.  And for thrill-seekers like my friends, there are lots of cliffs and bridges to jump off of.  For me, the latter was a great opportunity to try out my Lomography Action Sampler.  Here are the results:

Jumping at Cinque Terre

Jumping at Cinque Terre

Aaaand More Jumping at Cinque Terre

Jumping at Cinque Terre Again

Jumping at Cinque Terre Again

Aaand More Jumping at Cinque Terre

Diving (!) at Cinque Terre

Diving (!) at Cinque Terre

Not the greatest photos, but fun nonetheless.  Traveling with these guys was a blast, I hope we get to do it again soon!

Group

The Group at Cinque Terre

Dreaming of Summer // AUSTRIA 2013

As I impatiently wait for the beginning of this summer, I reflect on my last European adventure of summer 2013.  It was a family trip to Salzburg, about a six hour drive from our home in southwest Germany.  Salzburg is a beautiful, historical city with a love for its most famous former resident, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  Apologies to the history buffs and music fans, but my attention was focused mainly on the wonderful food of the city.

image_3

Sachertorte, chocolate cake with apricot filling, from the famous Cafe Tomaselli

image_1 (3)

Carrot Cremesuppe with my hungry brother’s hand

image_8 (2)

Broccoli Cremesuppe with a roll

The cake was amazing, as were the soups. Another highlight of our trip was a side trip to Hallstatt, a picturesque Austrian city boasting the oldest known salt mine in the world.  Visitors can tour the depths of the salt mine, provided they agree to wear protective clothes (which look more like pajamas than anything a miner would wear).  Of course, we took full advantage!

image_3 (3)

Hamming it up in our miner’s outfits

A more serious shot inside the mine - my brother is much more photogenic than I!

A more serious shot inside the mine – my brother is much more photogenic than I

A couple other side trips: a day spent cycling with my brother around the lakes of the area with plenty of breaks for swimming, and a visit to Sigmund-Thun Klamm, where I used my German to ask if a student discount was available to which the lady at the booth replied, “Nein, aber ich mach’ das.”  Which I understood as “No, but I’ll do it anyways.”  It’s always good to use the local language as much as possible – sometimes it pays off in unexpected ways!

Morning swim at the lake

Morning swim at the lake

Sigmund-Thun Klamm

Sigmund-Thun Klamm

It was a wonderful trip, but by far my favorite part was the part that no one had planned.  As a family we took a hike around Hallstaetter See, one of the many crystal blue lakes of the Salzburg area.  We stopped at a bridge to take a rest, when I looked down at the water and saw some kind of wooden plank protruding from a spot under the bridge.  Upon closer inspection we found a dirt path to the underside of the bridge, where there was another plank which we recognized  as an improvised diving board as well as a makeshift ladder for climbing up from the water.  We had stumbled upon a hidden gem, an golden opportunity for some spontaneous fun that we simply could not pass up.  So the family went on walking, and my brother and I started gearing up for an afternoon of jumping.

The high jump

The high jump

My brother is much more photogenic than I, as well as much braver

My brother is much more photogenic than I, as well as much braver

A Schmetterling (butterfly) friend I made while waiting for my turn to jump

A Schmetterling (butterfly) friend I made while waiting for my turn to jump

An exhilarating experience

An exhilarating experience

Basking in the glory of a perfect afternoon

Basking in the glory of a perfect afternoon

We spotted the police patrolling the waters in the boat.  He sailed towards us and yelled, “Springen Sie?” (“Are you jumping?).  I was ready to flee the scene until he pointed to the bridge overhead and said something like, “Sie koennen von oben!” (“You can jump from up there!”).  Probably the best experience I’ve ever had with the police while abroad. Not every place I visit leaves me with the desire to return, but Austria has had me dreaming of my next trip there since I left last July.  So many lakes to swim in, so many mountains and forests to hike through.. Is it summer yet?

LONDON 2014

Give me a campsite in the woods over a swanky downtown hotel any day.  I crave solitude.   Forests, mountains,  rivers, wildlife and fresh air make me happy.  Crowds and buildings, on the other hand, not so much.   Don’t get me wrong, I love the rich history and lively culture I find in city travel, but a day or two  is often all I can take before I start fantasizing about escaping to a desert island for some peace, quiet, and good quality alone time.

London is an exception.  I promise you, no matter who you are, no matter your background, your personality or your interests, London has at least 10 museums and 5 events and 20 restaurants that you will LOVE.  And a weekend won’t be enough.  Stay a month, at least.

Like my Venice trip a week prior, I found my airline tickets through RyanAir for about 40 Euro round trip.  And again, I found a great deal with Generator at their flagship location in Bloomsbury.  I cannot recommend Generator enough for solo travelers.  Safety, security and cleanliness are top-notch with this chain and with prices as low as 10 pounds a night, the price is unbeatable.

Now, on to the fun stuff!  I opted out of the hostel breakfast this time around and instead made a Starbucks run to fuel my travels.  Tall orange mocha for here, please!

Processed with VSCOcam with f1 preset

Orange mocha, a regional (and deliciously sweet) Starbucks menu item

London was rainy, as it often is.  Perfect for museum-hopping.  Museum 1 awaited me just two blocks from the hostel: Waitrose.  For those in the know, Waitrose is a grocery store chain in the UK, but I like to think of grocery stores as  warehouse-sized museums of food and culture that double as extensive gift shops.  I made mostly practical purchases, like nuts and fruit for snacks and breakfasts, but I couldn’t leave without splurging on some cola-infused raisins.  Most of my food experiences in London were pleasant.  Cola raisins were not.

Never again

Cola-infused raisins.  Yes, they exist.

As you might have guessed from my gravitation towards things like cola-flavored raisins, I have a penchant for “weird.”  If you’re curious like me, you’ll love Hunterian Museum in Camden.  You’ll find everything from iridescent beetles to 18th century medical specimens to a reconstruction of the 7 ft. 7 “Irish Giant” Charles Byrne.  The Hunterian Museum does not allow photography, so you’ll have to take my word for it and visit for yourself!  Did I mention entry is free?

Another great (and also free) museum is the Grant Museum of Zoology in Bloomsbury.  Make your way through a maze of displays of neatly organized skeletons, bones and preserved animals.  Take in the enormity of the broad antlers of the Irish Elk or “Giant Deer” and not just one but three elephant skulls.  Before you leave, step into the Micrarium, where Grant holds its tiniest wonders.

A neatly organized set of bones

A set of bones in the Grant Museum of Zoology

The Grant Micrarium

The Grant Micrarium

The Micrarium

Close-up of the Micrarium

After a delicious lunch of soup and bread at Pret a Manger, the rain let up and I headed towards Trafalger Square, a tourist favorite. The fountains and statues of Trafalger square are a feast for the eyes.  I couldn’t resist a selfie with my personal favorite, pictured below.

Hahn-Cock in Trafalger Square

Hahn-Cock in Trafalger Square

The London of days past had an unfortunate reputation for bland, tasteless food.  Today’s London is foodie heaven.  The international population is huge, and the overwhelming variety of food choices reflects it.  Three meals a day was not enough to scratch the surface.  Japanese, Italian, Indian, Ethiopian, Thai, British, American… the list goes on and on.  To maximize my London food experience, I made a quick trip to Chinatown to stock up on snacks.  Red bean mochi, dried sweet potato, watermelon seeds, matcha buns, mmmm….

Chinatown snacks

Chinatown snacks

As adventurous as I am, I passed on the “Sliming Herb.”

Sliming Herb?  No thanks.

“Sliming Herb”

Sadly, my time in London came to an end much too quickly.  Like my Venice trip, this was a journey I made on my own.  Unlike my Venice trip, I stepped outside of my introvert comfort zone and made a few friends in the process.  I met a Brit who was in town for a mandala tattoo by a well-known Japanese artist.  I met an Argentinian on his way to Switzerland for an Erasmus program.  I met a half-Portuguese, half-Russian polyglot taking a vacation from his job at a travel agency in the Netherlands.  For 19 years I had completely overlooked the social aspect of travel, sometimes out of shyness, sometimes because of the language barrier, sometimes out of absorption in only my own travel party.  Meeting these fellow solo adventurers changed my mind.  I can’t wait to continue travelling, collecting stories and sharing my own.

First Post // VENICE 2013

I like to refer to my mom as a “combat dietitian.”  As for me, I’m called a “brat,” a title I proudly accept.  Some people think that to be a brat means to grow up in boxy beige communities surrounded by barbed-wire fences.  On the other side of the fence, the civilian world imagines us marching to school, surrounded and surveilled by uniformed men with guns and German shepherds.  I won’t say that all of this is untrue, but to be a brat also means to travel the world, and to develop pride and independence and an open mind.  It means adapting to all kinds of scary and unfamiliar situations.  And for these lessons I am eternally grateful.  But by far the greatest gift the military has given me is a healthy sense of adventure.

You might say that in my 20 years as a brat, I’ve traveled a lot.  You’ll find stamps in my passport from 19 countries and five continents.  I intend to write a history of these travels in the near future, but I’d like to start this blog with a city very dear to my heart: Venice, Italy.

My trip to Venice was the first that was completely my own.  My first sweet taste of solo travel.  It was December 2013 and I was spending the  holiday season with my combat dietitian mom at her duty station in Germany.  The beautiful thing about Germany (other than being well, beautiful) is its central location in Europe.  Itching for an adventure – preferably low-budget – I clicked around RyanAir’s website for the cheapest last-minute trip I could find.  The travel gods smiled upon me with  8 Euro ticket to the low season in Venice.  Just a couple days later, I was off.

After a short afternoon flight, a long sleepy bus ride, and a freezing late night Vaporetto trip, I had arrived at my destination ready for some winter fun (after a clif bar dinner and a good night’s sleep, of course).  What followed was a short but emotional journey, as solo trips often are: refreshing, quiet, exhausting, lonely, reflective, cold, confusing, liberating, inspiring.

I had my first hostel experience at the Generator Hostel Venice in Giudecca for a cool 10 Euro per night.   I got way more than I paid for.  My bed was one of 16 in an immaculately clean and quiet dorm-style room.  Not only is Generator cheap and practical, it’s incredibly stylish as well, contrasting the historical bones and exterior with the young and fresh interior, fully outfitted with a cafe and bar, funky but comfy furniture and kaleidoscope of colorful lights.  As for the service, check out this adorable response I received after posting a thank you note on my Instagram. Generator Venice, you will definitely be seeing me in the next future!

Ostello di Venezia

Generator Venice on the island of Giudecca

After indulging in a 3 Euro breakfast feast of espresso, bread, jam, cereal and fruit, I headed out into the early morning mist and jumped on an uber-convenient and affordable Vaporetto (water taxi) with the morning commuters.  First stop: Murano, an island of the Venetian lagoon famous for glass and jewelry.  As a poor college student, I had little interest in the expensive jewelry shops, opting instead for a free walk around the island.  The artfully constructed glass sculptures did not disappoint.

Murano Glass

Murano Glass Sculpture

Stop number 2 was the colorful nearby island of Burano, known for lace and color.   Again, I was content to jaunt around the island taking in the beauty of the brightly painted homes.  Below is my favorite, a forgotten brick building, royal blue and temptingly vendesi (for sale).

Burano Blue

A beautiful Burano blue paint job, in need of a touch-up

Another of my favorite Burano scenes.  Did you know that Pisa is not the only city with a leaning tower?

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

The Leaning Tower of Burano

I returned to the hostel in the afternoon and turned in early my first night, but I was still so exhausted that I overslept until 9AM the next morning.  The beauty of solo travel is that my tardiness inconvenienced absolutely no one (except my worried mother, who insisted on checking in by text at least 5 times a day).  I hopped back on the Vaporetto and sailed towards the main island.

Venice is a surprisingly walkable city.  I spent hours on end weaving through the alleys and wandering over bridges with no set destination in mind.  A note to fellow travelers: I recommend comfortable shoes and frequent coffee breaks.

Venice Alleyways

Alleyways

My favorite spots on the main island were the Jewish Ghetto and an intriguing vacant building called La Scuola nuova di Santa Maria della Misericordia.  I learned very little of its history, but the mystery only added to its allure.

Jewish Ghetto

Panoramic view of the main square of the Venetian Ghetto

Misericordia

Bricks of Misericordia stained red

Of course, no trip to Venice is complete without a little retail therapy.  Shoppers flock to the historic Rialto bridge for trinkets, masks, leather goods, postcards and jewelry.

Rialto

The grand beauty of Venice’s Rialto bridge

Processed with VSCOcam with m5 preset

Shoppers on the Rialto

I walked and walked and walked, taking the advice of fellow travelers who told me to wander and to not worry about getting lost – indeed, one cannot leave Venice on foot.

The End of Venice

The end of Venice

After walking the entire island, I headed back to the hostel to rest my aching feet and relax.  I enjoyed a bottled bellini in bed while writing postcards and sorting through pictures.

Bellinis in Bed

Venice’s signature drink: the Bellini

For my last day, I headed to the beaches of Lido.  The Lido di Venezia is the place to be in the summer months.  It is home to the annual Venice Film Festival and its streets are lined with restaurants, hotels and casinos.  In December, the beaches of the Lido are as lonely as a vast expanse of desert sand.  It was a perfectly peaceful cap to my whirlwind trip.

Lido di Venezia, deserted in the winter months

Firsts are special.  Because of that, Venice will always be in my heart.  I admit, I was timid.  I ate supermarket food for most of my meals to avoid the double awkwardness of the language barrier and eating alone in public (my justification: supermarket food is wonderfully gentle on the wallet).  I kicked myself for not reaching out to the fellow travelers in my hostel, saying no to drinks at the bar to wind down in bed writing emails and reading.  But Venice was full of small victories, too.  For example:  I had two (short) conversations in Italian.  I navigated a winding city with only my wits, my feet and a light backpack.  I ate real Italian pizza and sipped on smooth ciocolatta calda.  I found peace in the early morning solitude of the lagoon.  I wrote a stack of postcards and sent them all.  I even returned home with enough money in my bank account for a second trip, which of course, I took.

Stay tuned!