Our Trip to South South America

Summer is officially here, so where better to celebrate than South America, where it happens to be winter! Of course, escaping the heat wasn’t our main reason to take off to Argentina this month, but I won’t lie, we were very happy to be donning our coats in July. Such a surreal experience!

In reality, we had many reasons to head to the opposite side of the Americas. For one, when we booked this trip, Canada was still an unknown, and Buenos Aires was at the top of our list for places to go after Guadalajara. Therefore, a large part of this trip was a scouting mission. Would we like southern South America? Would we prefer Buenos Aires or the nearby Montevideo, Uruguay? Could we picture ourselves moving there? Lots of questions to be answered even if the potential move has been pushed a bit further down the line. So, once again, we took to the road (or sky in this case) for some more “research”, and here’s what we discovered:

Seasonal Switch

First off, packing coats, scarves, and gloves for a July vacation was really strange. Of course, we knew the southern hemisphere is always in the opposite season as the northern hemisphere, but experiencing that drastic switch overnight in the dead of summer/winter was still disorienting. As was the fact that the weather got colder as we went further south. I didn’t realize how ingrained “north = colder” was in my brain! We also found it really entertaining to be all bundled up on the 4th of July – I can only imagine how strange Christmas in Argentina would be for me!

Happy 4th of July!

Another surprising, geography-related experience was just how far south Buenos Aires is! Our flight from Mexico City was 9 hours. We could have crossed an ocean in that amount of time! However, I think the long flight is worth it to have four distinct seasons. It was lovely to have brown leaves crunching beneath our feet again. Slightly less lovely was the fact that Buenos Aires is an hour ahead of Eastern Time. In Mexico, we’re an hour behind, and apparently, we’ve gotten really used to our work days ending at 4pm.

Map courtesy of Aeromexico 🙂

Amazing Food

Fugazzetta

Next up on our list of discoveries was actually more of a confirmation. Near our apartment in Guadalajara, we have several Argentine restaurants, and they’re easily some of our favorites in the city. We were beyond excited to try some of our favorite dishes in their country of origin. Thankfully, Argentina did not disappoint! Of course, the steak and wine were incredible (and SO inexpensive!), but the provoleta, the empanadas, the huge number of sandwiches, the dulce de leche – omg. I was extremely impressed with all the international options we had as well. Italian, German, Korean, Asian-style pay-by-weight places, we were definitely able to branch out even in just 2 weeks.

I was also blown away by the café culture of Argentina. I knew that people in South America have an affinity for drinking mate (a tea-like drink) and, of course, as part of Latin America, coffee is popular as well, but what I didn’t expect was just how abundant and accommodating the cafés would be. Literally every block of downtown BA had at least one café, most of which had several floors offering comfortable places to sit, eat, drink, and chat to your heart’s content. And whether at a café or a restaurant, you absolutely must ask for the check because they’ll never hurry you out.    

So Much Nature

While the local food is always a priority for us when we travel, the memories that stick with us longer are often our forays into the surrounding nature, which is something that South America has in spades. We knew we wanted to take a few trips outside Buenos Aires while we were there, but deciding on where to go was so tricky! An overnight train to the Andes out west? A trek through the jungle to see the infamous Iguazu Falls? Or fully embrace winter with a flight down to Cape Horn? Of course, we went with the coldest option!

Thanks to Argentina’s budget airline, Flybondi (which is thankfully still operating post 2020), we were able to find cheap tickets down to Ushuaia. Ushuaia sits in the far south of Patagonia and is known as “the southernmost city in the world”. Here we were able to play in the snow, chill our craft beers on the window sill, and tour the icy Beagle Channel. As a geography nerd, the sheer fact that I was at the southern tip of the Americas, only about 1000km from Antarctica was enough for my bucket list, but the incredible mountains and pink morning skies just made it that much more beautiful.

Fantastic Cities

As amazing as it was to be surrounded by such diverse nature, we definitely spent the majority of our time in the two major capital cities: Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Turns out we could have used even more time because Buenos Aires is huge! That’s really the immediate impression I got from the city. It was a 45-minute ride from the airport to Retiro (a downtown neighborhood), and aside from the distance, the number of massive buildings, many of which were apartments, definitely stood out. Walking downtown, I was also amazed by how tall so many of the building are. Very old, very European-style architecture, but much taller than I seem to remember in Poland (or than what we find in Guadalajara). Luckily everything seemed to be bigger in Buenos Aires because there were also gigantic plazas and parks, wide sidewalks, and many-laned throughfares. It seemed like the kind of place you could live for years and still be discovering new points of interest.

Montevideo, on the other hand, was much smaller. Both in terms of the city’s size and the architecture. Although just a few hours away, across the Rio de la Plata, Montevideo is the capital of Uruguay and has an entirely different vibe. Of course, we were super interested in noting any and all differences (in the name of research) and couldn’t help comparing as we went along. To me, Montevideo felt a little like the quirky younger sibling of Buenos Aires. It was much more colorful with lots of street art and eclectic architecture throughout the old and new sections of the city. It also felt much more coastal with its huge rambla (promenade) and beaches. While a lot of the culinary traditions are similar between the two countries, Uruguay has a few of its own stand-outs as well, like the Chivito sandwich, which is now in Tucker’s top 5 sandwiches of all time.

I give you the Chivito

Spanish Differences

Another interesting experience on this trip (as well as on our trip last year to Ecuador) was the Spanish we were hearing and eventually using. The Spanish I’m learning is Mexican, and this is never more obvious than when we’re traveling in another Spanish-speaking country. Words like “alquilar” (to rent), “maní” (peanut), and “palta” (avocado) gave me pause because we regularly (read: only) use “rentar”, “cacajuate”, and “aguacate”. Just like learning to use “chulla vida” in Ecuador, it was really interesting to see which indigenous words Argentina and Uruguay have adopted and how these (and other) influences still serve to differentiate Spanish varieties around the globe.

However, it wasn’t just the vocabulary that caught our attention on this trip to South America. The first real conversation we had in Argentina was with the security guard in the building where we were staying. He gave us our keys and made sure we knew what to expect with entering, exiting, etc. Luckily, having a few Argentine teachers in the past helped prepare me for hearing things like “sha” and “shaves” instead of “ya” and “llaves”, but it was still much harder than I expected. The accent is SO different from what I’ve grown accustomed to, but it was surprisingly easy to pick up and start using ourselves. After just a few days we were saying “sho” (yo) and “para shevar” (para llevar) like everyone around us!  

So, What’s the Verdict?

Well, we loved it all! We could definitely see ourselves moving to either Buenos Aires or Montevideo in the future, and I would absolutely love to have a few years down there (at least!) to more thoroughly explore South America. Even though we might be going north before we make it back down south, I’m beyond thankful for the opportunity we had to get even a glimpse of such an amazing part of the world! Until next time! ¡Chau!

Top 12 Photos from Poland

Last month I finally decided to move my writings from our time in Poland off Facebook and onto my blog site as individual posts. (Sorry to those of you who got email updates before I remembered to turn off the notifications!) This was a long time coming, and although the process was a little tedious, I thoroughly enjoyed reminiscing about all our trips and experiences in Europe. Therefore, for this month’s blog post, I thought I’d do a little countdown of some of my favorite photos (and the memories that accompany them) from our beloved Polska. Enjoy!

#12 – St. Jakob’s Orthodox Church, Częstochowa

We had never heard of Częstochowa prior to moving to Poland, but after visiting, we fell in love with this highly-organized city of international pilgrimage fame. 

#11 – Orłowo Pier, Gdynia

The Tri-City area of Poland might just be our favorite because it is filled with all sorts of unexpected sights and activities! For example: intriguing pirate ships, beautiful sandy beaches, and a lovely ferry to Hel and back. 

#10 – Słowiński National Park, Łeba

The sand dunes of Słowiński National Park are also high on our list of incredible (yet unexpected) sights in Northern Poland. Is this even Poland? Tak, to jest Polska.

#9 – Market Square, Wrosław

Some cities have something so unique that they will always stand out in your memory. For me, I will always remember Wrosław for its legion of tiny dwarf statues.

#8 – Town Hall, Poznań

Poznań was another city of surprises with the legendary goat dance and the highly revered rogal świętomarciński, a pastry with its own museum. Smacznego!

#7 – Countryside, Silesia

Our main method of transportation around Poland was Polskibus (something I miss dearly). Views of the beautiful countryside from the windows of a double decker bus will forever be etched in my brain.

#6 – Wawel Royal Castle, Kraków

We were lucky enough to visit Kraków several times, but the bar crawl we did on a whim one night gave us more stories than any other singular event in Poland. My head still spins at the memory.

#5 – Oświęcim

Oświęcim, the Polish name for Auschwitz, was a sobering reminder of the horrific events that occurred here and the fact that those who do not remember the past are surely condemned to repeat it.

#4 – Motława River, Gdańsk

Another part of the Tri-City area, Gdańsk, has such an interesting history and local flair. Reflecting on it now, Gdańsk is probably the most likely candidate for a long-term return (other than Łódź, of course).  

#3 – Tatra Mountains

Truly a Winter Wonderland, hiking in the snowy Tatras was utterly surreal. As was the fact that we traversed the 16km trail thick with fresh snow…in gym shoes. I can still feel my frozen toes.

#2 – Malbork Castle, Malbork 

Europe has such a knack for making you and your life feel small in the face of so much history. This was certainly the case in Malbork, exploring the largest Teutonic castle in the world. 

#1 – Główny Rynek, Kalisz

Regardless of destination, the memories (and photos) that mean the most often have to do with friends and family. For me, walking around one of the oldest cities of Poland with my parents falls directly into this category.  

Locations of the 12 photos

What an incredible country! I love reminiscing about all the things we did and saw while living in Poland (thanks for humoring me, by the way). One of the most shocking things about this little project was realizing that this was 7 years ago! We’re clearly long overdue for a trip back. Fingers crossed it happens sooner rather than later! Naprawdę tęsknię za Tobą Polsko.

Quintana Roo – Mexico’s Caribbean Coast

One of my goals for our time spent living in Mexico is to visit as many of the 31 states as I can. In fact, this lofty goal, coupled with the fact that my mother-in-law loves the beach, is what led us on our most recent adventure to Mexico’s easternmost state, Quintana Roo (pronounced “keen-tah-nah row”). Typically, we don’t spend quite as much time (two weeks!) in one state, nor do we often have the luxury of visiting four separate cities and two islands on one trip; however, we definitely wanted to be thorough here because these are some of the most popular tourist destinations both within Mexico and internationally! So, if you’ve always wanted to head on down to Riviera Maya, here’s my summary of what you can see, do, and expect:

Cancún / Isla Mujeres

Our first stop was in Cancún for many reasons. For one, Cancún International Airport is the second largest in the country, which means there are tons of flights in and out from a huge variety of locales. Another solid, practical reason to start in Cancún is the fact that it’s located at the very tip of the Yucatán peninsula, meaning flights from east of the Mississippi are quite short and very affordable. Personally, I also wanted to start in Cancún because I had (erroneously, as it turns out) thought that Cancún would be my least favorite of the cities on our itinerary, and I’m very much a save-the-best-for-last kind of person.

The Best Parts:

Speaking of bests, one of our favorite experiences in Cancún was kayaking among the mangroves in the Nichupte Lagoon. As a planned city, Cancún has several distinct “zones”, and the Nichupte Lagoon is actually what separates the Hotel Zone from the city center, making it very convenient regardless of where you’re staying. The lagoon is part of a protected reserve and boasts incredibly clear and calm water as well as a plethora of flora and fauna. Another must-do, as far as we’re concerned, is a catamaran ride to Isla Mujeres. On a whim, we booked an all-day package that included a catamaran ride, snorkeling through MUSA (an underwater art museum), an open bar, a buffet, and several hours of free time on the island. It was amazing! Dancing to the macarena with a group of strangers was the cherry on top of the perfect beach day. Of course, all the beaches on Cancún and Isla Mujeres are glorious. I have never felt sand so powdery soft or seen such beautiful water both on the shore and out at sea. I totally get why people fall in love with these beaches.

Things to Note:

For me, Cancún (and really all of Riviera Maya) is not the place to go for true Mexican culture. It is a tourist haven, and there are essentially zero Quintana Roo locals. Cancún, especially, has a bit of a Vegas vibe as the city is divided into the Centro and the somewhat remote Hotel Zone – the Hotel Zone being very much like “The Strip”. We actually learned the hard way that getting around Cancún isn’t as easy as it usually is in Mexico. Ubers are banned from the airport and the Hotel Zone, taxis do everything they can to ensure they’re getting their money’s worth, and the buses (while frequent) are quite crowded and more expensive as well. The resorts can also be a bit of a headache for those who are staying downtown. Although, by law, all beaches in Mexico are open to the public, private hotels can and have put up walls that require a long walk around to specified access points along the Hotel Zone. That said, once you’re on the beach, you can walk anywhere you want, and there’s nothing they can do about it!

Speaking of headaches…

Playa del Carmen / Cozumel

Our next stop was Playa del Carmen, another resort-focused city along the coast and without question a part of the infamous Riviera Maya. As it’s only about an hour from Cancún, it’s really easy to travel from one to the other, and like Cancún, Playa del Carmen also has a famous island destination right off its shores: Cozumel. Interestingly, I had been to Cozumel as a pre-teen while on a family cruise, but to be honest, my memory of it was almost non-existent…maybe that should have been my first clue as to how I would feel about it as an adult.

The Best Parts:

But first, the positives. The center or anchor of Playa del Carmen is a long shopping/restaurant street called Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue). Here they have everything from high-end malls to beach trinkets and 5-star dining to taco stands. We ate at Aldea Corazón, which had an absolutely delicious take on modern Mexican cuisine. They also have a waterfall and cenote in the outdoor dining area, so the atmosphere is as excellent as the food. After Cancún, it was nice that everything: hotels, restaurants, shops, etc. were all running parallel to the beach, just one block inland. I appreciated not needing any form of transportation while seeing the sights. Playa del Carmen is also beautifully placed directly between Cancún and Tulum, making it easily accessible from either direction.

Things to Note:

Okay, now I’ll be the first one to admit that sometimes you have bad days or bad experiences while traveling (it has definitely happened to us on more than one occasion), and it doesn’t usually affect how I feel about a particular destination. However, our time in Playa del Carmen, definitely had some extreme travel lows. Tourist scams are abundant, upcharges are frequent, and Cozumel is catered to cruise ships. All I can say, is you’ll have to pay A LOT to see and do things that were honestly better in Cancún and Isla Mujeres. Another thing to note (really in all heavily touristed areas/large cities) is to be aware of your surroundings. While we were in Playa del Carmen, we witnessed a serious street fight that got out of hand and could have easily escalated into something much worse. Remember it’s not only family vacationers that frequent high-end resort areas.

$25, over 45 minutes, blacked out windows…find another way!

Tulum

After our day in Playa del Carmen, we drove down to our next destination: the highly touted, Tulum. If you consume a lot of travel-related media (like I do), Tulum is/was most likely already on your bucket list as well. Mayan ruins on the cliffs, underground rivers and cenotes, eco-tourism at its finest! I think for this particular trip, Tulum was the city I was looking forward to the most.

The Best Parts:

The things that have put Tulum on the map are definitely the main reasons to visit. The Tulum ruins are incredible! There is so much history and beauty in these sites (although I do have to say that Uxmal, which is closer to Mérida in Yucatán, is still my favorite Mayan site. Yes, even over Chichén Itzá.) The cenotes, of which there are so many in this area, are also well worth the trip. Crystal clear freshwater swimming holes that have so many interesting facts and stories surrounding them – what’s not to love? Downtown Tulum isn’t quite as developed as either Playa del Carmen or Cancún, but the number of independently owned, vegan/vegetarian-friendly restaurants is certainly top notch. The main road through the city is the aptly named Avenida Tulum, but I highly recommend walking parallel to the main drag (on either side) to get a little more of the real day-to-day life of Tulum. And if you are planning to stay in Tulum, I cannot recommend Casa Libélula enough – such a beautiful little oasis tucked away in the chaos that is a burgeoning tourism hub.

Things to Note:

As I mentioned, Tulum is still a growing tourist destination, meaning there are some kinks they’re still working out. Sidewalks are mostly present, but not always, and the locals are still figuring out the right prices for their wares…in my opinion, they’re aiming quite high at the moment. Unfortunately, another thing that goes along with these up-and-coming tourist destinations is the yolo mentality (on both sides). The tourists are yolo-ing it up with a lot of noise and trash (and no resort personnel to clean up after them), and the vendors are making the most of a current fad that they know might not last forever by taking advantage when and where they see fit. In addition to the pandemic-related slump that has affected tourism globally, over the past few years, the Caribbean coast of Mexico has also been inundated with sargassum, or seagrass, and Tulum is unfortunately not immune.

So much Sargassum!

Bacalar

Finally, our last stop on this epic journey, the future tourist hot-spot of Bacalar. Bacalar is about 4 hours south of Cancún, an hour north of Belize, and sits on the pristine Bacalar Lagoon. Unlike the other three cities we visited, Bacalar had not been on my radar until after we moved to Mexico. This is a favorite among locals, and anyone who visits can easily understand why. During our time in Bacalar, I actually felt quite sad thinking about whether or not it’s going to become the next Tulum or Playa del Carmen, but I have to think that it will always retain the special type of mágico that exists there now. ¡Ojalá!

The Best Parts:

Immediately, one of the best parts of Bacalar for me was that it felt much more like the Mexico that I have come to know. It is much more laid back (even with the growing tourism industry). Bacalar has a more traditional main square, an old Spanish fort, and plenty of places to just sit and chill out in the shade. Thankfully, price-gauging hasn’t become an issue in the local shops, and here, more than anywhere else on our trip, was my Spanish needed (as it should be!). Then there’s the lagoon itself. 42km by 2km (26mi by 1.2mi) of incredibly clear blue water (in fact, Bacalar Lagoon is known for having 7 distinct shades of blue). As there is a lot of shoreline available along the lagoon, it’s very common and affordable to stay right on the water, which is what we did. We stayed at Seven Blue House and had an amazing time swinging in hammocks on the dock, kayaking in the lagoon, and watching the sun and wind play on the water from our balcony right over the edge of the lagoon.

Things to Note:

Of course, with Bacalar being so much smaller than the other notable cities in Quintana Roo, the amenities are limited (no Señor Frog’s here!). It’s also not on the beach if that’s something you’re looking for. The lagoon is a couple of hours from the nearest Caribbean beach and all that accompanies it (like sand, for instance). Bacalar is also the furthest away from the big airports and most famous sites of the Yucatán peninsula, so if you want to do and see it all, Bacalar is not a likely home base for a trip like that.

TL;DR

Ultimately, this was a trip full of surprises for us, which shouldn’t actually be so surprising given all the expectations and preconceived notions we came into it with! In summary, I do feel a little guilty about how hard I was on Cancún (before I even visited) because in reality I enjoyed the variety it had to offer. Playa del Carmen isn’t really my vibe, but I can see the draw. I wish I had traveled to Tulum 10 years ago, but it’s still such a sight to see. And with Bacalar, the baby of Quintana Roo’s tourism industry, all I can do is wish it well and hope it remains as unique as it is in this moment.

And with that, another extraordinary trip is in the books! Just so everyone knows, I still pinch myself quite often over the fact that we’re able to do and see all that we have. What an incredible planet we inhabit! Hopefully everyone reading this is currently planning their next adventure, but if not, I hope you enjoyed living this one through my eyes. Here’s to the next one!

¡Salud!

US National Parks and Rec

For me, the National Park Service is easily one of the most amazing things about the United States. I am very fortunate to have seen many of these incredible places growing up, and even now when I plan trips back to the States, I always try to include a national or state park in my itinerary. The diversity and the beauty of North America is absolutely astounding, and I (and many others) can’t get enough of it. FDR once said that “there is nothing more American than our national parks”, and I really couldn’t agree more, which is why I want to share a few of my recent NPS experiences and ultimately spur others to get out there and see these beauties while we can!

Number and Size

The United States is a massive country. As the song goes, it stretches from sea to shining sea, covering a whopping 2.43 billion acres. Thankfully, in the 1800s, Americans realized that we might just need to protect some of our incredible land (mostly from ourselves). Thus, the first national park was born. These days, national parks make up about 80 million acres of the US, and when combined with state parks and other protected areas, represent about 14% of the total land area. As of January 2022, there are 63 congressionally-designated national parks and 423 national park sites located in the US, all chosen for “their natural beauty, unique geological features, diverse ecosystems, and recreational opportunities”.

What’s in a Name?

As mentioned, we have 63 infamous national parks, but what is the distinction between the parks and the national park sites? And what about national monuments or state parks? Well, the national parks can be seen as the big kahunas. They are what the other parks, sites, and monuments hope to be when they grow up. To be designated as a national park there has to be an abundance and variety of natural resources and large swaths of land or water areas that enable the protection of these resources. National park sites and monuments on the other hand are usually smaller and singularly focused (as in one element of a national park or a historic site completely separate from the national parks). They might also include things that are not so park-like, such as Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine.

State parks, however, are quite different. As the name suggests, they are run by each state as opposed to the federal government. This usually means that there is a lot more variety in how they are managed and upkept. Luckily, it also means that they are right outside your door (wherever that happens to be). Tucker and I really discovered the joys of state parks while we were pandemically pinned in Florida. Florida and most states east of the Mississippi are somewhat lacking in national parks, but they are not lacking whatsoever in state parks. Florida, for example, has 175 state parks, Illinois has 123, and Georgia has a still-respectable 46. While they might not be as big or famous as those in the NPS, they’ve also been chosen specifically for their natural beauty, historic interest, or recreational potential.

All Good Things

All of these protected areas are well worth seeing. Yellowstone, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, and so many others are the epitome of America’s beauty, and the lesser-known names are no less so. Our national and state parks are extremely accessible and fortunately not cost-prohibitive. The most expensive entrance fees are $35, but the vast majority of parks charge only a fraction of that, making national and state parks not only an incredible experience, but also one of the cheapest you can find (so much better than a day at the movies, in my opinion). Not to mention, the money you spend at the parks goes to an amazing cause: the conservation and preservation of our incredible homeland. So, who’s ready to get out there and explore our amazing parks?!

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 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.

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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.

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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?

Quarantine Endeavors

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Anything to cure the boredom!

Quarantine, for me, officially started on March 14th, and as a person who was already working remotely, this definitely led to a surplus of down time at home (something I certainly wasn’t used to). The good news is, I can always be counted on to come up with plenty of ideas, projects, games, and the like. See? Being an only-child has its benefits! And now that it seems like this phase might be lasting a bit longer than anyone would have liked, maybe some of you are also in the market for some cheap, interesting at-home entertainment! If so, take a look at my newly documented list of quarantine endeavors: twenty-something random activities, categorized, described, and, of course, photographed for your perusal. Enjoy!

Cooking-related:

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International Brunch

If you know me, you know I absolutely despise cooking, so you might be wondering why I’ve been doing so many cooking-related activities. Well, necessity is the mother of invention, no? We had to cook at home more often, so I thought we might as well have some fun with it, starting with our monthly brunches. At the beginning of 2020, we made a plan to meet my parents for brunch on the first Sunday of every month for as long as we were in Florida. As it turned out, our leaving the country wasn’t the issue…having brunch out was. So, we took the idea to our home tables, creating a theme each month and enjoying the process of cooking together and trying something a little different. Some of our recent themes have included: Disney-inspired brunch, international dishes, and red, white, and blue (for July, of course).

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Oui, oui! C’est délicieux!

We’ve also had our fair share of kitchen-y fun just trying out new (i.e. fancy) dishes like coq au vin and cauliflower rice burrito bowls. More time at home has meant more time to find recipes, meander our way through the cooking process, and really sit down and enjoy our meals. We’ve also made the most of our grocery store visits by conducting various taste tests: classic snack foods, Easter candy, and beef jerky, just to name a few. I mean, a bit of nostalgia mixed in with legitimate research, how could you go wrong? In addition to all the food we’ve been experimenting with, I’ve also taken it upon myself to finally figure out which wines I prefer, and potentially learning to like reds a bit more in the process. We live near a Trader Joe’s, and you just can’t beat Two Buck Chuck!

Game-related:

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Destroying it might have been more fun…

I love games even in non-pandemic times, so obviously I have ideas in this category, such as the classic: jigsaw puzzles. I love them, and recently I’ve been intrigued by all the variety there is! 3D puzzles, gradient puzzles, I-Spy puzzles, etc. Tucker and I also had a lot of fun reliving our childhood Lego dreams with a Titanic build, which we then made into a game of “who can make the best ______? Go!” Of course, I probably still gravitate most to board games, thus we’ve recently added Villainous and Sushi Go to our collection. Additionally, we’ve continued putting our own twists on some other classic games (for example, we’ve been known to play Guess Who by choosing two or three people, which makes the questioning much more complicated, especially when we stipulate “no English” – making it a great language practice as well). And speaking of innovation, it’s super fun to make up your own game! Tucker and I still play a version of “Cheyenne, Wyoming”, which is a card game we made up years ago on an overnight layover.

Artistic:

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Striking…lol

One of the things I loved seeing at the beginning of quarantine was all the artistic fun people were having. It started with the artwork challenges where people were imitating famous paintings using what they could find at home. Tucker and I did a few of these, and it was so much fun! Searching galleries for pieces that would work, collecting the props, arranging the set, staging the photo, etc. I’ve also used some of this down time to work on my cross stich and origami skills – getting ready for holiday gift-exchanges already! On a whim, I also ordered a paint-by-numbers kit, and let me tell you, if you’re looking for something that takes up a lot of time, this would be it. Eventually when I finish the thing, I also have big plans for any paint I don’t use: painted rocks for the neighborhood, a Bob Ross video, etc. Time at home really gets the creative juices flowing!

Technology-related:

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Groovy!

Can we all agree we’re really lucky this happened in 2020 and not 2002 because technology really gives us a lot of options. I don’t think I can have a list of things to do during quarantine without including the ever-popular, binge-watching. So, yeah, find something to watch, make some popcorn, and veg out. I didn’t get into the whole Tiger King thing, but I really loved The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Taskmaster, Russian Doll, and many others. Check out the free site Taste Dive to find shows/books/movies that are similar to your favorites. Also, don’t get hung up in doing the same things online and/or on your phone. I’ve found some really amazing websites and apps just from googling other “things to do when you’re bored/quarantined” lists. Some of my favorites include: Seterra (geography quizzes), Mental Floss (human interest articles), Bored Panda (stories of art and design), Sporcle (trivia), and Free Rice (vocabulary games). Some new apps I’ve had fun with are: 13 tile mahjong, psychedelic camera, photo editors/collage makers, and Hello Talk (social media/language exchange). Since I recently had to get a new phone, I also purposely spent a lot of time optimizing it to my exacting specifications. I tried out all sorts of settings I never would have even looked at before, and I also googled tips/tricks specifically for my phone/system. Tucker even learned a few things for his phone, which he’s had for two years now!

Educational:

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My constant companions…

If you’re starting to feel like maybe you should do something with your at-home time other than just entertain yourself, it might be a great time to focus on learning something specific. I’ve been addicted to Duolingo for while now, but it’s totally guilt-free because my French is seriously improving. I also really enjoyed my 30-day challenges that included something educational (but also easy), like watch a TED Talk every day or read a random country’s entire Wiki page (which coincidentally also helped with my wanderlust). This time is also perfect for catching up on any reading lists you may have. I’ve focused on books I acquired long ago, but never had the time/access to read as well as books that have popped into my mind for one reason or another (such as Jurassic Park – aren’t you curious about how the movie differs from the book? I know I am). I’ve also been enjoying the time I’ve put into some pertinent research. Human rights’ laws, Black history, local election processes, charities, corona-viruses, and so many other things. We’re incredibly lucky to live in the information age where we can learn just about anything we want, including how to reliably fact-check and source information.

Health-related:

One concern I had (even prior to any lock-downs) was how am I going to be as active as I used to be, now that I don’t have to walk to work or traverse the vast, open spaces of China on a daily basis. One way I tried to address this problem was by setting a physical challenge for myself for each month of the year, such as walk 10,000 steps a day (March), 30 minutes of yoga a day (April), etc. Now that I find myself residing in a new neighborhood, I’ve also made a list of “walking tours” for us to complete when we take the dogs out. Just another way to get a bit more exercise and systematically see our neighborhood (and beyond) a little more thoroughly. Of course, I’ve also been dying to organize my things (which are all still in boxes/suitcases), so if you are able to, use some of this at-home time to go through your closets, drawers, even digital files and Marie Kondo your life. Also let me know when you do, so I can live vicariously through you! Finally, another health-related activity I’ve been working on is finishing up any/all beauty products I have. I came back from China with heaps of hydrating face masks, and I love throwing one on and simultaneously finishing up that tanning lotion I got way back in 2016 (at long last!).

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Luckily Orlando is a really nice place to walk!

Miscellaneous:

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Birthday Boy

Finally, we all need to be reminded that while we might be limiting our face-to-face time, we should still be connecting with family and friends. This is the perfect time to develop new habits of regular phone calls, video chats, game nights, etc. We should definitely all keep celebrating special events too! Birthdays, anniversaries, successfully submitting your tax returns, whatever you want! Tucker and I just celebrated Christmas in July last weekend and had so much fun. I actually think eggnog tastes better in the summer. Also, even though it’s tough to do, try to keep planning. Trust me, I really know the frustration of trying to plan during a pandemic (I’m still technically mid-move), but it really feels good to talk about the possibilities, even if they end up changing. And one last one: write something! Write a postcard or a letter, start a bullet-journal, take up blogging or poetry. It can really be quite cathartic.

So that’s my list. I hope it gave you an idea or two or maybe it sparked something completely different. This really is the perfect time to try something new and perhaps change some habits in the process. I also feel like having these small, solid “events” to look forward to have really helped keep me sane in this time of unknowns. It’s definitely been an interesting phase in our lives, but there’s certainly no reason it can’t be a fun one as well. I can’t wait to look back on quarantine and reminisce about all the crazy things we did and tried! See you on the other side!

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And it will

Ruminating on Returning

With so much to see in the world (and currently so much time to plan) Tucker and I find ourselves talking about trips we’d like to take fairly often. We typically have no problem jumping into the logistics and research of a given location, but we do sometimes get stuck on the initial “where should we go” question. There are so many places we’d absolutely love to visit, but there is also a growing list of places we’d really like to return to; places we clearly haven’t explored thoroughly enough for our liking; places, including but not limited to:

The Netherlands

472549_4075793461494_1409717026_oThis was an obvious choice for this particular list because we only spent about 23 hours in the country. It was our first foray into long-layover travel, and we definitely fumbled our way through it. It wasn’t too difficult to get from the airport to the city center (and back again), but as we set off with absolutely no plan, it was mostly just a long walk around the beautiful canals. Amsterdam is a great walking city though, so even with our random ambling, we were able to take in the numerous and iconic bridges, bicycles, and fry-stands. We also explored the infamous Red Light District and (from a distance) the I AMsterdam sign, which is sadly no longer there.

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Pre-smartphone days

If/when we return, however, there many things we have added to our NL itinerary. Mostly notably, all the incredible museums that we missed! Anne Frank, Van Gogh, Rembrandt – we definitely needed more time. I also want to visit Castle De Haar, see the tulips, and maybe spend the night in a houseboat. We’ll also need to do a better job of trying some Dutch specialties on our next trip: poffertjes (small fluffy pancakes), bitterballen (fried meat balls), and some fresh Gouda, for a start.

Finland

414107_4076007586847_1513337318_oNext on our “must return to” list is Finland, which might not have been an obvious choice seeing as we spent almost three weeks there, but at the time we 1) had very little money to spend, 2) were exhausted from finishing up our undergrad degrees, and 3) had just gotten married, which as anyone who has planned a wedding can attest, left us feeling a bit burnt out. Typically when we travel now, we avoid suitcases and we move around a lot, but as this was our first trip sans car, we failed miserably at both packing lightly and at utilizing public transportation. We also weren’t able to afford train passes or much of anything at that time; in fact, our flights and accommodations were wrangled together with the help of some of our wedding gifts and useful family connections. Regardless of what now seems like a trip very far removed from our usual preferences, at the time is was magical.

It was actually my first trip overseas, and I quite literally cried on the plane from sheer excitement. Even with very little planning and even less travel experience, we found time to act our age in a youth hostel in the Olympic Stadium of Helsinki; we then honeymooned properly in a cabin (with its very own sauna) at a lakeside resort in Kajaani, and we also watched a series of bizarre sunsets around 11pm each night. I really wouldn’t change anything about our time in Finland, but for the next visit, I do have a list of a few more things I’d like to see/do. Things like: cross into the Arctic Circle, see the Northern Lights, meet Santa Claus, go snowshoeing, step foot in Turku, and visit Olavinlinna Castle, all while listening to my favorite language in the world: suomen.

The Bahamas

536438_10200935610700815_1786181392_nTechnically we’ve been to the Bahamas a few times now, but does it really count if it’s on a cruise? I mean, don’t get me wrong, cruises are fun and economical, but they definitely keep you in a bit of a bubble. For this reason, I would love to go back to the Bahamas, without the big boat. I think it would be amazing to fly into Nassau and explore New Providence Island a little more slowly and a lot more thoroughly. There are several forts I want to see on the island, not to mention the art galleries, lighthouses, and, of course, the beaches (especially the ones on the far side of the island). At some point Tucker and I want to get our diving certification so we can explore the depths too, or if we don’t have time for that, then I want to do one of those bubble helmet dives instead!

South Korea

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Chimek

Another clear case of not enough time: our quick trip to South Korea still feels like a bit of a blur. I had just spent a month studying abroad in China, but before taking the long plane ride back to the US, Tucker and I tacked on a few days in Seoul as well. Luckily we had our very own personal tour guide as a former student of mine (and his wife) took us around the city showing us all the famous sights and, more importantly, the best eats. We tried to act cool in Gangnam, we saw the famous Blue House, we crisscrossed the many bridges and marveled at the surrounding mountains. We were also treated to the most amazing Korean BBQ, bingsu (shaved ice dessert), chimek (fried chicken and beer), and soju (traditional Korean alcohol), which fueled our love of gochujang (red chili paste) for years to come. It was truly unlike any trip we’d ever taken, and spending the time with new friends was the best part.

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Thanks Hyung-Bin and Jessica!

Of course, with so little time (and a tightly packed and carefully arranged agenda), we didn’t really even make it out of the capital. Next time, we’d love to see the notorious DMZ or to head south to the highly regarded Jeju Island. I find that a lot of my Korean students speak very fondly of the nature in their home country, and I’d love to hike a mountain, view a waterfall, or whatever else is going on in the season we find ourselves in. I’m also pretty sure I’ll never get my fill of Korean food, so obviously we need more time and access on that front. I know we didn’t even try half of what was on our list, and everything we did try, we mostly certainly want to have again!

Italy

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So sick 😦

Does anyone feel like they’ve ever seen enough of Italy? I feel like even Italians are always discovering new things they want to do and see in a country that clearly has culture coming out of every orifice. Speaking of orifices, mine were a bit sneeze-y, stuffy, and runny when we took our trip to Rome a few years ago. It was actually a bit heartbreaking to not be able to fully taste what many people regard as the king of international cuisines. Due to my weakened state and a surprise address from the Pope that weekend, we weren’t able to check off quite as many things as we’d hoped in planning that particular trip. Fortunately, we did still hit most of the highlights of the Eternal City, plus we got to see the Pope pop his head out of the little carpeted window in the Vatican, so how can I really complain?

For Rome specifically though, I know we need to see the Sistine Chapel and the rest of the Vatican Museums (when we were there, the wait to go inside was over 4 hours long). We also opted not to go into the Colosseum when we were there, partly because of crowds but also because it just looked so touristy. In hindsight, we regret not taking a closer look at such a historic structure. And then, there’s the rest of Italy we still need to explore: the fashion of Milan, the waterways of Venice, the architecture of Pisa, the art of Florence, the pizza of Naples; I mean really, there is so so much we still have to see in Italy. I also want to have a clear nose and a few more cannoli taste-tests next time.

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Waiting to hear Pope Francis

Germany

13726595_10210193233855608_8528054797553861878_nGermany unfortunately represents another set of rookie moves on our part. We spent a year living just a few hours over the border in central Poland, yet we failed to A) make it to Oktoberfest and B) visit Bavaria, the most quintessential of all the German regions. While I do sorely regret not making time for southern Germany, we did really enjoy our time in Berlin and Potsdam looking at the incredible architecture, sampling the infamous brews, and picnicking in the numerous parks. It was an absolutely lovely time, but of course, I’d love to go back for a festival or two. It’s really not our fault we missed Oktoberfest; we had wrongly assumed it took place in October, but really it’s more of a September event that actually ends in early October. Ah well, it’s on the list for our inevitable return trip. As are other famous places like: Neuschwanstein Castle, the Rhine, Cologne, and, of course, Bavaria.

Mongolia

22489965_10214825998711834_2745602979160999147_nPerhaps unlike any other place we had been, Mongolia intrigued us in so many ways. It’s really a breathtakingly beautiful country that exceeded every expectation we had for it. We visited for about a week in 2017, but unfortunately a lot of that time was taken up by work (conferences, presentations, etc.) In our free time though, we were able to pretty thoroughly explore Ulaanbaatar, including temples, yurt neighborhoods, live-music bars, and amazingly trendy restaurants. We also took a short road trip out to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, which was honestly a bit frightening for me (mostly because we opted to dismiss the rental insurance), but ultimately it gave us the best glimpse of what life is like outside UB.

It was this glimpse that sparked our conversations of returning to Mongolia. We’d love to experience more of the steppes, perhaps to try our hand at some serious horseback riding, yurt living, and other nomadic fundamentals. I’m also really eager to return to Mongolia in the dead of winter because Ulaanbaatar is consistently ranked the world’s coldest capital, and that’s something I want to experience. Although, on the flip side, I also want to make the long trek out to the Gobi dessert or the Flaming Cliffs; as one of the least densely populated countries in the world, the nature in the Land of Eternal Blue Sky is unspoiled and absolutely stunning. Okay, so apparently we need two or three more trips to Mongolia.

Malaysia

51666025_10218814551103151_7277803769331449856_nLast on this list (for now) is a place we actually visited just last year. On our way back to China from a work event in the Philippines, we took a bit of a roundabout path that allowed us to spend almost a week in Malaysia, well, in and around Kuala Lumpur anyway. Malaysia is a tricky country to fully explore in a short amount of time because it’s made up of part of a peninsula (West Malaysia) and part of the island of Borneo (East Malaysia), the two regions being about 400 miles apart. For this reason, although we feel pretty good about our exploration of the amazing capital city, typically called KL for short, we still really want to explore some of the other regions of this incredibly diverse country.

51743204_10218802008229587_1851030617089638400_nWe never made it to a beach while we were in Malaysia, so maybe we’ll start there on a subsequent trip. There are many islands off the coasts of both West and East Malaysia that look amazingly beautiful and relaxing. There are also several world-renowned national parks, which are home to a collection of unique indigenous species that Tucker really wants to check out. Of course, as we found in KL, Malaysia seems to enjoy extremes sports as well, so maybe we’ll try the popular zip-lining, white water rafting, or jungle trekking activities while we’re at it!

65967210_10219977305371281_6241891798231285760_nOf course, there are three countries, not previously mentioned, that are and will indefinitely be on our return radar: the United States, Poland, and China. These are the places we have the greatest connection to, and thus will need many re-visits and reunions to sustain us. Luckily, our friends and family in Chicago, Atlanta, Orlando, Łódź, Hefei, and Shanghai continue to make us feel like we never left. Traveling around the world and learning about different cultures and languages has been a huge part of my life, and I sincerely hope it always will be. Whether we make it back to any of these places, or onto any of the other 150+ countries still on my list, I’ll forever be grateful for these opportunities and the people who have had a hand in making them happen.

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 Hop 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!