Exploring Ecuador

Over Thanksgiving break this year, Tucker and I decided it was finally time to hit the international travel trail again! Aside from our move to Mexico last winter, we hadn’t been abroad for business or pleasure since 2019, so it was definitely an exciting prospect for us. For this particular trip, we decided on Ecuador, which meant that we’d not only be traversing a new country, but also a new continent since this was our first time to South America as well. Woohoo! Here’s my take on our latest journey:  

The Preparation

Of course, before venturing out, the first question we had to ask ourselves was where to go, which is not so easy in post-Covid times. Different countries have different restrictions and requirements for testing, vaccination, tourism, etc. We finally settled on Ecuador for several reasons. For one, I was happy that they require either a negative PCR test or a vaccination card for entry (a little regulation goes a long way). Two, we were also hoping to stick to the Spanish-speaking world (to continue our practice/immersion, of course). And three, I’ve always wanted to visit the equator – how cool is it to be able to stand in two different hemispheres at the same time!

…or sit on the line…

Once we decided on the location and made sure we had the necessary documents ready, we were able to start planning. The planning also turned out to be a little different than our pre-2020 travels. A lot of services and attractions have been permanently closed (including the postal system as we found out), and even those that remain open often require additional amounts of flexibility because everything is very much subject to change these days. This was really my first glimpse into just how hard the tourism industry has been hit over the last two years. Prices, schedules, options, procedures – a lot has changed, but with any luck, it’ll continue to bounce back and hopefully be stronger than ever. I know I’m beyond ready for that.

The Capital: Quito

Our first stop and home base for this trip was Ecuador’s capital city, Quito. If you weren’t already aware, Quito is one of (if not the) highest capital city in the world at 2,850 m (9,350 ft). I love the fact that the elevation meant chilly temperatures (even so close to the equator), but, unfortunately, my head doesn’t particularly like the pressure changes that also occur at elevation. The good news is I already knew about my sensitivity to high altitudes, and I was able to take Western medicine (Acetazolamide), drink the local coca tea, and share some traditional Chinese medicine with a fellow traveler all to avoid any unwelcome bouts of altitude sickness. I’m not exactly sure which one did the trick, but other than a mild headache, I was totally fine to climb stairs, hike volcanos, and do anything and everything else I wanted to do Ecuador. Another success!  

Aside from its elevation, Quito is also unique in that it is wedged between several Andean mountains and volcanoes. For this reason, although the city is about 40 km (25 mi) long, it’s only 5 km (3.1 miles) wide. It’s also extremely hilly, which made for many beautiful views all across the city as well as some of the most difficult driving conditions I’ve ever experienced. Imagine a 45-degree incline on slippery cobblestones in bumper-to-bumper traffic with a manual vehicle. I made sure to compliment the driving of every one of our taxi/Uber drivers- so impressive! Another amazing part of staying in Quito was the history. Quito has one of the least-altered and best-persevered historic centers in the Americas, and the plazas, churches, and neighborhoods were so much fun to explore. 

The Food/Restaurants

Pristiños y chocolate caliente con queso

Another really fun part of this trip was the fact that we were trying out a completely new type of cuisine. Neither Tucker or I could remember ever having Ecuadorian food, so everything was completely unknown. From the tostados (or toasted corn kernels) and ají (a spicy sauce served with every meal) to the most famous dishes from the highlands, we loved learning and sampling everything. Some of our favorites included empanadas de verde (empanadas made of plantains stuffed with cheese), locro de papa (creamy potato soup), and pristiños (fried dough with honey). Another infamous dish in this region (one that we actually opted to forgo) is cuy, or in English, guinea pig. Definitely new to us!  

While certain things (like rodents on the menu) made Ecuador seem very far from the US, other things made us feel like we’d gone north rather than south. For example, Ecuadorians use the US dollar as their currency, and I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed the break from constantly converting in my head. Another similarity is that servers in Ecuador often take your credit card to a register in the back of the restaurant for payment. Not so strange for the average American, but after years in countries where that would never fly we found ourselves feeling a little concerned about identity theft. I mean, where’s the portable terminal? And why aren’t those commonplace everywhere?! It seems so bizarre to us now!  

The Nature

As amazing as Quito (and its restaurant scene) is, the nature is the real draw. Ecuador is home to the Amazon, the Andes, and the Galapagos Islands. It has an incredible amount of biodiversity, and while we mostly stuck to the highlands (this time), we were absolutely blown away by what we saw. Our focus on this particular trip was definitely the volcanoes. Ecuador has the most volcanoes per square kilometer of any country, including some of the only volcanic glaciers on/near the equator. One of our favorite experiences in Ecuador was climbing Cotopaxi, the highest volcano in the country. Not being very experienced or even prepared climbers, we only hiked to the refuge (at 4,860 m / 15,744 ft), which was difficult enough with the lack of oxygen, unstable terrain, and hail we experienced along the way. Still, I’d definitely do it again in a heartbeat – so cool!

The other big hike we did was at the Quilotoa crater, about three hours from Cotopaxi. Quilotoa used to be a volcano, but after its last massive eruption in 1280, it is now classified as a caldera. Here we found ourselves climbing down rather than up as we made our way into the crater to get to the shores of the mineral lake that now fills the void. The hike down was absolutely breathtaking, but the hike back up was brutal: 1.7 km of steep, sandy paths (still at an elevation of over 3,914 m / 12,841 ft), and if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, it rained on us the whole way out. This was one of only a few trips where Tucker and I actually lost weight on vacation…despite all the good food. And speaking of food, my favorite part of this day might have actually been the meal we had after the hike – a Thanksgiving feast that will live in infamy.

The Random Facts We Gleaned

Since our buses out to Cotopaxi and Quilotoa were cancelled (because there weren’t enough people to warrant them), we actually got to tag along with a tour bus group instead. This meant that we got loads of information about Ecuador, the Andes, volcanoes, etc. – much more than I ever would have found on my own. For that reason, I have a plethora of other interesting facts to share about Ecuador. Here are some of my favorites:

-Ecuador was the first country to give constitutional rights to nature. In 2008, Ecuadorians voted to give its mountains, rivers, forests, air, and islands “legally enforceable rights to exist, flourish, and evolve”.

-One of the most widely spoken indigenous languages in this part of the world is Quechua, which is derived from the language used by the ancient Incan empire. Interestingly, Ecuadorians refer to the Peruvian dialect as Quechua while calling their own Quichua.

-Many place names and colloquial expressions in Ecuador combine Spanish and Quichua, such as the catchy “chulla vida”, which is the Ecuadorian version of “YOLO”.  

-Llamas and alpacas are both endemic to this part of South America and can be commonly seen alongside other livestock throughout the highlands. But how can you tell them apart? Well, alpacas are much shorter, have softer fur, and are typically less aggressive. Llamas are the ones to look out for!

-Another interesting fact about Ecuador is that it is home to the highest mountain in the world…sort of. The peak of Mount Chimborazo is actually the furthest from the center of the Earth (or the closest to the sun). Mount Everest is the highest if compared to sea level.

-Gravity is lower at the equator, which is why many rocket launch sites are located close to the equator. It’s also the reason it’s supposedly easier to balance an egg on a nail. #huevochallenge

-Ecuador is also the world’s largest exporter of bananas. Unsurprisingly, the bananas we had while there were extremely cheap and perfectly ripe.

Overall, it was truly an incredible trip. I feel so grateful that we were able to have this experience, and I sincerely hope it won’t be so long before our next big adventure!

¡Gracias por un buen viaje, Ecuador!

¡Guadalajara, Guadalajara!

Somehow, we’ve officially been residents of Mexico for 6 months already, and it’s absolutely crazy how fast the time went by! Of course, as we’re still in “pandemic times”, our usual explorations and goings-on in a new city have been pretty tame, but that doesn’t mean we’re not learning everything we can about the incredible city we call home: Guadalajara. Through virtual chats with local friends, outdoor excursions, online Spanish classes, and, of course, the internet, we’ve definitely gleaned a lot of information about GDL, and I would say we are already as fiercely proud of this city as any good Tapatío (or Guadalajara native) would be. We’re so enamored (okay maybe even a little obsessed) that this month I want to share some keys facts about Guadalajara in the hopes that someday soon anyone and everyone will want to visit this amazing city.  

History

First thing’s first: where did it all begin? This is always a tricky subject with colonized countries because there are typically two histories: one European and one indigenous. Guadalajara’s story is no different. In the region/state now known as Jalisco (of which Guadalajara is the capital), there were many indigenous groups such as the Tonallan, Tetlán, and Zapopan peoples. These names can actually still be seen and heard representing various parts of the modern-day, sprawling city, but it was in the early 1500s, when the Spanish settlers, continuing their journey west, officially founded the city known as “Guadalajara”. However, due to some unrest with the local indigenous groups of the time, the city was actually moved three times before finally settling in its current location in the Atemajac Valley, in 1542. In fact, the true founder of the city was Beatriz Hernández, one of the initial settlers, who got tired of all the moving around and finally put her foot down, ultimately choosing the city’s final placement.

From 1542 onward, Guadalajara has always played an important role in Mexico’s history. Miguel Hidalgo had his headquarters set up here during the Mexican War of Independence in the early 1800s. President Benito Juárez made Guadalajara the seat of his government during the Reform War of the 1850s. Throughout the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution, the Great Depression, and multiple domestic and international wars, Guadalajara continued to flourish and grow. By 1910, it solidified its place as the second largest city in Mexico, and since then has also become known as the “Silicon Valley” of Mexico, hosting a large number of innovative companies and international events throughout the years. As the city of Guadalajara expanded, neighboring cities have also been absorbed into the greater GDL area, including Tonalá, Tlaquepaque, and Zapopan, each of which still retains its unique vibe and perspective.

Geography/Climate

The geography of Guadalajara is a really interesting mix because while we’re squarely in Central Mexico in a “humid subtropical climate” zone, we’re also at 5,200 ft (1,560 m), roughly the same elevation as Denver, Colorado. For this reason, the weather is extremely mild (read: gorgeous). The hottest and driest months of the year here are April and May, but even then, the average high is only around 88°F (31°C). With no humidity and with temperatures dropping into the 50s (10-12°C) every night, it felt somewhat like a brief, very manageable (albeit early) summer. From June-September, GDL is in rainy season, which typically means rainy afternoons and some seriously stormy nights. Luckily, it also means the temperatures stay down as well. It’s currently August, and I usually have to wear a jacket when taking the dog out in the mornings – how awesome it that?! After the rainy season comes a cool, crisp autumn followed by a dry, mild winter. In GDL, winters are usually quite sunny and “spring-like”, but it has on occasion snowed. In fact, we’ve already heard several great stories about the infamous snow event of 1997!

Although it sits at a high elevation, Guadalajara is still technically in a valley, which means there are low-lying mountains surrounding the city. To the northeast there is a canyon system and several surrounding forests including Bosque Primavera. In general, Guadalajara is much lusher than I would have expected: green grasses, leafy trees, and many waterfalls can be found throughout Jalisco. There are also several volcanos in the area, a few small ones to the west (near Tequila) and a few more, southwest on the border of Colima, another one of Mexico’s 31 states. The city of Guadalajara itself is quite large: 58 sq mi (151 sq km) and is home to approximately 1.5 million people. If it helps, it’s about the same size and has a similar population density as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Guadalajara, like most large cities, is broken up into many distinctive barrios (or neighborhoods). We live in the slightly hipster Colonia Americana, which lies a little to the west of the oldest neighborhood in the city, the aptly named “Centro”.

Food

Of course, I cannot write about Guadalajara without highlighting some of its most characteristic foods. I wrote a bit about the common dishes found in the Bajío (lowland)/Western region of Mexico in a previous post, but for Guadalajara in particular there are a few specialties that must be mentioned. The first being the infamous torta ahogada (“drowned sandwich”). Perhaps the Philly-GDL comparison can continue here because the fame and ubiquity of this particular sandwich is very similar to that of the renowned cheesesteak in PA. A torta ahogada is essentially a pork sandwich made on baguette-like bread smothered in a spicy tomato sauce. It’s absolutely delicious and very unique. Other famous dishes here include birria (slow-cooked meat stew), carne en su jugo (beef broth with beans, eaten with tortillas), and jericalla (a flan/crème brûlée like dessert). The French flair that can be seen (and tasted) in a lot of Guadalajara’s signature dishes actually comes from the large swath of French immigrants who came into the area throughout the 1800s.

Not exactly a food, but I would be remiss if I didn’t share the fact that tequila is also an important claim of Guadalajara/Jalisco. The city of Tequila (which is how the drink got its name) is about 40 miles (65km) outside GDL. Grown only in this particular region of Mexico, the blue agave plant (as opposed to other varieties) is what separates tequila from other types of mezcal. Its status is highly protected, and the drink is as beloved here as it is the States. Although the margarita is really more of a US thing, cocktails containing tequila mixed with various fruits, juices, and either salt or tajín (a powder made of chilis and dried fruit) are super common here. In Guadalajara, I’d say the paloma is the most popular tequila-based cocktail, which is made with tequila, lime juice, grapefruit soda (usually Squirt), and salt mixed right into the drink.  

Other Notables

Guadalajara is known as a cultural hub of Mexico because not only does tequila (a national icon) originate here, but so does mariachi. The traditional music often associated with Mexico in general has gone through a lot of phases during its development and various influences. From handmade stringed instruments played by indigenous groups to the brightly colored outfits and trumpets of performers today, you can listen to a variety of mariachi styles in the Plaza de los Mariachis or in various restaurants across Guadalajara (and across Mexico as a whole), especially for important events. Mariachi, and its history, is widely celebrated in GDL, for example with a yearly Mariachi festival, during which (in 2009) a group of over 540 musicians gathered to break the world record for largest mariachi group playing together. One of the songs they played was, of course, “Guadalajara”, famously covered by Elvis Presley.

Other interesting facts about Guadalajara include: the Roman/Greek goddess Minerva/Athena has become a symbol of the city. She has a large statue near the Arch of Guadalajara and is also featured on the city’s license plates. GDL has two professional soccer teams: the Atlas and the Chivas, and from what I understand, the latter is arguably the most famous and successful team in Mexico. Guadalajara also has the largest indoor market in Latin America (Mercado San Juan de Dios also known as Mercado Libertad), which spans over 430,000 sq ft (40,000 sq m). GDL was also the birthplace of celebrities Guillermo del Toro (the director) and Canelo Álvarez (the boxer). And…it’s only a 4-5hour flight from Atlanta or Chicago! Ultimately, it’s a really remarkable city, and unlike some of the other places we’ve lived, the locals here know it and love it just as much as we do. I think you will too!

¡Todos bienvenidos!

Fun Facts and Features of Mexican Spanish

Mi escuela

It’s pretty safe to say I’ve been learning and using quite a bit of Spanish as of late. Living abroad, immersed in a new language and culture tends to push certain language lessons to the forefront (like how to order food, how to pay your bills, etc.), but recently, I decided I wanted more lessons, formal lessons. So, I started taking intensive Spanish courses at the University of Guadalajara. It has been so much fun to be a student again and to learn so much about the Spanish language, a language that has been strikingly absent in my life prior to this move. I took Latin classes in high school and (mostly) French in university before focusing on Polish and Chinese, so for me Spanish is super exciting and feels brand new. In fact, it’s so exciting and new that I want to share some of the things I have loved most about getting to know good ol’ español.

1 The Arabic Influence

The first thing I noticed right off the bat was the huge Arabic influence. Of course, I know Spain and the Arab empires had a history (to put it mildly), but I was still really surprised at the number of daily-use Spanish words that have a strong Arabic flair. My favorite of which is definitely “ojalá”. Ojalá means “hopefully” in Spanish, and as soon as I heard it, I knew there was an “allah” connection in there. The sound and use are super similar to the expression “inshallah”, which I’ve been hearing my Saudi students say for years. Now I think I use “ojalá” almost as frequently as they use “inshallah”, and I absolutely love it. The name Guadalajara is actually another example of Arabic influence. It means “valley of the stone” in Arabic. Other common words with Arabic roots are: alberca (pool), arroz (rice), jarabe (syrup), naranja (orange), sandía (watermelon), taza (cup), and zanahoria (carrot).

This is what comes to mind when I think “alberca”

2 The Drama

Go team perros!

Another feature of Spanish that I immediately loved was the drama or passion that is imbedded directly into the language. For example, to say “I’m sorry” in Spanish, you might use “lo siento”. However, if you translate the phrase literally, it means something more like “I feel it”, which I feel has a bit more strength to it. Another super common expression in Spanish is “me gusta _____”, which is generally translated as “I like _____”; however, grammatically, it’s more like saying “I am pleased by ______”. I feel a little Victorian and definitely a tad dramatic when I translate phrases like these in my head (“Yes, the tacos please me immensely, thank you kind sir”). I can also feel the emotion in some of the vocabulary/etymology divergences as well. “Pets” in Spanish are “mascotas”, which feels so much stronger to my English brain. I also love the vivid images given to “word searches” and “ironing boards” in Mexican Spanish, which are “sopa de letras” (letter soup) and “burros de planchar” (ironing donkeys), respectively.

3 The Specificity

Something else that jumped out at me pretty early on in my Spanish crash course was the specificity of the language. The first example I was met with was the fact that in Spanish I can be American (“americana”) or I can be United Statesian (“estadounidense”). This is a specification I really wish was just as easy and natural to make in English. Another good example is the term “treintañeros” or thirty-somethings, which is a word that this particular treintañera has found quite useful. Of course, there is also a seemingly endless supply of words for taco-like things: tacos, vampiros, dorados, gringas, guisados, etc. We’re honestly still figuring out all the particulars there, but it’s not just Mexican dishes that require this level of specificity, the ingredients often call for it too: for example, the difference between tomate and jitomate. From my understanding, tomates are green and rather small, whereas jitomates are your general Romas, beefsteaks, etc. Neither of which should be confused with my personal favorite: jitomates cherry.

4 The Slang

Another fun feature (of every language really) is the slang. And no, I don’t necessarily mean bad words, just words that are used in a more playful way. Some of my recent Spanish favorites include:

-Chafa (crappy)

-Chavorucco (someone older that acts young)

-Chido (cool)

-Chin (darn)

-Codo (literally “elbow”, figuratively “stingy”)

-Crudo (literally “raw”, figuratively “hungover”)

-Fresa (stuck up/snobby)

-Garrón (freeloader)

-Güey (dude)

-Moja pendejos (literally “wet idiots”, figuratively “annoying drizzly rain”)

-Naco (trashy/tacky)

5 The Trip-ups

¿Jabón o jamón?

But perhaps the most fun (and memorable) part of learning a new language are the missteps. Language is tricky and one slip of the tongue or change of a vowel and you could be saying something completely different. For example, when I was asked if I have a boyfriend or spouse. Instead of saying, “sí, soy casada” (yes, I’m married), I said “sí, soy cansada” (yes, I’m tired). I’m pretty sure it sounded like I was tired of being married. Haha! Sorry Tucker! Another slip-up I made recently reminded me of my students. In English there is always an issue with the pronunciation of “soup” and “soap”. They’re super similar words, but definitely not interchangeable. Well, I made the same kind of strange substitution when attempting to ask for soap (jabón), but instead asking for ham (jamón). Oops! Sometimes the missteps can be a bit more extreme as well. When trying to recall the general word for seafood (mariscos), I actually said something not so nice in Spanish, and promptly got a lesson in pronunciation as well as political correctness.

I’ve been having an amazing time learning and using such an incredibly rich and fun language. Making new friends and discussing the intricacies of linguistics (or else trying to ignore them completely and just speak) has continually reinforced all the reasons I love living abroad and being (currently) surrounded by all things español. ¡Qué buenas ondas! Ojalá this is only the beginning!

La Comida: The Regional Cuisines of México

Mmm…enchiladas…

I absolutely love Mexican food! Tacos, enchiladas, guacamole…yes, yes, yes! But what I didn’t know and what I’m still learning is that the old stand-bys that we all know and love are only the teeny tiny tip of the authentic, Mexican food iceberg (quite the image, I know!). After delving a bit deeper into some of the regions of Mexico in 2019, and definitely more so recently, I’ve been discovering (and tasting) a lot of this incredible variety. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Like in many large, diverse countries, the dishes of Mexico are often grouped by geographical region. The boundaries of these regions might differ slightly from person to person and occasionally a few are lumped together for simplicity, but in general, there are seven main regional cuisines: Baja, El Norte, Bajío/The West, Gulf Coast, Central, South Pacific, and Yucatán. 

Starting at the top left is the region of Baja, and you guessed it; this region contains the two states that make up the Baja California peninsula. The food of this region is sometimes called Cali-Mex, and it is often seen as somewhat of a fusion of Mexican and Californian fare. Being surrounded in water, seafood is, of course, a big part of the local cuisine there. Baja is well-known for its amazing ceviches (fresh, raw fish cured in citrus juices) as well as the infamous Baja fish tacos. Interestingly, Baja is also the point of origin for the now quite internationally famous Caesar salad.

(ceviche)
(one-stop, cheese shop)

Next, and easily the largest region in Mexico is El Norte (The North). This is the region that has arguably had the greatest effect on US-Mexican food (including the super Americanized hybrid that is Tex-Mex). This cuisine and culture evolved around ranch life; thus, beef is a main component. Flour (as opposed to corn) also reigns supreme here, and the need for a meal on the go (say via horseback) is how some say the burrito was born. Fajitas and other grilled dishes are also popular, and many of Mexico’s numerous cheeses are made in El Norte.

(carne en su jugo)

The next region on the list is very close to my heart (I live here), and funnily enough it’s often referred to as the “heart of Mexico”. Bajío means lowlands in Spanish, but the region generally includes states not necessary lying solely in the lowlands. This region, of which Jalisco is front and center, is known for its signature dishes, such as birria (a sort of meat stew), tortas ahogadas (literally “drowned sandwiches”, which are sandwiches swimming in tomato or chili-based sauces), and carne en su jugo (“beef in its juice”), as well as its desserts, like arroz con leche (rice pudding) and the absolutely delicious cajeta (caramel made from goat’s milk). Jalisco is also the birthplace of tequila, so the influence clearly doesn’t stop at food!

(torta ahogada)
(coconut fried shrimp)

Heading east, we come to the Gulf Coast of Mexico. This is the region where the Spanish first landed, and their influence can be seen even in the modern-day cuisine of the area. One of the most popular dishes is Huachinango, or baked snapper flavored with traditional Spanish ingredients like olives, garlic, and capers. The incredibly diverse Caribbean and African influence can also be seen in this region. Unsurprisingly, seafood is generally the protein of choice here, particularly shrimp, although plantains also feature prominently, as well as vanilla, which is indigenous to the area.  

Another big-hitter in the Mexican cuisine line-up is the Central region, which includes Mexico City and Puebla, two very influential areas. Here the Aztec influence can still be felt (and tasted), especially in the abundant use of chili peppers. In fact, Mexico’s most patriotic dish, Chiles en Nogada (which are stuffed chili peppers in a walnut sauce sprinkled with parsley and pomegranate seeds), hails from this region. Street foods such as tacos and tortas are also generally associated with Central Mexico and like El Pastor (spit-grilled pork), probably come from the mixing of cultures that has always been prevalent in this part of Mexico. Interestingly, while the Central region is famous for its street foods and cheap eats, this is also the location for Mexico’s haute cuisine scene as well. 

Down in the South Pacific region, lies another internationally renowned cuisine, particularly the dishes and food culture of Oaxaca. Known for its moles (traditional Mexican sauces/marinades) and the use of chocolate in savory dishes, the South Pacific has been influenced by the Zapotecs and other indigenous peoples. This is the region where chapulines (grasshoppers) can be found as well as other unique ingredients like huitlacoche (corn fungus). Oaxacan cuisine is often touted as one of the greatest untapped resources of the culinary world.

(panuchos)

Finally, we have the oft-visited, Yucatán peninsula. The resort cities of Cancún or Cozumel have their own culinary flair (catered to the needs of their many guests), but this region also has an array of incredible Mayan-influenced dishes. Papadzules (hard-boiled egg-stuffed tortillas covered in a pumpkin seed sauce), Cochinita Pibil (roasted pork), and anything with achiotes (flavorful seeds turned spices), are all unique, colorful, and absolutely delicious. As are the numerous tropical fruits incorporated into this region’s cuisine. Another personal favorite of mine, Yucatán cuisine surprises me at every bite. Even the seemingly simple panuchos (fried tortillas topped with beans, chicken, avocado, and pickled veggies) are just perfect.

(papadzules) (poc chuc) (relleno negro)

Of course, this is only a sample of the thousands and thousands of dishes that originated in Mexico. In fact, some of the most ubiquitous weren’t even included on this list because they don’t really belong to any particular region; dishes like chilaquiles (sort of like breakfast nachos), tacos, sopes (sometimes called Mexican pizza), tostadas, quesadillas, molletes (toasted bean and cheese flatbreads), pozole (hominy or puffed-corn soup), elotes, and tamales. They instead represent the country and its people as a whole; a country every bit as diverse as its cuisine. So, the next time you find yourself in Mexico (or even in a Mexican restaurant) try to stray away from the classic enchiladas or quesadillas and see what other offerings are available – you might find a few new favorites (much like I certainly have). Either way, ¡buen provecho!

(elotes) (chilaquiles) (flautas, fried tacos, y molletes) (sopes) (pozole)

Interesting Country Facts A-Z

April is here and with it, as always, comes birthdays week. Generally, around this time, Tucker and I are gearing up for a celebratory trip; however, just like last year, no such adventure is on our horizon. No worries though because over the past year I’ve done more than enough armchair travelling for another round-up of interesting country facts, this time coming to you alphabetically. Enjoy!

Antigua – This relatively small island in the Eastern Caribbean has a sweet secret known as the Antigua Black, the world’s sweetest and rarest variety of pineapple.

Belize – Many countries are known for their wines, but Belize puts a bit of a spin on the traditional recipe. In this Central American country, they specialize in making cashew wine, or wine made from the fermented fruits of cashew trees.

Chile – While the world’s first potatoes are generally thought to have been grown in Peru, approximately 99% of modern-day potato varieties are genetically linked to a small island off the cost of Southern Chile.

Dominican Republic – Located on Hispaniola, one of the largest and most diverse islands of the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic was highly sought after during the Colonial Era. Due to the relatively early Spanish presence/conquest of the area, the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor in Santo Domingo is actually the oldest cathedral in the Americas (completed in 1541).

Equatorial Guinea – People from this Central African nation are called Equatoguineans and their official language is, somewhat surprisingly, Spanish.

Fiji – The name “Fiji” is actually the Tongan word/pronunciation of the island; the Fijian word is “Viti”. The misnomer occurred because the first encounters between western explorers and Fijians took place on the island of Tonga.  

Ghana – Ghana, which means “Warrior King”, is located on the Gold Coast of West Africa. It is home to the world’s largest artificial lake, Lake Volta, which has a surface area of over 2 million acres.

Haiti – On the other half of Hispaniola (the second largest island in the Caribbean) lies Haiti, which is often associated with Voodoo. However, “voodoo” is actually more of a product of US pop culture than an accurate portrayal of the Haitian religion known as Vodou.  

India – As a country well-known for its delicious curries, I found it interesting that the word “curry” likely comes from the Tamil word “kari” meaning “sauce”. Tamil is spoken throughout most of Southern India.

Jamaica – Like many English-speaking islands in the Caribbean, Jamaica celebrates Boxing Day and/or New Year’s Day with a colorful parade known as Junkanoo. Interestingly, “Junkanoo!” is also the name of a Baha Men album. 

Kyrgyzstan – Kyrgyzstan has a long history, thus it’s not so surprising that it has its fair share of epics, such as one of the world’s longest poems, the Epic of Manas. This poem of more than 500,000 lines revolves around the hero Manas and his many adventures.

Lesotho – An enclaved country entirely within South Africa, Lesotho has the distinction of having the world’s highest low point. In fact, the elevation of the entire country is above 1,000m (3,300ft), which is why it has the nickname “Kingdom in the Sky”.  

Madagascar – Madagascar is home to many diverse ethnic groups, each of which has their own traditional customs and rituals. One that I found particularly interesting was the Famadihana ceremony, or the turning of the bones, where families rebury their ancestors with fresh cloth, on which they write the names of the deceased so they will always be remembered.

Nepal – Most people know that Mount Everest sits on the border of Nepal and Tibet/China, but I recently learned that the Nepalese name of the infamous mountain is Sagarmatha. In Tibetan it’s known as Chomolungma.

Oman – The humble Sultanate of Oman is actually the oldest independent state in the Arab world, but perhaps even more interestingly, the most popular soft drink there is Mountain Dew.

Panama – The recent Ever Given debacle has shed some light on the importance of shipping canals, and where there’s a need, there’s a price. The Panama Canal makes over $2 billion per year in shipping fees. The average toll for a ship to travel through the canal is about $150,000.

Qatar – A peninsula on a peninsula, Qatar is the flattest non-island country in the world. It would also be a fantastic Scrabble word if proper nouns were allowed!

Russia – Russia is big. The Trans-Siberian railway, which crosses the entire country, is over 9,300km (5,700 miles) long. It’s easily one of the longest and busiest railway lines in the world. 

Sri Lanka – The teardrop of India is known for its tea (Ceylon being a former name of Sri Lanka), but it’s also where cinnamon was first cultivated.

Tanzania – While there are many notable features of Tanzania, my favorite country fact is that Zanzibar, an island just off the coast, was the location for the world’s shortest war. The Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896 lasted about 40 minutes.

Uganda – This Central African country was given the nickname “the Pearl of Africa” by none other than Winston Churchill. He wrote fondly of the country and its diversity in his book “My African Journey” published in 1908.

Vatican City – Technically a city-state, the Vatican City has lots of strange laws, one of which has to do with the guards they employ. Evidently the guards that protect the Vatican must be Swiss males between 19-30 years of age and they must be over 174cm (5’8’’) tall. The uniforms are also required.

Wales – Part of the United Kingdom, Wales is sometimes overlooked by its somewhat more famous neighbors, but a surprising number of celebrities are Welsh: Roald Dahl, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Anthony Hopkins just to name a few.

Yemen – Yet another country on the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is the suspected home of the infamous Queen of Sheba. 

Zimbabwe – Zimbabwe has had a rough history of leaders. From the late 1980’s to 2017, a disastrous authoritarian regime threw the country’s economy into a tizzy leading to many crashes and insane hyperinflation. For this reason, Zimbabwe’s government was printing 100 trillion-dollar notes as recently as 2009.

Fun Facts: US Presidents Edition

Lots of holidays this week, no? Pączki Day, Lunar New Year, Valentine’s Day, and on Monday, Presidents’ Day! Yay! I know you probably feel like you’ve heard enough about US politics to last you a lifetime, but since I love a good theme AND I actually read a really interesting book about the US presidents last year, I thought I’d post some fun facts about our chief executives throughout the years. I promise these are solely amusing trivia tidbits – nothing that will make you want to smash your head against the wall or angrily take to Facebook.

Washington strikes me as a cat’s eye man.

1 – George Washington was an avid marble player.

2 – John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same oddly fitting day: July 4th, 1826. James Monroe also died on July 4th (five years later in 1831).

3 – Thomas Jefferson loved pasta and designed and built his own “macaroni machine”.

Macaroni machine or torture device?

4 – James Madison was the shortest president (Lincoln was the tallest).

5 – James Monroe ran uncontested in 1820 ushering in the “The Era of Good Feelings”.

6 – John Q Adams liked to swim naked across the Potomac.

7 – Andrew Jackson was known for dueling and occasionally taking a bullet for his wife’s honor.

8 – Martin Van Buren had the nickname “Old Kinderhook”, which many believe is where we get the expression “O.K.”

9 – William Harrison got sick after his long, outdoor inaugural address and died after only 1 month in office.

Polk’s No Fun Zone

10 – John Tyler was called “His Accidency” as he was the first “Act of God” president.

11 – James Polk banned alcohol and dancing (among other things) from the White House.

12 – Zachary Taylor laid the cornerstone of the Washington Monument while snacking on cherries and milk, which might have given him the bacterial infection that eventually killed him.

13 – Millard Fillmore married his teacher, Abigail Powers.

14 – Franklin Pierce was friends with Nathanial Hawthorne.

15 – James Buchanan never married, the only president thus far to remain a bachelor.

16 – Abraham Lincoln had the legislation for creating the Secret Service agency on his desk the night he was assassinated (although at the time it was an agency meant to stop counterfeiting, not bullets).

You know what they say about hindsight…

17 – Andrew Johnson’s wife, Eliza McCardle, taught him how to write.

18 – Ulysses Grant hated wearing uniforms and received many demerits during his time at West Point.

19 – Rutherford Hayes and his wife Lucy were given a Siamese cat from Bangkok, it was the first Siamese cat in the US.

The Carters also had a Siamese cat, Misty Malarky Ying Yang.

20 – James Garfield was shot by an assassin in July 1881, but died 79 days later due to the misuse of the newly-invented metal detector as well as unsanitary conditions.

21 – Chester Arthur had Louis Tiffany of Tiffany & Co. redecorate the White House.

22 – Grover Cleveland was distantly related to the guy whom the city of Cleveland was named after.

23 – Benjamin Harrison was the first president to have his voice recorded.

24 – Grover Cleveland (again): after being diagnosed with mouth cancer, he had part of his upper jaw removed in a clandestine operation on a yacht.  

25 – William McKinley used to be on the $500 bill, which was last printed in 1934.

Puts those Benjamins to shame!

26 – Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest person to assume the role of president at age 42.

27 – William Taft might have never gotten stuck in a bathtub, but he did install custom-made tubs throughout the White House and various US ships.  

There is just something so bizarre with this…

28 – Woodrow Wilson kept a flock of sheep on the White House lawn.

29 – William Harding’s death might have been caused by an intentional poisoning.

30 – Calvin Coolidge was sworn into office by his father, an official notary public. Also, Coolidge was the only president (thus far) to be born on the 4th of July.

31 – Herbert Hoover was the first president born west of the Mississippi.

32 – Franklin Roosevelt was extremely passionate about his hobby of stamp-collecting. (Bonus fact: FDR’s wife Eleanor once had the KKK put out a $25,000 reward for her assassination.) 

33 – Harry Truman’s solo initial “S” was given to represent both of his grandfathers: Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young.

34 – Dwight Eisenhower changed the name of the famous presidential getaway from Shangri-La to Camp David. He didn’t want to sound too fancy.

35 – John Kennedy was once marooned on an island and sent a successful SOS message via coconut in order to be rescued.

SOS! -JFK

36 – Lyndon Johnson had to deal with the assassinations of JFK, MLK Jr. and Robert Kennedy although he, himself, was never targeted.

37 – Richard Nixon’s daughter, Julie, married the grandson of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower.

38 – Gerald Ford is the only person to have been both vice president and president without ever being elected by the public/Electoral College.

Joan Quigley, Reagan’s astrologer. The 80s must have been wild.

39 – Jimmy Carter was the first president born in a hospital.

40 – Ronald Reagan frequently consulted with an astrologist during his presidency, even keeping a calendar of “good” and “bad” days. Somehow the assassination attempt just wasn’t in the signs…

41 – George H W Bush considered asking Clint Eastwood to be his running mate in 1988.

42 – Bill Clinton has won two Grammy Awards (other presidential Grammy recipients include Jimmy Carter and Barak Obama).

43 – George W Bush’s daughters, Jenna and Barbara, were the first First Family twins.

44 – Barack Obama’s first job was as an ice-cream scooper at Baskin Robbins.

45 – Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, is from Novo Mesto, Slovenia (formerly a part of Yugoslavia) in Central Europe.

Such a good boy!

46 – Joe Biden’s German shepherd, Major, is the first rescue dog to reside in the White House.

Very Superstitious…

Non-scary black cat for me!

It’s October, a strange time of the year where spooky and supernatural things are dressed up in costumes and set out on suburban lawns. Truth be told, Halloween really isn’t my thing. I don’t like scary movies or unexpected visitors, and as I have chocolate in the house year-round, even the candy aspect is a bit of a miss. What I do like, however, is a nice dose of cultural quirks. Therefore, in lieu of ghosts and goblins, this month, I’m sharing my favorite international superstitions, all of which I’ve either heard from my students and/or have experienced myself abroad. Nothing creepy or crawly here, I promise!

The first superstition I thought of is a simple one that I experienced often when I was in China. Much like how we view the number seven as lucky and the number 13 as unlucky, the Chinese, too, have their superstitions regarding certain numbers. One of the strongest of these is about the number four. The number four is generally avoided in China. Elevators will often skip that floor number altogether, and any room numbers or phone numbers that happen to have too many inauspicious fours in them are often shunned as well. So, what makes the number four so unlucky in China? It’s actually the pronunciation of the word. In Mandarin the number four is pronounced [sì], which is unfortunately similar to the word [sǐ] or “death”.

EEK!

Speaking of death (it is Halloween after all…) in South Korea, a common superstition is that sleeping in a closed room with a running fan might actually kill you. This is such a common superstition that “fan death” has its own Wikipedia page. Although the alleged cause of death for these unexplained casualties has never been proven (or even agreed upon), warnings are still commonplace throughout the country. Bet you’ll never look at that unassuming appliance in the corner of your room the same way again!

Another death-related superstition I recently heard comes from Kenya, where owls are actually seen not as wise, candy-crunching mentors, but instead as harbingers of death. Seeing an owl in Kenya is believed to be a bad omen because it means that death will strike soon. Could be you, could be a family member, but you can be sure it’ll be close and quick. Even the local words used for “owl” are often avoided as they might bring about the birds themselves (and subsequently an untimely death). Perhaps Hedwig was the true cause of Harry’s continued misfortunes…

To be fair, they do look pretty menacing…

Bad luck is understandably a pretty common thing to be superstitious about, but my favorite superstitions involving bad luck are the ones that can be traced back to an event or custom in a culture’s history. One example of this would be the fact that it is considered unlucky in France to eat a baguette or loaf of bread that has been kept upside down. This belief is said to come from an old practice of leaving upside-down bread loaves out for the town executioner to pick up. No one would want to anger an executioner by accidently eating his bread, right?  

Safe to count now

Two other superstitions that come to mind when I think about bad luck come from Poland and Mexico. In Poland, we were told not to count any perogies that are being cooked. It’s simply bad luck to do so, and it may result in a ruined dinner. In Mexico, to escape a bit of bad luck, you should avoid sweeping at night because that, too, can bring a curse down on your house. Additionally, even when daytime sweeping in Mexico, you shouldn’t sweep the dirt straight out your front door, otherwise all your good luck will leave with it too. I knew I should have swept it under the rug instead!

If bad luck to you means losing money, then you shouldn’t put your purse or wallet on the floor. In Brazil (and many other countries) this action or even the accidental dropping of your purse/wallet could mean that you’re about to lose a lot of money or else have some other, serious financial difficulties.

In addition to good and bad luck, many other superstitions seem to be concerned with friends and enemies. For example, in Mongolia if you happen to touch someone’s foot or step on their shoe, you should immediately shake hands as a sign of good faith and friendship. If you do not, it means that conflict is on the horizon and that your relationship might be strained in the future. This superstition is so prevalent that even strangers who accidently bump feet will turn and shake hands to combat the negative consequences.

Hard to image much foot contact in these vast spaces!

In another shoe-related superstition, in Egypt, it is considered disrespectful to leave your shoes with their soles facing up. Stemming from ancient Egyptian beliefs, this can be seen as a slight against God, thus a possible omen of bad events (or in a mixing of religious terms, bad karma) heading your way. This superstition also seeps into etiquette because it is also seen as rude to sit with your soles pointing towards another person.

X

In Turkey, it’s sharp objects (or at least passing them to others) that can cause you to lose friends. For example, handing over a pair of scissors might been seen as the cause of a severed relationship in the future. It’s more prudent to set the sharp things on a nearby table than to hand them over directly.

On the other hand, if you find that you want to get rid of an unwelcomed friend, or a visitor that has over-stayed their welcome, in the Philippines, there is a superstition that says sprinkling salt around your house will cause a visitor to leave. I wonder if you throw salt over your shoulder at the same time will the results be magnified or canceled out?

So close to danger, and I didn’t even know!

Other common superstations revolve around mystical creatures and the magic they bring. In Peru, dragonflies are believed to be connected with sorcery and can bring evil to those whom they touch. Luckily, also in Peru, ladybugs are counters to the devious dragonflies, and they can indicate that good luck is on the way.

Some creatures, however, can be related to both good and bad superstitions, as with the Icelandic elves. These “hidden people” are woven into many beliefs and even holiday celebrations in Iceland. For example, there are stories about construction projects being halted because the plans didn’t take into account the feelings and habits of the local elves. They really must be consulted if you want things to run smoothly. I’ve also heard they throw some pretty awesome Christmas parties.

And there you have it! A well-rounded 13 international superstitions to keep you up at night wondering how many times you brought the bad luck on yourself with your unsuspecting actions. Perhaps this explains all the bad juju in 2020? Something to think about! Happy Halloween! 😉

Five Years From Fulbright

Loved every minute of it!

It’s hard for me to believe, but this month marks five years from when Tucker and I first embarked on a long term, overseas adventure. It’s hard to say when exactly we decided that life abroad was something we wanted for our future, but I do remember asking if we could just stay in Finland indefinitely when we took our first international trip, just after our wedding/university graduation. I was immediately hooked on the adventure, but for Tucker, I think having a set plan and an entire, relatively stable year of not only living but also working in another country gave him the insight he needed, which ended up shifting our life plan pretty drastically.

At both Dalton State and Georgia State we had wanted to study abroad, but it was just way too expensive, even with scholarship help. However, in grad school I learned about Fulbright. An exchange program that provides grants for individual research projects, or in the case of the ETA program, specifically assigned teaching posts. It was obviously an amazing opportunity to not only experience another culture, life abroad, professional development, etc. but to also make money in the process – something extremely valuable to those graduating with student loans. However, before you can apply for a highly competitive Fulbright grant, you first have to choose a country/placement that interests you (and that will hopefully give you a good chance of success). For us, this was another easy choice and an incredible opportunity; we chose Poland.

2015-2016 Cohort

My heritage ties, solid grades, and excellent letters of recommendation (thanks again mentors!) eventually pushed us across the almost year long application/waiting process. We got the “congratulations” email in March, with a departure date in September. It was our first experience with a State Department exchange program, and it made a lasting impression. Meeting my fellow Fulbrighters, the Fulbright Commission staff in Warsaw, and eventually my mentor and colleagues at the University of Łódź completely solidified my respect for cultural exchange and soft diplomacy. I learned so much about Poland, the United States, history, politics, teaching, you name it, but I think what surprised me most was how much I learned about myself.

Tucker in the midst of solving a problem…

Being in a completely new environment always shifts one’s focus, and I would argue that living in a new environment (such as in a new country/culture) shifts it permanently. I absolutely loved that every day was an adventure. Going to the bank, setting up our internet connection, grocery shopping: it was all exciting and gave us new insights into everything from security and privacy to historical ties and familial influence. For problem-solvers like me and Tucker, it was a constant string of puzzles and challenges to work through often with the most amusing results and exciting successes. It also allowed for exceptional personal growth – interpersonal skills, patience, dealing with ambiguity. These skills I now cherish were addressed and honed day after day as an expat. 

Legendary hospitality!

Then there is everything we learned about Poland and about my family and my heritage. Seeing some of the “quirks” of my family represented by an entire culture, experiencing the long-lasting effects of World War II, celebrating Wigilia with new friends, eating as many pierogi and kopytka as humanly possible – we tried to soak in as much as we could. In fact, there are many habits we picked up in Poland that are still a part of our everyday lives. I discovered my love of both herbata (tea) and piwo (beer) in Poland. Tucker and I developed an interest in history and politics that we didn’t really have before. We saw firsthand how important fresh, wholesome food is and we learned how to shed some of our homegrown laziness, both of which have influenced our daily lives ever since.

Another unexpected gain from my time with Fulbright was a shift from a strong interest in teaching language (an obvious passion of mine) to an even stronger passion of teaching and discussing culture as well. After Fulbright I learned about the English Language Fellow Program, which allowed me to continue this combined effort of teaching English/language skills while at the same time learning from each other as our mutual understanding and friendships grew. Tucker and I are now considering taking this idea one step further and potentially joining the foreign service in order to continue developing meaningful intercultural relationships with people from all over the world. Fulbright gave us a glimpse into the many incredibly powerful things exchange programs can do.

Looking back at this seemingly small part of my academic/professional career, it’s clear to see it definitely had a huge impact on my life. It changed the way I view myself and my culture as well as how I see the world. From Fulbright 2015-2016 right up to the craziness that is 2020 and hopefully beyond, I plan to continue sharing my experiences in exchanging culture and shifting perspectives, whether with the help of specially designed programs like Fulbright, through my online teaching of international students, or throughout my life as an expat anywhere in the world. These five years have absolutely flown by, but I will forever be grateful for every step along the way. Thank you, Fulbright, and dziękujemy, Poland.

So thankful

Fun Florida Facts (and Opinions)

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Oh, 2020…

This year has thrown a lot of surprises at the world (and some not-so-surprising events as well really), but for me and Tucker one of the most unexpected occurrences has been our prolonged stay in Florida. We were only meant to be here for a few months as we gathered our lives from various corners of the world in order to head north for the next few years. Of course, with a brief snag in our immigration paperwork followed by a global pandemic, we’ve found ourselves in a holding pattern since March. And while, like everyone else, I’m still struggling to figure out what this all means for our jobs, our future, our society, etc. I’ve also been doing what I do best in a new place: exploring. Even though this exploring has taken place mostly online (and occasionally from a socially acceptable distance), life in Florida has still been quite interesting, and in some ways enlightening. Thus, for this month’s post, I have put together a list of my newly gleaned facts (and opinions) to share about our temporary home.

Cartoon Florida
Hi, guys! Wanna be my friend?

The first thing I have to mention is the fact that everyone seems to have an opinion about Florida. People who have never even been here feel one way or another about it, and plenty of people like to vocalize their opinions (many of which are quite negative) without much regard to facts or feelings. I say this as a non-Floridan, someone who doesn’t have a strong feeling one way or another about this particular state, but sheesh, even I feel bad listening to the many tirades and verbal attacks on the Sunshine State, especially those that can be found online. In our brief time here, I’ve come to view Florida as the state that’s often picked on, but that everyone secretly likes and takes advantage of (like an annoying kid in school that has a really nice pool).

When reflecting on why there are so many negative associations with Florida and Floridians floating around out there, I feel it boils down to two things: 1) the Florida Man and 2) vacationers. Most everyone knows about the Florida Man trope nowadays. A long-lasting meme that has permeated the internet and beyond, it originally referred to the crazy headlines often found in Florida that always begin with “Florida man…” and usually end with his doing something absolutely absurd. But interestingly, one of the first things I learned about the Florida Man origins is that they were sparked by a change in state law. In the 1990’s Florida passed the Sunshine Law, which ensures public access to all government records, including police arrest records. As you can imagine, in 30 years, the spring break capital of the US has racked up quite a few crazy stories, which brings me to my next point.

 

Vacationers. Probably the first thing we noticed after a few months in Florida was the ebb and flow of the people. Renters in, renters out; snow birds in, snow birds out; spring-breakers in, and (thankfully) spring-breakers out. The state of Florida has approximately 22 million permanent residents, but sees 110 million tourists annually. That’s a lot of YOLOing for any place to deal with. I think I actually first noticed this phenomenon in grocery stores. People in bathing suits, vacation gear (lots of Disney paraphernalia where we are), and a general lack of care for their immediate environment. Many people are here for a short time and their mindset is to live it up; therefore, chaos ensues, sometimes in the form of drunken parties and possible police involvement (which is then publicly documented for all the word to see and share).

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Three Sisters Springs

Of course, I completely understand why so many people choose to vacation to Florida. It’s an amazing place for affordable and varied entertainment. We’ve got theme parks all over the place: Disney World, Legoland, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, (and for a select clientele) Gatorland. There is also an abundance of parks, lakes, and other natural features like the Everglades, hot springs, swamps, and of course, the many, many beaches. Florida actually has the longest coastline of any of the contiguous states, and the climate (especially in south FL) means beach-going is possible year-round.

Speaking of South Florida, another thing that became immediately clear upon moving here was the presence of three distinct regions. You have North Florida, Central Florida, and Southern Florida, and the people who live (and vacation) in these three places often differ as much as the geography. We’ve heard this said a few times now: the further north you go in Florida, the further South you are. This refers to the fact that northern Florida is very much like Georgia, Alabama, the Carolinas, etc. Demographically, linguistically, socially, north of Ocala is really part of the South. On the other side, you have South Florida which held onto its Spanish roots and still welcomes a large influx of immigrants from Central and South America. The influence can be seen, heard, felt, and tasted as soon as you drive south of Lake Okeechobee. And that leaves Central Florida, which is somewhat a mix of the two and also somewhat the result of many retirees from out of state. Orlando and many other cities in Central Florida are very much like any other major city in the US: professional, progressive, and a tad hipster.

Another part of life in Florida that caught my attention early on was the naming of the coasts. Most likely, at least in part due to tourism, each section of the coastline in Florida has a name and, for lack of a better word, a vibe. You have the Space Coast, which is the location of the Kennedy Space center and where all the rocket launches take place (which we can see from our driveway, btw). You also have the Gold Coast where the big cities (Fort Lauderdale and Miami) and the famous South Beach are located. There’s the Sun Coast with its beautiful sunsets, the Nature Coast with its natural springs and manatees, and even the First Coast, which is where you can find the first and longest continuously inhabited settlement in modern day USA.

FloridaCoastalRegions
I sense another checklist forming…

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Castillo de San Marcos

Since our trip to Saint Augustine and the First Cost, I’ve been really interested in Florida’s history and particularly how it differs from that of the colonies. Perhaps most people remember that Florida was first claimed by Spain, which is why we still see so many names like: Boca Raton, Punta Gorda, Buena Vista, etc., but what I (having taken Georgia History, not Florida History, in school) found super interesting was the native American history here. Of course, it now seems quite obvious with place names like: Tallahassee, Kissimmee, and Osceola, but I never gave much thought to the tribes that called Florida home and were actually some of the first to be attacked and displaced. Indeed, the Creek/Seminole tribes, in particular, not only found themselves stuck in the middle of a fight between Britain and Spain during the Seven Years’ War, but went on to challenge the US settlers with what is now known as the Seminole Wars, some of the longest and most expensive in early US history. Historically, Florida has seen a lot, and I don’t think it gets much credit for its important place in US history, let alone world history.

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Daily torrential rain

Finally, the last surprising fact I am very pleased to share is about the weather. As cold weather people, Tucker and I were very much dreading our time spent in the humid and, yes, extremely sunny Florida, especially as that time started to stretch into summer. However, I’m happy to report that it’s really not so bad! Florida is really breezy, which certainly helps with the heat, and now that we’re officially in summer, I can say that there’s a bit of a rainy season here meaning the afternoon thunderstorms that happen almost every day also help to cool it down. We’ve both commented that while the warmer temps might last longer, they don’t feel near as oppressive as summer in Atlanta. Plus, the produce here is absolutely amazing! In addition to citrus, Florida produces significant percentages of the country’s tomatoes, watermelons, cucumbers, and sugar cane.

All in all, Florida has been a surprise in many ways for us (including the very exciting news that there is no state income tax in Florida!). Ultimately, our time here has really just been another lesson in finding out how much there is to discover/learn, even in a place you think you already know pretty well. So, what have you learned so far in 2020?

Florida Adventures

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Contemplating the state of the world

Have I already mentioned what an interesting year 2020 is turning out to be…well, anyway, as you may have heard, we should all be self-quarantining now. So what better time is there to write about all the adventures we had (and some we still have) planned for our sojourn in Florida, which has also been quite unexpected and rife with issues (more on that in a later, much longer post).

For now, let’s focus on Florida: the Sunshine State, the Family Vacation Mecca, the Hotbox of the East Coast. Of course, like most middle-class Americans east of the Mississippi, Tucker and I had been to Florida many times in our lives. Apparently my first ocean experience was as a two month old at New Port Richey Beach; Tucker and I both visited grandparents down here when we were little (mine in St. Pete and his in Fort Pierce), and of course, if you know my family, you know we’ve made our fair share of trips to the big WDW. We actually both remember separate trips to Pensacola for one reason or another, and as I have family in the Villages, we’ve made several stops there as well. But, when my parents officially moved down here back in 2017, Tucker and I planned and took a trip to Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Key West (with his mom this time), which I believe truly marked the beginning of our new and focused Florida Explorations.

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Sunset Key

So, when we came back this year, knowing immigration would take a few months, we decided to really see what Florida has to offer. I made a list, shocking I know, and we’ve done our best amid the global and domestic catastrophes to explore our new state of temporary residency. Here’s what we’ve done:

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Butter beer!

1 – Universal Studios

The first place I knew had to be on the list was Universal Studios. Tucker had never been, and the last time I was here was in 2006 with a friend and her family. Since then, they’ve added pretty much the only thing that could draw me away from Disney and into another over-priced theme park: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Long story short, it’s no Disney, but you really can’t miss visiting Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, can you?

 

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So amazing!

2 – Daytona Beach

We realized pretty early on in our Florida-life that everything in the state is between 1-3 hours away from Orlando, so it was easy to plan Saturday excursions in any direction. One of the first of such excursions was to Daytona Beach, which boasts the title of “The World’s Most Famous Beach”. And while I might not go that far, it’s always great fun to share a fishbowl drink overlooking the waves.

3 – Disney Brunches

Some of the things on our list are events rather than places, as with our plan to go to brunch with family on the first Sunday of each month we are in Florida. This was narrowed down to Disney-specific brunches because my parents get a discount and, well, we love the World. So far we’ve been to Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’, Boma – Flavors of Africa, and the Whispering Canyon Cafe. Next up was going to be the Wave…of American Flavors, but I think April’s brunch might be an at-home affair.

4 – Cocoa Beach and the Space Coast

82989356_10221868133720808_9032252941439860736_nNext up, my dad wanted to try a famous seafood place (Dixie Crossroads) out on the Atlantic coast, which I quickly paired up with a drive to Cocoa Beach and Port Canaveral. Although it was a quick visit, we walked along the beach and the pier, looked for the cruise ships and the Space Center, and learned that Florida has a nickname for every single section of coastline.

5 – Crystal River Manatees

Of course, I had to include Florida’s friendliest sea creature in our excursions! Tucker and I took a drive up to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to see some free range manatees and were blown away by the large numbers of them. While they definitely kept their distance, and rightly so, it was incredible to watch them splash and float around in adorable aggregations (which I learned is the group noun for manatees).

6 – Downtown Orlando

Just as I spent a lot of time exploring Atlanta when we lived there, I knew I wanted to go through the different neighborhoods and attractions of Orlando as well, you know, aside from the theme parks. One day we took a lovely walk around Eola Lake and up around Church Street. We went to see Henry IV at Orlando Shakes and strolled around all the museums on the north side. We’ve also found our new favorite used bookstore in Best Used Books and have been back and forth to all sorts of Orlando hot spots since January.

7 – Hop Passport: Florida Edition89925318_10222367882414213_2624685322386014208_n

Actually, one of the main reasons we’ve been to so many random locations in Florida is due to our quest to get a stamp at as many local breweries as possible. My sister-in-law and her boyfriend gave us the amazing Hot Passport for Christmas this year, and we’ve had a great time checking off places and seeing new cities across Florida. We’re at 14 out of 96 so far, and you should definitely check out the Hop Passport for your state if you’re also a beer-lover. You just can’t beat half-off beers!

8 – Disney (free things)

Another more open-ended item on our list is to finally do some of the free things at Disney that we never had the time or energy to do on previous trips. We haven’t bought park tickets for our time in Florida this year, but we’ve had a great time attending free events, walking the Boardwalk, hanging out at Disney Springs (the free shopping and entertainment area), and so much more. If you want a list of fun, free, and non-kiddie things to do at Disney, please let me know. I’m practically an expert.

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The Boardwalk: my favorite Disney place!

9 – Saint Augustine

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Castillo de San Marcos

Finally, on our last day of freedom (pre-self-quarentine), Tucker and I drove up to Saint Augustine to learn a bit more about Florida’s very long history. We visited the Fountain of Youth, the Colonial Quarter, the oldest masonry fort in the US, and ultimately saw a completely different side to this seriously diverse state. I’d really love to go back and explore Saint Augustine even more one day; it’s really an awesome city.

And so that brings me to a few things still on our list for the oh-so-tentative future:

* Take a train

I absolutely love trains, and when I saw how frequently they’re actually used in Florida (albeit still over-priced and not terribly convenient), I knew I needed to try them out for myself. Probably after the pandemic though…

Train

* Naples/Everglades

The Naples area is deemed “Paradise Coast” and it’s one part of Florida neither of us have ever been to; therefore, it was an obvious choice for the list. We’ve also never truly been into Everglades National Park (we’ve only driven through parts of it), so we tacked that (and the obligatory airboat ride that accompanies it) on as well.

* Devil’s Den

A place that has been on my travel to-do list for years now, Devil’s Den is an underground spring with clear waters and an abundance of ancient rock formations and fossils. It looks so cool, and I really want to go! Once the water gets a bit warmer though…

Den

* Tampa/deep sea fishing

And for now, the last thing on our list is a trip over to the Gulf Coast for a deep-sea fishing excursion (during which I might just have to close my eyes or ask that we be allowed to catch and release). We’re also planning to do a more thorough exploration of downtown Tampa on this particular trip. I really love the whole two birds, one stone idea.

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Making lemonade!

Well, that’s our Florida bucket list! Fingers crossed that everyone stays home for the next few weeks/months, so we can get back to exploring once everyone’s healthy again. Until then, I might add a few more things to list now that I have such ample time for research! I also challenge everyone reading this to do the same for your state/region – it’s a great way to pass the time and make the most of our days in the future!