Category Archives: culture

4 of the Best National Parks in the US that Hikers Must Visit

The US is a vast and varied country. There is a lot to see and do. A lot of people that live here love to camp and explore the great outdoors. There are a lot more national parks and reserves to see than you might think. 

 

So if you are planning a hiking trip, where are the best places to visit? It can be difficult to know where to start, especially if you are coming from abroad. Locals have friends and family recommendations that they can go on. So if you are coming from abroad, I have got some advice for you. First of all, check out a page like https://www.trails.com/toptrails.aspx. It is a great place to start. It will narrow down your search of the areas you want to be in and the distances that you want to travel. Remember if you are coming from abroad, you need to have the necessary visas in place as you plan your trip. You will most likely need an ESTA visa for the time you are on vacation. You could look at https://www.official-esta.com/our-services for any questions that you might have. But anyway, here are a few of my ideas to help get you started on deciding where to go.

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Image of Grand Canyon

 

Grand Canyon, Arizona

I think one of the most obvious hiking trails that are known worldwide is the Grand Canyon. If you have never been in your life, it needs to be on your bucket list! There is so much to explore, and it is a stunning area of the world. It is a mile deep which is pretty epic to hike in. You can also hike around the top of it, too.

 

Zion National Park, Utah

There are a few awesome national parks in Utah. One of the best has got to be Zion National Park in southern Utah. There is a river that runs through it which is great if you feel the need to cool off a little. The river leads to an area called Emerald Pools that is full of waterfalls. It is a beautiful area to hike.

 

Yosemite National Park, California

This national park is set in the Californian Sierra Nevada mountains. It is the park most known for its giant, and I mean giant, Sequoia trees. The ancient trees stand proud, and it is pretty epic that you can close to such historical lifeforms. It isn’t too far from Sacramento and San Francisco in California. So if you do want to experience some of the USA’s great shopping and burgers, you can while you are close by!

 

Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee/North Carolina

This park straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina and is one of the greatest national parks on the east coast. The forests are lush, and it is full of amazing flowers all year long. There are of course streams and rivers that follow along the hiking trail. It is one of the prettiest national parks that you could visit.

 

Hope you enjoyed this collaborate post! While I have only seen a couple of the parks listed above, stay tuned as I return to some of my favorite national parks and visit new ones, too!

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Traveling Can Be Green, Too!

Happy Earth Day! Most of what I write here is creative ways to travel that will save you green. But in honor of today’s holiday, I’m going to shift gears a bit and talk about another way to save the green.

Many environmentalists frown upon travel as it causes greenhouse gases and a bigger carbon footprint. True, carbon costs associated with travel can be astronomical, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be cleaned up and greened up. Since Earth Day is celebrated each year on April 22nd, here are 22 ways you can make your travel more green!

(Bonus: In addition to saving the green for the environment, many of these will save the green in your wallet, too!)

Green Accommodation

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Share your campsite to make an even lower impact!
  1. Stay in Hostels Staying in a hostel dorm with others requires less square footage and encourages community. Hostels also often tend to buy in bulk and cut out worthless amenities, so you won’t create excess waste with miniature shampoos.
  2. Go Camping Get in touch with nature, and then be encouraged to preserve it! Any kind of camping is probably helpful for the environment, but you can take it a step futher with primitive camping, where you won’t have electricity hookups, WiFi, or possibly even flushing toilets!
  3. Stay with Friends Instead of creating a demand for a temporary place to sleep, go somewhere that’s already being lived in. Your friends will probably equip you with the same shower, dishes, and bedding they always use instead of providing disposible or temporary supplies like a hotel does.
  4. Don’t Request Sheet Changes Unless Absolutely Needed In your own home, you probably realize that washing sheets from just one bed is enough to load an entire washer and dryer. Save the water, soap, gas, and electricity by skipping sheet changes. You don’t replace your sheets at home every day, do you?

Green Packing

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Unless you need a Delorean because you’re going on a time-travel vacation, don’t pack enough to fill a truck.
  1. Bring Your Own Toiletries in Reusable Containers I’ve shared some of my favorite travel toiletry containers here before. Whether you use my recommendations or not, siphoning toiletries from bulk containers into smaller, reusable containers is much better than purchasing one-time bottles from the travel section of superstores.
  2. Lighten the Load with Carry-On Only No matter which mode you travel with, you’ll always save fuel if you take a lighter load. I backpacked the Mediterranean for 92 days with just a carry-on! I think going on a weeklong vacation with only a carry-on is a piece of cake.
  3. Borrow or Buy Used Travel Gear There are some items that may be necessary while traveling, but useless in everyday life. If you absolutely cannot go without it, ask your friends, family, and social media followers if you can borrow their tent, or ice chest, or lawn chair, or… you get the picture.
  4. Do Laundry Effectively If you need to do laundry on your trip at all, first see if there is anything you can wear more than once between washes. Bring your own eco-friendly soap instead of the single-serve packets found at the laundromat, and try to line-dry your laundry, even if you have to do so indoors.

Green Transportation

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You could travel by boat for a really fuel-efficient getaway. But if going by raft, you may get wet!
  1. Carpool If someone else is available to travel with you, going in one car instead of two will cut your emissions in half. Better yet, if you’re both licensed drivers, split the driving time to help keep alert and avoid accidents.
  2. Take the Bus or Train I love both of these options! You get to see so much more of the country, and reap the benefits of extremely low passenger miles per gallon! Trains are often a vacation in themselves, and long-distance buses make travel available to all income levels!
  3. Walk or Bike Everywhere at Your Destination Make a point to do this everywhere you go, even if it means staying closer to the city center. I can’t imagine all that I would have missed out on if I took cars or city transportation everywhere I’ve been.
  4. Don’t Fly First Class I’ve flown first class one time, and it was WAY overrated. Flying in coach means that the seating allows for more passengers to fly (and thus cuts down on emissions per person), plus lowers the waste of beverage cups and snack wrappers.

Green Eating

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My take-away container was already full when I bought these in Paris. But I could recycle the cardboard and bag!
  1. Pick Restaurants that Serve Local Food You’ll get a better sense of the local cuisine and prevent excess trucking and shipping of food.
  2. Become a Vacation Vegetarian I’m not saying you have to give up meat. (Not everyone can!) But try to select veg options in your travels. Besides the environmental advantages, vegetarian options often cost less, and you will be less exposed to those icky stomach bugs that travelers fear.
  3. Bring Washable Dishes or Stay Somewhere that Offers Them It’s not that time-consuming to wash your dishes after eating instead of throwing them away.
  4. BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle!) Vacations tend to make me thirsty! Instead of buying drinks everyday, I’m saving my wallet, my waistline, and the Earth with a reusable bottle.

Green Entertainment

Love Locks Paris
See those love locks at practically every major attraction? Skipping this activity will reduce the waste of the lock and packaging, reduce the pollution caused when the key is tossed into the water, and reduce the repairs needed on the structures that are getting vandalized and weighed down!
  1. Recycle Ticket Stubs (or Use an eTicket) These are usually recyclable, but rarely do people think to recycle them!
  2. Visit Local Parks Fresh air, green plants, and a free place to explore the local culture. What’s not to love?
  3. Borrow Books or DVDs for Downtime Sure, you could buy a paperback for those times you need to relax. But many hostels, and now even some hotels, offer lending libraries or book/movie exchanges. Reduce the demand for new materials, and lighten the weight of that carry-on you brought!
  4. Visit Ethical Attractions What you define as “ethical” is ultimately up for you to decide, but consider how workers are treated, how animals are used, how waste is disposed of, and how guests can contribute to the community.

Green Shopping

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Arnold Schwarzenegger bought this bear statue as a souvenir of his time as governor, but then left it at the California State Capitol! I guess he couldn’t even fit it into his suitcase.
  1. Avoid It Why do you need a tacky souvenir (that’s probably not even made at your destination), when there are more effective, and more eco-friendly, ways to capture your memories? One of my favorite mementos are my travel journals. Photos are another great option, or if you absolutely want to buy something, send yourself a postcard or letter from your destination.

What to Expect with a Letter to Juliet

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Before even watching the movie “Letters to Juliet”, I was excited to go to Verona as part of my Mediterranean Trek. So I planned out my visit to this city mainly by borrowing the movie from a friend. The only mistake I made was that I booked a mere two nights in Verona, leaving me with just one full day to experience all that this quaint city has to offer.

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My first night in Verona was spent arriving by a delayed train, then struggling in the dusk to find where my BnB was before finally giving in and taking a cab, so I didn’t see much in the midst of that stress. I started the next day bright and early with a walk to Juliet’s courtyard. This is what you see in “Letters to Juliet”, and it’s the perfect place to write a letter to Juliet! Because I got there early enough, there were only a few other people there. I found a quiet place by the grafitti wall of love to write my letter. In the movie, you can see women sticking their letters into the cracks of a wall. You can still do that, however, to make sure that a secretary of Juliet receives your letter, there are better practices in place now. The best thing to do is stick your letter in the red mailbox. Alternatively, if you go inside the house, you’ll find computer kiosks where you can e-mail her!

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I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go inside the house at the time, so I headed over to the area where you can find Juliet’s tomb. It turns out that you can get a discount by getting a combination ticket to Casa de Giulietta and the museum with her tomb, so I did that. The tomb was the best feature of the museum it’s housed in, but there are other art and artifacts to enjoy as well.

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I eventually went back to the house, Casa de Giulietta. Inside were a lot of artifacts from some of the Romeo and Juliet movies, such as costumes and a prop bed.

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But the best part of the Casa was getting to stand on Juliet’s balcony, and pondering “Wherefore art thou?”

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While foot traffic inside the Casa wasn’t so bad, the courtyard was getting jam-packed with tour groups and other visitors. Here’s a tip: If you want a truly magical and meaningful experience with Juliet, go in the morning before the day trippers roll in!

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I went to the courtyard for a third time in the evening, and it was even more crowded then! But this is when I enjoyed putting my own graffiti on the wall entering the courtyard. I’m not a vandal, it’s actually encouraged!

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In another spot of the courtyard is the only place in Europe where it’s actually encouraged to place a love lock, as it will eventually become a part of an art piece. (But seriously, don’t put a love lock anywhere else! I saw locks on every fence and bridge in every city I went to, and it just looked inconsiderate and trashy.)

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There are a lot of other things to do in Verona, such as go to the Arena, walk by the river, or explore the castles. I did some of these things, but since none of them are directly related to Juliet, I’m going to fast forward to today.

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I had heard it would take a long time to get my letter back from Juliet. I was hoping it would arrive to my house around the time that I came back from the Mediterranean, but such was not the case. I kept it in the back of my mind, and thought about it sometimes when I went to get the mail. But today, I was totally not expecting it!

I opened the mailbox and grabbed the letters out. One had an Italian postmark, and the return address said it was from “Club di Giulietta”! I squealed in excitement. I scared my dog by my squealing. I hope the neighbors didn’t hear me squealing. I raced back to the house so I could carefully open the envelope.

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I don’t remember exactly what I wrote to Juliet, but it was a decent-sized letter that could be summed up as “where is he?” I was honestly just expecting the response to be a canned sentence on an index card. I was surprised at how much thought was put into the letter I received! Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the letter.

“Finding love isn’t easy. In fact, it should be something they teach in school along with how to manage your finance and finding a job that you like.”

“Some people fall in love quickly- others warm to it slowly. But there is one common thing about it- that love doesn’t happen if you don’t take action.”

“Take the plunge- and live it, not dream it.”

By the way, while I would definitely encourage a trip to Verona if you can, you don’t need to go there in order to get a letter from Juliet. Just send your letter to:

Club di Giulietta
Corso Sant’Anastasia, 29
37121 Verona, Italy

In an age where it’s rare to receive a beautifully handwritten letter, it’s even more special to receive one from a fictional character!

Letter from Juliet

Disney Parks: US vs. France

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While in Paris, I took a day trip to Disneyland. I was fortunate that my parents’ favorite family vacation was going to Walt Disney World, so I went there several times when I was young. When I was even younger, we would take day trips to Disneyland while visiting relatives in Southern California. It was pretty much a no-brainer to blow my daily budget for the opportunity to go to a Disney Park while abroad!

Needless to say, I loved the experience and my new goal is to visit the Asian Disney Parks. (And also go to Disneyland’s California Adventure. How have I not been to that park yet?) But when asked if I liked Disneyland Paris more or less than Disneyland in the US, I’m not entirely sure what to say. So today, I’m going to break down the perks of the parks in the United States and France, and you can help me decide which one is better!

Price

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Disneyland Paris, France

 

 

US: At Disneyland in Anaheim, California, a one-day ticket is $99 for anyone aged 10 or older. This only lets you into either California Adventure or Disneyland. To get into both, it is an extra $40 for a park hopper ticket. Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida, has a higher price for their Magic Kingdom at $105, but the other three parks are only $97 for ages ten and up. A park hopper pass at the Magic Kingdom is $64. Note multi-day tickets do lower the cost per day, and these prices were taken January 26th, 2016. Tickets in more tourist seasons do cost more.

France: Disneyland Paris has a drastic seasonal price difference, due to lack of year-round warm weather like California and Florida. Right now a winter ticket starts at $64 for ages 12 and up, but a ticket that can be used any day of the year is $115. These tickets are valid for both of the parks (or, as they say in France, “parcs”), so no park hopper pass is needed. This is the price you get from the US website, but if you use the international website, you’ll find winter tickets starting at 47 euros and year-round tickets at 74. This is usually cheaper, so purchasing from the international version of the website will save you lots.

Winner: Disneyland Paris No matter how you look at it, it’s a lower price!

Transportation

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Walt Disney Studios, France

US: I love taking the Walt Disney World Magical Express from the Orlando airport to the resort my family stays at, and then the free bus service between the Disney hotels and parks. It’s probably the only positive part of US Disney’s current transportation situation. I remember when California Adventure was built in Anaheim, and Disneyland had to go from a spacious parking lot to a multi-story garage. Although I’ve only used the bus transportation in Florida (which takes you right to the park entrance), the parking lots did look spacious, although many people have to take the tram because they park so far away.

France: I purchased the Disneyland Paris Express, which picks you up from one of several downtown Paris locations and escorts you to the Disneyland parking lot for 99 euros. (Neither of the US Disney Parks offer a similar service from LA or Orlando.) The parking lot was spacious, but surprisingly far away from the entrance and it took several minutes and moving walkways until I could even see the parks. I liked this service, but if I were to do it again, I would instead take the metro. It costs about the same as the extra cost of the Disneyland Paris Express ticket, but it’s faster and brings you closer to the entrance. You actually pass underneath one of the Disneyland Paris resorts on your walk into the park!

Winner: Disneyland Paris Neither country has perfect transportation. I do wish the buses could get closer to the park entrance, but there are more options to get around and this park seems to be better connected to the city.

Parks

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Animal Kingdom, Florida

US: The original park, Disneyland, is in California. The turn of the century brought a second park to Disneyland, called California Adventure. Over in Florida, Walt Disney World consists of the Magic Kingdom (similar to the Disneyland park), Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom, plus a couple of water parks and other fun attractions.

France: The first park in Disneyland Paris is Disneyland, which of course is pretty similar to the Magic Kingdom or the original California park. The second and final park is Walt Disney Studios, which, while it has a several unique attractions, is most comparable to Hollywood Studios.

Winner: US Disney Parks It would be harder to determine a winner if I were only comparing Disneyland Paris with Disneyland in California. But with Walt Disney World, it’s no contest. The French Pavilion in Epcot alone had as much French culture as all of Disneyland Paris.

Rides

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Disneyland Paris’ Small World portrayal of the United States

US: Being the oldest parks, most of the famous Disney rides originated in the United States. Instead of listing all the attractions that can also be found in Europe or Asia, I’ll point out a few of the unique highlights. A longtime favorite ride of mine has been the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. This one is also in France, but the US version offers a longer ride. The Animal Kingdom has completely unique rides, including several with real life animals! And while Epcot is still in my home country, rides like Spaceship Earth, The Seas, Mission: Space, and Ellen’s Energy Adventure have me thinking about the world as a whole.

France: Most rides, especially in the Disneyland Parc, are carbon copies of United States originals. But the French have a few winners of their own. “Moteur, Action”, is a show that was brought to Hollywood Studios as “Lights, Motors, Action”. Unfortunately, that show can now only be seen in France as it was closed in the US for the upcoming Star Wars renovation. An attraction that hasn’t been brought to the States yet is “Ratatouille: The Adventure”. This is a fun 3-D ride around French fine dining from a rat’s perspective. US parks should take note on this ride’s creativity!

Winner: US Disney Parks This one was REALLY hard to decide. In the end, my tiebreaker was that The US copied very little from other nations’ parks, and also that several parks means a wider variety of rides are offered. If I had to take the average ride from each country, I think it would be a tie.

Cleanliness

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Epcot, Florida

US: When you ask an adult why they take their family to Disney Parks instead of a competitor, they don’t say it’s because of the rides or the characters or the price. It’s because “it’s clean!” Every other amusement park I’ve ever been to had an undertone of sketchiness to it. I know that they were probably perfectly nice parks, but Disney’s cleanliness standards have just set the bar too high.

France: Disney’s need for clean translates into French, too! Like the US parks, you won’t find messy gum for sale, but you will find a trash can within a few feet of wherever you’re at. Also like the US parks, smoking is only allowed in designated areas. Unfortunately, this is not enforced quite as well as some of my time waiting in the queues involved choking on smoke from people ahead of me.

Winner: US Disney Parks I’ve seen people smoke outside of designated areas in Walt Disney World too, but the reputation of cleanliness is better displayed here.

Castle

US:

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Magic Kingdom, Florida

France:

 

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Disneyland Paris, France

Winner: Disneyland Paris For no other reason than I love how the sides have retaining walls, making grass grow halfway up the castle!

Disney Parks

So I guess it is possible to break Disney down into categories and determine a winner for certain elements, but I still don’t know who should win overall. Which park sounds like a winner to you?

An Invitation to the Mediterranean

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Two days after returning home from my 92-Day Mediterranean Trek, I invited some people over to my house for a Mediterranean Night. This involved a potluck of Mediterranean or European-inspired foods (many of which were left at my house and made delicious leftovers for the next few meals), and also featured a slideshow with over 200 of my trip photos. (This didn’t seem like many compared to all the photos I actually took!) It was a fun way to show and tell my experiences with many people who would be questioning me about my travels anyway. And while it just took place in a living room, it kind of felt like I was back in all those exotic cities, but this time I had friends and family right alongside me!

We discovered the evolution of the bridges over the Seine River and debated the merit of Love Locks.

Love Locks Paris Unlocked Bridge and Artist Paris

We laughed at how Disneyland Paris portrayed our American culture in It’s a Small World After All.Small World Disneyland Paris

We cringed in disgust from stories like how this horse statue in Madrid was once accidentally a death trap for birds! Horse Statue Madrid

They watched as I learned how to properly carve ham right off the leg…even if I didn’t want to eat it!Ham Cutting La Alberca

We questioned why this cathedral in Barcelona keeps 13 geese in the courtyard and whether or not the legend behind it is true.

Geese Barcelona

We marveled at the scenic landscapes of every city, and even the world’s second smallest nation of Monaco!

Monaco Monte Carlo Reflection

We were fascinated how places like Verona could just casually house so many millenia-old buildings and artifacts!

Verona Ruins

We shared a sunset over Venice.

Venice Sunset

Pinocchio and Gepetto’s workshop came to life to us in Florence.

Wooden Workshop Florence

We wondered why the Leaning Baptistery of Pisa doesn’t have the same fame as the Leaning Tower of Pisa!

Pisa Baptistery Church Tower

We were in awe of so many magnificent pieces of art. (I had never pictured Mary or Jesus as being blonde before!)Blond Virgin Mary

We questioned if the guards at Athens’ Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was really a reverent location or more of a fun tourist stop.

Greece Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Guards Athens

We learned that Thessaloniki has its own leaning church akin to Pisa’s!

Leaning Church Thessaloniki

And we finally left Europe with a boat ride to Asia in the intercontinental city of Istanbul.Istanbul Europe Asia Divide

I know I couldn’t invite that many people into my parents’ living room for a night of personalized armchair travel, but over the next several weeks, I would like to invite everyone to journey with me for the inside experience of backpacking the Mediterranean, just like the ones mentioned above. We’ll explore each city together and have some fun along the way. Will you join me in reliving this Mediterranean Trek?

Hipster Pope

My sister constantly tells me that I’m not a hipster, and can’t even begin to understand “her” type. But with my Facebook feed and online news feed blowing up with people analyzing what the Pope said while visiting the United States, even she will have to admit I’m “hipster” in at least one way.

I saw Pope Francis before it was cool!

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I didn’t necessarily start the trend. On the contrary, I was just one of tens of thousands. I didn’t even realize that the Pope was coming to America until just a few days before he left for Cuba. But I saw him a week before anyone in the USA did. All I had to do was go to The Vatican.

I first learned about Vatican City when I was in sixth grade. The religious connotations didn’t matter much to me at the time, but I made it my goal to someday go to the world’s smallest nation. When I got to Rome three weeks ago, the person checking me in asked, “do you want to see the Pope?” Um, sure! I hadn’t really thought of that as feasible, but she told me that all I had to do was show up at the Vatican on Wednesday morning.

So when Wednesday morning came, I excitedly walked all the way across the city and entered the fifth country of my Mediterranean Trek. When I got there, the event was already in progress. I’m not sure it it’s officially considered a mass, but there was singing, Bible reading, and a couple people spoke, one of whom was Pope Francis himself. I got my bag searched at the country’s entrance (which I learned when I returned another day is not an everyday thing, it’s just for the Pope’s safety when he’s so close to so many people), and I found a good place to stand. If you make a reservation ahead of time, you can get a seat that’s a little bit closer. But the standing room was nice and open, and there were jumbotrons so that you could see everything that was happening onstage.

After the service, most people left, but none of the Vatican’s attractions, such as St. Peter’s Basilica or the temporary exhibit, opened up, and security was still tight. I decided to stick around to see if something else would happen. Over an hour later, one of the seating sections was emptied out and some of the rowdy, Argentina-national-anthem-chanting crowd had moved there, so I got up closer to the basilica, too. Finally, Papa Francesco appeared again and waved at us all as he rode away. Soon after, the Basilica entrance opened up, and I was able to walked by the stage and see the chair where Pope Francis had sat that morning.

This is a weekly occurrence every Wednesday morning. Just a day or so later, I switched to another Rome hostel. Someone there told me that the Pope also gives a message every Sunday that he’s in town. It wasn’t as formal as Wednesday, but rather just a 15-minute speech given from his window. That sounded interesting! So on Sunday, I walked back to the Vatican. Since I guess his window is far enough to make it difficult for assassins, there was no bag check at the border this time. It was also less crowded, and the seated section was closed off since you couldn’t really see the window anywhere but from the standing area. I wasn’t really sure which window he would appear at, but a few minutes before the scheduled time, someone opened a window and hung a banner out of it. Right on time, Papa Francesco appeared, waving back to the thousands of people below!

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As he spoke, I took pictures of him in his window and got a better look from the jumbotrons (to make sure it really was him), but didn’t really listen to the message. One benefit that the Americans had over me is that they could hear him speak in English, which doesn’t happen in the Vatican! I am very limited when it comes to Italian, mostly just knowing food words, but all I really know is that Pope Francis was not telling us what he was going to eat for lunch! He spoke very eloquently and didn’t really use any simple words that I could make out. Sometimes people would cheer about what he was saying. I wasn’t sure what to do. Had he said something that I would also cheer for, or did he say something that was completely against my personal beliefs? I don’t really know for sure, but just having the rare opportunity to see the world’s most famous living religious leader was amazing!

I went to Vatican City two other times. While there, I enjoying the country’s other offerings, like climbing to the top of the cupola, straining my neck to admire the Sistine Chapel, and seeing a museum featuring many past Popemobiles. These were all great experiences, but there was something extra special about being there with the Pope! My last full day in Rome was a Sunday, but sadly, Papa Francesco had already made his way to Cuba. I attended an international English-speaking Baptist church that morning instead, and after the service when I headed over to the Vatican for one last goodbye, the nation was eerily empty.

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I’m not Catholic so I obviously don’t support everything that the Pope says or does. But I am a Christian and I think that he and I have a few of the most important beliefs in common. But I didn’t write this post to make any political statement. Besides, like I said, I really don’t know what he was talking about in the two occasions I visited him. All I know is that I got to see Pope Francis before most other Americans, and that makes me pretty hipster!

Have you ever seen the Pope, whether it was recently in America, previously in Italy, or even just on TV? What European celebrity would you like to meet?

Eating Chocolate con Churros in Madrid

When going into Madrid, I didn´t really have any plans for must-see attractions. But I did have some must-eats! And I think I ate everything I hoped for, from tapas, to paella, to toast covered in tomato sauce and olive oil. But I definitely did have a favorite, and that was chocolate con churros.

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Churros in Madrid may be very different from churros you´ve had before. In North America, churros are thick, straight, and rolled in cinnamon sugar. The Spanish churro is thinner and teardrop-shaped. While it still comes fried with ridges, you have to add the cinnamon yourself if you want it. But you might as well skip the seasonings because it is much better with a nice cup of chocolate!

When you order chocolate con churros in a cafe, you´ll receive the chocolate in a small mug. The consistency is thicker than hot chocolate, but thinner than melted chocolate. Not as much sugar is added like you’d find in most chocolate, but it’s sweet enough. It´s perfect for dunking, or for eating straight with a spoon!

After my first Madrid hostel, U Hostels, served me Spanish churros for breakfast, I was hooked! But they only offered toppings like sugar or butter or chocolate powder, not actual chocolate. So I looked up a few local chocolaterias so I’d know where to go to test this treatimage

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The good news is, there is no one “best place” to experience this deliciousness. Whenever I came across a cafe with the label “Chocolateria” above the door, I knew it was a good place to go. I didn’t notice any sort of difference between the churros or chocolate among the chocolaterias, so the only thing that makes one better than another is the price.

Okay, there is one notable difference, but I didn’t discover it until after I left Madrid. In Barcelona, because this area of Spain wants to be its own country, everything is different, including the language. Here, if you go to a Xocolateria for some xurros, you won’t get them in teardrop shape. My Barcelona xurros were cut into smaller lengths that curled slightly in the fryer, and we served in a paper cone. Interesting how one local treat can go from a cafe snack to a fair food!

Have you eaten chocolate con churros? What’s your favorite foreign snack?

No Spanish Allowed at Pueblo Inglés

There is a place in Spain that offers a nice break from large cities like Madrid and whisks you away to forest-covered hills and mountain views. Here you can enjoy three-course meals, pool facilities, and a retreat to a villa. Best of all, you can get this for free.
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The catch? At this Spanish location, no Spanish is allowed!

This shouldn’t be much of a problem for native English speakers, but each of these people, referred to as an “Anglo”, will have to spend all day talking with native Spanish speakers who want to improve their English. The English-only rule is a bit more difficult for the Spaniards!
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In order to expose the Spaniards enrolled in the program to different accents and expressions, the program, called Pueblo Inglés, recruits Anglo volunteers from places like England, Wales, Ireland, Australia, and Canada. I was one of the volunteers representing the United States in a recent program. Volunteering does require putting in long hours of sometimes difficult conversation. Most of my day consisted of talking one-to one, having group discussions and partipating in activities that somehow helped practice English. But in return, I received transportation from Madrid to a scenic resort, three-course meals and a stay in a villa all for free!
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Of course the Spaniards do have to pay for this language learning experience, but it is an incredibly effective program as it is an intensive eight days of speaking nothing but English. I saw many people who started the program having difficulty understanding me even when I was speaking slowly, but towards the end of the week we were chatting like I would with someone from home.

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Over the course of the week, Anglos and Spaniards do everything together. At meals, each four-person table had two Spaniards and two Anglos. Group activities included discussions, icebreakers, parties, and even a tour of the nearby town La Alberca. Now THAT is an experience I must tell you about!
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Most of us chose to walk from our hotel to the town through a backroad. On the way, our master of ceremonies told us about the La Alberca black pig. This area is famous for their ham, and one way they promote it is by having the community raise a pig each year that roams around town. We were warned that the pig isn’t always in an easy-to-find area, but at that point I was praying for a special experience of finding the pig! And boy, was that prayer answered!

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After looking at few of the notable La Alberca sights, our group sat on the cathedral steps a block away from the town square while we listened to the beginning of a story of an earthquake in the town. Suddenly, someone sitting in the back began shouting. Among other choice words, he notified us that there was a pig climbing up another set of steps. Of course, the story had to be paused while we all attempted to take a selfie with the famous pig. But after a few minutes of trying to get the pig to smile, out MC convinced us to sit down again as the pig started to wander away from the excitement.
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Little did we know, once we were settled down, the pig wanted to cause some chaos. She wandered up behind us. Then, she decided to root for food right where I was sitting! I never expected to get that personal with a pig! But it only got worse. Since she couldn’t find any food underneath me, she did a taste test of me! She bit the closest part of my body she could find. Since I was trying to stay seated on the step and not interrupt the entire group, there was one particular body part right next to her face. At this point, there was no way that the group wouldn’t be disrupted as everyone was already pointing and laughing and getting out their cameras. The pig continued to make her way through the group, sampling the bags and shoes she came across. Our MC finally hollered, “Forget about the earthquake story; let’s move this way and leave the pig!” The rest of the tour finished the way a normal walking tour typically does. When we had some free time after that, I busied myself exploring the cobblestone back roads, but from a distance I spied the pig, who had found new victims to harass. To continue our time in town, we were treated to a wine, cheese, and meat sampling where we learned the secret way to cut the perfect slice of ham straight from the leg. I dont normally eat pork, but since the pig tried eating me, I sought my revenge by eating a tiny bit of pig.
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I just finished my last day of Pueblo Inglés, and it was surprisingly hard to say goodbye. I had come to teach the Spaniards English, but they taught me even more about the world and life in general. The week had a feeling akin to an adult summer camp, so along with that came the kindling of new friendships that I believe will last a long time. I hope to see many of them again, either by traveling to their home country or by inviting them into my home. And I may have to attend another program in the future!
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Spending a week volunteering (or possibly enrolling in) Pueblo Inglés may be one of the most meaningful and most fun things you can do in Spain. Just make sure to keep a safe distance from that pig’s snout!

When You Can’t Travel… Bring the Travel to You!

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I haven’t done any traveling this week. But sometimes even staying at home can lead to an unforgettable travel adventure!

I went to Cieneguilla, Peru in 2007 and 2009. It doesn’t feel like it’s been nearly six years since my last visit! While there, one of the many people I met was Ruby. I have kept up with this fellow adventurer through Facebook as she has gone through different ministry programs. Not too long ago, I saw she was fulfilling her dream of taking her first trip to the United States… including Southern Oregon!

Ruby’s schedule while here was tight, but fortunately we managed to squeeze a couple hours in this afternoon when we were both available. I decided to take her to the local tourism town of Jacksonville. I played tour guide as I showed her the famous homes of the Nunans, the Britts, and the Beekmans, as well as a few other sites related to the Gold Rush. We then finished up our time with a lunch at Bella Union, including sharing a mud pie for dessert!

Instead of seeing the local culture that I’ve seen countless times, it was unique to see things through Ruby’s eyes. Even the small things were special, like having cars stop for us so we could cross the street instead of waiting for all the speeding cars to go away. We also discussed how Peru has changed since I saw it six years ago. I recalled the things I found shockingly different during my time in Peru, and she shared a few of the American practices that she hadn’t expected. We both were missing the Peruvian food!

Pretty soon I had to drop Ruby off with some friends so that they could spend some time with her.  I joked that Ruby has near celebrity status since she’s so busy with everyone wanting to see her! But I’m am super thankful that she spared a couple of hours to spend adventuring with me!

How to Survive the Language Barrier

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What do I think is the biggest barrier to worldwide travel? Languages. Ugh! Sometimes I just have to throw my head back and ask God if He could have possibly done anything different to take care of the Tower of Babel issue without spurring all these different languages. I mean, really. If everyone in the entire world spoke the same language, wouldn’t you be much more comfortable traveling in foreign countries? Of course, language is one of the cultural differences that helps make each location unique, but there certainly is an advantage to knowing the native language! And a big problem with Europe is that, with each different country I hope to go to, I’ll be exposed to a completely different language.

I have taken multiple trips to Latin America (Mexico and Peru), all which were done during my high school and college years. Because I knew while I was still in middle school that I wanted to visit one of these countries, I began studying a bit of the Spanish language. Having a purpose for learning a language certainly does help when it comes to studying! Fortunately, I had already been given a program that would be a huge help:

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Using Rosetta Stone was a good primer for Spanish vocabulary, and I do appreciate that it uses pictures to help you identify rather than English words. (It’s almost, but not quite, like immersion.) This program was my only real Spanish study experience before my first trip to Mexico. It turned out that everyone in the tourist ports I visited would speak in English, but I was able to decipher many of the signs. Still, I don’t think I would be able to hold a conversation at all!

The next school year, I began taking Spanish class, and would continue to do so through college. I did have a bit of an advantage thanks to my foundation with Rosetta Stone, but the Spanish class itself was taught much differently, and I will say much more effectively. I’m sure it helped a lot to have that face-to-face interaction with someone who was actually fluent! My first year of Spanish class was by far the most effective, and although I was barely conversational at the end of the year, I had all the tools I needed to interact with the people I visited in Peru that summer. I’m not sure if it was because I learned so much by immersion in Peru, or because I couldn’t get my original Spanish class teacher for the following years, but the subsequent years did not seem as effective for me. Sure, I learned some, but not as much as I would have liked. Fortunately, I’m not actually supposed to know Spanish during my time in Spain. (Shh! Don’t tell anyone!)

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Diverbo is a Spain-based one-week language learning program… for learning English, that is! Spaniards who are book-smart in their English studies, but may not be comfortable in English conversation, come to this retreat where no Spanish speaking is allowed. So how do they improve at their conversation skills? Diverbo gets volunteers from English-speaking countries to spend a free week at a Spanish resort in exchange for talking, talking, and talking. I have been accepted to be on the waiting list for an upcoming program. I really do hope I get selected. Besides, it’s been so long since I last took a Spanish class, I won’t be tempted to utter a word of it. Let’s just hope I retained enough to survive in the city!

If Spanish and English were the only languages spoken in Europe, I would have packed my bags and headed out long ago. But, oddly enough, none of the countries I’m going to are primarily English, and Spain is the only one with primarily Spanish. If I really wanted to converse like a local, I would have to also learn French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, and perhaps a couple more languages. So how to deal with that?

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I recently started taking lessons from Duolingo. At first, I thought it would be most beneficial to learn French. But after a few lessons, I got frustrated with the way words are pronounced and figured that Paris is close enough to England that all I would need was a convincing British accent. So, just while taking a break from French, I started the Italian course. Wow, I grabbed a hold of that language MUCH easier! And while I can’t figure out how to drop French from my Duolingo languages, I don’t have to worry about giving up that commitment. Duolingo is completely FREE and you can choose from many different learning languages including Portuguese, German, and, coming soon, Klingon! Lessons can be completed on a computer or with the phone app. And I’m not sure about other brands of smartphones, but with the Android app, you don’t even have to be online to work on lessons! There are some downsides to Duolingo, though. A biggie is that, unlike Rosetta Stone, it does not try to simulate immersion and heavily relies on translation. I also downloaded the Rosetta Stone app, and while I haven’t really used it since it works slower than Duolingo, I probably should compare the two to see which one will teach me better Italian. Overall, I think Italian will be the best third language for me in Europe since I will spend more time in Italy than any other country, and it will probably be useful in Italy’s surrounding nations as well. One problem is that it has a lot of similarities to Spanish, and I’m already getting them mixed up in my mind!

However, with all this language learning, I have yet to set foot anywhere close to Europe. From what I understand, most Europeans learn English in school as it is the language of business, so maybe I could get by with just that. Or maybe hand gestures and miming would suffice. But I don’t know. What do I need to know about surviving the language barrier in Europe? 

Note: None of the programs mentioned in this post are affiliates or sponsors. I just wanted to voice my opinions about the studies I’ve experienced and I’m interested in hearing about the experiences of others!