Getting a little closer to heaven in Cinque Terre

There are some places that before you even leave them, you miss them. Cinque Terre, a stretch of five coastal towns dotting Italy’s western coast with its impossibly beautiful beaches and colorful homes, is like that. (The regional government even has a commissioner of good taste who regulates the beauty of these buildings.) Though it’s become more become more of a tourist destination since the proliferation of social media, the area still has such a great local feel.

Those living in Cinque Terre have their priorities straight. They sit on their balconies to watch those in wonder below them. They eat the very anchovies they caught earlier that day. They linger in the markets they visit daily, which only sell simple things: cheese, fruit, meat, olive oil  all that’s needed to get by in this world. Though I can only make out the frequent “prego” and “ciao” spoken gregariously among them, I think the locals with their hearty accents are pretty happy here.

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As for the children of the region, I hope they realize and remember how lucky they’ve been to live here. Though they won’t be able to recall every one of the many days spent seaside, their towns’ pastel buildings leaning over them lovingly like their mothers, at least some of those memories will remain. For now, they laugh harder and longer than I’ve ever heard children laugh before, their cherub bellies jiggling as they chortle over the magic of the water kissing the sand.

Cinque Terre girl

What it means to be loved and to fall in love with it here. Maybe to love like this is to live forever.

Visitors quickly learn through that in order to truly love Cinque Terre, you must love until it hurts. The hikes among the towns always feel like straight vertical summits, despite their proximity to the seaside. You spend at least an hour walking from town to town, but more often than not, it takes at least two hours. Your legs feel as though they can’t move anymore as you hike up hundreds of shaky stone steps winding along the mountainsides of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corneglia, Vernazza and Monterosso.

You could take one of the regional trains to spare you from the aches of your heels and sweat on your back, but they’re terribly unpredictable and always late. But there’s a reason: Beauty like this isn’t meant to be nor can be savored from a train window whirring past.

Those who hike are rewarded with stunning views, breezes that the salt clings to and an excuse to carbo-load on gelato and pesto gnocchi, which is the region’s specialty.

When you take a dip in the sea after a hike through each town, you simply float. Your feet are unable to touch the water’s bottom. Some say it’s due to the Ligurian Sea’s high salt content, but you know it’s because a place like this turns people into angels, floating in water instead of the clouds.

Ligurian Sea

If you ever need to make a collect call to heaven, this would be the place to do it. So hi, Grandpa. Hi Sammie. It’s been a wonder spending time with you. Thanks for letting the weather hold up and pointing me to the most magnificently smelling roses this side of anywhere. You can’t keep yourself away from gardening even up here, huh Gramps? I’m surprised you managed to keep Sammie from tearing up the bushes before you take her out on her daily walk.

If only I could stay here forever, but I’m thankful to have just a fleeting feel of it. If I’m lucky, I’ll be back one day to visit.

Strangers like me: Meet 22-year-old Stephanie

This week’s edition of “The Strangers Like Me” is a Throwback Thursday of sorts. My friend Stephanie is here in Europe for two weeks to visit me. It had been nearly a year since I saw her last.

We were roommates last summer when we both interned in Nashville, Tenn. The rooms we subleased were Craigslist finds, so we didn’t even know each other’s names until she moved in just a couple of days after me. I was going through a tough time the first few weeks we were there, but her spirit lifted me right up.

We spent our days eating popsicles, watching all 10 seasons of “Friends” and going on musical adventures around town. It was one of the most beautiful summers of my life. It’s funny how such close friends all start out as strangers, and isn’t long before you realize they might be strangers, but they’re strangers like me.

Stephanie

Meet Stephanie from West Palm Beach, Fla.

Where’d I meet her? 
Nashville, Tenn.

Where else would she like to go?
“If time or money weren’t a thing? Space. The moon. ‘Cause why not?”

What’s the happiest day of her life?
“Have you ever heard the song ‘Ocean’ by John Butler Trio? It might sound weird to say this, but listen to the song, and you’ll understand. I saw them live when we were in Nashville, and he played it and I cried. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Especially since I had listened to it a million times beforehand, so hearing it live was incredible. That was the closest thing to magic I had ever seen in my life  I said that right after.”

What’s on her bucket list? 
She wants to finish getting her pilot’s license.

What’s the weirdest thing she’s ever done or experienced?
“So, it was the night that I hung out with those kids, Monday night. First of all, it was weird because I’m usually not the kind of person to walk up to people and say, ‘I’m going to hang out with you.’ They said, ‘Yeah OK, sit down.’ It was just the weirdest because it ended up being six complete strangers from all different parts of the world. We never ran out of things to talk about. At some point we found a guitar, and every time something happened, we started singing about it and just making up random lines …

It was weird in the best kind of way because they were the kind of people you know for five minutes and they would already respond very lovingly. Within a few hours, there was enough connection to hug each other by. It was just weird how quickly that can happen when you just really connect with people. I didn’t get their numbers. I didn’t get their names. It was literally just ‘OK, goodnight. I’ll never see you again.’ We’ll never have a reason to communicate again, but I enjoyed at the moment and it was like, ‘Have a nice life.’ I don’t know, it was weird.

I thought about trying to get their names or their numbers, but there was a mutual understanding that it would mess it up. It was perfect the way we left it.”

What’s one thing she wishes she could change about the world?
“I think it’s very broad but people’s priorities. I guess I just feel like people complicate things so much, including myself. If they do things that make them happy or do things that make other people happy, it would be so simple. If you want to go somewhere, just go. If you want to eat something, just eat it. If you want to dye your hair neon blue, just do it. No one else should care.”

Strangers like me: Meet 20-year-old Ana

Boy, did ever get to know the person I interviewed for this week’s installment of “The Strangers Like Me” well. We didn’t stay in the same hostel like the other people I typically interview. Nope, it was more like we slept on the street next to piles of trash, in an ATM vestibule and at a bus stop on a single night in Pamplona. Why? Despite both arriving three hours early to the station, we missed the same bus to Paris that ran from the Spanish town famous for the Running of the Bulls. (Blog post on that festival forthcoming.) That’s what happens when a bus station chooses not to post an up-to-date schedule of departures and hires unhelpful transportation officials.

With hostels all booked up and the bus station closing at midnight, we faced the harsh reality that we would be spending a night roughing it in the streets among all the drunken revelers partying until sunrise. Alone, I would’ve been petrified, but I was so glad to have Ana with me for this experience, having only met her after we both realized our bus left Pamplona without us.

We frantically booked a flight for the next day while in a bar blaring Jennifer Lopez at 2 a.m. We laughed hysterically about our exhaustion. We sang Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” to ourselves — ironically, of course. But honestly, despite all headaches, what a wonderful place the world truly is that two strangers could lift each other up in a traveler’s worst-case-scenario situation. She might have been a stranger, but she was a stranger … like me. Here’s to hoping our paths cross again soon, Ana!

Ana

Meet Ana from Chicago, Ill.

Where’d I meet her?
Pamplona, Spain

Why she’s in Europe?
She’s doing a two-month research program in Madrid, and she was looking for a weekend adventure.

Where else would she like to go?
Somewhere to see the Aurora Borealis — the more exotic the location, the better.

Why does she believe schools should teach students more about empathy?
“It’s not as much as a focus, especially in America where it’s always you, the individual. You work as hard as you can, and it’ll be worth it in the end. I don’t think that the impact that people have on each other is really emphasized anywhere.”

What’s on her bucket list?
She wants to do a poetry slam and paint something large, abstract and colorful that could go on a wall.

What’s the weirdest thing she’s ever done?
“Once I went to the mall with my friend, and we were just having a really bad week. Everything was so hard, and we were like, ‘I just want to get out of here.’ So we went to the mall and went up to random people and asked them, ‘If you had a super power, what would it be?’ They had interesting responses. My favorite one was from a girl who said, ‘I would want to have all the candy in the world. That would be my super power.’ I was like, ‘Would you share it with people?’ And she was like, ‘Nope, no one can have candy except for me.'”

Strangers Like Me: Meet 22-year-old Catherine

It’s time for another weekly installment of “The Strangers Like Me.” Hostels are a funny thing, you know. For reasons unexplainable, you share a random room in a random hostel in a random city with a random person on this random night. You think to yourself, “What could I possibly have in common with this person?” But you both came from somewhere and you’re both going somewhere. They might be strangers. But then you realize they’re strangers … like me.

Catherine

Meet Catherine from Yoshkarola, Russia

Where’d I meet her?
Barcelona, Spain

Why is she traveling?
She just finished up studying abroad in Germany and chose to vacation in Spain. 

Where else would she most like to go?
England, both London and the countryside

What’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to her?
Attending university in St. Petersburg, Russia, which is 24 hours away from her village by train. Though it’s been a challenge, it’s given her more career opportunities.

What’s on her bucket list?
“I know that it’s never happened, but I’ve always dreamed about some specific skills, like (learning how) to control wind. It’s like a fairy tale, a thing that’s never happened  but still, maybe.” (She also wants to go parachuting and visit famous world cities.)

Let her tell you about the first time she saw the ocean.

“Until I was 21 years old, I had never seen the ocean or swam in it. It was in Italy, and it was good weather, and everything was beautiful.”

“What did that feel like the first time you touched the water?”

“Ahh!” (Laughs.) “I can’t (name) this emotion, but it was, ‘Ahh!'”

Strangers Like Me: Meet 24-year-old Maryam

It’s time for another weekly installment of “The Strangers Like Me,” but this week comes with a twist. I’ve met so many interesting people in Barcelona, so choosing a person to profile was a challenge. But as it turns out, serendipity had a very specific person in mind I should interview.

On Wednesday, my friend Gabriella and I trekked up to Antoni Gaudí’s whimsical dream of a place, Parc Güel, where we met Maryam, a dental student at the University of Pittsburgh. Due to some ticketing issues and time constraints, Gabriella and I couldn’t actually go inside the main part of the park. (No worries, we’re saving it for another day.) This meant we had to quickly bid farewell to our new friend after only having met her just moments before.

A few hours and a couple of pit stops later, I found myself getting off at the same Metro stop as Maryam on the way back to my hostel! For city with 1.62 million people with a big tourist pull, what are the chances?

Now generally, I only interview the strangers-turned-friends I meet in hostels, but rules are meant to be broken. Afterall, Maryam is traveler too and a pretty cool one at that. We both came from somewhere and we’re both going somewhere. She might have been a stranger. But then I realized she’s a stranger … like me.

Maryam

Meet Maryam from Dallas, Texas

Where’d I meet her?
Barcelona, Spain

Why is she traveling? 
Having just finished up her second year of dental school, she doesn’t get a lot of free time. Now that she’s on a month-long break, the longest she’s had in a while, Maryam decided to travel all over Europe instead of returning home to Texas.

Where else would she most like to go?
Amsterdam, Netherlands

Where is she happiest?
“I don’t think it’s like actually a place that I’m happiest. It’s more like the people around me and the things that I’m doing that make me really happy. When I was younger, my home, Dallas, used to be my happiest place ever, but then I moved around and  went to college, and I went to grad school. Everywhere I go and the people I meet, that becomes my new happy place, if that makes sense. My happy place is really anywhere that I’m happy.”

What’s on her bucket list?
“Well, I feel like people’s bucket lists are huge things like skydiving, which is also on (my) list and ziplining. I want to zipline in a really amazing, beautiful place. But another thing that is small but I really want to do  because I’ve always lived in big cities  I want go somewhere where there are no lights and stargaze. I just want to spend the whole night stargazing because I love stars and I never get to see them that well at night. It’s so small, but I’ve always wanted to do it.”

Let her tell you about her family’s unlucky luggage.
“Well, this doesn’t happen to me anymore, but I’ve been traveling since I was younger to Pakistan because my grandma and my other family lives there and other places. Every time we would travel, every single time, our luggage would get lost. No matter what. We plan for it, like, ‘Our luggage is going to get lost.’ Every time I travel with my mom and my brother together as a family, our luggage gets lost.”

Strangers Like Me: Meet 28-year-old Heejung

It’s time for another weekly installment of “The Strangers Like Me.” Hostels are a funny thing, you know. For reasons unexplainable, you share a random room in a random hostel in a random city with a random person on this random night. You think to yourself, “What could I possibly have in common with this person?” But you both came from somewhere and you’re both going somewhere. They might be strangers. But then you realize they’re strangers … like me.

Heejung
Meet Heejung from Seoul, South Korea

Where’d I meet her?
Seville, Spain

Why is she traveling? 
She’s taking a break from monotony of work to travel Europe.

Where does she find happiness?
“Turkey  the town is Kas  it’s on the seaside. The reason is, I met my Turkish boyfriend there one month ago, and l loved it so much.”

What makes her happy?
“I love to see the natural places, not the city. I love the natural places, the trees, the mountains, the seaside. It’s so strange because happiness, it’s so small. So like, you give me some chocolate, and it makes me so happy. I think happiness is so small, so I can find happiness always.”

What’s on her bucket list?
“Actually, I didn’t write a bucket list, but I’m always doing a year plan, just for the year. This year my plan changed because I met my boyfriend in Turkey. So, I’ll come back to Korea, and maybe I’ll come back to Turkey again and stay there.”

Let her tell you about her couchsurfing miscommunication.
“I’m a couchsurfer, so in Tatvan, Turkey, I stayed in my friend’s home, and my friend has a flatmate, so there are two boys living there. One of the boys, he can’t speak English, so we met in Burger King together, and the host can speak English. The friend wanted to talk to me, and he (tried to tell) me, “Let’s go.” He is not good at speaking English, so he (accidentally) told me to get out. It was funny. He’s a good person  it’s just that he can’t speak English.”

Photo Gallery: Symmetry and sunburns in Seville

After nearly three weeks in the United Kingdom, I continued my journey to Spain, where I’ll be staying for about a month. My first stop? Hot, hot Seville. The temperature was pushing 100 degrees the first few days I was there, making me feel like I was right back in the South.

Even better, I kept recognizing familiar faces of other travelers in the city’s quaint streets where everyone strolls at a slower pace. I wish the same could be said about the way Sevillianos talk, but alas, my ears were given a major workout trying to understand the Spanish spoken by quick Andalusian tongues.

Despite some messy miscommunications, I loved it all. Pay a visit. But first, check out my favorite pictures from the trip:

Your best night’s sleep in a hostel (Yes, really!)

Between the bunkmate who’s snoring so loudly it sounds like she’s trying to pass an elephant through her nostril to the drunken bunch celebrating a World Cup win outside your window, it can be hard to feel rested while staying in hostels. Follow these tips, and learn how getting a good night’s sleep is actually quite eas—zzzzz.

Knock yourself out. Pack your days full of activities and walking. Make yourself so tired that by the time your head hits the pillow, you feel as if you can’t keep your eyes open any longer. By the time your noisy roommate returns, you’ll already be a couple sleep cycles in to not even notice.

Invest in a quality eye mask and ear plugs. No, not the ones from the plane. Cheap foam earplugs can fall out easily, and you don’t want an eye mask that’s so thin you can still tell there’s light shining through it. I suggest REI’s cushioned eye mask and ear plug set. The mask has an adjustable strap and feels like a cloud is snuggling the heck out of your face. The ear buds are a dream, too.

Opt for a smaller room. Fewer roommates mean fewer interruptions. But when your wallet just can’t swing for a smaller, more expensive room at every hostel, designate just a few nights here and there when you treat yourself to a smaller room to catch up on sleep.

Create your own privacy curtain. Privacy curtains are a luxury in the hostel world, but if they don’t come standard at your place, no worries. Go for a bottom bunk, and drape your bath towel overhead of your bed. Voilà! Instant darkness and a chance for your perpetually damp towel to finally dry.

Strangers Like Me: Meet 19-year-old Fergus

Happy Thursday! I’m rolling out a new weekly segment that features (just some of) the interesting people I meet during my European travels. Though it might not have the same photographic merit, think of it as an international version of “Humans of New York” that focuses specifically on people’s bucket lists and their definition of happiness.

By attending and writing about cultural festivals, you get to learn a lot about what locals value in life, but those traveling among you have just as interesting of stories to tell. That’s why, for now, this segment will solely focus on the people I meet in hostels.

Hostels are a funny thing, you know. For reasons unexplainable, you share a random room in a random hostel in a random city on this random night. You think to yourself, “What could I possibly have in common with this person?” But you both came from somewhere and you’re both going somewhere. They might be strangers. But then you realize they’re strangers … like me.

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Meet Fergus from Christchurch, New Zealand

Where’d I meet him?
London, United Kingdom

Why is he traveling? 
He’s taking a gap year and volunteering on a farm in France.

Where else does he want to go? 
Athens, Greece and Iceland to see the Northern Lights.

What was the happiest day of his life? 
“Probably in Queenstown, and it was like two days before New Year’s. We rented out this huge house, like a holiday home. Me and this guy were skating down this huge hill, and I broke my arm, which sucked. But it was still one of the best days of my life because we were just hanging out and going to the hospital. We were drinking, obviously, like a little, not too much. I don’t know, it was just such a good day because we were just hanging out and being carefree, I guess.”

What does he want to do before he dies?
“Skydive, 100 percent. I want to swim with a great white shark and dolphins and a manta ray, like a really big manta ray. I want to go to all seven continents. If I could visit every single country, (I would), but definitely all seven continents. I want to live in Asia with the people there.”

Let him tell you about his milkshake tattoo. 
“Me and my friend were going to go get some money out from some ATM, and then we start walking there. Because I’m in Bali, people just come up to you on the street like, ‘Come to my store, come to my store.’ People hand out business cards, and (a man) gave us his business card and around the back it said ‘tattoo.’ We were talking about tattoos, and we were like ‘F–k, we should get tattoos.’ So we ended up walking down this back alley, which seemed a little bit dodgy, to this tattoo studio, and it was called ‘Panda’s Tattoos.’ So this Indonesian guy at the Panda was like, ‘What do you want done? I’ll do whatever you want.’ So we started drawing, and obviously I drew a milkshake or a doughnut, and then I flipped a coin, and it was a milkshake.”

Photo Gallery: Tales from Morocco’s blue cities

There are cities that look great in every tourist’s photos, and then there are cities so beautiful that no photo, no matter how expertly taken, could do a justice. After visiting Morocco this weekend, I feel the country’s emblematically blue cities of Chefchaouen and Asilah are a lot like that.

As Americans we hear a lot about Islamic countries, how frightening and different they can be, but we rarely experience them for ourselves. While I did feel a bit of culture shock while visiting, many of the Moroccans I met were wonderful, complex and kind.

I’m thankful that they shared a bit of their hometowns’ beauty with me, and I only wish I had more time to get to know them better. There’s always next time, I suppose. Here are a few of my favorite photos from my adventures: